Actions

Work Header

Inconceivable

Work Text:

When Harry was twelve years old, he picked up Gemma's copy of The Princess Bride and read it cover to cover one rainy afternoon when he had nothing better to do. He didn't get all the jokes but he fell in love with the story immediately, the idea of being willing to wait forever for his other half almost too much for his romantic heart to handle. He watched the film version until he could quote it, laughed at all the same jokes and cried at all the same sweet lines. But he kept going back to the book, drawn to pages holding a story he could get lost in.

Gemma liked her books pristine and Harry liked to wreck them, liked scribbling notes onto the pages about how certain lines made him feel, highlighting some portions with neon marker, underlining phrases that hit him hardest. The journey through the book was always more important to him than the physical book itself, and he liked leaving a roadmap of who he was and what he knew before a story came along to change him. However, if he'd done all of that to Gemma's copy she'd’ve buried him in the backyard, so he saved up a few pounds he dug out of his mum and Robin’s pockets while doing the laundry and coins he found vacuuming under the sofa and headed to the bookstore at his earliest opportunity; then, finally, he had a copy of his favorite story to call his own. He reread the novel for probably the dozenth time that same afternoon, carefully but assuredly marking his favorite passages, the funniest lines, quotes that rang in his head hours after he puts the book down.

Harry gets older and he reads hundreds of new books, poetry that flows like his innermost thoughts he hadn't yet thought, prose that sweeps into his mind and conquers it, non-fiction that shapes him, his thought processes, his beliefs. Still, on rainy days, on lazy mornings, on quiet weekend afternoons, he reaches for The Princess Bride and he falls back into Buttercup and Westley’s world.

It's what he's reading now, the sun warm on his face as it slips through the trees, dappling the courtyard in leaf-patterned light. It's a pleasantly warm day, the kind that plays tug-of-war between summer and autumn and somehow captures the best of both, cool breeze sweeping around warm sun, fresh air peppered with cinnamon and teak.

“Haz,” says Harry’s pillow, rolling a little under Harry’s head and jostling him. “Harry.”

Harry’s finger moves to mark a well-thumbed page, the spine of his book soft and lovingly cracked from all its attention. “Yes, pet?”

“Did you do your English homework?” Niall asks. He's on his stomach, ankles crossed in the air and his textbook open in front of him. Harry prods him until he stops moving and resettles with his head resting in the dip of Niall’s lower back, his legs splayed comfortably, bent at the knee.

“Yes, Niall, I did the English homework,” Harry says lazily, turning to a new page. “Didn’t you?”

“Oh, totally. That’s why I’m asking, see, to make sure we’re both adequately prepared for class,” Niall says, then elbows Harry in the back of the head. “Fucker.”

“No need for violence, Nialler,” Harry says, sage and wise in his young years. He reaches into his bag and pulls out his homework, passing it over his shoulder. “All you had to do was ask.”

“Ah, mate, have I told you lately that I love you? Cause I do,” Niall says, and Harry hums the Rod Stewart song back to him while Niall reaches for a pencil and starts to scribble in the answers he’d missed. Harry stretches and points his toes, yawns; the courtyard is sleepy quiet under warm afternoon sun, the lunch hour fading with each tick of the clock. There’s a group of people kicking around a football in the corner, a group that Harry is decidedly not staring at because he has better things to do.

Like reread a book for the hundred and fiftieth time.

There have been five great kisses since 1642 B.C., he reads, and familiarity pulls him back in so that he’s lost in the words once more, when Saul and Delilah Korn's inadvertent discovery swept across Western civilization.

There’s a shout nearby; Harry barely registers it.

The precise rating of kisses is a terribly difficult thing, often leading to great controversy, because although everyone agrees with the formula of affection times purity times intensity times duration, no one has ever been completely satisfied with how much weight each element should receive.

Niall’s pencil rustles against paper. Two girls walk by and he waves; they giggle into each other’s shoulders and scurry away.

But on any system, there are five that everyone agrees deserve full marks.

The breeze flickers at the edges of Harry’s pages.

Well, this one left them all behind.

