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Wild And Unruly

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There were cattle in the road.

When Louis had arrived at work that morning in his slim tailored suit and too-expensive Tanino Crisci loafers, mocha venti in hand as he pushed through the revolving door of a shiny glass office building in downtown Denver, he hadn’t expected that his day would end in cattle.  But then he’d run into his boss, fresh from a high-level meeting, and the wheels of his destiny had begun to turn.

“You take care of it, Malik,” Zayn had muttered.  “That’s what they said.  As if I can spare a paralegal.”

Louis made sympathetic noises as he finished typing up a contract.  Zayn Malik was both Louis’s boss and his best friend, the most junior associate in Anne Twist’s seemingly endless fleet of unfairly attractive corporate lawyers, and he was also a constant grump.  Not to mention the most beautiful man most people were likely to run into on any given day, all coal-dark eyes and cut cheekbones, which tended to result in Louis feeling a bit invisible whenever they were out together.  He compensated by being loud.

“Send Nick,” Louis shrugged.  “Get him out of my hair for a while.”

Zayn rolled his eyes, letting the corners of his mouth twitch up into a smile.  “Nick’s not so bad, Louis.”

“He started a week before me and thinks that gives him the right to order me around.  Send him away.”  Louis made a shooing motion.  “Let him commune with nature; maybe it’ll change him.”  Louis’s nose wrinkled involuntarily at the word nature.  He was comfortably cosmopolitan by choice and intended to stay that way; no mud and fertilizer for him, thanks.  Nick could go roll in it.

“He’s really not that bad,” Zayn chuckled.  Always the diplomat, Zayn.  But he had assigned the job to Nick in the end, telling him to go home and pack a bag after booking him on a last-minute flight out to Sheridan, Wyoming.

There was oil in the ground, apparently.  National Energy Group -- one of TwistCorp’s largest subsidiaries -- was buying up the mineral rights to parcels of land from several cattle ranches out near the Bighorns, and had run into an unexpected hiccup.  One of the sellers was suddenly getting cold feet, though the transaction had long since been brokered.  National Energy’s CEO was now demanding that TwistCorp send a notary out with documents to witness the sale.

“The largest of the newly discovered reservoirs is on this guy’s land,” Zayn said as he walked Nick to the elevators, hastily getting him caught up on all the particulars.  Louis trailed behind them, absentmindedly typing out a text on his phone.  “Three times the size of what’s under the neighboring ranches, according to seismic surveys.  It’s 2.3 billion dollars and six months of work down the drain if we don’t get a signature.”  Louis’s eyes widened.  He’d worked on big deals before, but none in the ten-figure range.

“Who’s the seller?” Nick asked, just as he rounded a corner and ran straight into Anne Twist herself.  She was the founder and CEO of TwistCorp, and as such had everyone’s balls firmly in hand.  “Oh!" he blinked, gawkishly.  "Excuse me, ma'am."

"My son," she replied.

"Pardon?"

"The seller," she said, reaching up to pat her signature French twist with a brusque, manicured hand, "is my son."  There was a hint of aggravation in her voice, but it was mixed with beleaguered affection.  "He's been avoiding the whole thing for weeks, says he never agreed to the terms of the contract."  She paused, gaze flicking from Nick over to Zayn and then behind Zayn to where Louis had been attempting to discreetly eavesdrop.  He felt his shoulders fold inward involuntarily.

"This is your man," Zayn said, reaching up to clap Nick on the back, "He'll have the deed signed and notarized by tomorrow, or Thursday at the --"

"No."  Anne's eyes narrowed on Louis as though she were working out a complicated chess problem.  "Send the cute one.”

Louis covered up an awkward cough as Nick huffed indignantly beside him.  “Why…” Louis started to ask, but all Anne had to do was raise one devastating eyebrow, and his voice died in his throat.

Right.  She was worth millions, and he existed to do her bidding.  Nine hours, two delays, a missed flight and a crying baby in the stuffy cabin of a small twin jet later, Louis swore he could feel the whole of Big Sky pressing slowly down on his head.

Plus, there were cattle in the road.  Of course, cattle!  About fifteen head standing stock still in the road, blocking his compact rental car.  And a man sitting on a horse in the middle of it all, just sitting and staring thoughtfully at the herd, apparently unconcerned with how it was holding up traffic.  Not that there was much traffic out here.  Only Louis, really.  But he needed to get to Anne’s son’s ranch and get a signature so he could get back to Denver.  Back to civilization.

It should have been Nick, he thought darkly as he rolled down his window.  He's always been a bit of a cow.

"Excuse me," he called, gesturing to the man on the horse.  "Hell-ooo.  Can you move?”

The man turned to him, slightly startled, as if he’d only just realized there was a car.  He blinked, and a part of Louis’s brain registered big green eyes and red, wind-chapped lips.  “Excuse me?”

“Can you move.  Your cows.”  Louis waved his hands about in a slightly hysterical manner that he instantly regretted as he stared into the impassive face of the cowboy.  Cow-man.  He was definitely a man, Louis realized with a delayed lurch in his gut.  His eyes were big, and had probably been boyish once, but there were creases beginning to settle in around them, marks of the sun and the wind and the open expanse of the Great Plains.  His skin was tanned, dark in the oncoming dusk, his jaw strong and set.  His gaze was hard, and he had broad shoulders.

“I need to get through,” Louis explained, when the man didn’t respond.  “You have to move your cattle.”

The man blinked at him again.  He reached up, took off his hat and ran a tough, brown hand through hair that curled at the nape of his neck, faint chuckle escaping him.  As though Louis’s request were patently ridiculous.  “How do you expect me to do that?”

"Well..." Louis pushed air out of his throat in a peeved grunt.  "Can't you just, you know.  Encourage them?”  He demonstrated by giving the driver’s side door a little swat.

The man looked even more unimpressed.  "I don't hit my cows."

Louis sighed.  He flipped up his aviators, squinting into the light of the setting sun.  “Fine,” he said.  “Sorry for suggesting it.”  He could feel a stress headache coming on, the dull pain of it thudding through his thoughts and injecting sarcasm into his voice.  This situation was absurd.  Fucking unbelievable; he’d just spent the whole day traveling and felt disgusting, not to mention that he’d had to pack in such a blind hurry he was pretty sure he’d forgotten both his toothbrush and his razor.  Fuck Wyoming.  Fuck Anne Twist’s son, and fuck cows.  Meanwhile, the man just stared at him.

“What about like, talking to them?” Louis said.  “Telling them to move?  Cattle calls, or whatever.”

“Could…”

The man’s deep voice ebbed away as he continued to stare.  Frustration was building in Louis’s chest.  He let out a strangled laugh, fingers dancing over his aching temple.  “Well why don’t you do it, then?”

It felt like a full minute before the man answered.  When he did, his words were slow.  “Don’t want to pressure them.”

“Oh my God,” Louis groaned, thudding his head back against the seat and closing his eyes as he gathered the last shreds of his patience.  He was supposed to have been at the ranch to meet with Anne’s son at four p.m.  It was now almost 7:30, getting dark, there was no cell coverage, billions of dollars on the line, and he wasn’t even entirely sure that he was driving in the right direction.  He didn't need an infuriatingly stubborn, attractive cow-man.  No he did not.

So he thrust out his arm and punched the horn.  There were a few startled moos, and the cattle began to stamp their hooves in agitation.  Louis honked a few more times, but all it seemed to do was rile them up.  It at least spurred the cowboy into action; he turned his horse around with a swift, easy motion and trotted over to the open window of the car.  Louis tried not to notice how good the man’s worn blue jeans looked around his waist.

“Will you stop that.”  The cowboy’s voice was level, but Louis could sense the restrained anger behind his words.  Displeasure darkened his eyes.

Louis wasn’t intimidated.

“Look, darling,” he said, tossing his head back in a defiantly flamboyant gesture, “I’m about three hours late to an important business meeting, so if you could take a moment clear a path for me on the public road you are blocking, I'd appreciate it."  He fluttered his eyelashes.  It was a calculated risk -- straight guys, in Louis's experience, tended to be overly sensitive, especially the masculine ones.  They'd usually back off rather than stay to be flirted with.  Louis was pretty sure that's what this one would do...

Unless he was the violent type.  He said he wouldn't hit his cattle, Louis reasoned.  Well, if worst came to worst, he could jam his car into reverse and make a quick u-turn.

"Please," he added, with another flutter.

But the man did not back off.  He just sat there on his horse, staring down into Louis’s little red compact with a look of faint, almost confused disapproval on his face.  “You’re upsetting the cows,” he said.

“Oh,” Louis threw his hands up, “I’m upsetting the cows, am I?  Not as much as they’re upsetting me!”

“I like them to have a sense of autonomy,” the man said.  “They’ll move when they move.”

“A bovine psychologist.  I’m talking to a fucking bovine psychologist.”  Louis muttered it under his breath, gripping the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white.

“What?” asked the man, and Louis rolled his eyes.

“Just a couple of big words,” he said.  “Reserved for those of us who actually went to college.”  He knew he was being unnecessarily nasty, but he really needed to get a move on, and this man was the most aggravating...

“Can I suggest a compromise?”  The cowboy seemed to take the insult in stride.  Or maybe he hadn’t even perceived it as one; some people were disturbingly proud of being uneducated, backwards and… rural.  Louis just shrugged, and made a sweeping gesture with his arm.

“Suggest away, rancher man.”

“Well,” he said, still taking his sweet time as his horse shifted its weight, tail lazily swishing, “the ground’s pretty flat and even on this side of the road.  I’ll lead you, and you can drive around.”

“This is a rental,” Louis sighed.  “I didn’t get insurance on it.  One rock kicks up in the wrong place, and I'm paying for it to be repaired.”

The cowboy shrugged.  “Then I guess you’ll just have to wait until the herd decides to move along.”

“I’m not waiting,” Louis scoffed.  His headache was becoming excruciating and he could feel his voice rising, something childish in his tone that he couldn’t control.  “Just get your cows off the fucking road!”

Louis stared up at the cowboy.  The cowboy stared back down at Louis.  Neither of them blinked.

The cows moved.

“See?” the man’s face brightened, and he broke out into a friendly grin.  “They made the choice themselves.  ‘S much more empowering for them that way.”

Louis snorted and rolled up his window, not even saying goodbye as he maneuvered his car around a few stubborn strays and sped off down the otherwise deserted county highway.

“Of all the idiotic...”  He took two deep breaths, trying to consciously relax his shoulders.  He felt calmer in a couple of minutes, but the underlying tension didn’t bleed away.  His head was pounding; it was becoming a searing pain, and he just hoped he had read Google Maps right before his signal had cut out completely.

At least the country was beautiful.  That, he could allow.  The drive west out of Sheridan toward the Bighorns was huge and gorgeous, indigo sky sweeping down to the mountains that were limned with the last of the sunset, casting shadows out across the calm, flat prairie.  Louis lived in Denver, in full view of the Rockies, but there was something about the Bighorns that seemed wilder and sweeter.  Older.

He turned left down an unmarked gravel road, figuring he was either in the right spot or hopelessly lost.  A couple miles of waving grasses led him to a ranch, dotted here and there with clumps of thimbleweed and purple loosestrife.  Louis let out a sigh of relief when he saw a wooden crossbeam over the road with the words “Lonely Rose” above it in black iron.  He’d finally made it.

There were lights up ahead, little pinpoints of brightness like stars nestled in the prairie.  As Louis got closer, he started to make out the shadowy forms of buildings -- barns opening on dusty corrals, storage sheds, circular grain feeders and a show pavilion.  In the center of it all was a large, handsome house with a wrap-around porch, gray clapboard siding and cheery red shutters, a split-rail fence separating its manicured front yard from the rest of the ranch.  Two battered-looking Ford F150s were parked outside.  Louis pulled his car up alongside, choosing not to notice how silly his brand-new rental looked next to the big, mud-splattered fenders of the ranch trucks.

He got out, briefcase in hand, slamming the car door.  The unmistakable farm smells of fertilizer and unwashed animals pervaded the air; Louis wrinkled up his nose in disgust.  Get the signature, go book a hotel room, fly back tomorrow, he told himself.  There was dust on his shoes.  Water pooled in deep, muddy tire tracks around the circular drive, and Louis stooped to fastidiously roll up the pantlegs of his suit before picking his way toward the front door of the ranch house.

“Hey!”

Louis had just passed the fence when he heard a voice shouting from the direction of the nearest barn.  A large shape bounded out of the open barn doors, backlit by warm yellow light, and came barrelling toward him.  Louis froze.

“Hey!  Bon!  Bonnie, git… stay, girl!”

Louis let out a little shriek when the animal -- whatever it was; it was dark and Louis couldn’t see, his whole body tense as he waited for whatever was going to happen to happen -- pressed its long, scratchy face into his crotch and sniffed, circling him, wiggling with excitement and wagging its tail, jumping and bucking and making strange pleasure noises.  A man came running up, swearing a blue streak.

“Bonnie, you bastard.  Git down!  Git down.”

The man was short and slim, but had wiry muscles and an aura of whip-strength about him, like a tensile cord.  His dark hair was cropped short, wide gray eyes open and friendly.  There was a smattering of brown freckles across his cheeks, the kind pale people get when they’re out in the sun all summer long with no sunscreen.

“Sorry,” he said, grinning confidently as he pulled the big animal away from Louis, holding its head to his chest for a moment and whispering “be polite” into its ear before letting it go again.

“What is that?” Louis asked.  He realized he’d been unconsciously holding a hand up to his throat to help regulate his breathing, like a startled lady.  It only took another moment for his walls to go up, his wrist to straighten and his hand to drop to his side, fist clenched tightly.  Probably best to be the least obvious version of himself around the ranch hands.  He could do it.  He still remembered high school.

“That right there is a jackass that thinks she’s a dog.  Name’s Bonnie.”

“Oh.  She’s… cute…”  Louis tried to conjure up some enthusiasm, not sure what to say and feeling vaguely disoriented.

“Nah, she’s a fuckin’ terror,” the man chuckled.  He patted the donkey on the rump fondly.  Her tail was still wagging, her breath coming in short, excited pants.  “She basically grew up with a litter of puppies, ‘n now they’re all gone, but she still acts like one of ‘em.  Asks for head scratches and everything.”  He shrugged, and stuck out his hand.  “I’m Niall, lead wrangler.”

“Um.  Louis Tomlinson.”  Louis shook the man’s hand.  It felt tough, like he’d been touching ropes all day.  Which he probably had.  “I’m the notary public.  I had an appointment with Harry Styles this afternoon?  TwistCorp set it up…  I know I’m terribly late, but we just have to sign some documents.  Should only take about twenty minutes.”

Niall burst out into a laugh.  “Oh,” he said.  “This is great.”  He regarded Louis, weight shifted to one hip, lazily petting Bonnie behind the ears.

“Great,” Louis echoed.  He was confused; Niall just kept staring at him expectantly, as though he were about to provide some sort of entertainment.  Meanwhile, Louis’s headache was still bothering him, and he just wanted to get this over with.  He held up his briefcase and raised his eyebrows.  “So…?”

“Right, right,” Niall said, walking up the front path and waving for him to follow.  “Come on in, we’ll getcha set up.”

Louis followed him up to the door, admiring his ability to wear actual cowboy boots without it seeming ridiculous.  Well, of course it wasn’t ridiculous; the man was a cattle wrangler.  That’s what they wore: cowboy boots, cowboy hats, and big, decorative belt buckles.  Bonnie trotted alongside them up the porch steps, old wood groaning under her weight.  When Niall opened the door, she tried to shove her fuzzy head around his hip to get inside.

“Is she -- ”

"Don’t worry, the Bonster’s gonna stay out here.  No.  No, Bonnie.  Harry says you're not allowed in the house anymore, not after last time."

Niall maneuvered around her, holding her body back so that Louis could slip past them.  When he finally managed to shut the door, Louis heard a long, disappointed huff from just outside and the heavy pawing of a hoofed foot.

The inside of the house was decorated in grand western style, with a big stone fireplace dominating the living room and vintage hand tools hung on the walls, old braided rugs and masculine, wood-framed furniture.  Dusty boots were lined up next to the door, and Niall slipped off his mud and manure-crusted pair before waving Louis through.  (He was wearing cozy-looking, pink-toed wool socks, Louis noted with amusement.)  The floorplan was open -- Louis could see a big dining room attached to a kitchen, with two long benches pulled up under a wooden table that looked as though it could seat twenty people comfortably.

“Harry’s not back yet,” Niall explained.  “After you didn’t show, he went out to move some cattle.  Should be here soon enough.”

Louis nodded, gazing up at what appeared to be a stuffed coyote over the mantlepiece.  He suppressed a shudder.  Get in, get out, he told himself.

“Want a beer?” Niall asked, heading toward the dark kitchen.  “I’m havin’ one.”

“No thanks,” Louis answered.  He didn’t want to find out what sort of weird, home-brewed ranch beer they had out here, with their donkey-dogs and taxidermied decor.

Niall shrugged.  “Suit yourself.”  He disappeared around the corner and Louis was left alone in the dimly-lit living room.  The shade of a lamp cast lonely red shadows over the furniture, and Louis clutched his briefcase like a lifeline.  Get in, get out.

Just as he heard the opening of a fridge door and the clinking of bottles, another figure emerged from a hallway to his left.  It was a tall man, broad-shouldered, unbuttoning his dirty flannel shirt with lazy hands.

“‘M back, Ni,” the man called.

Louis took in a silent breath, and held it.  It was the cowboy from the road.  He was frowning down at his shirt, now half-open, revealing an expanse of tanned chest and two dark, pebbled nipples… Louis raised his eyes to the ceiling.  Fuck.

“Hey, Harry,” Niall said, striding back into the living room with a couple of beers in hand.  He gestured to Louis.  “The notary republic’s here to see you!  Finally made it.”  He chuckled.  “Bonnie gave him a little scare.”

Louis pursed his lips and frowned, avoiding meeting Harry's eyes.  "Notary public," he said.  "Not republic."  And being startled is not the same as being scared.  "I'm Louis Tomlinson, Mr. Styles.  Your... er, mother sent me."

He finally raised his head to find the cowboy -- Harry -- gazing at him with an unreadable expression.  They stared at each other for a few moments, and Louis felt heat flush his cheeks.  He was experiencing a complicated mix of emotions: embarrassment at how he’d acted when they had met on the road, a heightened sense of awkwardness now that he’d found himself unexpectedly intruding on the cowboy’s evening, impatience, and a prickling irritation at himself for feeling so self-conscious.  His headache exacerbated everything, and he just wanted to go home.

Harry broke the eye contact first, turning to Niall to accept a beer from him.  He twisted off the top and took a long swig, licking his lips before wrapping them around the bottle.  Louis tried not to notice how the muscles in his neck moved as he swallowed it down, dark pooling in his collarbones and in the soft folds of his half-open shirt.  Harry’s chest was heaving; he was still breathing hard from whatever he’d been doing outside.  Then he sighed, satisfied, half the bottle done.  He moved his beer-drinking hand across his face to wipe his mouth on the sleeve of his flannel, and Louis’s eyes fluttered to the ground.

“In my office,” he said.

Louis felt his heart stop for a moment, then burst back to life again.  “Right,” he murmured.  “Office.”

Harry was so solid, his words so low and unhurried, and he had a look about him as though he were constantly working things out, slowly, thoughtfully.  Patiently.  Louis sighed as he followed him down the hallway, the man’s strong, slightly hunched shoulders swaying as he walked.  To Louis, problems always seemed like the worst, the most unsolvable.  He was a panicker, a grouser, an overreactor, couldn't be patient to save his life.  One thing went wrong, and the whole world was ending.  Louis supposed that to men like Harry Styles, he must seem like a helpless ninny.

Idiot, he thought, it doesn’t matter what he thinks of you.  Just get his fucking signature so you can leave.

Harry showed him into a tiny office full of papers.  He took a seat behind a cramped desk and gestured for Louis to sit as well.  Louis folded himself into a worn leather chair decorated with hand-tacked studs, slightly uneven, sliding a file out of his briefcase as he did so.

“I believe you’ve already been sent multiple copies,” he said.  “Nothing’s changed as far as I know, but feel free to look it over before you sign.”  There were no windows in the little room, and the scent of something lingered… pipe tobacco, Louis thought.  Very faint, as though the office had once been saturated with it, and then shut up for a long time.

“And this is…?”  Harry spread out his hands, shoving piles of raggedly-opened, hastily re-stuffed envelopes aside to make room for Louis to plunk the deed down in front of him.

Louis sighed.  “You know what it is, Mr. Styles.  Anne’s filled me in on the whole situation.  Specifically how you’ve been avoiding it, which is why I’m here.”

“Call me Harry.”

Louis just rolled his eyes as he watched Harry pick up the first page of the deed and read through it soberly before crumpling it in his big fist.

“You know I have that on a flash drive.  You can’t just get rid of it by -- ”

Harry stared at him as he crumpled up the second page.  Louis grabbed the remainder of the stack and pulled it into his belly, making a sour face.  “Oh, give me that, if you’re just going to…  You’re wasting trees.”  He straightened out the pile on the tops of his knees and shoved it back into his briefcase.  “And making my headache worse,” he added under his breath.

“I’m not signing the deed,” Harry said.  He nodded once, his face simple and open.  Then he tipped his head up to toss back the rest of his beer, long curls falling behind his ears.  He licked his wet lips and sighed, and set the empty bottle down on his desk with a clink.  “I told my mother that.”

“Look,” said Louis.  “Mr. Styles.”  He took a deep breath; he’d been briefed on what to say next.  “The land isn’t even being used --”

“I’m aware of what land I use,” Harry said, with a wry smile.  “This ranch was willed to me by my grandfather.  He brought me up on it, and I won’t sell any part of it.”

“But,” Louis huffed, feeling himself beginning to spiral.  "The deal's made.  TwistCorp has months of man-hours invested in this."  His voice was becoming strident again; something about butting up against Harry’s calm, solid demeanor was only making him more agitated.

“That’s not my fault.  Mom arranged the survey and brokered the entire sale without consulting me," Harry said, "but I’m the sole property owner.  Legally, I don’t have to sign anything.”  He smiled across his desk at Louis, friendly but firm.  Resolute.  “And I’m afraid I’m not very inclined to.”

“Harry, the long term gains from this deal are going to be considerable for both your ranch and your mother’s company.  It benefits everyone.  The amount of money from the sale alone, I mean, my god…”

Harry held up a hand, cutting him off.  “Not everyone is motivated by money, Mr. Tomlinson.”

“There’s not being motivated by money, and then there’s oil money.  This is oil money.”  Louis was practically sputtering in disbelief.  He’d looked over the contract -- he knew the exact amount Harry would be giving up by not signing, and it was obscene.

“I will not sell that land.  For oil money or anything else.”

The cowboy’s voice was quiet.  There was something in his eyes as he looked at Louis that made the words go straight to his heart.

“Okay,” Louis said.  He felt utterly defeated, rubbing at his temples.  “Can I use your phone?”  He gestured to Harry’s landline.  “Spotty cell reception for me out here.  I have to call my boss.”

“Be my guest,” said Harry.  He rose and strode out of the office, shutting the door quietly behind him.  Louis took out his cell to find the number, fingers shaking as he dialed it on Harry’s old-fashioned beige box of a telephone.

Zayn picked up on the third ring.

“He won’t sign,” Louis said.  “He won’t.”

He could hear Zayn’s unimpressed facial expression through the phone.  Finally the man spoke, his voice oddly muffled, as though the connection were about to fade out.  “Ms. Twist says you have to stay there until he does sign.  She won’t take no for an answer, Louis.  This deal’s too big to fail.”

“Well, how am I supposed to -- ?”  Louis cut himself off and bit his lip indignantly.

“Do whatever it takes.  Wear him down.  Be a pest.  I know you know how to do that…”

“Shut up, asshole.”

Zayn chuckled.  “Exactly.”

Louis threw his hands up and groaned.  “But it could be days!”

“Take a deep, cleansing breath and think of the overtime pay.  Love you.  Believe in you.  Bye.”

There was a click, and the line went dead.  “Fuck off,” Louis muttered as he gently replaced the receiver in the cradle, wondering why it had to be his life that was getting derailed.  He made a small, unattractively whiny noise just as the door opened again and Harry reappeared, folded towel in hand.

“How’d it go?” he asked.

Louis frowned, holding himself stiffly as he stood up.  “My boss says I have to stay here until you sign.”

“Better make yourself comfortable, then!”  Harry held out the towel.  There was a small smile playing across his face, as though he were unsure whether Louis would appreciate the offer.  Another wave of awkward, guilty annoyance washed through Louis’s tired body.

“I have a hotel booked,” he lied.

“Oh, it’s too late to drive all the way back to Sheridan.”  Harry plopped the towel into Louis’s hands.  “Come on, guest room’s down the hall.  Take a shower if you’d like.  You might be here for another day or so.”  He chuckled low in his throat.  “Mom and I can both be pretty stubborn.”

Louis followed him, too exhausted to protest.  The last thing that caught his eye before he left the office was a framed piece of paper hanging just above the desk.  It was a master’s degree in English Literature from Princeton University.  The name on it was Harry Styles.

God.  Louis closed his eyes and gritted his teeth at himself.  He walked down the darkened hallway after Harry, feeling incredibly uncomfortable in his skin.  Part of his brain was reminding his hips not to sway as he walked, his arms unnaturally rigid at his sides.  He felt like he was in a straightjacket.

“Hey,” he said, just as Harry was showing him the bathroom.  “I’m sorry about… before…”  He shrugged, not knowing what else to add.  “Like.  With the road.  And the honking.”

Harry just laughed.  “Give me your keys, I’ll get your suitcase out of your car.”

“You don’t have to,” Louis said, but he dug his keys out of his pocket anyway.

“It’ll be in the spare room for you.  Sweet dreams.”

Harry shut the door, leaving Louis in the bright bathroom.  It was cheery, all white and yellow tiles freshly scrubbed with something that smelled of lemon.  Louis undressed slowly, folding his suit on the carpeted toilet seat cover before he turned on the shower.  He experienced a moment of disorientation as he stepped under the warm spray.

How did I get here?

There was something about it that felt weirdly inevitable.  Louis let the hot, pounding water shut off his brain by degrees as he soaped himself.  His cock filled a little when he washed it, on the edge of something just like the rest of him.  He ignored its flush, ignored the pooling arousal in his belly as he thought of Harry.  How he’d handled that horse so smoothly.  His chest, left on display during the whole course of their conversation in the office.  The dimple in his cheek.

Louis had experienced odd, fleeting attractions like this before and never felt guilty jerking himself to them.  But I definitely don’t need to be fantasizing about a straight guy, he thought, and let his hand drop from where it had been idly stroking.  Especially an annoyingly salt-of-the-earth one who won’t listen to reason.  And who psychoanalyzes cows.

He turned the water off and worked the towel over himself, preferring not to think.  He slung it half-damp around his waist when he was finished, grabbed his folded suit and his shoes and stuck his head out of the bathroom, bracing himself against the relatively cool air as he let steam escape into the hallway.  There was no one about.  The whole house was quiet.

Louis padded to the guest room Harry had pointed out.  A lamp had been turned on, his suitcase standing by the bed.  Louis didn’t bother digging inside it for pajamas; he hadn’t remembered to pack any.  He slipped between the sheets naked, sighing at the feel of fresh cotton on clean skin.  There was a glass of water on the nightstand, and a tablet of ibuprofen.

For your headache.  - H.

Louis swallowed it dry and turned out the light.

*

When Louis woke up the following morning, it took him about half a minute before he remembered where he was.  It was the feel of the crisp, clean sheets against his skin that finally tipped him off.  Something wasn’t right.  These sheets were too nice.  And he was naked…  Why was he naked?

Wyoming.  You’re in fucking Wyoming.

Louis sat bolt upright in bed.  He was still tired enough that it hurt when he tried to open his eyes, but he sat there breathing heavily as distant, dreamlike images from the previous night came drifting back.  The cows in the middle of the road and the donkey-dog, Zayn on the phone telling him he had to stay, how he’d had a shower and then slipped into bed without any clothes on.  Harry Styles’s oddly heartfelt hospitality given the situation.

I won’t sell any part of it.

The situation in general.

How the fuck am I going to handle this? Louis thought, wincing and rubbing a frustrated hand over his face.  Why did it have to be me, anyway?  I should never have become a notary.  Of all the stupid ideas.  Thanks Zayn.  Thanks a lot.   

He was trying to keep from being completely overwhelmed by self-pity, but then a quick glance at his phone showed that its battery was dead.  He’d left both his phone charger and laptop in the rental car the night before, having assumed he’d be driving straight back to Sheridan.  There was an old clock-radio on the bedside table, but it was blinking 12:00 a.m.  So now Louis was in a strange house, in a strange place, and he didn’t even know what time it was.  At that moment, it felt like a grave injustice rather than a simple inconvenience.

He made a disgruntled noise and threw back the covers, wobbling to his feet and lurching over to his roller suitcase to find some clothes.  He needed to badger Harry Styles into signing the land transfer as quickly as possible so he could just get the hell out of here already.  Judging by the light streaming in through the oddly dainty curtains, his best guess was that it was already distressingly late in the morning.

“He’s probably already off branding baby cows or like, clomping around, lassoing things,” Louis grumbled as he tugged on a clean pair of slacks, the only other pants he’d brought with him.  They were his favorites actually -- soft slate gray, perfect fit, and Louis usually felt his best when he wore them.  Thinking back to the classic, faded denim Harry Styles had been sporting the night before made him feel a little embarrassed about it though, as if all the trappings of having an office job were inauthentic and silly.

You have your work uniform, he has his, Louis reassured himself as he shrugged a slightly rumpled white button-down on over his undershirt.  That’s all it is.

But he couldn’t keep himself from thinking about the way Styles had looked in the saddle.  So comfortable and controlled.  Capable.  

Rugged.  That’s what it was.  Harry Styles was rugged.  Just saying the word in his head sent a hot little zip of uneasy arousal into Louis’s belly.  Louis was a lot of things, but rugged had never been one of them.

It’s like he’s straight out of some kind of idiotic romance novel, Louis told himself, rolling his eyes while he sat on the edge of the bed to pull on his dress socks.  Even the way he talks.

“Quit being a dickhead and go do your stupid job,” he muttered to himself, jamming his feet into his shoes.  He snatched his briefcase off the floor with an irritated huff, taking a deep breath and straightening his shoulders before he yanked the door open and stepped out into the hall.

The house was very quiet.  So quiet that it startled all the bluster he’d just worked up right out of him.  He felt out of place as he stood outside the guest room, his underlying sense that he didn’t really belong there resurfacing and making him want to be as inconspicuous as possible.  Blend in.  He started slinking down the hall, tiptoeing carefully along the wall so as not to disturb the silence.

He came to an abrupt halt when he reached the edge of the living area.  A huge bay window behind the dining room table revealed a gorgeous view of the mountains that hadn’t been visible the night before.  Louis had known this was an incredibly nice place, but he’d been so distracted (by the task at hand and an almost half-naked cow-man) that he hadn’t been able to appreciate the true extent of it.

Not only was the scenery unbelievable, but Harry Styles’s ranch house was also absolutely gorgeous and so impeccably decorated for its western setting that it reminded Louis of an aspirational spread in a Better Homes and Gardens.  The worst part was that it was still so clearly a home -- Louis couldn’t even feel irritated about how nice it was without feeling guilty.  There were framed family photographs and childhood artwork on display all over the place.  Someone had draped several holey afghans over the back of one of the sofas, and Louis could see some kind of pet hair on most of the visible upholstery.  The easy chair that faced the large flat screen television had patches of worn fabric on the armrests from long-term use.  Everything was lovely and lived in, and it made Louis feel even more dissatisfied than usual about the pathetic state of his own apartment in Denver, with its continually blank walls.

Louis moved into the space that made up the dining room, drawn there by the pictures on the wall.  His brow furrowed as looked at a photo of a much younger Anne Twist standing next to an older couple.  They were beaming down at a small boy who was grinning proudly next to a calf and holding up a bright blue ribbon, tiny Stetson sitting on his head at a jaunty angle.

“Lookin’ for Harry?”

Louis jumped at the sound of a voice from the kitchen, his cheeks heating a little at having been caught snooping.  Niall, the ranch hand from the night before, was standing next to one of the counters with an amused expression on his face.  Judging by the large amount of fresh dirt on his jeans and the flush on his face, he’d already been hard at work that morning.  Currently he had a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and half a bagel coated with far too much cream cheese in the other.

Louis cleared his throat. “Uh yeah… Is he --?”

Niall shook his head, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.  He took his time before he spoke again.  “He’s out mending some fences.  I can take you to him, if you want.  I gotta go past there anyway, check on the heifers.”

“Oh,” Louis said, shifting his briefcase from hand to hand, “yeah, that would be... that would be great. Thank you.”  

Niall took another huge bite of his bagel and glanced down at Louis’s wingtipped feet, snorting as he chewed.  “Should probably at least getcha some boots before we go…”

“No,” Louis said, peeking down at his shoes.  “No.  I think I’ll be all right.”

Niall kept chewing his bagel slowly and looking at Louis like he thought that was definitely the wrong decision, but all he said was “Suit yourself.”

Twenty minutes later, Louis had eaten a bagel of his own and been given a surprisingly delicious cup of coffee in a travel mug.  He followed Niall out to one of the F150s he’d seen in the driveway the night before.

“Harry’s in the near east pasture.  We had a section of fence get pretty mangled in a storm ‘bout a week back,” Niall said as he pulled the truck out onto an uneven dirt road.  He laughed.  “Sure you’ve heard that before, huh?  How all ya do workin’ on a farm is fix the fences?”

“Oh, uh,” Louis blinked more sleep out of his eyes.  He’d been staring at the digital display on the radio.  It was 10:00 a.m. -- Louis hadn’t slept in past eight in years.  Wyoming was starting to feel like a different dimension.  “No.  No, I hadn’t heard that one.”

Niall heaved a long-suffering sigh.  “Well, it’s true.”  Then he laughed, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel and glancing over at Louis.  "Feels like that Greek dude sometimes, you know the one?  With the rock and the hill and eternity and stuff?”

Louis huffed out a laugh.  “Yeah, I know the one.”

“Anyway, we gotta get it fixed before the Llewellyns move their herd over to this side of their property in a couple days,” Niall continued conversationally, as if Louis had any idea at all about managing a ranch.  He seemed like the kind of person who was in continually good spirits.  “Can’t have ‘em wandering into our pasture!”

A few minutes later he stopped the truck on the side of the road, throwing it into park and hopping out.  He left his door hanging open, and Louis sat in the cab listening to the ding-ding-ding of the alert that the keys were still in the ignition, unsure of what to do until he saw that Niall had opened a large gate and was hurrying back to the truck.

“Harry’s way down at the other end,” Niall explained, gesturing loosely with one hand as he took a swinging left into the field.  The force of the turn pressed Louis up against the door, and he grabbed for the handle on the ceiling to steady himself as they trundled along the bumpy ground.

Niall brought the truck to an abrupt stop when they’d almost reached Harry, jumping out of the vehicle just like he had before, the ding-ding-ding sound starting up again.  Louis heard Harry greet him happily, and he eased himself down out of the Ford after a moment’s hesitation, reluctant to approach.  He suddenly felt much more aware that he had no actual plan for how he was going to go about convincing Harry Styles to sign on the dotted line, other than standing next to him awkwardly, in inappropriate farm clothing, and simply asking.

So, what?  I’ll do polite asking and then impolite asking and then whining and begging?  This is the fucking worst.

Harry Styles was kneeling by the fence, repairing a line of barbed wire that had snapped in the storm.  He was using some kind of tool that Louis had never seen before, one that racheted up the tension on the newly re-strung wire until it was tight.  Louis took a careful step toward where Niall was standing a few feet back from Harry and his shoes squelched in the mud beneath the long grass.  Everything smelled sharply of damp vegetation.

“You gonna check on the heifers or what?” Harry asked Niall over his shoulder, not pausing his work.  

Louis drew even with Niall just in time to see the affectionate smirk on his face when he replied.

“Yeah, yeah.  Don’t worry, I’m on my way to your beloved.”   He thumbed toward Louis.  “Thought I’d drop this guy off first, though; he wanted to see ya.”  

“This is a big deal, Ni,”  Harry said.  He didn’t acknowledge Louis’s presence.

“I’m aware,” Niall said, his smile growing.  He leaned down without being prompted and grabbed the pair of pliers that were lying in the grass next to Harry, handing them to him at what was apparently just the right moment in the repair process.  “Don’t worry.  I’ll give her your love and extra belly scratches, sir.  Maybe even sing to her a little bit.”

Harry huffed out a laugh and shook his head.  He was still facing away from them, but Louis thought he had probably rolled his eyes.  Louis shifted his weight and pretended he was interested in staring off at the mountains.  He felt like a third wheel.   

“You been sticking to Dolly?” Niall asked, grinning now, hands on his hips.

“Nah, branched out to the Spice Girls last week.  Think they liked it,” Harry said as he inspected his work.

Niall snorted in approval and then started retreating toward the truck.

“See you at dinner?” Harry asked, glancing back at him.

“‘Course,” Niall hollered as he hopped up into the cab. “Have fun!”  He gave Louis a little wave out the window and then turned the engine over, executing a tidy Y turn and zipping back out of the field as quickly as he’d come.

Louis felt even more awkward in Niall’s absence.  Harry Styles still hadn’t even indicated that he was aware that Louis was standing there.   

What the fuck do I even say?  How long will I be in this god damn field?  All day.  Forever, actually.  That is the answer.  I’ll be here forever.  I am never leaving Wyoming and I’ll never see Denver again.

“Do you sing to all the cows?” he asked after a minute of increasingly tense silence, his curiosity about Harry and Niall’s conversation getting the better of him.

Harry Styles laughed softly, standing up and turning to face Louis at last.  “Why?  You looking for tips on how to take care of your own?”  He shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun with one of his work-gloved hands so he could get a look at Louis.

Louis felt his chest go tight as they regarded each other, any sort of retort he might have made dying on his lips as he took the rancher fully in.  Styles had pulled his hair up into a tiny bun at the back of his head and it emphasized the strength of his brow and the cut of his jaw.  He was in another pair of faded, well-fitting blue jeans and a red flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow.  The gaps between his gloves and shirt sleeves revealed the sort of perfectly lean and sinewy forearms that in Louis’s mind were synonymous with toughness and hard work.

What the fuck is wrong with you?  

Louis was floored, and annoyed, really, by how attractive he found it all.  He’d previously been under the impression that he was naturally drawn to more urbane, sophisticated displays of masculinity, but Harry Styles had him suddenly wanting to set aside time for daydreaming about being bedded by a rough-hewn manly-man on a prairie under a blanket of gorgeous stars.  It was sort of infuriating.  

I’m the one from the idiotic romance novel, he thought, distressed.  God.  Put it away.  This is Wyoming, for crying out loud!   

“To answer your question, yes, we do tend to sing to our cattle here at the Lonely Rose.  But Jolene gets extra-special treatment, because she is a heifer who is pregnant with twins.”

Louis nodded, even though he didn’t have a full understanding of what that even meant.  Isn’t a heifer just a cow?

Harry’s lips curled into a smirk and he nodded toward Louis’s briefcase.  “Might not be a bad idea, though, setting yourself up with a little cow-calf operation.  I’m not signing that stupid contract, so you could be here awhile.”

Louis exhaled in annoyance, irritation crawling up his back.  “You aren’t even using that part of your property, Mr. Styles.”  He gestured at their surroundings with the sweep of an arm.  “I looked at the maps before I left Denver.  That area can’t even be used for like, a cow food field or whatever.”

Styles snorted, and he was smiling and shaking his head, dimples deep, as he leaned down to pick up a roll of barbed wire.  He tucked the unusual racheting tool and the pliers under his other arm.  “Please call me Harry, Louis.  And I think you know it’s called a pasture, not a cow food field.”

There was something about the amused little twinkle in Harry’s eye when he said it that made Louis almost chuckle in spite of himself, but he just smiled slightly around another huff of frustration and pressed on.  “Okay fine, pasture, whatever.  It can’t be used as a pasture.  Either way, it’s just sitting there!”

On top of an unbelievable fucking fortune in oil! Louis thought, choosing not to say that out loud, given Harry’s terse response to the mention of money last night.  It pained Louis though, trying to conceive of turning down such a huge sum.  Made him oddly nervous, like he was watching a character in a movie who couldn’t stop gambling and would certainly go broke.  Is he concerned about the environmental impact or something?  Why wouldn’t he just say that?  And still… the money…  

Harry walked down the fence, to another section with broken cables.  Louis followed after him, struggling to keep up with with Harry’s long strides in his slippery dress shoes.

“We went over this last night, Louis.  I’m fully aware of what I’m using my land for, and I still haven’t changed my mind.  You won’t change my mind.  I am not signing,” Harry stated calmly, kneeling down to get back to work.  He adjusted his gloves at the wrist and then grabbed the broken piece of wire that was still attached to the closest fencepost, wrenching the loose end of it around with his hands to twist it into a small loop.

“Okay,” Louis said, slowly and measured to convey the extent of his frustration.  He frowned and fiddled with the silver buckle on his case.

Harry paused and blinked up at Louis, a thoughtful expression on his face.  “You won’t be in trouble at work, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Louis just shrugged and shook his head.  He was at a loss for what to do, and as he looked out at the surrounding landscape, at a small stand of trees along the edge of the pasture and then farther, to the mountains beyond, he felt increasingly baffled by how this was even happening to him.  Harry Styles’s complete calm over his refusal to sign the document, despite the fact that it was an incredibly sound business decision, made everything feel so surreal.  As if some other Louis, in a universe where things made sense, was already on an airplane heading back home to Denver and this version of Louis, the one that was standing in a cow pasture, had actually fallen down some strange ranchland rabbit hole where absolutely nothing went as one would hope or expect.    

“I’ll tell you what,” Harry said slowly, rubbing at his jawline like he was working something out before pointing toward the fence.  “I have to get this work done now.  Today.  And I don’t get the greatest cell coverage out here, but I promise I’ll call my mother tonight and get things straightened out so you can go home tomorrow.  All right?”

Louis nodded, letting out a sigh of relief that seemed to relax Harry as well.  He’d continued to stare up at Louis with wide eyes from his crouched position by the broken fence, and Louis squirmed a bit under the attention when he noticed, reminded again of how out of place his clothes were for the setting.  

“I like your briefcase,” Harry said, finally looking away when he reached for the loose end of his coil of barbed wire, unfurling it to the length he needed.

If Louis had been in Harry’s position, he’d have been teasing if he made a comment like that.  Maybe Harry was to a certain extent, but he’d also meant it sincerely, and that caught Louis off guard.

“Oh,” he said, pleased.  He looked down at the soft brown leather, tracing the fine stitching along one of the seams with his fingers.  “Um.  Thank you.”

Harry hummed in response and turned toward the fence again, running the new strand of wire through the loop he’d created in the broken cable and bending it over with efficient turns of his wrist to make an interlocking loop.

“My parents gave it to me, when I got into law school.”

Louis wasn’t sure why he felt compelled to explain.  It had felt good when they’d given it to him, though, like a confirmation that he was finally figuring things out after years of indecision.  An official stamp of approval of sorts.

“Was a good choice,” Harry said, reaching for the tightening tool and cinching wire into it.  “Are you in law school now?”  He sounded concerned.  “They wouldn’t send you out here then, would they?”

“No.  No, in the fall,” Louis murmured, shaking his head.  “I start in the fall.  At Boulder.”  

“Oh.  Good for you.”

“Yeah, thanks.”  Louis couldn’t help feeling a twinge of inadequacy when he thought about the master’s degree he’d seen in Harry’s office, from fucking Princeton of all places.  CU-Boulder was an entirely acceptable place to go to law school, but Louis was suddenly squirming a bit, wishing he could somehow drop his LSAT score into the conversation so Harry would know he’d had other, more distinguished options available.  Pathetic.  “I was in the Peace Corps,” he said instead, his pride forcing him into it.  “I mean, that’s why -- that’s why I waited so long…”  

Harry made a small humming noise of polite interest and continued about his work.  Louis cringed internally over his insecurity, his naked need to try to justify his choices.  As if Harry Styles cared (or had any sense at all) that Louis had spent most of his twenties jumping into the next available thing without much forethought, always on the go so that he wouldn’t have to confront any big questions about what he might actually want to do with the rest of his life.  It was just -- here Louis was, finally entering law school at the ripe old age of thirty-two, and Styles had probably been running this whole ranch since his mysterious stint at Princeton.  Despite having full-time jobs and apartments and bills they took care of on their own, Louis and Zayn still made fairly frequent jokes about how disoriented they felt whenever either of them was mistaken for an actual adult.  Harry Styles, as stubbornly irrational as his behavior around this oil deal seemed to be, really was one.

Louis’s brow creased.  He peered down past his briefcase to where his wingtips were sunk into a particularly muddy patch of grass and the cuffs of his favorite pants were already wet with dew.  He looked back over his shoulder to see if the house was in view, his facial expression shifting into a grimace when he saw that it wasn’t.  

Shit.

He should have taken Niall up on his offer of those boots.  He really hadn’t thought this through.

“Are you all right?” Harry asked, glancing up at Louis with a mixture of amusement and concern in his eyes.

“Well,” Louis said, unable to stop his voice from coming out in a whine.  He squirmed and hugged his briefcase closer, wincing as he looked out at the horizon.  “I mean, how far away is the house?”

Harry let out an apologetic rumble of a laugh as he turned back to his work.  Louis tried not to get too caught up in measuring the breadth of his back with his eyes.  “Probably too far to walk in those shoes.”

Louis heaved a long, peevish sigh and closed his eyes in annoyance, the intensity of which was exacerbated by the fact that while being in stuck in Wyoming on a fool’s errand hadn’t been his choice, his ill-advised cow pasture footwear certainly was.  He didn’t want to take any of the blame.  He wasn’t ready for that.  “What am I supposed to do now?” he asked, after a minute.

“I’d let you take the four wheeler,” Harry said, motioning in the general direction of the gate, “but I have to hit a couple more pastures by the end of the day.”  He started knee-walking toward the other fencepost, smiling at Louis and waving the strange racheting tool at him.  “You could make yourself useful, if you want.”

Louis let out a scoff of a laugh to dismiss the suggestion.  What he’d wanted was for Harry to offer to take a break and drop him off at the house, but that clearly wouldn’t be happening.   

It’s the least he could do, since he’s trapped me here for the time being, he thought darkly, carefully picking his way closer to Harry through the long grass.

“First of all,” he said snootily, peering down at Harry when he about a foot away, “I’d ruin my pants…”

“And?” Harry prompted, laughing a little and fumbling around with more barbed wire, the muscles in his forearms flexing.  

Louis blinked at him.

“You said ‘first of all,’” Harry pointed out, cinching a wire into one end of his tightening tool.

“What?  Oh.  Um.  Okay, yeah, that’s everything.  I’d ruin my pants.”

Harry snorted, wiping sweat off his brow.  “Suit yourself,” he said, echoing Niall’s refrain from earlier.  He turned back to the broken fence and began to hum contentedly as he continued his task.

Louis shifted his weight and rubbed at his brow.  He was so frustrated by the situation that he felt almost sick, heat from it flaring up under his breastbone like heartburn.  What was he going to do for the next seven hours?  Just stand there and glare at the back of Harry Styles’s stubborn, stupidly attractive, entirely unhelpful head?  There wasn’t even a place to sit down!

“What is that thing?” he demanded after about five minutes of Harry’s industrious and tuneless humming, bored out of his mind.

Harry stopped humming abruptly, looking up and over his shoulder at Louis.  “The fence stretcher?” he asked, gesturing to the tool in front of him, which now had barbed wired clamped into it on both ends.    

“Well,” Louis said with a bit of sass, as he drifted closer, “you tell me.”   

“Yeah, it’s called a fence stretcher,” Harry said, as he began to use it.  There was a hint of a smile on his face, like he found Louis’s slight attitude to be entertaining for some reason.  “It pulls the wire taut, see?”

Louis nodded.

“The wire snapped in a bad storm, but both pieces are still attached to the posts,” Harry explained.  He pointed toward the fencepost to their left.  “So, first you make some loops, like I did down there, and sort of splice in a new piece of wire from your roll.”

Louis moved to the side to get a look at where Harry had fastened the new wire together with the old, the repair piece still attached to the coil of barbed wire.  

“Then, you make a little loop at the end of the wire from the other post,” Harry said, pointing down at the separate piece of wire that was attached to the post to their right.  He picked up the coil and moved it around a little for Louis’s benefit.  “And you unspool some, you know, a little more than enough to bridge the gap, and put both sections into the stretcher.”  He pointed down to where he had cinched the two unconnected sections of wire into the tool.  He smiled at Louis, picking it up and using the racheting mechanism.  “Then you increase the tension ‘til it’s taut, like I said.”

“So you twist them together, after?” Louis asked, squinting sharply as he poked at the wire in between the stretcher.  “Like secure them together?”

Harry nodded, picking up the wire cutters and snipping the new wire off the coil before connecting it to the piece that was attached to the fencepost.  “Yep, not much to it.  Then you take off the stretcher, and... done!”

He set the tool down at his knees and leaned back onto his heels, nimbly unbuttoning his flannel shirt.

Louis swallowed.  “Um…” he said, unsure what was happening and feeling flustered by how well-worn Harry’s thin, white undershirt was.  It left just the right amount to the imagination, especially given the cool spring air.  “What -- why --?”

Harry grinned, spreading the flannel out on the ground next to him with a flourish. He nodded, indicating that Louis should join him.  “So you don’t ruin your nice fancy pants.  Come on, there are two more wires to fix between these posts.  I’ll let you be pliers man.”

Louis hesitated for a second, but then Harry produced another pair of work gloves out of his back pocket, and it was either this or staring into space for the rest of the day.    

“What, I’m not good enough for the fence stretcher or something?” he asked indignantly as he dropped to his knees next to Harry.

Harry laughed, handing Louis the gloves. “We’ll get you there.”

Louis nodded decisively, as if to say damn straight we will, and he had to bite his lip over a smile when it drew another laugh and a shake of the head from Harry.  

“You do seem to be a natural at creating tension,” he said, chuckling and handing over the pliers once Louis had rolled up his sleeves and tugged on the gloves.  

Louis let out a short squawk of protest.  “I didn’t ask to be sent here!” he pointed out.  (And for a crazy split second, with Harry’s warm body so close to his, he wondered what kind of tension Harry was really referring to.)

Harry smirked, picking up the roll of barbed wire again.  “I am aware.”  

Three pastures and many, many sections of damaged fencing later, Louis was indeed using the fence stretcher.  He’d gotten more efficient at it as the day went on, quickly racheting up the tension, satisfied by the way the cable went tight under his control.  Harry was kneeling next to him.  He plucked the wire like a string on an instrument to check to make sure it was properly taut before finishing up and removing the tool from the wire.  

“Well done,” he said, climbing to his feet and pulling off his work gloves before taking a big swig from his water bottle.  

“Thanks.”  Louis hopped up and dusted himself off.  

Harry held out the water wordlessly and Louis pulled off his gloves, blinking down at his hands for a second.  Harry’s gloves had been almost comically large on him, an extra half-inch of fabric sticking off the ends of each of his fingers.  He had this strange urge to place his hand directly over Harry’s on the bottle when he moved to take it from him, suddenly itching to get an exact visual on their difference in size.  Being around capable, sturdy Harry all day had made Louis feel almost dainty, aware of his smaller stature in a way he actually liked.  As he took a gulp of the water, it dawned on him that he’d been gesturing and speaking with his hands more freely than he normally would in a situation like this, with someone he barely knew.  He’d wanted to draw Harry’s attention to his smaller size, too.

I’ve been showing off, Louis realized, his face going a little hot as he remembered the theatrical way he’d told Harry a story when they’d split the sandwich Harry had packed for lunch, some stupid little anecdote about a particularly disastrous tuna salad.  I’ve practically been fucking flirting with him this whole time!  Has he -- has he been flirting back?  No...

He tried to shake off his embarrassment, coughing into a fist.  “Where to next?” he asked.

Harry smiled, his dimple deep.  “Home, actually,” he said, wiping his hands on his shirt.  “It’s quitting time.”   

Louis was surprised, and it must have shown on his face because Harry made a small noise of delight.  “It’s nearly six o’clock, Louis.”  He stood with his hands on his hips and nodded toward the sun, as if to point out how far it had sunk in the sky.  “Time flies when you’re having fun, huh?”   

Louis rolled his eyes, but he truly had lost track of time.  It felt like that tunafish sandwich had been just an hour ago.   

“I suppose,” he whispered, suddenly wondering how much he’d impeded Harry’s progress earlier in the day when he hadn’t known what he was doing.  Someone else might have just told Louis to go sit on the ATV and fucking wait.  Louis felt disoriented for a moment, thinking back to how irritated he’d been that morning, just at being forced out into the field.  He certainly didn’t feel that way now, even though (despite Harry’s chivalrous offer of the flannel shirt) his pants were filthy and his beloved wingtips were caked with mud.  

“Come on,” Harry said.  He stuffed the dirtied flannel into his bag along with the pliers and the water bottle and shouldered it with ease, leaning down to pick up the depleted coil of barbed wire.  “Grab the fence stretcher?”

Louis complied, swinging it up onto his shoulder, and they traipsed across the field together toward the four wheeler, the long grass swishing against their calves as they went.    

The ride back from the pasture was fairly short, but Louis managed to get lost in thought anyway.  Pressed up against Harry Styles’s strong back, he watched the ground roll by under the wheels of the ATV, the occasional pebble kicking up.  He felt satisfaction from hard work, the sort that he hadn’t felt for a long time.  His whole body was tired, but in a way that promised a lovely, achy soreness the next morning, and Louis was looking forward to a hot shower and a cold beer and melting into some kind of soft surface for the rest of the night.

There was something bittersweet about it all that he couldn’t quite get a handle on, and thinking about his life back in Denver somehow made his heart twist a little -- so he tried not to.  

He couldn’t avoid thinking about Denver when they got back to the house, though.  Harry hustled Louis into his office right away, determined to call his mother and get things straightened out, just like he’d said he would.  It didn’t go as either of them had planned.

“Hello?”  Harry had his cell on speakerphone, and Louis smiled slightly at the sound of Anne Twist’s voice as it came through, scratchy from the connection but also noticeably softer than when she answered a normal business call.  “Harry?”

“Yeah.  Hi, Mom,” Harry replied, leaning back in his creaky old desk chair with his right foot resting on his left knee.  He looked antsy to Louis, like he wanted to get down to business but couldn’t help checking in with her first.  “How are you?”

“I’m fine, sweetie.  How are you?”

Harry sighed and tugged his hair out of its bun.  He let it fall to his shoulders before tangling a hand in it.  “I’m all right.”

“Did you sign the paper for that nice young man I sent?” she asked.  Louis thought he could hear in her voice that she knew Harry hadn’t.   

Harry gave a humorless laugh and rolled his eyes.  “You mean, did I sign that paper for you?”

Anne chuckled right back.  “I take that as a no, then.”

“Listen, Mom,” Harry said, almost cutting her off.  He leaned toward the phone where he’d set it on the desk, nearly folding himself in half, so his face was inches from it.  “I’ve got Louis here, we’re, um, we’re on speakerphone, and I told him -- last night and today -- what I’m going to tell you now, which you already know…  I’m not going to sign.  And he won’t be changing my mind.  So, you should let him come back to Denver because there’s nothing for him to do here.”

There was a long pause.  Louis fidgeted on his leather seat, feeling increasingly awkward as the seconds ticked by.  Harry was the first to speak again.

“Are you still there?” he asked, his voice pinched with annoyance.  Louis felt his lips quirk almost into a smirk -- leave it to one’s mother to cause a relapse into childish petulance.

“Yes, dear,” Anne said, calm and cool.  “Yes, I am.”

“Well…”

“I think it’s for the best if Mr. Tomlinson stays out there until a decision is made.”

“A decision has been --”

“Until a different decision has been made.”

“Mom,” Harry huffed in frustration, a flush spreading across his cheeks.  Louis started staring pointedly out the window at the mountains, so as not to intrude more than he already was.  He knew his discomfort must be visible on his face, but he couldn’t get his eyebrows to relax.  Everything was too strained.

“Harry, we both know you are being entirely unreasonable about this.”

“I’m not being unreasonable at all!” Harry practically shouted, and Louis’s attention snapped back to him immediately, the emotion in Harry’s voice catching him by surprise.  Louis blinked.  Harry’s hands were trembling slightly where they rested on his thighs, and he took what looked like a deep, calming breath before he went on, his voice measured but tense.  “You are making this incredibly awkward.”

“Well, think about the awkward position you’ve put me in, dear.”

“What? You are unb--” Harry cut himself off when his voice started to rise again, his fists clenching.  He took another deep breath.  “Okay.  Fine.  But this is my property, a fact you seem hellbent on ignoring.  If Louis stays here against my wishes he’ll be trespassing, and I can have him removed.”

Louis felt a little flare of disappointment dart up his spine at the idea of Harry kicking him out.  What did you think, you were best fence mending buddies or something because of one afternoon?

“Yes, you could do that,” Anne said, and Louis could tell from the complete calm in her voice that she knew Harry never would.  Judging by Harry’s darkened expression, she was right.  

It struck Louis again, how powerfully attractive Harry was, even in anger.  Straight brows, slanting cheekbones, and soft, curving lips -- he’d never seen someone so handsome in real life, and he knew Zayn!  

How do people just go through the world like that?  What’s it like? he wondered.  Louis knew he was far from unattractive himself, but he couldn't help falling into idle, slightly envious thoughts of Harry in high school -- popular and sought after, turning things in his favor with a simple smile -- until he was brought back by the sound of his own name.

“Put Louis on, please,” Anne said, sighing.  “Not on speaker.”

Harry rolled his eyes but obliged, switching the phone off speaker and handing it to Louis rather forcefully.  Louis swallowed hard.  He felt self-conscious and also a bit helpless, like a pawn in a game where the parameters weren’t clear, one that he hadn’t even agreed to play in the first place.

“Hello,” he managed tentatively, pressing the phone to his ear.

“Louis, hi,” Anne said gently, clearly tired.  “I’m very sorry about the situation.”

“Uh -- that’s.  That’s all right...”

“I’m going to have to ask that you stay out there until this matter is settled,” she went on.  “I know you have things you were working on here at the office, but I’m assuming most of it can be done over remote connection?  You must have your laptop there,” she didn’t wait for a confirmation, “and I’ll have Zayn reassign anything that needs to be done in person.  I’m sure Nick can handle it.”

“Okay…”

“Otherwise, I want you to shadow Harry whenever you can.  As long as it takes.  Getting him to sign is your biggest focus from here on out, all right?”

Louis swallowed again, overwhelmed.  How was he supposed to complete his regular assignments while following someone around a giant fucking ranch?  “Yes, but --”

“I know it might take some time.  Don’t worry, you aren’t going to be evaluated based on that.”  Anne paused again, and Louis thought he could hear her shaking her head.  “It’s a complicated situation, but I need a physical presence there, reminding him that this isn’t just going to go away.  Understand?”

“Um, yes,” Louis said, despite the fact that now it felt like the situation was slipping completely out of his grasp and he was powerless to stop it.  He wiped his right palm on his thigh.  It had gone clammy with anxious sweat.   

“Thank you very much.  Believe me, your dedication is not going unnoticed.”

Louis bristled at that, his heart rate spiking.  It just so happened that he had no family in Denver, no significant other, no pressing social engagements.  Not even a bar league kickball team or some kind of weekly volunteering stint at the local humane society, but what if he had?  What then?

“I don’t have --”

“We’ll pay you double time while you’re out there, Louis, and anything you purchase in terms of clothing or food, anything like that at all, it will be reimbursed.”

“Okay…” Louis said reluctantly, his eyes wide.    

“Now, could you give the phone back to my son, please?” Anne asked.  “I need to tell him I love him before I hang up.”   

Louis handed it over without a word, too dazed to pay attention to the rest of their exchange.  I’ve just been -- I’ve been fucking force-moved to Wyoming for the foreseeable future, he realized, his eyebrows knitting together, a flicker of impotent rage lighting in his belly.  All of his frustration from that morning came roaring back.  How the hell…

When Louis finally turned his attention back to Harry, he was sitting calmly with steepled hands.

“Well, welcome to the Lonely Rose Ranch, Louis,” he said.  His deep, rumbling voice was cut with only a hint of sarcasm.  “We should probably get you settled in.”

Chapter Text

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.

Stop.

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.

Weird.

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.”

“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...

Holy shit.

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.

Niall nodded.

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.

Fuck.

“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?  

Chapter Text

Louis scratched his stomach idly as he stared into the open refrigerator.  A block of cheddar, half a can of refried beans, some unwashed spinach and three different kinds of apples…  Mrs. Burden had stopped leaving plates of food out for him, probably expecting him to fend for himself now, and it was so hard not living off of microwave dinners and restaurant meals.  Louis huffed, trying to bargain with his grumbling stomach.  Four more hours until supper with the ranch hands.  Maybe there’ll be chili.

But he was starting to feel a bit sick with hunger, and the stash of junk food in Harry’s pantry -- Niall’s stash of junk food, Louis had eventually realized -- had finally run out.  Louis made a face as he reached for the cheese, eyes getting caught on an old scar on his wrist.  A burn, from some poorly-wired electric stove in Romania.  Or Albania?  Maybe Long Prairie.  His whole rootless life seemed to run together as he got out the bread and mayonnaise, resigned to a cheese-sandwich-on-the-go existence.

Law school, he reminded himself.  Law school, career, real life.  The Lonely Rose Ranch was just an interlude, a weird limbo presided over by an even weirder demigod.

“Hey.”

Louis looked up as he slathered mayo on a slice of whole wheat bread, and speak of the Devil.

“Harry,” he said, faint note of surprise in his voice.  Harry didn’t usually come in for lunch -- he tended to make a sandwich in the morning and take it out with him to eat in his truck or in the grass by his horse, hands dirty.

They hadn’t seen much of each other for three days -- Saturday Louis had spent mostly in his room, nursing a hangover and pretending to “get caught up on some work.”  Really it had been Netflix and headphones and a big bag of over-salted pretzel rods.  Sunday he’d gone into town to do some more clothes shopping, forgetting that a lot of places would be closed.  Church was a thing here.  The last time Louis’d been in one, it had been in Denver, and it had been a nightclub.

Monday he’d had to work again, this time for real.  He’d managed to mostly avoid Harry, though, which meant that he was also ignoring his main assignment.  Anne had called him personally on Monday night for an update.  “Not budging,” he’d said, and couldn’t say much more.  She told him to keep at it, be the physical embodiment of the multibillion dollar deal that was dogging Harry’s steps.  Three seconds after they’d hung up, Louis had heard the phone ring across the hall in Harry’s office.  A slightly raised voice.

Now Harry walked into the kitchen, cheeks ruddy with windburn and his hands in the pockets of the Carhartt jacket Louis had worn.  His boots were heavy, and he looked at Louis with hooded eyes.

“What brings you to the house?” Louis asked.  “Need a snack?  I have a pretty gross sandwich here; I was just thinking of adding some cold refried beans to it.”  He waved his lumpy cheese-bread in Harry’s face.  “Mmm.”

Harry’s eyebrows went up and he let out a startled laugh.  “Tempting,” he said, rubbing his chin with a big, calloused hand.  “But I think I’ll pass.”  There was a weariness in his voice.

Louis sucked his bottom lip into his mouth and let his gaze drop.  He had vertigo again -- Harry was so disorienting.  Hot, rugged rancher during the week, but at Liam’s Saloon he’d been… the image came rushing back into Louis's mind.  He'd been so dandied up, so fucking feminine, hips swaying.  And no less himself.

Louis still couldn't believe he'd refused to see that part of Harry at first.  He realized belatedly what a hypocrite he'd been, griping to himself about heteronormativity when he'd been the one assigning people roles left and right.

On Saturday, while on his way to the bathroom, Louis had caught a glimpse of Harry swanning about the living room in a very short silk dressing gown.  But Monday it had been on with the worn denim and the rough leather work gloves, and Louis had no idea what to do with him.  He was wildly attracted to him, obviously.  The oddly harmonious juxtaposition of Harry’s masculine and feminine sides was driving him crazy; it was so endearing, seeing scratched nail polish on his hardworking hands, seeing him campily bump hips with Niall on his way out to the barn to brand and clip cattle.  But Louis didn’t know how to respond.  He wondered how Harry saw him, whether he was acting friendly out of obligation now and silently gritting his teeth.  Wondered how that drunken dance would have gone, had he not ruined the moment.

“So,” Louis said, taking a bite of his sandwich.  He’d cut the cheese too thick; it took an effort to chew.

“So,” said Harry unconcernedly, rooting around in the fridge for some orange juice and drinking it straight from the carton.  Louis tried not to stare at his throat as he drank.  Harry wiped his mouth and put it back, shutting the refrigerator door and leaning on it, hip popped.  “I was about to go check on the heifers again, and wondered…”  The edges of his lips fluttered up, and he shifted his weight.  “Jolene likes visitors.  I think I said.”

“Yeah, you did,” Louis answered, smirking as he remembered Harry’s blush and the feel of his own body, hard but still languid with sleep.  No brain-to-mouth filter.  “I can recall the moment with perfect clarity.”

“Cherished memories,” Harry joked, and they both grinned.  The air suddenly seemed a bit lighter.  “So…” he asked, smiling fully and toying with the zipper on his jacket.  “Want to meet her?”

“Of course,” Louis answered.  “Obviously.  Take me to the famous pregnant cow, Styles, right away.”

Harry laughed, eyes twinkling.  “You can bring your gross sandwich.”

Louis donned his old pair of women’s wellies again, this time dressed in jeans and a Denver Broncos hoodie he’d given in and bought at Walmart on Sunday.  He was comfortable, but he wished he had some of his own clothes with him.  So far he’d either looked like a frump or an asshole in a suit.  Maybe he could ask Zayn to break into his apartment and FedEx him his black skinny jeans and a couple of decent tops.

“Why?” he imagined Zayn’s suspicious voice in his head.  “Who are you trying to impress?”

Louis sighed.  He definitely wasn’t ready to try to explain Harry Styles to anybody, especially when nothing had really happened between them.  Better to tough it out in his slightly too-big Wranglers.

Both of the trucks were gone, so Harry led Louis around the barn to the row of parked ATVs, stopping to give Bonnie a good tummy-rub on the way.  He climbed up on one, patting the empty seat behind him.

“Don’t you usually take a horse?” Louis asked.

“Yeah…”  Harry smiled up at him, squinting into the sun.  “You know how to ride?”  His smile immediately turned filthy, and Louis rolled his eyes.

“No, I do not know how to ride a horse,” he replied in a clipped tone.

“Well, I don’t have any double saddles,” Harry said, “and we’re not doing it bareback, so…”  He gave the seat two more soft pats, smug look on his face.  “Hop on.”

Louis sighed in annoyance, but he swung a leg across the black leather seat and wrapped his arms snugly around Harry’s waist.  “You’re pretty pleased with yourself,” he muttered.  Harry just hummed pleasantly in response, gunning the four wheeler’s engine twice before putting it in gear and steering them out toward the pasture.  Louis tried not to think about how close his lips had been to brushing the tanned skin of Harry’s neck under the wide brim of his Stetson.

Riding with Harry was soothing.  Louis let the vibrations wash over him as the empty grassland zipped by, mile after mile of it, lulling the undefined ache in his chest.  Finally, he could see a group of brown cattle on the horizon.  Mostly brown -- one was a brilliant red color, her body noticeably swollen under her shaggy coat.  They pulled up alongside the small herd, rolling to a gentle stop in the windswept field.  Harry helped Louis off the ATV.  He was wobbling a little, buzz still in his legs, and he blushed as Harry steadied him before leading him over to the red heifer.

“Jolene,” Harry said, “meet Louis.”

She seemed to consider Louis with her soft brown eyes, bright and friendly.

“Hi,” Louis said, not quite sure, exactly, how to go about addressing a cow.  Much less one Harry was gazing at with absolute unvarnished adoration.  Finally he said, "You’re the prettiest one.”

Harry swelled with pride.  “She is,” he said.  “You can pet her if you want.”

Louis reached out his hand to the large creature, and softly stroked the side of her face.  “She’s young, isn’t she?”  There was something in her eyes that he recognized, quivering and hopeful and almost human.

“Yes,” Harry breathed.  “Very young. Twenty-five months.”  He joined Louis, softly stroking her along her bulging flank.  She smelled of grass and dirt and the harsh wind.

“You’re the biggest two-year-old I’ve ever seen,” Louis said, with a smile.  “And she’s pregnant with twins?”

“Mhmm,” Harry nodded.  He started humming some song with a low, unfamiliar melody.

“My mom had twins a few years ago,” Louis said.  “A boy and a girl, with her new husband.  I haven’t seen them in person yet.”  He felt a sudden pang, thinking about them, imagining them growing up in Long Prairie in a bigger house than the one he'd lived in with his parents when he was a boy.  Carefully not thinking about how that tiny little house, with its green paint peeling and its front porch sagging and its warmth in the winter, was one he could never go back to.  There had been the split, the ugly upheaval that had turned into his college send-off, and that had been it for him and Long Prairie.  He wondered if the twins had discovered the sand dunes by the creek out behind the elementary school.  Maybe that was all developed now.

“Too busy to get home?” Harry asked.

Louis nodded, letting the easy answer be the truth.  “I was overseas when she got pregnant,” he said.  “I only found out when she was already seven months along.  But,” he cracked a smile.  “I guess she didn’t know right away.  Said she thought she was going through early menopause.  She’d, uh… had me pretty young.”

Harry chuckled.  “Well, that must have been quite the surprise.”  He knelt down to feel the place where Jolene’s calves were, checking their position in the womb and nodding to himself with satisfaction.  Louis looked at her warm face, placid but not blank.  Curious, definitely, and there was something so accepting in her eyes, an expression of complete trust.

“Brave little girl,” Louis murmured.  Oh, this is ridiculous.  I’m not falling in love with a cow.  “So,” he continued, clearing his throat.  He’d done some research on the internet about cow-calf operations and he wanted to make sure he had his terminology straight.  “She’s a heifer, which means that she hasn’t had any calves before, right?”

“That’s correct,” said Harry.  “Some of the others are also pregnant for the first time this season.  They’ll be calving before long; we’ll get ‘em into the barn to wait out the last few weeks.  But, um…  I thought you weren’t interested in ranch stuff.”  He gave Louis a sly look that was only slightly terrifying in its intensity.

Louis shrugged.  "I decided I should take an interest.  You know, because I'm here for work."

A cow lowed.  Harry chuckled and ducked his head, and Louis had the silly, fleeting thought that he'd never forget how Harry’s dimple looked at that moment, carved on his face in the natural light under rolling clouds.  "Right," Harry said.  "Work, makes sense.  How's that going for you?"

Louis frowned at him -- less of a frown than a cute scrunch of the nose, and Harry laughed.  Neither of them mentioned the deed.  They both went back to petting the red heifer, Harry still humming his low, soothing melody.  It was only a minute or so before Louis could feel him staring again.

"What?" Louis asked, lightly scratching the soft spot behind Jolene's left ear.  Harry had that look on his face -- that focused, knit-brow glare that made Louis's skin tingle, made him feel like Harry was evaluating him.  Eyeing him with intent.

"’S just a funny visual,” Harry said.  “Fancy lawyer man, standing in a field, pretending to care about my cows so maybe I’ll sign his paper…”

“Hey!” Louis gasped, truly affronted.  “Jolene and I have bonded!  This is real life, Harry Styles; I’m her new favorite and you can butt out.”  He turned back to Jolene, nuzzling her fawn-colored snout and whispering, “Don’t listen to him, honey; he’s trying to tear us apart.”

Harry stood and watched them, hip cocked, grinning with amusement.

"And I'm not a lawyer, remember," Louis added.  "Not yet, I mean.  I'm like the heifer of lawyers."

Harry let out a loud bark of a laugh at that and went to check on the other cows, speaking to them fondly.  Louis stayed with Jolene.  He smiled as he heard snatches of Harry’s one-sided conversations.  “You look lovely today, Germaine.  Yes, Barbara Walters, I see you over there.  Hello, Beyoncé.”

“When are you going to serenade them?” Louis called, searching for Harry’s head over the crowd of cattle.  “I was expecting a show, Styles.”

Immediately he heard Harry’s voice from the other side of the herd, putting words to the melody he’d been humming.

Come sail your ships around me

And burn your bridges down

We make a little history, baby

Every time you come around

His voice was lovely, low and a bit rough, but not unyouthful.  Exactly like a cowboy’s voice should sound.  Louis laughed when all the heifers started to low along with the song.  Harry stopped singing, letting out a little huff of indignation as he yelled, “That was supposed to be plaintive and romantic!”

“Quick Harry, run!  They think you’re wooing them!”

Louis laughed as Harry tried to press his way out of the excited cows.  He extended his hand without thinking; Harry took it and threaded their fingers as Louis drew him away, both pretending that they were in extreme peril.  One of the cows let out a disappointed-sounding moo, and sent them into fits of laughter.  They ran, stumbling, and collapsed dramatically on the other side of a tussock with their fingers still loosely intertwined.

“Shit,” Louis gasped.  “That was close.”  God, they’d run what -- fifteen yards?  He was out of shape.  Apparently his once-a-month lifting sessions at the gym weren’t keeping him in top condition.  He was breathing hard, starting up a sweat under his hoodie even as his extremities were feeling a bit wind-chapped in the chilly spring air.

Harry didn’t appear affected, of course -- at least by the exercise.  His eyes were bright and his neck flushed as he rolled over onto his side, hat falling off his head, thumb grazing purposefully for a moment over the back of Louis’s hand and up his wrist.  “They can get a bit affectionate,” he conceded, and fluttered his lashes at Louis.  “Don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been there.”

“Shut up.”  Louis took his hand away and used it to shove Harry’s shoulder.  Finally they settled with Louis on his back, staring up at the huge expanse of pale blue sky, and Harry on his side, staring down at Louis.  Clouds were on the move above them, distant and pristine.  “Why do you have a ranch, anyway?”

“My grandfather willed it to me.  I told you that.”  Harry’s fingers were now toying casually with the drawstring of Louis’s hoodie.  Louis could feel the little tugs, and tried to ignore the echoes of them in his chest.  It felt like Harry was tugging on his heart.

“I mean,” said Louis, “why aren’t you the heir apparent at TwistCorp?  You could be living in a penthouse with a Jacuzzi on the balcony, a fancy cappuccino maker in your kitchen and a cute personal masseur.”

“The ranch house is nice, though,” Harry said.  “I like it here.  I’m not after wealth; I told you that too.  I was serious.”

Louis hummed meditatively.  Easy to have that attitude when your family's loaded, he thought.  But he understood, too, that Harry wanted to be his own man.  “What about the Master’s degree, then?” he asked.  He let his gaze drop to the grass that was tickling his side, and picked the little seed tassels off the stalks as he felt a weird wave of vulnerability wash through him.  Princeton.

“Ah,” Harry said, finally flopping onto his back, head almost-but-not-quite nestled into Louis’s shoulder.  “You noticed.”

"Yeah.  And I'm nosy and curious, so..." Louis raised his eyebrows meaningfully at Harry.

Harry sighed, and stretched an arm out over his head, working his wrist idly.  "All right," he said.  “But it's not much of a story.  We moved around a lot when I was a kid and my mom was building her business, but I spent every summer here with my grandparents.  Roy -- my grandpa -- he was my dad’s dad.  My grandmother’s name was Rose.  My dad died young, so I think,” he breathed deeply, suppressing a slight shudder of emotion in his voice, “I think Rose and Roy were sort of extra invested in me, like, as a person.  And I loved it, loved the summers.  It always felt more real out here.”  He turned to Louis, eyes flickering over his chest before they landed on his face.  “Not that the city isn’t real life, too.  I just mean -- I felt more real, here.  More like myself.  And I had Niall and Mags.”

“Rose…”  Louis said.  “Niall mentioned her name, but I didn’t -- as in Lonely Rose?”

Harry smiled softly.  “Yeah.”

“But.  Why lonely?”  Louis frowned, trying to work it out, and Harry just laughed at the confusion on his face.

“They got together in 1946,” said Harry, “at a dance thrown by the Ladies’ Aid for World War II vets who had just come home.  My grandpa always said he’d been in love with Rose his whole life -- said he thought about her during the war, wished he could write to her.  Basically he was a nervous wreck.  But somehow he walked into the room that day, saw her standing on the side of the dancefloor and went right up to her and said --” Harry put an extra drawl in his voice, imitating his grandfather “-- 'You lonely, Rose?'  Cool as can be.”

Louis chuckled, feeling Harry’s delight at telling the story he must have heard a thousand times growing up.  “That line worked for him, then.”

Harry nodded, a bit starry-eyed as he blinked over at Louis.  “Three weeks later, they were married.”

Louis’s heart almost stopped.  “Fuck,” he said, voice low.  His pulse was pounding at his throat all of a sudden, and he felt weirdly short of breath, looking deep into Harry’s eyes.  He had to look away.  He had to look at the sky, had to feel untethered.

“They just knew, I guess.”  Harry went on, tone casual and conversational.  “So anyway, Grandpa bought the ranch and named it the Lonely Rose.  I managed to convince Mom to let me live here full-time during high school, and that's when I learned how to run the whole operation.”

Louis snorted.  “So, obviously the next step was Princeton?”

“Yeah…”  Harry forcefully expelled a sigh.  “Mom expected me to go and I felt like I owed it to her.  She wanted me to major in business, so of course I did English instead.  I stayed for the Master’s because I do kind of like literature, actually.  And because there was a guy.”

“Oooh,” Louis said, nudging Harry playfully in the ribs.  “There was a guy, huh?”

"Yep," Harry said, cheeks flushing with pleasure as he twisted out of the way.

"And..." Louis prompted.  He tried to pretend to himself that he wasn't fishing for information, desperate to know what had happened with Harry and this other man, whoever he was.  Was Harry still hung up on him?  Had they been in love?

"And..."  Harry echoed Louis.  He rolled over onto his stomach, resting his face on his forearms, smiling up at Louis like he knew exactly what was going on.  "Grandpa Roy died.  He willed me the ranch, which would have been my dad's, and I had to choose.  I chose the ranch."

"And the other guy..."

"Chose New York City."

Louis nodded contemplatively.  "That sucks; I'm sorry."

Harry just shrugged, running a hand through the grass in front of him and picking a bit at a fingernail as he made a face.  "It's fine," he said.  "He wasn't right for me anyway, you know?"

“Mhmm,” Louis said, letting out a resigned chuckle.  "I've certainly had my fair share of not-right guys."  His hands were fiddling with the stretchy hem of his sweatshirt, now.  He suddenly felt hot all over, realizing that he’d just officially come out to Harry.  He chanced a peek over at him and saw him smiling to himself softly, gazing down at the grass.

“So,” Harry said, biting prettily on his bottom lip.  Louis's breath stopped when he saw the blood rush in under the soft pink skin.  “We’re both gay...”  He parted the grass with his hands, almost as though he were about to braid it.

“Yep,” Louis said.  “Just two gay men, lying in a field.”

Harry giggled, green eyes flicking up to meet Louis’s before glancing away again flirtily.  “No one else here but an audience of jealous cows.”

Louis’s heart was pounding in his chest, a nervous, excited buzzing underneath his skin.  He could lean over right now and touch Harry, if he wanted to.  Harry would probably let him -- would definitely let him…  His breath came in short, thin little sips of air and he didn’t know what to do.  Something was restraining him.

“Wouldn’t want to provoke them,” he said.  It came out funny, almost like he was fourteen again and afraid his voice would crack.  Provoke them…  It’s Harry who’s provoking me.  His eyes, his fucking body…  Louis made a helpless, involuntary noise.  “The cows,” he clarified quickly, mostly for his own benefit.  “I wouldn’t want to do anything to provoke the cows.  They collectively have several thousand pounds on me.”

Harry just laughed again, fondly.

A fresh wave of embarrassment washed over Louis, and he looked away again.  "Also, um…” he sighed, annoyed at himself.  But he figured he should just say it.  “I regret underestimating you.  You know, when -- when we first met.”

Harry made a conciliatory noise and inched closer.  “I walked into the house afterward," he whispered, "and I was just about to tell Niall about the incredibly rude, incredibly hot man I’d met on the road.  But then there you were, standing in my living room.”

Louis’s breath caught in his throat, chest constricting.  “With the deed in my briefcase.”

“Yeah… yeah.”  Harry sighed, and shifted away again.  He ran a hand through his hair, letting out a frustrated grunt.

Louis licked his lips.  “So that’s a no-go,” he said.  His body was tight with wanting, muscles twitching to roll over and take Harry’s face between his hands.  But he kept perfectly still.

I’m just voicing what we’re both thinking, he told himself.  It’ll be less messy in the long run, not getting involved.  He dug his fingernails into the dirt at his hip, feeling the earth, not giving in to the twisting, churning sensation in this gut.

Harry didn’t say anything for a moment.  Even though they weren’t touching, Louis could tell that his body was tense.  Finally, he sighed again, deep in his chest.  “Still hot, though,” he muttered, and rolled away.

Louis sat up, feeling oddly hungover.  His head was fuzzy; there were bits of nature stuck to his jeans and he focused on picking it off, feeling his natural fussiness returning.  He regretted getting his hands dirty.  Harry started to walk over to the ATV, but Louis stalked back through the grass to Jolene.  He hugged her flank, resting his head on her back and feeling it rise and fall with her breath.

“You’re going to be a good mommy,” he whispered.

Harry’s big hand appeared in his vision a few moments later, petting her neck.  “That’s an excellent start, Louis,” he said.  “You have a lot of potential.  Should take a bovine psychology course from me sometime.”

Louis snorted and gave Jolene a final, fond pat.  The tension was cut, although the ache of the lost moment still lingered, and they were back to joking.  He supposed they could enjoy flirting, at least.  He nudged Harry with his elbow as he walked away.  “You are truly an awful person, Styles.”

If he wrapped his arms even tighter around Harry as they rode back to the house, breathing in the scent of his jacket collar, that was all right.  Nothing had to come of it.

Nothing would.

*

Wednesday night, the house was completely deserted when Louis wandered out for dinner.  He flicked on some lights and waited around for anybody else to show up before he gave in to hunger and made himself a bean burrito in the microwave.

He ate it in front of the TV in the living room, nursing a beer and planning out how the conversation would go when Harry came home and found him watching reruns of Criminal Minds.  How Harry might tease him about picking something from “old people-y CBS,” and then Louis could point out that he’d seen Harry watching The Good Wife that Sunday, which Harry would protest was an exception to his no-CBS rule, since it was the best show on TV.  Inevitably they would bond over their shared love of Diane Lockhart.    

It didn't happen though, because Harry never came home.

Louis waited up, telling himself that wasn't what he was doing.  Even as the local news came on, and then the late-night talk shows, he tried to pretend he wasn’t listening for the crunch of tires on the gravel drive, that he wasn’t longing to hear the satisfying chunk of a truck door slamming outside.

He went to bed a little after midnight with an uneasy heart, wishing he knew where Harry had gone even though it wasn't really any of his business.

It was just.

Friends…  Friends let you know when they’re leaving.  We are friends, aren’t we?  He flopped onto his back again and stared up at the ceiling in the dark.  Could have at least left a note…

By the time supper rolled around the next day, Louis still hadn’t seen another soul at the ranch house, not even Mrs. Burden, and he didn’t feel quite comfortable enough yet to try wandering out to the barn or the paddock to look for someone to talk to.  His unease had developed into a full-blown case of loneliness.  He felt anxious and antsy, and a little sad even.  In a slightly ridiculous and mopey way, as though he were about to find out that everyone else had been hanging out without him.

It got so bad, he even sought out Bonnie in the yard.

“I need to be around people, Miss Bon,” he whispered to her as he scratched behind her ears.  He leaned forward and gave her a hug, hanging off her neck a little bit.  “I do; I’m sorry.  I need more than just you…”

It was with that in mind that he made the decision to take the rental car into Sheridan and stop at Liam’s Saloon.  Maybe he could talk to Liam about going on a hike or two.

He was shrugging his shoulders into his coat, keys in hand, when he practically ran into Niall on the front porch.

“Whoa!  Hey, Lou!” Niall said, grabbing Louis by the shoulders and steadying them both.  “Just who I was lookin’ for!”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, where ya headed?  Thought you might be getting kinda lonely, what with Harry and them down in Cheyenne ‘til the weekend.  Maggie wanted me to ask you to dinner at our place…”

“Cheyenne?” Louis asked.  He could already feel the loneliness starting to leach out of him, just from Niall’s presence and his invitation.   

“Yeah, Harry didn’t tell you?” Niall said, surprised.  “Big ranch expo down there, this time every year.”  He gestured to the back of the house, toward the cattle corral and the outbuildings.  “We had a chute damaged in a storm a little while back.  Harry’s always hellbent on getting the best price.”  Niall’s face clouded over then, his brows knitting together.  He shook his head slightly, letting out a long sigh before continuing quietly.  “Not that we don’t need that right now, since we have to update the whole fucking barn...”

Louis shifted awkwardly, his eyes darting around and his own brow furrowed.  Niall seemed momentarily far away, distracted by his worry, and Louis wondered if he realized who he’d just said that out loud to.  They have to update the barn?  Like rebuild the whole thing?  It did not seem like the type of information that Harry would voluntarily share with him, and Louis wished he weren’t having so many thoughts about how the knowledge might affect the land deal.  Then he felt foolish for thinking that way.  It shouldn’t feel like a fucking betrayal; you’re here to do a god damn job.

“Uh,” he said finally, his strangely conflicting guilt making him desperate to get away from the subject, “well, I was just going to head to Liam’s, but if you…”

“Yeah!  Come on over!” Niall said, his eyes lighting up as his attention snapped back to Louis.  “It’s Maggie’s turn to cook, so that means spaghetti.  Just follow behind the truck?”

About twenty minutes later, Louis was pulling the rental up in front of Maggie and Niall’s.  He was surprised to find that they lived right in the middle of Sheridan, on a tree-lined street with curbs and sidewalks and close neighbors.  He’d pictured them in an old white farmhouse, not far from Harry’s.  But this was nice.   

“Maggie likes to be near the school,” Niall explained, as though reading Louis’s mind.  He twirled his key ring around on his finger while he waited for Louis in the driveway.

They had a beautiful Craftsman-style house, with a nice stone porch and a sloping roof.  Lots of eaves.  Niall brought him in through the side door.  

“Margarita!  Hello!” Niall called out, as they trooped up the half-flight of stairs into the kitchen.  “Your husband is home!  I brought a guest, like you requested.”

Maggie was sitting at the kitchen table with a tattered paperback YA novel that looked like it belonged to the school.  She rolled her eyes affectionately when they came into view.

“Hi, Louis,” she said, smiling at him warmly and getting up to press him into a hug.  She turned to Niall afterward, crossing her arms.  “You smell like cowshit, dear.  Dinner is ready.  Please shower so we can eat it.”  

Niall bobbed in and kissed Maggie quickly on the cheek before darting up what Louis assumed was the back staircase, muttering in mock indignation as he went.  “What a reception!  I cannot believe!”

“You want a beer?” Maggie asked, opening the fridge.  

“Please.”

She grabbed two, handing Louis one of them before nodding toward the living room.  “Come on.  I’ll give you a little tour of the downstairs.  Doesn’t take long.”

A few minutes later, after brief stops in the living room and dining room, they were in Maggie’s little office.  One of its walls was almost entirely covered in framed photographs, and Louis was staring at them in open fascination.

There were so many of Maggie and Niall with Harry, at so many different ages, and Louis couldn’t even lie to himself anymore about who he was most interested in looking at.  He was trying to be subtle about it, but he thought there was a knowing glint in Maggie’s eye.   

“When was this?” he asked, pointing to a nice 8x10 of Harry and Niall.  They were spread out side by side in the back of a red pickup, their legs crossed at the ankles, hands under their heads as they craned their necks to smile at the camera.

Maggie came a little closer, furrowing her brow.  She made a small clucking noise of recognition.  “Oh, that’s the night before Harry left for Princeton, actually.  We were eighteen...  I love that one.  I took it.”  

Louis nodded.  He’d thought it must have been at least ten years ago.  They were young in the picture; their faces didn’t quite look finished.  Harry’s body was far less substantial.  Slight, like he was still a boy.  

“They cried that night,” Maggie said fondly, breaking into a grin.  She pointed at Harry, chuckling, and Louis leaned in.  “Harry’s right about to, in this.  You can always see it in his nose.”

Louis laughed softly with her, something bittersweet pulling at his heart when he got a better look at the smile on Harry’s face in the picture and saw how fragile it was.  

“Did you cry?” he asked.  He hadn’t cried when he left for college until he was alone in his dorm room for the first time, waiting for his roommate to finally show up.  Then he’d felt unmoored.   

“Nope,” Maggie said easily.

“Yeah, well, you would now!” Niall announced from where he’d appeared in the doorway.  He beamed at Louis.  “She’s gone soft in her old age; I caught her crying over a Calvin and Hobbes Anthology the other day.”

Maggie made a sound of protest and crossed her arms over her chest, giving him a look.  “The series of panels about the dying raccoon is very emotional, you butthead!”

“Yeah, I know,” Niall laughed gently, running a hand through his damp hair.  He thumbed over his shoulder.  “I put dinner out on the table.”

“Oh, thank you,” she said, walking over to him and kissing him on the cheek.  She smiled down at the blue mesh shorts he’d put on after his shower.  “What’s this?  My favorite shorts for dinner?  Are you trying to distract me?”

Niall cackled, spinning around and heading into the hall.  “Listen to this woman, Louis!” he called back to them as he walked to the dining room.  “Just listen!  Do you hear what I have to deal with?  All she does is objectify me!”

“He has beautiful calves,” Maggie said very calmly, shrugging at Louis and following behind her husband.  “I’m not sure what he expects me to do.  Ignore them?”

“How long have you two been together?” he asked in amusement, as they all sat down at the table.

“Junior year,” Niall said proudly, passing Louis a plate of spaghetti.  “Married since ‘07!”

Louis thought of the wedding photos he’d seen on the wall.  Maggie beautiful in beaded ivory and Niall dapper in his tux.  Harry, so handsome, with his arms around them both.  

“Who did Harry stand up for?” he wondered aloud.  

“Both of us,” Maggie said with a small, quirking smile, the same knowing look from before.

“It’s still illegal here?” Louis asked.  “For --”

Niall made a grunt of displeasure, shaking his head and sighing.  “Yep.  Better change in the next couple of years…  I swear to God...”

Maggie regarded Louis thoughtfully, taking a sip of her beer.  “Do you think you want to get married, Louis?  At some point?  Start a family...”

Louis shrugged and smoothed his cloth napkin across his thighs before picking up his fork.  “If I found the right person.”

Louis didn’t worry about it all that much, usually.  He was truly fine on his own for the most part.  Even after several summers of his friends’ constant engagement announcements and weddings, and now, all the babies, he hadn’t felt pressure to follow suit.  He’d never gone into a panic about being left behind.  It wasn’t that he didn’t want it, but he definitely wasn’t going to force it.  He didn’t want to settle.   

There was something about Maggie and Niall, though.  Their easy banter, and the charming way they were showing off for Louis just a little.  It made a touch of jealousy creep in.  Louis suddenly wanted someone of his own whose beautiful calves he could refuse to ignore.

Harry’s words from Louis’s first dinner at the ranch echoed through his mind, resonating more fully now.   

They’re like my relationship model.  If I ever get married, that’s what I want to have.

Harry would be such a host, Louis thought, squirming in his seat and flushing slightly at the realization that he’d automatically begun to picture the two of them together in his head.  He couldn’t stop, though.  He kept imagining Thanksgiving at the ranch, Harry all dressed up and fussing over the place settings.  How he’d maybe swat at Louis’s hand when he mislaid a fork, but then smile at him.  Or how they’d have people over for drinks, and Harry would make some kind of ridiculously frou-frou cocktail while complaining contentedly to everyone that Louis almost got him the wrong kind of mint leaves at the store.  This line of thinking was getting increasingly and painfully dangerous.  Louis needed to stop.  

“Does Harry want kids?” was what ended up coming out of his mouth next, and he almost face-palmed in mortification in the aftermath.  He started bolting his spaghetti, ignoring the blatantly delighted eye contact that Maggie and Niall were making.

“Absolutely he does!” Niall said happily.  He looked at Louis and raised his eyebrows suggestively.  “Just has to find the right person…”

It wasn’t until Louis was in his rental car on the way back out to the ranch that it occurred to him he’d been doing the completely wrong sort of reconnaissance during the dinner.  They’d talked about Harry all night, and it hadn’t even crossed his mind to ask about the oil and the property and his motivation for refusing to sign.  He hadn’t even considered gently pressing for more information about the barn.  Louis had a split second moment of doubt in which he wondered whether the Horans were befriending him to neutralize him, to make him feel guilty about doing that exact sort of thing, and then immediately felt horrible about it.    

What on earth are you doing? he asked himself after he’d parked the tiny rental, resting his forehead against the steering wheel, his thoughts and feelings disorganized and swirling.  He sat there for several minutes before he was able to shake it off and get out of the car.  He went back inside Harry Styles’s house, reminding himself repeatedly that it was not his home.

*

The temperature shot up into the high seventies the following week, a little late April heat wave, so Louis set up a workstation on one of the chaise lounges in Harry’s side yard to take advantage while he could.  There was a bit of a glare on his laptop screen, but the wifi miraculously reached and there was an external electrical outlet available so his battery wouldn’t die.  Harry’s cute set of lawn furniture even had a tiny table for him to set his refreshments on.  It was ideal, really.

Look at you, Louis thought, self-satisfied as he gazed past his computer to where his feet were crossed at the ankles and to the lovely backdrop of the mountains beyond.  Maybe he didn’t miss Denver all that much after all.  Here he was, typing away productively on his computer and enjoying the great outdoors at the same time.

And Louis needed to be productive, what with the way he’d been letting things slide since he’d gotten to Wyoming.  Just that morning Nick had emailed him rather smugly, asking if he could use some help reviewing the testimony in the latest Hopkins-Harrington depositions.  Louis had declined -- the Hopkins-Harrington case was his baby, and Grimshaw needed to back off.  But his palms had gone sweaty and his chest had tightened at the suggestion, like it used to in college whenever he realized his internal procrastination meter had failed him on the amount of time he needed to complete an assignment, and he’d started too late to avoid an all-nighter.

Louis had worked steadily all morning and through lunch, so his anxiety was starting to ebb slightly, but he was having trouble staying on task now that he could hear Harry and Niall and a bunch of the other wranglers around the back of the house.  Apparently having the time of their lives.

Louis glanced at the digital clock on his laptop and scowled.  

3:30 p.m.  What is going on?

The staff was usually spread out all over the ranch this time of day, not clumped together in one place.  Unless they were moving cows…  Louis couldn’t hear any audible moos coming from that part of the property, though.  All he could make out was Niall’s indecipherable, but clearly triumphant, crowing.

It was followed by a roar of laughter, Harry’s voice booming out above the others’.

Louis shut his computer.

I’ll just investigate quickly.  Maybe ask them to keep it down.  

The way his wellies bounced off each other as he hurried around the house toward the corral turned his normally efficient stride into something much closer to a waddle, and he had to tamp down the feeling that he was an exasperated mother on her way to scold her kids.  

“Okay, okay, here’s Dougie Llewellyn,” Niall was saying as Louis approached the holding pen.  He was holding a length of coiled rope with a lasso on the end and clearly struggling to suppress his laughter.

Louis looked through the fence at the other men.  Harry, Roby and Hank were off to Niall’s right, their faces flushed and eyes slightly wet, like they’d been laughing for quite some time.  Something about the tense stillness of their ribcages and the frozen smiles on their faces made Louis think they were just barely holding more of it in.

He was right.

All it took to set them off again was Niall clearing his throat and repositioning his body so that his feet were planted wide and his right arm was raised, holding the lasso over his head.  He clutched the coil of rope down by his left hip, his arm tensed in a way that made it look like he was about to quick-draw a gun.  

Louis had to fight not to join in, despite having no knowledge of this Dougie Llewellyn that Niall was impersonating.  It was hard not to laugh, though, when Roby was literally slapping his thigh and letting out weird little hoots and Hank had gone so red he looked like a delighted tomato.  

“He always --” Harry choked out, nearly incapacitated and wiping at his eyes.  He imitated Niall’s imitation, putting his hand on his hip in a manly fashion before doubling over again.  “He always does that thing…” he gasped, “like -- like what are you going to do Dougie, shoot it if you can’t rope it?”

Niall looked incredibly happy with their response.  He stood there coiling and uncoiling his rope with practiced flicks of his forearm.  

“Guys, you didn’t even let me get to the ‘Corrrrmbasss’ part,” he complained, grinning.

Harry clapped his hands loudly and threw his head back to let out another sharp bark of laughter, and Louis had to avert his eyes from the beautiful column of his neck.

“What’s cormbass?” Louis asked, announcing his presence and coming around through the gate.

They all turned to look at him, breathing deeply with hands on their guts, like they’d laughed to the point of a deep bellyache.  

Hank snorted and rolled his eyes.  “It’s a rather showy pronunciation of a cattle call.”

“Folks ‘round these parts tend to say ‘coombass’ to get a cow to come to ‘em,” Roby explained, stretching out the word in question, low and deep.

“Oh, is that so?” Louis asked.  He turned to Harry with his eyebrows raised, images of Harry on his horse in the middle of the road, refusing to move his cattle flashing through his mind.  His heart fluttered when he saw that Harry was already smiling and shaking his head ruefully, having anticipated Louis’s reaction.  “I thought folks ‘round these parts didn’t like to put any pressure on their precious little cowwies!”

Harry huffed out a laugh.  “I don’t like to pressure them when I don’t absolutely have to,” he stated, standing primly with his hands behind his back, “and to be fair, I would have been saying ‘huppa’ in that circumstance, anyway.”

“Huppa?”

Niall nodded, “Yeah, coombass is just to get ‘em to come.  Huppa is to drive them forward.”

“Look at you,” Harry said to Louis, bringing a hand up to shield his eyes from the afternoon sun.  Louis wished Harry didn’t always have to look like some kind of classically-filtered photograph at any given moment; it made Louis’s chest hurt.  “Learning so much all the time!  Bovine psychology, cattle calls.  Next thing you know, we'll get you roping better than Niall.”

Niall scoffed, “If he's out-roping anybody, it'll be you, that's for sure!”

“Oh yeah?” Harry asked, turning his attention back to Niall.  “Who won the Little Britches when we were ten?”

“Complete fluke, you loser, and you know it!”  

Louis drifted over to Niall, examining the lasso in his hand.

"Is it difficult?" he asked, genuinely curious.

"Just a simple throw?"  Niall enlarged the loop of the lasso and whipped it around his head several times, tossing it out into the holding pen and around the horns of the dummy bull that was sitting on the ground.  "Nah, it's not too hard.  Takes a little practice, though; you gotta learn to let the rope work for you."

Harry appeared at Louis’s left shoulder, and Louis had to suppress a shiver at the low hum of his voice.  "Takes a little while to get a feel for when to release it."

Niall walked over to the dummy and removed the rope.  He handed it to Harry, who tossed it out gently and then coiled it neatly, his forearm turning over quickly.

"That's one of the keys, really," Harry said, placing the coil in Louis’s hands.  "You're not really throwing a lasso, as we tend to say, but releasing it.  Like, letting its weight and momentum work for you.  It’s that, and your hand during the swing."

Niall moved off to the side, standing up against the fence with Hank and Roby.  They were all nodding in sage agreement.

"You're right-handed?"

Louis nodded.

"'Kay, put your left hand here," Harry said, leaning in and positioning Louis's non-throwing hand on the coils.  He took Louis's right hand and moved it into place below the lasso's knot.  "So you want to have your throwing hand a bit back from the honda, ‘bout an arm’s length,” Harry extended Louis’s left arm to measure the correct distance, “and you hold the rope and the lasso loop.”  He chuckled.  “Lots of people think you just swing the loop around over your head, but you’ve got to have a hand on it.”

Louis nodded, watching, transfixed and barely able to listen as Harry adjusted the placement of his fingers on the rope until he was satisfied, little sparks moving across Louis’s skin.  Harry was standing so close, and he was so warm from the sun, a little tang of sweat clinging to him.  Louis wanted to be enveloped by that.  He wanted to be enveloped by Harry.

Still hot, though.  Louis’s heartbeat kicked up another notch as Harry’s words echoed through his mind.  He peeked up at him, at his pretty green eyes in the sunlight, and wondered over the fact that someone like Harry had even admitted to finding him attractive.  Was Harry affected by their proximity too, then?  Did he feel hyperalert, yet somehow distracted by it at the same time, just like Louis?

“... like tossin’ a pizza, I always say,” Niall was supplying, from the fence.

Harry snorted.  “All right, thank you for your culinary input, Horan.”  He frowned down at where Louis was holding the lasso, chewing on the inside of his lip.  “You know what, why don’t we set the rope down for now…”

This suggestion was met with a chorus of groans from the wranglers.  

“Oh, Jesus Christ, Styles,” Hank grumbled under his breath, “you’re not gonna have ‘im doin’ a butterfly or something, just let ‘im throw!”  

Harry shot them a grumpy look and then turned back to Louis, taking the rope so he could set it on the ground.  Louis couldn’t have cared less what the wranglers thought, because next Harry was placing a gentle hand on Louis’s right wrist and applying light, lovely pressure.  The tips of Harry’s long fingers were cold against Louis’s skin, and his breath caught slightly at the touch, stuttering more as Harry lifted his arm into the air above his head.  

“So...” Harry said, biting his lip like he didn’t know if he should really continue.

Louis nodded to indicate that he should, hoping that the rise and fall of his chest wasn’t too noticeable.  Just breathe.  Breathe.

“You should think of the back of your hand like it’s the face of your lasso loop,” Harry explained with a small smile, guiding Louis’s arm in a circuit over the top of his head and sending jolts of electricity down his spine.  “So when your hand turns over, so should the loop.  And you want to turn it over, sort of rotate it just like this, right as it’s in front of you, when you start the swing... ”

He raised Louis’s arm up again, to repeat the motion, easing his wrist through the proper positions.  Louis went almost dizzy from it.  He felt shaky and hypersensitized, almost achy with anticipation.  Like he was Baby in Dirty Dancing, waiting for Johnny to run his fingertips down the skin on the inside of her arm.  Louis curled his toes in his wellies.  Just the thought of Harry touching him like that almost made him shudder.  

It’s not going to happen.  It can’t happen.  

Harry bent down and picked up the rope.  “Not too big of a gap between your grip and the honda,” he reiterated as he repositioned it in Louis’s hands.

“So the honda’s the knot?” Louis asked, finally finding his voice.  He adjusted the rope in his hands, trying to get a feel for it.  

“Oh!” Harry said.  He looked adorably sheepish over using cowboy jargon.  “Yeah, or the hondo.  Just depends on who you’re talking to.”

“Hondo, honda, ” Louis said with a shrug.  He swung the lasso above his head once to test it out, trying to pretend he felt completely casual about this interaction they were having.  “Cormbass, coombass.”

Harry laughed softly as he corrected Louis’s form for another turn of the rope, making small adjustments to the angle of his wrist and elbow.  “Exactly,” he murmured.

He took a step back from Louis and nodded.

"At the bull?" Louis asked, raising his chin at the dummy.

"Might as well try," Harry smiled.  "Just let it go right out in front, after your wrist turns over."

Louis whirled the lasso around his head.  Once, twice, three times and then he let it fly.  The loop landed surprisingly close to his target, thwapping into the dirt with a dull splat, like limp spaghetti against a linoleum floor.

They both gave a happy cry and looked at each other in delight, before turning toward the peanut gallery for approval.

Louis's heart skipped a beat.

They were alone.  At some point in the midst of Harry’s instruction, Niall and Roby and Hank had wandered off and Louis hadn’t even noticed.  Louis could tell by the way Harry's posture had tensed that he was just as surprised.

Louis coughed into his fist.  The achy anticipation from earlier zipped through his veins again.

Get a grip; it isn’t like you’ve never been alone before.

“Try again?” Harry said, almost shyly.  He prised the rope out of Louis’s hands and coiled it up in the same efficient manner he had before, quickly returning it to him.  “That was much better than I expected.”

“Oh really?” Louis asked, falsely affronted, pouncing at the opportunity for mock confrontation.  Anything to distract him from the persistent tug between the two of them, even over-the-top flirting.  He wasn’t quite thinking rationally.  “Wow, glad you have so much confidence in me, Styles.”

Harry shook his head slowly, grinning at Louis.  “Well, it was really more of a lack of faith in myself, I think,” he said, stepping back again so Louis had room to swing.  “Didn’t realize I was such an outstanding coach.”

Louis scoffed and rolled his eyes, swinging the lasso four times and then releasing it.  It hit the ground even closer to the bull this time and he pointedly raised his eyebrows at Harry.  After three more tosses, the third of which hooked one of the bull’s horns, Louis was feeling quite smug.

“What’s actually happening here is that I’m a natural,” he announced, when Harry brought the coil over to him once more.  “Next thing you know I’ll have like four hundred of those ginormous rodeo champ belt buckle thingies.”

Harry cocked his head to the side, his dimple deep.  “Maybe we’re just good together, hmm?  Did you ever think of that?”  He shook his head in feigned disappointment.  “Couple of semi-successful rope tosses and it’s already gone to your head, Tomlinson.  Forgetting all about the little people.  I’m wounded.  We could have been the dream team.”

“Semi-successful?” Louis demanded in outrage, ignoring the ridiculous warmth that spread through his body at the idea of him and Harry being a unit.  "Trying to undermine my confidence yet again!  What's so dream team about that?"

Harry crossed his arms over his chest and popped a hip, about to respond, when Mrs. Burden appeared at the other side of the paddock, clutching the end of a rope and looking incredibly harried.

“Harry Styles, I need you to take this beast off my hands right now!” she hollered, yanking Bonnie into view and struggling to open the gate in front of her.  “She’s following me around the garden, demanding attention and I can’t get anything done.”

“Okay, okay,” Harry laughed as the donkey burrowed into Mrs. Burden's side, nudging at her hand until it rested on her snout.  Harry patted his thighs.  “C’mere Bonnie!  C'mere Bonnie Lass!  Come here to me, girl.  Mrs. B has some zinnias she wants to plant.”  

Bonnie threw her head happily and clomped over to Harry, stopping right in front of him and lowering her neck, hinting at what she wanted.  Harry chuckled and buried his hand in her forelock, tugging and scratching.  “Have we been neglecting you, girl?” he asked.  "Hmm?"

Louis laughed and moved in to pet the donkey himself.  She made a sound of pleasure, something between a whicker and a dog bark -- remarkably like the honk of a goose.  Harry’s eyes were full of twinkling fondness when their eyes met above Bonnie’s head, and it dawned on Louis that he didn’t think he’d seen Harry quite so relaxed since he’d gotten back from Cheyenne.  He’d been a little moody and distracted, heading off to bed early every night with a frown, and Louis felt a little pang inside at the realization that he’d missed this version of his host.

“Maybe you should practice on Bon-Bon here, since you’re already such a hotshot roper,” Harry said, rubbing behind her ears.  “Although I suppose it wouldn’t be much of a challenge, since she’ll want to walk toward you anyway.”

“Well, that’s pretty much been my experience with cows, too,” Louis said with a shrug, tapping Bonnie gently on her snout.  “Seems like the problem is always trying to get them to leave.”

Harry laughed, “Oh your vast experience, huh?  What, last week when I was engulfed by the heifers?”

“I encountered more than a cow or two before I came to Wyoming, okay?”

Harry looked mildly skeptical, but also highly amused.  “Oh, I see.  So you’ve been hiding your vast storehouse of cattle knowledge this whole time?  Letting us think we’re educating you on a topic you’re already familiar with?”

Louis shrugged and smirked.  “Didn’t want to show off or anything…”

There was a brief pause while they both stood stroking Bonnie’s ears.  

“Was it in Minnesota, then?” Harry asked.

“Hmm?”

“Where you encountered these other cows?”  

Louis smiled.  There was the tiniest hint of jealousy in Harry’s tone, like he didn’t want Louis to have had any positive cow experiences on any other farming establishments, and Louis tried not to find it too endearing.  He tried not to let another thing worm its way to his heart.  

“Romania, actually,” he said, letting out a little laugh and shaking his head at the memory.

Harry looked at him expectantly.  Eagerly, really.

Louis shook his head again, snorting and rolling his eyes.  

“What?” Harry pressed.  “What happened?”    

“Okay,” Louis laughed, running a hand over his face and shrugging like he was reluctant to explain, even though really, he was happy to.  “It’s not that great of a story, but um…  It was when I was in the Peace Corps in Pitești.  Or like, outside of Pitești -- south of it.  It’s sort of in central Romania…  Anyway, I don’t know exactly why I got assigned to it, but somehow I ended up working for this field study for a couple of months.  Helping take groundwater samples in cow pastures and wheat fields.  It was about nitrogen levels and like, best farming practices.”  He waved a hand around, like it was too complicated to go into.  “Whatever.  Long story short, suddenly I’m in what I thought was an empty pasture, trapped in a Dodge Grand Caravan in the middle of a giant swarm of cows.”

Harry snorted out a little chuckle, still scratching at Bonnie’s neck.

“Their initial advance appeared to be slow,” Louis continued wryly, “but I was surrounded before I knew it, and these cows were persistent -- it was like they’d decided the car was their new metal best friend.”

Harry grinned, squinting into the sunlight so he could look directly at Louis. There was something about his expression that made Louis think this wasn’t the first time he’d heard about cows attempting to befriend a vehicle.

“Sideview mirrors crushed,” Louis went on, making a show of it with some sweeping arm motions.  “Tongue marks all over the windows.  Me, scared for my life.”

“How did you get out?” Harry asked, laughing softly and scuffing his boot in the dirt.  

“Well, my Romanian friend who I was taking samples with was still out in the field when it happened.  He was doing his best to distract the cows and rescue me.  Like running and waving and doing moos,” Louis said, pausing to show Harry what he meant.  “And then, at what seemed like the bleakest point, they suddenly moved off again.  Quicker than they’d come.  Back up over the rise in the field.  I don’t know if he was some kind of magical cow whisperer or something...” he paused and shrugged, smiling at Harry.  “Probably they just decided on their own.  I’ve heard that’s the best way for ‘em anyway.  You know, for their fragile cow psyches.”

Harry giggled happily, his eyes scrunched up at the corners and Louis’s heart fluttered.

“How did you pick?” Harry asked after a minute, playing with the fraying end of Bonnie’s rope.  “The Peace Corps, I mean…  Romania and stuff…”

Louis sighed.  He’d never really had a good answer for that, beyond his go-to joke about how speaking neither Spanish nor French had limited the options for where he’d be stationed, which was how he ended up in the Balkans, where of course he didn’t speak any of the languages at all.

He opened his mouth to say it, but stopped himself.  Harry was looking at him with hesitant but hopeful interest on his face, and for some reason it felt cheap to evade his question.  Louis knew that wasn’t really what Harry was looking for.

“I --” he gave a nervous laugh.  “I don’t really know, to be honest.  I wish I could say like, I’d always wanted to dedicate my life to service or something.  As far as Romania goes, I mean, they just happened to station me in Eastern Europe, pretty much.  But in terms of -- of deciding to do the Peace Corps…”  He shook his head.  “I don’t know.  I mean, I’d done Americorps, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life…  It sounds sort of bad, I guess, but it was like, another Corps!  Something to do… Some -- somewhere to go... ”

Louis was rambling a bit, but Harry was still listening intently, his expression free of judgment.  “I don’t know, I just…”  He let out another high-pitched chuckle and exhaled slowly.  “I picked it so I didn’t have to pick something else.  Something more permanent.”   

Louis blinked at Harry, a little in shock.  He’d never really told that to anyone before.  It was something he’d had unspoken knowledge of, inside himself.  The truth.  But he never really talked about it.  And maybe his parents knew and maybe Zayn did, but they’d never pushed him on it so specifically.  They’d just ask him, “What’s next then?  What are you going to do with your life?”  Which was of course the question he’d always most wanted to avoid.

“But now law school?” Harry asked.

“Yeah,” Louis murmured, wishing he sounded more certain.  Wishing that he truly felt more certain about it.  For the most part he did.  Law was a lot of logic and problem solving, and Louis loved problem solving.  Every once in a while he still felt like something was missing, though, a little doubt moving through his heart that he did his best to ignore.  But when he looked up into Harry’s face, beautiful and open, instead of feeling vulnerable, he felt reassured.  Like he could tell Harry anything.  

He laughed once more, petting Bonnie.  “Sometimes -- sometimes I get worried I’ll just keep falling into convenient things, and I’ll wake up and be forty-five and have done nothing at all.”

Harry made a soft noise of dissent, shaking his head.  “You’ve already done a lot, Louis,” he said, coughing into a hand.  “It’s okay to feel confused.  Everyone… everyone does.”

Louis nodded, wondering how they’d even gotten to this point and why suddenly everything felt so bittersweet and heavy inside him.  Wondering why he wanted to hug Harry tight and maybe never let go.  

You are absurd.

“Well, at least now I’ve almost successfully lassoed a stationary replica of an animal!  No one can take that away from me,” he said, attempting to lighten the mood.  To distract himself from all his troublesome feelings.  “Not ever.”

“You want to try again?” Harry smiled, letting Louis change the subject and nodding back toward the dummy.  He paused.  “Oh, but wait -- are you still willing to accept my guidance, now that you’re such a rodeo star?”

Louis rolled his eyes and heaved an approximation of a long-suffering sigh.  “I suppose I am.”

“Excellent!”  Harry trotted over toward the fence, where he’d left his beautiful brown Stetson on one of the posts.  His eyes were twinkling when he returned.  

“Oh boy,” Louis said, knowing what was coming.

“Gotta have you outfitted like a proper cowboy, I’m afraid,” Harry said gleefully.  His eyes moved over Louis’s body -- his ridiculous lady wellingtons, the basketball shorts he’d bought at Walmart, his ratty old white Hanes tee -- and lingered happily on Louis’s face.  

Louis’s heart lurched, his face flushing.  Still hot, though.

Christ.  It was more than that.  He could see it now in Harry’s eyes.  And Louis wanted it too.  He’d never felt so -- so special, really.  So courted, in a way.  He felt bright, inside and out, under Harry’s gaze.  

Harry lifted the hat, silently asking permission to place it on Louis’s head.  

“Only if you promise not to say something ridiculous when you put it on me,” Louis said, still trying to aim for a tone of weary tolerance, despite his galloping, twisting heart.  Despite the snap of electricity in the air.  “Like ‘howdy partner.’  Don’t say that.”

Harry giggled, biting his lip.  He fitted the hat on Louis’s head, adjusting it until he felt satisfied with the angle.  “Howdy partner,” he whispered when he was done, just like Louis knew he would.

Louis let a wet laugh punch out of his lungs, staring at Harry for several more deliciously excruciating beats before he forced himself to turn his body away and retrieve the lasso rope from the ground.   

This is so unfair, he thought, looking down at the coarse fibers of the twine where they rubbed against his skin.  If Louis ever slept with Harry Styles, the very last thing he’d ever want would be for it to be a one-off, and the knowledge of that made his heart feel like an anvil inside his chest.  

Because God did Louis want to sleep with Harry.

He clenched his hand into a fist around the rope and then opened it again.  Why was this happening to him now, in this place that he wasn’t even supposed to be?  How was he even supposed to do his job, when Harry made him feel this way?  Something hot and angry surged up into his stomach, making him feel almost ill.

Harry walked over to him, long and lean and sturdy as always.  Perfectly, infuriatingly attractive.  He looked down at where the rope lay in Louis’s open hand and ran a finger alongside it, across the top of Louis’s palm.

Holy fuck.

“Soft hands,” he whispered, slowly stroking Louis’s hand once more, and Louis’s desire intensified so sharply he almost choked on a gasp.  “Should really get you some gloves, if you’re gonna be a proper cowboy…”

“I have --” Louis said abruptly, dropping the rope and beginning to back away.  “I have to, um…  I just remembered.  I left my computer.  My work.  Outside.  I have to bring it inside.  Just -- just in case.”  

He stumbled his way over to the far end of the paddock, leaving Harry standing, stunned, a few feet from the dummy bull.  Bonnie was trotting about in the background.  

His hands were coated in nervous sweat when he finally reached the chaise lounge, and they trembled when he unplugged his laptop.  He felt so dizzy, he had to sit down and take several deep breaths.  

I need to get the hell out of here, he thought.  I really do.

*

Louis was still on edge when the sun started sinking, jittery as he paced through the guest room, trying to call Zayn.  Still in a slight state of shock from Harry touching his hands... caressing them.  He was feeling so off-center, too, thrown by the vague worries that had been unearthed in his chest by the talk with Harry about law school.  He'd gotten no work done, of course.  He needed to work, needed to stop thinking about Harry and the ranch in unrealistically idealized ways.  His clothes were spilling out of his open suitcase, papers strewn about and I really should clean up, he told himself.  It’s not like I live here.  It’s not like this room is mine.  He huffed in annoyance as he heard the three soft beeps that meant he wasn’t getting service again.

“Shit,” he muttered.  He’d have to use the landline in Harry’s office.

Louis stuck his head out the door and checked the hallway -- it was empty; he could hear overlapping conversation and the sound of forks and knives clinking on Mrs. Burden’s floral china.  Niall’s cackle of a laugh punctuated something Hank had said.  

Louis’s stomach grumbled.  Pot roast.  That's what smelled so good.  Maggie had knocked on his door earlier, chalk dust still on her hands from school.  “Dinner’s pot roast,” she’d said, with an easy smile.  “Peach fluff pie for dessert, you in?”  But Louis had declined.  Too much work.

Too much fucking work; he was getting behind.  Harry was distracting him.  He was making him think too much about the future, and not in the good, law school, an actual life direction sort of way that had been nice, comfortingly set in his mind.  It was so stupidly easy to imagine a home here, as though all the complications with the legal situation and Louis's enrollment at CU (and the fact that he and Harry weren't even together) didn't exist, or could be easily brushed aside.  A family home.  A pang shot through his heart.  Louis huffed, and shook his head.

There was also the sex thing.  Louis hadn’t jerked off in two weeks, plagued with inappropriate thoughts of Harry’s bare torso and long legs.  It was like a long, slow tease that was going nowhere, nowhere.  Accidental glimpses of Harry coming out of the shower, incessant morning erections and the vague ache in his balls all day long -- Louis had taken to wearing sweatpants to bed just in case, to protect Mrs. Burden’s sheets.  The worst part was knowing he could, if he wanted to.  He was getting everywhere with Harry but nowhere with the deed, and he could practically feel Anne breathing down his neck.

He slipped across the hall into Harry’s darkened office, not sure whether or not he was trespassing.

Zayn told me to check in, he reasoned.  It’s for work.

He caught the lingering scent of pipe tobacco again, and wondered if it was the ghost of Harry’s grandfather he was smelling.  This whole ranch is getting under my skin, he told himself.  I feel like a creep.  Stop daydreaming.  Just stop!  Louis just needed to get back to Denver, back to Zayn and the other known quantities he’d finally started building a life around.  Away from the all-consuming and terrifyingly confusing sexual and romantic frustration that was Harry Styles.  He would beg Zayn to send Nick out here to take his place.  Anything.

I do not want to learn to lasso.  That’s not me, anyway.  He felt his heart sink at the lies he was telling himself, feeling precariously safe as long as he could still paint a thin veneer of denial over his actual emotions.  I don’t want to have gloves and be a “proper cowboy.”  I want a fucking mocha latte and I want my clothes not to feel cheap.

Louis left the light off, still slightly guilty he was using the office without Harry’s permission and not wanting to draw anyone’s attention.  He picked up the receiver and listened for the dial tone before punching in Zayn’s cell number.  “Fucking pick up,” Louis muttered.  He had three projects that were overdue, and he needed to talk to Zayn about them.  He barely got internet out here; he needed to be back in the office.

“Malik,” Zayn said, voice oddly echo-y in the receiver.

“Yeah, it’s me,” Louis answered, tone clipped.  “Before you say anything about the last Hopkins-Harrington deposition --”

“I got Nick to cover that,” Zayn said.  “He finished it this afternoon, so you don’t have to worry about it.”

Louis suppressed a peevish sigh, pressing his lips together in annoyance and shifting his weight to one side.  “Did he.”

“Yes he did.”  Zayn voice had its I’m your boss timbre, which was reserved solely for when he wasn’t happy with Louis’s job performance.  Louis felt oddly glad to be hearing it.  He knew he should have probably been feeling a bit more homesick for Denver, but he really did miss Zayn.

“That is my case.  I was just about to say that I could finish up by tonight --”

“The Hopkins-Harrington case was yours, yeah.  Until you didn’t turn in your depo and suddenly it was thirty-six hours after your deadline and I hadn’t heard anything from you.  Then it became Nick’s case.  At least for now."

“Zayn,” Louis groaned, “can you please be my knight in shining armor for once and purchase me a plane ticket."

He waited, but Zayn said nothing.  Louis pictured him in his office, glasses on at the end of the day and eyebrows raised as he read through his afternoon’s emails, phone pressed to his ear, confident that Louis would elaborate on his own without any further prompting.

“It’s not like I enjoy missing work and falling behind,” Louis said.  “But I don’t have the same resources… fuck, I need to be back in the office.  Please.  Get Anne to send someone else.”

“Louis,” Zayn said, “It’s not a problem that I’m giving Nick a bit of your work.  Anne wants you in Wyoming.  You know how important this deal is to TwistCorp.  You’re being paid overtime wages for every hour you spend there, so I’m not sure why you’re so eager to -- ”

“Harry Styles is hot, okay?” Louis spat.  “Anne’s son.  The rancher.  He’s hot and he’s flirting with me and I cannot take one more second of it before I crack and sleep with him.”

He rolled his eyes as he heard Zayn’s raucous laughter on the other end of the phone.  Typical.  Typical, unhelpful.

“This whole thing is like a nightmare, Z," he said.  "Wyoming is a nightmare.”  Zayn was still laughing, and it spurred Louis on.  He sighed dramatically, rolling his eyes and tapping on Harry’s desk as he started to raise his voice, holding back a hysterical chuckle of his own.  If there was anything Louis loved doing, it was exaggerating his own despair.  He was performing for Zayn, just a bit, falling back into the pattern of their banter.  “There’s cow shit everywhere, first of all.  And I can’t do my work or get decent coffee.  Or sushi.  All the people here wear flannel.  I have to walk around in ugly jeans.  I hate this ranch.”  The door to the office creaked open just as Louis was repeating himself for emphasis.  “Fucking hate it here.”

Louis blinked, mouth dropping open as he saw Harry in the doorway.  He was standing unnaturally still, outlined in the soft, yellow light of the hall.  Calm and steady as ever, until Louis saw his face crack, expression sinking just slightly.

“Um...” Louis said, pressing the receiver of the phone to his chest.  His eyes went wide, left hand instinctively reaching out toward Harry, clenching around air.

“I’ll let you finish your call,” Harry said.  He shut the door.

The hurt in his voice lingered in the dark office, mingling with the pipe tobacco as Louis cursed himself.

 

Chapter Text

Louis woke up the next morning with a rotten feeling in his stomach and something warm and wet between his toes.  He groaned, disoriented, and threw an arm over his face to block out the harsh sunlight.  He was still in Wyoming, chasing warmth under one of Mrs. Burden’s faded crazy quilts.  Still in Wyoming and still on Harry Styles’s ranch, which was… not good.  Not good at all.  Harry had disappeared for the rest of the night and Louis had slunk back into the guest room, pissed off at greedy oil companies and Anne Twist for putting him in this position and that opportunistic little shit Nick Grimshaw for helping himself to his cases.  Louis had been assigned Hopkins-Harrington his first day on the job; it was always the first thing he picked up when he got to work and usually the last thing he put down at the end of the day.  He had been waiting almost a whole year for it to go to trial.  And now Nick Grimshaw was probably going to screw it up.  Fuck work.

Just fuck.

Also…  “Ungghh,” Louis groaned, his whirling brain stopping for a second to try to process the rough, tickling wetness that was now making its way up his ankle.  It was warm and a bit sandpaper-y.  Almost like a…

“Jesus Christ, Bonnie!” Louis startled as he opened his eyes to the sight of a full-grown donkey standing in his bedroom, licking at his bare feet.  “Harry!” he called.  “Niall!  Mrs. Burden!”  He tried to simultaneously wipe the spit off on the sheets and draw his feet under the covers as he sat up in bed, gathering the quilt around his bare torso.  “There is a farm animal assaulting me!”

He heard some banging.  A few seconds later Niall appeared in the doorway and immediately burst into a fit of hysterical laughter at the sight of Bonnie nosing under the covers, trying to get at Louis’s feet.

“Bonnie, those are my toes,” Louis grumped.  “They are for my personal use only.”

Niall cackled, avoiding piles of Louis’s dirty laundry on his way to the end of the bed and gently coaxing Bonnie’s head away from the object of her desire.  “The look on your face!  Fuckin’ classic.”  He ran a hand up Bonnie’s neck to scratch behind her ears.  She let out a loud, happy bray, the pleased expression on her donkey face indicating that ear scratches were what she’d been after all along.

“Ew,” Louis moaned, wiggling his toes as he drew back the quilt and gazed at the shiny layer of half-dried saliva on his feet.  “I thought you said she wasn’t allowed in the house.”  He made another noise of disgust in the back of his throat.  His voice was thin, and unnecessarily snappish.

Niall shrugged.  He seemed to notice Louis’s dark mood and eased gracefully out of his teasing laughter into a more conversational tone.  “Harry must’ve let her in for breakfast and forgot to put her back out,” he said.  He turned his face to the donkey’s and nuzzled her a little with his nose.  “Not your fault, pretty girl.  Who’s a pretty girl?”  Bonnie squealed with pleasure and trotted contentedly out of the room, Niall applying an affectionate swat to her behind as she went.  “Speaking of Harry…”

Louis sighed and put a finger to his eye, wiping at the sleep.  “What about him?”

“Oh, just…”  Niall gazed down at Louis.  “He went out early by himself, all crabby and distracted.  D’you know anything?”

“No,” Louis huffed, too defensive and overselling the lie.

“Mmm,” Niall said, casually.  He cocked his eyebrow and nodded to the door.  “Well.  I’m sure you’ve got work to do.  I’ll be around the barns if anything comes up.”

Louis almost rolled his eyes as Niall sauntered out.  He and Maggie, always with the knowing looks, always so sure they had everything figured out.  Louis huffed.  He gathered his knees together, making a little mitten out of the soft patchwork quilt and wiping abstractedly in between his toes.  “Well, they have no idea what’s going on,” he muttered.  Not that he had any better handle on the situation, really.  One little misunderstanding had sent him into a tailspin.

Suddenly all the fantasies of friendship and home he’d spun over the past few days tasted sour in his mouth, all the idle thoughts about Harry and the ranch and fitting into their group, being one of the regulars.  Let Harry and Maggie and Niall have their little trio.  Let them tease each other with their inane inside jokes.  Louis would get himself out of this somehow, go back to Wyoming and --

“Denver,” Louis hissed at himself, wiping the last of Bonnie’s spit away and kicking the dirty bedclothes into a pile at the end of the mattress.  “I will go back to Denver and work and law school and never think about Harry Styles again.”

He nodded, as though he’d actually come to some kind of decision.  As though he actually had any power in the situation to begin with.  In the back of his mind, the part that wasn’t caught up in his ridiculous, self-indulgent snit, he knew that if he flew himself back to Denver and showed up for work on Monday he’d be instantly dismissed.  Nick fucking Grimshaw would probably be flown out here to take his place, and --

Louis’s stomach lurched sideways as he imagined Nick getting to interact with Harry.  It actually made him feel a bit sick, because he knew Harry would be helplessly charmed.  When Louis wasn’t focusing on Nick’s many shortcomings, he could admit that the man was fun, funny, and even vaguely… attractive.  It was probably Louis’s fear of being the second-funniest, second-most-attractive (definitely second-tallest) gay man in the office that had stoked the flames of their rivalry in the first place.

Harry would fall in love with him immediately, Louis thought with a despondent sigh.  Their matching heights and legginess.  Nick would probably tease him in just the right way.

Louis ignored the sudden beating of his heart.  It felt like something in his chest was raising its hand, wiggling with eagerness and whispering, No he wouldn’t!  He’d go too far sometimes, make it all about him, all about the laugh…  I could do it better!  I could make Harry happy; I could take care of him…

The thought made Louis laugh bleakly as he gathered up the bundle of sheets and the quilt and nudged open the guest room door with his ankle, padding down the quiet hallway toward the laundry room.  Because, honestly, what a fucking hypocrite he was.  He had hurt Harry.  He had made his face crumple with disappointment.  Not Nick.  Louis had run his stupid mouth and said things he didn’t even mean -- things that were in some ways the opposite of what he really felt -- and he was completely and utterly ashamed of himself.

Louis dumped the laundry into Mrs. Burden’s big wicker hamper and spun on his heel, back to his bedroom to find his phone.  Harry.  He’d figure out how to fix it, but he wasn't ready to talk about the big issues that were starting to surface in his mind, throwing him off balance -- didn’t know how to, honestly.

First he needed some time to cool off.  He needed to get out of the ranch house and into some sufficiently distracting nature, probably.  He also needed to be with someone, to have someone’s attention.  Someone neutral, not too perceptive, who wasn’t too close to Harry.

He found the contact in his phone, feeling some of his nerves disperse as he gazed down at the friendly name.  Time to take Liam of Liam’s Saloon up on that hike.

*

A couple hours later, Louis was well and truly surrounded by nature, lost in the wild beauty of the Bighorns.  The rarified mountain air and bright sound of chirping birds was working to clear his head a bit, Liam an oddly comforting presence at his side.  They were both sweating in sleeveless shirts, listening to the trickle of still-melting spring snow as Liam guided them up a dirt path.  They’d parked his Chevy Silverado on Black Tooth Mountain near the edge of Harry’s land, by the stream that ran past the old, tumble-down cabin Louis had seen.  Louis could still follow it with his eyes, the dark ribbon snaking out over the plains, serving as the property line between The Lonely Rose and the Llewellyns’ holdings.  He gazed at it for a few beats, not bothering to follow the particulars of his conversation with Liam, who was chatting away about his favorite hiking trails.  They all had odd, Western names like “Old Folly” and “Frying Pan Lake."  Louis let the calming words wash over him as he gazed at clumps of blooming wildflower and bald outcrops surrounded by bright green grass.

“... and anyway, my grandad always says that even the rivers change course out here.  Why not the people?”

Change course.

Louis was jarred back into the conversation, feeling guilt poke at him even as he tried to ignore the source of it.  It wasn’t Harry’s fault he was suddenly terrified, second-guessing his decision to throw himself headfirst into law school.  “What?” he blinked.

“Like, don’t get stuck in a rut,” Liam said.  “You know, forge your own trail?  It’s sort of why I decided to go for my own business, open Liam’s Saloon.  It’s an adventure!”  He flashed Louis a big grin.

Louis picked up the thread easily.  “And you meet new people,” he said, gesturing at himself.

“Yup,” Liam nodded pleasantly.  “Grandad knows what he’s talking about.  Still sharp as a tack.  My favorite thing he used to tell me about when I was a kid was this old local legend, Lost Cabin Prospect.  Heard about it?”

Louis shook his head.

“Well, the Bighorns didn’t really have a gold rush like California, or a silver boom the Rockies.  But legend has it that Father DeSmet -- he was a sort of famous missionary out here, back in the 1800s; there’s a big lake south of Sheridan named after him -- claimed to anyone who’d listen that the Bighorns hid the richest gold deposits in the world.  And that he’d personally built a cabin for himself on top of a deep vein of gold, claiming it for the Catholic church even though he couldn’t mine it himself.  After he died, the location of the cabin was lost.”

Louis hummed with real interest for the first time, perking up at the idea of a hidden fortune.  “Is there a treasure map?” he asked.  “Like in the Goonies?”

Liam laughed.  “No, but I did go exploring for it when I was a kid.  There are a ton of old abandoned cabins out here.  Everyone who grows up near the Bighorns hears that story and at some point thinks they’ve done it, they’ve found the Lost Cabin gold.”  He chuckled.  “My sister actually used to buy chunks of pyrite -- that’s fool’s gold -- from the mineral shop in Sheridan for 30 cents apiece and leave them in deserted cabins for the little kids to get excited about.”

Louis smiled.  “I bet the kids are really cute about it.”

He let Liam take over the conversation again.  Apparently, he had a young son who was just getting to be old enough to start wanting to go on “expo-titions” to find the Lost Cabin.  Louis listened, but his thoughts inevitably wandered to Harry, and to the cabin next to the stream.  It’s like the real-life version of the legend, he mused.  An abandoned home sitting on top of the biggest oil reservoir ever discovered in Wyoming.  Louis wrinkled his nose.  Oil was so gross.  So noxious, and so were all the lawyers and execs and money-men that came with it.  Gold’s much more romantic.

Just then, they rounded a corner and Louis caught his breath.  Liam had led him into a dell, down to the shore of a tiny mountain lake.  The grass around the trail was dotted with sweet, white columbine.  The sun was shining.  The water of the lake was cold and clear, the clearest water Louis had ever seen in his life.

Liam smiled, seeing his reaction.  “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Louis slowly exhaled.  “I… yeah.  What’s the lake’s name?”

“Doesn’t have one,” Liam said.  “It’s too small, doesn’t even make it onto most of the maps.  But I call it Thinking Lake.”

“Because you come here to think?” Louis asked.

Liam flashed him a bright smile and two finger guns.  “Bingo.”

Louis snorted and shouldered his way chummily past Liam, bending down at the rocky verge of the lake.  He cupped a hand and dipped it in, splashing some water on his face and down his overheated chest.  It was ice cold, freezing him down to his bones and sending a chill right through him.  “Phew!” he gasped, shivering, as Liam laughed at him.

“Yeah, that’s just-melted snow.”

“Could’ve warned me,” Louis frowned.

Liam’s mouth dropped open a little, like he wasn’t sure whether or not Louis was really mad at him, but didn’t want to risk their new, still fragile friendship by teasing him back.  “I’m sorry,” he said immediately, bounding down the trail in his big hiking boots.  “I should have.”  His brown eyes were full of genuine concern.

Louis grinned.  He had Liam of Liam’s Saloon right where he wanted him.

“I dare you to jump in.”

Liam scoffed.  “Right.  My nuts would freeze off in like, thirty seconds.”

Louis just crossed his arms and raised his eyebrows, nodding toward the lake.  He was pretty sure Liam was the type who needed everyone to like him.  Which meant he was the type Louis could get to do stuff.  (Which was, in the end, a perfect distraction.)

“I’m not going to,” Liam said, as he started to unlace one of his boots.

“I think you are,” Louis answered, eyebrows still high, rocking back and forth on his heels expectantly.

“No, I’m not.”  Now both his socks were off, and he was pulling up the bottom hem of his tank top.

“What are you undressing for, then?” Louis asked.  “Going to proposition me, barkeep?”

Liam scowled.  “Fine, I’ll do it.  But no peeking.  I don’t swing your way.”

Louis rolled his eyes.  “Obviously I’m going to peek.”  He groaned internally at Liam’s earnest, good-natured and totally unintentional homophobia.  The man was trying.  But he turned around anyway as soon as Liam’s belt came off -- Liam didn’t see him, eyes nervously raking over the water as though he were looking for the warmest possible spot.

When Louis heard the sound of shorts hitting the ground he whistled.  “Nice ass, Payne!”

Liam yelped and stumbled around, stubbing his toe on a rock from the sound of it and cursing under his breath.  “You bastard.”

“Ooh,” Louis drew in a sharp breath, feigning disappointment as he continued to study the lovely wildflowers and alpine trees that seemed to grow right out of the rock in the opposite direction of the shore.  “Front’s not so good, though.”

“I hate you,” Liam grumbled.  “Why am I doing this?”

“Because I’m going to be official friends with you if you do it.”

“You are five.”

Louis cackled as he heard Liam tiptoe up to the edge of the lake.  “Okay,” he said, baritone voice squeaking just a bit with nerves.  “I’m gonna...”

Two seconds later there was a splash, followed by a high-pitched screech and the sound of desperate thrashing.

“FUCK.  ME!” Liam bellowed, his shouts echoing off the walls of the little gorge.  He scrambled out of the lake again and caught Louis’s dry t-shirt as Louis tossed it over his shoulder to him.  “Fucking shit cock asshole motherfucker that’s COLD.”

Louis laughed until he was breathless, bent almost double when Liam finally tapped his shoulder.  He turned to find him frowning and wringing out the t-shirt, wet patches soaking through the thighs of his shorts.  “I cannot believe you did that just because I told you to," Louis crowed.  "You’re the best.  What else are you going to do?”

“Shut up,” Liam huffed, rolling his eyes.  “You promised me official friendship.”  He looped Louis’s t-shirt through his belt to dry and held out his hand.  Louis hugged him instead.