God. Harry’s highlighted that sentence and underlined it and circled it and starred next to it and wrote so much about those few easy words that the margins of the page are near black, and yet he still hasn’t said or thought enough about it.

Five perfect kisses throughout history, and all Harry wants more than anything in the world is the sixth. One perfect kiss, one with someone who loves him and not just for a few hours, one that can live forever in the best part of his bones.

“Niall, I want to be kissed like Buttercup,” Harry says, and it’s a common enough lament that Niall doesn’t even look up from his homework.

“Yeah? Pucker up, big boy, here it comes,” he says absently, and then squirms when Harry pinches him. “Alright, alright, enough! I’m sorry your prince hasn’t come around, Haz, but you’re only seventeen. You do have a little time before it gets sad, yeah?”

Harry drops his book onto his chest and sighs wearily. “He’s a pirate, Niall, honestly. And it’s the waiting that’s so hard. Fix it.”

“Can’t, dear,” Niall says. “Doing homework.”

Harry sighs again tragically, draping an arm over his face because his closest friend abandoned him in his time of need, and Harry is nothing if not opportunistic when it comes to being melodramatic. But Niall, well aware of Harry's predilection for histrionics after long years together, refuses to rise to the bait, and so Harry drops his arm with a huff.

He tries to lose himself in the pages of his book again, but the rhythmic thunk of shoes against a football invades his mind until he gives up the pretense of not watching the group in the corner of the courtyard.

In The Princess Bride, Buttercup takes a bath and becomes one of the most beautiful girls in the world; the actual most beautiful person in the world had probably always had great hygiene—his mum is  a nurse, you know—but all it took for him was that summer he was fourteen, three months away from school and a growth spurt changing him from a small boy with a quick grin to a dainty teenager so gorgeous he set Harry’s world on fire.

Tommo.

It’s a name whispered with reverence around the school. It’s a prayer, it’s a curse, it’s a whole lot of hormones rolled into one. It’s a double-edged dagger, the whisper of Tommo is, because it’s literally twofold: no matter your orientation, your preference, your still-burgeoning sexuality, there’s a Tommo for you.

Barbara Tomlinson is willowy and bright like the flash from a camera, almost overwhelming when unleashed unexpectedly. She’s intelligent, her wide eyes full of the kind of knowledge that could be lethal in other hands; Barbara, according to all accounts, however, is kind and gentle and sweet. Her cascades of waves fall elegantly over her shoulders, her smile makes everyone around her a little happier.

She’s beautiful, truly, she is.

But then there’s her brother, and Harry can’t look at anyone else when he’s in the room.

Louis Tomlinson is a firework in the shape of a boy, quick and dazzling, chaos confined to sharp smiles and flurried words. His eyes—the same as Barbara’s, but somehow wider, brighter—are blue like the lightest parts of a constellation, blue like twilight in the deep heart of summer, blue like the afterimage of a lightning strike. He wears their dumpy school uniform like high fashion, his delicate ankles visible under his rolled trouser legs, his waist accentuated by his tucked-in shirt. His fringe falls across his forehead and Harry’s fingers burn with the need to brush it back, his smirk drags out a hint of a dimple that Harry’s lips ache to press against, his small fingers flutter and Harry’s whole body thrums with the desire to trap his hand against his own chest, to press Louis’ delicate wrist to his heartbeat and say feel that? Feel what you do to me?

Of course, for that to happen, Harry would actually have to get the nerve to speak to Louis.

So, that won’t be happening any time soon.

The Tommo twins are like the top of a food chain that they never asked to be a part of, but got stuck there anyway and accepted the shared throne gracefully. Barbara is head of five different student societies, including the Latin club and a charity group that spends Saturday mornings volunteering at the animal shelter. Louis is captain of the school footie team, involved in the LGBTQ soc, and is right there next to his sister on Saturday mornings, cleaning out animal pens and trying to walk three overexcited dogs at the same time. They don’t seem to mean to inspire intimidation in the lesser beings around them, but they still do; bad enough that the two of them are the most beautiful creatures on earth, but the people they surround themselves are like marble statues guarding priceless paintings, Zayn Malik and Liam Payne and Cara Delevigne all too pretty to look at in direct sunlight.