“Official friends!" he chirped.  "Come on, let’s get moving.  Got to get back to the ranch before Niall starts to wonder if I've been kidnapped."

Liam went from looking nonplussed to vaguely pleased as he followed Louis’s springing steps up the trail.  They fell back into easy conversation, and this time Louis gave Liam his full attention.  The heart-strangling mix of feelings Louis had woken up with had subsided, Liam’s companionship soothing him like a balm over sore muscles.

It was almost two o’clock by the time they reached the trailhead and Liam’s parked truck, and Louis’s stomach was growling.  He invited Liam back to the Lonely Rose to forage for sandwiches and leftover pot roast.  Birds were singing over the sounds of Liam throwing his hiking pack in the truck bed, insects droning rhythmically in a way that made Louis suddenly drowsy.  He swung himself up into the cab and sighed with pleasure as he leaned back into the worn vinyl seat, closing his eyes and enjoying the warmth of the sun on his bare skin.  A pleasant heat had built up in the cab while they were away.

The drive back was mostly silent -- Liam apparently no longer felt the need to keep up his stream of bartender’s small talk like he had on the way out -- and Louis felt himself drifting off.  The next thing he knew they were pulling up to the ranch house.

They parked in the wide drive and marched on in, still shirtless and sweaty.  Harry was sitting in the easy chair, feet up, watching TV with a beer in his hand and a stormy expression on his face.  Louis's mouth dropped open for a moment in surprise, his heart stuttering -- Harry usually worked out in the fields or the barns right through til supper.  He was never doing nothing, even when he did hang around the house.  There was always a leaky faucet to see to, or a screen door to fix...  Louis was suddenly aware of his damp, unstyled hair, and tried to fix the way his fringe fell across his forehead as Harry glanced up at them over his shoulder.

“Hey,” he said, evenly.

“Hey,” Louis responded.  His voice was soft.  “Why aren’t you outside?  Doing ranch stuff?”

Harry grunted.  “Kept waking up.  Couldn’t sleep, so…”  He shrugged.  “Just went out really early, and eventually ran out of things to do.”

“Oh.”

Harry shifted around, not bothering to disguise the way his eyes raked up and down Louis’s torso before glancing over to Liam.  “What were you guys up to?”

“Hike,” Liam explained.

Louis swung his arm over Liam’s bare shoulder and leaned into his impressively-muscled side, finger darting out to flick him in the nipple.  “We’re official friends now.”

Liam nodded, beaming, as he swatted Louis’s hand down.  “Yup.  Li and Lou, official friends for life.”

Harry chuckled out a groan and smiled weakly up at them.  “Well.  Good for you.”  He turned back to the TV -- some crappy daytime show with ominous music and terrible acting that he clearly wasn’t interested in -- and continued to nurse his beer.

“Harry,” Louis said, guilty all over again.  He glanced up at Liam and had to blink at him a few times before he got the message.

“So I’m just gonna -- food,” he said, and sauntered through to the kitchen.

Louis knelt down by Harry’s chair and poked his cheek.  “Hey there.”

“Hello,” Harry smiled.  There was a slight bitterness behind it, a fierce obstinacy.  As if he were saying, Yup, this is my ranch and my old armchair and my life, take it or leave it.

“I just wanted you to know,” Louis said, taking a deep breath, “that I had a nice time hiking with your friend.  Who is now my friend.  In Wyoming, a state which, to my astonishment,” he put his hand on his chest for emphasis, “I am very much enjoying, despite office politics that make me cranky and rude, and cause me to say cranky, rude things that I do not mean.  I'm sorry."  He reached out for Harry's forearm and gave it a light squeeze.  "I really do like it here.  I actually, uh -- I like everything about it."

Harry’s face softened imperceptibly, though he still wasn’t quite looking Louis in the eye.

“Except for the various animal menaces who keep trying to make out with my feet.”

That finally made Harry crack, the hint of his dimple indicating a real smile.  “Bonnie has only the finest taste in feet,” he said.

Louis snorted.  “Naturally.”

He stood up, stretching and turning.  He was aware that Harry’s eyes were on him again, roving over his body as he arched his back in a way that he knew would show off the curve of his bum.  He wasn’t sorry.  “Well, anyway," he said, "I’m pretty filthy.  Better hit the shower.”

Harry made an odd noise in the back of his throat.  “Okay.”  His face was pink, Louis noted with pleasure.  “You, um… you do that.”  He started scrubbing his palms nervously up and down his denim-clad thighs, looking away again.

Louis sashayed out of the room with a lightness in his chest.  He hummed Tina Turner in the shower, running the soap across his chest with showy flourishes.  When he got out, toweling off his damp hair, the TV was still on but Harry was nowhere to be found.

Louis shrugged and joined Liam in the kitchen.  He managed to strong-arm him into a dinner invitation, tossing him another towel from the pile of clean ones that Mrs. Burden always stacked nicely on the chair in the guest room.  Louis waited until Liam went to call his wife and take his turn in the shower before grabbing a cold bowl of pot roast.  He made himself comfortable in Harry’s chair and flipped on the TV.  For someone who rarely seemed to watch, Harry had a surprising amount of cable channels.

He switched back and forth between the Rockies game and a showing of Die Hard, settling on the latter when Liam reemerged.

“New rule,” Louis told him as he sat down.  “Now we both have to speak in Hahns Gruber accents for the rest of the day.  Ho ho ho.”

Liam rolled his eyes.  “I’m not doing that, man.”

Louis glared at him.  “I’m goink to count to three.”

“Louis --”

“There will not be a four.”

Liam sighed.  “Fine, you bahhstid ahhshole.”

“Are you German, or from Boston?” Louis asked, chuckling gleefully to himself until Liam threw a decorative pillow at him.

They settled in to watch, Louis letting himself ignore the looming reality of his situation now that he couldn’t distract himself with busywork.  He was starting to disassociate Harry Harry -- his Harry, the one who serenaded pregnant heifers and danced around the living room in a shorty robe on Sunday afternoons -- from the Harry he had to try to keep pressuring to sign away land he didn’t want to sell.  It wasn’t something Louis wanted to think about yet.   He hadn’t had a serious conversation about the deed with Harry for almost a week, he realized suddenly; it had even started to drift into joke territory.  Louis would knock on Harry’s open office door in the evenings, cock his hip and tease him about whether he was in a “cooperative mood."

“No,” Harry’d huff, firmly but with a soft smile, like he’d been waiting for Louis to ask.  “Move along, Mr. Tomlinson.”  He’d wave his hand.  Louis would come into the office and plop himself down in a chair, and they’d have a chat about something else.

Now that Louis was less focused on Harry being upset with him, he was starkly reminded of the facts.

This is about money.  Not feelings.

He felt suddenly guilty that he was being paid so much money to watch Bruce Willis kill terrorists when he was supposed to be wearing Harry down.  Even if he doubted anything he said or did could change Harry’s mind -- constant, grating discussion of the contract would only make them both unhappy -- his heart wasn’t in it, and that made him a bad employee.

Once again, Louis was hit with the overwhelming feeling that he’d been childish.  Just skipping along in the moment, enjoying Harry’s company.  Not strategizing.  Making fucking friends instead.  He could rationalize it by telling himself he was going for the “soft touch,” but that was a lie.

It was nearing dinnertime when the movie ended.  Louis heard a door close, and a few seconds later Harry walked into the living room.  There was a peaceful expression on his face, his limbs moving languidly.  He looked at Louis with sleepy eyes, biting his lip as he went to sit down next to Liam on the couch.  Must have had a nap, Louis thought.

“What are we watching?” Harry asked, words slow and a little slurred.

“Die Hard 2’s coming on,” said Liam, as Harry gingerly settled himself down, pulling a pillow across his tummy with a satisfied sigh.

Louis wiggled his bare toes.  The house, with its open floorplan, had the tendency to invite chill and the full-body warmth from his shower had long since dissipated.  “I don’t think I packed enough socks,” he said, frowning.  “Harry, can I…?”  He heaved himself up out of the easy chair and motioned toward the hallway.

“Yeah, ‘course.  Top drawer of my dresser.”  Harry blinked at him with his big, green eyes.

Louis nodded and strode out of the room, down the hall to the last door on the left.  Harry’s bedroom.  He paused for a moment, something in his chest tightening.  He hadn’t actually been in there yet.  There hadn’t been any reason…

Softly, Louis opened the door and peeked inside.  Harry had a four-poster bed, neatly made with a soft, brown-checked quilt spread over light green sheets.  Sun streamed in through the same lacy curtains that hung in the guest room.  More framed pictures of family.  Nice and tidy, Western, slightly feminine and very Harry.

Louis moved toward the dresser, wanting to get the socks and get out before Harry could suspect him of snooping.  The contents of the top drawer were just as neat as the contents of his room, socks organized by color and folded boxer briefs.  Louis didn’t look too hard at the underwear, just grabbed a pair of warm-looking woolen socks and shut the drawer.  He turned to go, and had almost reached the door again when his eyes fell on Harry’s bedside table.

There was a lamp, a small box of tissues, and…  Louis froze, breath caught in his throat.

A tube of Astroglide.

Louis knew it on sight because he bought the same brand.  He’d left his own half-used tube in Denver on his rumpled bed with a few other items he’d decided not to bother packing.  Items he hadn’t thought he would need.

Fuck.  I should just.  Leave.  But his mouth was dry, and he felt physically unable to move his limbs.  The door was still open -- Harry could come looking for him.  Could catch him here, lips parted slightly in surprise, staring at the lube.

The lube that he’d… left out?  Louis’s heart began to pound, his face heating up as he noticed a smudge of wetness on the cap.  It had just been used.  Harry had just been using it.

Louis felt a heady, prickly sensation all over his skin as he understood the reason for Harry’s languidness, his sated expression and dark eyes.  The way he’d sat down on the couch, carefully moving his bum around until he found a good angle.  Louis knew what that felt like.  Fuck, fuck…  Knew exactly the residual ache that had been sending aftershocks of pleasure through Harry's body.

He wondered if Harry had used a toy, or if it had just been his long, tanned fingers.  Probably his fingers, Louis thought.  At least, that’s what he’d begun to imagine despite himself.  Harry spread out on the bed, his cock flushed and leaking, hard against his belly as he worked himself open.  Heavy brows knit together in concentration, lips wet and bitten red.  Groaning softly, head writhing on the pillow, back arched and slipping in a second finger.  Aiming for his prostate while Louis was sitting thirty feet away, watching TV.  Fucking himself.  Stopping for more lube, teasing.

Then three.

Suddenly Louis was acutely aware of how long it had been since he'd masturbated.  He was fully hard, tenting his sweatpants.  The socks slipped out of his hand and he moved toward the door in a daze.  He almost couldn’t feel his feet.

“‘M gonna,” he shouted toward the living room, over the sound of movie dialogue.  He experienced a moment of panic scrambling for words, wondering what was going to pop out of his mouth.  “Gonna work -- do some work in my room.”

He darted into the guest room and shut the door behind him, leaning on it as his shaking hand found the lock.  His chest rose and fell unsteadily, as though he’d just run a mile.  The ache in his groin was almost unbearable.

Quickly, he sat on the edge of his bed and pulled his sweats down to mid-thigh.  He was already so hard that his foreskin had gotten stuck behind the engorged head of his cock, making his first strokes with his spit-slicked hand slightly painful, the sensation overwhelming.  He just spit into his palm again and thumbed over his slit, wanking furiously.  It was rough and desperate, on the edge of too dry.  He pulled his shirt up and was coming onto his belly in thirty seconds.

He heard the groan as though it were someone else’s, and felt momentarily disoriented.  When he realized he’d made that sound, that it had been that loud, he bit his lip and closed his eyes, cheeks heating up with embarrassment.  Shit.  It had definitely carried.

Louis lay there for a few minutes, too shell-shocked to clean himself up or tuck his softening cock away, listening for movement outside the door.  There was none.  Just the distant score of Die Hard 2, building and ebbing.  The sound of Liam’s voice commenting on the movie, and Harry’s response.

Fuck.

He got himself off again before he re-emerged, lying sideways on the bed, stroking softly this time and teasing himself a little, unabashedly imagining Harry.  Just the thought of him still loose out there...   Louis came silently onto his already messy stomach, well aware of how embarrassingly fast it was for a second round.  Oh god, I'm a pervert, he cringed.  Look at me.  I'm out of control.  He lay there panting for a few moments, enjoying the guilty afterglow.  Then he tiptoed across the hall to the bathroom to clean himself up, successfully avoiding being seen before he was presentable again.

Bruce Willis had just finished his second shootout when Louis wandered back into the living room, trying for casual and failing.  He couldn’t meet Harry’s eyes.  Two orgasms and he was still on edge, part of him worried he'd get hard again just from being near Harry.  Christ, nobody had ever affected him like this.  He walked stiffly over to the easy chair and reclaimed his seat as though nothing had happened.

“Couldn’t find the socks?” Harry asked.

Louis’s mouth dropped open.  His gaze flicked up to Harry and then down to his own feet, still bare.  Like fucking John McClane.

"Uh, w-wh--" he stuttered, no idea what his brain was even trying to say.

Harry winked at him.  Shyly, like even though he'd clearly figured out what had happened, he was a little embarrassed of himself too.  Both their cheeks were red as they turned their attention back to the movie, and Liam was none the wiser.

*

On Tuesday, two identical black envelopes arrived in the mail.  They were addressed, in embossed gold ink, to Mr. Louis Tomlinson and Mr. Harry Styles and Guest.

“Ooh, the fundraiser,” said Niall eagerly, rubbing his hands together in anticipation.  “Excellent.  Whose plus one am I gonna be?”

“Well I didn’t get a plus one,” Louis frowned.

"As always," said Harry, flipping the card open and giving the details a cursory glance, "my darling Niall James Horan, I would be honored to escort you."  He grinned and held out his elbow.

Niall pursed his lips, fluttered his eyelashes in a purposefully ridiculous manner, and stepped over to take Harry's arm.

Louis rolled his eyes.  "What about Maggie?" he asked.

Niall shrugged.  "She'll get wine-drunk by herself and cry while watching Titanic in a dark room."

Maggie appeared just in time to toss a damp dish towel at Niall's head.  "Your turn, idiot.  And I'm not this year; 'm gonna drive down to Gillette and visit your mom."

"Really awkward timing, as usual," Harry muttered, brows knit.  "Always right before the calves are due."

"Why's he so excited, then?" Louis asked.  He jerked his thumb at Niall, who was in the process of moseying out into the kitchen to dry the last of the dinner dishes, twirling the little towel over his head like a lariat.

"What a dork," Maggie sighed.

"Love you too, Margaret," Niall shouted, rocking his hips in line-dance fashion as he rounded the corner.

"Open bar," Harry answered.  "And he thinks the train station is cool."

Louis snorted, glancing down at his own invitation -- Crawford Hotel at Union Station.  Denver’s historic train station had, as had many disused Western train stations, been remodeled into an event space for weddings and black tie corporate events.  Newlyweds and philanthropists waltzing through the ghosts of a brutal pioneer past -- almost poetic.

He paused to read the rest of the invite more carefully.  The event was an annual fundraiser for the Des Styles Foundation, a charitable organization Anne had set up in honor of Harry’s late father to help fund pancreatic cancer research.  Louis had heard of the fundraiser, of course -- it was an unofficial rule that all TwistCorp HQ employees had to attend the $200-a-plate dinner, and make an additional donation.  Some of the afterparty stories were legendary, and he’d started under Zayn the previous year just in time to experience the tail end of the week-long hangover everyone had suffered.  Of course he’d be expected to fly back for it.

“Looks like Mom’s going to send us her private jet,” Harry said.  “We’ll book a room in the hotel so we can get dressed there beforehand.  Not gonna stay overnight though…”  He frowned, staring down at the invitation and waving his hand.  “I mean, you and Niall can, but I’m gonna want to get back to the heifers.”

Louis shrugged, feeling torn.

“Plus, you know,” Harry added, “you should enjoy your time in Denver.”

Louis glanced up.  Harry was looking at him with big, almost nervous eyes.  Louis smiled tightly and nodded, tucking the invite away in his back pocket and moving to help Maggie wipe down the long table.  His brain was foggy, still, when it came to Harry -- even though they were on good terms, they’d been careful around each other since the phone call, and Louis for one had been making up for his long wank drought by furiously masturbating whenever he got the chance.  It wasn’t his fault, he reasoned, the lube had messed with his head.  And it was Harry there, now.  Harry in his head, every single fucking time, and Louis wasn’t sure whether to feel guilty about it.

“So Niall, I want to get the heifers into the barn with the dry cows right after the party next weekend.  Should still give us a couple weeks of leeway, but I’m not taking a chance on one of them calving alone at pasture.”

Louis let the words drift past him… dry cows, that meant the ones who had given birth the year before and had recently weaned their calves.  They had to have special bedding, Harry had told him the other day -- something about preventing mastitis.  The ranch wasn’t economically reliant on milk production, so it wasn’t as big a concern as it would be on a dairy farm, but Harry doted on his “mommies” and gave them the best care possible.  Louis smiled, picturing Harry settling his female cattle down in the barn in nests of nice, fresh hay.  He wondered whether he’d get to watch one of the births.  He hadn’t seen any calves yet -- by the time he’d arrived at the ranch, the previous year’s newborns had already been sold.

A weird thrill went through him, picturing the look he imagined Harry might have on face as he watched a baby calf walk for the first time.  Not that Louis had any real idea -- he shook himself.  What a ridiculous fantasy.  He put his head down and finished wiping, and didn’t say goodnight to Harry before he snuck away to the guest room and a surreptitious wank between not-quite-clean sheets.

*

Thursday night, Louis slipped out of his room and across the hall, moving quickly toward the glow coming from Harry's office.

“Harry?”

He kept his voice low, knocking gently on the door with the back of his knuckles as he eased it open.  Everyone else had gone home hours before, and Louis didn’t want to disturb the hush that had settled over the ranch.  He made a quiet sound of endearment at what he saw inside.

Harry was fast asleep in his chair, snuffling softly with his head lolling far to the right and his hands buried in the pouch of his black sweatshirt.  He’d pulled up his hood at some point before he’d dozed off and despite his sleep-slackened jaw, his features seemed even more elegant than usual, elfin almost, in its shadow.

He managed to be serenely beautiful and distressingly adorable all at once, and Louis didn’t want to wake him, but he’d also heard enough of Niall and Maggie’s nagging over the past few weeks to know that Harry had a bad back.  Louis couldn't let him spend the night in an old chair with absolutely no lumbar support to speak of, no matter how peaceful he looked.

“H?” Louis tried again, his voice a touch sharper.  He startled himself by using the nickname, and a little thrill ran down his spine as he waited for a reaction.  “Harry?”

Harry jerked awake with a small snort and then took a deep, hitching breath, shifting in his seat.

“Wha -- what time is it?”  He hadn’t opened his eyes at all, and the words rumbled out semi-slurred and bewildered, like he wasn’t quite sure where he was and might slide back into sleep the next second.  Louis’s face twisted up into a smile, something squeezing at his heart.

“About ten-thirty.”

“... p.m.?” Harry pressed, still not cracking an eyelid.  He arched his back in the chair and stretched awkwardly.  “Ten-thirty p.m.?”

Louis laughed.  “Yes, Styles, p.m.  It is still night, don’t worry.”

Harry hummed out a little noise of relief and then squeezed his eyes shut tighter before finally opening them.

“Sorry,” he said gruffly, squinting at Louis and rubbing at his face while he readjusted to the light, “just tired from…”  He made a loose gesture with his wrist, like he was too exhausted to spend any energy on a real explanation.

“From all your work?” Louis supplied.  Harry and Niall had been especially busy lately, getting the ranch in complete order before their upcoming trip to Denver.  Even though it was only one night, calving season was almost upon them.

Harry grunted in amusement.  “Right, yes.  My work…  Thank you.”

Louis nodded.  

Harry blinked his puffy eyes a few more times.  “So,” he said, deep and slow, when it seemed he had fully regained his grasp on consciousness.  “What’s up?”

“Oh.  I, uh, I was talking to Mrs. Burden earlier."  Louis cleared his throat and pushed off the door jamb to step further into the room as he spoke.  “She found some more mail for me today, and she thought maybe she had missed some over the past week…”

Harry nodded in understanding and laughed ruefully, pointing to a wicker basket on top of the short bookshelf to his right.  It was completely overflowing with envelopes of all types.  “We’ll go through it together.  You started having it forwarded it, huh?”

“Yeah,” Louis mumbled, a blush creeping up his cheeks as he took the seat across from Harry and accepted a pile of mail to sort.  He felt mildly embarrassed to admit it, somehow.  Presumptuous, like he was moving into Harry’s house without his permission and making it his home.

Harry was apparently unbothered by it, though.  He seemed pleased even, humming contentedly as he began sorting through the mail he’d plopped into in his own lap.  Louis followed Harry’s lead, separating the magazines, direct mailers and actual mail into stacks on the desk between them.

They sat in silence as they worked, the only sounds coming from the materials they were sorting -- high-end glossy paper sliding against cardstock, regular envelopes thwapping down against cushioned mailers, the occasional crinkle of the thin plastic windows on various bills.  Every so often they made eye contact as they went about the task, and the familiar charge of potential energy in the air intensified each time, a pleasant tug between them that made things tense, but not quite awkward.

It made Louis squirm in his seat a little, his heart jumpy.  As though anything might happen, even though he knew it really couldn’t.

“Found something for me!” he said after a few minutes, unable to resist any longer.  He giggled to himself, overly proud of his joke as he held up a men’s Western wear catalog full of cowboy boots, belts and hats.

Harry snorted out a laugh and rolled his eyes, tapping the ends of several like-sized envelopes against his desk and setting them in the real mail pile.

“You know,” he said after a few beats, his voice droll, “I’m surprised Mrs. B didn’t find all your mail herself; she can be quite the snoop."

“Really?”

Harry chuckled.  “Mmhmm.  I found out the hard way a few years back."  He nodded toward the iMac on the corner of the desk.  "She checks her email on this computer, and I’d signed up for Match.com.  She must have seen something in my Gmail before she logged me out.  Next thing I know, Mags and Niall are pestering me day and night about my prospective dates.”

Louis laughed as he set aside an actual piece of his own mail, ignoring the hot burst of displeasure that flared in his gut at the thought of Harry dating anyone.  “Do you think she checks your browser history?”

Harry tossed his head back to cackle, and the hood of his sweatshirt fell away.  “Everyone’s worst nightmare, right?” he said, continuing to giggle as he dropped a direct mailer from a local politician right into the trash.  “Wouldn’t matter if she did, though.  I do all my, like, sad music video marathons, WebMD searches, and porn consumption on my laptop.  Which she most definitely does not have access to.”

Louis’s belly went hot again, this time with arousal.  His heart started hammering in his chest just from Harry’s casual allusion to watching porn.  He had to swallow over a dry lump in his throat when he pictured that godforsaken bottle of lube, yet again…  Unbidden images of Harry Styles quickly replaced it -- his long, hard body naked and flushed, spread out on top of his homemade quilt as he stroked his nice, big cock with one hand and fingered himself with the other, absolutely desperate and waiting for Louis.

“My parents caught me reading smut when I was twelve,” he blurted out with pink cheeks, needing the distraction.  “They -- they found it in the history; I hadn’t learned to clear it.”

“Reading it?” Harry asked, in mild disbelief, one of his brows arching in obvious delight.  “What was it then, Kirk and Spock?”

Louis shook his head, grinning and rolling his eyes.  “It was literally the first time I decided to look for sex stuff on the internet and of course I got caught.  The very first time.  Just my luck.  I didn’t even know what I was looking for…”  he choked on another laugh as more of the memory came back to him, sighing and burying his face in his hands.

“What?”

“It was so humiliating; do you know why?”

“Why?”  Harry had stopped pawing through the mail in front of him and was just beaming at Louis, his eyes all sparkly.

“I, uh --”  Louis burst into laughter again, overcome.  He shook his head.  “Sorry, it’s just so ridiculous.  I decided to search for the word ‘orgasm’,” he said, “but I spelled it ‘O-R-G-A-S-I-S-M’, and of course my mother made sure to inform me of my mistake when we were discussing it afterward.”

Harry was grinning so widely it looked like his face might hurt, and Louis could see the gears turning in his head as he worked out the pronunciation of Louis’s butchered spelling.

“Or-ga-sism,” Harry finally decided, letting out a satisfied little chortle, his dimple deep.

“Or-ga-sism,” Louis confirmed, grinning back.  “God, the way she approached the whole thing, I nearly died of embarrassment.  I mean, I read some horrendously-written story about these people playing strip basketball and then having sex on a gym floor.  And she was like, super understanding and an excellent parent about it.  Like, ‘Honey, we just want you to know that when you read about sex like that, it’s not how it really is in real life...’”

“That isn’t how people actually have their or-ga-sisms, dear,” Harry choked out, cracking up quietly at his own joke before he’d even finished saying it.

Louis couldn’t help but join in, his eyes darting over Harry’s happy face in delight.  His heart felt so ridiculously warm just from talking to Harry about this, and his insides were aglow from being teased.  What are you doing here? he asked himself.  A familiar sense of vulnerability washed over him.  This can’t happen.  You and Harry can’t happen.  Why can’t you stop? 

“That is nice, though,” Harry said, tugging Louis back to reality as he reached into the wicker basket for more mail, “that she talked to you about it that way.”

“Yeah, true,” Louis conceded.  He laughed again, “But of course the whole time she’s talking to me about it, I’m thinking like, ‘Well, okay, next time I’ll just delete the history.  And I’m totally looking up dudes…’”

Harry leaned back in his chair and let out an appreciative bark of knowing laughter.

“Well,” he said, raising his eyebrows at Louis once he’d sat back, “I am personally very lucky that my grandparents had no idea whatsoever how to go about checking my internet usage when I was in high school.”  He rolled his eyes at himself, smirking.  “I can just hear my grandma.  ‘Now what’s this you’re searching for, Harry?  What does this mean?  A twink riding a bear?’”

He’d thrown his voice up an octave and made it slightly more nasal for the impersonation, and Louis burst out laughing, almost breathless with it.

“What about Roy?” he asked, after their laughter had died down a little, genuinely curious.  He felt a spark of adrenaline run through him, suddenly self-conscious at having remembered Harry’s grandfather’s name so readily, and having used it so casually.

Harry took it in stride, laughing fondly.  “My grandpa knew even less about computers than my grandma,” he said, shaking his head.  “I used to always hear them in here…”  He switched into his grandmother’s voice again.  “‘Double click, Roy!  No.  Double click!’”

Louis laughed along with him, looking around the small space and imagining two people in their late seventies, hunched over a bulky beige computer from the early ‘00s.  Louis realized then that while he called it Harry’s office out loud and in his mind, he'd actually thought of it as Roy’s all along.  Something about the nice give of the soft leather upholstery on the aging chairs, the ever-present scent of pipe tobacco in the air, the dilapidated lampshades with their kitschy wildflower cutouts and the glow of the incandescent bulbs beneath them…  He’d subconsciously tied all the warmth of this little room together with the fondness and respect he’d heard in Harry’s voice when he'd spoken about his grandfather, and built a fully-formed impression of a man he’d never known.  Developed affection for him, too.  Louis was picturing a stiffer, more stoic version of Harry, but with the same big heart and kind eyes.  He had been a bit at sea since he’d come to Wyoming, ignoring the right gut reactions and latching onto the wrong ones.  He didn’t think that was the case with the sense he'd gotten of Roy Styles -- he had a hard time imagining that Harry would be so adamant about maintaining the integrity of the property in the face of a billion dollar deal, otherwise -- but his heart seized a little in his chest at the mere possibility.  He wanted to be right about him.  He felt strangely frantic about confirming that he was.

“What was Roy like?” he asked.  He stared intently across the desk at Harry, who was still innocently sorting mail, oblivious to Louis’s bizarre inner turmoil about his forebearers.  “Like, did he -- did your grandparents know that you’re gay?”

Harry’s hands stilled.  He blinked back at Louis for a second, his expression unreadable except for a slight quirk to his lips.  Louis’s face heated in embarrassment, and he looked down at his envelope-covered lap.

“S-sorry,” he stammered, shuffling mail as if he were sorting it, even though he wasn’t registering what it was or who it was addressed to.  “That was -- that was rude.  I didn’t mean to…  You don’t have to answer.  Sorry.”

Harry shifted in his chair, setting a stack of envelopes down in front of him.  “No, it’s all right,” he said, smiling softly and sighing as he leaned back a bit.  “I like talking about Roy.  About Rosie, too.  I love just thinking about them, actually...”

Louis nodded, returning his own pile of mail to his thighs and folding his hands over it.  Harry’s initial response had soothed his worry that he’d been misguided about Roy, and he took a deep breath of his own, preparing to listen.

“To answer your question, yes, they knew,” Harry continued.  “I came out when I was sixteen,” he smiled thoughtfully, “and I actually told them before I told my mom.  Maggie first, though.”

“And they took it well?”  Louis’s heart wasn’t exactly racing, but something about the entire conversation had it humming along at a good clip, hovering above a resting rate.  He was actively trying not to scoot up and sit on the edge of his seat.

Harry nodded with a touch of pride.  “My grandparents -- ” he paused, swallowing hard.  “I mentioned before, didn’t I, that my dad died when I was young?”

Louis nodded.

“Have you ever lost someone close to you?” Harry asked, peering at Louis with his wide green eyes full of concern.

Louis shook his head.  He’d lost a grandmother in his early twenties, but he’d barely known her and hadn’t been able to make the trip out to Boston for the funeral.

“I was so young.  Only five, I barely remember him...  But for my grandparents…” Harry went on slowly after he’d absorbed Louis’s answer, his voice thick with emotion.  “The grief, carrying that around with them all the time.  That's -- it must be the most devastating kind of -- of bad wisdom, to have lost a child.  But they didn’t let it close them off.  Or, um, make them bitter.  Quite the opposite.  And not -- not that they were hard people to begin with before it happened, but I think afterward...” his voice hitched, and he cleared his throat.  “I think it was completely unfathomable to them, the idea that they wouldn’t love me unconditionally for exactly who I was.  And they made sure I knew.”

The strength of Louis’s emotional response surprised him.  His heart felt oddly enormous in his chest, like it was growing larger with each beat, and he started to chew on the inside of his lip to keep from tearing up.

Harry spared him by quickly breaking into affectionate laughter.  “I think Roy felt that way about everybody’s kids though, really.  He loved Niall so much, he’d get choked up every time he went to a choir concert and Ni played guitar.  Then he’d try to hide it.”  Harry laughed more.  “Not that my grandmother would ever let him get away with that.”

“So they were close?” Louis asked, smiling.  “Niall and your grandparents?”

Harry was nodding even before he’d finished asking the question.  He snorted.  “When I say Niall and Maggie are my relationship model, I say it knowing for damn sure that Rosie and Roy were theirs.”

“You must miss them…” Louis murmured, feeling slightly foolish for stating the obvious.

“Every day.”

Louis glanced around the office again, smiling at how the framed wildlife prints on the walls were overshadowed by a preponderance of pieces of what must have been Harry’s childhood artwork.  His heart swelled with warmth, secure in the knowledge that his intuitions about Rosie and Roy and their relationship with Harry had been correct.

“It’s strange, sometimes,” Harry whispered.  When Louis turned to look, Harry was regarding him with a sort of wistful expression.  “It’s strange what you want to ask them, once they’re gone.  What you want to tell them about...”

He gave the last sentence a special weight, and they gazed at each other for several beats of silence as Louis let the words sink in.  He felt frozen in place by his feelings, a long-delayed chord of recognition striking inside him.

Harry went on to tell a bittersweet but humorous story about the time he’d made his grandmother’s strawberry rhubarb pie for a Fourth of July barbecue.  How everyone had eaten it before they even touched Dottie Llewellyn's lemon bars, and how he’d gone home that evening and stood in the kitchen with his empty pie tin and cried because he couldn’t tell her that it happened.  Louis listened attentively the whole time and laughed softly with Harry, but all the while he was running Harry’s statement through his head on repeat.

It’s strange…  What you want to tell them about…

Louis hadn’t tried to examine his reasons for wanting to know about Rosie and Roy.  In fact, he had intentionally avoided letting himself think about it at all.  But now, hope that he might actually be something that Harry wanted to discuss with them, and not just as some sort of business complication, had taken hold of Louis’s heart and revealed that strategy for what it was -- a stubborn sort of purposeful denial.  Louis had known what he wanted all along, and he’d been lying to himself about it.  He wanted to know about Harry’s grandparents because he was intensely and recklessly interested in knowing Harry.  He wanted his impression of them to be accurate because they were a part of Harry.

Louis could feel the expanse of the Lonely Rose stretching out around them in the dark.  He could hear the pitter-patter of cold rain on the roof, and he felt happy.  Despite all the complications of his current situation, he was alone in a tiny office, sorting mail with Harry Styles and talking to him.  Becoming closer to him.

Louis was falling dangerously hard.  He had been for quite some time, and it was heady and almost terrifying to fully admit it to himself.  He tossed and turned in bed that night, replaying Harry’s words in his mind and second-guessing himself over and over again about whether Harry had meant anything by them.  Maybe his own subconscious hopes had caused him to read too much into the statement, and Harry had been wishing he could to talk to his grandparents about their land and the oil money, after all.

There’s no reason it couldn’t be both, he told himself, letting a spark of queasy optimism sneak into his heart just before he finally drifted off.

*

A cold mist rolled down over the ranch the next day, continuing the streak of truly miserable weather.  Louis stayed swathed in blankets on the couch, drinking buckets of coffee and watching the evening news while he tried to work.  He didn’t realize quite how dense the fog had become until Niall burst back into the house at around eight p.m., outfitted head to toe in a bright yellow rainsuit that was completely covered in water droplets.

He didn’t spare Louis a second glance as he squelched into the kitchen, not bothering to take off his boots.

“Everything all right?” Louis asked, padding in after him.  He was always unable to resist a chance to take a break.

“Yeah,” said Niall, after he'd gulped down an enormous glass of milk, breathing a little heavily.  “Or, well.  It will be.  We gotta get the heifers down early, though, ‘cause of the rain.”  He poured himself some more milk, pausing when the glass was almost to his lips.  "Hank and Paul and Harry are up there on horseback.  I came down to get some Maglites and the vet kit, just in case.”  He grinned, shaking the milk at Louis.  “Gonna go back up on a four wheeler in a minute, but I thought I’d get in a little sustenance first.  In case it takes all night.”

“Can I come with you?” Louis asked, not entirely sure where the question had come from, but suddenly desperate to get out of the house.  To be of use.  Niall looked as surprised to hear it as Louis was to have said it, gulping down his milk, his eyes wide over the rim of the glass.  “I mean," Louis clarified, "I’ll stay out of the way if that’s what you’re worried about.  I just -- I just want to see what you guys do, I guess.  Want to help, if I can.”

Niall wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, setting the glass on the counter.  He shrugged.

“Okay," he said, slowly.  “If that’s what you want.”  There was a skeptical, amused twist to his lips, as though he was sure Louis didn’t know what he was getting himself into.  That was probably true.  “You better get dressed in a hurry though; I’m going to get yelled at for dawdling as it is.”  He pointed a stern finger at Louis.  "And you’re taking a separate four wheeler.  The second I hear you whining, I’m sending you back.”

Louis nodded eagerly, already scurrying toward his room for suitable clothing.  Those words felt like a challenge, and there was nothing Louis loved more than proving people wrong.  He was going to be the toughest, heartiest, most helpful paralegal ever to moonlight as a cattle wrangler.  There would be no whining!  Niall would see.

Twenty minutes later, Louis knew exactly why Niall had thought he would whine.  It was absolutely horrible out, damp and chilly, with a bitter wind that always kicked up again right when you started thinking maybe it wasn’t so bad.  But Louis was persevering, and he felt proud.  Three weeks ago he wouldn’t have even made it across the yard to the ATV without giving up, much less all the way out to the heifers while blinking rainwater out of his eyes.   

There was a headcount going on when he and Niall arrived, Harry and Hank and Paul circling the herd as they each tallied separately, their eyes flicking over the animals.

Louis rolled his eyes at himself when he realized he was actually biting his lip while he stared at Harry on his horse.  He’s wearing a fucking rain jacket for crying out loud!  It looked so good on him though, just like Harry looked so good in the saddle, his hand resting on the horn.

Louis was pulled from his reverie by Hank grunting nearby, an indication that he was done with his count.

“What’d you get?” Paul called out from across the herd, his face set.

“Fifty-two.  You?”

“Same,” Paul nodded with a grim sort of resignation.  He started coming around to them on his horse.  “Styles?”

Harry had already moved into position next to Hank, staring out at the heifers with a face full of stormy concern.  “Fuck.  Fifty-two...”  He glanced over his shoulder at the pasture they’d apparently just come from, and then back at the cattle.

Louis’s heart started to beat a little faster.  He had no idea what they did when they were missing a cow.  That’s what seemed to be happening.  A missing heifer.

Niall cleared his throat beside him, still straddling his ATV.  “You know,” he began, “I don’t see --”

“Motherfucker,” Harry said sharply, looking back across the pasture again.  “Motherfucking hell.  It’s Jolene.  She loves the crick.”

Jolene?  Jolene is missing?  Louis’s heart was pounding now, disaster scenarios involving the heavily pregnant heifer playing out at warp speed in his mind.  Jolene hurting herself slipping on a slick rock in the creek.  Jolene caught in the barbed wire fence that separated this part of the ranch from the Llewellyn’s.  Jolene having her twins all alone.

Before he really knew what was happening, Harry had brought his horse around, the hood of his jacket falling away to reveal his soaking wet hair, plastered to his forehead.  “I’m going to get her,” he shouted over his shoulder at Niall.  “Bring ‘em down without me.  I’ll meet you there.”

Then he was pelting across the pasture at a full gallop, his horse’s hooves tearing up the terrain.  The fog on that part of the property had lifted, and Harry cut an incredibly dramatic figure as he went, a streak of black against the wet green grass and the sodden gray sky.

“Styles!” Niall called out in vain, cursing to himself as he hopped down off his four wheeler and opened the storage compartment.  “Fucking idiot.  He didn’t bring the kit.”  He looked back at Harry’s receding figure, shaking his head.  “Harry!” he called again, even though he clearly knew it was useless.

“I’ll bring it to him,” Louis said, climbing off his own ATV and onto Niall’s before the words were even out of his mouth.  “I’ll take him the kit.”

Niall didn’t need any convincing; he just nodded.  He held up a hand for Louis to wait and then transferred a wool blanket and one of the heavy-duty Maglite flashlights into the storage compartment from the other ATV.

“She’s probably fine, just being lazy,” he said softly as he stuffed the blanket in next to the emergency vet kit.  He sounded as though he was trying to reassure himself and didn’t quite believe it.  He looked up at Louis.  “But just in case...”

Louis nodded, eyes wide, adrenaline pumping through his veins.

“Go,” Niall said.

Louis went.

There was a steady rain falling as he drove across the pasture at full tilt, the drops stinging his face and getting in his eyes, but Louis didn’t care at all.  He was numb to the cold as he bounced along, his thoughts circling back to Denver and his life there, how different it was from this.

Some six months earlier he’d been in a sports bar with Zayn in Capitol Hill, watching the Packers play the Bears.  (Louis didn’t care all that much about football, but Zayn did.  He’d been forcing Louis to watch the Packers, and really any Wisconsin sports team, since their freshman year at Madison.  Louis loved how it sort of went against the arty, hipster vibe that Zayn tended to give off, so he always humored him.)  The commercials during the game were typical -- annoyingly sexist garbage about which beer made you a man, or which deodorant, or which truck.  It was one of those truck commercials that Louis was thinking about now.  A Chevy ad about a rancher driving around his land in the pouring rain looking for a lost calf with a pretentious voice-over in the background describing the proceedings.  Louis had rolled his eyes at it back then, snorting.  Would they really care that much about one single calf?

Of course they would, you asshole.  Of course they fucking would, Louis thought, just before he crested the hill, rubbing rainwater out of his eyes.  His heart was still absolutely pounding.  Harry must be so scared for her.

He spotted them up ahead as he sped down the long, gentle slope above the crick.  Harry’s horse was standing several feet back as Harry crouched by the heifer.  

“Harry!” Louis called out, as he pulled the ATV to a stop and leapt off to get the vet kit.  “Harry, I have the kit!”

Harry blinked up at him when he approached, a comforting hand stroking Jolene’s neck.  He had raindrops on his face and purple shadows under his clear green eyes, his hair falling dark and wet across his forehead.  He was beautiful.

“I’m going to need your help,” Harry said, his voice firm but strained. “She’s in labor.” 

Chapter Text

“What… now?”  Louis’s breath was coming in ragged bursts, his whole body still vibrating from his ride on the four wheeler.  Rain lashed at him as he dropped to his knees and placed his hand on Jolene’s warm flank.  It was hard as a rock, mid-contraction.  “She’s… can we move her to the barn?”  

His last words were swallowed up in a deafening thunderclap, lightning splitting across the sky.  Like the pop of a flashbulb, it illuminated the scene for a moment.  The laboring heifer, the swollen creek.  The two men kneeling at her side in a halo of suspended raindrops.  Then the world was once again engulfed in gloom, and all Louis could hear was the sound of Harry’s horse spooking.

“Shit.”

It galloped off into darkness with a jerky stride.  Harry stood up, his lean body throwing shadows on the sodden grass.  Louis saw him in the unsteady circle cast by his Maglite, his wrist already shaking with the weight of it.  Jolene was groaning beside him.  His hand slipped off her wet flank as she struggled to stand, knees almost buckling.  She swayed back and forth on the gentle slope of the hill.

“Harry!” cried Louis.  He was terrified she was going to topple and roll head over hooves into the creek.  He tried to wrap his arms around her, steady her, but she was so big.  So big and heavy, and he was so small, his wellies slipping in the mud as he tried to brace himself.  Visions of the Dodge Caravan came back to him, rocking, the sheer power of the cattle on either side practically lifting it off the ground.  “Harry!”

Harry had made an aborted, almost instinctive move to go after his fleeing horse, but he shook his head and turned around.  “She’s… that’s normal, Louis.  Let her go.  Don’t want to disturb her.”

Louis stepped away gingerly, keeping his hands up as he backed off.  “I don’t know what I’m doing!” he shouted.  She swayed again, and his heart lurched.  “What if she falls over?”

Harry lifted his Stetson and ran a wet, dirty hand through his hair.  “She won’t,” he said.  His features were drawn, face somehow dark and pale at the same time.  “She knows her own body.  She’ll probably lie down on her own again before long.  We’ll -- damn it.”

Jolene had started to walk slowly down the hill toward the creek.  Louis could see the whites of her eyes, rolling in pain.

“Louis!” Harry barked.  “Get me the rope from the ATV.”  His voice was rough, commanding.

Louis didn’t think, just bounded over to the four wheeler and dug around in the storage compartment.  There was a rope inside, the blanket Niall had given him, a chain, a pair of gloves and some bottled water, Harry’s fence stretcher, and a few other odds and ends.  None of it looked very helpful.  Louis grabbed the rope and slammed the compartment shut, running back to Harry.  He was standing with a now stationary Jolene, his big, sure hands stroking behind her ears as he murmured to her.

“I know you want to go see the crick, darling.  But it’s not a safe place right now.  Come with me.  Come back with me.”  Harry was able to get her to take a few steps toward Louis before she sank down to her knees again.  Louis could actually see the contraction hitting her, all the muscles in her belly seizing up.

“Oh, God.”  Harry looked even more worried, now.  Louis recognized the fear in his eyes as he took the rope and started fastening a slip knot.  “Those were pretty close together.  I thought we had a couple hours to get the trailer up here, get her brought down to the barn…”

Louis almost felt like crying as he watched Harry apologetically slip the simple halter around Jolene’s neck and secure it loosely to a nearby fence post.  “Heifers usually take longer to get going,” he muttered.  He gazed at her grimly for a moment, then raised his voice.  “I’m gonna report to Niall.  Tell him to wake up the vet and get her out here to us as soon as he can.  But if they don’t come in time, you’re going to have to help me deliver the calves.”

Louis stiffened, his eyes wide, hands jittery with adrenaline.  “I’ll do anything you tell me,” he said.  “Anything.”  He felt his chest swell with fear and an almost painful desire to do well, to be helpful, as he gazed at Harry through the dark, slanting rain.

Harry nodded and unclipped the walkie-talkie from his belt, bringing it out from under his slicker.  It crackled to life in his hands.  “Niall!” he growled.  “Get on.”  He chewed his bottom lip while he waited, intense stare focused on the speaker as if, with enough concentration and sheer will, he could force Niall to answer him.  “Niall,” he said again.  “Niall…”

Louis retraced his steps, glancing back at Harry every so often as he swept the beam of his Maglite over the grass.  He found the place where he’d dropped the vet kit and picked it up.  Niall’s flat voice was just coming in when he returned.  “Kinda got our hands full down here -- the heifers are…”  He cut out for a moment.  Louis and Harry glanced at each other in panic.  “Ya find Jolene?”

Harry let out a breath -- a short, wary burst of relief.  “Yeah,” he said.  “She was down by the crick.  But Niall --”  There was an eruption of static, and Louis winced.  “She’s calving.  Drop what you’re doing and call the vet and get up here.  Her contractions are…”  Then there was an odd, high pitched whine, and the walkie-talkie died in Harry’s hand.  Louis felt his heart sink as he stared at it.

Harry swore fervently.  He fiddled with it for a few moments, scratching open the back casing to roll the batteries, but it was no use.

“Maybe he heard you,” Louis said.  “He -- he might have heard you!”

Tears were pricking his eyes as he watched Harry calmly tuck the useless walkie-talkie back under his slicker.  Jolene was having another contraction, her whole body wracked with it and low, pained noises coming from deep in her throat.  Harry just stared at him for a moment, one of those forceful, raking stares that made Louis feel as though he were being evaluated, his heart taken stock of.  

“It’s too late anyway, I think,” said Harry.  “Could you… think you could ride back on the four wheeler?  Let them know, at least.”

“Yeah, of course!”  Louis felt a wave of relief wash over him.  Everything was going to be all right after all.  All he had to do was drive back to the ranch.  “I’ll go get Niall, we’ll come back with the vet…”  He spun on his heel and marched off toward the ATV, digging in his pocket for the keys.

He hopped on, fingers slipping over the slick metal as he fumbled the right key into the ignition.  He turned it confidently, and felt the engine rev.  Once.  Before the headlights died and the blinking gas indicator went out.  Louis felt a sudden, wrenching tug of hopelessness as he stared at the dead dash.  Of course this would happen, he thought, letting out a single, pained laugh.  Of course.  Obviously.  “Harry!” he called.

He ran back up the hill to Harry and Jolene, a knot of panic starting to form in his gut.  “It won’t start,” he said, shaking his head, gobsmacked by the absurdity of it all.  “The engine…  I--I think it’s out of gas, maybe.”

Harry stood stock still.  “Fuck,” he said, softly.

We can’t panic, Louis thought, trying to be firm with himself.  We can figure this out.

He stood up straighter, sniffing as he rubbed the rain and tears out of his eyes with the heel of his hand.  He had the beginnings of a headache; his contacts were starting to itch, but he barely noticed.  His whole being was focused on the problem at hand.  “What do we do?” he asked.

“Get me the kit, please,” Harry said.  “I’m going to check how far she’s dilated.”

Harry sounded calm all of a sudden, as though the new clarity of the situation had focused him.  But Louis could see the tension in the line of his shoulders as he knelt down by Jolene, the twitch in his jaw.  He was nervous.  Of course, he was nervous.

Louis’s hands shook as he opened the kit for Harry and tried to shield its contents from the rain.  He held his Maglite on it, standing and clamping it between his thighs when Harry handed him a big gallon jug of something to open.  Lightning flickered above them, followed by the violent sound of thunder.  Louis managed to twist off the jug’s cap and break the seal underneath without dropping the flashlight on Harry’s head.  Fuck, he thought.  How are we doing to do this?  This is…  I can barely --

His thoughts were disjointed as he knelt down again and made to give the jug to Harry.  He had gloves on now, dark beads of rain clinging to the latex as Louis swept the beam of light over his hands.

“No,” Harry shook his head.  He held out his gloved hands.  “You’ve got to…”

Louis blinked.  He glanced down at the label on the jug for the first time.  Priority Care 1 All-Purpose Non-Spermicidal Lubricating Jelly.  For animal use only.  Apply liberally as needed.

A ridiculous, inappropriate laugh burst out of him at the absurdity of it all.  He upended the jug and squeezed slightly, watching as Harry coated his fingers in the thick, cloudy jelly.  “Didn’t think this was how I was gonna lube you up for the first time, Styles,” Louis murmured.  His chest felt tight, like he was going to start crying again at any moment as he thought about Harry.  Through the haze of his heightened emotions, their shared panic over Jolene, Louis thought he knew… and Harry did, too.  They knew each other’s hearts.

He felt Harry stiffen beside him, then relax with a fragile chuckle.  He flashed Louis a look as he went to work, pushing both his hands into Jolene with a practiced air.  “No?” he asked, his voice almost cracking.  “No cow vaginas in that scenario?”

Louis laughed gently.  “Definitely not.  Plus,” he added, scooting up to Harry and muttering in his ear, “unless I’m mistaken, this isn’t your preferred brand.”

Harry flushed, biting his lip as he got his bearings and began to examine Jolene.  “Louis,” he warned.  “Enough.  I have to concentrate.”  Louis nodded and got out of his way, pleased that at least Harry looked a bit more relaxed in his movements.  There was less tension under the surface, and the panicky edge to his voice had evened out.

More lightning flashed overhead, followed by booming thunder and a fresh burst of rain.  Louis unbuttoned his own slicker and tried to hold it over Harry, Maglite in one hand.  Harry was up almost to his elbows now.  He was doing something rhythmic with his arms.

“She’s almost complete,” Harry explained, brow furrowed again.  “I’m manually dilating her.  The faster this goes, the safer it is for both calves.”

Louis held the light steady and positioned himself so that his back was taking the brunt of the rain.  Finally Harry slipped his hands out.  His gloves were coated in lube and streaks of blood.  Louis fought the urge to gag a bit -- there was worse coming, he knew.  He forced himself to breathe slowly and evenly, ignoring the heavy, painful thumping of his heart.

“I could feel her bag of waters,” Harry said, chewing on his bottom lip for a moment as he gazed at Jolene, then down at his hands.  “It’s bulging out over the lip of her cervix; it’s probably going to break with the next contraction.”

Louis shifted his weight from one leg to the other, rolling his ankles and feeling the ache in his muscles as he tried to get some of the tension out of his body.  He was starting to feel chill from the rain, since he’d unbuttoned his slicker.  “So…” he started, suddenly unsure.  He felt a tiny shiver wrack his body.  “Talk me through what happens, like what’s…  Do we just let nature take its course, or?”

Harry pivoted and squatted to one side of Jolene’s rear, motioning for Louis to give her some space as well.  “After her water breaks, I’ll try to feel for the front hooves of the calf,” he said.  “They should be right there.  I’ll make sure its head is forward, and if everything feels good I’ll have you hold the light and we’ll just gently ease it out.  She’ll push during the contractions and do most of the work.  That’s a --” he coughed into his sleeve, “a best case scenario.”

Jolene lowed and snorted, as if to agree.  Louis ran a hand lightly over her back, feeling her rough, wet hair and the comforting warmth of her body under the cold rain.  He wondered if she was scared... wondered if she had any idea what was happening to her.  "It's gonna be okay," he gulped, petting her softly as they waited for the next contraction.  "It'll all be fine and -- and you'll get to see your babies soon.  Then Niall will be here with the doctor, and we'll take you somewhere...  Somewhere nice, warm and dry..."

Harry glanced up at him then, and Louis felt doubt pool in his stomach.  "Louis," he said, his voice careful.  "You know… twin births are high-risk even with a vet, and in good conditions with all the right equipment."

Louis bit his lip and hung his head, hands threading through Jolene's shaggy hair over and over, brushing it back.  "What are you saying?" he asked, quietly.

"Well..." Harry started.  He trailed off, shoulders slumping as he drew a long, steadying breath.

"Just tell me," Louis snapped.  He stepped away from Jolene.  He didn’t like the dawning feeling that Harry had been protecting him, sugar-coating the situation a little.  "How bad is it, Styles?"

Harry looked up at him, stricken, and Louis’s annoyance melted away into a cold, hard lump of fear.

"It's -- it's bad," Harry stammered.  "Sorry, I --"

Louis just shook his head, blinking rapidly as he stared at the laboring cow.

"If the vet doesn't get here in time, we might be able to save two of them."

"Two?" Louis asked.

Harry nodded.  "Of the… of the three of them.  Unless we have very good luck."

Louis gasped lowly, almost slipping as he walked back to Jolene’s head and knelt down to pet her gently behind her ears.  The wretched, pain-wracked expression on her face was unmistakable and universal, and Louis didn’t think he was projecting too much of the dull fear he thought he saw in her eyes.  He’d been so focused on the two calves, hadn’t even considered they could lose Jolene.

“We’ll have very good luck then,” he said.

“Louis…”  Harry sighed, letting his voice die as he shook his head.

Louis stubbornly locked eyes with Jolene, trying to conjure up some strength within himself, acutely aware of the smallness of his body next to her sturdy bulk.  Maybe he could transfer his strength to her, somehow.  He dug his fingers deeper into her hair and let out a breathy sound that was almost a sob, but not quite.  “No matter what happens,” he whispered, “you are already a wonderful mother.”

It was a tense minute or so more before her water broke, gushing out of her with a particularly strong contraction and soaking into the already drenched earth.  Harry quickly slipped a hand back in, feeling for the hooves of the first calf.  He added his other hand, up to his elbows and blinking once or twice in concentration.  Louis tore his gaze away from Jolene, anxiously trying to read Harry’s expression in the dark.

“Well?”

“I feel ‘em,” said Harry, nodding.  “Both hooves.  Head is forward; it’s in the right position.”

Louis felt something in his chest loosen, and he took a deep breath.  “Okay,” he said.  He gave Jolene one last, loving stroke before he left her head and crawled back around to Harry.  He held up the flashlight, eyebrows raised.

“Thanks,” Harry said.  “It’ll still be a while.  This is the really hard part, coming up…”

Louis just nodded.

They didn’t talk much after that, too intent on watching Jolene.  Her contractions were strong and coordinated -- Louis noticed Harry glancing down at his wristwatch, trying to wipe rainwater off the face of it with his slightly bloody gloves as he timed them.  Jolene shuddered, straining to push her first calf out of the birth canal, and Louis felt his heart seize up as he watched her.  Progress was slow, and Harry spent the long wait changing his gloves and disinfecting Jolene’s sensitive, swollen vagina.  Louis tried not to ask a million questions every time he slipped a hand in to check on the calf, but Harry’s satisfied nods told him what he needed to know.

Minutes stretched into an hour.  An hour and a half, and still no Niall.  It occurred to Louis that even if Niall had managed to read the tone of Harry’s voice before the walkie-talkie had burst into static and died, even if he’d gotten a handle on the chaotic situation down at the barn and sent out a search party for them, they’d have no idea where to look.  There’d be no vet and no equipment.  Louis stopped looking over his shoulder, stopped peering into the gloom hoping to see the lights of a truck or a figure on a horse.  Help wasn’t coming.

At one point, after seeing Harry sway a little on his knees as another wave of pink-tinged fluid gushed out of Jolene, Louis propped his flashlight up on a rock and stalked back to the four wheeler.  He dug around for the bottled water and uncapped it on his way back, holding it up to Harry’s lips.  “Here, Harry,” he said, quietly.  Harry tipped his head up, revealing the beautiful line of his jaw, and drank gratefully, spluttering and shaking his head after he’d gulped down three-fourths of the bottle.  He blinked.

“Thanks,” he whispered.

Louis nodded and sucked down the rest of it, feeling hot and cold all over.  His heart was in his throat, blocking the water as he tried to swallow.

“Lou,” Harry said, one gloved hand inside Jolene.  “It’s about time.”  Louis’s breath caught when he took his hand away.  Two tiny hooves were finally peeking out, shiny with amniotic fluid.

“Oh my god,” Louis breathed.

Jolene gave a low moo.  She pushed when her next contraction hit, muscles rippling across her flank.  Louis trained the flashlight on her, holding it steady for Harry, who was coating the opening with more lubricant.  The little hooves surged forward, then back in, but Louis could tell a small bit of progress had been made.  He couldn’t look away.

Another contraction, and he held his breath.  Harry knelt down and gently gripped the calf’s legs, tugging with practiced skill.  They were adorably splayed now, peeking out further.  Like whoever was in there was reaching out for the world.  A few more inches, and Harry rocked back on his heels.

“Just keep the light on me,” he said.

Louis nodded, even though Harry couldn’t see him, the rest of his body frozen as he watched.  Jolene shifted her weight, almost bucking on the ground with the pain as she started to push again.  Harry grunted, putting some muscle into his pull, trying to move with her.  The two legs slid out further, smoothly, to reveal a tiny, perfect nose.  Louis made a sound that was halfway between a gasp and a coo, the beam of his Maglite wavering.

“It’s a… it’s a calf!” he said.  “I mean, it’s really --”

Harry barked out a sharp laugh, reaching forward to gingerly touch the baby’s protruding muzzle.  “Yep,” he said, smiling.  “It’s a calf, all right.”

“Don’t know what I was expecting,” Louis muttered, sheepish and a little surprised at himself, twisting the toe of one of his wellies into the mud.  Of course it was a calf.  But there was something… something about finally seeing it that cemented it in reality.  They were going to have a baby.  Louis felt tears burst behind his eyelids again.  “Oh my god,” he said.  “Oh my god.”

Harry rocked back again, pulling, digging the heels of his cowboy boots into the ground and flexing his thighs just a touch to bring more pressure to bear.  Nothing seemed to happen.  Jolene stopped pushing, the muscles in her sides not rippling, but rising and falling gently with her breath.

“Hmm,” Harry said.  He looked up at Louis, his green eyes blinking into the light as the rain fell steadily.  Long curls were plastered to his forehead and his neck, slicker open at the throat to reveal a soaked flannel collar.  “Louis, ‘m gonna need more lube.”

“You’re doing so great, Jolene,” Louis whispered.  He propped his flashlight on the ground, beam wobbling as he left it to find the gallon jug.  They’d already used almost half of it.  He was careful not to spill any this time as he coaxed it out onto Harry’s gloved fingers.  Still had one calf to go.

Harry turned to Jolene, pressing both hands inside around the calf’s head and massaging.  Easing it forward not with hard tugs, but with small tucks and slides.  After he was satisfied with the positioning of the head, he took the calf’s legs in hand again, just above the hooves.  Louis’s heart was in his throat, his eyes trained on the tiny nose that showed no sign of life yet.  And Harry pulled.

He pulled, Jolene groaning low with the push.  The calf came slowly, but it came.  Louis gasped, almost dropping the flashlight as its head and shoulders slid out.  The calf was beautiful, auburn like Jolene but mottled with bright splashes of white.  Another big movement, Harry pulling with a soft sound of effort, and the calf slid out to its belly.  Louis’s stomach dropped.  The head looked dead.  It looked -- it was hanging flaccidly between the two legs now, tongue out and lolling.

“Is it okay?” he cried, throat choked and panicked.  “Is it okay?”  He glanced up and saw Jolene craning her neck to see.

“Normal,” Harry said, too taxed to say more than that one word.  Louis breathed again, heart jerking and leaping in his chest as he did his job and kept the flashlight trained on them.  He could almost feel Harry’s muscles working, knew his back must be acting up from the way he twinged and resettled himself before the next contraction.

When it came, Louis could hear Harry’s breath punch out of him as he gave one final tug.  The calf’s hind legs slid out onto the wet grass, its whole body flopping oddly.  For a long moment nothing happened.  Louis felt his legs go numb as he watched the prone figure in the wavering beam of his flashlight.  He took a cautious step forward.

Then it stirred.  Harry glanced over his shoulder, flashing him a big smile.  “Live calf,” he said.

Louis sighed in relief.  The little thing was struggling to stand up already, blinking and making soft snorting noises in the rain.  Jolene was looking back at it with keen interest, and Louis held the light on it so that she could see.

“Oh my god,” he said.  “Oh my god, oh my -- Harry.”  Louis’s voice cracked as he watched Harry help the calf take its first steps, tottering around Jolene’s big body, both of them almost slipping in the wet earth.  He’d never felt religious before, not ever.  Not while sitting between his parents on the hard pews in the little white Lutheran church in Long Prairie, not while touring Olympia and Delphi, not while listening to the deep, doubtless words of Romanian Orthodox chants.  But it’s like… his mind groped for words as he saw Jolene nuzzling her newborn, calmly licking away the traces of amniotic fluid that hadn’t been washed off by the rain.  This is a miracle.  It’s a miracle; that’s what it is.  Louis felt a shiver prickle him all over, and then he locked eyes with Harry.

His eyes were wet, luminous and full of emotion, and Louis’s heart broke open when he saw the soft smile Harry had on his face.  It overwhelmed him.  He took a shuddering breath, leaning forward so that he could see the calf.  Harry stripped a glove off and held his hand out, inviting him.  Louis took it, almost dropping the flashlight, and squeezed.  He let Harry steady him as he stepped over to them, sniffling a little -- Harry squeezed back, the feel of their hands together electrifying and so perfect.  Louis looked up and saw the relief on Harry’s features, fragile and tired, like he was also on the verge of crying.  Saw it in his nose.

“What are you going to name, um… him?” Louis whispered.

“Her,” Harry gently corrected.

Louis laced their fingers together and squeezed Harry’s hand again.  So many thoughts and emotions were whirling through his head, and Harry’s hand felt like a lightning rod.  Easing some of them.  Lighting him up.  I can’t believe it, Louis thought.  He watched the calf make her way down Jolene’s body to her udder, navigating mostly by smell.  Her eyes were wide and startled, but determined.  She found a teat and began to suck insistently at it.  I just can’t…  Life was so beautiful in that moment, Louis couldn’t form words.

Harry slipped his hand out of Louis’s and began to unbutton his fleece-lined slicker, shrugging it off his broad shoulders.  He carefully placed it on the calf’s back, easing her front legs through the sleeves and rolling them up.  Snapping up the front under her belly as she went on suckling.

“‘S important to keep ‘em warm,” Harry muttered.  Louis could almost feel the weight of his emotion; Harry wasn’t disguising it with his gruff voice.  He stood up, running a hand through his wet hair.  “Louis,” he said.

Louis looked up at him, the rainwater tracing paths on his face.  He nodded.  Harry just smiled, his flannel shirt already soaked through even though the storm was beginning to move off.

“Very good luck,” Louis said.

Harry’s smile quavered as it stretched wider, and then he turned away.  Jolene was starting to have contractions again, even as the first calf was nursing.  “Louis, we’ve got to… gloves…”

Louis followed him to the vet kit, holding the light for him.  After Harry was gloved and lubed, he pushed a hand in to feel for the second calf.  He immediately frowned.

“Shit,” he muttered, slipping the other hand in and looking off into the distance, blinking, as he double-checked.

“What?” Louis asked, panic spiking in his chest.  “What is it?”

“I feel hooves,” said Harry, “but no head.”

Louis leapt forward, peering at the place where Harry’s arms were buried in Jolene as if he would be able to see something.  “What does that mean?” he asked, sharply.

A line appeared between Harry’s brows as he frowned, his face pale in the light rain.  “If they’re the front hooves,” he said, “then the head is back, and the calf will be born dead.  Nothing we can do.  If they’re --”

“What?” Louis interjected, accidentally flashing the light in Harry’s face as his heart constricted with fear.  Harry grimaced and squinched his eyes shut, pulling his hands out.  “What?  But --”

“If they’re the hind hooves,” Harry continued, voice rising but still gritty, like he was fighting not to lose it.  “Then the calf’ll be born backwards, and it’ll still have a chance.”

“Only a chance?” Louis asked.

Harry took a deep breath, pushing it out through his mouth.  “Yeah,” he said.  “A chance.  When the calf is backwards, it…  A lot of the time it starts trying to breathe too soon, when it’s still inside.  And it inhales fluid and, um.  It can drown.”

“Oh,” Louis said.  He felt like he was going to choke, all of a sudden.

“We just have to wait,” Harry said, shaking his head as he hunkered down.  “We just have to wait and see.”

Louis felt brittle, like a frozen soap bubble of a person as he walked around to Jolene’s head again.  He could still see her contractions, but she didn’t seem to be pushing as hard.  Her eyes were tired.  Louis’s throat was dry, and he didn’t know what to say to her as he knelt down.  He swallowed, and it felt scratchy.

Push, he thought.  Come on.

She’d give a feeble moo now and again, over the course of the next few hours, every time her body seized up.  Louis glanced up at Harry, who was standing at her rear and seemed to be boring a hole into her with his eyes.  Each time he slipped a hand in, Louis waited expectantly.  But Harry would just shake his head, shift his weight, and chew on his lip.

The rain had let up, at least.  There was a high wind coming down from the mountain.  The healthy little calf finally finished sucking and curled up in the lee of Jolene’s big body to sleep in the rain slicker.  Louis brought over the wool blanket from the ATV, throwing it over both the cow and the calf for more warmth.  Jolene was almost asleep, too.  She was barely doing anything to help her second calf along.

One more contraction, and Harry’s hands were back inside, feeling.

“There’s been a little progress,” he said, doubtfully.  “I think…  I definitely feel a tail.”

Louis let out a sigh, tension rushing right back in behind it.  “Then there’s a chance,” he said.  “Right?”

“It’s just been in the birth canal for so long,” Harry frowned.  “I…  Hold on.  Just let me…”

Louis watched the next few contractions with bated breath, early morning air freezing his lungs.  Harry was using his whole body to pull the calf, exerting much more force than he had with the first one, and it was hard going.  Eventually, two hind legs were peeking out.  They looked stiffer than the first calf’s front legs had looked, standing out at slightly odd angles.

Harry sat down in the mud as he leaned back, shivering and taking a few deep breaths.  Louis could tell that he was both cold and sweating.  Steam was beginning to rise from Jolene’s rear, the first signs of dawn beginning to soften the sky.  Had they been out here that long?  Louis almost shook himself, blinking his tired eyes.  The whole night.  He was cold, still damp, and various muscles were beginning to complain.

“I can’t --”  Harry’s voice cut through the silence.  “I need a calf jack.  Or they’re both gonna…”

Louis felt like his heart was being held down at the corners and it was twisting, wrenching itself to get free.  He took a step forward.  “There’s more rope in the ATV,” he said.  “Maybe I could help pull.”

Harry turned his green, tear-brightened eyes up to him just as the first bird of the morning started to sing.  “Yeah,” he said, weakly.  “I guess that’s the only thing to try.”

He pushed himself wearily to his feet.  His jeans were spattered with blood and wet earth, his beautiful hair slicked to the side, unruly curls tangled around his neck.  Louis watched him trudge to the ATV as Jolene started another contraction.  Louis glanced at her, but her head was down.  She wasn’t pushing.

“You can’t just give up,” Louis whispered in a fit of frustration.  But fresh tears were pricking his eyes.  He knew how exhausted she must be, what an ordeal she’d already been through.  The first calf was still peacefully sleeping at her side, completely unaware of any danger.  He turned away from them, rubbing at his nose.  He felt like he was on a slowly sinking ship.

“Louis!”

He blinked, whipping his head around.  Harry was standing at the back of the ATV.  His eyes were wide, wind-chapped lips parted.  “Louis!” he called again.  He was waving the fence stretcher.

Louis was so spent, he couldn’t do anything but shrug his shoulders up in a silent question.  Why’s he so excited about that?  Jolene isn’t a broken fence...

Harry slammed the lid of the storage compartment and came running over, the short chain clanking around his elbow and more rope in his other hand.  “Louis, quick!  Hurry, hurry, put the parking brake on and clip the chain to the stretcher.”

Louis gathered his bleary thoughts.  Harry’s sudden energy was infectious, and he obviously had some sort of plan in mind.  “What are we --?” he asked, gathering the chain and glancing over his shoulder as he jogged to the ATV.

“Gonna use the fence stretcher as an emergency calf jack,” Harry said.  He was looping the rope around the calf’s ankles with quick, efficient movements.   “It’s dangerous,” he added, body stilling as he concentrated, “‘cause the stretcher can exert too much pressure, sometimes.  But it’s our only choice.  That calf is not gonna come any other way.”

Louis nodded, excitement beginning to zip through his heart as he used the chain to anchor the fence stretcher to the ATV.  Harry tossed him the end of the rope and he quickly threaded it through, thanking fate and the universe that he already knew how the little device worked.

It’s got to, he thought, his fingers shaking as he made sure everything was ready.  It’s got to work.

When Harry was finished, he turned back to Louis with a determined glint in his eye.  “I’m going to be doing this,” he said, pointing at the stretcher, “and you’re gonna guide the calf out.”

“I --” Louis’s voice cracked, his mouth dropping open.

“I know you don’t know what you’re doing.  Just try to make sure things keep moving.”  Harry nodded toward the vet kit, where the box of gloves was peeking out.  “You’ll get a feel for it as you go.”

Louis nodded and shakily put on a pair of gloves, coating his hands in the last of the lubricant as he stationed himself by the calf.

“And tell me when the contractions start and stop!” Harry said.  He had his hand on the ratchet.  The rope that was secured around the calf’s ankles came down at an angle, threaded through the stretcher where fencing wire would normally go.  When Harry cranked the ratchet mechanism, the stretcher would pull on the rope with more force than he’d be able to exert pulling by hand.

They didn’t have long to wait.  Even though Jolene wasn’t doing much active pushing anymore, her body was still experiencing strong contractions every few minutes.

“Here’s one!” Louis said.  He felt Harry lean down on the ratchet, the rope going taut around the calf’s ankles.  His breath was caught in his throat.  “Keep pushing,” he whispered to Jolene.  “Come on.  You can do it.  Just this last little bit.”  The calf made some progress, even though Louis could tell Harry was being conservative about the amount of torque he was applying.

Louis gingerly slipped his hands in with the next contraction, trying to massage the calf through.  It was an odd sensation, but he didn’t dwell on it -- not when the hind legs were coming smoothly, the calf’s rear end presenting itself unceremoniously to Harry’s delighted whoop of celebration.  A bit more fluid gushed out around it, and Louis could see the ragged edges of the amniotic sac still clinging to the calf, trailing down its legs.  The physical realities of birth didn’t faze him anymore.

“Let’s try for next one,” Harry said, giving them both a chance to breathe when the calf’s stomach was through.  “Just guide its shoulders through and its head’ll come.”

Louis nodded, drawing himself up from the bottom of his wellies.  He could do that.  His knees were burning from how he was squatting, his back aching from bending at an odd angle, but it was almost over now.  The calf was going to come.  They were going to do it.  He watched for a moment as Harry searched the wet ground for something.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Just -- ah, good.”  Harry plucked a thin, straight stick out of the grass and held it up.  “Hope I won’t need this,” he said.  Louis was puzzled, but before he could ask any questions, it was time.

“Go!” he cried, and saw Harry ratchet up the tension.  He could feel the calf’s shoulders, coming straight and easy.  Louis almost laughed at how simple it was, the last contraction, Jolene finally pitching in again to push her little calf’s head out of her body.  It slid smoothly out onto the grass.

“We did it!” Louis cried.  “It’s here!  Harry -- ”

But his voice died when he looked down at the new baby.  It wasn’t breathing.  He knew the other calf had taken a few moments to begin its life, but those few moments had already come and gone.  And this calf wasn’t breathing.  Wasn’t moving at all.

Louis slipped, and almost fell out of the way as Harry came to kneel over it.  “‘S what I thought might happen,” he said, grimly.  “Started breathing too early, aspirated amniotic fluid.”  Louis could see his fingers working, clearing the calf’s nostrils and mouth of goop.  He watched, riveted, as Harry bent over and closed his mouth around the calf’s little muzzle, sucking out what his fingers couldn’t reach, clearing the way for the cool morning air.

“Come on,” he whispered, leaning back on his heels to give the calf some room.  “Breathe, baby.”

Louis felt like his own heart had stopped beating, suddenly too aware of his own shaky breaths.  Second after second ticked away, and nothing.  Nothing.  It’s been too long, he thought, his whole body sinking as his shoulders slumped.  It’s been too long now.  It must not -- it’s not going to...

But Harry hadn’t given up hope.  He pulled the little stick out of his pocket and was bending over again, inserting it into one nostril after the other.  Moving it back and forth with quick, sure twists of his wrist.

“What’s --?” Louis started asking.  Harry answered right away, tense words hopping out of his mouth like he was glad of the distraction.

“Trying to stimulate its sneeze reflex, jump-start breathing.  This works, sometimes, if the airway is clear enough and the calf isn’t too depressed.”

Louis nodded shakily.  He felt like his head was swimming, exhausted tears flowing freely as the sun rose behind them.  The craggy mountains were gray in the distance.  Louis sat by Jolene, stripping off his gloves and running a hand over one of her legs as he waited.  And waited.

Then --

A tiny snort.  Louis’s back stiffened, his hand stilling as he tried to crane his neck around Harry to see.  There was a snuffle, and then movement.

“Live calf!” Harry cried.  He turned around, eyes red-rimmed and smiling widely, almost laughing in relief.  Louis gasped, putting a hand to his mouth when he saw the little calf blinking and lifting its head to look at them.  It seemed a bit dazed, but otherwise unaffected, already trying to stand on its wobbly legs.  Louis felt his jaw quaver, a sudden, last rush of tears spilling over as he reached out and drew Harry into a fierce hug.

“You did it,” he whispered, standing on his tiptoes, fisting Harry’s collar as he melted into his arms.

“We did it,” Harry said, gently.  “I think -- I think...”  He let out a deep sigh and pulled Louis in closer.  “We’re gonna make it.”

Louis’s heart leapt free, thudding against his sternum and up into his throat as he took a shuddering breath.  We’re gonna make it.  He lifted his chin and met Harry’s eyes.  They were already on him, infinitely tender, relief and affection shining through them.  “I --” he began.  Louis was wet and cold, but he felt warm where Harry was touching him, fully aware of how their bodies were pressed together.  Every shift of Harry’s weight, Louis felt it, and suddenly he was shivering with anticipation.

His eyes flickered to Harry’s chapped lips.  “I --” he said again, his brain searching for words as he took another deep breath, steeling himself.  He felt Harry’s fingers tighten around the backs of his arms, their chests molded to each other.  “I really want…”  His voice trailed off, small and uncertain.  He was feeling so many things, so overwhelmed in that moment that he didn't know what to focus on.  “I'm really proud of us, Harry," he said, finally.  "I'm so proud of you."

Harry’s smile grew even wider, and Louis tucked his head into Harry’s neck, heart rabbiting as he tried to hide the blush on his face.  He felt the soft press of lips on his hair.

“I’ve got to check on Jolene,” Harry whispered.  Louis nodded and they broke apart.  He laughed when he saw that the second calf had already managed to smell out Jolene’s udder, and was calmly sucking next to its sister.

“It’s a boy, by the way,” Harry said, throwing a lopsided grin over his shoulder as he loped over to the vet kit.  Louis laughed again in pure delight and went over the rearrange the wool blanket around the twins.  They looked so much alike, splashes of white on auburn, pink noses quivering as they nursed.  The second one, the boy, was slightly smaller, his movements a bit weaker than his sister’s.  But he was on the right track.

“What are you going to call them?” Louis asked.  He glanced back at Harry as he reached down to pet Jolene, fluffing up her drying hair.  Couldn’t look away for long, even at the calves.  They were wonderful -- fascinating and new -- but Louis wanted to commit every detail of Harry to memory.  The exact way his flannel sleeves were rolled up around his forearms, the stretch of his jeans over his thighs and the way he couldn’t help himself either, couldn’t stop his eyes from searching out Louis’s.

He shrugged, gloves on again as he took care of the afterbirth, cleaning and disinfecting the area as best he could.  “Not sure… what do you think?”

“Sally,” said Louis, just as Harry said “Paul.”

There was a moment of silence before Louis muttered, “Well, great minds obviously think alike.”  Harry burst out laughing, and that was that.  The calves were Sally and Paul.

A couple minutes later, while Harry was still tending to Jolene with the vet kit, Louis heard the sound of a motor.  It was Niall and Paul in one of the Fords, cattle trailer hitched to the back.  Louis watched as Niall popped open the passenger side door and swung himself out, sprinting up to them.

“Holy shit!” he cried.  He bent over, staring at the calves, hands on his knees and breathing heavily.  He was in the same dirty clothes he’d been in the night before, with a new welt purpling on his left arm.  His face looked haggard.  Apparently they weren’t the only ones who’d had a rough night.  “What happ-- holy shit!” he breathed again, blinking back and forth between Louis and Harry.

Paul joined them after backing the trailer up.  He walked over to pat Harry on the back with a sort of paternal air, taking a good look at the calves.

“Paul, meet Paul,” Harry said.

“Oh, I see,” Paul said, in his gruff, low voice.  “You go and name the runt after me.”

Harry giggled, his whole face brightening.  He looked like a winsome girl of the morning all of a sudden, so endearing, and it made something burst in Louis’s heart.  Louis could only stare at him as he began to explain what had happened.  He was animated, overtired, but burning off his nervous energy -- still tending to Jolene with his hands, and he couldn’t help gesturing with his shoulders.  Biting his lip, biceps flexing.  Louis felt his breath catch.

“... her contractions were already coming every three minutes.  Must have been in labor all day.  She kept trying to wander off toward the crick, and then my horse spooked…  But thank God, Louis was a big help.”  His grin widened.  “My lovely assistant.  Hero, really.  Couldn’t have done it without him.”

Louis rolled his eyes, beyond pleased, as Paul came up to shake his hand.

“Good going,” he said, clapping him on the back.  Louis’s cheeks flushed, and he felt the sides of his mouth twitch up involuntarily, his face already aching a little from how much he was smiling.

He shrugged.  “First time touching a vagina,” he said.  “Apparently I’m amazing at it.”  He felt a flutter in his chest when Harry snickered.

Paul and Niall listened to the rest of the story with rapt attention, Paul asking a few questions here and there as Niall paced, muttering to himself, guilty at not having sent out a search party for them.  “I was going to,” he said, “obviously.  But you said everything was fine before you cut out, and then the heifers didn’t want to move, and Germaine slipped in the mud --”

Harry’s head jerked up, brows drawn in concern.  “What?  Is she okay?”

Niall winced, glancing down at his bruised arm.  “Sprained one of her hock joints.  It was… tough, getting her to the barn.  Dr. Christine’s here; she’s with her now.”

“Okay,” Harry nodded.  “That’s good.  Jolene should probably get antibiotics, and the calves definitely need to be checked out.”

Louis drifted into the background as Niall and Paul helped Harry move Jolene and the calves into the trailer, busying himself by tidying up the vet kit and folding the blanket, collecting used gloves and other bits of detritus in a plastic bag.  He packed the chain and the fence stretcher back into the four wheeler, which Paul offered to gas up with the emergency half-gallon tank that Harry kept in his truck and drive back to the house.

Harry and Niall were deep in discussion about Germaine’s leg when Louis hopped up to join them in the crowded cab of the truck.  He began to tune them out as a wave of happy tiredness washed over him.  The adrenaline rush was fading, and he was becoming more aware of the little things -- his itchy contacts were bothering him; his feet hurt, his knees sore from squatting for so long.  Harry was going on about hock joint injuries, totally focused as Niall drove, but his body was angled toward Louis.  Their legs were pressed together, Harry’s right hand splayed so that the tips of his fingers were barely brushing Louis’s wrist.  He stroked over it a few times, casually, before pressing his thumb into the meat of Louis’s thigh.  Louis had to bite his lip to keep his smile under control.

He turned to the open window and watched the wild beauty of the ranch rush by, the sounds of the morning drowned out by the engine of the truck.  He could smell the fresh air, pleasantly mingling with exhaust.  Spring flowers were in bloom, sparse but gorgeous.  A pair of birds flirted, flitting by them, colors shifting as the sun rose and dawn matured into day.

Niall and Harry kept up their conversation, Niall filling Harry in on the situation with the rest of the heifers.  Louis let their voices wash over him, Harry’s touch almost hypnotic on his leg as he let his mind wander.  He’ll take care of things, and then…  Louis repressed a shiver.  Harry broke off, laughing in relief as Niall took the final turn into the drive.  He tapped Louis on the shoulder and pointed.  His runaway horse was back in the paddock, grazing calmly next to the other horses, still wearing its waterlogged saddle.

Louis grinned back at him, and they shared a quiet moment, faces stilling as they just looked at each other, drinking each other in, until Niall parked and turned off the engine.  He hopped out of the truck, waiting for Harry to follow.

“Later,” Harry whispered, a rush of breath with just a hint of roughness around the edges.  He raised his eyebrows and smiled before sliding out after Niall.

Louis felt a burst of electricity prickle over his skin.  He was already missing Harry’s hand on him.  God.  Later.

He breathed for a moment, then climbed down from the cab and marched up the front path to the house, wet socks squelching in his wellies.  His knees still felt shaky.  He glanced back over his shoulder as he opened the screen door.  Paul was unlocking the back of the trailer, Niall ready to help move Jolene and the twins into the barn.  Harry was greeting a handsome, gray-haired woman who Louis assumed was the vet.

Louis slipped inside the quiet foyer.  He took a hot shower, trying not to think too much as he toweled himself off and fell into bed with just a pair of sweatpants on, not even bothering to pull the bedclothes up over his back.

He felt wonderful as he drifted off, relaxed and safe and taken care of.  The sounds of Mrs. Burden tidying up out in the hall, doing the laundry and ironing, lulled him.  Harry was out in the barn.  Looking after babies...  The thought carried him into a dream.

*

He woke to a sharp knock on the door.

“Louis!” he heard.  It was Mrs. Burden’s voice.  “Harry sent me to make sure you were awake.  Your plane for Denver leaves in an hour!”

Denver?

Louis had forgotten all about Anne’s fundraiser.  He’d been so completely wrapped up in Jolene and the calves, the way he’d felt, shivering in Harry’s arms when it was all over…  He hadn’t given two thoughts to Denver.

“Yeah,” he croaked, blinking and pushing himself up, running a hand through his messy hair.  “Yeah, I’ll…”

His mind was racing.  Louis wanted Harry.  He wanted him all to himself, wanted a chance to solidify whatever had grown between them.  But now he had to rush around, pack his suitcase and try to remember where he’d put his keys.

Later… he thought to himself.  Later.

He smiled, imagining Harry in a tux.

*

Their plane landed southeast of the city in gorgeous weather, and bright spring sunlight was reflecting off the windows of the airport’s lone terminal as they crossed the tarmac.  

“Fucking weird, isn’t it?” Niall asked Louis, shielding his eyes from the glare as he glanced around to draw attention to the fact that there was no one else to look at.   

Louis nodded.  It was.  Surreal, even.  Not the type of life experience Louis had ever expected to have, travelling by private jet, and now he’d fallen asleep on a fancy leather couch aboard one.

Hadn’t ever expected to help a cow give birth in the pouring rain, either.  His mouth twisted into a little smirk at the extremes of the past twenty or so hours, and he instinctively snuck a glance back at Harry while he thought about it all.  His heart swelled sharply and skipped a beat at the sight of him, shuffling along behind them with his garment bag thrown over one arm.  He was still sleep-mussed from the flight, his aviator sunglasses crooked on his nose and his hair like a mad scientist’s.  It was adorable.   

“What?” Harry asked in a rumble, a slow smile spreading across his face.  

Louis shrugged and stopped to wait for him, raising his eyebrows, unable to keep from smiling back.  “Nothing,” he said, reaching out and tugging at one of the belt loops on Harry’s jeans.  

“Oh yeah?”  Harry took a welcome step into Louis’s personal space, his smile now a grin as he looked down at him.  

Louis wanted to kiss him so much it felt like his whole body was screaming for it, his skin tingling.   

“Oh brother,” Niall called out from the door to the terminal, rolling his eyes.  “Would you guys get a move on?  Our rides are already here!”

They stared at each other for another delicious, lingering beat before breaking into slightly giddy laughter and following after Niall, Harry’s hand resting on Louis’s lower back.

Later, Louis thought, in time with his fluttering pulse.  Later.     

Harry had arranged for separate cars to take them into the city.  Louis needed to pick up some things at his place -- the suit he’d worn when he’d first gone out to Wyoming wasn’t right for this type of event, and he wanted to pack up some of his other clothes so he’d have them when they returned to Sheridan.  Plus, he’d promised Zayn they could have a drink together, just the two of them, before heading over to the fundraiser.  He couldn’t help but feel a little cheated out of precious seconds with Harry, though, all dressed to the nines.

Harry seemed to be thinking the same thing, because he caught Louis’s wrist while standing in the open door of the first black Lincoln Town Car and smiled down at him like he had out on the tarmac.

“See you there?” he asked, rubbing gently at Louis’s delicate skin and making a warm ball of light grow in Louis’s chest.

Louis nodded.

“Save me a dance,” Harry said, raising his eyebrows twice in a ridiculous fashion, his eyes twinkling.

It surprised a delighted laugh out of Louis, but also made him go hot and heady with anticipation, a shiver running down his back.  God.  Just the thought of being pressed close to Harry like that again.  Sturdy and strong.

“Okay,” he said softly.  “I will.”

“Good,” Harry said, with a single, decisive nod.  Then he slipped into the car at Niall’s prompting.

Louis watched them pull away before he got into his own car, an incredible buoyancy filling him.  He sighed contentedly as the driver took him up through the suburbs, sparse landscape giving way to tree-lined neighborhoods as they passed through Glendale into Cherry Creek, with its big mall and chichi eateries and art galleries.  Finally they were on the quiet, almost too-narrow streets of Capitol Hill, driving past slightly run-down bars and secluded playgrounds, and tattooed twentysomethings out walking their dogs.  Louis was home.

*

He was still floating when he arrived at Zayn’s just over an hour and a half later, freshly showered and dressed in his nicest suit, smiling up at the building as he was buzzed in.  Zayn had a condo in Cap Hill a few blocks west of Cheesman Park, within walking distance of Louis’s apartment.  He had been muttering for a while about buying a house, but Louis suspected he never would unless he met a nice lady and settled down.  It was hard to imagine Zayn ever mowing a lawn.

“Louis!  How you been, man?” Zayn asked, pulling Louis in and thumping him on back after he opened the door.

They both broke into easy laughter just from the pleasure of being around each other again.  God, it was nice.  Louis loved Zayn’s spindly hugs and stupidly perfect face.

“Good,” Louis said, unable to keep the effervescent happiness out of his voice as he pulled out of the embrace.  He set his suitcase aside in the entryway and followed Zayn into the kitchen.  “Yeah…  I’m -- I’m really good.  How’re you?”

“That’s good,” Zayn said, leveling him with an appraising stare after grabbing two beers from the fridge.  “I’m good.”

Louis squirmed a little under the scrutiny and scrubbed at his brow, immediately thinking back to his frantic, over-the-top phone call a few weeks before.

Harry Styles is hot, okay?  He’s hot and he’s flirting with me…

“Any progress on the deed front?”  Zayn’s tone was casual as he levered their bottles open, but Louis knew better, and the question brought him quickly down to Earth.

There’s a reason you went to Wyoming, he reminded himself, a touch of doubt creeping back into his heart and deflating his sails.  And it wasn’t to fucking fall in love.  If that’s -- I mean...

“Not --” Louis cleared his throat, picking at the label of his beer and not making eye contact.  “Not really…”

Zayn nodded.  He took a long swig of beer, not saying anything else, just rocking back on his heels a little and looking directly at Louis with his pretty eyes.

Louis scowled internally.  Fucking Zayn.  He could wait anybody out in an awkward silence.  Louis didn’t want to spill, though.  He didn’t want to talk about Harry outside a context of uncomplicated happiness right then.  He just wanted to have it.  To have Harry, without the rest of the bullshit.  It was irritating to be reminded that he couldn’t.

“How’d you get this?” he asked, purposefully changing the subject.  He waved his bottle of New Glarus Moon Man around in front of Zayn’s face.  New Glarus beer wasn’t legally available for purchase outside the state of Wisconsin, and as far as Louis knew Zayn hadn’t been home since December.

Zayn sighed, and rolled his eyes.  He knew exactly what Louis was doing, but he was a great friend, so he let him do it.  For the time being, anyway.  “Waliyha came through on a road trip out to California, and brought me two cases as payment for letting her and boyfriend crash here for a week.”

“Oh yeah?  How’s she doing?”

Their conversation quickly turned to the rest of Zayn’s sisters and his parents back in Madison and how everyone was.  Louis felt himself relax as they talked, but there was a distracting little itch of worry underneath it all -- thoughts about the land deal and his job and the rest of his life that he’d been completely ignoring for the past week or so.  It made him feel anxious to get to the gala, to see Harry and let his wonderful presence make all of Louis’s resurfacing concerns irrelevant again.

If I can just see him, it’ll be okay.

They split a cab over to the fundraiser, still reminiscing about Madison on the way.  The Great Hall at Union Station was a beautiful, open space with a vaulted ceiling, huge, arched windows, and gorgeously restored chandeliers.  It had historically been a passenger waiting area at the station, and hosted most of the city’s fancy society events now that it had been renovated.  It reminded them both of the Overture Center in Madison, where they’d worked in in-house catering for most of their college careers.

Zayn was laughing and Louis had a wide grin plastered on his face as they entered the hall, rehashing an old story.  Legendary Packers quarterback Bart Starr had been the guest of honor at a Boys and Girls Club luncheon that they’d both worked their senior year, and Louis had gotten to clear his plate at the end of the meal.  It was absurd, fighting over the right to dispose of someone’s leftover food scraps, but everyone had been angling to do it, so Louis had been understandably smug.  Months later, he had found out Zayn had told the story to his family, but had said that he’d been the one who had cleared Bart’s plate.  Lying like that was so ridiculously out of character for Zayn that Louis had vowed never to let him live it down.

“Well, what was I supposed to do, really?” Zayn asked, after they’d stashed Louis’s suitcase in coat check.  “Let a Vikings fan get all the glory?”

Louis rolled his eyes and snorted.  He’d barely counted as a Vikings fan before he’d gone to college, and Zayn knew he’d been long since converted.

“Who’s the Bart Starr here tonight, hmm?” he asked, glancing about at stately men in tuxedos and women in gowns, all dressed up to support pancreatic cancer research.  His ridiculous heart was at a gallop.  Any of these people might be Harry.  Louis might see him any second now, and he wanted that so much it ached.  He just wanted to be near Harry again.  He smirked at Zayn, hoping his distraction wasn’t obvious.  “And who is the horribly untrustworthy Zayn Malik?”

Zayn scoffed, smiling and rolling his eyes.  “Well, which one’s the Louis Tomlinson, then?” he retorted, craning his neck as he looked around as well.  “I’ll just keep an eye out for the server who won’t stop checking out his own ass in reflective surfaces when he’s supposed to be passing champagne.”

Louis burst out laughing, nudging Zayn with his shoulder as they got in line for the bar at the center of the big event space.

Just after they’d gotten their gin and tonics and turned back to face the crowd, Louis spotted Harry in a cluster of people across the room, near one of the Great Hall’s many decorative lampposts.  His heart leapt in his chest, adrenaline sweeping through him.  Harry Styles in a tux did not disappoint.  He looked sharp and strong in black, the width of his shoulders perfect above his lean hips, his hair in loose waves.

Louis had already led Zayn halfway over to him on thoughtless autopilot before he realized something was off.  There was a unnatural stiffness in Harry’s posture, a tension in his brow, and his mouth was turned down heavily at the corners.  Louis’s eyes flickered over to Niall, looking uncomfortable and nervous next to Harry, and his pulse started racing for an entirely new reason.

He stuttered to a stop a few feet behind them, unsure if he should interrupt at all, but not before Anne Twist had seen him.

Shit, he thought, shifting in unease.  Shit.

“Mr. Tomlinson!” she called out, her perfectly maintained brows arching above her eyes.  She was in a well-structured, royal purple gown, and Louis realized then he’d always thought of her as some sort of queen -- cool and controlled, with a stately, removed beauty.  It was strange to think she even knew him by name.  “Mr. Malik!”

Louis flushed slightly as they were let into the circle, suddenly afraid to make eye contact with Harry even though he felt his presence so strongly it made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

“Gentlemen,” she gestured to the well-dressed man on her right.  “This is Walter Mohs, CEO of National Energy Group.  He’s in town for business, so we invited him to the fundraiser as a special guest.”

National Energy Group.  Louis’s mouth went dry, his heart plummeting to his feet.  The subsidiary that wanted to buy Harry’s oil.

“Walter,” she said, nodding at him, “Louis Tomlinson and Zayn Malik, two of my best and brightest.”

Louis’s palm was clammy as he shook Walter Mohs’s meaty hand.  The tension in the air was making it difficult for him to breathe.  He’d been blindsided by this turn of events, and felt utterly foolish for it.

“Ah,” Mohs said, his deep voice booming.  “Mr. Tomlinson.  Your man in the field?”

Louis’s stomach lurched and he felt Harry go even stiffer across the circle.  Anne just smiled and nodded.

“Say, Styles, speaking of,” Mohs continued, turning his body toward Harry, “how are things back on the farm, these days?”

Harry sniffed and waited a beat before responding with a tight smile on his face, his tone clipped.  “The ranch is fine.  Thank you for asking.”

Louis blinked, trying to keep from going too obviously wide-eyed from their exchange as his gaze darted back to Mohs.  The man appeared to be in his mid-sixties, with the sort of formerly blond hair that doesn’t quite go gray, but just dulls into colorlessness.  He was tall, more barrel-chested than you’d expect for a CEO, and he seemed to take up more than his fair share of space in the giant room.

Louis heard his mother’s voice in his head then, something she’d said to him once at the kitchen table when he was sixteen.  She'd probably assumed he’d forget it right away, like most of the advice she gave him.  But he’d always remembered it.  Watch out for those men, Louis.  The ones who only state their opinion as fact.  There’ll be lots of them.  Don’t become one, either.

“I’m glad,” Walter Mohs said, bobbing his head at Harry.  “That’s great news.  I only asked because I’d heard you’d had a little trouble with a barn as of late.  Sort of bad timing for replacing it, I guess, with that write-off code changing this year, is all.”

Harry looked positively steely beneath his smile.  “Well, I doubt anyone is surprised to hear you’re well-versed in potential tax breaks, Walter.”

Mohs let out a long, slow chuckle, raising his scotch at Harry.  “Excellent point, son.”

Louis felt Zayn shift his weight next to him and wondered if he felt the poisonous electricity in the air, too.  If he was also desperate to take a large slug of his gin as soon as this was over.  If it was ever over -- it somehow felt like they’d be trapped in the awkwardness forever.

“And actually,” Harry said cooly, still smiling, even though Louis could see that his hand was shaking around the whiskey sour he was holding, “despite the lowered cap on the Expense Election, we’re in an excellent position to replace our barn given the strength of the cattle market and the amount of working capital we’ve managed to accrue over the past few years.  But, again, thank you for your concern.”

Mohs raised his brows in slight surprise.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me.” Harry said, “I see some other people I should say hello to.”

“By all means,” Mohs drawled magnanimously.

Harry gave him a curt nod, and then he was gone.

Anne let out a chuckle.  If she felt ruffled by the situation at all, she didn’t show it.  “Walt, why don’t I introduce you around to some of the Styles Foundation’s more prominent patrons?  I’m sure they’d love to meet you.”  She nodded to Zayn, Louis and Niall.  “Nice talking to you, gentlemen.”

Niall turned to them both with wide eyes after everyone had gone, letting out a low whistle.  “Yikes,” he said, laughing nervously.  He gave Louis and Zayn a dubious look.  “Do you guys think they’ll serve us straight shots in this place?”

Twenty minutes later, after Niall and Zayn had been introduced, they had indeed taken a round of tequila shots and were standing at a high-top table, nursing new drinks and trying to make small talk.

The mood was a little off.  Louis felt rattled and horrendously naïve, and he couldn’t help getting lost in his thoughts.  He was trying to remember the morning.  The plane.  What had he been thinking, coming here so high on the fumes of his infatuation?  That he and Harry could flirt all night, work the room as some sort of couple, unbothered by any of the realities of their situation?  That was laughable -- completely, horribly laughable -- and it was making him sick to his stomach.

I hope he’s okay, Louis thought, wondering where Harry had gone off to and with whom he was speaking.  I wish -- God, I still wish I was with him...

Niall made a muttering noise of disgust under his breath during a lull in conversation.

“What?” Louis asked, coming back to reality.

Niall scrubbed a hand over his face and shook his head.  He sighed.  “No offense to you guys, but coming here every year can be a bit of a buzzkill.”

Zayn snorted, pleased.  This was not his preferred atmosphere, either.  Louis was sometimes mystified as to how he’d even decided to become a corporate lawyer.

“I mean,” Niall went on, rolling his eyes, his expression dark.  He glanced around quickly to make sure no one was listening and lowered his voice.  “That Walter Mohs guy back there?  What a fucking chump.”

Zayn burst into outright laughter this time, and Louis couldn’t help but join in. He felt a weird surge of affection for Niall, that he would use the word ‘chump’ and that it would somehow be just right.

“No, I’m serious!” Niall said, even though he was smiling a little too, now, toying with a cocktail napkin.  “Like, he’s trying to buy Harry’s land, right?  And he’s all like,” he puffed out his chest and adopted a meathead tone of voice, “‘Oh, I know how I’ll do it, I’ll just insult his way of life, that’s how!  Ha ha ha, I’m a corporate genius.’”  He took a swig of his beer as Zayn and Louis chuckled.  “Complete jackass is what he is.”

Louis felt his sour mood lift just a bit, having the source of their awkwardness out in the open.  Zayn looked more relaxed as well.

“You were here last year?” Zayn asked, genuinely curious.

Niall nodded.  “Yeah, I come with ‘im every year.  It’s like --” he started ripping the napkin to shreds, looking back and forth between the two of them.  He shook his head.  “I don’t know if I should really be telling you this, but it’s tough for him, being here, you know?  All this stuff about his dad.  All these people who think he should have gone into business…”

Louis felt very emotional all of a sudden, a wicked tightening in his chest at the idea of Harry feeling vulnerable.  He was so intensely glad Harry had Niall in his life that his arms felt strangely weak.

Jesus Christ, I’m in deep, he realized.  Too deep.

Niall started to laugh, suddenly.  “Dude,” he said to Zayn.  “I actually remember you from last year, cause I was like, trying to keep Harry’s mind off stuff and we were making up backstories for people from afar.  You are really good-looking.”

Zayn blushed a little bit, and Louis started to laugh again.  It was true, of course.  Zayn was really good-looking.  That was probably an understatement, actually.  Zayn had exactly the kind of hauntingly beautiful face -- lovely dark brown eyes, pouty little lips, perfect bone structure -- that you would remember a year later.

“What kind of story did you make up for him?” Louis asked, giggling a little at how Zayn was squirming.

“Actually,” Niall said, making a sheepish face of amusement at Zayn, “now that I think about it, I didn’t really come up with anything for you, specifically.  I was just teasing H, trying to get him to go hit on you.”

Louis laughed again, maybe a shade too loudly.  “Oh, oh!  It gets better and better.”

“He said Zayn wasn’t his type, Louis,” Niall said quickly, giving him a look, like he’d read his jealousy right off him.  “Now, if you’d been here last year…”

That shut Louis up.  He was suddenly jealous of himself, instead.  This lucky former version of Louis Tomlinson that had met Harry Styles at a party without all of these terrible, complicating factors.

That Louis and Harry could have actually danced, Louis realized, his heart twisting sharply.  He felt ridiculously overemotional again.  They would have danced.  We -- we could’ve…

His distress must have been clear on his face, because Niall didn’t laugh at him.  He just made an apologetic noise and gave him a comforting look, and Zayn squeezed his shoulder once.

What is happening to me? Louis wondered.  Just a few hours before, anything had seemed possible.  Now he felt like he could never have the one thing he really wanted.

“Hey Zayn,” Niall said, beaming at Louis, full of pride.  “Did you know your best friend is a hero?”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yep, he helped with the emergency birth of twin calves, just this morning."

“Are you shitting me?” Zayn asked, his head snapping over to look at Louis in disbelief.

Louis’s heart swelled painfully this time, thinking about Sally and Paul, and how fragile and wonderful and new they were.  About how amazing Jolene was.  About how close he’d been to Harry on that hill.

“It -- “ Louis broke off, laughing a little at the thickness in his voice and how clearly close to tears he was.  Zayn squeezed his shoulder again and Louis leaned into the touch, shaking his head.  “It was something else, Zayn.  It was something else.”

“He touched a cow vagina,” Niall announced, grinning and raising his beer in a toast.

Zayn laughed, raising his gin and tonic.  “I’ll drink to that!”

Louis laughed too, recounting the whole story for Zayn before they sat down for dinner and feeling very loved, even though he was still a little worried and a little sad underneath it all.

Louis found his place card at a table in the far corner of the room with a bunch of other paralegals, well back from the podium where the speeches would be given.  It seemed as though everyone else had sat down early, because there were empty beer bottles and highball glasses dotting the table, tucked in between the salads and dinner roll plates.  Nick Grimshaw was already holding court, leaning back in his chair with his long legs crossed and his eyes alert.  Louis got the distinct impression he had been the topic of conversation before he’d arrived because they were all strangely hushed, and Grimshaw’s face was even more smug than usual.

Of course, he thought, sitting down and flicking his cloth napkin onto his lap.  Of course they were talking about you.

He’d been so distracted, so concerned about Harry and the ranch and which cases Grimshaw was trying to snatch from him that he’d only given cursory thought to how it all might look to his peers.  Off in Wyoming for a month, behind on his work, Louis would have been gossiping about himself too.  He’d have been bitching about it, probably, if he’d heard about the double time pay.

“Well, well, well,” Grimshaw said, leaning forward to grab his dinner roll.  “Look who it is, back from his all-inclusive resort vacation!”

So probably they had heard about the double time pay.

“Hello, Nick,” Louis said dryly, nodding around the circle to greet everyone else.

“Hello yourself!” Nick replied as he tore a small piece off the roll and popped it into his mouth.  He smirked.  “Or should I say ‘howdy’ now?  Is that an actual thing?  Do they say that out there?”

Louis just ignored him, reaching for the boat of balsamic vinaigrette.

“Oh come on, Louis, we’ve missed you,” Nick said, a twinkle of mischievous glee in his eye.  “Don’t hold out on us, how’s home on the range?”

Louis snorted and rolled his eyes, trying to seal off his tender emotions so Grimshaw wouldn’t be able to get a rise out of him.  He was always at his most obnoxious after a couple of drinks.

“Home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play…”  Nick started to sing rather tunelessly, moving his hands around a little like a conductor’s, pretending he expected others to join in.  He paused.  “Wait, are there actually antelope?  Do you seldom hear a discouraging word?”

“There are no antelope as far as I know,” Louis said, hoping his disinterested tone would convey how unimpressed he was with Nick’s antics.

He doesn’t even deserve to know how wonderful it is, Louis thought, slightly bitter even though deep down he knew very well that Grimshaw’s condescending perspective used to be his own.  The guilt from it was making him extra irritable, annoyed at that particular reminder.

“I’m surprised you’ve lasted out there so long,” Nick went on, a teasing smirk on his face as he mopped up some salad dressing with his bread.  “Never took you for the outdoorsy type…  Then I saw Ms. Twist’s son, and it all made sense.  I thought -- hmm, he’s very handsome.  Bit of a Brokeback situation, maybe?”

Louis dropped his fork onto his plate with a loud clatter and had to grip the edge of the table to keep from flying off the handle and telling Nick to shut his fucking mouth.  As it was, his reaction was probably revealing enough because the whole table had turned to look at him in surprise, any loose threads of conversation trailing off into silence.

Great.  Louis winced and closed his eyes.  At least they have even more to gossip about now.

When he opened them again, everyone else had suddenly become supremely interested in their salads -- except for Nick, who was staring at him across the table with his eyes wide and his brows incredibly arched.

Drop it, Grimmy, Louis thought, though he couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud.  Just please drop it.

This event was forcing him to confront the fact that despite liking Harry so very much and having grown so close to him, he’d most likely never get to be with him.  Louis felt more and more upset as the realization sank in, until he was perilously close to spinning out of control emotionally -- if Nick pushed him on it, he was afraid he might actually start to cry.

It’s not fair.  It isn’t.

Louis ached to go back to the rainy hillside where Jolene gave birth and never leave the warm cocoon he and Harry had built around themselves.  Back to that time of infinite possibility, when they’d had nothing to be frustrated about at all.  Because we were lying to ourselves, he thought, his throat thick with emotion.

He looked across the table and shrugged with a furrowed brow, and something shifted ever so slightly in Grimshaw’s expression.  He blinked at Louis, then turned to the woman on his right.

“Terri, are you going to eat that dinner roll?” he demanded.  “Because if you don’t, I will.”

Louis let out a slow sigh.  Conversation around the table quickly came back to life as dinner was served, but he barely participated.  He zoned out through the duration of Anne’s remarks, working to keep his mind as blank as possible.

It didn’t work.  The ball in the pit of his stomach just grew heavier as the meal went on, an anxious weight settling over him.  He let his colleagues gossip and talk shop around him, their words washing over him without really registering.  It wasn’t until they were being served after-dinner coffees and the dancefloor was opening up that he caught a thread of conversation.

“No, no, Chesterton and Valley settled,” Nick was saying as he dumped far too much sugar into his coffee.  Louis actually found that vaguely endearing; he’d have assumed Nick took it black.  “We’re moved up to early June, probably.”

“Who’s we?” Louis asked, so suddenly that he startled Nick and Terri Brend, another TwistCorp paralegal.

“Hopkins-Harrington --”

Louis didn’t even let Nick finish before he was asking another question, his heart beating a little faster as he sat forward on his seat.  “Not until August at the earliest, I thought.”

“Well, yes.  It was going to be August,” Nick said, looking much too pleased at how out of the loop Louis had become.  And also like he was tucking Louis's responses away for future reference.  “But Judge Koob had another big case that settled, and she wants to move us up her docket.”  He shrugged.  "Discovery’s closed, so we both agreed.”

Louis bit his lip and nodded curtly.  He could feel a question about the status of the land deal forming on the tip of Nick’s tongue, so he stood up abruptly, murmuring that he had to use the restroom as he sped away from the table.  He bypassed the men’s room and headed up a flight of nearby stairs instead, eventually taking refuge on a cushioned bench in a deserted corner of the third floor mezzanine.

June, he thought, letting his frustration spiral out to his fingertips as a flush spread over his skin.  Early fucking June.

The Hopkins-Harrington case was going to court well ahead of schedule, and he’d had no idea at all.  Louis had invested so much time and effort in it over the past year, and now he was probably going to miss it.  Come June, he would probably still be stuck in Wyoming.

Stuck in Wyoming.  The words echoed through his mind, drenched in sarcasm, and he let out a bleak laugh.  That was part of the problem.  Louis didn’t truly feel stuck in Wyoming anymore, not if he was being honest with himself.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  God, if this fundraiser had been three weeks ago, hearing this type of news would have had him charging off to Zayn in a whirlwind of outraged panic, demanding to be allowed to come home.  But now…

It was another sobering reality check for Louis, and he groaned, plunking his head back against the wall behind him and staring up at the ceiling.  The truth was that he hadn’t really been letting himself think about the future, how long his stay in Sheridan might be.  He’d just let himself get so caught up in the moment, more and more wrapped up in Harry and his feelings for him, that he hadn’t actually been thinking much at all.  Certainly not about the responsibilities of his own life in Denver.  Which he would actually be returning to at some point.

Everything was in such muddle in his mind.  His head had started to ache, just like his heart.  Why can’t it be simple?  Why can’t we just be the only two people in the world?

“I need a fucking drink,” Louis muttered at last, full of self-pity as he heaved himself up off the bench and headed back toward the stairs.  He looked down at the party below through the big arched openings in the wall, skimming his fingers along the sill of the last one before the turn to the stairwell, and stopped short when he heard Harry’s voice around the corner.  A bolt of electricity shot down his spine.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Harry said sharply.  Louis couldn’t see around the edge of the wall, but his senses were on high alert, and he could hear Harry’s soft footfalls on the carpet, could tell he’d made an aborted move toward the stairs.

“Honey --”  Louis recognized Anne Twist’s voice; the fabric of her expensive dress made a crinkling noise as she moved.  The sound of it faded away into nothing, and Louis thought she and Harry were probably standing side-by-side at the top of the steps.

“Mom, just…  Just not tonight, okay?” Harry said, a bit of impatience creeping in.

“I’m sorry about Walter.”

Harry sucked in a quick breath of frustration.  “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have invited him then.”

“I meant about the --”

“If you didn’t want him to bring up the barn, you shouldn’t have fucking told him about it,” Harry interrupted hotly, and Louis felt a fresh burst of adrenaline surge through him, his heart pounding.  “And it’s not like taking out a mortgage is the end of the fucking world, so I’m not sure what there really is to discuss...”

There was a heavy pause and Louis bit his lip as he waited for Anne’s response with wide, darting eyes.  He knew he shouldn’t be listening, but he felt terrified that backtracking toward the bench would only call attention to his presence.  He was frozen in place by both his deep concern for Harry and his intense desire to know what was going on.

Harry made a light scoffing noise at his mother’s continued silence.  “I’m not selling,” he said finally, firmly, giving each word special weight.  But a current of irritation ran under them, like Harry knew that no matter how many times he said them they wouldn’t be heard.

Anne let out a long, measured sigh.  When she spoke again, it was in a soft whisper.  “I know you miss them, Harry.  I’m so sorry.”

“No!” Harry said, so sharply that Louis almost gasped, his pulse leaping through his veins.  "No.  You don’t get to --"  Harry paused and took a deep, shaky breath, like he was trying to get a handle on his emotions before it was too late.  When he continued, his voice was wobbling with righteous indignation and hurt.  "You don’t get to tell me that you understand the -- the reasons for my attachment to that land, while implying in the same breath that that's what I’m letting impair my judgment."  He cleared his throat again, and Louis felt a horrible wrenching in his heart when he realized that Harry must be close to tears.  He couldn’t help but picture him with shaking hands, and the idea of that made his whole body hurt.  “Especially not when you’ve used an event like -- an event like this one to trap me into talking about it the first place.”

“Harry --”

“No," Harry said, again.  “It’s my life.  It’s my ranch.  It’s my decision.  Not yours.”

Then Louis heard the sound of the soles of his dress shoes as they slapped quickly down the stairs, leaving his mother behind.

Oh, Harry.

Louis felt like a raw nerve, vibrating in place with the effort of not sprinting around the corner and shouting at Anne before following after him.  It was agony, not being able to pull Harry close and at least attempt to comfort him.

He stood stock still, barely even breathing, until he heard Anne Twist sigh again, cursing under her breath and then swishing off to the bank of elevators on the opposite end of the mezzanine.  He leaned back against the wall and buried his head in his hands, his anger at Anne giving way to churning emotional disarray.

How had he gotten to this point?  Why did his life have to be this way?  How was Louis ever supposed to do his job when it turned out that what he wanted most of all was to ease Harry's pain, to help him and protect him?  How could Harry possibly still want him after all these stark reminders of the reality of their situation?  Of the interests that Louis’s presence represented?  How would it ever work?  What had they even been thinking?

I’ll quit my job, Louis thought wildy, his heart rabbiting in his chest and one hand fisted in his hair as he went momentarily crazy with longing for that to be an actual possibility for him.  For the world to have placed him in a position where he could actually just cast everything else aside.  And just be with Harry.  Just be with him.

He let out a pained laugh.  A constricting sadness took hold of him for a moment, closing off his throat and making it difficult to breathe as he slumped further down the wall.  He wished so fervently right then that he hadn’t taken his moment in Harry’s arms for granted that morning, that he’d savored it as something singular and special instead of having seen it as a promise of something more to come.  Something so tantalizingly wonderful... that could probably never be.  He’d never felt so broken over an almost-was.

“God damn it,” he hissed, clenching a fist and beating it gently against the wall, closing his eyes against the searing pain in his chest.  He needed a drink now more than ever.

He spent most of the rest of the night lingering on the periphery of different clusters of people and sipping a beer while he smiled along with conversation and laughed at the right moments, even though his attention never really strayed from the pain in his heart.  He begged out of a game of shuffleboard with an increasingly drunk Niall and Zayn just before midnight, meandering back to the bar to order another Sierra Nevada before stationing himself at a hightop table near the edge of the dance floor.

He scoffed at himself, taking a swig of his beer, and then shook his head in defiance.  No.  I’ll wallow if I want to, dammit.

It had been a long night.  Much too long.  Louis had given a bit of thought to leaving.  Fantasized that he didn’t have to return to Sheridan until the next morning, and could sneak back to his apartment to shut himself away from the world, maybe with a bottle of vodka and a bunch of Adele.  But the truth was, he’d seen no sign of Harry since he’d overheard the argument on the third floor, and what he wanted most of all was just to see that he was all right.  His disappearance was adding a layer of worry to Louis’s heartache.

He’s okay.  He’s an adult, Louis told himself, before letting out a bleak laugh.  He was supposedly an adult as well, and he was most definitely not okay.  He tried not to feel too desolate as he nursed his beer and looked out at the few remaining couples on the dance floor, swaying to the music.  The DJ had slowed things down, since it was so close to the end of the night.

Louis was making another lazy visual pass of the room, his eyes lingering on the fancy centerpieces still on the dinner tables and the melting ice sculpture on the picked-over appetizer buffet, when there he was.  There was Harry, standing across the hall, gazing back at Louis with such tender, open affection on his face that Louis could see it at twenty yards.  Could feel it, even.  It punched Louis in the gut and stole the breath right out of his lungs.

Harry.

Harry cocked his head to the side and gave a small, consoling smile before walking over to Louis with a steady, languid grace that was reminiscent of that first night at Liam’s bar.  By the time he made it to the table, Louis’s heart was lodged up in his throat, his chest rising and falling rapidly as his breath came in jagged little pulls.

They regarded each other in electric silence for a long moment, and Louis could see all of the frustration and longing he’d been feeling the entire night shining right back at him out of Harry’s beautiful eyes.  There was a confidence in them too, though, a quiet certainty that made Louis feel like he might fall to pieces right then and there.

“H-Harry,” he stammered, a nervous, watery laugh wringing itself out of his lungs.

“Dance with me,” Harry said, almost before Louis had even finished saying his name, his tone warm and rich.

Louis sucked in another hitching breath at the terrifying hope and joy the words sent buzzing through his body.  He went momentarily dizzy with it, his hand trembling on his beer.  “B-but -- even though --”

“It doesn’t matter.  None of it.  I don’t…  I don’t care.  I need --”  Harry’s voice was thick with emotion and he was smiling and shaking his head, his dimple deep.  He reached out and took Louis’s free hand, staring him right in the eye.  “I just want to dance with you, please,” he whispered.

All of Louis’s worries and fears -- the terrible stress of the whole evening -- faded into the background as soon as Harry laced their fingers together, drowned out by the rush of blood pounding past his ears.  At that moment, Louis didn’t have the strength to pretend any longer that there was anything in the world he wanted more than to be in Harry Styles’s arms again.  Despite everything, Harry still wanted him, and he didn’t care who saw.  Louis didn’t either.

He nodded wordlessly, setting his beer down and letting Harry lead him out onto the dance floor to the opening bars of a new song -- the swell of strings behind tinkling piano and a soft brush against a snare drum.  The look Harry gave him when they turned to face each other made Louis flush all over, a throbbing sweetness spreading out from his heart and through the marrow of his bones.

“Louis,” Harry said plaintively, huffing out a hitching laugh.  Then he folded Louis fully into his embrace at last, pulling him right up against his warm frame with a large hand spanning the small of Louis’s back.

Louis couldn’t have stopped himself if he’d tried.  As the gap between their bodies disappeared, he let out a whimper, a small, choked sound of utter relief.  This was it.  This was what he had been waiting for since the very second Harry had let go of him on the hillside -- to be held by Harry and to hold him in return.  To comfort him, and be comforted.  It was a healing balm on all the hurt and worry of the past several hours, just to be close again.

Louis reveled in the feel of Harry against him, the firm plumpness of his long thighs and the broad expanse of his chest, the warmth of his shoulder under Louis’s cheek.  Harry’s touch had Louis’s eyes fluttering shut, his skin flushed and tingling, and his blood pumping, strong and hot.  But it was the completeness Louis felt, being in his arms, that was truly making him weak in the knees.  The joy radiating inside him came from the knowledge that at this moment, whatever was growing between them was absolutely paramount to both of them.  When it came down to it, all of the troubling, complicated circumstances surrounding their situation were immaterial in the face of what they felt for each other, and that was staggering to Louis.  He felt safe with Harry, and he melted into him with his heart wide open.

Harry’s left hand was low on Louis’s back and he’d clasped Louis’s left in his right, tucking them between their bodies so they could press as close together as possible while they swayed and turned in time to the music.  Harry had buried his face in Louis’s hair, and Louis could feel his breath against it as he hummed along to the song.  It felt so quietly intimate and lovely that Louis ached down to his toes, happy, nearly to the point of tears again.

“I’d twirl you,” Harry whispered, a touch of amusement in his voice as his lips moved against the top of Louis’s head, “but I don’t want to let go of you to do it.”

They laughed softly together at the perfectly absurd truth of the statement, their chests vibrating as one.  And then Louis let out a small, semi-embarrassed half-sob because it was ridiculous and he was so preposterously moved by it.  Tears had finally started welling up in his eyes.  He didn’t want to be let go of either, not after the night they’d had; he wanted to hold onto Harry and this moment for as long as he could.  Wanted to keep breathing in the rustic hint of the ranch house beneath Harry’s cologne and keep feeling the beat of Harry’s heart deep in his bones.

“Don’t worry,” Harry said, his own voice gruff with feeling as he squeezed Louis tighter, impossibly closer.  “I won’t.  I won’t...”

He had to eventually, of course.  Three songs later the DJ was done for the night, and Anne Twist’s personal assistant was beckoning Harry over to her from across the room, for whatever reason.

Harry tilted Louis’s chin up so he could beam down at him, and Louis swallowed hard, trembling slightly and trying not to get choked up all over again.  Harry was so handsome and so kind.  Louis had probably been doomed from the start, ever since he’d first seen him on his horse in the middle of the road.

“Go find Niall, all right?” Harry said, dimpling.  “I’ll meet you guys out front in fifteen minutes, and we can head back to the airport.”

Louis nodded.

“Okay,” Harry murmured, clearly still loathe to let Louis go.  He looked beyond happy and brimming with emotion, his eyes so bright, and he pressed a single, lingering kiss to Louis’s temple.  Louis’s breath caught, a shiver of sensation running down his spine as he leaned into it.

“Okay,” he echoed with a swollen heart.

Then Harry squeezed his hand again, and he was gone.

*

Niall was loud and entertainingly drunk on the plane, dancing around the swank stand-up cabin and singing endless choruses of Waltzing Matilda, oblivious to the way Louis and Harry were staring at each other.  It was just after four a.m. when the jet finally landed at the private airport south of Sheridan.  Louis unbuckled his belt and grabbed his suitcase, hopping down the narrow little clamshell stairway onto the tarmac.  The night was still dark and windy, but he could sense the mountains to the west.

Harry and Niall came down after him, arms wrapped around each other’s waists.  Louis turned away from the wide expanse of plain beyond the lighted runway and snorted softly as he grinned back at them -- Niall was batting at Harry’s face a little like a cat, frowning in concentration, and Harry was carrying both of their bags in one muscular arm.

“Waltzing Margarita,” he sang, as they walked to the cars.  “You’ll go a-waltzing Margarita with me…”

“Keys, Niall,” Harry demanded.

Niall held them out shakily, sighing as he warbled a thin, “Where is my Margarita…”  He started turning his head around, craning his neck to peer into the empty bed of his truck as Harry tried to help him up into the cab.

“Margarita’s still in Gillette, Ni, with your mom,” Harry chuckled.  He turned to Louis as he shut the cab door behind him, tossing him the keys to his Ford.

“I’ve, uh, gotta take Niall home and put him to bed,” he said, scratching the back of his neck and shrugging apologetically.  “You go on back to the ranch.  Get some sleep?”

He smiled sweetly at Louis, his face open and his eyes twinkling, and Louis felt an unbearable pressure in his chest, a longing to grab Harry, hug him and squeeze and never let go.  His fingers wanted to touch so badly, his whole body desperate to be pressed flush against Harry’s again, feeling the shift and give.  The tension between them as they looked at each other felt like a variation on the first time -- Louis frustrated and impatient, Harry projecting calm.  Only now there was a rich undercurrent to it, an ache of anticipation.  They held each other’s gaze until Niall rolled down the window of the truck.

“The ghost dances with Matilda,” he said, words slurring together.  “Even after the guy dies, all he wants is one more dance with his wife!  That’s a god damn love story, right there.”  His face crumpled a bit, like he was being hit with sudden emotion.

“I don’t think the song’s actually about…” Louis started, as Harry turned to look up at Niall, who was hunched over, chin on the half-rolled-down glass.  He looked like he might start to cry.

“Hoo boy,” Harry said, winking at Louis as he walked around to the driver’s side of the truck.  “Time for bed, Niall.”

Louis bit his lip and nodded, walking stiffly over to Harry’s truck.  He was still somewhat sore from the night before, but not unpleasantly so.  His thighs felt like they had an unfulfilled ache inside them as he heaved himself up behind the wheel, adjusting the seat forward to accommodate his shorter stature.  He felt wired.  Sleep schedule all thrown off from his extended nap in the middle of the day.

And…

Harry in his tuxedo, walking over to him so purposefully.  There had been just a hint of tension in his straight, heavy brows, an indication that Harry was fully aware of the implications.  Fully aware of who could see them dancing together, of what starting a relationship might mean.

It doesn’t matter.  None of it…

A prickle of electricity zipped down Louis’s spine as he remembered.  There would be consequences, probably.  No, definitely, he thought, a bit chagrined.  They way they’d danced…  It couldn’t have looked platonic.  He wondered what Walter Mohs had said to Anne.  He felt more and more awake as he drove the fifteen minutes back to the Lonely Rose, road silent and dark but for the warm beams coming from the headlights of the truck.  The little strip of airport was convenient to the ranch, but almost half an hour out of Sheridan.  Almost an hour, round-trip -- Harry would probably stay the rest of the night with Niall.

Louis parked the truck and let himself into the house with Harry’s keys, resisting the urge to check in on Jolene and the calves.  They were doing just fine, he knew.  Roby had been sending them all text updates, and a picture of Paul and Sally curled around each other in peaceful slumber was now the lockscreen of Louis's phone.  He was anxious to see them again, but didn't want to go blundering blindly around the barn, disturbing all the heifers.

The house was so quiet...  Louis sucked in a breath as he rolled his little suitcase down the hall.  Something about twisting the knob of the guest bedroom door reminded him again, viscerally, of his first night in Wyoming.  Only this time there was a handwritten note from Mrs. Burden on his pillow:

Hope you had a good party Louis.  Remember to take your ironing out of the laundry basket so I can have it back.  -- Mrs. B.

Louis sighed.  His hands were a little shaky; there was still an overabundance of adrenaline in his system, and he left his suitcase by the bed to walk down the dark hallway to the laundry room.  He found the small pile of his clothes, freshly ironed and smelling of dryer sheets.  He shook his head, smiling softly.  Mrs. Burden always insisted on ironing even the old t-shirts he was only going to end up sleeping in.

Back in the warm lamplight of his room, Louis changed out of his suit and into sweats, not bothering with a shirt.  The window was open, light breeze washing in and making everything smell fresh and old-fashioned at the same time.  Louis lay back on the quilt, spreading his arms and staring up at the ceiling.  Wondering if he should even unpack.

It doesn’t matter, he thought, uncontrollable yearning practically bursting out of his chest as he wiggled his bum into the mattress, blinking in the dark.  We’ll figure it out.  He couldn’t sleep, and instead entertained himself by imagining what Harry was doing.  They’d have arrived at the Horan residence by now; maybe Harry was bundling a tired, overemotional Niall in from the driveway.  Louis pictured the key scraping in the lock of the side door, Harry and Niall stumbling through and taking the half-flight of stairs into the kitchen.

Now Harry was helping Niall take off his shoes, pants and suit jacket before tucking him into bed.  Running downstairs to get a glass of water for him.  “You have to drink two of these before you fall asleep,” he was saying.  Louis could practically hear his voice, stern and very male, yet also motherly.

“Harry,” he sighed.  Louis bit his lip as he closed his eyes, overcome with feeling for him.  I wish you were here with me, instead.

But Harry was peeling out of his tuxedo now, in Louis’s mind, folding the pieces of it neatly before lying down on the big, comfortable couch in the Horans’ front room.  Drinking some water himself and then drifting off to sleep.

Sleep, Louis told himself.  I should probably sleep.  But his mind and body were restless.

The room was just starting to turn gray when he heard the front door open.  Louis sat up in bed, his stomach fluttering and breath catching in his throat.  There were footsteps coming down the hallway, a strong, steady gait.  Louis swung his legs over the side of the mattress and padded to the door, his entire body screaming Harry, Harry, Harry…  He pressed himself against the cold wood, listening.

The footsteps paused just outside.  Louis could hardly breathe, feeling his heart stir in his chest and crawl its way up into the back of his throat.  Time seemed to be suspended in that moment.  Then, as the first warm rays of sunlight crept over the windowsill, there was a soft knock.

Louis stepped back as Harry opened the door.  His hair was down, chestnut curls framing his face, and his green eyes almost seemed to glow in the weak light of dawn.  He blinked, mouth falling open slightly in surprise as he took in Louis’s bare torso.

“You’re up,” he whispered, his right hand reaching out touch.  He pulled it back awkwardly before finally bringing it to rest on the doorknob, thumb fiddling with the lock button.  “I, uh…”  Harry glanced down, sheepish grin on his face.  His tux was a little rumpled, bowtie loose around his neck and the first few buttons of his ruffled dress shirt undone.  “I didn’t want to wake you.  Just wanted to peek in.”

“I thought you were gonna sleep at Niall’s,” Louis said, voice soft and raspy and full of fondness, cracking a bit.  He saw Harry bite his lip, his fingers shaking slightly as he drew his hand away from the doorknob.

“I couldn’t wait,” he said, simply.  His eyes flicked back up to meet Louis’s, with a stare so intense Louis felt it in his chest.  “I just couldn’t wait any longer.”

He took a step forward.  Louis’s heart jogged painfully when he saw the hopeful smile twitching Harry’s lips, and he felt fragile, all of a sudden.  Breakable.  The room was washed in lavender light as Harry took Louis into his arms, finally, finally, warm and steady and there, and the way he was holding him made Louis feel like a precious object.  Something to be treasured.  He gazed up at Harry, their noses almost brushing as they just stood and felt each other breathe.

“Louis,” said Harry, “I was thinking, um…”  He shifted a little, shoulders tensing up for a moment and then sagging, as though he were making a conscious effort to relax his muscles.  “When I was driving back from Niall’s, all I was thinking about was missing you.  I just wanted to be with you so badly.”  Louis’s heart leapt, but he could see a worried crease forming on Harry’s brow as he took a step back, holding Louis at arm’s length even though it looked like it was physically hurting him to do so.  “And I knew what we were getting into,” he whispered.  “I knew.  But then all of I sudden I fully realized how it must have -- have looked when we danced, and I thought, oh God, I’ve put him in such a terrible position.  Like, it’s your job on the line.  And your colleagues all saw, and, God, my mother…”  He kept running his fingertips over Louis’s arms, eyes fascinated and hungry, but worried.

“Harry --” Louis began, but Harry cut him off right away.

“I need you to know how I feel,” Harry said.  He huffed out a weak laugh.  “I mean, it’s obvious… obvious what I want.  But I don’t want to put pressure on you.”  He lifted his eyes to meet Louis’s.  “I don’t want to be selfish.  Dancing with you was selfish.  I just…  I know this is riskier for you than for me.  I just wanted to say that.”

“Harry, I wanted you to come back,” Louis whispered.  “And you didn’t force me to dance with you, you know.  I…”  He took a deep, shuddering breath, and felt Harry’s big hand come up to massage the back of his neck.  Felt him play with the loose tendrils there, where Louis’s hair had grown a bit shaggy.  He hadn’t even thought of cutting it since he’d been at the ranch.  The soft, gentle brush, the warmth of Harry’s fingertips right at the nape of his neck sent zips of pleasure down his spine.

“I want to make love to you,” Harry said, in a low voice.  He sounded serious.  Louis shivered in his arms, wondering why it was affecting him so much, that phrase.  Make love to you.  He’d have snorted and rolled his eyes if it were anybody else…  Anybody else.  But the way Harry said it made something warm unfurl in Louis’s chest.  “Want you to fuck me,” Harry added, dipping his chin to whisper it into Louis’s ear.  “I’ve been thinking about it for weeks.”

Louis almost gasped.  The spell that had been holding him paralyzed was broken; he reached up, took Harry’s face in his hands and pulled him down into a kiss.  Their lips met, opening immediately to let each other in -- already let each other in, Louis thought, semi-incoherently as he walked Harry back into a dresser.  “Mmph,” Harry mumbled, surprised.  He tightened his grip on Louis’s neck, twisting his head to get a better angle.  They were desperate, tasting each other, Louis arching his spine as Harry clutched him lower, fingers roaming greedily over the planes of his back before digging into his bare, golden skin.  It was perfect, God, the way Harry was touching him.  Thumbs kneading into the slight softness around his pelvic bone, sweeping down to graze the low-hanging waistband of his sweats.  Louis shivered with barely-contained energy.  He nipped at Harry’s pillowy lips with his teeth, laving over them with his tongue afterward and causing Harry to moan into his mouth.

“Weeks, huh?” Louis asked, breaking away to press kisses down the cut of Harry’s jawline.  He nuzzled at his neck, breathing in the hint of cologne that still lingered there.  When Harry didn’t answer right away, he punctuated his question with a soft tug at the base of his curls, right behind his ear.

“Yes -- yes,” Harry stuttered, and his voice was thick with emotion.  “Louis…  God, I -- I’ve never…”

Louis drew in a breath and leaned back, eyelids fluttering as he felt Harry’s hardening length on his thigh.  “Never what, Harry?” he asked.

Harry’s eyes were still closed, lips slick and slightly parted as he pulled Louis closer and started to grind onto him with slow circles.  “Never felt this way before,” he breathed, cheeks flushing immediately.  He rolled his puffy, kiss-bitten lips together and ducked his head, like he was embarrassed, not sure if he was allowed to admit to having those kinds of feelings.  Louis’s heart burst, an extra half-beat thudding through him.

He lifted Harry’s chin, watching as his eyes blinked open.  They were glassy, almost drunk with pleasure.  Louis gazed at him for a moment, let him see how serious he was before kissed him.  He kissed him hard and thoroughly, hands running through his hair as he snapped his hips forward to meet Harry’s, feeling their trapped erections rub together under layers of clothing.

The groan that Harry let out went straight to Louis’s cock.  He thrust up harder, giving Harry a preview of what was coming.  Mimed fucking him back into the dresser for a few seconds, feeling Harry quiver and shudder beneath him.  He stopped before he hurt Harry’s back, and brought his hands down to rub and knead at it under the tuxedo jacket.

“God, Louis…”

“Bed,” Louis breathed.  “Can you -- can…  Your clothes…”

“Yeah,” Harry whined, voice a little higher, almost keening as Louis directed him back onto the bed.  “Yeah, lemme…”

He struggled to take off his jacket while leaning in for more kisses, Louis helping him slide it off his shoulders.  They fumbled around for a few seconds while Harry kicked off his shoes, Louis fisting the material of Harry’s dress shirt and pulling it up to expose a pale expanse of toned stomach.  Harry quickly worked to undo the buttons as Louis let his hands drift lower.  He bit his lip, rubbing one knuckle reverently over the warm bulge at the front of Harry’s trousers.

“Lou…”  Harry’s voice was like rough honey.  He let his shirt fall away and then pulled Louis into his chest again.  Louis went easily, keeping one hand between them, palming at Harry’s crotch.  He stroked softly up and down, pushing into the fabric with his fingertips and hearing Harry’s breath stutter as he kissed him.

“It’s kind of weird to imagine,” Louis said, parting Harry’s fly to rub right down on the zipper.  “You touching yourself and thinking about me."

Harry stopped mouthing at Louis’s neck and pouted.  He sank back on the mattress, brow furrowed as Louis finally unbuttoned the top of his trousers for him.

“Weird?” he asked.

“Well!” Louis laughed, breathlessly, rolling his eyes in mild embarrassment as he tugged Harry’s pants down inch by inch and tried not to faint at the sight of his beautifully-shaped thighs, milky white and almost virginal-looking.  His palms were itching to touch.  “Sorry,” he said.  “Weird’s the wrong word.  It’s overwhelming.  It’s so hot, it…”  He gestured to the obvious tent in his sweatpants.

Harry kicked his trousers away and pulled Louis down next to him on the bed, his big hand squeezing Louis’s waist before running up to trace his collarbones.  “You’re the overwhelming one,” he whispered.  “Right away I just…  I didn’t even know what to do with myself around you.”  He brushed a lock of hair off Louis’s forehead and leaned in to press a kiss to his temple.

“Same,” Louis said, smiling.  Part of him just wanted to lie there with Harry for hours, spreading his hands out over his chest and his hips and his thighs and telling him every thought that had gone through his head for the past month.  “And, um, just so you know,” he said.  “I’ve been thinking about you, too.  A lot.”

“I kind of knew,” Harry grinned, and barked out a laugh when Louis reached out to twist his left nipple.  “Not for sure,” he protested, as Louis clambered over him, knees bracketing his hips, and bent down to suck harshly at the other one.  “It’s --”  His breath died all of a sudden, voice stuttering to a halt.  “It’s very nice to hear,” he gasped.

Harry’s hips bucked up involuntarily, one hand tracing light patterns on Louis’s back, the other fisting the duvet.  Louis lost himself in exploring Harry’s body, touching the places he’d wanted to touch for so long and discovering new, wonderful things -- like how light the hair was on Harry’s legs, how soft and sexy his inner thighs were, how it made his whole body shake when Louis sucked a lovebite just to the left of his bellybutton.

He was so beautiful.  So responsive, so pliant and open in bed, it gave Louis a head rush, made his heart pound to just this side of panic.

“Louis,” Harry moaned, when Louis slipped an arm under Harry’s thigh and hefted his leg up, the finger of his other hand rubbing over soft cotton in the cleft of his cheeks.  Harry was still wearing his boxer briefs, and the tip of his cock was straining out of them and leaving traces of precome on his belly.  Louis pressed forward, folding Harry nearly in half as he slipped a finger inside the hot confines of Harry’s underwear and found his entrance.  He massaged it with a knuckle, not wanting to do more than that without lube, but enjoying the way Harry’s mouth was opening, back arching already.  “Baby, please,” Harry begged.  His right hand was hovering over his cock, clearly wanting to give it some attention but trying to be patient.

Louis just intensified what he was doing, putting his own hips into it and starting up a rhythm.  It was driving them both crazy before long, the almost-ness of it.  “It’s gonna feel so good,” Louis whispered.  He couldn’t ignore the way it made his body hot all over, Harry calling him ‘baby’ in his cowboy voice.  Harry falling apart beneath him.

“The best,” Harry whimpered.  “I’m not sure I can…  God.  I feel like I’m gonna come as soon as you touch me.”

“Come on my face,” Louis decided.  He got an illicit thrill all of a sudden, a shot through his heart.  “Then I’ll fuck you nice and slow until you come again.”

Harry shuddered a breath, and nodded hard.  He let his legs fall open as Louis slipped out from underneath him, his cock a hard line in his briefs.  Louis peeled them down and stripped them off.  He ghosted his breath over Harry's length, watching his stomach rise and fall, abs flinching a little in anticipation.

Just when Harry was beginning to shift his hips around impatiently, Louis pressed a kiss to the tip of his cock and whispered a low "howdy pardner" to it.  Harry let out something between a snort and a groan, thrusting up and bumping Louis's nose.

"Fucking touch me, please," he muttered, as his hand found Louis's hair.  "Pardner."

Louis grinned, fondness welling up inside him.  He took Harry in his right hand and started jacking him off to the rhythm he'd been using when he masturbated, fast and firm and relentless.  After a minute he put his mouth on him, just the tip, and began to suck softly.

"Oh," Harry moaned.  "Oh, oh God..."

His hips stuttered upward and Louis shoved them back down.  He opened his mouth, letting Harry see the pink tip of his cock on Louis’s tongue as he stroked him even faster, giving him kitten licks and fluttering his eyelashes.  Harry was alternately craning his neck to look at Louis in wonder and letting his head fall back on the mattress, eyes closed and thighs quivering.  The light of morning had grown stronger, suffusing everything with a soft glow.

"Fuck, Louis..."  Harry bit his slightly swollen bottom lip and started to come with a violent shudder.  Louis let a few drops hit his tongue and the roof of his mouth before directing the rest onto his lips and his high cheekbones.  He felt a thrill deep in his belly, a sudden, violent tug.  Like he'd been caught on a line, and Harry was reeling him in.  We both chose this, he thought to himself, with a zip of anxious pleasure.  No matter what happens.