It’s Louis kicking the football around in the corner of the courtyard, dancing on light feet as he dribbles around Zayn, who’s texting and not paying attention, Barbara, who smacks his arm every time he spins too close, Liam, who tries to play along but isn’t quite quick enough, though his attempts to get the ball from Louis do inspire bright cracks of laughter from him.

“I don’t want to objectify anyone,” Harry says pensively, and Niall’s pencil stops scratching for a moment as he listens, “but good God is that an arse.”

Niall perches his head on his hands, watching the group who caught Harry’s attention; he won’t stop copying Harry’s homework to talk about Harry’s dearth of perfect kisses, but Tommo appreciation is something he will always spare a second to participate in. “Tommo’s eyes are like falling headfirst in the ocean,” he says.

Harry hums, because Niall is so right—even from here, Harry can see the blue of Louis’ eyes like they’re just inches away. “Maybe,” he says cautiously, because he’s always been the optimist and Niall’s always been the realist, “maybe we could go over there. Talk to them.”

Niall, instead of carefully considering Harry’s proposal, snorts. “Right. And say what? ‘Hello, I’ve been staring at you for years and think you’re prettier than the stars. Is this seat taken?’”

“If someone told me I was prettier than the stars, I wouldn’t turn them away,” Harry says reasonably.

“You’re the prettiest, Hazza. Now shut the fuck up and let me finish copying your assignment.”

Niall is a smart man, see. He believes in getting an education to better himself and society, knows that without proper schooling in a few basic subjects that his chance at being successful later in life drops dramatically.

Here's the thing, though, and listen close. Sometimes school sucks, and while there's nothing he can do about that, he can remove himself from a toxic situation. A toxically boring situation. He can cut class, basically.

Besides, half of a good education comes from outside a classroom, right? Sure, the person who said that was probably talking about extracurricular activities, but Niall abides by the spirit of the law, not the letter.

He'd texted Harry to bunk off from his class too, thinking maybe they could walk up the street to the McDonalds on the corner and pool their money for a pile of burgers. All he'd gotten in answer was a frowning emoji and the Aquarius zodiac symbol, which he interpreted as a no, though, knowing Harry as well as he does, truly could mean any number of things.

So Niall is a free man who never promised to become an expert in calculus and therefore does not need to go to calculus class every time it appears in his life, and he's going to spend his free hour doing something awesome.

Or just hanging out behind the main school building, that works too.

Niall settles onto a sunny spot of grass, the bricks warm against his back. He’s contemplating a nap when he hears footsteps, a click, a soft curse.

“Oi, mate. Got a light?”

Niall opens his eyes and looks straight up into blue, blue, blue. His heart jumps to his throat and his soul tries to leave his earthly body, but pauses when he realizes it's the wrong Tommo standing over him. Not that Louis is a bad alternative, obviously not; Niall may be, like, mostly straight, but he's still got eyes and this Tommo definitely has an arse that won't quit.

He's just not Barbara.

“Yeah,” Niall answers, clearing his throat after a long minute staring up at Louis. It's fine, he's beautiful, he probably gets that a lot.

Tommo’s still standing there, and his eyebrow lifts the slightest bit as the silence drags on. Then, “Can I... borrow it?”

“Oh!” Niall says. Obviously. Right. He scrambles to his feet and digs his lighter out of his pocket, an old silver hand-me-down of Greg’s, and hands it to Tommo.

“Cheers,” he says, lighting a cigarette and taking a drag. “I don't normally smoke at school, but I had an exam and those terrify me.” He exhales a stream of smoke. “Want one?”

Niall shrugs and takes a cigarette, flicking the lighter until the end catches and the nicotine floods his throat. Tommo watches him for a moment, leaned back against the bricks like he’s posing for a photoshoot.

“I didn’t know you smoked,” he finally says, tapping the ashes off the end of his cigarette.

Niall laughs, because that’s his automatic reaction to most things, then shrugs again. “I didn’t know you knew anything about me at all.”

“School’s not that big, lad,” Tommo says, tipping his head back to blow a wobbly-edged smoke ring. “Plus, I’m pretty sure I follow you on Twitter. Horan, right?”