Harry lay back, legs completely relaxed and his hand lightly massaging the back of Louis's head.  "That was...  God, incredible."

Louis suckled Harry’s softening cock until Harry started hissing, sensitive and overstimulated.  Then he drew off and reached over Harry to the nightstand for a tissue.  Harry was like a lead weight on the bed, completely fucked-out without even having been penetrated.  Louis couldn’t help laughing a little as he wiped off his face.  “You can go again, right?” he teased.

"Yeah," Harry said, voice indignant and a little strangled.  He was blinking like he was trying to find his bearings.  He reached out and swiped at Louis's ribs in a halfhearted attempt at tickling.  "Just need a sec."  Harry's chest heaved, thin sheen of sweat almost glowing in the pale pinks and blues of the sunrise.  "Like ten seconds.  Fuck."

Louis laughed.  His own cock was still hard, aching dully and rubbing against the waistband of his sweats as he moved off the bed.  His chest felt tight, and something flared up in his groin when he thought about how he was going to have sex with Harry in just a few minutes.  Get his fingers inside...  Feel him.  Oh, God.

"Condoms?" he asked softly, his voice a bit rough.

"Bottom drawer of my dresser, under my shirts," Harry said.  "Lube's in the nightstand.  Used to hide it better, but Mrs. Burden kept finding it anyway, kept trying to organize it in with the toothpastes.  Had to have a talk with her about it.  It was awkward."

Louis huffed a laugh, feeling the corners of his eyes crinkle as he gazed down at Harry, spreadeagled and so beautifully naked for him.  "Be right back, peaches."

"Peaches?" Harry barked, trying to wrinkle his nose in disgust even though Louis could tell he was fighting off a smile.  His post-orgasm flush spread from his neck up to his cheeks, and his eyes were twinkling.

Louis shrugged, pleased with himself.  "Your thighs are just the softest, peachiest --"

"Get out," Harry scoffed, faking exasperation as his fingers spread out to feel over the front of his thighs.

Laughing, Louis turned on his heel and padded out of the room.  The hallway was quiet, shadowed.  The encroaching light of dawn made everything seem softer and more peaceful than it had when Louis had come home alone just a couple of hours before.  His heart did a flip in his chest when he pushed open the door to Harry's room and saw the neatly-made bed, the brown country quilt.  He rummaged around in the nightstand for the lube, finding it easily, and turned his attention to the dresser.

He opened the bottom drawer, trying not to disturb the piles of Harry’s neatly folded shirts -- old flannels mixed in with beautiful white silk blouses and ratty mesh tops -- as he rooted around underneath them.  Before he found any condoms, his hand brushed over something else.  Something long and cool, hard with a rubbery exterior.  Louis pulled it out and gazed at it, feeling like his chest was about to collapse.  It was a dildo.  A vibrating one with a switch at the base, neon pink and realistically shaped.

Butterflies burst in Louis’s stomach, and he felt his own erect cock blurt out a few drops of precome.  “Oh god, Harry, you’re going to kill me,” he whispered.  He tucked the dildo under his arm and found the small packet of condoms that had been shoved into one of the back corners of the drawer.

Calm down, he ordered himself on the way back to the bedroom.  Calm down; control yourself.  He paused at the door, mouth dry and breath coming a little too quickly.  It was just so hot, thinking about Harry.  He’d imagined him so many ways, in so many positions -- sexual and otherwise -- and now the sun was coming up and none of them mattered.  Harry was in his room.  Waiting for him.  Harry Styles who was kind and thoughtful and stubborn and so, so wonderful.

Louis pushed the door open.  “Harry,” he said, clearing his throat.

Harry already had one finger inside.  Louis blinked, clutching the dildo tighter in his hand and feeling his toes curl into the carpet a little at the sight.  Fuck.

“Finally,” Harry breathed.  “I couldn’t wait…”  His brow furrowed as he tried to sit up on his elbows.  “Why do you --”

“Finders keepers,” Louis grinned, whipping the pink dildo out and waving it back and forth.  Harry tried to swipe at it with his free arm, but the angles were awkward and he fell back on the mattress.

“I don’t want that,” Harry huffed, rolling his eyes.  “Want you.  Come on, it’s been all I can fucking think about.”

Louis licked his lips, pursing them as he smirked.  “It’s not for right now,” he said.  “And it’s not for you.”  He tossed it on his own dresser, near the porcelain horse figurine, ripping off a condom and adding it to the pile.  Harry’s eyes widened.

“What…”

“I’m gonna use it,” Louis explained, hooking his thumbs under the waistband of his sweats and finally pulling them off.  Harry had to breathe deeply.  His gaze was fixed on Louis’s bobbing erection, his spit-slicked finger starting to pump with a little more urgency.  “I’m not going to tell you when,” Louis continued, walking over to the bed and crawling up next to Harry.  “But after I’m done I’ll come find you.”  He leaned down to whisper.  “And you’re gonna fuck the shit out of me in a barn.”

Harry had gone from semi to fully hard during Louis’s little speech, and gasped when Louis gently removed his hand and replaced it with his own tender, searching fingers.  He made sure to use plenty of lube, carefully prepping Harry and biting his lip in order to feel a small amount of pain because the way Harry was whining and clenching around him, punching out faint little breaths with each stretch, was almost too much.

“You feel so soft, peaches,” Louis said, reverently.  “So beautiful.”

Harry was beyond protesting.  He was writhing, incredibly gorgeous with his curly hair splayed out like a halo around his head, sun dappling him as the breeze played with the lace curtains at the window.  “Please, Lou,” he moaned.  “Please, ‘m ready.  I need you.”

Louis stopped fucking him with his fingers and tore open a condom, quickly rolling it on and lubing himself.  Just the touch of his own hand was dangerous, and he hoped for Harry’s sake he wouldn’t accidentally finish what he hadn’t even started.  He took a deep breath as he lined himself up, extra gentle as he positioned the head of his cock right at Harry’s entrance.  He pushed in just a little, felt the breach -- the unbelievable tightness and warmth.

“Okay?” he gasped.  His arms were shaking, Harry’s back arching and his legs falling open.  Louis splayed a hand over the center of Harry’s chest as he pushed in further.

“More,” Harry chanted.  “More, more, Louis, more…”

Louis thrust in to the hilt, feeling his balls settle snugly against Harry’s ass, and started to move.  Slowly at first, trying not to let his body tremble.  White, tingling static was filling him down to his toes, lazy warmth already building in just the right places.  But Louis resisted it, not wanting to stop, wanting to have sex with Harry forever in the still dawn light -- or at least until he’d found Harry’s prostate and fucked another orgasm out of him.  Didn’t want to think about what came after that, not yet, and the forbidden nature of what they were doing made it feel even better.

Harry started rolling his hips in time with Louis’s thrusts, and they were shaking the bed now, boxspring creaking under them.  Finally they found the right angle.  “Fuck,” Harry gasped, throwing an arm over his head and clutching the side of the mattress as Louis hit his spot over and over.  “God, yes,” he cried.

“Harry,” Louis breathed.  He was barely holding it together, felt like he’d been on the edge of an orgasm for years.  “You’re so gorgeous, I can’t --”

He got his hands on Harry’s hips to distract himself, his fingers making faint bruises and his thumbs circling the jutting points of Harry’s pelvis.  He watched Harry’s cock bouncing thick on his stomach, an angry shade of red this time.  Louis could tell by the tears leaking from the corners of Harry’s eyes that it was getting almost too intense, verging on too much.  He wrapped a lube-smeared hand around Harry’s length and started to jerk him quickly.

“You’re close, aren’t you?” he whispered.  “I am too.  Come on, let’s come together.”

Harry whimpered.  Louis saw his pecs flex, the muscles twitching in his arm as he let go with another gasp, spilling onto his belly and Louis’s hand.  At almost the same instant, Louis finally surrendered to the building rush of heat and came into the condom, filling it with hot spurts that seemed to last forever and were so intense he almost lost consciousness.  He felt his body shudder involuntarily over and over again as he rode out his orgasm, making so much noise he would have been embarrassed if he were aware of anything other than the blinding pleasure of it.

Finally he pulled out with a gasp, and collapsed next to Harry on the bed.

“Jesus Christ,” he muttered, voice scratchy and raw.

“I know,” Harry answered.  Louis cracked an eye open as Harry turned onto his side and stared down at him in the pale, shimmering light of the new day.  “God, I can’t believe it.  You’re amazing.  That was… by far the best sex of my life.”

Louis thrust his jaw out and preened at that, taking a moment to toss the condom away before pulling Harry down on top of him.  “Fucking mutual,” he grinned, breathing into Harry’s neck.

“Louis, I love you,” Harry answered, voice so soft Louis almost didn’t catch the words.  His breath hitched, heart pounding, not quite sure he’d heard correctly.

Is that too fast?  He shrugged internally and pulled Harry closer, wondering whether conventional wisdom about relationships even applied to members of the Styles family.  Roy and Rose had been married three weeks after their first dance.  Just the thought of that made Louis’s blood zip through him, and he couldn’t tell if it was from nerves or excitement.

Harry lifted his head and brushed Louis’s hair off his brow, studying him with thoughtful green eyes.  “Hey, baby,” he said, smiling.  Maybe teasing a little.  “You okay?”

Hey, baby.  It sounded so easy.  Almost cheesy but not quite, or in the right way.

Louis’s chest felt lighter and lighter, until it seemed absurd that he was lying on the bed.  He should have been floating up in the air with happiness, bumping against the wood beams across the ceiling.  “Yeah,” he said, heart nearly bursting with emotion as he grabbed Harry’s hand and squeezed.  “I'm okay.  I’m with you.”

Chapter Text

Louis lay awake in bed, blinking slowly and watching the guest room curtains billow away from the window in the cool spring air.  He’d expected to drift off after Harry had gotten them tucked in, on account of being so post-coitally boneless and having slept so little over the past seventy-two hours, but even with the heavy, comforting presence of Harry’s arm slung over his waist, he couldn’t calm his mind.  There was one thing in particular that was overshadowing all of Louis’s swirling concerns.  Try as he might, he couldn’t stop dwelling on it, and it was keeping him awake.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when Harry made a grunting sound of amusement and snuggled closer, nuzzling into Louis’s neck.

“What?” Louis whispered, shivering in Harry’s warmth.  He’d had a feeling that Harry wasn’t asleep yet either -- something about the set of his muscles against Louis’s back and the way he was breathing.

“Can’t sleep?” Harry asked in a low hum.  He’d hooked his chin over Louis’s shoulder, and the words vibrated through Louis’s body and made his heart expand.

Together, he thought, thrilling as the realization washed over him.  We’re together now.

Louis shook his head.

“Me neither,” Harry murmured with a smile in his voice.  He heaved a deep sigh, stroking Louis’s side and trailing several kisses up his jaw before he went on.  “Do you wanna go see them, then?”

Louis broke into laughter, flushing with pleasure as he felt Harry join in and shake with it behind him.  He grinned as he nodded, glad he and Harry were on the same page.

Sally and Paul…  Jolene.

“It’s only natural you’d be so worried,” Harry said with a hint of teasing condescension in his tone, “being a first-time parent and all.”  The words came out almost too fast, like Harry was so happy to have an opportunity to wind Louis up that he couldn’t keep them inside long enough to get the comedic timing right.  He pressed quick kisses into Louis’s shoulder and neck as he waited for his response and burst into gleeful and infuriatingly cute giggles when Louis squawked in protest and rolled them over, elbowing Harry in the stomach and then hovering over him once he was flat on his back.

“You brought it up!”  Louis shoved at Harry’s shoulders, unable to stop grinning.  The extent of his happiness was threatening to lift him right off the bed again, float him back up to the ceiling.  He gave up his assault easily, letting Harry capture his wrists and tug him down for a sweet, toe-curling kiss.

“Come on,” Harry said when they broke apart, squeezing Louis tight and then giving his ass a satisfying slap.  “Let’s get dressed.  Jolene’s probably wondering where the hell you’ve been.”

They tugged wellies on over their sweats, Harry bundling Louis into his Carhartt jacket before they headed out the back door.  It had been clear overnight, so it was chilly outside, and something about the way the pale sunlight was slanting down on the ranch out of the crisp blue sky made it feel even more like a Sunday to Louis.  Like Easter almost, as they made their way over to the outbuildings hand in hand.

“Will they be sleeping?” he whispered, not wanting to disturb the stillness of the morning.

“Probably,” Harry said, smiling down at him as they reached the barn.

Louis shivered involuntarily at the change in the air as Harry guided him through the door.  It was heavy inside, muggy with the body warmth of the animals and thick with their scent, but not unpleasantly so.  Louis snuggled into Harry’s jacket as he looked around.  He’d only seen the old wooden barn from the outside, only admired its classic silhouette from across the corral, not wanting to venture in and make himself even more of a nuisance.  The interior was just as he'd imagined -- thick beams of oak, a hayloft toward the rear, straw all over the place, and horse stalls lining the walls.

They have to replace it, Louis thought, biting on the inside of his cheek as he followed Harry past the horses.  The barn was definitely different than most of the modern, metal-sided buildings Louis had seen on the ranches close to the highway.  Most of the Lonely Rose's structures seemed to be a little out of date.  I wonder if Rosie and Roy built it all…  They must have.

“Where’re all the cows?” he asked, suddenly confused.  There were an awful lot of equine rear ends visible over the tops of the stalls, but Louis couldn’t hear a single heifer lowing.

Harry turned back to smile at him.  “Over in the calving barn.”  He had that look on his face he got whenever Louis asked questions about ranching practices, half eager to make a cowboy out of him and half entertained by his ignorance.

Louis’s retort about how not everyone grows up knee-deep in cow shit died on his lips as he and Harry turned a corner and came to a stop in front of a large, heavily-bedded pen with a metal railing surrounding it.  The two calves were curled into their mother’s side in the far corner, the whole family cuddled up, asleep in the straw.

Our calves, Louis thought, his breath catching. The sight of them pierced his heart as he came up to the top rail for a better look.  Our cow.  Sally and Paul and Jolene.

“Oh for cute," he said with a distressingly teary sigh.  These fragile, beautiful little babies, so warm and safe now.  Out of danger, perfectly adorable, and Louis was so relieved to see it with his own two eyes.

Why aren’t there calf cuteness blogs on the internet? he wondered, his heart twisting again, as Paul nudged his sister’s ear with his nose in his sleep.  Maybe there are.  Maybe I’ll start one.

Harry let out a little chuckle as he positioned himself behind Louis, peering at the animals over his shoulder with a welcome hand on one of his hips.

“What?”  Louis turned his face to look up at him, surprised to see the familiar line of confusion between Harry’s furrowed brows.

“Oh for cute?” Harry asked in pleased disbelief.  His dimple was deep, somehow adding to the wryness of his tone.

“Oh."  Louis huffed out a laugh and rolled his eyes.  A touch of embarrassment heated his cheeks at the realization that all it took was the sight of a cow family to turn him into a grandmother from Western Minnesota.  “Yeah,” he laughed again.  “People say that all the time back home --” he cleared his throat, “back -- back in Minnesota.”

“Oh for cute?”

“Yeah,” Louis insisted, turning back to the animals.  “Means like, ‘wow that’s really cute’ or ‘how cute is that?’ "  He could feel Harry looking down at him intently, like he wanted further clarification, and he shrugged, smiling.  “It’s the shortened form of ‘oh for goodness sakes that’s cute.’  All right?"

“Much more efficient,” Harry conceded, highly amused.

Louis glanced up at him again when his gaze still didn’t waver, enjoying the view of his jawline from such a close angle.  “What?”

Harry shrugged, absolutely glowing and biting his bottom lip over a massive grin.  “Oh for cute,” he said, not taking his eyes off Louis.

Louis snorted and quickly looked away again, because he had no chance of stopping the bright red blush of pleasure that was blooming on his face.  It only intensified when Harry buried his nose in his hair and kissed the crown of his head.  “Ridiculous,” Louis muttered, while at the same time wondering if he’d ever felt so completely happy before in his whole life.

Harry’s laugh rumbled out of him and he pulled back a touch, so he could lift Louis’s chin with a gentle finger and stare at him properly.  The warmth in his eyes lit up Louis’s insides -- they were so open and affectionate, it felt like a silent reiteration of his earlier declaration.

Louis, I love you.

Louis would have waited to say it.  Louis would wait to say it back, but having it out in the open already made it feel sort of inevitable.  Like maybe it was already the truth.  He felt so much for Harry, he didn’t know what to do with it all.  So he closed his eyes and swallowed thickly before going up on his tiptoes to give Harry a kiss. Everything was so scary and wonderful, all at once.

“Do you wanna go in?” Harry asked, nodding toward the pen after giving Louis a kiss on the cheek in return.

“Can we?”

“Sure.”

Harry eased the gate open and they picked their way through the bedding over to the sleeping cattle as quietly as they could.  Louis followed Harry’s lead, crouching down next to the calves and reaching out to pet them with a tentative hand.  There were pieces of straw covering them both.

“ 'S a good sign,” Harry whispered, gesturing to the bedding on top of them and moving some that he’d disturbed back into place.  “She’s hiding them.”  He stroked a hand down Jolene’s long flank and continued talking, keeping his voice low.  “A lotta times with heifers, after a traumatic birth, they reject the calf.”

Louis made a small sound just at the thought, even though he knew he shouldn’t be anthropomorphizing quite so much.  It was hard.

Harry gave him an apologetic smile, and shrugged.  “Especially when they get moved like this, from the birth site after it was so -- so rough, they don’t always recognize the baby in a new location...”  He lowered a huge hand onto Paul’s head, letting it rest there lightly.  “But things are looking good.  Babies look good, and she’s doing so good.   Aren’t you, lady?”

Louis felt another powerful surge of emotion thinking about everything Jolene had gone through on that hillside and how much had changed since.  He closed his eyes against the prickle of tears and stood up, moving around so that he could touch her forehead.  He was very gentle, but she stirred anyway, her big, lovely cow eyes slowly blinking open as they adjusted to the light.

“Hey there, beautiful,” Louis whispered, still choked up.  “I’m so proud of you.”

He gave a teary laugh, wiping at his face, when he saw the way Harry was looking at him as he knelt in front of Sally and Paul.  His face was full of emotion, love for Louis and Jolene and the calves shining out of it.  Louis started to laugh even harder when Harry began to sing to the cow.

“Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Joleeeene.  I’m begging of you, please don’t take my man...”  Harry was still on his knees, hamming it up with his hands clasped over his heart.  “Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Joleeeene.  Please don’t take him just because you can.”

He didn’t get to his feet as Louis closed the distance between them, shaking his head in delighted exasperation.  “Your beauty is beyond compare with flaming locks of auburn hair, with ivory skin and eyes of emerald green…”  Louis was breathless with laughter, and he reached out to make a weak attempt at covering Harry’s mouth.  Harry dodged his head side to side, evading him easily and continuing to sing to Jolene through a giant grin until Louis gave up and just spread one hand out over his face.  Harry sang though it, laughing, voice only slightly muffled.  “Your smile is like a breath of spring, your voice is soft like summer rain, and I cannot compete with you, Jolene.”

Harry beamed up at Louis as he finished, his hands coming to rest on Louis’s hips.  Louis was elated, so filled with joy it almost felt like delirium.

“You can’t compete, huh?” he asked, stroking Harry’s curls back from his forehead.

Harry shrugged, his eyes twinkling.  “Well, she’s already borne you two children.”

Louis threw his head back and cackled, pushing at Harry’s strong shoulders in objection.  “They’re just as much yours as they are mine,” he said, rolling his eyes and giving Harry a pointed look.  “Don’t think I don’t know you’re going to favor Sally, Harry; she got your nose.”

Harry let out a full-bodied chuckle and then looped his arms fully around Louis’s waist, pulling him in so he could press his face into Louis’s belly through the Carhartt jacket.  Louis's heart constricted powerfully, wrenching in his chest.  Heady, intoxicating happiness crested inside him, the most intense it had been since Harry had come back to the ranch from Niall’s.  It made his skin heat up and his extremities tingle, his pulse pounding.  The words were right on the tip of his tongue.  Right there.  He felt so much for Harry.  He wanted so much with him.  But there was fear surging up inside him too, as the strength of his emotion forced him to acknowledge the precariousness of their situation for the first time since they’d gotten out of bed.

I can’t do my job anymore.  Not when things are like this.  Not when this is how it will be.  Now that we’re --

“I’m..." he whispered.  He pulled Harry’s head away from his body slightly, so he could look down into his face again.  “I’m going to have to tell your mother, Harry.  That -- that we’re together, now.  I should disclose what’s going on…”

Harry’s lips twitched into a smile upon hearing Louis say that they were together out loud, and Louis felt a corresponding zip of happiness run through his heart.

“Okay,” Harry whispered, clambering slowly to his feet and dusting the straw off his knees.  “I mean.  I could say someth--"

“No,” Louis said, holding up a hand to cut him off.  “No, I want to do it.  It’s my responsibility.”

“All right,” Harry said, reeling Louis into a tight, comforting hug.  They stood together for a minute just breathing each other in, Louis’s head resting on Harry’s chest.

Louis sighed, and suddenly felt weighed down by his exhaustion, dead on his feet.  Like everything had caught up with him all at once.

“Sleep?”

Harry nodded.

They bent down to say goodbye to the cattle, giving each cow one last pet and a kiss and their love, and then headed over to the ranch house to climb back into bed.  This time, Louis was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

*

Louis blinked awake at some point in the evening with the sort of satisfied, bone-deep heaviness in his limbs that creeps in during a long sleep.  He’d needed the rest, and so had Harry.  But when he rolled over, the other side of the bed was cold, torn sheet of legal pad paper crinkling under him.  The feeling of extra weight fled from his body in an instant, replaced by a sudden rush of adrenaline.

Beyoncé is in labor!

There were big, dorky hearts drawn all around the neatly-lettered words.  Louis smiled and sucked in a breath as he pressed the piece of paper against his chest, warmth flooding through him.  He felt as though he’d been hooked up to an electric main.  A jittery finger traced what Harry had written, and Louis imagined him waking with bleary green eyes to a text from one of the ranch hands, sneaking out of bed, anxious to get out to the barn but taking the time to pen the message carefully, without scribbling.

Harry Styles loves me.  Louis gulped, heart rabbiting in his chest.  He felt the humming energy kick up a notch, a surge of emotion bursting out from his core to the tips of his toes.  He wondered where his nerves were coming from, the shakiness in his fingertips.  I’m not scared of loving him, he thought, stubbornly, his thumb grazing over the corner of Harry’s note, curling it under as he stared at the words.  I’m not.  But there was a veil of dread hanging over the evening anyway, a sort of hollow, dry ache in his chest.  Oh, God, he thought, as his sleep-slow brain finally caught up with his hyperalert body.  I’m scared of Anne Twist.

That was it.  The source of the tight, twisting anxiety that was snaking its way through all the rest of the positive emotion in his chest.  Louis had to call her.  Of course he had to; he’d already made the decision.  He was just -- just scared.

“Fuck,” he whispered.  He pressed his thumbnail into the corner of the note, fraying the edge until it became a soft yellow smudge against his skin.  “Come on.  You can do it.  You can.”

He forced himself out of his bed and into the bathroom.  He could hear Mrs. Burden doing the laundry down the hall and a truck’s engine revving outside, tires crunching in the gravel drive.  Bonnie put up a loud bray.  Some wranglers were eating in the kitchen, drawling male voices and the clink of silverware on plates.  All the normal sounds of the ranch house on a Sunday evening.  Normal, Louis thought, bouncing on his toes as he washed his face, sky darkening like a bruise in the window to his right.  When did I start thinking of this as normal?  He tried to remember what it had been like his first few days, when he had been perpetually grumpy and out of place, but he couldn’t conjure up the memory of the feeling anymore.

Louis took longer in the bathroom than was strictly necessary to get ready for a phone call.  He stared at himself in the mirror as he halfheartedly tried to fix his bedhead, full of nervous tension, his stomach churning with increasing unease.  He tried to remind himself of all the reasons why he had to call Anne Twist, why it was the right thing to do, even though he knew it was going to be a supremely unpleasant conversation for both of them.  He ended up giving himself a little mental pep talk about ethics and professionalism.  Part of him didn’t want to believe it was necessary, but he still remembered how impossible it had all seemed back in Denver, watching the other couples dance and thinking that it could never be him and Harry.  Everything was still just as impossible now, the entire situation.  By the time Louis opened the door and slipped back down the hallway to Harry’s office, the tips of his fingers were numb and his throat felt oddly stiff when he tried to swallow.

Should I offer to quit? he wondered, breaking out into a cold sweat as he flicked on the lamp and eyed Harry’s telephone.  Or should I let her fire me?

The worst part was not knowing how bad it was.  Or how soon he’d have to go back to Denver.  He didn’t want to leave, not now…  Fuck.  Just the thought of it was like a punch to the gut.

Louis shook his head, steeling himself, feeling like his body was cracking open with nerves as he reached for the phone.  Anne’s cell number was written on a Post-It along with other important contacts, taped to the wall just below the bookshelf, and his finger shook as he pushed the old-fashioned buttons on the base of the telephone, hearing the different electronic tones in the receiver.

He tried to calm the flutter in his stomach, and hadn’t succeeded by the time Anne picked up on the second ring.

“Harry?”

“Um…” Louis started, his voice cracking.  Great, he thought, good start.  A-plus.  “It’s Louis actually.  Uh, Louis Tomlinson?  The paralegal you sent to Wyoming about National Energy Group’s land purchase, which you know, of -- of course, you know that.  And before you say anything,” he continued, clearing his throat quickly and barrelling on, “Yes, Harry and I are together.”  His nerves spiked, the immensely awkward premise of the phone call causing him to begin to over-explain.  “We weren’t before the benefit.  Now we are.  You must have guessed, but…”  He began to pick at the plastic phone cord, not wanting to hear Anne answer him, scared of what she was going to say.  His hands were shaking.  “Now I’m, uh, disclosing our relationship.  Together.  Officially.”

Louis almost couldn’t breathe, his artless, half-stammered words ringing in his ears.

There was a pause, and then Anne began to speak.  Her smooth, assured voice only made Louis feel more nervous.  “Mr. Tomlinson, I --”

“I don’t want to lose my job,” Louis cut in.  “Because I love my job.  I really do.”  What the fuck are you doing, you idiot, stop talking.  He couldn’t stop himself, though, had to let it all out in one big embarrassing word-dump.  “I’d do almost anything to not be fired right now,” he went on, “but if you’re about to tell me to use my influence over Harry to get him to sign the deed, no.  I will not be doing that.  I’m of no use to you!”  He let out a half-hysterical laugh as he punctuated the statement with a nervous flutter of his hand.

“Mr. Tom--”

“Selling that land would break his heart,” Louis interrupted, “and that is the last thing I want to happen.  The last thing.  I’m -- I’m in love with him.”

Louis felt almost faint, head pounding as he realized with a belated lurch in his tight chest that he’d actually said it out loud.  “I love him,” he repeated, voice faint and shaky.  Just to hear the truth of it.  Harry Styles.  Harry Styles.  God.

Anne let out a low sigh.  “Mr. Tomlinson,” she said after a long, tense moment.  “I’m afraid I didn’t hear any of that.”  Louis’s heart sank.  “It’s so difficult to get a solid connection out there…”  He almost groaned with frustration, digging the heel of his hand into one of his eyes as he thought bitterly about having to repeat his whole speech.

“I can only assume,” she went on, her crisp words reverberating through the receiver with perfect clarity, “that what you’ve been trying to say is that you’d like to take your two week vacation.  Paid vacation, to which you are entitled as an employee of this company.”

Louis sputtered for a second, eyes blinking open again in surprise.

“You can go anywhere you want, of course,” Anne said.  “Do whatever.  Have fun.”  Louis’s breath caught in his throat, the knot of dread in his chest softening as he heard the tone of her voice.  It sounded like she was trying not to laugh, or to sound affectionate, and was struggling a little with both.  “And in two weeks, we can discuss that thing I didn’t hear."

Louis felt on the verge of tears all of a sudden.  Wonderful, temporary relief flooded through him.

“Ms. Twist,” he began, “thank --”

“What’s that?” she said.  “Louis?  You’re fading out again."

Then the line went dead.  Louis held the receiver away from his ear for a moment and just stared at it, as if he expected it to explain to him what had just happened.  Then he gave a soft, hiccuping laugh and dropped it down into the cradle, limbs feeling lighter than air.

He wandered out into the dining room, where the pendant lights above the long table cast a warm glow on Paul, Hank and Niall.  They were sitting, eating some of the perpetually available chili Mrs. Burden kept in a slow cooker on the counter during calving season and having an animated discussion about the betting pool.

“You can’t switch,” Niall said, flatly, staring at Hank.  “It’s already in my phone.”

Hank sat forward, hitching up his pants, and pointed a thick finger back at Niall.  “Well I just don’t remember betting on Beyoncé,” he said, his western twang becoming even more pronounced.  “I specifically said Angela Davis.  I said Angela and I meant Angela.”  He looked like he was two seconds away from calling Niall “son” in a patronizing manner.

Niall rolled his eyes.  “How convenient,” he muttered, whipping out his phone with a stormy expression on his face and punching into the Notes app.

“What’s going on?” Louis asked.  He drew a hand through his hair as he walked up to the bench, sliding in next to Niall and stealing a slice of chili-spattered cheddar cheese off the side of his bowl.  The slight spiciness tickled his tongue pleasantly.

Niall snorted and thumbed across the table at Hank.  “This bastard bet on Beyoncé to be the last heifer to go into labor.  Now Harry’s out there delivering her calf, and he’s trying to wiggle his way out of it!  See?”  He passed his phone to Louis, where the words Hank -- Beyoncé -- last to go were clearly catalogued near the top of a long list of bets.

Hank pushed his empty bowl away, crossing his arms casually across his broad chest as he rocked back in his seat.  “Who’s wigglin’?” he scoffed.  “I told you to put me down for Angela Davis.”

“Unbelievable!” Niall shouted.  He had an almost crazed expression on his face, his eyes wide with the injustice of it all as he whipped his head around to Paul, whose shoulders were shaking with silent laughter.  “Every year,” he griped.  He turned to back to Louis.  “He does this every year!  He’s so goddamn cheap.”

“Not my fault you always hear me wrong,” Hank shrugged.

“Hear you wrong my ass,” Niall said under his breath.

Hank smiled with satisfaction as Niall angrily changed the bet in his phone, and Louis couldn’t help the low giggle that bubbled up from his chest.  He squeezed Niall’s shoulder in solidarity.

“Next year I’m getting it witnessed,” Niall said.  “Louis’s a notary republic; he can notarize it!”

A crazy grin spread across Louis’s face at Niall’s casual assumption that he would still be around next calving season.  He tried to keep it to himself and ended up just staring down at his hands, smiling like a loon as the rest of the conversation washed over him.  Then he heard the rusty rasp of the screen door closing down the hall, and his heart spiked.  It had to be Harry.

“Healthy male calf,” he announced, in his his low, rumbling voice.  He sounded tired, but proud.  The wranglers clapped and whistled and Louis turned around, craning his neck to look at him.  Harry had on dirty jeans and his hair was tied back, hands still damp and newly-washed.  He smiled when he caught sight of Louis.

“Hey,” Louis said, so softly that he almost mouthed the word.  He could feel the other men watching them, Niall’s eyes flicking back and forth between them, and he knew his own expression must be giving everything away.

Harry came over, Louis’s stomach fluttering with each step, and dropped his hands onto Louis’s shoulders like a heavy, comfortable weight.  He began to massage them.  “Hey, babe,” he answered, hunching down to whisper it in his ear as he moved his hands over to squeeze the sides of his arms.  “You called her?  Everything all right?”

Louis turned his head and nodded, and for a moment it felt like they had put up a screen, created a private little space for themselves even as the others looked on.  “Tell you later,” he murmured, smiling softly.

Harry dropped a tiny kiss to his nose.  “Okay.”

“Yes,” he said in a slightly louder, slightly smug voice as he straightened up, pulling Louis back just a touch so that his head bumped against Harry’s stomach.  Louis stifled a laugh; Harry sounded like a teacher addressing a room full of curious students.  “Yes, Niall Horan, the nature of our relationship has changed since you last saw us.”

Niall's hands were clasped together over his heart like he just couldn't contain himself, and it made Louis feel inexplicably happy.  He was practically vibrating with excitement on the bench, grinning so widely at the pair of them that it looked like his face might split in two.  He reminded Louis of how Bonnie looked whenever she was about to ram her head into someone with joy.

“That’s… That’s the best!” Niall said, finally, all complaints about Hank’s bet forgotten as he dropped his phone onto the table with a clatter and stood up to embrace them both awkwardly.  “Congrats!  Oh boy, I’ve gotta call Mags.”

“I called her on my way back from the barn,” Harry said, with a grin.

“Boo!”  Niall’s maniac smile morphed instantly into a frown.  “How come you always tell her the good stuff first?”

“I didn’t tell her!”  Harry’s hands went up in a gesture of innocence.  “She figured it out on her own!  She was like, ‘Bullshit, Harry, you aren’t just calling me about a calf.’ ”  He snorted as he tried to impersonate her voice, doing a poor job of it.  He casually slid one of his hands over to play at the nape of Louis’s neck, running his thumb right up the back of it and making him shiver.  “ ‘I know what this is really about.  You can’t fool me.’ ”  Both Harry and Niall were smiling down at him now, and Louis squirmed a little with pleasure at being the center of attention.

Niall tapped the side of his head with a finger.  “My wife,” he said.  “Very smart.  Very perceptive.”  Harry snorted again.

Hank and Paul stood up to go do the two-hour check of all the pregnant cows, clapping Harry on the back on their way out and giving Louis friendly nods of approval.  Niall bolted down the rest of his chili and followed them.  Harry and Louis were alone in the darkened dining room.

“I’m taking my two weeks of vacation time,” Louis said, grabbing Harry’s forearm and using it to pull himself up off the bench.  Harry’s left shoulder went down with an oof, and he sighed with contentment as Louis immediately wrapped himself tightly around his middle, burying his head in his chest.  “Your mom said we can talk about it after that.”  Louis felt his heart skip a beat as he ran his hands up over the strong muscles in Harry’s back, taking in the lingering scent of hay and scattered raindrops and sweat.  Thunder drummed in the distance, another storm.

“Really?” Harry asked.  He started to sway them a little, walking them into the kitchen and toward the slow cooker full of chili.  His hands were linked, resting on Louis’s back just above the swell of his bum.

“Yup,” he said.  “Her specific words were ‘have fun.’ ”

Louis felt rather than heard the low laugh that started in Harry’s belly and made its way slowly up to his shoulders.  “She said that?”  Harry seemed amused by his mother but was also hunching in on himself, cringing slightly, as if he were a little embarrassed at the thought of her having indirectly referenced sex in a conversation with Louis.  He let a tight laugh out of his throat.  “God, Mom.”

Louis just giggled, and let Harry rock him back against the counter.  “I think it’s a good idea,” he shrugged.  “If you’re up for it.”

Harry groaned, nuzzling into Louis’s neck like he was seeking comfort.  “I wish it weren’t calving season.”  It was then that Louis noticed the tiredness in his limbs, the way they were draped around him and holding on only loosely.  Harry’s shoulders had that particular set some people acquire when they know they have long, hard work ahead of them without many breaks.  Louis had seen it before in new parents and corporate interns.

“Yeah,” he whispered.  “Bad timing, huh?”

Harry nodded.  Louis heard his stomach growl and felt his body sag even more.  He tapped Harry twice on the ass and stood him up.

“You’re having chili in bed,” he said.

Harry frowned.  “The sheets...”

“Screw the sheets.  You need to lie down and you need food.  Then I’m going to massage you, naked.  Full-body massage.”  He dug his fingers into Harry’s sides, just below his armpits, and gave him a little, tickling preview that caused Harry to shoot up straight at last.  “Get going,” Louis said, and turned to gather napkins and a bowl.

He even managed to find a wooden tray and a thermos for Harry's milk, so that he wouldn’t have to deal with a full, unlidded glass of it.  When he carried it to Harry’s room, nudging the door open with his foot, he was surprised to see that it was empty, the bed still neatly made.  A touch of confusion furrowing his brow, he scurried back down the hall to peek into the guest room.

Harry was lying in a little nest of Louis’s bedclothes, quilt wrapped around his shoulders and his mouth open in a light doze.  Louis tiptoed in and set the food on the nightstand.

He gazed at Harry for a moment, his slow-talking cowboy, soft in the light of the lamp.  He felt his heart well up with feeling.  “I love you,” he whispered.

Harry stirred, blinking awake.  “Mmm… what?”

Louis bent down and kissed him on the side of his mouth, fingers running through his loose, curly hair.  “I love you,” he said.

“I love you, too.”  Harry smiled sleepily, and Louis could see a shiver run through him.  He scooted up to the headboard, drawing Louis in under one of his arms as he reached for the chili.

“Why aren’t you in your own room?” Louis asked.

He felt Harry shrug as he balanced the tray on his knees.  “It’s nice in here, I guess.  Smells like you.”

Louis snuggled closer into his side.

“And the sheets are only 180 thread count, so I don’t care if I spill.”

“Fuck off!”  Louis pinched Harry’s abs lightly to feel them flinch and kissed his shoulder.

Then he lay his head on it as he watched Harry wolf down his dinner, stealing bites every so often and listening to Harry tell him about Beyoncé’s new calf.  He had a shaggy, tawny coat, bright eyes and a lot of energy, apparently.  Harry laughed softly as he described the calf’s first steps, taken too fast and too eagerly.  “Fell face-first right into her udder,” Harry grinned.  “Good aim.”

After the tray was set aside, Louis rolled Harry over onto his stomach and stripped his clothes off.  When they were both finally naked, he straddled Harry and stared for a long moment at the pale, gorgeous expanse of his back.  Harry wiggled his bum impatiently, almost unseating him, and Louis could see the hint of his smile where it was pressed into the pillow.  He shifted positions, clamping his thighs down tightly on either side of Harry’s hips.

“Steady, girl,” he whispered, and Harry snorted with sudden laughter.

“Please,” he giggled.  “Come on.”

Louis started to knead Harry’s muscles, listening to him moan and sigh with pleasure beneath him, and tried not to pay attention to the slow drag of his cock along Harry’s crack.  It began to fatten up anyway, standing out from his body, the tip of it tracing over Harry’s skin as he leaned forward to put some weight into his circular strokes.  He knew Harry could feel it, knew when he reached down to adjust himself that it was getting him worked up.  Louis ignored the situation for a while, focused on easing out the knots in Harry's shoulders, rubbing and pressing kisses down his spine.

Eventually Harry let out a particularly frustrated groan and flipped over, pulling Louis down onto his chest.  They kissed each other deeply, Harry with low, appreciative moans.  His wandering hand found Louis’s cock and began to jerk it slowly and very deliberately.

“Big hands,” Louis moaned, smirking for a moment before his mouth dropped open a touch, eyes fluttering shut with pleasure.  “Oh, Harry…”  Big, warm hands.

Harry continued his torturously lazy rhythm, letting Louis rock on top of him, face buried in his neck.  Louis was useless, not even sucking a mark there but just breathing hotly as Harry took him right up to the edge of orgasm.  His hand was wonderful -- somehow calm and steadying even as Louis felt himself getting physically warmer, squirming and panting and losing control.  It was both grounding him in reality and grinding him into dust, and Louis felt torn apart in the best, most beautiful way.  Then, when he was just a few seconds from coming, from finally dropping off the edge into mind-numbing bliss, he felt Harry’s fingers loosen.  He began to stroke Louis with a feather-light touch, his fingertips only barely grazing Louis’s shaft.

Louis began to tremble.  “Babe,” he whispered, lifting his head and staring into Harry’s dark eyes.

“I was so scared,” Harry said.  He made Louis shudder with his next gentle touch, sparks of pleasure bursting through nerves he’d never felt before.

Louis couldn’t do more than gasp, and hope that Harry saw the question in his eyes.  The concern that he felt beating right in the center of his heart even though he needed to come so badly he thought he might explode with it.

“I was scared you’d have to go back to Denver tomorrow,” Harry clarified, smile twitching his lips as Louis nodded and moaned, rocking forward to plant a little kiss on his brow.  “And you’d promise to come visit, but eventually we’d drift apart.  You’d forget about me.  The ranch…”

“No.”  Louis felt the word rip out of his throat.  He shook his head vehemently, and he could feel how hot he was all over now -- he’d broken out in a sweat.  God, it felt like it had been years since he’d been one hard tug away from orgasm, and Harry was still teasing, using his thumb to softly massage drops of precome out of Louis’s slit.  Louis’s limbs were jelly, and he was quivering all over, unable to think clearly.  But he knew this.  He knew the answer to this.  “Never,” he said.  He shook his head again.  “That would never happen.”

“You sure?” Harry asked softly.  He heaved himself into a sitting position, gathering Louis up into his arms and petting his hair.  “Because it’s easy to say that.  I mean, I would understand.  I know it’s -- it’s not ideal for someone like you.  Me being so… so inflexible.  I’ve already made my life out here, and…”

“I’m telling you I’d miss it,” Louis said.  He was starting to calm down, head a bit clearer even though he could still feel the fire edging over his skin.  He kissed Harry once on the mouth and stared into his eyes.  “I’d miss all of it if I had to leave.”

Harry nodded, a different sort of smile playing over his lips now -- shyer, because it was more hopeful.  "Okay then," he whispered.

"I love you," Louis said.  He didn't stop to think as Harry put his big, rough hands on him again, didn't consider that there were things he would miss in Denver, too.  Zayn, for one.  Hopkins-Harrington going to trial, for another.  Then there was law school...

He let Harry bring them both off with a few hard, feverish strokes, let himself curl up next to him, holding him as his breaths slowly evened out, and didn't remember that any of it existed.

*

Every day that week, Louis woke up alone in bed.  Calving season was in full swing now, the busiest time of year at the ranch, and everyone was working around the clock.  Harry had set up his own bedroom as a dormitory for the ranch hands, with blankets and air mattresses and extra toothbrushes in his ensuite.  Every conversation was about which cows were dilated or which calves needed new bedding, coffee was flowing freely and Harry was perpetually tired but joyful, like his soul was being nourished even as he was pushing his body to work hard.  Niall put up a big whiteboard in the dining room to keep track of all the new calves, and meals generally included light squabbling about the names -- Dorothy Parker or Hermione Granger, Alan Turing or Jackie Chan, whether naming calves after tennis players with good calves was a good idea or not (an overtired Roby insisting that it definitely was).  There was always someone trudging in from the heifers' barn or the nearby pasture, exhausted and ready for a shower, a bowl of chili and a nap.

This was the part of calving season Louis got to see on Monday and Tuesday.  The backstage scene changes, the downtime that felt like it was borrowed time before another big push began.  Harry allowed himself the luxury of staying off nights, and came in at sundown every evening to wrap himself around Louis in the shower.

“Mmm, baby,” Harry moaned, already drowsy, as Louis washed his hair for him.  “Feels so good.”

Louis dug his fingers in, sighing a little in relief at finally getting to touch Harry again after a long day of missing him.  He just wanted to breathe him in, his apple-scented shampoo and his vanilla soap, mold his body into Harry’s and stay under the warm water forever.

“I feel like now that you’re my boyfriend, I’m seeing you less than ever,” Louis said.

“Can’t be helped,” Harry frowned, before turning around and gathering Louis in.  Their warm, naked skin felt so good together, Louis almost started to cry.  “Boyfriend,” he smiled, pressing a kiss to Louis’s temple.

“I know,” Louis said, reaching up and continuing to massage Harry’s wet, foamy curls.  He smiled at the way Harry’s jaw went slightly slack with pleasure, his eyebrows stormy as he tugged harder and scratched at his scalp.  “I’m dating a cow midwife,” he shrugged.  “It’s the path I’ve chosen.”

Harry giggled.  “God, that feels amazing,” he said.  “And I know, too.”  He rubbed one of his big hands down Louis’s side to squeeze at his hip.  “I feel the same way, I promise.”

“Well,” Louis said, placing a hand over Harry’s eyes to protect them as he gently dipped his head back into the spray of water and began to rinse out the shampoo, “I was just thinking that maybe…  If, you know, you thought it was a good idea…”  Louis felt a weird jangle of nerves as Harry squinted an eye open at him.  “I could help out a bit with the calving?  Spend more time with you.  I’m a fast learner.”

Harry blinked his eyes open all the way, breaking into a huge grin as he leaned down to kiss Louis on the mouth.  His hands took a hard hold of Louis’s biceps, his tongue insistent on the seam of his lips and Louis yielded, with a flash of heat low in his belly at how dominant Harry was being.  After a minute or so of burning, unchaste kisses, Louis managed to push Harry off and catch his breath.  “Christ,” he muttered, smiling as he blinked a couple droplets of water off his eyelashes, “you must really need the help.”

Harry let out a noise that was halfway between a snort and a whimper.  “Have you really not noticed yet how much it turns me on when you want to learn about ranch stuff?”  He was gazing at Louis darkly, completely serious.

Louis let out a half-surprised laugh, feeling his eyebrows dart up.  “Like when you taught me how to lasso?”

“Jesus.”  Harry shifted his weight, running a hand through his hair as he looked Louis up and down pointedly.  “That was traumatic.  I thought I was going to die.”

Louis bit his lip over a grin and mock-pushed Harry’s bare chest.  “Ridiculous.  Ridiculous, Styles.”

Harry leaned into his touch, waggling his eyebrows.  “Maybe you could hold some rope again for me, sometime.”  He paused, and then added, “Oh for hot.”

“Shut up!”  Louis laughed, feeling his body settle into a flirty stance, and he knew his eyes were shining.

The rest of the week was spent in the barn, where Louis was put to work as a go-fetch, hauling in food and fresh bedding, mucking out the old and occasionally assisting Harry, Paul, or Dr. Christine with a birth.  It was hard, occasionally unpleasant work, but it was worth it to be around Harry all day, to experience what he was experiencing.  Louis slowly became an expert at the little jobs, like mixing mineral-rich grain in with the cows’ feed and handling the heavy manure fork.  He was tired, dirty, and so happy to be helping that he couldn’t keep a smile off his face.  Breaks were spent with Jolene and the calves, snapping pictures and recording more video than his phone could store.

And every night, he and Harry laid each other out in the guest bedroom and gave each other a thorough massage before sucking each other off.

*

The YMCA in Sheridan was a squat, unappealing building sandwiched between the library and the junior high school, right in the middle of town.  Its brick seemed to be the exact same shade of burnt sienna as the Y in Long Prairie, and Louis was stewing in unpleasant memories of his high school lifeguarding days when Harry pulled the F150 into the parking lot.

“We’re going to one of the gyms,” Harry said, laughing at Louis’s expression and rolling his eyes fondly as he killed the engine, “not the pool.”

Louis had been a little disappointed earlier in the week when Harry had informed him that he was registered to participate in the 64th Annual Cowtown Hoedown on Saturday afternoon, and asked if Louis wanted to come along.  As appealing as the idea of watching Harry square dance was, and as much as he was enjoying helping Harry out around the ranch, Louis was exhausted, and it meant they wouldn’t be getting that precious time off together all to themselves.  His heart had sunk, even though he wanted to support Harry.

If he’d thought he’d be able to mask his initial reaction, he was immediately proven wrong, because Harry had let out an a sympathetic snort, pulling Louis into a tight hug and promising it wouldn’t be that bad or go too late.  He’d been humoring Louis over the past several days too, fondly listening to his many YMCA horror stories (most of which involved overflowing diapers, not near-drowning incidents) to give him a way of venting his frustration over the situation.

“I guarantee the entire building smells like chlorine anyway,” Louis grumped now, unbuckling his seat belt.  He lost a fight against a smile when Harry’s laughter brightened in response, and they met over the console for a kiss.

“You gonna be okay in there?” Harry asked with a glint of amusement in his eye.  He settled a hand on the back of Louis’s neck, slotting his strong thumb in right behind his jaw and rubbing gently.

Louis made a helpless sound of happiness at the warm touch and nodded slowly, his eyelids fluttering.  He might have been mildly disgruntled about having to share, but he was still glad to be with Harry, wherever he was.  Despite complaining about YMCAs all week, he’d repeatedly reassured Harry that he really did want to come, teasing him about how it would be a tragedy to miss something that was actually called  “the Cowtown Hoedown."

“I’ll be fine,” he sighed wearily, as though he were such a trooper, before giving Harry an impish smile.  “Still think there should be free t-shirts, though."

Harry scoffed out a laugh and then kissed Louis on the forehead before they hopped down out of the truck.  “Well, I guess you should just lead the committee next year, Mr. Big Ideas.”

Louis grinned, his cheeks hot like they always seemed to get whenever someone implied he would still be around in the future.  He gave Harry a bit of a once-over as they started heading toward the building’s front doors.  “I guess I should...” he drawled, his eyes still lingering on Harry’s long frame in an exaggeratedly lascivious way.  He raised his brows twice.  “I know exactly what to put on the promotional posters.”

Harry cackled in delight, but still preened a little under Louis’s appreciative gaze, squaring his shoulders and smoothing his hand down the white silk scarf that was knotted around his neck. Louis felt a surge of attraction and affection that was so strong he had to ball up his fists to keep from pushing Harry back into the Ford and demanding they return to the ranch immediately and go straight to bed.  He was clad in a beautiful, pale green western-style shirt with mother of pearl snaps and roses embroidered on the shoulders and the cuffs of the sleeves, and had tucked his nicest black skinny jeans into cowboy boots that were so finely crafted they might have cost more than Louis’s first car.  He always seemed to have an extra-special glow when he felt that he’d gotten his outfit just right, and that was certainly the case this afternoon.  Louis couldn’t stop staring.  Couldn’t stop loving him for it.

God, he thought, his heart too big in his chest as Harry opened the door and guided him into the YMCA.  Obviously he has the perfect outfit for this.  Obviously.  How can I ever get enough of him?

They both started to smile as they entered the lobby and the faint, familiar scent of chlorine wafted over them.

“It’s only ‘cause the pool’s right there,” Harry pointed out, nodding toward the large observation windows at the far end of the entry space, past the vending machines.  “It, like, permeates the glass.”

“Oh, is that your scientific opinion?”

“Highly scientific,” Harry said, placing a hand on Louis’s lower back and leading him down the hallway in the opposite direction.  “We’re going way over to the other side of the building, anyway.  It’ll be all Old Spice and hair spray, don’t you worry.”

The hoedown was actually a weekend-long event, but things had been too busy at the Lonely Rose for Harry to attend when the festivities had kicked off the night before.  Dancing for the day was already in progress when they finally slipped into the gym, music bouncing off the high, boxy walls with a tinny echo.  A middle-aged man in a far less well-fitting version of Harry’s outfit stood on a platform at one end of the room and gave the call.

“Chain across…  Chain those ladies right back home…”

They stayed on the periphery and watched, Harry’s head bopping in time to the music along with the flounce of the ladies’ crinoline skirts.  Every so often his hand flexed on Louis’s back, like he was leading him through the square dance steps in his mind.

“Allemande left, come back with a do-si-do…”

Louis couldn’t help but smile, looking around.  A bank of the old wooden bleachers that lined one wall had been pulled out for the small amount of spectators, and he quickly spotted Liam Payne among them.  Long tables covered in waxy, checkered cloth and the occasional vase of plastic flowers had been set up, presumably for the spaghetti dinner that was going to be served in an hour or so.  Almost everyone was in their finest square dancing attire.  Louis was glad Harry had forced him to wear one of his shirts, even though it was much too big.

“Look at this turnout!” Harry whispered, glancing down at Louis with bright eyes and squeezing his shoulders in excitement.  “Dottie told me we had almost a third more people sign up to eat this year!”

Louis smiled wider and shifted in place, his heart lurching.  Whenever he thought he couldn’t possibly find Harry Styles more endearing, he was proven wrong.  Despite the fairly sizable smattering of children dancing, the average age of the Cowtown Hoedown participants seemed to be somewhere around seventy, and Harry couldn’t have looked happier about it.

“There she is!” Harry said after a break was announced at the end of the song.  A large woman with tightly-curled gray hair made a beeline over to them from across the dance floor and pulled Harry into a quick hug.

“So this is your young man, Harry?” she asked, smiling at Louis when they pulled apart.  A happy thrill shot down Louis’s spine when Harry slung an arm around his shoulders and pulled him close.

“Yes, it is,” Harry said, the evident pride in his voice making Louis blush.  “This is my boyfriend, Louis Tomlinson.”  He beamed down at Louis.  “Louis, this is Dottie Llewellyn, my next door neighbor.”

“Nice to meet you,” Louis said, recognition washing over him as they shook hands.  From what he’d heard of the Llewellyns during his time at the Lonely Rose, he’d gotten the sense that the Styleses had a bit of a friendly rivalry with them.  The families were apparently even closer than he’d suspected, judging from the way Dottie was looking back and forth between the two of them with the playful, appraising eyes of a mischievous aunt.

A great-aunt, Louis thought.  He’d always pegged the Llewellyns as having been around the same age as Rosie and Roy, but Dottie wasn’t exactly what he’d expected, physically.  If she was over eighty, she was in incredible shape -- robust in a broad, soft-bodied sort of way, and taller than he’d imagined.  The sharp-minded air of authority she projected was no surprise, though, and when she arched a critical brow at Harry’s description of her as his “next door neighbor,” Louis started to laugh.

“Forgive me,” Harry snorted in response, rolling his eyes good-naturedly before he tried again with a hand over his heart.  “Louis, this is Dottie Llewellyn, one of my family’s oldest friends and a truly important role model in my life with regard to the development of my character and my expert skills as a rancher.”

It was Dottie’s turn to roll her eyes, but she let out a rumbling laugh as well.  “Much better, you smart aleck.”  She turned to Louis and leaned in like she was about to disclose a secret.  “You probably noticed by now, but Harry thinks he’s quite the comedian, just like his grandma.”

“Yes, I have noticed,” Louis said sagely, chuckling as he gave Harry’s hand a couple of pats.  “You are hilarious, dear.”

Harry was shaking his head but laughing along with Louis and Dottie.  His happiness over getting to introduce them was apparent on his beautiful, flushed face, and Louis got another heart-lurching thrill from seeing it, love tingling out to his fingertips.  He had to stop patting Harry’s hand so that he could hold on and squeeze, pressing even closer to his side.  He’d been so caught up in the little world of the Lonely Rose that it hadn’t fully dawned on him that this would be their debut as a public couple.

Out with my boyfriend, Harry Styles, he thought, staring down at their hands as nervous exhilaration filled his body and made his heart pound.  At the Cowtown Hoedown.

“Well, it’s lovely to finally meet you, Louis,” Dottie went on, Louis murmuring his agreement before she turned back to Harry.  “You gonna dance the next one with me, then?  Art’s already getting antsy.”

Harry nodded.  He’d explained to Louis that he’d be partnering with Dottie for most of the night, since her husband Arthur preferred to give the call whenever he got the chance, and her son Dougie always used calving season as an excuse to get out of coming.  Louis had reluctantly agreed to participate for at least one song during the beginners round later in the evening, even though all of his previous experiences with square dancing were from elementary school PE.  (Louis’d always gotten paired up with Ashley Larsen, who hated him and constantly had a runny nose.)

“All right, I’ll go let him know,” Dottie said, peering around the room as she looked for her husband.  She glanced down at her watch.  "See you in a bit…”

They spent the next five or ten minutes milling around the gym, Harry guiding Louis everywhere and introducing him to so many expectant faces he could barely keep track of names.  It was a little overwhelming, but Harry kept Louis close, a comforting hand never straying too far from his lower back.

“Prepare to be amazed!” Harry said, once Art Llewellyn announced that the dancing would begin again momentarily.  He walked Louis over to the bleachers and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

Louis started to laugh as he settled in next to Liam on a bench a few rows up.  "Don’t get too nervous.  I know it’s a lot of pressure, me being in the crowd.”

Harry just grinned, puffing out his chest.  “I think you’ll find I thrive under pressure, and delight in an audience,” he said primly, nodding hello to Liam before he walked away.  He cast Louis bright-eyed glances over his shoulder until he reached Dottie.

“You guys’re officially together then?” Liam asked, by way of greeting, smiling at Louis and sitting forward so he could clap him on the knee.

“Yeah,” Louis chuckled, patting Liam right back, “but I’m only telling you because of our official friendship.”

“What an honor.”

They fell quiet as the music began, Art’s voice coming out through the speakers loud and clear.  “Now, bow to your partner…  Bow to your corner…  Join hands and circle left for a little while!”  The dancers were in motion.  Louis was laughing right away, because of course Harry was thriving.  He was completely committed to giving it his enthusiastic all, shining like a bright beacon of not-quite-perfect technique.  It was wonderful.

The acoustics of the gym were such that they could talk without being a distraction to the dancers, so Louis leaned into Liam and said, “Harry’s a bit of a show-off, huh?”

“Yeah," Liam laughed in agreement.  “A real character.  It’s the best.”

“Is your wife dancing?” Louis asked, suddenly curious.

“Oh, nope,” Liam said, smiling, “she’s got a shift at the hospital this weekend.”  He pointed to the square that was second-closest to them, made up entirely of children, all of whom were completely adorable in their dancing outfits.  “That’s my son, Jake, in the blue," his smile widened, “with the curls.”

“He’s good!” Louis said, impressed as the six-year-old followed the calls in time and with a bit of flair.

“Yeah, he is!” Liam said, clearly proud.  They watched for a little while in silence before Liam spoke again, his tone thoughtful.  “You know, he might not be dancing at all, if Harry wasn’t such a show-off…”

Louis gave him a quizzical look, and Liam chuckled.  “Just, Jake was all excited about dance class.  He wanted to do tap and ballet and I dunno what they call it?  Modern Interpretive?  But then some of the other boys in his kindergarten class were teasing him about it.  About the girly costumes --"  He rolled his eyes.  “Can you believe that stuff starts so young?”

Louis shook his head, sighing.  “Terrible.”

“Yep, it is.  Anyway, I was tellin’ Harry about it at the saloon, and he told me he’d started up the Jeans and Queens square dancing club again, since he got back to town.  Said they had free beginner lessons for all ages that should probably be promoted.  So, long story short, he put on a fancy square dancing shirt ‘n went around to the elementary schools,” Liam made a circular motion with his hand, “doing a demonstration.  Suddenly all the little boys wanted to be just like the cool dancing cowboy that Jakey knew.”

Louis shifted his gaze back over to Dottie and Harry’s square and watched his radiant boyfriend promenade with a proud, straight back.  His chest tightened with love.

Liam let out a slow breath and shook his head, rubbing at his buzzed hair.  “You know, the truth is, a few years ago, ‘fore I met Harry, I might not have been encouraging Jake to dance myself,” he frowned.  "Sequins were not something my dad would have let me put on… ”

Louis nodded in understanding, remembering the way his own father had initially balked at his interest in participating in the Long Prairie Community Theater production of The Sound of Music when he was twelve.  How he’d known, deep down, that it was actually a rejection of something else, a reaction to something his father had probably long suspected and been afraid of -- an essential part of Louis, that he couldn’t change.  And even though his dad had come around over the years, sometimes thinking about it still cut so close he’d lose his breath.

“Anyway,” Liam said, shrugging and letting out a bleak laugh, “now we’ve got Jake in square dance and tap and Pop Warner, and I’m more concerned about the football ‘cause of all the concussions.”

Louis made a soft sound of acknowledgment, but he was barely listening anymore.  He was tangled up in emotion, unable to take his eyes off Harry as the song ended and he began to laugh and chat with the other dancers in his square.

Beloved, Louis realized, swallowing hard.  He’s beloved.  So beyond special.

Over the past decade or so of his life, Louis had given a lot of thought to the ways that families and communities -- makeshift and otherwise -- come together and how, over time, they sometimes fall apart.  He’d thought about how his parents' marriage had deteriorated slowly and steadily until there was nothing left.  Or how he, Zayn, and all of their college friends had seemed to own the city of Madison their senior year, having the time of lives right up until graduation, and how just six weeks later they’d all moved away and the magic that had made it home was gone.  He’d spent the majority of his twenties intentionally making himself the temporary factor, with Americorps and the Peace Corps -- always dropping in somewhere and then getting out.  And that hadn’t been a bad thing.  Louis felt proud of the work he’d done and the lives he’d touched.  But now he was seeing first-hand how during that same time period Harry Styles had been making himself a constant, instead.  That what Harry had been building up around him in Sheridan was not at all limited to his ranch.  Of course it wasn’t.  Liam’s story about his son, the way everyone in the room -- young and old -- seemed to look up to Harry and be happy to see him, made it sink in how important a person like Harry could be to a place like this, how positive his influence could be.  He’d become a vital and wonderful part of a community he was completely committed to.  It was suddenly more starkly obvious than ever, how much Louis wanted to be part of it.  How proud he would be to be a constant in Harry’s life.

I am so fucking in love with him, he thought, in awe.  The feeling inside him was so bright it felt like he might be giving off light as he looked at Harry, swinging his corner now that another song had begun.  So, so in love.  He shook his head, feeling foolishly guilty that he’d ever wanted them to stay back at the ranch, when this was what he got to see.  Familiar worries crowded the edges of Louis’s mind, all the complications of his separate life in Denver and his law school plans, but he quickly tamped them down so that he could enjoy the present.

“We’ll figure it out,” he whispered, still watching Harry dance.  “We’ll figure it all out, together.”

The remainder of the hoedown felt like beautiful torture.  Louis's love for Harry had grown so much more powerful inside him that he was almost throbbing with the need to express it physically.  Since that was clearly not immediately possible, beyond a few lingering cheek kisses and a dinnertime thigh squeeze, he directed all of his pent-up energy into being the best Cowtown Hoedown date that Harry would ever have, throwing himself into socializing and beginner’s square dancing with a genuine and boyish enthusiasm.

By the time they ducked out at around 9:00 pm, waving goodbye to everybody, Louis was slightly sweaty from all the do-si-dos and promenades, flush-faced from laughing, and so in love he could barely see straight.  He felt loopy from it, heady from gazing at Harry in silence as they walked down the slightly dingy linoleum hallway, and from Harry gazing back.  When they burst through the front doors of the YMCA, the cool night air felt perfect against Louis’s heated skin, almost like it was soothing his love delirium somehow.  Grounding him a little, in a positive way.

“You have a good time?” Harry asked, as they reached his truck.  He scuffed a boot through one of the sprays of sand that still dotted the parking lot, left behind like glacial till from when all the snow had melted earlier in the spring.  His expression was soft and happy -- he already knew the answer to his question.

All Louis could do was nod emphatically, still smiling with stars in his eyes, while he backed him up against the passenger door of the Ford and kissed him urgently, letting out a sigh of sweet relief as their lips came together.

God.

Alone, finally.  After all those hours of Harry being so wonderful and looking so gorgeous just out of reach, Louis could really touch him again, just like he wanted to.

“Shit," Harry gasped, his breath hitching when they broke apart.  Harry blinked down at him, slack-jawed, his pupils blown and his nostrils flaring as he breathed out heavily through his nose.  He seemed slightly stunned by how fervently Louis had kissed him, all hot and opened-mouthed and a little demanding.

Louis stared at his hands where they’d come to rest on Harry’s chest, watching them rise and fall along with Harry’s breathing while he tried to get ahold of himself.  He’d never felt like this before -- so head over heels for someone, body and soul, that it really did feel like a kind of madness.  Like he’d burst out of his skin or go out of his mind if they didn’t do something about it, soon.  Fly right off the surface of the Earth.

“I love you,” Louis managed to get out, as he risked a look up into Harry’s eyes again.  He almost laughed after he said it because he meant it so thoroughly.  It made his heart flip over and his stomach do a swan dive, and he felt dangerously close to swooning.

“I love you, too,” Harry whispered, clearly touched as he smoothed Louis’s hair back off his face and kissed his forehead.  “My little square dancing machine.”

“Take me home?” Louis asked, not even realizing he’d called the ranch home until Harry’s eyes went a shade darker and he nodded gravely, fishing the keys out of his pocket and unlocking the truck so that they could climb inside.

Louis leaned up against the console as soon as he’d settled in and buckled his seat belt, sliding his left hand up into Harry’s hair from the nape of his neck and rubbing slow circles into the base of his skull.

“This vehicle clearly wasn’t designed for lovers, Harold,” he griped, gesturing to the console, which was keeping him from cuddling right up against Harry’s side.

Harry laughed as he started up the engine and pulled out onto the street, sighing happily as Louis’s fingers continued to play against his scalp.  He reached for Louis’s right hand at the first stop sign and didn’t let go, controlling the steering wheel with one hand when they started moving again.  “You’re right.  They said at the dealership.  ‘Comes with celibacy bucket seats.  Standard.’  Wasn’t an issue for me at the time...”

Louis let out a laugh of his own, but it faded away when Harry’s large thumb started to sweep over the back of his hand, drawing swirling patterns and figure eights on his skin.  Every slow, simple caress sent a new pulse of arousal shimmering through him, and he could barely breathe.

“I want you so much, Louis,” Harry rasped in a whisper, flicking on his brights now that they were on the deserted stretch of highway that lead out to the ranch.  Louis’s breath caught, and he turned to look at Harry in the eerie light, loving the way Harry moved into the touch of the hand he still had buried in his curls.  The air around them felt charged.  “Been thinking about it all -- all night.”

“Are you going to fuck me, peaches?” Louis asked, tugging a little at Harry’s hair because the question sent such a torrent of longing through him, reigniting the heat in his face and making him ache.  Just the idea of it.  Of Harry taking him from behind, his powerful hips snapping, perfect thighs working as he drove into Louis.  “First with your fingers, then with your cock?”

“Jesus,” Harry croaked, shifting in his seat, tightening his hold on the steering wheel and on Louis’s hand.  Moonlight tracked through the cab of the truck as they took a left onto the Lonely Rose’s gravel drive, and Louis could see the outline of Harry’s erection in his jeans.  He swallowed thickly, licking his lips and adjusting himself.  His arousal was so strong, he was so fully flushed with it, that it felt like all the blood that wasn’t rushing to his cock was moving to the surface of his skin.  Like all of his capillaries were engorged too, pulsing along with his thudding heart, and he was in danger of passing out from the lack of oxygen getting to his lust-addled brain.  He was so attracted to Harry he almost felt ill from it.

“Are you all right?” Harry asked, after he threw the truck into park outside the house and turned to see the state Louis was in.

“Yeah,” Louis said.  “Just, seeing you tonight…  Watching you, I --"  He took a deep, shuddering breath, feeling strangely shy.  He bit his lip when Harry rested their foreheads together like he had before they'd gotten out of the truck at the Y.  “I really love you, Harry.  And I want..."

Harry swallowed up the end of his sentence in a desperately emotional kiss.  His huge palms framed Louis’s face as he tilted his head to get a better angle, his tongue languid and stupidly sensual as it moved against Louis’s, drawing a small moan from him.  Harry’s chest was heaving when they broke apart, and Louis trailed his fingers down Harry's cheek from his temple, letting Harry bite at them gently when they moved across his lips.

“This isn’t going to be a celibacy bucket seat for very much longer if we don’t get out of this truck,” Louis said, smirking at the amusement he could see in Harry’s eyes even though he was still sucking on Louis’s knuckles.

“We’re gonna have to be quiet."  Harry nodded to the left, where Hank and Niall and Roby’s trucks were still parked in a row beside them.  They were probably all sacked out on air mattresses in Harry’s bedroom, but Roby was a notoriously light sleeper, and they’d be getting up to check the cows for signs of labor every two hours anyway.  Louis felt another flash of heat run through him at the idea of Harry having to bite down on his fingers for an entirely different reason.

He nodded solemnly, reaching for the door handle, but Harry stilled him with a touch to his forearm before he could jump out of the truck.  “Hey,” he said, his eyes warm and his dimple deeply shadowed, “I love you, too.”

Louis rolled his eyes at how moved he was by it all, sighing and shaking his head.  “Let’s go.”

They pulled off their shoes by the front door and then made their way across the living room together without flicking on a light.  Louis went first, Harry’s big hands light on his shoulders as he followed behind.  He giggled softly every time Louis made a misstep and then swore under his breath when he clipped his own ankle on the leg of an end table, almost overturning a lamp.  That set Louis off as well, so they huddled in the middle of the living room hugging and snickering for minute before they were able to pull themselves together.

They broke into another muffled fit of giggles when they shut the door to the guest room behind them and Harry tackled Louis onto the unmade bed in the dark.  It was only after they’d been stretched out that way for about a minute that their eyes completely adjusted to the lack of light and their laughter died away.  Harry gazed down at Louis with a sober expression on his face and Louis was so happy, it felt like a balloon had been over-inflated in his chest.

“You want me to fuck you?” Harry whispered, dragging a thumb along Louis’s jaw.

“Please.”

All of the crackling urgency from the truck came rushing back, and they stripped out of their square dancing clothes, knocking elbows into heads and knees into hips before they were finally naked, spread out on the rumpled sheets.  Louis was flat on his back with his head propped up on a pillow, and Harry lay next to him, up on one elbow, drinking him in.

“So beautiful,” he murmured, giving Louis’s half-hard cock a few smooth tugs before trailing his hand up Louis’s tummy and chest and running it down his soft sides.  “Fuck, you are so beautiful.  I can’t --"  He didn’t finish his own thought, ducking down to kiss Louis instead.  It was another desperate kiss, almost like Harry felt too much to know what to do with all the emotion.  Louis completely understood.

“On your tummy,” Harry muttered against Louis’s mouth.  He leaned over to rummage in the nightstand for a condom and lube while Louis flipped over.  His whole body lit up, heart stuttering at the way Harry’s breath hitched audibly when his attention returned to him.

“Baby,” he said.  Louis shivered at the broken, awed sound of his voice and way he was moving his rough fingertips up and down the skin of his back, raising goosebumps and making Louis’s muscles twitch with small spasms of pleasure.

Louis had spread his legs subtly.  Harry moved to kneel between them, opening Louis up with tender, skillful efficiency until Louis was squirming back against his hand and trying to regulate his erratic breathing.

“Ready?” Harry asked, his voice cracking as he removed his fingers and pressed kisses across Louis's back and into the top of his sweaty spine.  “Is this okay?  Like this?”

“Yeah -- yes,” Louis gasped.  He turned his head to the side and craned his neck so that Harry could give him a heated, open-mouthed kiss.  Then he heard him roll on the condom and slick himself up.  “Just like this.”

They were still kissing as Harry pushed slowly inside, letting out a low, rumbling groan of pleasure when he was finally settled flush against Louis’s arse.  “Oh my God, Louis.  Fuck.”

“Harry."  It came out in something of a panted whimper, but Louis was beyond caring.  He was so turned on, he was entertaining irrational thoughts about having reached a higher plane of existence because of how deep Harry’s perfect cock was inside him, splitting him open in just the right way.  Harry completely covered Louis’s back with his big cowboy’s frame, lacing his fingers into Louis’s where they were palm down on the mattress and burrowing into Louis’s neck to lick at his hot skin.  His solid body was draped all over Louis, surrounding him as Harry ground his hips in slow circles to start out.  It was everything Louis had been dreaming about since that first day in the near east pasture, mending fences in the damp grass.  He felt small and safe and so very, very wanted.  All of his senses were electrified because of it, like he might come at any moment.  Like he could burst from loving Harry so much.

“God, I love you, Louis,” Harry murmured.  He’d started to thrust in earnest, finally rocking into Louis’s prostate and sending shuddering waves of sensation through his body.  Louis had to bite down on his lip to keep from crying out, the occasional moan escaping anyway.  His prick was trapped against the sheets, and he began to rut down on the bed in time with Harry.  “Love you being here.”

“Fuck.  Harder --” he managed to choke out, feeling frantic with desire, shaking with it as it built higher and higher inside him, a tower of emotion that would topple over any second.  “Fuck.  I love you too.  Love being here too.”

Harry gave another low groan, almost a wounded sound of surprise, cursing as his hips stuttered and he came, hot and hard, deep inside Louis.  He didn’t pull out when he finished, leaning back on his haunches and scooping Louis up off the bed so that he was seated in his lap.  Harry wrapped a large hand around Louis’s dick, murmuring encouragement in his ear as he brought him off.

“You’re so good, baby, feel so fucking good.  So beautiful.”

Louis moaned Harry’s name, coming all over his fist and trembling as he rode it out.  Harry held him through it with a strong arm braced around his narrow chest, lowering them both back down onto their sides before he finally eased out.

“Was pretty good,” Louis slurred, blinking at Harry as he watching him tidy up, tossing the condom and wiping at his jizz-covered hand with a tissue.

Harry snorted at the purposeful understatement, reaching down to grab the blankets from the foot of the bed so that he could cover them up.  They tangled their calves together, facing one another, enjoying the eye contact too much to spoon.  Louis couldn’t stop smiling.

“Thank you for coming to the Cowtown Hoedown with me,” Harry whispered, clutching one of Louis’s hands to his chest.

Louis smiled, leaning forward to kiss Harry quickly on the lips.  “My pleasure,” he whispered back.

*

The next day was going to be Jolene and the twins’ last day in the semi-isolation of the horse barn.  Dr. Christine had been watching their progress closely, and had deemed all three of them fit to rejoin the herd of cows and their new calves out in the near pasture.  They couldn’t wait too long, Harry had told him, because social units were already beginning to form -- “little calf-y kindergartens,” he called them, groups of newborn calves already playing, tumbling on the grass and licking at each other before falling asleep together inside a circle of protective mother cows.  Sally and Paul had been much more active lately, showing their readiness to play outside in the sun, too.

Louis knew he couldn’t keep Paul and Sally to himself forever, tucked away in the older, smaller horse barn.  But he still felt a pang of wistfulness as he slipped out to see them one last time before they were moved.  Part of him wanted them to stay in their little nest of hay forever, among the comforting neighing and nickering, and the occasional lazy stamping of the horses.  Calf-y kindergarten, he thought to himself again, suppressing a heart-heavy laugh as he leaned down over the gate of their pen.  It really is like we’re getting ready to send them off to school.  Paul and Sally were both suckling, standing parallel on either side of Jolene with their heads down at her udder.  She was dutifully turning to smell and lick at them, and Louis thought she looked harried but proud, with a more confident, responsible bearing than she’d had when she was a heifer.

“You look great, Jolene,” he said softly, not wanting to disturb them.

He snapped one last picture, and for a fleeting moment wondered if he should send it to his own mother.  That would be a shock, he chuckled.  They’d last talked on the phone about a week before Louis had been unexpectedly relocated to Wyoming, and he distinctly remembered saying something to her about being a “city boy at heart.”  He’d been standing in line at Starbucks on the 16th Street Mall in his shiny shoes and his sharp suit at the time, proud to be paying four dollars for his regular morning mocha.  He rolled his eyes at the memory of himself.  It was all an affectation he’d been putting on, temporarily immersing himself in another culture the same way he had since leaving home, only that time he’d thought it would stick.  That he’d found himself, finally.  Found out where he wanted to be.  And it wasn’t like home at all.

There was something about the barn that felt like home, though.  Some sense memory from Louis’s past in rural Minnesota that made him feel a little more real, a little more in touch with himself.  He bit his lip and slipped quietly over the gate, settling down for a few moments next to Sally and Paul, watching them finish their meal and flop into the hay together, nose-to-tail, to take a nap.

The filtered sunlight and warm animal musk permeating the air were making Louis feel a little drowsy himself.  He put his head back against the side of the wooden pen and closed his eyes, rolling his slightly sore shoulders and thinking about Harry in his fancy square dancing outfit.  Saw him leading Dottie Llewellyn around the gym floor, do-si-doing and allemandeing left.  Maybe next year… he thought.  Maybe next year it’ll be me.

A banging sound, followed by scraping, jarred Louis out of his reverie before he could actually drift off.  He rubbed his eyes and was about to hop up to see who had come in when he heard strained voices.

“You’ve got wood rot all around the sill timbers,” someone was saying.  “That’s not as easy as a roof repair.”

Louis furrowed his brow.  It was definitely Niall’s voice, but Louis had never heard him like this before.  Even when he’d been outraged about Hank’s refusal to accept that he’d lost a bet, there’d been an undercurrent of laughter in his griping, like it was all part of the fun.  Now his voice was steely, completely serious, and a little exasperated -- as though a long-simmering annoyance was finally beginning to bubble over.

“You don’t think we could hold off one more year, though?” Harry answered.

Anxiety spiked in Louis’s chest, and he tensed his body, ready to stand up.

“You know we can’t,” Niall snapped.  “It’s borderline unsafe to keep the horses in here right now.”

Harry groaned.  “I know,” he said.  “I know.”  There was more scraping, and Louis heard the sound of feed being upended into one of the galvanized steel troughs at the other end of the barn.  "Well, I've been talking to the bank about the loan.  There are some people there who knew Roy, and they're going to give me a really good interest rate."  There was a pause, and then Harry continued in a tight, overly-bright tone, as though he were responding to a skeptical look from Niall.  "We'll be fine!  We'll be fine.  Seriously, if the market holds…”  Harry trailed off into an uneasy silence.

“It might not,” Niall said flatly, after a few seconds.

Harry didn’t answer right away.  Louis blinked himself out of the little state of shock he was in, hearing this.  He knew things were financially tricky, he’d picked up that much during his time here, but Harry almost never let it show just how much he worried.  And Niall always, always supported him.  He’d been 100% behind Harry every step of the way as both a friend and an employee.  That was what had Louis almost paralyzed -- the idea that even Niall might disagree with the way Harry was handling things.

“You know, I didn't want to mention it because you're so set on the mortgage idea, but there's something you could do right now that would make all of this go away."  Louis drew in a low breath, not daring to move even an inch as his heart began to thud.  "I know you know that,” Niall added quickly.  His voice was getting shaky; Louis could tell he was still trying to be understanding even though he couldn’t help the frustration he was obviously feeling.  “But if you go into debt again and something else goes wrong, some sickness in the stock, or maybe the market cycles down...  I mean, you’re going to have to lay people off.  Your friends, Harry.”

Again Harry was silent.  He probably didn’t know what to say.  Louis was aching to just hop up and give him a hug, but it was far too late for that to be appropriate.  Instead he quietly drew his knees up under his chin and stared at the still-sleeping calves.

“I get it,” Niall said.  “It obviously means a lot to you to keep the land.  But I just --” he made a pained sound as he cut himself off.  “It’s all of our lives, too.  And I just can’t believe that you wouldn’t even think about selling.  That’s all.”

Louis heard him turn on his heel and walk out through the big square door into the sunlight, saw the top of his hat as he went by Jolene’s pen.  Harry left a few moments later, out the smaller door at the other side of the barn.

“Fuck,” Louis muttered to himself.  One week of his vacation was already gone, and all the old problems refused to be held at bay.  And he’s not telling me things, he thought darkly, as he finally stood up and dusted himself off.  He’s not telling me.

Chapter Text

By Tuesday evening, the calving had slowed to a more manageable pace.  More and more cows were out at pasture, and a new group identity was forming as the herd adjusted to the influx of new members.  Niall was still on duty, his shoulders sagging as he leaned on the old split-rail fence that separated the near pasture from what Louis had heard the wranglers call the “west-facing slope,” the parcel of pretty land that included, a few acres away on its far side, the creek and the hillside where Jolene had given birth.

Louis watched him curiously as he stood in the shadow of the calving barn, holding his manure fork in one hand.  He thought he could see some agitation in Niall’s face, in the set of his slight, whip-lean body.  The conversation Louis had overheard two days before had lingered in his mind, and he’d been on the verge of asking Harry about it a couple of times.  Something always stopped him, though.  Mainly the suspicion that money wasn’t a subject Harry wanted to discuss with him.  I still technically work for TwistCorp, he thought, letting the implications of that fact and what it meant for the future of their relationship swirl nervously around in his belly.  I didn’t quit…  Maybe he thought I would.  And Harry’s friendship with Niall was so old, and in some ways so private, that Louis didn’t want to disturb the workings of it.  Louis thought that inserting himself into the disagreement that was brewing between them would feel too much like brushing off the hay Jolene still liked to cover Sally and Paul with when they lay down to sleep -- too invasive, too bold.

Louis sighed.  A bright glow bobbed in the dusk as Niall pulled his phone out of his pocket and thumbed over it for a second.  Then he tugged his walkie-talkie from the holster at his left hip and held it up to his mouth.

I wonder what’s going on.

Louis turned away when he saw Harry stalking across the front yard to the trucks a few moments later, shrugging his jacket on.  It was getting late, and there was a sharp smell in the air, like someone had started a bonfire out on the land somewhere.  Louis leaned the fork up against the side of the barn, putting Niall out of his mind as he jogged over to Harry.

“Hey,” he said, tugging on his sleeve.  He felt a zip in his heart when Harry glanced down at him.  He was in full rough-rancher mode, hair falling in loose ringlets under his Stetson, face on the edge of a frown.

His expression softened a touch when he saw who it was.  “Hey, baby,” he said, twirling his key ring around and clasping it in his palm.  “I’ve gotta go into town.  Out of disinfectant for the OB equipment, apparently.  And toilet paper.”

Louis snorted, wrapping his arms around Harry’s waist.  “You’ve been up since 4 a.m.,” he said.  “You sure you can drive?”

“I’ll be fine,” Harry sighed.  It looked like something else was bothering him -- Louis didn’t miss the way he glanced over his shoulder, eyes searching until they fixed on Niall.  He shook his head and turned away again, face unreadable as he moved to unlock the truck.

“Give me your keys,” Louis said, snatching them from his hand.  “Text me what to get.”

“Louis,” Harry frowned, looking a little defeated.  “It’s your vacation, and you’re already basically working for me for free --”  Louis thought he saw Harry wince a little at that, and he cut in.

“I want to,” he said, firmly, putting a hand on Harry’s forearm and giving it a light, comforting squeeze.  “I’m doing that stuff because I want to do it.  And I wouldn’t mind a change of scenery from the barn, anyway.  Might stop by Liam’s for a drink.”

“But…”

“No buts.  Until I get back.”

Louis shook his head at himself as he was saying it, but Harry snorted and gave him a little smile, relenting.  He dropped a kiss to the corner of Louis’s mouth and told him to head to Walmart, that he would text him a list on the way.

“No problem,” Louis said lightly, climbing up into the cab of the truck.  He shot Harry a pointed glance as he adjusted the seat forward.

Harry just laughed, dimples breaking out on both of his cheeks.  “Thanks,” he whispered.

“Go,” Louis said, fluttering his hand, waving him away.  “Go, go -- do something fun.”  He almost added the words “with Niall,” but at the last moment decided not to, purely because he didn’t want to see Harry’s dimples disappear.  I am a pushover and a big softie, he thought to himself as he turned on the engine and put the truck into reverse.

Harry waved after him as he started down the long drive.  Louis kept glancing in the rearview, hoping to see him walk over to where Niall was still leaning on the fence, watching the herd.  But Harry just turned and went straight back to the house, disappearing inside as Louis passed under the Lonely Rose’s wooden crossbeam.  Louis sighed, wondering how long Harry and Niall could really stay mad at each other.  The problem is, he thought, they both seem like people who like to stew a little.  But it was no use mulling over the situation; it would just tempt him to stick his nose in, and he really wanted to avoid that.

The drive into Sheridan seemed short, but that was probably because the sky was a gorgeous lavender color, dotted with small, pink-tinged clouds that seemed particularly far away.  Louis almost got lost in the scenery, the city lights rising out of the gently waving grasses like stars.  He pulled into the Walmart parking lot and hopped out of the truck, humming lightly as he checked his phone.  Harry had sent him the brand name of the heavy-duty disinfectant he needed and told him that they hid it way in the back, behind the automotive section.  Toilet paper was apparently left to Louis’s discretion.

Putting a lot of faith in me, Styles, he texted back.  How do you know I won’t buy you 1-ply?

Cause you don’t want to damage the goods, Harry answered.

Louis scoffed, and a second later almost choked on his own tongue when a picture message came through.  He started coughing, holding the phone protectively to his chest as he sprint-walked to a less crowded section of the store.  Harry had managed to take a very artistic selfie of one of his own pointer fingers, shiny with lube, teasing around his pink rim.  His upper thighs were on full display, and Louis could see light glinting off water, the side of the bathtub.  He had to breathe deeply.

HELLO PEACHES!! he typed hurriedly, face heating up with excited embarrassment and shoulders hunched as he wove aimlessly around clothing racks with his head down.  He was just about to add a few hearts when he bumped into somebody in a narrow aisle.

“Oh, sorry!” he said.  He bobbled his phone for one breathless moment before he managed to lock the screen and shove it deep into his jeans pocket.  “I wasn’t --”  Louis cut himself off when he saw who he’d collided with.

“Maggie?” he breathed, after a moment of awkward silence.  She was standing stock still, startled, and not quite meeting his eye.  There was a look of strained nervousness on her face, like she was the one who’d been caught doing something illicit.

“Um…” she grinned weakly.

Louis blinked.  “Why are you in the…”  His eyes widened as he took in his surroundings.  He’d started walking toward Automotive, but had gotten turned around and was now halfway across the store.  Instead of duct tape, rubber mats and motor oil, he was surrounded by soft pastels.

“The baby section?” Maggie supplied, wryly.  She was holding a pair of tiny blue booties in one hand, the other having come to rest lightly on her stomach.

Louis gasped, covering his mouth before dropping his fingers to the center of his chest.  “Oh my god!”  He looked her up and down, plucking at his shirt as he felt his eyes going even wider.  “Are you…?”

There was a moment when he thought Maggie might lie, but it passed across her face like a cloud.  “Yes,” she said, and promptly burst into tears.  The booties slipped out of her hand, and she started to wipe at her face, shaking a little, looking surprised at herself.  Louis didn’t hesitate before he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her, giving her a big, warm hug.

“Congratulations,” he whispered.

“Thanks,” she said, with a wet laugh.  “I’m sorry…  I-I don’t know…”

“Don’t apologize,” Louis replied, pulling back to get a look at the sheepish smile breaking across her face.  “It’s emotional.”

“Apparently,” she said, rolling her puffy, red-rimmed eyes.

Louis laughed softly.  The clusters of pale freckles on her cheeks stood out like constellations in the store’s harsh fluorescent lighting, and she wiped at them, sniffling.  He never thought he’d seen a more beautiful woman.  “Does Niall know?” he asked.

Of course he does, he thought, even before Maggie began to nod.  He remembered the urgency in Niall’s voice when he’d argued with Harry in the barn on Sunday.  It’s all of our lives, too.  No wonder he’d been so serious, catastrophizing about the ranch going under.  Fatherhood was confronting him…  He was going to be responsible for a whole new little life.

“Yeah,” said Maggie, regaining some composure and chuckling at herself as she bent to pick up the pair of booties she’d dropped.  “We just found out a few days ago.  I’m just barely -- like six or seven weeks.  Big surprise!  I think it was, uh…” she scratched the back of her neck and contorted her face, trying not to break into hysterical giggles as she hung them back up on the rack, “that night after Liam’s.”

A hoot of laughter burst out of Louis before he could contain it.

“Sorry!”  She threw up her hands.  “Sorry!  I know, I’m an over-sharer.”  She didn’t look very sorry, laughing away the rest of the wetness from the sudden, stormy burst of tears.  “I don’t even know what I’m doing here!” she groaned, turning around and picking up a package of nipple shields from the opposite shelf.  “Like, what are these?  Do I need this?”

Louis just giggled at her, shifting his weight to one hip.  “Don’t ask me.”

She groaned again.  “I’m a mess!” she cried, eyes wide and a little panicky.  “I’m supposed to be getting bread and orange juice!”

Louis held out his arms and she accepted another hug, sighing against his shoulder as he rubbed her back.  He tried to imagine what it would be like, knowing you had a child growing inside you -- your child -- and he felt a weird flutter in his own stomach.  God.  Getting to be a parent…  The sharp thrill of it almost took his breath away.  “Well, I’m sure you don’t need nipple shields,” he said, hoping his voice wouldn’t crack as he tried to sound comforting.  “At least not yet.  And if you do eventually, that’ll be okay too.”

She nodded, sniffling again.

“Mood swings are no joke, huh?” Louis asked, giving her one more tight squeeze before letting go.

“Yeah, it’s…” she shrugged.  “H-hormones, I guess.  They're coming for me."

Louis smiled.  “Those jerks.”

That made Maggie chuckle.  “For the love of Christ,” she said, her head suddenly darting up, “don’t you tell Harry.”  She poked him in the shoulder and Louis flinched back.  “And don’t let on to Niall that you know, either, because no one's supposed to know, not for a few more weeks, just in case.  It’ll just stress him out even more.  Please.”  She looked at Louis with a serious expression on her face, vulnerable and fierce and open.  “Please, promise.”

Louis nodded.  “Of course,” he said.  “Of course I won’t, not if you don’t want me to.”  He mimed locking his lips and flicking away the key.

“Okay.  Our first secret,” Maggie said softly, smiling.

Louis felt his lips being tugged irresistibly up into a grin.  “I guess it is.  How many do you have with Harry?”

“Oh, thousands,” she answered, lightly.  “But not this one.  This one’s you and me.”  She placed her hand across her belly again, and Louis took a deep breath as it hit him how special this was.  How years from now, if everything went well, he and Maggie would remember this and laugh together.  How if it didn’t go well, Louis would be there to support her.  And how no matter what, he was no longer the newest member of the group.

“Congratulations,” he said again, sincerely.

“Thanks.”  Her answering smile was lopsided but genuine, and trembling with so many emotions.  She blew her cheeks out, rolling her eyes.  “If anyone makes a heifer joke, I swear to God…”

Louis hummed a little laugh.  They hugged one more time before parting ways, and Louis quickly found the disinfectant Harry needed, lugging two gallons of it up to the front of the store, along with a big package of the fluffiest toilet paper he could find.

He didn’t glance at his phone again until he was out in the truck.

Pls tell me you didn’t actually stop at Liam’s.

Louis.

Louis.

Then Harry had sent a selfie of his grumpy face, candles lit behind him on the edge of the bathtub.  Louis felt his heart flip over.

Didn’t find the disinfectant right away, he answered, committing a smooth lie of omission before starting up the engine of the truck.  Coming home now.  He tried not to picture more than one little kid running around the ranch as he pulled out of the parking lot.

Later, when he was pressed up against Harry in the bathtub, watching the warm water gleam off his skin, he finally asked.  He wasn’t going to break his promise to Maggie, but he felt like he had to say something.  He had to know what all of Harry's resistance was accomplishing, and whether it was worth it.

“Can I ask you something I’ve been wanting to know since I got here?” he said, quietly.

He felt Harry shift under him, heard the water swish and gently lap against the sides of the white porcelain tub.  Harry put a damp hand up to the base of Louis’s neck, threading through his hair and rubbing lightly.  “Of course,” he murmured.  “Ask anything you want.”

“Why won’t you sell the land?”

Louis immediately tensed up, worried that Harry would think he was asking for reasons having to do with TwistCorp and Walter Mohs.  He was about to take it back, stammer something about how of course Harry didn’t have to answer, that he didn’t want to put pressure on him…  But Harry just chuckled lowly, and continued to languidly massage Louis’s scalp, heart beating calm and steady beneath him.

“I already told you that, I think,” he said.  “My grandparents built this ranch.  ‘S their ranch, really.  And I don’t want to sell part of it off.”

Louis lifted his head, and peered into Harry’s eyes.  They were dark in the dim light.  “The real reason, is what I mean.”

Harry sighed, and brushed a stray strand of hair off Louis’s forehead.  “That is the real reason,” he said.  Then, after a pause, “You don’t think it’s important enough?”

“No, I --”  Louis looked down at the broad expanse of Harry’s chest, the delicious hollow of his throat, and made a slight sound of frustration.  “I’m not saying that.”  He exhaled sharply.  “I guess I just don’t really understand, like, how any one physical place can be that important.  That land is obviously pretty important to you, so…  I just want to understand why.”

He lifted his eyes again, and found Harry gazing warmly at him, the corners of his mouth twitching up into a smile.  “Have you ever ridden a horse?” Harry asked.

Louis arched an eyebrow.  “Is that… relevant?”

Harry grinned, hand slipping out of Louis’s hair and down to cover the swell of his bum.  “Have you?”

“Once, I guess.  When I was like, seven.  But I don’t know anything about riding horses, Styles, and I don’t think --”

“We’re going on a ride tomorrow,” Harry said.  “Picnic lunch.”

“But, do I have to --”

“Yep,” Harry said, giving his ass a tiny squeeze.  “I was going to say something about how the beauty of the land is marred by motor vehicles, and to understand it you have to experience it naturally, blah blah blah, but to be honest, I’ve really just been wanting to get you up on a horse.  In cowboy boots.  Feet in the stirrups.”

Louis felt Harry start to harden again beneath him, prick rubbing up against his belly.  “Really?” he sighed, skeptical eyebrow arching further.  He couldn’t help smiling with pleasure at the thought of Harry having fantasies about him.

“Yesss,” Harry whined, encircling Louis with his arms and thrusting up against him for emphasis.  “Yes, really.”

Louis ducked his head into the crook of Harry’s neck, delight bubbling in his stomach.  “Okay, then,” he whispered.  Anticipation skittered across his skin.  “A picnic sounds great.”

*

The next day was warm, but windy.  Louis walked out to the old wooden barn to see Harry saddling up two horses.  He looked like the very picture of a cowboy in the bright sunlight just outside the wide-open barn door -- Stetson on his head, long curls brushing his collar and well-worn boots scuffed and a little dirty.  Louis stopped and watched him for a moment.  He was deep in concentration, making sure that the cinches were adjusted correctly around both horses’ girth and that the saddle blankets were lying flat.  Louis felt a burst of love in his heart for the way Harry was always so thoughtful and careful in his treatment of animals.  And people, really.  Though they were trickier.

Especially lately.

“Howdy, peaches,” he said, shoving his thumbs into the waistband of his jeans and affecting an exaggeratedly bow-legged walk up to Harry.  The cowboy boots Niall had lent him that morning were almost the right size, and so broken in that they didn’t rub anywhere.

Harry looked up from the bucking cinch on the last saddle and grinned widely.  “Hey,” he said.  He snorted when he saw how Louis was jutting his chin out as he did his cowboy walk in a circle around the horses.  “What are you doing?”

“Moseying,” Louis answered.  He stopped, snapping back into his normal stance as he smiled up at Harry.  “Am I doing it wrong?”

Harry giggled, bringing the back of his gloved hand up to his mouth to wipe at the little patch of sweat that had gathered on his upper lip.  “I know you’re teasing me and expecting me to say yes and that you look ridiculous…  but actually that’s exactly how Dougie Llewellyn walks everywhere.”

Louis perked up, mouth open with his smile.  “Ha!” he cried, triumphantly.  “I’m good at every cowboy thing I do!”

Harry rolled his eyes, still giggling.  “Then riding this horse should be a piece of cake,” he said.  “Her name’s Bee.”  He finished with her saddle and turned his head to address her.  “You don’t have to go easy on him, Bee; he’s a real buckaroo.”

Bee stamped and swished her tail as Harry gave her a soft pat on the neck and went to put a pair of beat-up canvas saddlebags on his own horse.  Louis let out a muted scoff, looking up at her with a bit of apprehension.  He wasn’t scared, exactly, but the raw power of the animal in front of him -- the muscle rippling under her well-groomed, chestnut coat, and the heavy weight of her hooves -- was a bit intimidating.

Louis was still staring when Harry came up behind him again.  “She’s pretty old,” he said, encouragingly.  He gave Louis's shoulder a squeeze.  “Don’t think she could break into gallop if she tried…  Most she’ll do is be a big pig about stopping to eat the saltbush.”  Louis felt himself relax a touch under Harry’s hand, which was now lightly rubbing the base of his neck.  He nodded, squaring himself and jutting out his jaw.  He could do this.  Be the cowboy you want to see in the world.  Harry handed Louis a riding helmet made of scuffed pink plastic and dotted with peeling smiley face stickers.

Louis made a face, inspecting the old foam lining suspiciously.  “This isn’t for cowboys.”

“Sure it is," said Harry.  "It's Maggie's; I found it in the barn.  Rose and Roy gave it to her when we were in high school, back when she was learning to ride.”

“It smells like a Little League batting helmet,” Louis complained.  “Dust and old sweat.”

Harry snorted.  “Put it on,” he said.  There was a tone of finality in his voice that made Louis’s stomach flutter with pleasant warmth -- Harry knew what he was doing.  Harry was in charge.  Louis plunked the helmet down on his head, clicking the buckle under his chin.

“Cute,” Harry smiled.  “Now, c’mere.”

He helped Louis up into the saddle with an almost too-eager grin on his face.  The short sleeves of his white t-shirt were rolled up, and Louis could see every muscle flexing as he gripped Louis around the waist and gave him a boost.  He let his hand rest on Louis’s thigh as Louis got accustomed to the height, and the odd feel of Bee shifting her weight under him.

“You’ve been thinking about doing that, haven’t you?” Louis asked.

Harry rolled his eyes and shrugged, face coloring a touch.  He readjusted his Stetson on his head.  “Definitely.  Always.”  Then he cleared his throat and knitted his eyebrows, patting Louis’s thigh one last time before he backed away.  “Now, about the reins…”

Louis laughed gently, almost overcome all of a sudden by Harry’s simple loveliness.  He missed the first half of the instructions and had to make Harry repeat them.

“She’ll just follow after me and Artax, though.  You won’t have to do much but hang on.”

Louis nodded sharply, and waited for Harry to hop up on his own horse, which he did with grace and ease.  The lines of his body seemed to flow naturally with the animal.  Like Louis had thought before -- the very picture of a cowboy.

“Ready?” Harry asked, brightly, the wind making ripples in his t-shirt as he turned his horse in a slow circle, coming to face the hazy green-and-granite mountains to the west.

“Ready, peaches!” Louis shouted back, causing Austin, who was in the near pasture and within hearing range, to jerk up his head with a smirk on his face.  Harry flipped Louis off as he gently spurred his horse into a walk, leading them out to the dirt track beyond the split-rail fence.

Louis thought it was a bit like being at sea, the sway of the horse’s back under the saddle as she calmly followed Harry and Artax.  The wind and the gentle rocking was instantly calming -- much less alien than he’d imagined it would feel.  The main thing to get used to was the height.  Louis felt exposed and a bit precarious, looking down on the grasses swishing by, the fence posts that only came up to about his knee-level.  There was a bit of a nervy twang in his gut with every slow lurch of a step, and it was exciting.

The sun shone down on them as they made their way west, following the little creek before eventually crossing it and striking out over the flat range.  The ranch’s grazing land was just starting to look rich again, after the winter.  Louis breathed in the fresh smell of it with deep, cleansing lungfuls.  He could almost taste it -- it was almost nourishing, actually, compared to the stale office air he’d left behind in Denver.  Seemed like a person could live on it alone.

After a while Louis stopped watching the scenery so much, and kept his eyes on Harry’s back.  He was lulled into a meditative state by Bee’s gait, the soft sound of her hooves.  He saw without so much thinking, just took in the world -- seemed to suddenly know the sky, the slant of the grass and the soft bluff of the wind, the very way Harry’s shirt clung to his back.  Before he knew it, the pasture had given way to rocky scrubland.  They were at the base of the mountains, by the old cabin, and Bee was suddenly lurching off course, moving with slightly quicker, more focused steps.  She put her head down to munch on a bush.

“Bee!  No snacking,” Louis said, snapping back to reality, tugging on his reins to try to steer her away from it.  “Come on.”  She ignored him, and he heard Harry’s laughter.  He twisted around in the saddle to glare at him.  “I’m trying to be authoritative, here!”

Harry just shook his head, dimple deepening.  “This is where we’re stopping anyway,” he said, and swung himself off Artax, leading him up to a hitching post near the cabin.  “Hold on for a sec, and I’ll get you down.”

Louis huffed and tried to wrench Bee away from the saltbush again, to no avail.  Harry jogged over to his rescue, putting a hand on the horse’s neck and whispering soothing things to her as he gently eased her around.  He led her over to Artax with a hand on her bridle.

Harry’s hand was tight on his waist again as Louis’s feet hit solid earth.  He felt disoriented for a moment, like a sailor getting his land legs back.  His knees were oddly floaty as he took his first few steps, a little soreness creeping up the backs of his thighs.  But the sensation was gone after a few moments, and he turned around to find Harry looking at him fondly.

“That was cool,” he said.

Harry smiled -- one of his focused, staring smiles that seemed to have an extra measure of intensity behind it -- and started unpacking the saddle bags.  “Good,” he answered.  He seemed so happy, so satisfied, primly laying out a thin blanket and popping open Tupperware containers full of sandwiches and potato salad.

Louis stretched himself out, one knee up and an arm lazily scratching at his stomach.  “I wonder who lived in that cabin,” he said.  He was gazing at it and cataloguing its features -- missing shingles, broken glass.  The entire structure was starting to sag to one side, as though it were trying to lean toward something.  Its ramshackle, unpainted boards and partially-sunken roof were mysterious and beautiful, clumps of small white wildflowers growing like scratchy clouds under the windows.

He was so taken with it, he almost didn’t notice when Harry started to laugh.  “My grandma and grandpa did,” he said.  “Roy and Rosie.”

Louis twisted his body to look at him, blinking in surprise.  “What?” he said.  “Really?”

Harry was kneeling over their picnic, grinning as he got out the plastic cutlery and a couple of thermoses of lemonade.  “Yeah,” he shrugged.  “They built it together.  Right after they were married.”

Louis felt like all the breath had been sucked out of him, the small revelation prickling out over his skin like static.  He locked eyes with Harry, and slowly sat up.

“They spent the whole summer on it,” Harry said.  He blushed under Louis’s intent stare, glancing away to the cabin and then back, finally dropping the plastic fork he was holding.  “It was the first building on the entire ranch,” Harry continued.  “ ‘S way out here because, they just…  They just loved this part of the land so much.  They loved it.”  He cleared his throat a little and plopped down onto his bum, gathering his knees up in his arms and hugging them to his chest.  “They called it their sanctuary.”

Louis crawled over to him, and gently brushed his fingers over one of Harry’s forearms.  “And that’s why you don’t want to sell it?” he murmured.

“Yeah,” Harry choked out, his voice suddenly gritty.  He was hiding his chin in the crook of his eyebrow, but his brows were drawn in frustration, and his dark green eyes were fixed on the cabin.  “It was where they really learned to love each other,” he said.  "That's what Grandpa Roy would always say, after telling the story about how they got married three weeks after their first dance."  His tone wavered, and he shrugged, wiping at the corner of his eye with his thumb.  “My father was born here.  Practically my only -- my only memory of him is him trying to teach me to fish in that stream.”  Harry lifted an arm to point at the sunlight glancing off the water.  “I've always daydreamed about bringing my own children here and doing the same thing with them.  Telling them about their great-grandparents.  It's the place that means the most to me in the entire world," he said.  "And drilling is so destructive, Louis.  It would just…  They’d raze it.  It makes me ill.  It makes me physically sick just thinking about it.”

Louis squeezed his forearm, scooting closer.  “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Harry huffed a wet laugh.  “What for?  I took you out here for a nice picnic, and of course immediately I’m being all… ” he made an aborted hand gesture that Louis took to mean dramatic, overemotional.

Louis shook his head.  “I’m sorry I was insensitive,” he said.  “I’m sorry I tried to pressure you.”

Harry turned to him with a tiny smile.  “Louis,” he said, his voice full of warm reproach.  “Do you have any idea how happy I am that my mom sent you here?”

Louis opened his mouth to argue, and then closed it again.  He shrugged.  “Well, I guess I was pretty ineffectual.”

Harry laughed again and fidgeted with his hat, pushing it back and drawing it forward again to shade his eyes.  “That’s not what I mean.”

Louis gazed at him softly for a moment.  “I know,” he said.  Then he flipped Harry’s Stetson off his head and leaned over to kiss him on the temple, saw his eyes flutter closed, felt him take a deep breath and hold it in.  “But the situation’s fucked up.”

He felt Harry nod slowly.  “I’m probably an idiot for trying to hold onto it,” he muttered.  “ ‘S just a cabin…  Just a stream.”

Louis didn’t say anything, just started to stroke his hand up and down Harry’s arm.

“At the…” Harry hesitated.  Then he shifted his position so that he was leaning into Louis’s side, his bare head sheltered in the crook of his neck as one hand fiddling with the brim of the Stetson in his lap.  “At the fundraiser, my mother -- God, she made me angry.  I think she was trying tell me that it was time to let go of them, like start living my own life… ”  He rolled his eyes.  “Of course that’s a very convenient argument for her.  Maybe she does have a point, I don’t know, but I just…  I just didn’t want to hear it.”

“Family history is important,” Louis said.  There was a moment of silence, and then he gave a soft laugh.  "You know, I would never have said something like that before I met you."

Harry lifted his head and gazed at Louis.  "No?"

Louis thinned his lips and blinked a couple of times, staring at the empty cabin.  "Wouldn't have even occurred to me to say."  He felt Harry's hand on his leg, his searching eyes trying to read the expression on his face, and Louis turned to him.  "My parents got divorced right before I went to college, and it was the worst thing that ever happened to me."

"Oh, Louis," Harry whispered.  "I'm sorry."

"Nah," Louis shook his head, shrugging it off.  "It’s just that I'm just beginning to realize that I dealt with it by breaking all of my ties.  Like, I felt like I didn’t have a family anymore.  That I didn’t belong anywhere.  So I kept, I don’t know… wandering.”

Harry started to rub Louis’s leg, soft up-and-down movements that were both a comfort and a tease.  “Well, I’m glad you wandered here,” he murmured.

“I just --”  Louis broke off, trying to figure out how to say what he felt.  He wanted a sense of family back in his life so badly, all of a sudden.  He wanted what Niall and Maggie had.  What Harry’d had with his grandparents.  “I think…” he began, carefully, trying not to be overwhelmed with bittersweet memories of the little house in Long Prairie.  “Now that you’ve explained it.  I just all of a sudden thought…  If my childhood home still meant something to me, I’d want to keep it, too.  You shouldn’t have to sell.  You really shouldn’t.”

Harry beamed at him, leaning over to kiss him sweetly on the mouth.  Then he gave Louis’s thigh a final squeeze before he straightened the blanket and moved to continue laying out the picnic.  “Good,” he said, firmly.  “I’m not going to.”  His voice was clipped and overconfident, almost like he was forcing himself to believe it was that simple.

Louis watched him, mind drifting back to the barn, the argument he’d overheard.  I’ve been talking to the bank about the loan…  They’re going to give me a really good interest rate.  Louis had done a bit of surreptitious research about the cattle market on his laptop, double-checking to see if he thought the plan Harry had outlined to Niall would be viable.  The market seemed to be holding strong.  We’ll be fine!  Harry’s voice echoed in his head.  Louis tried to quell the part of him that worried -- that had worked for a large corporation, that knew what men like Walter Mohs were like.

… We’ll be fine.

They ate, and drank lemonade in the sun as the horses grazed.  The mood became considerably lighter, Harry more optimistic as he talked about how all the new calves were doing, how well Sally and Paul were fitting into the herd.  It almost stopped Louis’s heart sometimes, how beautiful Harry was.  Especially here, in his element, smiling under the wide, blue sky.

“Let’s take a selfie,” he said, suddenly.  He slipped his phone out of his pocket and scooted over to Harry on the blanket, handing it to him because he had longer limbs.

Harry snapped a quick picture just as Louis closed his eyes and planted a kiss on his cheek, trying not to grin like a goofball.  When he opened them to see how it had turned out, he couldn’t help but laugh.  Harry was beaming, cheeks slightly pink.  They’d gotten the cabin and the stream in the background.

“I’m getting this framed,” Louis said.

Harry worked his jaw, a softer smile settling onto his face after a moment.  He tangled his fingers with Louis’s on the blanket, and squeezed.  “It’s a good one.”

Thank you for taking me here, Louis thought.  Thank you for telling me.  In the moment, he was too shy to say it.  Then Harry was hopping up, packing the Tupperware away and talking about how it was probably time to head back.  They led the horses to the stream to drink.  Before he knew it, Louis was up in the saddle again, feeling like an old pro.

The broken windows of the cabin seemed to watch them as they left.

*

Louis’s cell phone was ringing.  He was actually getting service.  It was Thursday afternoon, the day after the picnic, and Louis had just managed to sneak away for a shower.  And other things.

“Dammit,” he muttered.

He shifted on the bed, intending to just glance at the caller ID.  But when he saw who it was, he wiped his hand on the sheets and picked up the phone.

“Louis,” said Zayn.  He was clearly in office mode; Louis could hear keys tapping in the background and the bored, professional lilt of Zayn’s voice.

“Zaynie,” he answered in an overly affectionate tone, just to make him snort.  He was always a little amused at Zayn’s shortness when he was working.  “What’s up?”

“I’m coming out to Wyoming,” Zayn said.  “I’ll be there tomorrow afternoon.”

Louis dropped the thing he’d been holding in his other hand.  He sat up quickly, brows furrowing.  “Wait, what?”  He wasn’t sure why that news sent a little shiver of panic through him.

The sound of typing stopped, and Louis could almost see Zayn’s fingers rubbing at the bridge of his nose under his glasses.  “You’re leaving on Saturday, right?” he said.  “I’m coming to replace you.”

Louis was dumbstruck.  Zayn?  They’re sending Zayn?  He couldn’t see why it would be necessary to send an actual lawyer out, especially when there was nothing to negotiate or discuss.    Something uncomfortable began to niggle at the back of his mind -- the suspicion that if they were bothering to pay for someone like Zayn to fly to Wyoming, it was a bad sign for Roy and Rose's cabin.  “Harry isn’t signing, so..." he said at last, his voice going a bit flat and defensive.  “It'll be a big waste of your time.”

Zayn was silent for a moment on the other end of the phone.  “I’m told it’s not a done deal,” he said.  “I’m coming to take over.  That’s really all I can say.”

“Uh…”  Louis drew his knees up to his chest, wrapping the white cotton sheets around him for comfort.  “Okay, then.”  His body was a flurry of mixed emotions.  He missed Zayn and couldn’t wait to show him around Sheridan, maybe take him to Liam’s for a drink with Harry so he could properly introduce the two of them.  But the excitement at the prospect of seeing his best friend again was tinged with a sick worry that Anne Twist and Walter Mohs were plotting something.  And all of it was overwhelmed by the sudden, visceral realization that Louis had to leave Harry.  Like, physically leave him, soon.

“See you tomorrow,” Zayn said.  “I’ll text when I land.”

“Yeah,” Louis breathed, forcing out the word.  “Excited to see you, bro.”

Louis heard the call disconnect, and he dropped his phone onto the mattress.   Oh, God, he thought.  A day and a half.  That’s all he had left.

They’d vaguely outlined the summer, talks that had been more about reassuring each other than about actually planning.  They were going to trade visits; Louis was going to show Harry all of his favorite places in Denver, and Harry was going to take Louis on more trail rides with Bee.  But long-distance relationships are easy to talk about when you’re wrapped up in the other person’s arms.  They hadn’t discussed what was going to happen in the fall, when Louis would inevitably be swamped and overwhelmed in his first semester of law school.

“Fuck,” Louis groaned, flopping onto his back.  “Fuck.”

He reached down and found Harry’s pink dildo, squirming to reposition it at his hole.  The idea had been to take his time with it, maybe get himself off once thinking of Harry using it before going out to find him in the barn.  But now he felt desperation breaking out over him like a cold sweat, a need to just fuck himself and fuck himself and go out and kiss Harry until their lips were swollen, until neither of them could stand it anymore.

So he pushed in too fast, biting his lip with the pain but not bothering to slow down.  He was slick with lube from his fingers, tight and clean from the shower.  “Fuck, fuck,” he breathed, when he got the dildo halfway in.  He rolled over onto his stomach to find a better angle, ass high in the air and face pressed into the pillow as he reached behind and started to move it.  His arm was aching before long, tears leaking from his eyes because he couldn’t quite hit his prostate.  Couldn’t get deep enough.  It wasn’t good enough.

“Harry,” he whimpered.

The whole point of Louis fucking himself on Harry’s dildo was to make it hot for Harry, to give Harry the thrill of imagining it.  But it was producing other side-effects -- Louis was trembling with every thrust, face flushed, aching for Harry all over.  He shoved all thoughts of their impending separation down, fucked them down with his quick wrist and his wrenching shoulder.  Hard, hard, hard.

When he was good and ready, he kicked the dildo under the bed and managed to dress himself with shaking fingers.  He gingerly tucked his stiff, leaking cock into his jeans, not bothering with underwear.  The way it pressed against the back of the zipper sent continuous frissons of pleasure from his balls up to his stomach, and Louis almost shivered at the thought of walking out of the room in that state.  He threw on one of Harry’s big flannel shirts to cover the bulge, missing a few buttons in his haste to do them up.

Then he timidly pushed the door open and walked out into the hallway.  Austin and Roby were eating a late lunch underneath the calf naming board, talking about hoof trimming.  Louis gave them an awkward half-wave as he went by, and they nodded, Roby touching the brim of his hat.  Their conversation continued to flow, and Louis let out a low sigh of relief when he made it past them to the side door.  It was only a short walk across the pasture to the horse barn, and no one was in sight.  Not even Bonnie.

Harry was alone, just as Louis had planned.  He was sitting on a hay bale, saddle in his lap and gloves on, repairing a broken strap.  The barn was almost empty.  Afternoon sunlight filtered through, and the sweet scent of the horse feed tingled in Louis’s nose.  Quietly, he stepped inside.  Harry looked up only when he heard Louis trying to close the big, square door.  The rollers were almost rusted to their rails, in need of replacement like everything else, and after a few ineffectual tugs, Louis began to grunt with annoyance.  Until he felt a gloved hand on his shoulder, and stilled.

“Baby,” Harry whispered.  His hot breath fanned across the back of Louis’s neck and sharpened his arousal; Louis felt a tingling all through his chest as Harry slowly drew a hand down his arm, gently prising his fist from the handle.  “What are you doing?  Let me.”

Louis stepped away and almost gasped as he watched the muscles in Harry’s back move under his dirty, light blue t-shirt.  Harry wrenched the door shut with one stroke, cords appearing briefly in his neck as he flexed.  Then he turned around, put his work-gloved hands on his hips and shifted his weight to one side in a feminine pose.  Louis almost wanted to cry.  How did Harry exist?  How did he manage to be so wonderfully himself at all times?

“Hello,” Louis said, softly, suddenly shy about what he was about to do.

Harry smiled back, questioning eyes taking him in.  “You’re wearing my shirt.”

Louis shrugged, and teasingly lifted up the hem, showing off the noticeable bulge in his pants.  He ran a hand lightly across his bare stomach, one finger dipping down to circle the button on his jeans.  He raised an eyebrow at Harry.

“Oh,” Harry answered, in a rush of air.  His eyes were wide, suddenly, mouth hanging slightly open.  “You…”

Louis chuckled softly and nodded, beckoning Harry over to one of the wide support posts near the center of the barn.  Horseshoes were nailed to it, all the way up to the rafters, and a faded wooden sign that had been hand-painted with the words An Old Nag and her Stud live here.  Louis leaned back on it lightly, and caught Harry’s eye.  Then he slowly unbuttoned his jeans.

Harry was watching him with burning intensity.  His hands were up at his chest, squeezing at his biceps, and half of his bottom lip was caught in his teeth.  Louis felt Harry's eyes flicking up and down, up and down, as he lowered his waistband to let just the pink tip of his cock peek out.  Like Harry was trying to drink all of him in at once, like he couldn’t ever get enough of him.  The thought sent an electric shiver through Louis.

“Gosh, you’re beautiful,” Harry breathed, in an almost reverent tone, then immediately looked surprised that he had said it out loud.  He brought a hand up to clap over his mouth, cheeks pinking.

Louis threw his head back and cackled in delight, almost hitting his head on a horseshoe.  Then he stopped teasing and slipped his jeans off all the way to pool around his ankles.  “Then c’mere and fuck me already, ” he said.

Harry snapped up straight, and covered the few feet between them in two long strides.  He took Louis by the waist and kissed him hard, fingers gripping at his bare sides.  Harry was still wearing his work gloves, and Louis breathed in sharply at the feel of roughened leather on his skin.  He moaned into Harry's mouth, suddenly fully aware of the head start he had -- Harry was just beginning to fatten up in his jeans, while Louis was already more than halfway there.

"Mmf," he groaned, as Harry aggressively broke their kiss and bit down on the little hollow where Louis's neck became his shoulder. Their bodies were pressed together, Harry's dirty work clothes on Louis's clean thighs, and it was so hot Louis almost couldn't stand it.  "Fuck," he gasped.  "This was a terrible idea, wasn't it?"

Harry just nodded, stray curls tickling Louis's chin, and whispered, "Horrendous."  Then he dropped to his knees.  He licked his lips and glanced up at Louis with glassy, bottle-green eyes.  His mouth was slightly kiss swollen, hovering a few centimeters away from Louis's painfully stiff cock, and Louis felt a dangerous little surge of arousal that resulted in a large blurt of precome.

"Oh god," he breathed, closing his eyes and tilting his head back.  The smell of the barn was so thick and pleasant, and Harry's gloved hands were still kneading roughly at his waist.  He felt too warm already, almost overwhelmed.

Harry pressed one single kiss to the wet tip of Louis's cock before he spun him around roughly.  Louis gasped, bring his arms up and crossing them against the wooden post.  He turned his head to one side, cheek pressing into his flannel-covered wrist, mouth slightly open as he felt Harry paw at him.

Two thumbs pushed up under the meat of his cheeks and then spread them apart.  The feel of the rough, frayed leather on his ass was distressingly erotic.  Harry continued to play, running a finger lightly up and down Louis's crack, pushing his asscheeks together and then letting them spring apart.  When he finally spread him wide, all the way open, Louis felt a bit of lube trickle out of his hole, leaving a slightly itchy trail down to his balls.  It felt like he'd already been fucked and filled up, and Louis's chest went white-hot with need.

Harry's nose brushed the top of his crack.  "You smell so fucking good, baby."

"Just --" Louis managed to say, and was cut off by the sudden, heart-stopping sensation of Harry lapping at his rim.  He drew in a shuddery breath and tensed up, feeling himself spasm around the penetrating tip of Harry's tongue.  Harry licked into Louis with precise, flickering jabs that alternated between deep and shallow.  When he felt Louis start to relax and submit to the feeling, he switched up his rhythm and licked slow, maddening stripes up and down.

"Fu--fuck, Harry," Louis cried breathlessly, his voice on edge.  He was so turned on he wanted to scream.  But he just whimpered into his hands as Harry continued his ministrations, spreading his legs slightly and arching his back into it.

There were tears in his eyes when Harry finally stood up, his hands all over Louis's back, up his shirt.  "Condom?" he whispered.

"Shirt pocket," Louis said, his voice already ragged from the way he'd been breathing through his mouth.  His dick was so hard it was starting to hurt.

Harry reached around and patted at Louis's chest until he found the condom, tearing it open with his teeth and letting one of his gloves drop to the staw-covered floor so he could roll it on.  Two seconds later, Louis felt him nudging at his hole, dipping in shallowly to test the resistance.  Louis almost started to cry.

"Plea--" he started to whine, but didn't even get the whole word out before Harry buried himself with one hard, smooth stroke aimed right at Louis's prostate.  His voice became an unintelligible garble of sounds as Harry pulled back and did it again.  He was so hard; Harry was fucking him so hard.

On the third thrust, Harry wrapped his gloved hand loosely around the base of Louis's cock, and Louis shot off without warning.  The barely-there roughness of the leather tickled his shaft as he pulsed through it, Harry keeping still deep inside him.

"Oh shit," Louis gasped.  "Oh, fuck..."  Waves of pleasure ripped through his body, one intense burst after another.

Harry groaned and moved a little, rocking right against Louis's prostate as the last drops of come oozed out.  "This is the hottest thing that's ever happened to me," he said, his voice a slow wreck.

"Keep going," Louis whispered, urgently.  "Do it hard."

Harry didn't waste time pounding into him, moving his hands to his hips for leverage.  Louis's breath was punched out of him in little gasps, toes curling in his boots as Harry fucked him.  It only took about a minute and a half for Harry to empty into the condom with a low, shuddering groan.  He kept fucking Louis even after he was finished, bringing it right up to the edge of painful before he pulled out.

Louis was feeling lightheaded, almost dizzy.  As he pulled up his jeans and tucked himself away, he caught sight of his own come splattered all over the post in front of him and started to laugh.  He pointed it out to Harry.

Harry snorted, stooping to pick up the condom wrapper.  "Just as well," he said.  "We have to tear it down anyway..."

Louis turned to look at him just in time to see a stormy expression settle onto his face.  "Oh --" he said, feeling a bit stupid all of a sudden, not knowing how to react.

"When are you leaving again?" Harry asked suddenly, his head snapping up.  "I know it's on Saturday, but when does your flight leave?"

"Like, eight in the morning," Louis said, apologetically, shrugging his shoulders.

Harry nodded, and seemed to deflate a little.  "Okay."  He sighed deeply, and then repeated himself.  "Okay."

*

Maggie and Niall cut out early from Liam’s on Friday night, only staying long enough for Niall to have about a pint and half before they left.  Even though Louis had said his goodbyes to the rest of the wranglers after chili supper at the ranch (Austin, Roby and Paul had opted for a relaxing night in, since calving season was finally easing up), it wasn’t until Maggie and Niall were standing up and shrugging on their spring jackets that it fully hit him.  This was it.  He was leaving in the morning.  He wouldn’t be seeing either of them for quite some time.

“Bye,” he whispered as he hugged Maggie, choked up and embarrassed that he’d been caught off guard by the strength of his emotions.

Of course you’ll miss them, you idiot.  You aren’t just leaving Harry.

“Bye, Louis,” Maggie said.  Her eyes were misted over when she pulled back.  Louis glanced down at her belly involuntarily and smiled, jerking his head up to look at her with a wide-eyed expression the second he realized he was being too obvious.  They both chuckled together quietly about how his overcorrection had only made things worse.  “Don’t worry,” she whispered.  The din of the bar had made their exchange private and her eyes flicked over to Harry, who was still in the booth, brooding.  “Doubt anything’s registering with that one right now besides how much he’s gonna miss you.”

Louis made a strangled sound of sadness at her words.  The week had slipped by much too quickly since the picnic at Roy and Rose’s cabin, each day melting away faster than the last.  A soft sort of melancholy had encroached on the ranch, turning everything slightly bittersweet.  Harry had gone noticeably tense and moody over the past twenty-four hours, and it was making the ache in Louis’s heart even worse.

“Oh, Lou,” Maggie said, laughing wetly.  She tugged Louis in for another hug, rubbing at his back.  “I’m so glad you came.”

“Same,” Niall echoed, when she transferred Louis into his waiting arms.

“You’re both so good at hugs,” Louis mumbled from where his face was smushed against Niall’s narrow chest.

Niall cackled and nodded toward Harry.  “We only learned from the best!”

Harry gave a weak smile when they all turned to look at him, shrugging in acknowledgment.  He’d only gotten more somber since they’d arrived at the bar, and Louis’s heart lurched in his chest again at the reminder.

“Bye, H,” Niall said, huffing out a knowing, apologetic laugh when Harry only grunted in response.  He turned to Zayn, who was sitting across from Harry and shifting a little in his seat.  “Good to see you again, man.”

“Yeah!” Zayn said, smiling and bobbing his head, his eyes crinkling at the corners.  He glanced up at Maggie.  “Nice to meet you!”

Zayn's plane had landed an hour or so before, just in time for him to check into the Sheridan Inn and meet up with Louis at the bar.  Maggie nodded back at him warmly before she and Niall gave one last chorus of goodbyes and wound their way out of the bar together, Niall’s hand on the small of her back.

“Well...” Louis said, sliding back into the booth and pressing up against Harry’s side.

It was just the three of them at the table now, and the atmosphere went a little tense.  Louis couldn’t help but feel that it was mostly emanating from Harry, whose uncharacteristic reluctance to talk was even more obvious in Niall and Maggie’s absence.  Louis had to tamp down a little twinge of annoyance.  He knew Harry probably wanted time alone together -- he wanted that too -- but it was only 8:00 p.m., and they would have the rest of the night to curl around each other in bed.  He’d been hoping that a somewhat neutral location like Liam’s would ease the awkwardness of their situation a bit, because this was important to him -- Harry and Zayn meeting.  He loved them both so much; he was so nervously eager for them to get to know and love each other, too.

“How’re things at the office?” he finally asked Zayn, after the silence had stretched out too long.

He rubbed at Harry’s thigh a little beneath the table, trying to comfort him and get him to relax.  I’m coming back.  I’m not going forever.  You know that.  I love you.  I really love you.

“Oh, you know, same old,” Zayn said with a shrug, easygoing as always despite Harry’s storm cloud presence.  God, Louis had really missed him. “They upgraded Windows again, so Greg can barely check his email right now.”

Louis laughed.  Greg Beauchamp was one of the most senior members of Anne Twist’s in-house counsel and he was a complete disaster around computers, despite having worked with them for over twenty-five years.  Louis turned to Harry, about to explain to him that Greg was constantly waving him over to his desk and asking him to figure out the location of the file he’d just saved because he was always accidentally putting them in odd locations, like the Office Birthdays folder on the shared drive, for instance.  But Harry was just staring off at one of the Wyoming landscapes Liam had on the wall, and Louis couldn’t really tell if he’d even been paying attention in the first place.

Louis shook his head and glanced down at his drink, his heart doing odd things in his chest as he thought about leaving.  It would be strange to be in an office again after having been in Wyoming for so long, but he was actually eager for it now.  Excited to get back to his real life, and to start living with Harry as a permanent fixture in it.  They still hadn’t discussed much more than Louis’s first planned trip to Sheridan, and he was suddenly lost in thought about how they’d have to split time between Colorado and the ranch until he graduated from law school.

We should talk about it, he thought, frustrated that they hadn’t already, and trying to keep marriage plans out of his mind.  Tonight.

Zayn brought him back to reality by smiling and raising his drink a touch.  “They’re putting you back on Hopkins-Harrington, did you hear?”

“No I did not!” Louis yelped, triumphant.  He knocked his pint glass against Zayn’s gin and tonic.  “In your face, Nicholas Grimshaw.”

Zayn started to laugh, rolling his eyes as he took a sip.  “Can never tell if he hates you or if he wants to sleep with you.”

“Well,” Louis snorted, trying to ignore the way Harry had tensed up beside him.  He put one hand on his heart as he adopted an air of mock pomposity, the other still firm on Harry’s thigh.  “Either way, he’s most certainly jealous of my superior knowledge of the UCC.”

While working on the Hopkins-Harrington case, Louis had spent hours familiarizing himself with certain parts of something called the Uniform Commercial Code, which was all about contracts.  Part of why he’d enjoyed the assignment so much was that he’d felt like he was learning important things the whole time, really preparing himself for his future as a legal genius.

Zayn shook his head at Louis’s ridiculousness, laughing silently.  Harry shifted on the bench, his hand tightening on his drink, obviously unamused.

“He’s gonna be at Boulder with you in the fall, right?” Zayn asked.

“Yeah… oh, brother.  I can’t wait to watch him lord it over the other 1Ls about working at TwistCorp,” Louis said, doing his own fond eye roll this time.  Grimshaw’s pomposity wasn’t mock at all, but Louis couldn’t help being endeared by it sometimes.

“Oh my god,” Zayn said, grinning at Louis now, “that reminds me.  I meant to tell you --”

“What?”

“Vierstra called me.”

“What?” Louis exclaimed.  He burst out laughing, absolutely shaking with it.  He was completely confused as to how any discussion of Nick Grimshaw could have reminded Zayn of one of their oldest, bro-iest college friends, but was definitely interested in finding out.

“It was classic Vierstra,” Zayn said, taking another slug of his drink, still laughing.  “He called me up and was all like, ‘Dude, Dave’s gonna be in Denver in August and I saw Tommo’s starting law school this year, sooo we gotta go see 'em!  Last hurrah!’ and then he, like, waits and goes, ‘You know... ‘cause…’  All leading and stuff.”

Louis’s cheeks hurt, he was smiling so wide.  He nodded along with Zayn, immediately knowing where he was going with this.  “Like he wanted you to say it with him?”

“Uh-huh,” Zayn said, shaking his head again, “which I refused to do, obviously.”

“How did he say it?”

Zayn had been doing a voice for Vierstra the whole time, but he really nailed it on the last line, adding in some of their friend’s highly recognizable and exaggerated hand gestures.  “ ‘Cause weed is fucking legal there now and I haven’t even visited!’ ”

Louis started laughing all over again.  Vierstra had always been a such a ridiculous character, someone Louis’d never have predicted he’d be friends with, but who he couldn’t imagine his college career without.  He’d forced Louis and Zayn to go see Dave Matthews Band with him every summer at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin and was the kind of kid who was so regularly referred to by his last name that Louis had been momentarily confused when he and Zayn stayed at Vierstra’s parents’ house in Lake Geneva one summer and his mother had called him “Mike.”

“Wowww,” Harry drawled out, entering the conversation so abruptly that it startled Louis a little.  “Denver’s got everything now, doesn’t it?”  The cutting sarcasm in his tone made Louis feel like he’d been drenched in cold water, adrenaline spiking through him.

His mouth dropped open slightly at just how snide Harry was being, how nakedly rude.  His face went hot with embarrassment and the hair on the back of his neck stood straight up as he turned to look at him in horror.  Harry just kept staring down at the drink he’d barely touched, his brow dark.  “Jam bands and legal marijuana.  A real paradise.”

What the fuck?  Louis felt oddly close to crying all of a sudden.  Confusion and frustration piled on top of his already precarious emotional state, and quickly turned into anger.

Zayn let out an uneasy chuckle, his eyes darting back and forth between Louis and Harry.  He somehow took it in stride, shrugging.  “Well, I’m not really into the stuff anymore now, but I’m not gonna lie -- I’m always gonna love hearing Satellite live...”

“Right, interesting,” Harry said, leaning forward over the table in an almost predatory manner, his voice still dripping in sarcasm as he nearly cut Zayn off.  “What are the ethical issues there, anyway?  Can lawyers smoke in Colorado?  Is that okay with the bar?”  Zayn was about to reply, but Harry barreled on anyway, talking over him and waving a dismissive hand across the table.  “Probably the ethics don’t matter that much to you, though, huh?  Just find a loophole, make sure it’s okay with the law, and there’s no problem, right?  That’s what you guys do?”

Louis was stunned, still staring at Harry with an open mouth.  It felt like his body was going to be swallowed whole by embarrassment.  He felt electrified with fury, too.  The idea that Harry would go so far out of his way to insult Zayn and lawyers general, that he’d pretend he thought it was immoral to smoke pot in the first place.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he asked, before Zayn had to make any type of response.  His eyes were roving over Harry’s face as he tried to figure out what was even happening.  How could this be the same sweet man who’d kissed him so soft and slowly in the shower before they’d left for the bar?  Who had been so gracious, when Louis had first come to town.  “Where did that even come from?”

Harry shrugged and sighed, looking down at his drink with a pinched face.

Louis turned to Zayn, his hands trembling and his heart pounding.  “I’m so sorry.  I’m so --”

“Nah,” Zayn said, waving him off and reaching for his coat on the hook next to the booth.  “It’s all right,” he continued, even though it most decidedly was not.  “Better get used to that shit if you want to be a corporate lawyer, Louis.”  He chuckled as he got to his feet.  “I’m just gonna --” he thumbed over his shoulder toward the door, clearly wanting to make a quick exit.

“It was good to see you,” Louis said apologetically, hopping up to give Zayn a hug.

“Yeah, man,” Zayn said, rubbing Louis’s back.  “See you soon?”

Louis nodded.  Zayn’s attempt to wave at Harry went ignored, so just he laughed incredulously and said goodbye to Louis one more time before heading toward the door.

Louis stood at the end of the booth for several moments, trying to take some deep breaths so he wouldn’t go literally dizzy with rage.  He didn’t know if he’d ever been so irate in his entire life.  His nervous system was in complete revolt, like he might have entered a state of mild shock.

“Let’s go,” he finally managed to spit out after a minute, unable to even look at Harry all the way.  He marched out of the bar without waiting for him, feeling a renewed spike of righteous anger when he realized this meant he wouldn’t be getting to say goodbye to Liam.  He was pacing by the truck by the time Harry moseyed out, and his eyes narrowed even further when he saw the faux-casual way Harry was twirling the key ring on his finger.

“Get in the fucking truck, Harry!” he growled, yanking on the passenger side door handle until Harry unlocked it.

Harry continued to move at the pace of a snail, easing into the driver’s seat so slowly that Louis thought he might break a window, he was so pissed off.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he demanded, just like he had in the bar, glaring at the side of Harry’s face.

Harry just shrugged again.  The only sign of agitation Louis could see was the unsteadiness of his hand as he put the key into the ignition.

“Are you kidding me?” Louis said.  He took another deep, shaky breath and turned to stare straight ahead at the windshield.  His chest had jagged shards of glass inside it, his throat closing up with hurt as Harry’s behavior replayed in his mind and humiliation washed over him.  “Fine,” he muttered, on the brink of tears.  “Fine.  But I want you to know there is no way in hell we aren’t talking about this when we get back to the ranch.”

It was as though Louis had boarded some kind of morbid Ferris wheel of anger and devastation as they drove home.  Harry had been so inexcusably rude, and Louis’s anger over that would propel him right to the top of the ride, rage simmering in his veins and heating his cheeks.  Then his whole body would seize up as he fully realized again how little consideration Harry had given to his feelings, how disrespectful he’d been, and his stomach would drop away as he swooped back down to the bottom, engulfed in brutal disappointment.  He felt betrayed and unmoored as the inky countryside rushed past in the dark and he repeatedly tried and failed to explain or justify Harry’s actions in his mind.

He jumped out of the truck and slammed his door behind him as soon as they arrived at the ranch, speeding away from Harry toward the front door.  He wanted to pace around the house and take a bunch of deep, pointed breaths before he acknowledged Harry’s presence again, but being in emotional overdrive had made him unsteady on his feet and he stumbled a little just before he reached the porch.

“Don’t touch me,” he hissed, as Harry’s big hand closed over his elbow, steadying him and sending another shock wave of fury through his bones.  “Don’t you fucking touch me, Harry.”

He reeled toward the front door, practically falling against it before he threw it open and stormed into the darkened living room, unable to keep from rounding on Harry right away.  He felt his insides go white hot again when Harry leaned down to turn on a table lamp with the same air of almost insolent calmness he’d exhibited as he’d strolled out of the bar.

“Are you going to explain yourself?” Louis asked in wide-eyed disbelief, crossing his arms over his chest.  Harry took a deep breath, standing a few feet back, and unbowed his head slowly while chewing on his bottom lip.  His eyes were still in shadow and his jaw was clenched.  Louis prompted him with the arch of a brow, but Harry still didn’t respond, so he ploughed on, his words bitten off to keep them from wobbling with emotion.  “Like, the only thing I can possibly think of is, what?  You were upset we weren’t alone, so you decided to take it out on Zayn?”

Harry swallowed visibly, shifting his weight.  His blinks were slow and far between.

“I mean, did you forget --” his voice broke slightly, and he was barely able to speak above a whisper, the hurt in his breastbone too strong.  “Did you forget the part where that’s my -- that’s my best friend?”

Harry made a sound at last, one of muted frustration, and his shoulders slumped before he finally began to speak.  “No.  No, but he -- he kept…  He kept talking about it like you were going to be in Denver for sure.”  His voice so low and mumbly that Louis wasn’t exactly sure what he’d said.

“What?” he asked, his tone sharp.

“Like nothing was changing…”

Louis narrowed his eyes and leaned forward, indicating that he definitely needed more clarification.

“He kept talking about it like he knew for sure you’d be in Colorado all next year!” Harry finally shouted, exasperated and clearly emotional, throwing his big hands up into the air.

“What?  What are you talking about?”  Louis was completely bewildered, the gears in his head grinding as he struggled to understand.

Of course I’ll be in Colorado.

“Both of you were!” Harry said.  He gestured with his hands again, his tone wounded but his voice still loud. “You were like, talking about Denver and making plans…  I didn’t think -- I didn’t realize you were --”

“Didn’t realize what?  Of course I’ll be in Colorado!  I’m going to law school!” Louis cut in, his heart racing.

“Well okay, I knew -- I knew that, but…”

“Did you?  Really?  Because that’s not what it sounds like right now!”  Indignation surged up Louis’s spine and he took a step toward Harry, jabbing his index finger at him as he spoke.  He knew he probably looked like a madman, spittle flying, but he was so upset he couldn’t help it.  “Right now it sounds like you were under the impression I wouldn’t be going!  Why would I even be going back to Denver at all, if I’d given up on Boulder?  Not that being surprised about me going back there would have given you the right to act the way you did!”