“Shit, yeah, that’s me,” Niall says, laughs again. Barbara Tommo’s brother follows him on Twitter, and he’s pretty sure he spent last Saturday contributing at least a dozen entries to the MyLoveLifeIn3Words trend (Netflix and Shame being his most popular, though my right hand was a close second).

He shakes it off. It’s cool. He’s cool.

“Yeah, thought so. I show Babs your stuff all the time, it’s hilarious.”

He’s not cool. Holy shit.

“Thanks, Tommo,” Niall says after a brief coughing fit.

“Nah, call me Louis,” says Tommo- Louis, and Niall grins and shakes Louis’ hand.   

“Cool. I’m Niall.” He takes one last drag of his cig and puts it out against the wall, leaving a small smear of ash. “This might be a little forward of me so early in our relationship,” he says, and Louis quirks an interested eyebrow, “but would you like to accompany me to McDonalds?”

“Niall, my friend,” says Louis, “it would be an honor and a privilege.”

As it turns out, Louis is hilarious, doing impressions that have Niall hunched over and breathless with laughter and quick sharp jokes that hit Niall straight in the ribs. His grin grows wider the more he makes Niall laugh, like he’s delighted with the prospect of making someone cackle so hard they choke a little, and he gets more and more exuberant as they sneak further away from school.

Niall wonders if it could all really be this easy; a cut class, a shared lighter, and Louis Tomlinson is hanging his arm around Niall’s shoulders like they’ve been friends forever.

The experience certainly challenges Harry’s theory that, to be friends with a Tommo, one must go through challenges on par with Hercules’ Labours. Talking to Louis isn’t nearly anything like slaying a mythical beast or stealing a prized possession from an ancient god; actually, in all honestly, Louis isn’t intimidating at all. He’s like a marshmallow puff, only he’s coated in a hard chocolate shell so that he seems tougher than he is.

When Niall decides to share this analogy, it’s Louis who doubles over with laughter. “Marshmallow with a hard shell?” he gasps, wiping away tears of laughter. “That’s beautiful.”

“Really, though!” Niall chuckles. “I don’t understand how Hazza is so scared of you. You’re a creme puff with nice hair, not some axe murderer.”

Louis cackles again, his laugh loud and ringing as they approach the McDonalds. “You are a poet, sir.” He opens the restaurant door and does a sweeping bow to usher Niall in, making him laugh once more. They’re staring up at the menu as though they’ll find something new when Louis says, “Wait. Who is scared of me?”

The bell rings to signal the end of class, and all around the room starts the shuffling of books and papers into bags. Harry is among them, sliding his textbook into his bag alongside his notebooks and pulling out his phone to check on Niall. He’s stopped, though, by a voice from the front of the class.

“Mr. Styles, a moment.”

Harry waits until the rest of his classmates have filed out before heading over to where his teacher is organizing the notes for his next class. Mr. Corden looks up, gives Harry a wide smile.

“My favorite pupil. My class savior. My-”

“Okay, Cordo, what do you want?” Harry laughs, clambering onto Corden’s desk after clearing a space for his bum. Corden drops the act, pushing his chair back and sizing Harry up.

“Your camera, and you holding it and pointing it in the correct direction, preferably,” Corden says.

“And by that you mean…”

“Our regular photographer for the school paper has flaked out, and I need someone by this Friday to cover his duties. We’ll pay you, not a lot but something’s better than nothing, and you'll be helping your favorite teacher out.”

“Who, you?” Harry teases, and Corden throws a pen at him. Harry bats his hands in an inefficient attempt to knock the pen away; it still hits him in the middle of his forehead. “Alright, settle down. Obviously I'm gonna do it, all you had to do was ask.”

“You are a gem amongst pebbles, Harry Styles.”

“Don’t I know it,” Harry says. “Now, what do I have to do?”

“C’mon, the newspaper team is meeting right now, you can set something up with the editor.”