Harry shrank back slightly, shaking his head.  “No, I --”

“I mean, what about all that shit you said before?  About not wanting to put me in an awkward position, not wanting to -- to mess things up for me at work?  What was that?  Was it lip service?”  Louis was absolutely seething about Harry’s behavior and the assumptions he’d apparently made, and he couldn’t keep accusatory words from tumbling out of his mouth, even though he still wasn’t exactly sure what was happening.  “Do you just say that kind of thing all the time so you can fuck somebody?  Or --”

Harry made a sharp sound of disgust, his brow furrowing and his jaw dropping open in outrage.  He was standing in the soft glow of the lamplight and Louis could see two hots spots of red form on his cheeks and a flush crawl right up his neck.  He immediately regretted what he’d said, guilt piercing his heart, but he also took a shameful pleasure in finally seeing visible proof that Harry was as at least partially as worked up as he was.

“How could you even say that to me?” Harry asked after a beat, his voice a dangerously low growl.

“I’m sorry,” Louis bit out grudgingly, his eyes still narrowed and his face bright red with frustration.

“I’m not the one that has a history of commitment issues, am I?” Harry asked, his tone turning a little vicious as he pressed a hand to his own chest.  “I mean, all the moving!  All the indecision!  That’s you, right?  Can you really blame me for thinking maybe it might be the same thing with law school?”

“Oh my god!” Louis gasped, his face contorting in fury as renewed hurt pumped through his veins.  He was thoroughly and deeply offended.  “So this whole time you really have been assuming -- you’ve been thinking what?  That I would end up just throwing in the towel because that’s what I do?  That I would up and move my whole life here at the end of the summer?  Be all tucked away in the fucking guest room while you kept on running your precious ranch?”

Harry shrugged, scowling, and rage blazed through Louis’s body again.

“I mean, here you are acting like a complete asshole to my best friend and -- and to me.  And I’m thinking you’re being a childish brat because you’re upset that you’re going to miss me or something, but really it’s that I’m not behaving in accordance with your preconceived plans for our entire lives!  Which you never ran by me in the first place!”  Louis was shouting now, his eyes wide and bright.

“No!  That’s not…  I just wasn’t sure --”

“Well, that’s sure how it seems to me!” Louis cried, his voice rising ever higher.  He hadn’t been expecting this kind of upheaval on their last night, not at all.  He’d expected murmured I love yous and slow, intimate sex.  The whiplash was making him feel precariously close to bursting into tears or breaking something.  His emotional keel was so off balance that he had an overly-dramatic and fleeting thought about suddenly understanding crimes of passion.  “And to top it all off, you won’t even tell me what’s actually happening with the ranch!”

“What?  Louis, that is so unfair!” Harry shot back, advancing toward him a little.  “I can’t tell you… ”  He took a heaving breath, apparently struggling to find the right words.  “I told you about the cabin, didn’t I?  But how am I supposed to tell you everything when you still work for my mother?  I’m still trying to -- to protect you, Louis.  And protect myself --”

“Well, I don’t need you to protect me!” Louis spat out.  “I thought you wanted an equal.  A spouse.  A real  partner, remember?  Now it’s starting to seem like you just want to keep making decisions on your own, for the both of us!”

“That isn’t why I haven’t -- I’m trying to deal with all of it…”  Harry was shaking now, looking untethered and overwhelmed.  It sounded as though a combination of tears and frustrated anger was clogging up his throat as his voice came rumbling out, thick with all of it, his gaze boring into Louis’s.  “I was out of line at the bar.  I know that.  And I’m sorry.  I just!  I felt stressed out to begin with, just Zayn being here.  I mean, I can’t help but worry about what that means for the ranch.  And then, you’ve -- you’ve talked about how you’ve had trouble settling down, and you started talking to him about -- I don’t know, all this stuff I had no real idea about.  And I suddenly got so scared…  I felt, like, caught off guard by it all.  And like, well… how well do I actually know him?  If he’s going to law school after all, how do I know he’ll come back?”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better, Harry?” Louis whispered, sadness settling over his body like a heavy cloak.  Another time he might have comforted Harry right away, reassured him that no matter what, he’d always come back to him.  But the whole night had been a sort of slow-motion emotional car crash and Louis felt so broken down and vulnerable, he just didn’t have it in him.  Not when he still felt so blindsided, and his feelings were still so hurt.  Tears had finally started spilling out onto his cheeks.  He couldn’t believe this was what Harry thought of him.  “I’m sorry you’re scared,” he said.  “Fine.  I was -- am -- a little scared about the future, too.  More now.”  He let out a bleak laugh.  “But when have I ever, ever given you reason not to trust me?  I opened up to you about my past because I trusted you!  Because I wanted you to know that this was different!  And I haven’t been holding anything back at all.  Not since -- not since Sally and Paul…”  His voice trailed off in a strangle of emotion, pain searing through him at the thought of how close they’d been that night, and how far apart they felt right now.

“Louis,” Harry choked out, making an aborted attempt to reach out for him.

Louis shook his head rapidly.  “No.  If anyone’s been untrustworthy and unreasonable it’s you,” he said, wiping at his face.

“Louis, I’m sorry.  I didn’t --”

“I don’t think, um…  I don’t think I can talk about it anymore," he sighed, all of the roiling frustration and pain of the evening settling into a deep ache inside, more sad resignation than anger.  Louis took a long look at Harry.  He seemed utterly forlorn over having hurt Louis, so much so that he was almost tragically beautiful in the dim light, and Louis's heart clenched at the sight of him.

How did we get everything so mixed up?  How?  When I love you so much.  So much.  And I thought you --

Louis cursed and took a deep, jagged breath that was sticky with the salt of his tears.  He knew they needed to talk more, reassure each other and fix it, but he was utterly drained, so exhausted that the prospect felt like an impossibly daunting task.  Like it wasn’t even physically possible right now, not when they were both in such heightened emotional states.  He also didn’t think he was remotely mentally capable of forgiving just yet.

“We should --” he cleared his throat, wiping another stray tear off his face.  “We should go to bed.  I have -- I have to leave so early…”

“Louis,” Harry whispered again, his voice breaking as his eyes welled up.

Louis screwed up his face to keep from crying more, and reached out to take Harry’s shaking hand in his own.  “Come on,” he said, leading him down the darkened hallway to the guest room.

They quickly shucked off their clothes and crawled into the rumpled, moonlit bed, and Louis thought about how they’d never made the switch to sleeping in the master bedroom, even after calving season had slowed down.  They both needed to start thinking of Louis as a permanent fixture at the Lonely Rose, and it seemed that they hadn’t quite achieved that yet.

We have so much to work out, he thought.  His heart was shrouded in anxiety as he tried to drift off.  He was lying on his stomach with Harry’s big warm hand on the small of his bare back, and still it felt like there were a thousand miles between them.  So much trust to build.  But we will…  We will work it out…

Louis had a brief moment of panic the next morning while he was trying to trundle his roller suitcase out to his rental car in the weak light.  It was a bolt of fear straight to the heart -- that maybe Harry wasn’t going to come say goodbye to him at all.  He’d woken up to a cold, empty bed, and Mrs. Burden had informed him over coffee that Harry had been up before dawn, off to get an exceptionally early start on mending a fence.  But just as Louis was swearing because he’d clipped his knee with the suitcase yet again, he felt a warm palm on his shoulder and then Harry’s big, gentle hands were taking the case and depositing it in the backseat for him with ease.

This was it.  Harry couldn’t come to the airport because he had an early appointment with Dr. Christine about one his oldest horses, and Louis stood next to the driver’s side door, clutching the keys and willing himself not to cry.  He didn’t succeed in the slightest.  He had to inhale deeply a few times before he was able to risk looking Harry in the eye.

“Oh, baby,” Harry gasped, sucking in a breath and scooping Louis up.  He pressed Louis into an incredibly tight embrace and they just stood, trembling against each other for several minutes.  When Harry finally sought out Louis’s lips, his kiss was desperate and almost urgently emotional, like he was trying to pour every last bit of his feeling into it.  All of his apologies for the night before, and all of his love.  Louis kissed back with equal intensity, clutching at Harry’s shoulders and hair, trying to measure and memorize the exact weight and scale of his body one last time.  It was as charged as things had been in the barn a few days before, but the apprehensive, bittersweet edge was razor-sharp this time.  Everything still felt so up in the air, too open-ended and unresolved between them.  So raw.  It made Louis feel like his heart was about to crack right in half, if he didn’t cling to Harry for the rest of his life.

Their faces were damp from commingled tears when they broke apart.  Louis glanced down at this watch and saw that he really did have to leave, almost right that minute, and he made an embarrassingly loud snorting sound of choked-off despair.  That prompted a round of tepid laughter, which only made him start to cry harder, and Harry was helpless to keep from hugging him all over again.

“I’ll miss you so much, baby,” Harry whispered into Louis’s ear, stroking his hair and rubbing his back.  “So much.”

Louis just nodded along in agreement, still unable to speak . “I love you,” he managed, when Harry finally let him go.

Harry’s tears had been coming slowly up to that point, but he let out a sob in response, covering his face with one hand.  “I love you, too.”

Louis opened the car door with a quivering hand, putting off the inevitable for just a few more moments.  “I’ll text you when I land, okay?  Text me back.  Please.”

Harry nodded.  “I will.  I will.  I promise.”  He was still shielding his weepy eyes, and his shoulders were shaking.

“Bye, peaches,” Louis whispered, and Harry’s whole body jerked with emotion.

“B-bye,” he choked out.  He took a step back toward the house.  “I, um, I just -- I can’t watch you go.  I just can’t,” he mumbled, shaking his head.  His face was blotchy, covered in sweat and tears and his lips were all swollen from the kissing, his wonderful hair askew.  He looked so achingly lovely that Louis’s throat closed up.  He’d never loved someone so much.  He nodded in understanding.

“I’ll text you,” Harry said, turning to go.  “I’ll call.  I promise.  We’ll talk.  H-have a safe flight.”

Louis nodded again, waving and watching Harry kick up the driveway’s gravel dust as he headed to the porch and then disappeared inside the house.  He took several more calming breaths before he slipped into the car, and then had to steady himself yet again before he could bring himself to turn the key.

He was still leaking tears when he drove under the Lonely Rose Ranch sign on his way out.  The back of it read Come Again Soon.

“This isn’t the end,” he whispered to himself.  “It’s not over.  I’ll be back."

There was fear in his heart, though, and it only intensified as he pulled out onto the highway. 

Chapter Text

Louis banged into his apartment on Saturday afternoon, swearing loudly.  He dropped his roller suitcase just inside the door and limped over to the couch, flopping down with a dissatisfied grunt and his phone cradled in his hand.  He’d sent Harry a text from the airport and another right away when he’d landed, while his plane had still been taxiing on the runway in Denver.

So far, though, nothing in response.

Home now, he wrote.  He stared at the words for a second before erasing them and typing out Just got back to my apartment.  Then he hit send, sighing as he saw all of the speech bubbles stacked up on his side of the text thread.

The air in his living room smelled flat and unlived-in.  Louis thought about getting up and opening the window in his bedroom, but after tensing his muscles once he gave up and sank further into the couch.  The fight, the goodbye that had ended too quickly, and all the little annoyances of travel had exhausted him completely, drained everything out of him and left only a hollow ache.  He felt like crying, but he didn’t have any tears -- an emotional dry-heave.

He had to talk to Harry.  He needed to hear his voice on the phone, had to get some reassurance that they were both going to be okay.  Gingerly, he tapped Harry’s name in his contacts and held the phone to his ear.

It didn’t ring.  All he got was a voicemail message.

“Hello, this is Harry Styles at the Lonely Rose Ranch.  I’m probably out with the cows right now, but leave a message and I’ll talk to you soon.”

It wasn’t Harry’s real voice.  It was something slightly higher and flatter; it was Harry making an effort to be professional; it wasn’t for Louis.  It wasn’t for Louis.  Before he knew it, there was a beep, and his unsteady breaths were being recorded.

He sighed.  “Harry,” he said, before he felt emotion gently choke off his words.  He tried to swallow around the hurt.  “Call me?” he managed.  “You said you…”  He stopped and croaked out a flighty little laugh at himself for being ridiculous, so uncharacteristically unnerved.  “I never leave good voicemail messages,” he went on.  He could hear the rasp in his voice from the lack of sleep, the slight waver of honest anxiety.  “Always awkward ones.  It’s because I’m bad at talking to myself, so please call me.  The end.”

He hung up in a little flurry of panic.  The end, he repeated in his head, rolling his eyes.  What am I doing, narrating a book?

He lay there with the phone on his stomach for a while, gazing up at nothing, at the corners of the room, the dust fur that had collected on the blades of the ceiling fan.  Harry had probably turned off his phone and gone out to lose himself in ranch work.  Louis could see him on one knee out in the muddy pasture, grim set to his jaw, ratcheting up the tension on the fence stretcher, trying to keep the Llewellyns’ herd from invading.  There’s a lot to get done, Louis allowed.  Always a lot to get done…

He fell asleep until around 10 p.m.  A clap of thunder jolted him out of a garbled dream about Paul and Sally, and he blinked awake to darkness and the sound of steady rain.  He was glad he hadn’t opened a window after all.  He trudged to bed, managing to peel off his clothing on the way, liking how free his skin felt after the layers were gone.  There was a notification glowing on his phone from Harry.  Louis squinted at it in the dark, tumbling into bed.  It looked so small.

Wish you hadn’t left.

Louis felt his heart seize up with pain and sudden resentment.  So that was how it was going to work, this separation?  Harry was going to hold it against him that he had a life outside the ranch?  Louis let out a sound of disbelief as he unlocked his phone and began to type furiously.

I wish we could be together too.  You know I do.

Just because I told you I was wandering before I met you, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a life of my own.  You built a life.  I want to build something too.

Louis started to type the words, then quickly erased them.  It was no use, really.  It wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have in texts, and he knew that Harry was hurting.  He knew it intellectually, but couldn’t help getting offended over and over again as he thought about how Harry had just assumed so many things.  You quit all that other stuff, why wouldn’t you quit law school?  Those weren’t the exact words he had said, but they’d been at the root of his thinking.  It’s a lost cause anyway.  Might as well quit your job, too.  I’ve got it all under control.

“That’s what he thinks of me,” Louis whispered savagely to his dark bedroom, turning and drawing the blankets up to his neck.  “I’m good for what?  Quitting.  Being his square dancing partner.  And meanwhile he doesn’t have to even try to adjust to me.”  The unfairness of it hurt his head, reverberated around his chest until it was a screaming echo of itself.

*

Sunday was spent ordering take-out and watching TV.  There were no texts from Harry and no calls, and Louis was starting to feel like their relationship was already in danger of going off the rails.  It was just not what he’d expected.  Not what he’d expected at all, and he felt as though he couldn’t fully understand what had happened.  He sat hunched on his couch, trying not to think about the suit he had to wear to the office the next day or what he could have done differently in Sheridan so that he might feel different now.

Not slept with Harry, a dull voice answered him, but he dismissed it.

Another glance at his phone.  Nothing.

He said he would text me.  He promised.  He said we’d talk.  Louis felt raw, like every breeze from the ceiling fan was too rough on him.  He just wanted to sit in absolute silence and stillness and not have to process what was happening.  Not yet, not when Hopkins-Harrington was waiting at the office and his suitcase full of dirty clothes was still sitting next to the door.  He turned off his phone with shaky hands and stood on his tiptoes to shove it under a big, floppy LSAT prep book on the highest shelf of his bookcase.  Then he sat down cross-legged on his couch again, turned on the Rockies game and let it take over.

He felt wrung out after nine innings.  Dusk was starting to wash out all the colors in Louis’s living room, and he groaned, rubbing at his face.  It was only 8:30, but he felt like going to bed.  The phone was where he’d left it and Louis strained, jumping slightly, fingertips brushing it before he finally got it down and turned it on again.

Nothing.

He bit back a sob, wondering what the fuck could be going on that Harry wouldn’t text him or try to call once.  His finger hovered over the Messages app for a second, but he didn’t give in.  He just shook his head sharply and dropped the phone onto the coffee table.  He had to go to sleep before he started to cry.

*

The suit felt surreal on him, Monday morning, as did the scent of his cologne and lingering tingle of his aftershave.  Louis pushed briskly through the revolving door at TwistCorp.  He was fifteen minutes early, briefcase and coffee in hand as though it were any other day.  Terri Brend walked onto the elevator after him and gave him a bland smile.

“Welcome back,” she said, before ducking her head and hunching over her phone, typing something with one hand as her dangling golden bracelets jangled together.

“Thanks,” Louis replied.  The exchange had the same bright, fake, perfunctory quality Louis had noticed in his first week on the job, back when he didn’t know any of these people and they’d all seemed to either be talking over him at each other, or down to him, a little too straightforwardly.  He shifted his weight and took a careful sip of coffee.

“How was Charlie Brown’s this week?” he asked.  Some of the paralegals always got together on Friday after work at Charlie Brown’s, a piano bar on Grant, for drinks and appetizers and off-key singing.  It was a fun way to unwind after a whole week staring at documents and researching cases, and “Tiny Dancer” and “Walking in Memphis” were always played twice each at their request.

Terri’s head snapped up.  “Same as always,” she shrugged, giving him an odd look, like why would he be asking about that?  What ever even happens at Charlie Brown’s?

Louis flushed slightly.  He’d mostly wanted to remind Terri that he was one of the regulars, not a fresh hire who didn't know anything about their office traditions.  But the question had come off like a parent asking a teenager about school, like his own mother chirruping at him, “How was it today, honey?”  Louis remembered shrugging her off almost exactly like Terri had just shrugged him off.  Because it was the question of someone who wasn’t there and doesn’t know the right things to ask -- it had just highlighted Louis’s absence.  How apart he was now, in some ways.

Louis sighed softly.  He'd figured that coming back to Denver, back to work, would be a process of re-acclimatization, but he hadn't expected it to feel quite so weird.

The elevator doors opened and Terri flung herself out, taking a sharp right in the direction of the break room coffee station even though she had an empty, lipstick-smudged Starbucks in her hand already.  Louis stepped out more slowly.  He gazed around at the contemporary, cube-shaped wall sconces and conference rooms paned with floor-to-ceiling glass.  The carpet was maroon, a bit luxe, all the swivel chairs real leather.  Mahogany bookshelves were stocked with handsome, bound volumes of state statutes that no one ever touched because they were all online.  Louis took a deep breath, scratching his thumb over the tiny oval opening in the plastic lid of his coffee cup as he started toward his office.  Everything looked the same, and Louis couldn’t figure out for a moment why it all felt so different.

Is it…  is it because I’m different?  Have I changed that much?

The thought scared him for a second before he realized that if he had changed, it was only for the better.  He’d fallen in love.  He’d birthed a calf, goddammit.  Louis Tomlinson was a richer person for having gone to Wyoming.

Squaring his shoulders, he marched into the small office he and Nick shared, right across from Zayn’s larger, vacant one.  He was brought up short when he saw a man bending over his desk.  He was compact, dark-haired, and in the process of typing something on Louis’s computer with loud, punching flourishes, as though he were a concert pianist.

“Uh,” Louis said, eloquently.

The man lifted his head and blinked just as Nick Grimshaw breezed into the office, clapping Louis on the shoulder as he bluntly shoved past him.  “It was those Koch assholes,” he said, waving his smartphone at the strange man before hunching over his back, squinting at the screen as he watched him type, “and it was a Department of Justice consent decree.”  He smirked at something the man had written, hand resting lightly on the small of his back from behind, and then glanced up.  “Hi, Louis.”

“Nick,” Louis nodded, eyebrows rising almost to his hairline.  “Working on something?” he said casually, glancing around for a spot to put his briefcase down.  “... At my desk,” he added, in a slight undertone.

“Oh, yeah.  Clean Air Act amendment thing; everybody’s been scrambling, but,”  Nick waved his fingers dismissively like it was no big deal, not something Louis should be worrying about.  “Anyway, how are you?  How’s Wyoming?”  He popped a hip and settled a hand on it, glancing up and down at Louis.  “Glad to be back, I bet.”

Louis shrugged, and finally settled for placing his briefcase on the corner of the narrow office couch.  He sat down awkwardly on the arm and swung his leg as he waited for them to get off his computer.  “Yeah,” he said, lamely.

“Oh, but you actually liked it, though,” Nick said.  “Right?  Seemed like you liked that rancher, anyway.”  He forced out a high chuckle and squeezed the strange man’s shoulder as he went on typing.  Louis felt his blood start to run a little faster, a little hotter, and he found himself suddenly tapping his foot in a strained rhythm.  “Hope that’s not a sore spot,” Nick went on, not waiting for Louis’s reaction.  “Should I rethink the Great Divide joke I was about to make?  Please at least tell me you had a literal roll in the hay.”  The constant, toying sarcasm in his voice was so affected, Louis had to grit his teeth to keep from snorting in disbelief.  People take him seriously?

“Who’s this?” he asked instead, pointedly ignoring Nick’s needling.

“Oh, Mick.  Discretionary Bonus Mick.”

The guy broke out into a loud, barking laugh at that, and held up a fist for Nick to bump.  He shook his head, muttering “discretionary bonus” under his breath like it was some sort of hilarious reference.

I used to live in this world, Louis thought in wonder, shaking his head a little as he watched their slightly homoerotic office bro-fest.  I used to lap this shit up.

It all seemed so small now.  Petty to the point of being ridiculous.  Louis abruptly stood up, leaving his briefcase on the couch.  “Feel free to use my computer, then," he muttered, quiet anger in his voice as he ducked out of the cramped office.  It was anger at himself, though.  Because he was still wrestling with what he wanted, and he didn’t know what to do.  He hadn’t done the right thing back in Sheridan, obviously, but he had -- Louis felt his hands start to shake, and anxiety start to rise in his stomach -- he had no idea what he could have done differently.  Everything had gone wrong, Harry wasn’t talking to him, and he had made working here a priority?  With Nick and Mick.  Oh, fuck me twice.  He ambled toward the floor's break room kitchenette, so caught up in reevaluating the time he’d spent as an employee of TwistCorp that he didn’t notice a light was on across the hall.

When he turned the corner and glanced up, his mocha venti slipped right through his fingers.

“Shit, shit,” he gasped, hopping out of the way of the spill, hissing as drops of hot coffee caught the left leg of his trousers and puddled around his too-expensive shoes.  He whipped his head up again.  “Zayn,” he said, voice cracking.  “What the fuck are you doing here?”

Zayn was eyeing him from the sink, where he was washing out a mug, his shirtsleeves rolled up and his tie flipped over his shoulder.  He calmly dried his hands and tossed Louis the whole roll of paper towels.  “Got back last night,” he shrugged.  He set his mug in the drying rack and leaned on the counter, working his neck a little and reaching back to scratch at the nape of it as his tired-looking eyes rolled shut.  “Harry signed, so.”

Louis’s mouth dropped open.  “What?”  He almost slipped in the wet mess on the tile, wad of paper towels disintegrating as he swirled it through the spilled coffee.  “No he didn’t…  What?”

“Yeah,” Zayn shrugged.  “He came to the hotel at like, two o’clock, said he wanted to sign.”

“Well…”  Louis’s entire body felt weak, like all the strength was being sapped out of it.  Like if he didn’t heave himself up with his disgusting handful of mushy paper towels right now, he’d collapse onto the slick floor and just lie there forever in disbelief.  Harry didn’t give in, he thought.  His head was spinning.  No…  He wouldn’t!  He wouldn’t just give up.  “Did he…  He knew what he was signing?” he asked.  Louis did manage to get to his feet, squinting at Zayn with weak suspicion as he walked over to the trash can.  But worry was rapidly blooming into a sort of dawning horror in his gut.

The cabin, he thought, his heart sinking.  And… and he didn’t…  Louis bit his lip.  A flare of pain lit up his chest as he realized that Harry hadn’t even called to talk to him about this.  Hadn’t even let him know.

“Read the whole thing in front of me,” Zayn said.  “He signed it, Louis.  He wanted to.”

Louis nodded.  Then he shook his head.  “No.”

“Louis, I notarized it.  He did.”

“He didn’t want to,” Louis spat.  “Something must have happened.”  He turned on his heel and started walking back toward the bank of elevators, barely registering Zayn’s footsteps behind him.

“What?”  Zayn’s voice seemed like it was coming from far away.

“They must have forced him, or --”

Louis powered past his own office, where Nick and the new paralegal were still laughing at something -- probably him, God, Nick’s laugh was so annoying -- and stopped in front of the men’s room.  For a moment he felt like he was going to be sick.

“Louis,” Zayn said, catching him by the shoulder and squeezing lightly as he stepped in front of him.  “It’s over.  Harry signed the contract of his own free will.  He told me he wanted to sign it.”

Louis swallowed hard, staring at the water fountain outside the men’s room.  It was dripping a little.  His mind continued to race.

Harry signed.  He signed.  He sold.  Why the fuck would he sell?  Louis’s whole body was bright hot, and his skin had gone clammy from the adrenaline bath he’d just been plunged into.  He wouldn’t.  He wouldn’t just sell.  How did they -- what did they do?  Why -- why didn’t he even fucking call me?!  

“Gimme -- gimme your card,” he said, finally looking back up at Zayn.  “Gimme.”  He gestured repeatedly to the access badge that was clipped to the belt loop of Zayn’s pants.   

“What?”  Zayn drifted behind Louis as he stalked over to the bank of elevators, watching as Louis began jabbing at the up button.  “Why?  Louis..."

“I need… “ Louis said, his voice trailing off.  He was distracted by the digital readouts at the top of each elevator, indicating which floor that particular car was currently on.  The one to the far left was the closest to them and climbing, and Louis sidestepped quickly so that he was standing squarely in front of it, waiting as it continued upward at what felt like an outrageously slow pace.  He turned his attention back to Zayn to keep from pressing the up button again even though it obviously wouldn’t do any good.

“What’re you -- you're just going to burst in there?  And then what..." Zayn started, clearly having already worked out Louis’s intended course of action.  Anne Twist’s office was on the top floor -- there was almost nothing else on that level besides the boardroom and a few ridiculously fancy traveling offices for visiting executives -- and Louis couldn’t use his own ID badge to get up there; he didn’t have access to it.  None of the paralegals did.  Which was why he needed Zayn.

“Gimme the badge!” Louis demanded, stepping into the elevator as soon as the doors opened and blocking them from closing with one arm.

“Are you sure you want -- ”  Zayn sounded hesitant and highly skeptical of Louis’s semi-formed plan.  Louis didn’t have time for that, so before Zayn could say anything else, Louis reached out and grabbed his badge without permission.  The retractable reel of thin nylon cord it was attached to unfurled with an audible little zwip.  Louis pressed the badge against the card reader next to the elevator’s button panel before releasing it, letting it thwap back against Zayn’s hip.  “Something’s not right,” he muttered in a weak attempt to explain himself as he punched at the button for the executive suite with much more force than necessary, his sweaty finger slipping off on the first try.  Bile threatened to creep up his throat.  He wouldn’t…  Harry wouldn’t sell… “Something’s not right.  And I’m going to -- I’m going to find out.”

“Louis..."

Zayn’s furrowed brow and concerned eyes were the last thing Louis saw before the doors slid shut and the elevator began to climb.  His blood pressure rose steadily with each floor.  Thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven…  Harry, Harry, Harry.  His pulse was absolutely pounding against his eardrums by the time the elevator finally came to a stop.  Thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty.

For a moment before the doors opened, the sensation that the car was in motion lingered for Louis.  The floor seemed to lurch slightly beneath his feet, and his stomach heaved along with it.  He was thrown for a split second, suddenly feeling like this was all a bizarre waking dream, and he wasn’t actually charging off to his boss’s office to demand an explanation about a situation that wasn’t technically any of his business.

It is, though!  It is my business! Louis thought, taking a determined first step out into the elegant lobby.  He might not have had any real idea what he was going say once he got where he was going -- this all might end in disaster -- but Louis actively wanted to be doing it.  This reckless endeavor was a conscious, purposeful choice, not an out-of-body experience, and Louis’s chest clenched sharply at that realization.  Even though his relationship with Harry had felt so frustrating and unsure over the past couple of days, there was a righteous, protective fire burning inside him as he turned left and propelled himself toward Anne Twist’s office.  Harry is my business.  He’ll always be -- he'll always be in my heart.

“Sir?”  Anne Twist’s administrative assistant sounded perplexed and a little nervous when Louis strode past him without a second glance, as though he couldn’t quite believe Louis had the gall.  "Excuse me, sir?  Does Ms. Twist…"  Louis raised a brusque hand of acknowledgment, hoping to placate him as he marched through the ridiculously tall, open door to Anne’s office.

“How?” Louis barked, announcing his presence.  The office was enormous, spanning the entire width of the floor, and three of its four walls were made of spotless plate glass.  Anne Twist was seated at a large desk in the middle of the room, the city sprawling out around her in such a majestic way that it almost felt like she was the origin of it all.  As though Louis were standing before the precise epicenter and source of Denver, in human form.  His anger flared up even higher.  It was burning his throat, knowing that her power extended so much farther than the eye could see.  Well beyond the mountains.  He refused to be intimidated.  “How did you do it?” he demanded.  “How did you force him into it?  How did you get him to sell?”

“Mr. Tomlinson?” Anne’s tone was incredulous when she raised her head, looking at him over the computer screen she had been studying, her famous brows arched above her eyes.  She glanced behind Louis momentarily, her assistant having followed him to the doorway.  She waved him away.  "It’s okay, Alex…”

“How did you get him to sell?” Louis repeated, ignoring the exchange.  He wanted to keep his voice as steely as possible, but of course it went shrill instead.  He kept flushing hot and cold with nerves, despite his best efforts to suppress them, wobbling in the irritatingly plush carpet.  He was suddenly overcome by an inane, flickering notion about how maybe his ankles were weak.

Too weak for this environment…  Too weak to do something like this…  Too weak for decisions that stick…

But then a voice came from behind him, firm and cool.  It was full of unwavering confidence and laced with a touch of amusement, and Louis’s rage came rushing back to the forefront with a shock of heat.

“I’m not sure how that’s any of your concern."  Walter Mohs was standing in the corner of Anne’s office, where one of the floor-to-ceiling windows met the impressive bookcase that made up the side wall, apparently having just ended a phone call.  He was immaculately groomed, everything about his person so sharp and expensive-looking that it made Louis feel almost grimy in comparison, like he still had dirt from the Lonely Rose under his nails.  And he always would.

Well, that’s what I want, he realized, galvanized by the sheer intensity of his dislike for Mohs.  Louis knew his face had twisted into an ugly sneer, looking at him, but he didn’t care.  I want the ranch forever.  I want Harry forever, if he’ll still...  I know he’ll still have me.

“Harry is definitely my concern,” Louis snapped in response, angling his body so that he was addressing both Walter and Anne.  “We all know he didn’t want to sell, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m wondering how you managed to go about coercing him into it.”

“Louis… ” Anne said gently, in a tone that reminded him of the exchange she'd had with Harry at the fundraiser just two weeks before.  When she’d been trying to soothe her son.  Soothe him right into selling.  “He’s still got the surface rights..."

Walter Mohs smirked.

Louis snorted and rolled his eyes, cocking an eyebrow back at her.  “I’m sure he’s so comforted by that right now."

The contract for the sale split the rights to the oil from the rights to the land -- access to the minerals was severed from access to using the surface property.  But Anne and Louis both knew that mineral rights trump surface rights, and that National Energy Group could take drastic, potentially destructive measures to get to the oil, especially given that Harry’s use of the land wasn’t productive.  There was definitely no nostalgia clause.

“Maybe he’s taking comfort in being one of the richest men in Wyoming,” Walter suggested.  He prowled closer to Louis like a bulky jungle cat, plainly aware that Harry was doing no such thing and obviously enjoying that fact.  “A newly minted multi-millionaire.  That’s the kind of thing that’ll warm you right up, I find.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you do,” Louis snapped, the hair on the back of his neck rising in disgust.  He turned back to Anne.  “How did you do it?”

Anne shifted subtly, like she wasn’t sure what to say.  It was Walter who spoke instead, in the same self-satisfied drawl as before.  “I think Mr. Styles’s decision to sign had a great deal to do with the state of Wyoming discovering how valuable his property really is.”

Louis went cold.  He cursed under his breath, the blood draining out of his face.  Shit.  Harry’s taxes.  His goddamn property taxes…  The -- the loan. I should have --

Mohs’s calculating eyes moved over Louis’s face, and Louis could tell that he was deriving great pleasure from watching his implication set in.  Louis swore again, clenching his jaw in frustration.  Despite the fact that Harry wasn’t planning on extracting and selling any of the oil that had been found on his land, the fair market value of his whole ranch had increased significantly along with its discovery.  If National Energy Group had made this increase clear to the county tax assessor, like Mohs seemed to be suggesting, Harry would be looking at a much larger property tax bill at the end of the year.  A bill that he most likely would not be able to cover with the oil generating no profit for him.  Judging by the smug look on Walter Mohs’s face, he had successfully backed Harry into a position where it was almost impossible for him to take a lien out on the land, like he’d been planning to.  The government would always get theirs first, and any bank would be highly aware of that fact.

“So you helped them along with that discovery, hmm?” Louis asked after a beat, looking back and forth between the two of them with flashing eyes.  Anne continued to regard him with a guarded, unreadable expression, but Walter gave him a knowing smirk and shrugged.  Louis nodded steadily, fury building inside of him with every bob of his head.  “Just like you helped Harry out with that original survey of his land, right?  The one he never wanted to begin with?”

“Oh, you can rest assured that we had Mr. Styles’s permission for each and every geological study we did of that land parcel, Mr. Tomlinson,” Walter said, coming up to sit on the edge of Anne’s desk with an air of glib aplomb that made Louis want to punch him in the face.  “It’s all down in pen and ink.”

“Right,” Louis said, still nodding.  "Right.  I’m sure it is.”

His rage plateaued inside him as he stared past Anne and Walter to the brilliant, sunlit skyline beyond them -- at the city that had been his home.  He felt more out of place in that office building than he ever had at the Lonely Rose, even when he’d first arrived, and he finally acknowledged something he’d been subconsciously aware of ever since he’d stepped onto the elevator on the thirty-fourth floor.

“I’ve been asking the wrong questions,” he said in a low voice, sighing heavily.  He turned his focus to Anne, shaking his head subtly at how much she looked like Harry.  Harry, whom he loved so fiercely and who was probably so very sad at the moment.  So devastated.  Louis could feel the weight of Harry’s dejection like a two-ton anchor deep in his soul.  “What I really wanted to know was why.  Why would you do this to him, even though you knew it was going to break his heart?”

“Louis --"

“But I already know the answer to that, don’t I?” he went on, still shaking his head.  He brought a trembling hand up to his brow to wipe away the perspiration that had gathered there.  “I knew before I even came up here.  Before I even...  It's just business, right?  That’s the answer.  Business.  That’s why, and that’s -- that’s what I’m just supposed to accept?  What he’s supposed to --"

Louis cut himself off with another strangled sigh, a pang hitting his heart as he swallowed hard and thought about Harry again.  About how things were between them at the moment.

Wish you hadn’t left.

Louis was still so frustrated with Harry, and he felt he had legitimate reason to be, but the tone of that text message had shifted in his mind since he’d run into Zayn downstairs.  It no longer had a passive-aggressive edge of accusation.  Now it was colored with sadness and resignation, and Louis wanted so strongly to be with his boyfriend at that very instant, it was making his bones ache.

“I quit,” he said, giving Anne a twisted smile and a final decisive nod.  “I’m done.  I quit.”

Then he turned around and walked out of the room as quickly as he’d come in.  TwistCorp was not a world Louis wanted to be part of anymore.

With a shaking finger, he punched the lobby button in the elevator and felt the slight drop in his stomach that meant he was descending.  He tried to breathe, almost dizzied by the implications of what he'd just done.  His heart was pounding, blood rushing past his ears.  He slipped a hand into his pocket and felt for the edges of his phone as if it could ground him, the physical representation of his link to Harry.  To Wyoming, to the Lonely Rose.  Oh, God, Louis realized.  The ranch was never going to be the same.  He thought he saw more clearly now another facet of what Harry had been trying to show him when he’d taken him to the cabin.  The spirit of Rosie and Roy was out there in that part of the land -- somehow, at some point since the picnic, Louis had started to think of the small stream and dilapidated cabin as the heart of the ranch.  And Walter Mohs was going to rip it out.

The elevator doors opened, and Louis strode purposefully across the marble-floored lobby, weaving around a few late employees who were just arriving at work.  He crashed through the revolving door and out onto the sunny sidewalk.  There was fresh air on his face.  The white mast of the Millenium Bridge was just visible to the west.  Louis had always thought it looked out of place -- like a fully-rigged ghost schooner had run aground in front of the Rockies.  Now the sight of it was oddly invigorating, even if the mountains behind it weren't the right ones.

Harry.  God, why...

Louis squinted up at the bright sun for a moment before pulling his phone out of his pocket and calling Harry.  He bit his lip as he listened to the silence while the call connected.  It seemed to be taking a long time…

Finally there was a tinny ring, and Louis’s heart skipped a beat.  He took a deep breath on the second one, trying to calm his nerves.  ‘S just Harry, he told himself.  That didn’t do anything to stop the anxious thrumming of his heart, or to untangle the knot of emotion that seemed to have lodged itself behind his Adam’s apple.

Harry picked up on the fourth ring.  There was a moment of hesitation before he said hello.

“Babe,” Louis said, voice almost breaking as tears pricked his eyes.  “Why on earth didn’t you…  Why didn’t you tell me?”

There was a long, sullen silence.  Even before Harry spoke, Louis could almost feel his hopelessness coming through the phone in waves.  “No point.”  Harry sounded so defeated -- and like he was putting a lot of effort into not feeling it fully, and failing.  Of course he’d fail at that, Louis thought.  He feels so much.  He has the biggest heart…

More silence for a moment.  Harry cleared his throat.  “Then afterward,” he finally went on, “when it was a done deal, I figured, double no point.”

“Wh--” Louis sputtered.  “But…  I could have helped you!  I could’ve…  I don’t know, done something, I--”

“Stop, Louis,” Harry said.  There was force in his voice, stinging force that came from spite.  “Just stop.”

The tears spilled over now, and Louis put a hand up to his face, almost as though he’d just been slapped.  His heart didn’t feel like it was beating anymore.  It felt like it was throbbing with pain inside his chest.  “I'm so sorry," he whispered.

“Sorry for what?” Harry snapped, even though Louis knew he knew exactly what they were talking about.

He drew a shuddering breath and tried to get out the full sentence anyway.  “I'm so sorry about the cabin -- about the loan..."

Louis thought that if they were having this conversation face to face, Harry would have shrugged and turned away.  Instead he heard a low sound of annoyance, like Harry had stopped the air in his throat and then let it all out.

“Well, property taxes,” he muttered.  “It was just going to be impossible.”

Louis felt the protective fire in his heart flare up again, fed simultaneously by annoyance at Harry for not having even tried to ask him for help and fresh rage at Walter Mohs.  “That's when you call me, Harry, and we work out a plan together!" he said.  "To fight it!”  Louis was gesticulating now, pacing in front of the TwistCorp building and staring at the sidewalk, not caring that he was making a scene.  “You can’t just give up!”

“I did give up,” Harry said, his voice wavering.  “Okay, Louis?”

“Well, I just wish you had called me.”

“Yes,” Harry said, his wet voice becoming snippy.  “Yes, I know.  I’m an idiot.  I can’t do anything right.  Between you and Niall, believe me, I know.  I’ve got it.”

Louis gritted his teeth and closed his eyes for a moment, willing himself not to yell.  “That’s not what I’m saying at all, Harry,” he replied.  “I love you.  You’re not an idiot.  But look, if we think together, we can -- there's got to be some solution!  We can make him sign something so that he can’t touch the cabin or do anything to the stream; I mean, you only sold the mineral rights --”

“Not the mineral rights,” Harry said, cutting him off.

Louis blinked.  “What?” he said.  “You didn’t --”  For a wild moment, hope lurched in his belly that it had all been some big misunderstanding.

But then Harry said, “I just sold the land outright.  All of it.”

“What?”

Louis felt like he’d been hit by a train.  His brain blanked out, his shoulders sagged, his limbs were like a deadweight all of a sudden.  As Harry’s words sunk in, he tried to search his memory.  The contract he’d slid across the desk to Harry on his first night in Wyoming…

“B-but,” he stuttered, “we only wanted the mineral rights.  My contract, the one I came with, it was only for the mineral rights!”

He heard a soft sound on the other end of the phone and knew Harry was crying.  “Walter Mohs is such an asshole,” he said, finally, in a muffled voice.  “He knew he had me cornered; he could make me sign anything.  And he, like…”  Harry couldn’t finish his sentence.

“You've been holding up his drilling project for months,” Louis said, softly.  “So he got back at you for it.”

Harry didn’t respond.  Louis just listened to him breathe for a few moments, too stunned to say anything.  Did Anne not know about this either? he wondered.  His mind was whirling, trying to come up with anything, anything that would at least save the cabin.  If Harry had only let him know what was going on, if he’d only let him look over the contract before he signed…  Louis didn’t realize he’d muttered that last thought out loud until he heard a sharp intake of breath.

“Yes, well.”  Harry sounded pissy, his voice clipped and still thick from crying.  “If there’s anything else you want to tell me I did wrong…”  Louis moved his lips soundlessly, trying to shape words but utterly failing.  “Okay,” Harry said.  “I’ve got a ranch to run.”

“Wait,” Louis breathed.  “Wait, I --”

“Goodbye, Louis.”

The line went dead, and Louis stared down at his phone.  I didn’t tell him I quit, he realized, with a sudden stab of regret.  He still thinks I work for them.

A sound of strangled frustration almost ripped itself out of his throat.  Louis was annoyed at Harry's moping, the way he'd just resigned himself to selling and hadn't even talked to Louis about it first, but something in him couldn't focus on that.  His brain was screaming, blaring at him.  Idiot, idiot, you're the idiot.  Think about what he's feeling.

Harry was vulnerable, and Louis had put him on the defensive.  He was probably telling himself that he was a failure... that he had failed both of his grandparents and his father.  He'd sold out, but it wasn't even his choice.  Fuck, and he probably thinks he's going to lose me, too.

"No."  Louis set his jaw, crossing his arms across his chest.  "No way.  No way does that ever happen."

He tapped Harry's contact again and held the phone up to his ear, determined to tell him that he'd quit TwistCorp and was prepared to examine every syllable, every punctuation mark in the contract Harry had signed in search of a loophole.  They were a team, Louis was coming back to Wyoming, and they could still fight this.

He got Harry's voicemail.

Louis rolled his eyes and hung up, trying again.  Voicemail.

"He does like to sulk," he muttered, still exasperated.  He was about to leave a message for his sulky cowboy when someone clapped him on the shoulder and he almost dropped his phone.

"Did you just freaking quit?" Zayn demanded.

Louis turned to find him frowning, tie limp and askew, his beautiful face stormy.

"Yes," he said.  "I freaking did."

Zayn rolled his eyes.  "I can't believe you.  Every time I think you can't possibly become more Louis Tomlinson, you do something so classic Louis Tomlinson..."

Louis narrowed his eyes and popped his hip aggressively.  "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Idealistic!" Zayn shouted.  "Pigheaded!  Always the white knight, but in the least quiet, most dramatic possible way!  Louis Tomlinson!"  He threw up his arms and made a vexed noise, and Louis relaxed a little.  He'd thought Zayn was going to say that quitting was classic Louis.

"Zayn Malik," he said, after a beat of silence, "you are an excellent friend."

Zayn sighed, and ran a weary hand through his floppy black hair.  "Stay here for a sec; I'll bring your briefcase out to you."

"Can you slip a copy of the contract into it?" Louis asked quickly.  "The one Harry signed."

Zayn stared at him.  He blinked twice, shrugged and said, "Yeah, why not."

"Good," Louis nodded.  "I'm gonna go through all of it.  There's got to be something..."

Zayn shook his head.  "It looked pretty ironclad, like, I don't know what to tell you."

"Well, I have to try," said Louis.

"Yeah," Zayn said, biting his lip.  He looked at the ground for a second, thinking things through.  "I'll cancel my afternoon.  You know, you might need the expertise of an actual lawyer."

Louis snorted out a laugh and turned Zayn right around by his shoulders, practically jumping up and down as he steered him back toward the TwistCorp building.  "Yes, I might," he said, feeling a fierce rush of hope.

*

A couple hours later Louis and Zayn were at Jossi’s, a cramped dive on a side street a few blocks from TwistCorp.  They didn’t go there very often -- it was a basement bar, so dark and dingy it almost felt like a crypt, but the gloom went a long way toward making early afternoon drinking on a weekday seem less inappropriate.  So there they were, side by side in surprisingly comfortable high-backed stools with an empty pitcher of beer and the purchase agreement for the sale of Harry’s land on the bar between them.

Zayn cracked open a complimentary salted peanut and leaned back on his stool as he popped it into his mouth.  He shook his head, heaving a resigned sigh.  “Whelp… ”

Louis nodded, ducking his head.  His face twisted into an emotional grimace as he stared down at the signature on the last page of the document in the blank marked SELLER.  “Yep,” he choked out in whispered agreement, allowing himself to run a tender finger over the relatively fresh ink, even though it was a knife to the heart.  H.E. Styles in bold, looping script.  Soft and strong all at once.  “Yep.”

Zayn had been right.  They weren’t going to find a loophole.  There wasn’t one.  They’d gone through all ten pages of the contract line by line, twice, and everything appeared to be airtight and on the level.  There wasn’t much wiggle room, if any.  Louis’s body felt heavier and heavier, his spirits sinking lower and lower as disappointment settled in.  He’d thought it was a long shot the whole time, subconsciously at least, but he’d still needed to know for sure.  Needed to check, for himself and Harry.  And now he had and now he knew.

“I mean, there are the contingencies?” Zayn said, rubbing a hand on the back of his neck as he took another swig of beer.  He leaned forward and flipped back a few pages, past the title insurance to the short section that listed the grounds National Energy Group held for pulling out of the contract.  If it should turn out that there wasn’t actually any oil in the ground, or they somehow couldn’t secure the permits to drill for it, all the land would revert to Harry and all the money to Walter Mohs.  Zayn made a face, giving Louis a doubtful look.  “Well, I’m gonna rule out the oil thing.  I mean there’s --”

“There’s definitely oil,” Louis finished, rolling his eyes along with Zayn and craning his neck forward to see if he could catch the bartender’s eye and get another pitcher, maybe something harder to go with it.  Several shots of vodka or maybe a double -- no a triple -- whiskey, neat.  Shit.  Louis’s heart clenched as a memory of Harry echoed through his mind, his voice at its slow-rumbling, gravelly best.

“A lady always orders a whiskey sour,” he’d informed Louis one night at Liam’s about three weeks before.  He’d said it all puffed up with fake, aristocratic self-importance before he’d dissolved into giggles and scrunched up his nose, rolling his eyes affectionately as he explained.  “That’s just what my college roommate’s crazy grandma used to say.  Kinda why it’s my drink.”

Happier times.  Louis thought, his heart clenching again.  Much happier times.

Zayn brought Louis back to the present by setting his fingerprint-smudged pint glass down on the bar with a sudden thud.  “I mean, what would the plan be, anyway?” he asked, looking up at the low ceiling while he tried to work things out.  “Like, even if we’d found…  I mean, he’s still gotta --”

“Yeah, I know.  I know,” Louis said.  He waved at Zayn with an alcohol-loosened wrist and frowned.  It was true.  Even if Louis found some kind of miraculous catch in the contract, the property taxes were still looming.  Harry needed the sale to go through to keep the ranch afloat.  The best Louis could have hoped for was to maybe be able to maneuver Harry into a position where he had some degree of leverage again, to a point where he might somehow manage to resecure the surface rights and negotiate for the drilling to be done at least partially on his terms.

God, I still can’t believe!  Louis’s brow darkened as he thought back to the exchange in Anne’s office -- how she’d been under the impression that only the mineral rights had been sold, too.  How he had scoffed about that, like it was a hollow victory.  Now it seemed like a saving grace.  He saw Walter Mohs’ smug face again and one of his hands tightened into a fist.  That absolute bastard.  Absolute fucking bastard.

“Well, I think the only option at all is the permits, really…” Zayn said with a reluctant chuckle and another shrug, wincing at Louis as he spoke, like he already knew it was a dead end idea.  “I mean, I don’t know how ethical it would really be, but from what I can tell, Harry’s pretty -- like he's pretty fucking tied to that community.  Pretty well-liked.  He might --”  Zayn cleared his throat.  “He could maybe, I don’t know, like, use his influence to block them somehow?  The drilling permits?  Then hold Mohs hostage until he changed the terms?”

Louis sighed, long and deep, scrubbing a hand over his face.  He shook his head.  Harry was charming and ambitious and ferociously devoted to his ranch and to Wyoming.  He had all the right tools to pull off something like that.  But he was also just so damned honest.  Too damned honest to even try, probably.  Especially after the fact.  Fuck.  Now we can’t even try it as a bluff.  Louis squeezed his eyes shut, feeling another residual stab of hurt that Harry hadn’t consulted him about any of this beforehand.  You were working for them, he reminded himself, for what felt like the thousandth time that day alone.  He thought he was protecting you…  He didn’t think there was anything you could possibly do.

“I’m sorry, man,” Zayn said, clapping him on the back.

Louis heaved another defeated sigh in response, immediately refilling his glass when the bartender finally set a fresh pitcher down in front of them.

“You sure he wouldn’t go for it?” Zayn asked after a long enough pause that Louis had nearly downed half his pint.  He nudged Louis with his shoulder as he ate some more peanuts.  His tone had gone lighter, a little teasing.  “Seemed fairly hostile to outsiders the last time I saw him.”

Louis let out an embarrassed groan of a laugh, slumping in his stool and covering his face with his hand.  “God, I’m really --”  He shook his head.  “I’m really sorry about that.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Zayn said with a twinkle in his eye and small smile on his face.  “You guys got it worked out, though?”

Louis’s laugh was a broken whimper this time.  His heart plummeted to his feet, and he pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes.  “It’s all -- it’s all so fucked up, Zayn.”

“Can’t be too fucked up if you’re sitting here doing this for him, can it?” Zayn scoffed in disbelief, nudging him again.

“Well.  We had a fight,” Louis said, pressing back against his friend's shoulder for comfort and drawing an irregular pattern in the peanut shell dust in front of him with his pointer finger.  His voice was a little whiny, but he knew Zayn wouldn’t care, and he couldn’t help it anyway.

“I figured as much.”

Louis snorted in protest.  “It was a big fight, okay?  And -- and nothing’s been quite the same since… Nothing’s -- nothing’s right.  He -- he --”

Zayn nodded in encouragement, his eyes wide.

Louis grimaced as the hurt and embarrassment that had come out of the argument resurfaced, even though now he had a much better understanding of how tenuous Harry’s emotional state had been at the time.  “He like, he sort of suggested -- more than suggested -- I was a quitter.  Like, he just thought I was going to give up on Boulder and move out there!  Be his little ranch husband!”

Zayn’s expression shifted into something unimpressed, and Louis winced as the same flicker of fear he’d felt earlier burst to life inside him.  The niggling idea that Zayn was ultimately going to agree with Harry.  That underneath it all, he really thought that whatever white knight complex Louis had came alongside a heavy dose of always-giving-up-on-things.  However little sense that made.

“What a bunch of fucking bullshit,” was what Zayn said, instead.

“What?” Louis asked.  Relief rushed through him along with affection for his best friend, and he lost his breath for a second, exhilarated but still nervous.

“That was fear talking,” Zayn said, with a little shake of his head, like he was completely sure of what he was saying.  “When Harry said that.  It was fear talking.”

“What -- what do you mean?”

“I mean, you are the opposite of a quitter, Louis.”  Zayn must have seen Louis’s eyes darting around in confusion because he laughed into his beer and set it down quickly so that he could elaborate.  “I mean that obviously, deep down, he was scared of losing you to Colorado.  He didn’t actually think you wouldn’t go to law school.”

“But -- I mean.  I just.  I just quit… again…” Louis said, weakly.  He’d already known on some level that Harry had been coming from a place of fear that night.  And now, fully aware of what a precipice Harry had been on in terms of the ranch, he also knew he’d been coming from a place of desperation.  But even so, it still stung.  Replaying Harry’s words felt like the lash of a whip.  And Louis knew that it was partly because all along he’d sort of agreed with Harry.  He’d thought that Harry was right about him, and he still couldn’t quite understand what Zayn was saying.  He frowned.  “I’m not the opposite of a quitter.  I literally just quit my job.”

Zayn laughed again, pausing like he was trying to figure out how to explain.  “I mean, to be honest, I was actually really shocked you wanted to start working at TwistCorp in the first place.”  He held up a hand when Louis’s jaw dropped in offense.  “No -- no.  You don’t get it.”

“Not really, no!”

“Okay, well, I feel like you’ve always had this idea that you’re, like, I don’t know, rootless?  Immature or something.  Like, always avoiding big decisions or whatever,” Zayn said, shaking his head as though he disagreed.

Louis flushed.  He felt a little exposed at having something like that acknowledged so easily, even though they’d never explicitly discussed it before.  But he nodded anyway, eager for Zayn to go on.

“But, like, you -- out of everyone I know -- you always picked things -- like, you dedicated yourself to things you could actually be proud of,” Zayn said, leaning in toward Louis and resting a hand on his forearm, tapping it once or twice.  “You always chose things that mattered to you and gave them your all, and it makes complete sense that you fell for someone like Harry.  That he fell for you.”

Louis bit his lip, staring forward at the rail alcohol as Zayn’s words washed over him, his cheeks heating up at the warmth and admiration in his voice.  His skin was tingling a little.

“Most people, they grow up and they have to go to fucking work and it fucking blows, right?” Zayn said.  He laughed ruefully and gestured toward himself.  “And that’s okay.  It is what it is.  I mean, you think I put on my TwistCorp zipper fleece thingie I won in that department raffle that one time and I’m like all happy about it?  Like, TwistCorp, ride or die!”

Louis chuckled, shaking his head.

“No!  Fuck no, I’m not!  I mean, I tolerate being a lawyer and working where I do.  That’s the truth.  Do I like some of the people I work with?  Sure.  Do I occasionally feel pretty good about the work I’ve done?  Eh, yeah, I guess so.  Do I feel a deep-seated loyalty to the company at which I am employed?  No!  I do not!”

“I thought it was an ‘unusually comfortable fleece,’ ” Louis said, smirking.  Something about this conversation was making him feel awkwardly brilliant inside, like it was some sort of extended compliment to his character, but he couldn’t resist teasing.  The few times he’d seen Zayn wearing that pullover around his apartment, he’d immediately gotten all Zayn-defensive about it, grumbling about the softness of the fabric as he’d flopped onto a sofa and demanded that Louis just shut up.

“It is,” Zayn said with a quick little eye roll and a sip of beer.  “Very comfortable.  That’s not that point.  The point is, I don’t know Harry Styles very well at all, but I can tell he’s dedicated his life to something he can be proud of.  It’s the -- the idealism.  You have that in common, in the best kind of way.”

Louis took a deep, shaky breath, powerful emotion welling up inside him.  These past few days had been so trying and exhausting.  He’d felt so adrift and so insecure, second-guessing himself at every turn, and it hit him hard, hearing what Zayn thought of him.  What he thought of his relationship with Harry, of its potential.  Zayn wasn’t one to sugarcoat.

“I never thought you’d end up working some shitty corporate gig, Lou,” Zayn said, knocking back more of his beer.  He seemed to have sensed that Louis was on the verge of getting too choked up to respond with actual words.  “Like, you’re still going to go to law school?”

Louis nodded once, firm and decisive.  He wanted Harry and the Lonely Rose and everything that went with them, but he also wanted something for himself.

“Good,” Zayn said.  He gave a half-laugh, almost sheepish.  “I don’t want to get even more mushy or anything, but when I said that thing about the white knight, I meant like, look at you right now, fighting for Harry like this.  You could be an excellent advocate for people who really need help.  I always thought you would be.”

Louis swallowed over the lump that seemed to have been lodged in his throat since before he’d left Wyoming.  He was truly and thoroughly touched, and tears sprang to his eyes.  “Thanks,” he whispered, at last.

Zayn closed a hand over Louis’s shoulder and squeezed.  “Just the truth.  You are a wonderful person, my friend.  Harry is so fucking lucky to have met you.”  Louis let out another wet laugh of thanks and Zayn broke into a slow grin, shrugging.  “Plus he’s so loaded now, you can afford to do everything pro bono.”

Louis let out a cackle, and shoved at Zayn with an exaggerated roll of his eyes.

“Thank you,” he said again, when the laughter died down, needing to express it one more time.  He topped off his beer and let out another sigh.  “Guess I might as well head back out there, now that nothing’s keeping me here for the summer.”

Zayn bobbed his head in agreement.  “Yeah,” he said, teasing again.  “You can go turn that house into a home.”

Louis broke into giggles.  He was pleasantly buzzed on the beer they’d drunk and was on something of a giddy friendship high, so he let his love for Harry bubble up inside him in a way that didn’t hurt for the first time since he’d gotten back to Denver.  He let it wash away the initial twinge of bittersweet regret at the realization that they might really be rebuilding the heart of the Lonely Rose.  Where they learned to love each other.  What a wonderful task it might turn out to be.

“I’m -- I’m really in love with him,” he admitted.

“I know it,” Zayn said with a chuckle.

Louis took out his phone so that he could stare wistfully at his lockscreen, biting his lip.  It was the picture they’d taken the day of their picnic out by the cabin, and he actually got an embarrassing little thrill just from seeing Harry’s face.  So radiant with happiness that tears threatened to re-form in Louis’s eyes.

Of course we’ll work it out, he thought, a resolve coalescing inside him like it had earlier, when Harry had abruptly hung up the phone.  He wanted so strongly to express to Harry all the ways he was committed to their relationship, and he wanted to state plainly what he wanted from Harry in return.  He wanted to get started on their partnership, and to put all of this complicated and unsavory business behind them.  God, I really do need to see him.  Need to talk to him.  Need -- need to touch him while I talk to him.  He settled for brushing his finger over Harry’s face on his phone screen for the time being.

“Cute,” Zayn said, his brow furrowed as he leaned over to look at the picture.  Louis blushed a little; he knew he’d gone a bit moon-eyed.  Both currently and in the photograph.  “Is that out by the property line, then?” Zayn asked, pointing at the tiny bit of the stream that was visible in the background.

Louis nodded slowly, his brows knitting.  “Yeah,” he said, “how’d you know?”

Zayn tapped the contract with two fingers, getting a little condensation from his pint glass on the paper.  “It’s in all the title insurance shit.  Going back to the 1800s or whatever, when the government ‘purchased’ the plot.  ‘Western property line is the unnamed creek that runs north to south,’ blah blah blah...”

Louis blinked rapidly, his pulse revving up as the hint of a memory fluttered in and out of his mind, refusing to be pinned down.  He narrowed his eyes on the visible sliver of creek in the picture and then pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to concentrate.  It was something -- something Liam had said, way back when they’d gone hiking together for the first time, over a month before.

“I wonder if…  I wonder --” he muttered, lost in swirling thoughts.  A small, precious ember of hope had ignited inside him, and he was trying not to get too far ahead of himself.  It was hard.  “That would -- it would change everything.”

“Hmm?” Zayn asked, clearly confused by Louis’s sudden intensity.

Louis grabbed Zayn’s wrist where it was now lying on top of the contract.  “Does it say…  I need to look.”  He rifled through the document before landing on the title insurance, his eyes absolutely devouring the print that covered the pages as he reread it.

“It’s not there!” he said, swiping at his phone screen with a trembling finger and then stabbing at the Safari app.   He hadn’t found what he was looking for in the purchase agreement, and he wasn’t quite sure where to even begin looking online.  “Zayn,” he whined, feeling almost sick to his stomach with nerves, his heartbeat like a hummingbird’s at the mere possibility that he might, maybe, be on to something.  “Zayn!”

“What?” Zayn cried, throwing his hands up in the air.

They spent the next fifteen minutes scouring the web together after Louis explained, to no avail.  The information Louis needed was not on the internet.  It just wasn’t there.

Zayn started to laugh, his eyes crinkling up at the corners.  “I guess you might as well head back out to Sheridan today, then,” he said, squeezing Louis’s shoulder.

Louis’s blood felt like it had gone sour inside him.  He was so excited and terrified all at once, and he gulped several times in a row, trying to get a grip on himself.

This could be it.  This could be it.  Oh God.  You have to manage your expectations.

“The County Recorder’s office?” he asked, just to confirm one last time.  He was biting the inside of his lip and bobbing his head rhythmically like some kind of confused woodpecker with no tree.  He must have looked half-crazed.

“Yep.”  Zayn was grinning broadly.  “They’ll have the original deed.”

“Okay,” Louis said, wobbling to his feet.  He’d definitely need to take a cab to the airport; he wasn’t fit to drive.  He had a fleeting thought that this was a fool’s errand, his hope concocted in his head from the fumes of his drunkenness, but quickly dismissed it.  “I -- it’s -- it’s probably nothing.  But I’ve just got see.  Just in case.”

“Go get ‘im,” Zayn said, pulling him into a hug, and Louis felt a vivid rush of love.  For Zayn as his friend.  And Harry.  Harry as everything.

Go get ‘im.

Because even if this Hail Mary didn’t work out, that’s what he was going to do.  Louis was going to get Harry, at long last and forever.  Even if he’d be the one staying where Harry was for the time being.

“I’m going home,” he said to himself out loud, as he ran up the steps to the street.  He squinted into the jarring late afternoon sunlight before he spotted the Uber Zayn had called for him, having offered to stay behind and settle the tab so Louis wouldn’t have to wait.  Louis couldn’t help the way every fall of his foot and beat of his heart sent his hopes soaring as he walked toward the car.  “Don’t give up yet, Harry.  Not yet.  I’m not.”

Chapter Text

“We've now begun our final descent.”

Louis's knuckles tightened over the end of the seat rests, his right heel tapping as he stared out the window of the little commuter jet.  He wasn't sure if the hollow ache in his stomach had more to do with the physics of air travel or the nervous tension that had been building inside him ever since he'd left Zayn behind in the bar.  Either way, he clenched his jaw sternly and tried not to hurl with excitement.

I don't know why you're so worked up, Louis told himself, reaching over to pluck uselessly at the crease in his right trouser leg.  It's like a one in a million chance you'll find anything relevant.

But he was fooling himself.  Really, Louis.  He knew the nausea-tinged heat that was flooding his chest and stomach in little bursts wasn’t about what information he might or might not find in the County Recorder’s office.  It was about --

Harry, he gulped helplessly as he felt the soft bump of the landing gear meeting the runway.  He drew a hand over his face and took a deep breath.  Oh, fuck.

He fumbled for his phone and turned it on, staring at it for a few seconds and silently gnawing on his lip as he waited for any missed notifications to come through.  There was a text from Zayn that said if orig deed not extant, try old gov survey maps.  Nothing else.  Louis quickly brought up Harry’s contact and pressed the call button, awkwardly pinning the phone between his ear and his shoulder as he groped underneath the seat in front of him for his briefcase.

Come on, Harry, he pleaded internally.  Come on, come on…

“Hello, this is Harry Styles at the Lonely Rose Ranch.  I’m probably out with the cows right now…”

Louis exhaled heavily and waited for the beep.  He was irritated by Harry’s apparent refusal to talk to him, and the slight queasiness in his stomach amplified the irritation until it was verging on fear.  “Hi, Harry,” he said, suddenly, taking another deep breath as he struggled to control his voice.  “I’m in Sheridan.  I’m at the airport.  I think I have an idea about what to do.  It’s -- it’s a long shot, but…  Anyway, I tried to call you three times before my plane took off in Denver.  Oh, I quit my job.  Uh, also.  So there’s that.  Call me.  Please.”  He almost hung up, then.  But at the last second, his hand jerked the phone back up to his ear and he added, shakily, “Pardner.  We’re still… we’re still pardners, right?”  Tears threatened to well up.

He said he wanted a partner.  That’s what he said he wanted.

Louis blinked rapidly as he breathed for a moment, and then ended the call.  He’d been picturing a grand reunion throughout the flight, unable to keep himself from embellishing it, running it through his mind over and over again.  “To hell with Walter Mohs!”he imagined himself shouting as he strode up the front path to the ranch house, maybe waving some important papers around, if luck was on his side.  He pictured Harry standing in the open door, his sweet mouth slightly open in surprise and awe.  He’d be in his dirty denim jeans, hair lightly tousled, face angelic in the waning light.   They’d meet in a heated embrace on the porch…

Louis snorted at himself.  Oh God, I’m ridiculous, he thought, rolling his eyes and scrubbing a hand through his hair as the plane taxied.  As if I’m just going to march on into the house like, hello, I’m back!  Love me!  Harry was too annoyed with him, too beaten down by what had happened to participate in a scene like that.  What they needed to have was a long talk.  About commitment, about living arrangements, about the future.  Regardless of what happened with Walter fucking Mohs.

Louis realized with a sudden, bubbling jolt of laughter that he’d also been imagining movie applause during the kiss on the porch.  “Always so grandiose,” he muttered.  It wasn't going to be like that.

No, he confirmed in his head.  It won't be like that at all.

He felt a prickle at the back of his neck as he suddenly, fully understood that he had no idea what it would be like.  He didn't know what was going to happen at the County Recorder, or how Harry would react to him barging in on the Lonely Rose again.  Despite the fighting and miscommunication, he thought Harry would be happy... happy to have him back.  He was almost sure of it.

Then why won’t he pick up the phone?  A long talk is what we need, and he won’t even…  

The plane’s engine died and the seatbelt sign flickered off.  Louis’s mouth went dry.  He breathed in sharply, butterflies exploding in his stomach as he tried not to feel too hurt or too nervous.

“The captain and crew would like to wish you a pleasant stay here in Sheridan, Wyoming...”

*

The County Recorder’s office was wedged into the southeastern corner of the modern courthouse, an awkward, black and tan building that had been built into the hill where Sheridan’s historic county courthouse still stood.  Louis shifted his weight on the sidewalk in front of the business-like double doors, clenching and unclenching his fists.

His little rental car -- Louis wasn’t sure, but he thought it might have been the same dusty red compact he’d rented all those weeks ago when he’d first touched down at the Sheridan airport -- was parked at a meter down the street.  He’d been tense on the drive into town, jittery.  Constantly trying to talk himself down from getting too worked up, and failing.

What was he going to tell Harry if this didn’t work?

Hey, I had another whim that I got excited about but couldn’t follow through…  He shook himself.  No, that was his own toxic self-doubt framing things.  If there was nothing here, it wouldn’t be his fault.  It would be due to wind, water and rock.  Their whims.  And the outcome would have nothing to do with his relationship with Harry, anyway.  Nothing at all.

He remembered what Zayn had said about him being an advocate, straightened his shoulders, and put his hand on the door.

“Louis!  Holy shit!  Hey, Louis!”

Louis let out a little gasping breath and whipped his head around.  Niall was jogging across the street in his worn cowboy boots, waving wildly.  Louis felt his heart crack open a little with warm relief at the sight of him.  A truck turned the corner and honked as it jerked to a stop, but Niall didn’t pay any attention to it, not even pausing to flip off the driver.  He was still waving, and had a strained, worried look on his face, like he thought Louis might bolt.

“Lou!”

Louis’s feet felt oddly clumsy as he turned to face Niall.  Weighted down, as though he were in a dream.  It did feel a bit like a dream -- standing here in the late afternoon sunlight on a corner in downtown Sheridan, its crumbling, boxy brick storefronts making the town look more like part of the Old West than Louis had ever seen it.  He broke into a smile.

“Hello,” he said, a note of wry amusement in his voice as Niall came to a lurching stop in front of him.  “Miss me?”

“You don’t fucking know the half of it,” Niall panted.  “Thank God you’re back.”  He blew out a puff of air and put his hands on his knees, recovering from his sprint.  “Look, I know…” he said, before having to stop to take in another lungful, still trying to catch his breath.  “I know Harry fucked up a little.”

Louis sighed and shifted his weight again.  “Niall --”

“Wait!” Niall cried, holding his hands out.  “Lemme finish.  Obviously he didn’t handle everything in the best possible way, but he does love you, Louis.”  He paused for a last shuddering hiccup of air, his fingers curling around Louis’s bicep and squeezing lightly.  “He needs you.  Loves you and needs you.”

Louis felt a little burst of happiness surface in his chest.  He put his hand over Niall’s hand and squeezed back.  “I know,” he said, his soft smile widening, “I know!  I know all that.  I need Harry too.”  He shrugged and cleared his throat with a weak, wet chuckle, all the emotion threatening to overwhelm him.  “That’s why I’m here.”

Niall let out a hoot at that and pulled Louis into a hug.  “Good,” he said, thumping him soundly on the back before pushing his shoulders back again to grin at him.  “Good.”

Louis felt a tear building up at the inside corner of his eye, and reached up to rub it away, suddenly so happy to be back in Wyoming he thought his whole body might burst.  He stood smiling stupidly at Niall for a few seconds, proud of himself for getting it right.  Hard not to get the answer right when the question is Harry, he thought.  Niall was looking back at him with a warm grin and a look of open, satisfied approval.

Then his brows drew together in concentration as his eyes flickered up at the building, and back down to Louis.  “Wait, are you trying to be a hero lawyer?  Is that why you’re at the courthouse?”

Louis nodded.  “Hero notary,” he said.  “I’ve got to poke around for an old deed.  It might help.  Probably not; I don’t know.”  He glanced down at his watch and winced.  “Really got to get inside, though.  They’re only open for another twenty minutes.”

“I’ll help ya!” Niall exclaimed, lunging around Louis to pull open the door.  “Two eyes are better’n one!”

Louis burst out into raucous laughter at that, following Niall inside the building.  Niall let out a belated snort at himself when he realized what he’d said.

“Oh no, Niall,” Louis chided, teasingly, as they walked through the almost deserted lobby of the courthouse, their footfalls resounding.  Even the ugly modern building had the slight air of dignity that all government buildings manage to project.  “You a cyclops now?” he chuckled.  “Pirate captain?  Cyborg?”

“Well!  You got me all excited!” Niall muttered, shrugging and trying to tamp down the grin that was clearly itching to explode over his face.

“So wait,” Louis said, pulling Niall to a stop as he scanned the offices listed on the black letterboard to their right, some of the white letters askew beneath the sliding glass.  “You and Harry worked things out, obviously?”

“Worked what out?” Niall asked, shooting him a genuinely puzzled look.

Louis made a little noise of disbelief in his throat.  “Niall,” he said, with a tight, confused smile, “you two weren’t talking when I left.”

“Oh, right,” Niall nodded, as recognition registered on his face.  It was endearing, Louis thought.  Like he really hadn’t remembered that they’d been fighting at all.  “Yeah,” he said soberly, “I guess things were a little weird.  But then he needed me.”

“Simple as that,” Louis said.

Niall shrugged.  “Basically.  God, those corporate fucking shitheads…  No offence.”

“Oh,” Louis said with a dismissive flutter of his fingers as he turned down what he hoped was the correct hallway.  “I, uh.  I quit.”

“That’s great!” Niall exclaimed.  He clapped his hands together, eyes lit up.  “What a great day.  Did I tell ya Maggie’s pregnant?”

“You didn’t,” said Louis, with another burst of adrenaline in his heart, “but I knew that too!”

Niall almost spun him around in the middle of the hallway.  “What?” he said, loudly, further disturbing the natural solemnity of the courthouse.  “How?  I just told Harry, like, an hour ago!  T’cheer him up!”

“Ask your wife,” Louis chuckled.

“Margarita, you bastard,” Niall grinned, linking his arm in Louis’s and pulling him down the hallway toward the hanging sign that said COUNTY RECORDER in big, red letters.  Louis took a deep breath and followed him.

The door to the office was open.  Soft rays of amber sunlight filtered through vertical blinds and got lost in the buzzing fluorescent light above a wide, scuffed wooden desk.  An elderly woman was sitting behind it, reading glasses on a chain around her neck and her lips pursed as she squinted down at a boxy black computer monitor.  She was clicking through Facebook.  A triangular name plate that sat slightly askew on the side of the desk identified her as Myra Allerton, County Recorder and Register of Deeds.

Louis cleared his throat.  “Hello, my name is Louis Tomlinson, and --”

“Niall Horan!” she said, glancing up and clutching her chest.  “My land, what are you trying to do to an old woman, sneaking up on me like that?”

Niall rocked back onto his heels with a delighted hoot of laughter.  “Mrs. Allerton!” he beamed.  “I didn’t know you were…  Hey, you remember me.”

“Yes, Mr. Horan,” she said through a slightly clenched jaw as she closed out of her Facebook tab and made to stand up, “I remember all of my troublemaker students…”  Her voice trailed off into an austere, whispery mumble, but Louis thought he heard something that sounded like “Technicolor clarity.”

“Oh, come on, Mrs. A!” Niall laughed, loping around the desk to give her a hug, which she returned with only a moderate sense of dignified reserve.  “I got like five stars on my state report.  Western meadowlark, state bird of Wyoming.  Still remember.”  Niall tapped the side of his temple as Myra Allerton shook her head in disbelief, a small smile threatening to emerge on her face.  Louis stared at them.

“One of your better moments,” Myra allowed, squeezing his arm fondly.

“I knew you liked me.  Louis Tomlinson, this is Mrs. -- er, Myra Allerton.  She was my fourth grade teacher.  And Harry’s!”

“Ah,” she said, a brightness coming to her eyes and a softness finally settling over her features.  “Harry Styles.  He was an exceptional boy.  A quite exceptional boy.  He was only in my class for half a year, actually; I believe his mother was moving around quite a bit at that time…”

Louis smiled and held out his hand.  Myra shook it brusquely, and gestured for him to come around the desk to a small sitting area beyond which appeared to be library stacks, all filled with big, black folders.

“How is Harry?” she asked, once Louis and Niall were situated on the squeaky, vinyl-covered loveseat near a droopy-looking potted office plant.  She rolled her desk chair over, fiddling with the chain on her reading glasses.

Louis shared a quick glance with Niall, and cleared his throat again.  “That’s actually why we’re here,” he said.  “He’s been in a bit of a… well, a fight over some land with a big oil company.”  He saw her eyebrows go up.  “We’re not sure if it’ll help, but we’d like to take a look at the original deed to the land.”

"Well."  Myra's eyelids fluttered rapidly as she drew her glasses back on and swiveled around to her computer.  "That could be difficult.  A lot of the older land records were destroyed in a fire in the sixties."  She tapped a few keys, hunching over her monitor and squinting fiercely.  She was a slow typist, but an exact one.  "Know the name of the buyer?" she asked.

Louis blinked.  He had absolutely no idea.

"Oh yeah, I do," said Niall.  He furrowed his brow for a moment, thinking hard.  "King?  Larry... Larry King?  That sound familiar?" he asked, turning slightly toward Louis.

"Larry King?" Louis mouthed back at him, shaking his head.  He was about to inform Niall that he was absolutely useless as a co-investigator when Myra let out a scratchy little hmph and her ancient printer started firing up.

“Plat TF3N R85W,” she said.  “Sold by the United States Government to Lawrence R. King on July 9, 1891.  Lucky the deed’s still here.”  She removed her glasses and gestured to the screen.  “Look, you can see on the scan that one of the sides got a bit singed.  Should have the original back in the stacks if you need to examine it.”

Louis’s mouth dropped open.  Niall just shrugged happily and tapped the side of his head again.  “Knew Harry made a joke once about how Roy’d bought the land from Larry King.  Western meadowlark," he added, knowingly.  "Mind like a steel trap.”

“You are unbelievable,” Louis muttered, rolling his eyes even as he reached over to give Niall’s knee a squeeze.  “Let’s have a look,” he said, louder, accepting the printout Myra handed him over her shoulder.

The map of the property was done in neat, black lines, with the plain exactness expected of a surveyor.  Louis’s heart leapt -- everything was labeled with coordinates, old-fashioned longitude and latitude rather than the State Plane Coordinate System that was now used.  One side of the original had been partially burned, but the document as a whole was intact and clearly legible.  He blinked a couple of times and drew in a breath, concentrating on getting his bearings.

“Help me read this, Niall,” he said in a low grunt, before spreading out the paper on Myra’s desk and stooping over it.  “Beckton Road… That’s where the highway is now?”

“Roughly, yeah,” Niall said, joining him from the opposite side of the desk.  Myra was pecking out another search on her computer, and Louis heard the noisy old printer start to work on something else.

“There’s the crick Jolene likes,” Louis said, pointing to a solid, snaking line that meandered through the center of the property.  It was bounded by two dotted lines, and was labeled “Lateral Ditch.”  Did it look like it had changed course?  Louis concentrated and shook his head -- he couldn’t tell.  His nerves jangled with every breath he took, and it felt like barbed wires were tightening in his body the longer he looked at the map.  Easements were noted near the road, along with more coordinates, and the acreage of the plat was listed in big numbers off to the side.  CERTIFICATE OF SURVEYOR, it said, in small, still legible letters.  STATE OF WYOMING.  I, Clarence Howard, a duly registered land surveyor in the State of Wyoming do certify that this map correctly represents…  Louis finally drew his eyes away from the stamped surveyor’s seal and the easy, straight lines that marked the eastern and northern boundaries of the property.

“What’re we looking for?” asked Niall, watching as Louis traced the irregular path of the stream down the western property line.

“I had this crazy idea,” Louis explained.  “A few weeks ago I went hiking with Liam up in the mountains beyond the property line, and he said something that stuck in my head.  Something about how out here, even the rivers change course.”

Niall nodded.  “That’s true,” he said.  “Flooding can cause big shifts.”  He scratched the back of his head, wrinkling his nose as he gazed down at the map.  “We’re prone to getting flooded here in the spring, with the big rains and the big thaws…  Had a good year this year, though.  Earthquakes don’t happen too much, but I’ve heard they can cause streams to shift to a new channel.”  He narrowed his eyes suddenly.  “Hey,” he said, “this doesn’t look right.”

“What?” asked Louis, sharply.  “What doesn’t look right?”

Niall’s finger landed heavily on the piece of paper, southwest of the stream, in the blank space of the margin.  “There’s a big chunk missing down here.”

Louis’s breath caught, and he stooped down, fumbling for the clasp on his briefcase.  If he was reading the map correctly, Niall had just pointed to the exact epicenter of the huge underground oil reservoir.  He cursed softly to himself -- his fingers had suddenly gone a little numb, adrenaline starting to zip down his nerves in uncontrollable jolts, and he couldn’t get his briefcase open.  Fuck, he thought, as he tried to take a deep breath.

Finally, he got the clasp open and found what he was looking for.  A copy of the title insurance.  All the details were in the fine print, but there was a small map paperclipped to it -- not a survey of the property, but a geologic map that was marked with the property lines in black, and the parcel Harry had sold in red.  Louis squinted at it, double-checking himself almost as soon as he’d taken one glance, his nervous excitement building.  There was the bulk of the oil, just east of the stream…  Louis gasped softly.  He spread out the newer map next to the old survey.

“Niall,” he breathed.

“See, that one’s right,” Niall said, tapping the geologic map.  “The stream’s much further west now.  Hell, that’s a good amount of acreage…”

Louis started to laugh.  “Niall!”  He drew a hand across his chest as tears bloomed in his eyes, and put his other arm around Niall’s shoulder.  “Oh my god…  It’s -- the sale of the land, it’s invalid!”  His vision grew blurry as he started to cry.  Relief was flooding through him, tingling relief and elation.

“What?” Niall asked, completely confused.

“I can’t fucking believe it!” Louis crowed, wiping his eyes.  He noticed Myra looking at them curiously from her seat at the computer, stern lips pursing slightly at the swear word.

“See?” he said, grin threatening to split his face in half as he pointed between the two maps.  “Look at the parcel Harry sold, in red.  Then look at the original deed.”

Niall’s eyes widened.

“The sale of the land is invalid,” Louis said, “because the contract misrepresented the actual property line!  The western boundary was identified as the stream, but that’s not accurate!  Not anymore.  You can’t just annex more acreage because a river happened to change course.”  He pointed down to the oil-rich area marked in red.  “So most of what National Energy Group bought here, this section of the land, Harry doesn’t legally own!”

“Holy fuck,” Niall said.

“Language, Mr. Horan,” Myra chided, but her voice didn’t have any bite.  She looked curious and slightly confused, having obviously determined from their reactions that they’d just gotten some very good news.  “I’ve printed this off for you,” she said, laying another piece of paper over the old deed.  “It’s a map of the county from 1893.  You can see plat TF3N R85W is marked there, and the stream, with coordinates.  This was done by a federal surveyor.”

“Perfect,” Louis breathed.  “Thank you.”

“No need to thank me,” Myra said evenly, with an abrupt little wave of her hand.  “It’s no trouble.  We should have all the archives scanned and online by the end of the year, anyway, so all the old deeds you want will be just a click away.”

Louis paused for a moment over the old map.  “Niall?” he asked.  “Point out where that cabin is, please.  The old one Rosie and Roy built by the stream.”

“Oh, that’s up north of all the shifting,” Niall said, easily, pointing to the northwest corner of the original deed.  He smiled.  “Harry gets to keep it.  He's gonna be able to get that loan after all, and take care of all the renovations!"  He looked genuinely happy about that prospect, Louis thought, despite the worries he'd expressed just a week or so earlier.  But Big Oil money was now a moot point, anyway.  "Dang, the Llewellyns are gonna be rich as f--” Niall coughed into his fist, glancing at Myra, “as Croesus.”

Louis giggled.  The Llewellyns have most of the oil, then, he thought.  He nodded slowly to himself, satisfied, remembering how much he’d liked Dottie Llewellyn when he’d met her at the Cowtown Hoedown.  He was happy for her.  “This is amazing,” he breathed.  “Harry’s going to be so --” his voice hitched, a little shudder of emotion running through him at the thought of Harry, out alone on the ranch.  “So… so glad.”

Niall patted Louis on the back a couple of times, and squeezed his shoulder.

“How, may I ask, are you involved, Mr. ...” Myra interjected, clearing her throat.

“Tomlinson,” Louis said, flashing her a grin.  “I’m Harry’s -- I’m Harry’s boyfriend.”

“Oh!” she said, her eyebrows arching, one hand coming up to fuss with her glasses chain again.  “Oh, well...”  She looked him sharply up and down.  “Give him my best.  And take care of him,” she added, as Louis started gathering up the printouts and tucking them under his arm.  “He was always an exceptional boy.”

“Still is,” Louis smiled.  “And I will.”

Niall said a quick goodbye, and they raced out the door.  It was five o’clock on the dot.

“I’ve gotta go tell Mags,” Niall said, giving Louis one last hug when they were back out on the sidewalk in front of Louis’s rental.  “God, she’s gonna be so pissed she didn’t come shopping with me.”

Louis chuckled as he keyed open the door, shoving his briefcase and the printouts onto the passenger seat and sliding in after them.  “Thanks, Ni,” he said.  “I’m gonna --” he gestured with his head.

“Go on,” Niall said.  “He’ll be there.”

*

There were no cattle in the road this time.  Absolutely nothing was impeding Louis's forward progress as he sped out toward the ranch, but he felt just as wildly frustrated as he had all those weeks before when he’d first encountered Harry in the middle of the cow-clogged highway.  He just wanted to fucking be there already.   

Louis shook his head, blinking into the sun and trying to calm his mind.  He kept doing absurd things like picturing himself one hundred yards further down the road, as if wanting to be there so badly would allow him to teleport both himself and giant piece of machinery forward through time and space.  He snorted to himself, rolling his eyes.  300 feet at a go.  Ridiculous.  You are ridiculous. You don’t -- you don’t even know where he’ll be…  Or who he’ll be with.  Or what -- or what he’s thinking…  

“Fuck,” Louis swore under his breath, leaning forward in the driver’s seat and pounding on the steering wheel after he crested a small rise and the Lonely Rose came into view for the first time.  His adrenaline spiked and the urgent feeling in his chest doubled at the sight of it across the plain, even though it was still far enough in the distance that all the outbuildings and animal pens looked like part of a detailed landscape from a model train set.  It was all still too far away.   Harry.  Harry was still too far away.   

Maybe if he’d answer his god damn phone.  What the fuck is he doing?  Doesn’t he --   

“You’re going to get there,” he told himself, cutting off his thoughts about Harry’s continued radio silence so that he wouldn't spiral into a useless vortex of anxious anger.  Instead, he glanced at the printouts he’d tossed onto the passenger’s seat beside him and let a spark of hope and happiness run up his spine.  “You will actually eventually be there.  You will see him.  He’s there.  You’ll get to talk to him.  You will.  You will...”

The wide expanse of prairie and the mountains beyond were gorgeous in the early evening light, and Louis’s stomach swooped as he took it all in, an aching wonder filling him up at the knowledge that Harry really was out there, somewhere, just out of reach.  Doing chores in the barn or the horse paddock, or with the new moms and their calves out by Jolene’s creek, or rumbling home from a pasture on an ATV.  Maybe already sitting down to dinner with Mrs. Burden and few of the wranglers -- Harry was there, and Louis’s longing deepened the closer he got to the ranch, his throat threatening to close up.        

“Almost there,” he whispered, still drumming intermittently at the steering wheel as he took the turn onto the Lonely Rose’s drive a touch too fast and sent up a spray of gravel that he’d have felt embarrassed about at any other time.  “Almost there.  Almost there.”

There were just two F150s parked outside the house, and Louis was relieved that he probably wouldn’t be bursting in on a lively dinner after all.  He pulled up in between them, his nerves so shot that he almost tried to kill the engine before putting it into park.  He let out a garbled laugh.

Fuck.  Relax.  Just relax.  He’s probably not even -- not even in the house.  Damn it.  Louis kept mumbling more semi-reassuring nonsense to himself as he scooped up the necessary papers and then proceeded to have such difficulty clambering out of the car that its door might as well have been a spring-loaded trap.

“Jesus Christ,” he bit out in frustration, leaning back against the door once he’d finally made his escape.  The federal survey map and the original deed to the land were clutched against his chest now, all sweaty and crumpled, and he swallowed down a rising bubble of hysteria, taking a deep breath and ordering himself to gather his dignity and get it together before going inside.  Breathe.  Breathe.  Shit.  Just Breathe.         

Talking to Niall had been reassuring, but Louis still had so many things he wanted to express to Harry bouncing around in his head and his heart.  There were so many things he hoped to hear from Harry in return.  He couldn’t remember a time in his life when he’d been so desperate to communicate with another person, and he was experiencing it as an excruciating, ferocious impatience.

Why can’t mind melding be an actual thing? he wondered, as he started toward the house and let his internal monologue get even more absurd, unable to resist.  I’d just touch his face and press our foreheads together and there’d be no more questions between us…  Just -- just love and -- and commitment.

Commitment.  Fuck.  That’s what he wanted.  Real, discussed, mutual commitment.  The possibility was so tantalizingly close and still just out of reach, and Louis’s heart was straining toward it so eagerly.  It was torture, not being quite sure where Harry stood, but having such high hopes.

He still wants -- right?  I mean, he wouldn’t just --  he wouldn’t just change his mind…  

Louis’s nervous energy propelled him up the steps of the porch, through the front door of the ranch house, and into the living room with a frantic, fluttering pulse.

“Har -- Harry?” he called out, pausing briefly in the middle of the room.  After miles of driving into the setting sun, his eyes were a little slow to adjust to the relatively dim indoor lighting, but they still darted over every available surface as he moved toward the kitchen.  Louis was so keyed up it felt like Harry might be lying in wait at every turn -- ready to pop up from behind the couch or emerge from the gross, dusty space between the refrigerator and the wall.  “Is anyone --?  Harry?”

Louis was just about to head back the other way, past the dining room table and down the hall that lead to Harry’s bedroom, when he turned and there he was.  

Harry.  

He was standing stock still halfway through the back door, staring right at Louis with his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide.  He’d clearly just come back from the field -- a pair of work gloves were stuffed into the back pocket of his dirt-smeared jeans and his hair was escaping from its bun in curling tendrils, all frizzed up with sweat.  It absolutely floored Louis, seeing him again.  He’d missed Harry so much.  Love cracked through his body so powerfully it jolted him like the lash of a whip, making him teeter slightly toward Harry as they gazed at each other across the small space.  It felt for a moment like they could just stay that way forever, time suspended as they regarded each other in wonder with matching, pounding hearts.  But then the surprise on Harry’s face melted into something that looked like devastated relief, and he took a small, sharp breath and began to cry, his body curling in on itself as he choked back a sob.    

“Lou--?"

Louis was closing the gap between them and pulling Harry out of the doorway and into his arms before his name was all the way out of Harry’s mouth.  The papers from the County Recorder’s office fell forgotten to the floor as they came together.

“Baby,” Louis whispered, rubbing soothing circles between the wings of Harry’s shoulder blades. “Oh, baby, It’s okay…  It’s okay."

Harry burrowed into Louis’s embrace, shaking his head as he clung to him tightly and swept his big hands up and down Louis’s back.  It was as though he needed them to be pressed as close together as possible, needed to feel as much of Louis as he could, in order to assure himself that Louis was actually, physically there with him.  “No.  No,” he got out, when he managed a rattling inhalation.  “It’s not.  It's not okay, because I was so -- so -- and you’re here anyway.  You’re really here...”

Louis let out a short, wet laugh, nodding and still rubbing at Harry’s back.  “I am here,” he confirmed.  He pressed a few kisses into Harry’s cheeks, which only seemed to make his tears leak out faster.  “And it will be okay.”

“How -- how are you here?  Why?” Harry murmured, pulling himself up to his full height so that he could look down into Louis’s face.  His breath hitched for a second.  “God, I’m so -- so relieved.  And I’m so sorry, Louis.  For everything.  I’m so...  I am such an idiot.  I’ve been such an idiot.  I love you so much.”

“I love you too, ” Louis whispered, breathing in the scent of fresh air, perspiration, and sweet grass that clung to Harry’s flannel work shirt.  He felt almost swollen with emotion, like there was too much inside him and he might burst.

Harry let out a pained laugh, his eyes shining with tears as he squeezed Louis’s waist.  “I don’t deserve..."  He tossed his head in disbelief and scrunched up his face in displeasure.  “I’d -- I’d given up.”

Louis’s heart plummeted into his stomach as soon as he heard those words, fierce disappointment washing through him.  Even though he’d known there was still so much for them to talk about, he’d been so comforted by just being near Harry again, elated to have it reconfirmed that Harry loved him.  And he had meant it -- felt it -- when he’d said to Harry that it would be okay.  He couldn’t help but feel let down that Harry had been able to let it all go, for any amount of time.  That he had given up on Louis coming back -- given up on them and their future -- when it had been totally unfathomable for Louis even to start thinking that way.  New hurt twisted in his gut, remembering how Harry had avoided his phone calls.  

“What?” Harry said, momentarily confused as his eyes searched Louis’s face, reading his reaction.  Then he gasped, his hands moving to clutch Louis's upper arms.  “Oh!  No! Oh, no!  No, not like that!  Oh my God, Louis.  No.  Not like that.  Not like that.”

Relief washed over Louis this time, but he blinked up at Harry, still a little unsure, waiting for an explanation.  

“I’m such a fucking idiot,” Harry mumbled, shaking his head in disgust.  His lower lip was wobbling dangerously again, his voice full of feeling when he continued.  “I meant like...  I meant, um, before you came.  Before you came here at all… to the -- to the Lonely Rose.”  He choked out another single, bleak laugh, still shaking his head.  "Like, I just thought it wasn’t going to hap -- happen for me.”  His mouth twisted up into a sad half-smile as he struggled to compose himself.  He shrugged.  “I didn’t think I was going to get to fall in love.”

“Oh, baby,” Louis said, sweeping a loose lock of Harry’s hair off his face and kissing him gently on the cheek.  He was edging toward tears himself now.  

“And then you showed up,” Harry continued in a whisper, moving into Louis’s touches just like he always had.  He looked down into Louis’s eyes and let out another little laugh, this time of wonder, his cheeks flushing.  “You showed up here and I just -- I couldn’t believe!  I couldn’t believe there could be someone that was so right for me…  That I would -- that I would actually get to even meet you…”

Louis rose up onto his tiptoes at that, unable to keep from pressing a soft, hot kiss to Harry’s lips.  Harry made a small sound of surprise, but then returned the kiss eagerly, passionately, opening his mouth and letting it deepen.

They were both breathless when they broke apart, and Louis chuckled once at how starry-eyed Harry looked.  Harry rolled his eyes at himself, laughing too.  He took one of Louis’s hands and touched it to his heated cheek, as if to illustrate the extent of Louis’s effect on him.  “I meant it, before,” he whispered, almost as though he were telling a secret, the fingers of his other hand twisting into the hem of Louis’s shirt, “when I told you I’d never felt this way…  I love you so much.  I want -- I want so much for us, and I need to apologize for so many things.”

“Har --" Louis began, hope and happiness expanding inside of him, like his heart was an inflating balloon.  His eyes dropped down to the papers on the floor beside them, and his desperation to tell Harry the good news came surging back.      

Harry shook his head.  “No, wait,” he said, taking a deep breath, “I want to, um...  Just let me get this out?  Because I’m so embarrassed about my behavior -- ”  He made a sound of distaste and rolled his eyes again.  "I'm ashamed of myself.  Even -- even today, I was out on the ranch, just -- just fucking ignoring everything…"   

Louis nodded, smiling small.  “It’s okay.”

Harry shook his head, regret etched into his face.  “No, it’s not.  It’s really not.  I messed everything up.  Felt like a failure.  And then I was -- I was hiding from it, when I should have been apologizing.  Just childish, so childish and I’m so sorry.  For not calling, for how I acted when you introduced me to Zayn, for everything I said that night.  I felt like everything was falling apart all around me at that point, and I -- I got so fucking scared I was going to lose you, too…  And then I acted like a selfish idiot!  And I don’t want --”  His voice went tight and he swallowed hard, like he was struggling against another round of tears.  “I don’t want you to think I wouldn’t fight for us, Louis!” he said in a fierce whisper, trembling a little.  “I want to be with you any way I can and I should have made sure you knew that before you left.  You could split your time between Denver and Sheridan -- hell, you could just live full-time in Denver for the rest of your life and I’d still want to be a part of it... “

“Harry --”

“I am so fucking lucky to have met you at all!” Harry nearly shouted, throwing his hands up in the air as he cut Louis off.  “And I know I should have told you about the sale, about the plan with the bank before it -- the loan… all of it."  He looked suddenly shy, rubbing at the back of his neck, his eyes infinitely soft, and something about it made Louis’s pulse pick up a bit.  “I should have let you in all the way.  I want us to be a team, Louis, so badly.  And I know I’ve let you down on that front, and I’m so sorry for it.  I’d love us to -- to try this for real.  To be partners, if you can forgive me… ”

“Pardners?” Louis asked, his tone wry and his lips quirking up a little bit.

Harry let out a laugh, nodding, his eyes intense and focused on Louis.

“I want that too, obviously!” Louis said, smiling up at Harry openly now and feeling almost dizzy with joy as a dimple started to form in his cheek. Together.  We’re going to be together.  It is going to be all right.  “Which you would have known already, if you'd been checking your phone!  You think I would come charging all the way out here and kiss you if I didn’t want to be together?”

“Well I don’t know, but --”

“I accept your apology,” Louis said, toying with one of Harry’s big hands, lacing and relacing their fingers.  "I mean, it was hard.  It hurt, not hearing from you.  Not knowing for sure where we stood, or how you felt.  Not being able to tell you how I felt.”  Harry winced, his face full of remorse and his free hand settling on Louis’s hip and holding on tight.  He opened his mouth to speak, but Louis kept going.  “But I know you were going through a really tough thing, with the sale.  A lot of stress… and a lot of grief, really, I suppose, and I said some things I shouldn’t have, too…  We should -- we can talk about it more later, but I love you and I have so much to tell you.  I quit my job.”

“What?!”  Harry’s eyebrows rocketed up toward his hairline, his eyes going comically wide.  "Louis, I didn’t want you to --”   

Louis waved his hands around, laughing a little. “No, I know.  I know.  I didn’t quit for you.  Well, not entirely.  I’m still going to law school, don’t worry…”  He crouched down to scoop the printouts up off the floor.  "And I have something important to tell you about the property."

Five minutes later, they were in Harry’s office together, Louis perched on Harry’s lap in the creaky old chair.  The documents from the County Recorder were spread out on Harry’s desk in front of them, and Louis had just fully explained the situation.  It was utterly beautiful to watch as new tears of joy slid down Harry’s cheeks and understanding bloomed on his face.

“The sale’s not valid?” he croaked out, sniffling and wiping at his nose.  

“No, baby, it’s not.”

“The sale’s not valid," he repeated.  “I’ve got -- ” he cut himself off, looking up at Louis with so much gratitude in his eyes that Louis blushed.  “We’ve got another chance?”

Louis nodded, firmly.  "We’ll have to talk to the Llewellyns, but I think --”

“God,” Harry whispered, his voice full of awe and love as he hugged Louis to him again.  “Thank you.  Thank you so much.”

“I didn’t move that stream,” Louis pointed out, feeling a little overwhelmed.

Harry pulled back and rolled his eyes, which were still red-rimmed but not streaming anymore.  “We’d never have known to check, otherwise, clearly!  So, thank you!  Thank you so much!”

Louis shrugged, his own throat tightening up and tears pricking at the backs of his eyes.  “Happy to help,” he whispered, curling against Harry’s chest and letting Harry thread his fingers into his hair.  

“I can’t believe how lucky I am,” Harry whispered back, scratching gently at Louis’s scalp and breathing him in with a contented sigh, his eyes closed.  “I can’t believe how much I love you.”

Louis exhaled, letting a pleased sound out through his nose, aching with happiness.  The reality of being with Harry again was so much simply, sweetly better than any of the dramatic romantic reunions he’d imagined on the plane.  He gave Harry a quick kiss on the forehead.  "I love you too, peaches.  It’s good to be home.”  

Harry swallowed hard, shifting in his seat, and Louis laughed out loud in delight, shaking his head as he watched Harry’s face.  “Maggie’s right; your nose really does get bigger when you’re about to cry, you big sap.”

Harry’s mouth dropped open and he squawked in protest, his eyes wide again.  “Oh, wow!  I’m not allowed to be emotional about my boyfriend being back home?  Is that what you’re saying?”  He jostled Louis on his lap in mock outrage, and Louis fell forward and to the side, hitting the keyboard and the mouse when he caught himself on the desk.  

Louis gasped, playing up his offense over having nearly been unseated.  “So I make one little comment and you push me onto the floor?" he retorted, looking down at Harry imperiously.  

“I’d never,” Harry said, dimpling deep as he shifted Louis easily around and hauled him fully onto his lap again, hugging him from behind.  He rubbed his nose and forehead side to side on Louis’s back as he spoke.  “I’ll never let you go.  Never ever.  Not ever.  You aren’t getting rid of me.”

Louis made another sound of pleasure, and then cocked his head to the side.  The computer screen had come back to life when he'd hit the mouse, and he squinted in confusion at what he saw there, his heart beating faster.  

43 Luxury Condos in Boulder!

“Harry?” he whispered, squeezing Harry’s hand where it lay on his stomach and craning his neck so that he could look down into his face, then back at the website on the screen.

“What?”  Harry followed his eyeline and then blushed, recognition dawning on his face.  “Oh!  Oh, I just -- I thought, um...”  He let out a sheepish laugh and shrugged.  “I mean, I had all this money...  Or, I thought I had all this money and I wanted..."  He shrugged again.  “I wanted to be near you whenever I could, in the fall.  So…”

Louis was so touched, joy snaking through him because Harry really meant it.  Clearly, truly wanted to make it work as partners.  Wanted to plan for a future together.    

Harry shook his head, twisting up his face in embarrassment.  “I should have been the one chasing you down in Denver, telling you that I was in it forever,” he said, clearing his throat.  “Making sure you understood how I felt.  And I’m -- I'm sorry I didn’t.  I’m so sorry.  I wanted to, the whole time.  Wanted to talk to you.  But I just felt so, I don’t know…  Ashamed, I guess, after I sold the land.  Like I shouldn’t show myself to the world, because I didn’t deserve it.  Because I was too big of a fuck up.  But I never stopped thinking about you, Louis.  I never stopped wanting this, or loving you…  I hope you know.  I really -- I really love you.”

“Harry,” Louis said, sure his own nose was looking bigger than it should have right then, tears threatening to spill onto his face.  “Hey."  He brushed a wandering tendril of Harry’s hair back off his forehead and looked him right in the eye, a staggering amount of emotion building up inside him.  “Hey, I do know.  I do know you love me.  I love you, too.  And you aren’t a failure.  You were never a failure.  It’s Walter Mohs who’s a failure of a human being.  I promise, you’re never going to have go through something like this feeling alone, ever again.  Okay?”

Harry nodded vehemently, almost too overcome to speak.  “Kiss me,” he whispered.

Louis did kiss him, squirming around so that he was straddling Harry in the old office chair.  He rocked up, holding Harry’s face in his hands as he kissed him long and hard.  He kissed him until his brain was fuzzy, until both of their lips were slick and they were panting into each other’s mouths.

“Louis,” Harry breathed, when Louis finally broke away to place sloppy kisses down his jawline and nuzzle in his neck.  The word turned into a deep groan when Louis rocked down again, twisting his hips so that their crotches were lined up.  He started bucking into Harry softly but suggestively, hearing the squeak of the chair with every tiny thrust, feeling their growing arousal.  “Thank you,” Harry whispered.

Louis almost didn’t catch the words.  They came out in a small huff of breath, and he stopped what he was doing, trying to make sure he’d heard Harry correctly in the sudden stillness of the air.

“You already thanked me,” he pointed out.

Harry hummed quietly, using his strong arms to pull Louis flush against his body.  Louis almost gasped at the shivery thrill that went through him, feeling Harry run his big hands all over his back, down his ass and the curve of his thighs.  As if he were treasuring him.  Lost in the feel of him and committing him fully to memory.

“But I mean -- just for being you, and for being here,” Harry clarified, voice muffled from where his head was now buried in Louis’s neck.  “Thank you.  I feel so thankful for you.”  He brought his arms up again and wrapped them around Louis’s shoulders, hugging him so fiercely that Louis almost couldn’t breathe.

“It’s my pleasure,” Louis said, sincerely.  He took a deep breath and hugged Harry back as hard as he could, closing his eyes, feeling the curling wisps of hair that had escaped from Harry’s bun tickle his nose.  They stayed like that for a long moment.  Just breathing quietly together, wrapped up as close as they could be.

Harry shifted, and they both heard a dangerous squeak.

“This chair’s gonna break,” Louis said, relaxing his hold and sitting back on Harry’s lap.

“Better get up, then,” Harry smiled, bouncing his knees up and down, jostling Louis again and eliciting ribbit-like noises from the chair with every movement.  “I’m not a bazillionaire anymore, you know.  Can’t afford wanton destruction of office furniture.”

“Bed might be more comfortable,” Louis suggested.  He got to his feet a bit shakily, feeling pin-pricks in the backs of his knees, and took Harry by the hand.

“I could go for a bed,” Harry agreed.  He let Louis tug him out of the chair.

Louis couldn’t help the little sigh of excitement that escaped him as he pulled Harry out into the hallway.  It felt like his heart was loose and hammering all over his ribcage, like there was some kind of crazy pinball machine inside him lighting him up.  Harry, Harry, Harry, bed, bed, bed.

He’d just gotten his hand on the doorknob of the guest bedroom when he felt Harry tugging on his wrist.  “C’mere,” he said, leading them down the hallway toward the master suite.  Louis felt himself being pulled into Harry’s side, felt a soft kiss brushing his forehead as Harry whispered, “You aren’t a guest anymore, are you?”

Louis shook his head.

“I didn’t think so.”

Louis felt another rush of pleasant, happy achiness as Harry opened the door for them and he saw the neat little Western-styled room with the lace curtains and the four-poster bed.  Home, he thought, with the sort of desperate thankfulness Harry had voiced earlier.  My room, too.  Harry wanted him here, and Louis wanted to be here.  So much!  God -- so, so much.  Adrenaline and emotion were threatening to sweep him off his feet, but not before Harry beat them to the punch, gathering Louis up with a grunt and kicking the door shut behind them.

“What am I, a bride?” Louis laughed, not even pretending that he wasn’t absolutely delighted.

“We’ll get to that,” Harry said lightly, before plopping Louis down unceremoniously in the center of the big bed.  He crawled up after him, nuzzling into his side as Louis tried to undo his belt buckle.

Louis giggled as Harry started to pet at his already-loosened tie.  He was fingering the soft, slightly shiny fabric with a look of contemplation.

“What?” Louis asked.

“You just look like a really hot lawyer,” Harry said.  “Just like the first time I saw you in your suit and your aviators.”

Louis laughed out loud at that and dropped Harry’s half-undone belt to shove him playfully in the stomach.  “Oh, please,” he said.  “You look like a hot cowboy every day.  Look at you right now.”  He ran his fingers up the opening of Harry’s work shirt, brushing over the buttons and fingering the worn seam up near his collar.  

They were just light touches, but suddenly the air was even more charged.  Harry’s hands on Louis’s soft silk.  Louis’s hands on Harry’s rough flannel.  Their eyes met, and Louis couldn’t breathe.  He needed to kiss Harry so badly, needed him naked and spread out beneath him.

“You want to fuck me,” Harry said, correctly reading his expression.

Louis’s throat went dry, his heart pounding, his head almost dizzy with want.  He gulped, nodding.  “And… and vice versa.”

Harry just looked at him for a moment, and Louis saw his neck flush slightly.  He bit his bottom lip, obviously excited by the idea.  “Okay,” he said, finally.  His voice was rough.  “Yeah, okay.”  He ran his thumb up under the hem of Louis’s shirt, skimming lightly over the soft skin at his waist.  His stare was becoming almost too intense.  “ ‘Vice versa,’ ” he whispered, lowly.  “Can’t resist that lawyer talk.  Quid pro quo.  Ex post facto.”

Louis rolled his eyes, feeling his cheeks heat up under Harry’s attentive gaze.  “Shut up,” he mumbled.  He elbowed himself up so that he was sitting over Harry on the bed, and started to strip off his white dress shirt.  “Take your pants off.”

“Yes, Mr. Tomlinson.”

Louis blushed again, feeling his heart rabbit faster in his chest, beating with anticipation and a little nervousness as he undressed himself.  Harry was naked in a flash, hair loose, his cock already standing up almost fully stiff against his stomach.  Louis finally managed to slip off his shirt, feeling a flutter of adrenaline as Harry watched.  Harry’s fingers brushed down the length of Louis’s golden arm, lightly tanned from the work he’d done outside during calving season.  He reached up and tangled their hands together as Louis went to take the tie off.  Harry shook his head, a little smirk on his face.

“Keep it on,” he whispered, and Louis nodded, feeling lightheaded.

Harry helped him slip off his pants and underwear.  When Louis had nothing on but his navy silk tie, he crawled over Harry, straddling him and letting the soft fabric dangle and brush against his bare chest.  He smiled when he saw Harry shudder.

“I always want you so much,” Louis whispered, leaning down to bite at Harry’s earlobe, then his neck and the tensed muscles of his shoulder.  His cock hadn’t been touched but was already aching and heavy between his legs, the wet tip of it resting gently on Harry’s stomach as Louis curled over him.  “Makes it -- ” he gasped as he felt one of Harry’s fingers slip between his crack, “makes it hard to be patient.”  He gripped a fistful of curly hair and covered Harry’s mouth with his own.

The way they were touching -- almost, Harry’s dry finger circling his rim and almost dipping in, Louis’s cock leaking beads of precome onto Harry’s chest and almost rutting down against it -- was causing Louis to feel delirious with need.  It came crawling up the back of his throat as he kissed Harry, his hips beginning to rock of their own accord, dragging his erection down to Harry’s navel and then back up again.  Harry’s teasing finger was driving him crazy, made him want to beg.

He settled for groaning into Harry’s mouth and being assertive with his tongue, doing things with it that he wanted Harry’s finger to do to him.  Still Harry lazily circled his hole, gently touching the sensitive, pouched skin and occasionally pressing the flat of his finger against Louis’s opening with just enough pressure to suggest penetration.

Louis wanted to come so badly already it was embarrassing.

“Please,” he said, finally, wrenching his face away as Harry leaned up to chase the kiss.  “Please get the lube before I die.”

Harry chuckled and reached for his nightstand drawer, his long arms meaning he only had to twist and strain his torso slightly to get at it.  Louis sat up and admired the view, letting his ass grind down on the underside of Harry’s cock as he pinned him to the bed, impeding his progress.  “Your muscles,” he muttered, feeling his heart leap, and he saw Harry smile happily in response.  My cowboy, he thought, drawing a shaky breath.

Finally Harry produced the Astroglide, dropped the half-used purple tube onto his chest in front of Louis and tucked his hands behind his head, gazing up at him expectantly.  Louis groaned.

“Vice versa,” Harry said, thoroughly pleased with himself.  “Come on.”  He arched his back and spread his legs, giving Louis one last unfair preview of the way his cock felt rubbing up against his hole before he was unseated.

Louis grumbled a little in a fond way, melting at the sight of Harry’s big grin and the way his biceps flexed as he squirmed against the sheets.  The truth was, he was just as excited for Harry to be on the receiving end.  He wasted no time slicking up his fingers, and positioned himself comfortably between Harry’s thighs, letting out a sigh of pleasure that was almost a whine.

“Peaches number one,” he said, kissing Harry’s left thigh.  “Peaches number two,” he said, kissing the other.  “I’ve missed you both very, very much.”

They started to shake as Harry giggled silently, and Louis chose that moment to skim the silk fabric of his tie lightly against Harry’s rim.

Harry drew in a shuddery breath and stilled.  Louis went slowly at first, a few more teasing passes with the silk before he eased the tip of his middle finger inside.  Soon he was pumping it in and out, staring in wonder at the way Harry’s body was receiving it.  Harry was shivering, moaning beautifully.  Louis curled the rest of his hand into a fist and thrust all the way up to his third knuckle, hooking his finger slightly to search for Harry’s prostate.  He inched his knees up on the bed, face close to the action, panting, his eyes trained on what he was doing.  He could feel his cock getting even harder, fuck.

“So gorgeous,” he murmured as Harry began to keen, wrapping his long legs around Louis’s back and squeezing with his thighs.  Louis had found his spot and was now rubbing up against it with two fingers, thrusting and scissoring and thrusting again.

“God, Louis,” Harry said in a broken, high voice.  His hands were out from behind his head, reaching to touch any part of Louis he could.  One landed on Louis’s bicep, lightly tracing circles on the skin, feeling the muscle as it worked.  Louis bit his lip at the light touch.  There was something so caring about it…  And oh, Harry’s other hand was brushing at Louis’s hair, brushing it gently away from his eyes.  Louis saw Harry’s straining abdominals, knew he was sitting up a little to do it.  Exceptional.  The word wandered through his head.

“I love you,” Louis whispered.  He looked up and met Harry’s eyes, feeling his heart break open.  “I love you so much.”

“I love you too,” Harry breathed.  His eyelashes fluttered with a pretty moan as Louis added a third finger and he melted back onto the pillow.  “God,” he whispered, trailing off into unintelligible pleasure noises.

It wasn’t much longer before Harry was thoroughly prepped.  Louis smiled softly as he crooked his fingers and twisted them like a corkscrew, eliciting a string of curses from Harry.

“Fuck, shit,” he panted, opening his glazed eyes again to look up at Louis like he was some kind of miraculous event.  Like -- I didn’t think I was going to get to fall in love.  Louis took a deep breath, gazing back down at him, and vowed to himself that he’d love Harry Styles for the rest of his life in just the right way.  The perfect way.  “Louis, I’m ready,” Harry gasped.  “Please, can you --”

“I will,” Louis promised, and withdrew his hand, wet-coated fingers feeling chill in the open air.  He reached over Harry to grab a tissue and wipe them off.  “But first, quid pro quo.”

“I don’t even know what that means!" Harry grumbled good-naturedly.  "Was just saying lawyer stuff..."  But he came up easily onto his side when Louis flipped them over, breaking into a laugh as Louis began to position both of their limbs just so.  Heat burst through Louis’s stomach and groin as he took Harry’s big hand and cupped it over his own throbbing dick for a moment before moving it lower.

“It means an equal exchange,” Louis said, softly, voice cracking just a touch as Harry began to pet at his balls.

“I can get behind that,” Harry whispered.

The next ten minutes were a blur of sensation.  Louis closed his eyes, opened his legs for Harry and absolutely lost himself.  Soft twinges of pain were followed by explosive, concussive bursts of pleasure, and after a while he wasn’t even sure which sounds were coming from him and which were coming from Harry.  Louis had never been so attentively, enthusiastically fingered, even by himself.  He was rocking and moaning by the end, trying to fuck himself down onto almost Harry’s whole hand.

“Shit,” he gasped, when Harry finally pulled out.  His throat felt raw from the way he’d been panting through his mouth.  “Now are we --”

But he was cut off by a new, infinitely hotter sensation.  Harry’s stiff cock was nudging at him, just barely pressing in.  He’d managed to roll a condom on without Louis noticing.

“Oh god, Harry.  Harry.”

Louis knew they’d had plenty of amazing sex in the past few weeks, but something about the emotional intimacy, or the way his body had been absolutely drenched in adrenaline all day had him shivering, completely undone already.  A mad rush of heat overwhelmed his groin, moving up through his pelvis and into his stomach.  It was like nothing Louis had ever felt before.  Never had sex like this.  Never.

Harry teased for a few more moments, rubbing his thick cockhead up Louis’s crease to the pouch of his balls, just catching his rim.  Over and over.

“Harry,” Louis moaned again.  “Baby, please…”

And then he was inside, the blunt head of his cock pushing into Louis.  Harry thrust hard when he was halfway in, making Louis cry out brokenly.  Another three thrusts before he hit Louis’s prostate dead-on, and then his hips started moving like a machine.  All Louis could do was fist the sheets and pray he didn’t come before he got a chance to do the same to Harry.

“ ‘M gonna…” Harry grunted after a few minutes, keeping up the relentless rhythm that was stealing breath from Louis’s lungs.

“Stop,” Louis ordered.  His voice was absolutely wrecked and his whole body was on fire.  Harry rocked into him one last time and then slid out obediently, holding his obscenely hard cock by the base.  It was wet and dripping with lube, bright red under the condom.  Harry’s chest was heaving, and Louis could smell the sweat on him.  “Hands and knees,” he ordered, whipping off his tie and tossing it to the floor.

Harry whimpered and shifted around so that the side of his face was pressed into the pillow, wrists crossed above his head and knees spread, ass up.  Louis found the empty foil packet of the condom Harry had ripped open lying on the corner of the bed, and grabbed the unopened one next to it.  He pulled his foreskin all the way down, exposing the leaking, rosy tip of his cock, and rolled the condom on.  His breath hitched -- getting his own hands on himself, even for such a perfunctory task, was dangerous with how turned on he was.  He concentrated on not shooting into the condom right away.

He crawled forward until he was in the cleft of Harry’s legs, nudging the head of his cock up into Harry’s taint and feeling him shiver and whine.

“I’m gonna go easy,” he whispered, almost as much for himself as to let Harry know.  Then he slipped in.  It was a nice, smooth slide.

Louis placed a hand on the base of Harry’s back and moved in and out with an aching slowness that had them both breathing hard.  The other hand he fisted unconsciously, biting his lip as he forced himself not to come too soon.  The delicious throb deep in his ass -- the tingly, ghostly sensation of fullness left behind by Harry’s cock -- was making it difficult to concentrate as he clenched his buttocks and thrust inside.  Slow, relaxed.  Fuck.  Fuck.

“Louis,” Harry moaned, hair splayed and voice muffled in the pillow.  “Oh my god, oh my god…”

Louis finally gave in to the crashing, building waves of heat that were rolling over themselves and sending frissons of pleasure through him.  He gradually increased his pace, moving both of his hands to Harry’s waist and driving into him more firmly.  Harry’s back arched in response, his toes curling and his fingers twisting around each other as he shoved his hips back to meet Louis’s thrusts.  Louis had meant to make it last longer, but his orgasm slammed into him suddenly with unstoppable force.  He drove himself in to the hilt and stayed there, spilling into Harry in long, hot spurts.  The release wracked his body, the satisfaction so deep that Louis almost blacked out.

When he could move again, he pulled out and tugged Harry up weakly, switching positions so that he was once again on his back.  Harry was on him in a second, his still-hard cock with the slicked up condom on pressing into Louis’s thigh.  Harry peppered kisses all over Louis’s face, petting his hair.

“Can I?” he asked.

“Fuck yes,” Louis groaned, spreading his legs again.  

Harry re-entered him eagerly, letting out a satisfied grunt as he slipped inside.  It only took a couple jerking thrusts before he followed Louis over the edge, riding out his orgasm as Louis’s dick finally began to soften.  He kept rocking into Louis even after he was done, pulling out after another minute or two to gather Louis up and press kisses into his hairline.  Louis sighed happily, feeling pleasantly floaty and achy and in love.

They molded their bodies against each other and drew up the covers, neither of them worrying about the wet spots on the sheets.  Harry buried his face into Louis’s chest, making himself smaller in Louis’s arms.

They let the stillness of the evening wash over them.

“Maggie’s having a baby,” Harry mumbled, after a while.  His voice was sluggish and content.

Louis started to run his hands through Harry’s hair, picking apart his tangled curls, and chuckled softly.  “I know.”  He shrugged, figuring the cat was out of the bag.  “I’ve known for like... a week?”

Harry lifted his head, mouth hanging open.  “I only found out today!”  He started to pout, chin tucked down and eyes stormy.

Louis tried not to reveal how adorable he thought the pouting was, and leaned down to kiss him.  “Okay, okay Mr. Grumps,” he chuckled.  Harry snorted and rolled his eyes, smiling a little as Louis kissed his lips again.  “I found out by accident; it’s not like Maggie and Niall came running to tell me first.”

Harry let out a soft breath that rushed across Louis’s bare collarbones.  “Okay,” he said.  “But if you’ve got a line on baby names, you’d better spill.  Niall wouldn’t say.”

Louis grinned and shook his head.  “No baby names,” he said.  “Don’t worry.”

Harry relaxed again, huffing out a soft giggle as he snuggled closer into Louis’s side.  “Maggie once swore on an actual Bible that she would name her firstborn child Harry, regardless of sex.  Because she wanted me to come over to her house and make her chicken nuggets.  This was in high school.”

Louis laughed.  “And you did it?”

Harry nodded.  “I take babies very seriously,” he said.  Louis just grinned at him.

“Well, it would…”  Louis paused, clearing his throat and shrugging as Harry drew random patterns on his chest.  “It would be a shame, I think, if little Harry Horan didn’t have a few playmates around his or her age.  Maybe a couple years younger.”

Harry caught his breath, and Louis thought he could hear a faint little oh on his next exhale.  He had his hands on Harry’s body, and could almost feel it shimmering with contained excitement.

“We’ll get to that,” is what Harry said, softly.  But he tucked his head into the crook of Louis’s neck and bit his lip over a wide smile.  He looked so beautiful Louis’s heart almost burst.  Always so wonderful.

“Thank you,” Louis said, all of a sudden.  “For being here, and for being you.”

“My pleasure,” Harry whispered.

They let dusk draw shadows around them as they fell asleep in each other’s arms.

*

Tuesday evening, Louis was walking up the steps of the Llewellyns’ front porch with Harry, cradling a strawberry rhubarb pie in his arms like it was a newborn baby.

“Relax,” Harry said, smiling softly, as he leaned forward to knock on the door.  “It’s gonna be fine.”

He cupped a hand around his eyes to peer in through the glass, and then opened it, calling out for Dottie.  Louis shuffled inside behind him, his hands slick on the pie tin.  He frowned at his briefcase, tucked easily under Harry’s arm.  He should have demanded to hold that, instead.  

Harry had spent the morning on and off the phone with Anne as they hashed things out.  Everything had started tense and ended rather teary.  When Harry had finally been able to call the Llewellyns and explain the situation, Dottie had immediately asked that he and Louis come over for dinner, preferring to discuss the ins and outs in person before National Energy Group made their pitch.  Louis had been anxious about it all afternoon.  He couldn’t help it.  On top of wanting everything to be officially squared away with the land parcels and the mineral rights, it felt an awful lot like meeting the parents.

“But you’ve met them before!” Harry had pointed out in protest, referring to Louis’s brief chats with both Dottie and Arthur at the Cowtown Hoedown.  He couldn’t hide his pleasure over Louis caring so much, though, his eyes bright as he fought against a twitchy grin, tugging on a pair of socks in the master bedroom.

“For like six seconds total!” Louis said, sitting down on the bed next to him.  “And not at the same time!”  It did strange things to Louis’s heart, seeing Harry so clearly happy that he loved him.  It made him love Harry even more, and he’d had to kiss him on the temple a few times before flopping backward onto the quilt.  

Harry stretched out next to him after he’d gotten his socks on, going up on one elbow and drumming his fingers on Louis’s sternum through his t-shirt.  “Well, most people don’t get to show up and be like, ‘Oh, here’s this discovery I just made, and you know, now you’ll have about a bajillion dollars!’  So I think you’ve got a leg up.”  

Louis had laughed in spite of himself and heaved a long sigh, as if to concede the point.  Then he’d scrunched up his face.  “Can we bring a dessert too, just in case?”

Which was why he was now navigating a dangerously unknown and poorly-lit living room behind his much longer-legged boyfriend, carrying a baked good he’d actually played very little part in baking.

“We’re out back, Harry!” Dottie shouted, after Harry called her name again.

Harry ushered Louis out through a sliding glass door and onto a beautifully-maintained deck.  Dottie was sitting at a well-weathered picnic table, arranging sliced vegetables on a platter, Arthur busy at the grill.  He struck a match and lit the newspaper he’d stuffed into a chimney starter, waving carelessly at Harry and Louis and mumbling about how the charcoal would be ready in a jiffy.      

The Llewellyns’ place was essentially an oversized log cabin, more stereotypically western-looking than the exterior of the house at the Lonely Rose, and it had initially reminded Louis of a lodge at sleepaway camp or the main building of a “rustic” resort.  Now that they were out back, though, with Dottie and Arthur puttering around and a dilapidated swing set just visible against the dramatic jut of the mountains in the background, it felt more like a home.  

“Dottie.  Art,” Harry said, smiling and placing a reassuring hand on the small of Louis’s back.  “You remember my boyfriend, Louis?”

“Oh, of course!  Of course!” Dottie said, getting to her feet and swishing over to Louis in her voluminous sundress.  She took the pie from him and set it on the table before pressing him into a reassuring, soft-bodied hug, smiling when she pulled back.  “How could I forget?  So confident with those promenades!  A natural!”

“He already thinks he’s a prodigy at roping!  Now I’ll probably never hear the end of this!” Harry scoffed, but his grin had gone even wider.   

Art turned to them as he peeled back the foil on a plate of hamburger patties.  “Nice to see you again, Louis,” he said.  His eyes went sly and flicked over to Harry to get his attention, a touch of amusement on his face.  “Heard you’re about to make us outrageously rich.  Just don’t tell my son Dougie, all he’ll wanna do is move to Florida.”

Dottie and Harry burst into appreciative laughter at that, and Louis couldn’t help but smile broadly along with them, even though he clearly didn’t understand the context.

“Some things just can’t be helped,” Harry said with faux-wistfulness as he snatched a carrot off the tray Dottie had made.  

Art snorted, turning his small frame back to the grill so that he could examine the coals.  “Florida can!” he said, darkly.  “Florida can and should be avoided at all costs!”

Louis felt himself relax as he settled in at the picnic table with Dottie and Harry while Arthur worked the grill.  There was something about it being so close to summer -- the perfect temperature of the evening air around them and the delicious wafting scent of the cooking hamburgers -- that made being in love feel extra sweet.  Like maybe Louis hadn’t felt quite so settled and sure of his place in the world since he was eleven years old, the lilacs were blooming, there were only three days left in the school year, and his mom was letting him play night games with the kids down the street until well past his bedtime.  Louis was so happy it ached.  

“Love you,” Harry murmured, after Louis fished ice cold beers out of the cooler for him and Dottie.  

“I love you, too,” Louis said, smiling at Harry as he took his first sip.  Then he blushed a little when Dottie cleared her throat across from them, her eyes moving back and forth between them with a pleased twinkle.  

“All right, gentlemen,” she said, tapping two knuckles on the table as Arthur walked over with the burgers, “I would say we should wait to talk about everything until after dinner, but I don’t think I can stand it anymore.”

Louis nodded and reached for his briefcase, his nerves jangling again.  “Well,” he said, producing a stack of pertinent papers from within.  He smoothed out the map he’d made of their abutting ranches, having added on the actual property line and the estimated oil reserve with a grease pencil he’d found in one of Mrs. Burden’s sewing kits.  “How much do you two know about mineral rights?”

Fifteen minutes and half a burger later, he’d walked them through the frustrating aspects of the contract Harry had been forced to sign.  How Walter Mohs had backed Harry into a corner, not allowing him to sever the surface and mineral rights when the sale had been finalized.  He’d also explained why the sale had turned out to be invalid, and how that was where they came in.        

“So, I guess, what we were hoping was...” Louis said, nudging Harry with his shoulder, feeling warm inside when Harry squeezed his thigh, “that ideally, um, you -- you guys would make a deal where you retained the surface rights and also added some explicit stipulations, you know, curtailing how invasive they can be when they do drill…”

Art cleared his throat, taking a swig of his beer and swatting at a mosquito.  “Makes sense.”

“I don’t know if you’ve heard of directional drilling?”  Louis huffed out a laugh.  “It’s kind of like in There Will Be Blood…”  He did his best Daniel Plainview, gestures and all.  “ ‘I drink your milkshake!’ ”

Dottie snorted out a laugh, but Arthur just gave Louis a blank-faced look.   

“So, like, you can drill and then just suck up all the surrounding oil in the whole reservoir from one point, typically from one small cluster of wells.  Mostly at an angle?”  Louis stabbed a finger at the map where his preferred drill point would be, swirling his finger around as if to represent all the oil being sucked to the surface.  “Anyway, you’d have to hammer out the details, but that way Harry could sell his little oil patch along with yours…  Maybe pay some kind of fee for the drilling being done on your property?  And we’d be much better able to maintain the overall integrity of the landscape... ”  

Art nodded slowly.  “We’ve got more leverage, huh?”

Harry blushed and nodded back, rolling his eyes at himself and twisting up his face a little.  This time Louis squeezed his leg in reassurance.

“I mean, it’s your land, it’s your oil,” Harry said, his handsome face earnest as his big hands gestured openly at Dottie and Arthur.  “You can sell it however you want.  You can not sell it at all.  We just want you to know your options and um,” he tossed his head side to side and continued quietly, emotion cropping up just under the surface.  “I just -- I want to say that I do care a lot about that little, um, parcel, in particular…  When it comes down to it.”

“Of course you do,” Art said softly, while Dottie nodded her head in understanding, “of course it means a lot.”  

“Honey,” Dottie said, reaching across the table and taking Harry’s hand, her warm brown eyes locked on his, “we love you.  We’ll go about this pretty much however you want, and I don’t want you to feel any kind of indebtedness about it, okay?”  She turned to Louis, smirking slightly, raising her eyebrows like she was going to level him a challenge.  “Although we’ll probably need a little more legal counsel, and then a lot more estate management…”

Louis huffed a laugh that caught in his throat slightly on the way out, and he grabbed Harry’s hand, his heart clenching in understanding at the tears he saw in Harry’s eyes.  Even if the Llewellyns had decided to go their own way on this, Harry would still have been able to get his loan for the ranch renovations, without the the property tax bill looming.  And they’d have been together -- Louis and Harry would have been together, so things would have been fine.  But now it was looking more and more like Rosie and Roy’s cabin wouldn’t be completely razed, and the land surrounding it wouldn’t be destroyed.  Not to mention the fact that the money from the sale of the small amount of oil still on Harry’s property would go a long way -- a little financial cushion that made that condo in Boulder seem much more affordable.  Louis felt stunned by how lucky they were, almost out-of-body from it.

“Walter Mohs sounds like a morally bankrupt jackass,” Art said, wiping ketchup off his mouth with the back of his hand.  It only added to Louis’s impression that he was something of an elderly version of Niall.  

Dottie made a sound of agreement.  “I actually read a book recently about how lots of CEOs have psychopathic tendencies,” she said.

Louis was leaning forward, about to say that he’d read that book as well when Harry cut in, snorting.  “What does that say about my mother?” he asked.  He’d meant for it to be a joke, but couldn’t quite get it there, and he turned pink with remorse in the aftermath, coughing into his fist.  

“Harry,” Dottie said.  Her tone was gently disapproving but her face was sympathetic.   

“I didn’t --”  Harry rolled his eyes, looking like a chastened teenager and squirming in his seat.  “I didn’t really mean it.”  He let out a short laugh.  “I didn’t mean it all the way.  I mean, we -- we talked this morning, she helped with a lot of stuff, with the contract.  And explained a few things about -- about her life…”

Art huffed out a sharp laugh, leaning back on the picnic bench.  “I hope she did.  I’m not going to say that you don’t have a lot of legitimate reasons to be angry with her, because you do,” he said, taking a deep breath before going on, “but she never had it easy out here."

Louis turned again, regarding Harry from the side and thinking about how bloodshot his eyes had been when he’d gotten off the phone with his mother for the last time that morning, and how much happier he’d seemed.  Louis still couldn’t forgive Anne for what she’d put Harry through, but he felt almost silly, recognizing for the first time so late in the game that she probably had her own underlying emotional relationship with the Lonely Rose.  Maybe even with Rosie and Roy’s cabin.  He was reminded of when he was a senior in high school and was so beyond furious that his parents’ marriage was falling apart.  His father had tried to tell him that parents were people too, but Louis hadn’t been able to fathom that at all at seventeen years old.  It’s not your turn anymore.  It’s mine.  It’s mine.  Why are you doing this to me?  Why aren’t you putting me first? had been all he’d been able to think.

“No, she didn’t,” said Dottie, a rueful smile on her face.  “She didn’t have it easy.”  

Louis blinked down at his beer bottle, letting the reiterated words settle in and longing to have them explicitly explained.  He wondered if Anne had stumbled into Des Styles’s life like he’d stumbled into Harry’s, but then felt constrained by the environment instead of freed by it -- an ambitious woman in a small town without the options and support Louis was going to have.  Louis realized then that he’d never even asked Harry what his parents’ marriage had been like, or if Anne had gotten along with his grandparents.    

“Not everybody is Rosie and Roy,” Art said, as if reading his mind.

Dottie chuckled around a spoonful of pasta salad.  “We certainly weren’t.”

Art grinned, bobbing his head in agreement in a way that drew almost comical attention to his bushy pewter eyebrows.  “What was it you used to say to me all the time when we first had kids?”

“You’re going to wake up divorced,” Dottie said, shaking with silent laughter.  

“I’ve heard you say that before!” Harry said, his face lighting up, slightly confused.  

“Well, by the time you were around it was joke,” Dottie said, still laughing.  

“Believe me, I definitely deserved it when we were young,” Art said.  “I was so immature.  Kept acting like I still had only myself to think about.  There was one summer Dot just up and took Dougie and Karen and went back to her mother’s for all of July.”  He heaved a long sigh, smiling at Harry with a touch of wistfulness in his eyes.  “Rose made sure I knew I deserved that, too.”

Dottie huffed out a sad laugh.  “God, I miss them so much sometimes.”  She dragged the pie tin down the table and smiled wide.  “Let’s eat this pie and tell Louis stories about them until he can’t stand it anymore.”

Louis laughed, threading his fingers into Harry’s under the table.  All this discussion of marriage was making him feel such a burst of pride that he and Harry had been able to work things out.  That they’d been able to choose each other, despite all the complications and roadblocks in place.  I’m just going to keep choosing him and choosing him for the rest of my life.  Harry’s thumb moved over the back of Louis’s hand, and a shiver of true contentment ran through him.  

He smiled at Dottie across the table.  “It’s gonna take the whole damn pie,” he said.

*

They’d been working on the cabin for a little over a week when Louis decided that he wanted to get married in it.  He stepped under the low lintel and saw Harry illuminated by a shaft of sunlight that was shining through a hole in the decaying roof.  Harry’s eyebrows were furrowed in concentration as he laid new, sturdy pine boards over the subfloor.  Louis stilled, watching him for a few moments.  He was covered in a fine layer of sweat and sawdust, his hair back in a half-bun, and Louis thought he’d never looked lovelier.

Louis must have shifted, because Harry glanced up suddenly.  His face broke into an easy grin when he saw who it was.

“Hey.  D’you find that drill bit for me?”

Louis picked his way over to Harry through the scattered tools and pieces of old, warped wood.  “I think so.  This is it, right?”  He dropped to one knee to hand the little piece of metal over to Harry, and felt his heart skip a beat.

Harry inspected it, nodding.  “Yup.”  He glanced back at Louis for a moment as he unscrewed the head of his electric drill.  “What?” he asked, blushing slightly at the way Louis was looking at him.  “What are you thinking?”

Louis pursed his lips, working his jaw a little as he ducked his chin, not wanting to give anything away.  “You’re pretty,” he said.

Harry smiled and hummed contentedly.  The floor would take two weeks, he’d said.  Then he and Louis would begin the delicate process of removing the worn siding, and trying to figure out which of the logs that made up the walls had given way to rot and would have to be replaced.  Re-siding, re-roofing and replacing the windows and the doors, and then working on the porch…  It would take all summer.

Louis couldn’t think of anything else he’d rather be doing.  He’d even made Harry buy him his own pair of work gloves at Walmart.  They were still a bit stiff and new-looking, but the leather was starting to darken in color and form its own creases.  Louis could feel his hands becoming harder.

He knelt down and let Harry show him how to help with the floor.

Later, when his arms were wrapped around Harry’s waist on the back of an ATV, he spotted them.  Paul, Sally and Jolene, grazing by the crick.  He tapped Harry’s shoulder and pointed.  Harry steered them over.

Louis hopped off first and made a beeline for Jolene’s shaggy red flank, digging his hands in and petting her thoroughly around the shoulders.  “Motherhood’s changed you,” he whispered to her.  “You’re even more beautiful than you were as a heifer.”

He turned around and saw Harry on the ground, the two calves nudging his shoulders inquisitively.  A tiny bolt of fear shot through Louis all of a sudden, and made his eyes widen.  Cow-calf operation.  That’s what this is.  Not a vacation home for farm animals.

“You’re not going to sell them, are you?” he demanded.

Harry glanced up sharply, and scoffed.  “No!” he said.  “I’d never do that.”

Louis relaxed.  “Good,” he nodded.  “I mean, I know this is a business and everything.  I’ll try not to get attached to every calf that comes along…”

“They’re our love cows,” Harry declared.  Louis laughed, his eyes crinkling.  “They’re staying right here.”

Louis held Harry’s hand on the way into the house, after they’d parked the ATV and put away all of the tools and equipment they’d used.  The sun was just about to set, and he could smell the lasagne Mrs. Burden was making.  He was suddenly very aware of the weight of his phone in his pocket.

“Just a sec,” he said, letting Harry pass through the sliding glass door into the kitchen.  He pulled it out, swallowing hard.  “I want to call my mom,” he whispered.  He hadn’t spoken to her for a little over two months, and suddenly it felt like much too long.

Harry squeezed his hand, leaning down to kiss his cheek as Louis pressed the phone to his ear and heard it start to ring.  “Be right inside if you need me,” he said.

Louis nodded, giving him a little smile before turning away to stare out at the backyard.  The mountains were limned with golden light.  Bonnie was nosing through Mrs. Burden’s vegetable garden, and Niall was moving around the horse barn.

“Louis?”  She sounded tinny, but Louis could hear the surprise and the pleasure in her voice.

“Hi, Mom,” he said, biting his lip.

“Hi, sweetie.”  Her voice relaxed into the comforting tone he knew so well, and Louis thought he could make out the sound of a stove fan in the background, a beeping microwave.  “You called!  I'm so happy."

“Hope I’m not interrupting your dinner,” he said.

“Oh, no, no.  Well, we’re just sitting down to eat, but I’ll tell Dan to start without me.  He always forgets to put their bibs on until it’s too late…”  There were some muffled sounds then, and Louis knew she was holding the phone to her chest and giving directions.  Things were quieter when she got back on the line.

“How are you?” she asked, sitting down somewhere with a little sigh.  “Are you coming to visit us soon?  You know we’d love to have you anytime.”

“I’d love to come,” Louis said.  “Maybe at the end of the summer, before I start law school.  Should probably swing by Dad’s, too.”

“He would love that, honey.  I’m sure there are plenty of direct flights from Denver...”

“I know,” said Louis.  “I know.”  He toed at the thin dirt, making a semi-circle and clearing his throat.  “Actually,” he went on, “I’m not in Denver anymore.  I quit my job there.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I --”  Louis’s breath caught.  “I… It’s a long story, but.  I met a cowboy.”

He told her all about it as the sun set behind the mountains and the air turned chilly.  Her warm voice and the bright lights shining out from the dining room made Louis’s heart beat faster, made him feel like he was wrapped up in a cozy blanket.  They laughed and exchanged stories, and made plans for Louis and Harry to come meet his twin siblings.

It was dark when they finally said goodbye.  Louis stood for a moment, heart pounding as he blinked into the young night.  He was so full of love.  So full of love.

Then he slid open the door and went inside, where Harry and his dinner were waiting for him.