Corden leads Harry to a room a few doors away that he’s never really noticed before, a dull plaque under the window proclaiming it to be the newsroom. Inside it’s a flurry of activity; there are rows of desks topped with massive computer screens, each framed with overlapping sticky notes containing messages like DRAFT DUE FRIDAY!!! and spec. ed. planning mtg 28/10. Students are running about like the apocalypse has been announced and they’ve got the exclusive, the printer in the corner is spitting out copies so quickly it looks like it should be emitting smoke. In the middle of it all is a familiar figure, hip cocked as everything is brought to her attention: outlines are checked, grammar is corrected, pictures are confirmed.

“Babs!” calls Corden, and Tommo herself turns around, wide smile on her face.

“One second!” she says back, scribbling some notes on a printed story and handing it back to the writer, then leaning over to type a few rapid lines on the nearest computer. She hits enter with a satisfied flourish, brushing off her hands like it was all in a day’s work. And maybe it was.

“Sorry,” she says as she approaches Corden and Harry by the door. “Paper goes to print in two hours and half my stories are unfinished. How can I help?”

“Well, actually, I’m here to help you for once,” Corden says, pushing Harry forward. “I found you a photographer.”

“Oh, really?” Tommo says, lighting up. “That’s amazing! Thanks, Cordo!”

“My absolute pleasure, Babs. Take care of him, he’s a good one.” And then Corden is gone, and Harry’s left alone with the love of his life’s beautiful sister. Harry gulps a little and hope he doesn’t radiate the thoughts running through his head: be cool, for God’s sake be cool, don’t let her know you fancy the pants off her brother, or that you’d like to fancy the pants off her brother-

“Do you have much experience?”

Harry chokes. “What?”

“With photography?” Tommo asks, raising a razor-sharp eyebrow. “Do you have much experience with photography?”

“Oh,” Harry says. Is he sweating? It feels like he’s sweating. “Yeah, a little. I mean, I’ve been hired to shoot a few things, parties and baby showers and stuff like that.”

Tommo raises her other eyebrow. “You’ve actually worked as a photographer? Well that’s way better than our last guy, he just bought a camera and watched a Kubrick movie once and pretended that made him all-knowing.”

“Who was it?” Harry asks curiously.

“Ben Winston.”

“Oh, he’s a twat, that explains it,” Harry says unthinkingly, then stops. Tommo’s grinning widely now, her eyes glittering.

“No worries, I completely agree. Now, would you be able to start this week?”

“Yeah, sure,” Harry says. “What would I be doing?”

Tommo grabs a sheet of paper off the nearest desk and hands it to Harry, then says, “I’m mostly needing someone to cover the men’s footie team.”

“Oh!” Harry says brightly, reading over the schedule of remaining matches. “I go to all of those anyway, I’m sort of in love with T-”

He stops again, his heart hammering as he stares down at the paper. Please let her not have been listening, he thinks desperately, because of all the things he planned to do today, telling Barbara Tommo that he’s stupidly infatuated by her brother was not among the list.

She was listening; Tommo tilts her head and asks, “In love with…?”

“T- team… work,” Harry finishes weakly. “Teamwork. On the pitch. Together. Seeing, um, seeing a team work together.” His hands are moving in a circle, like she doesn’t know what teamwork is. How does he make this stop? “As one.”

“Teamwork,” Tommo repeats.

“Uh,” Harry says eloquently. He wonders if there are any handy caves nearby that he can live in for the rest of forever. “Yeah.”

Tommo surveys him for a long moment, then, as though she just isn’t feeling up to diving into that mess today, shrugs. “Huh. Well, to each their own. Can you start Friday?”

“Sure,” Harry says in a rush, relief hitting his knees so hard he wobbles a little. Tommo hands him a simple contract (“Had to make one up after Winston fucked off, this basically just says if you do the same thing I can kick you in the shin.”) and tells him to come find her before the match on Friday so she can line out what she’s looking for.

“This is gonna be great,” she says, taking Harry’s contract and beaming. “Thanks for letting Cordo talk you into it.”

“Thanks for giving me the opportunity, Tommo.”

“Oh, call me Babs,” she says, waving her hand airily. “The Tommo thing was fine when we were five and we had the same haircut, so no one could tell us apart. Now it’s just confusing.”

“Babs,” Harry tries, and it sounds weird in his mouth. Louis and Barbara have always been Tommo, even if it did get a little disorienting sometimes. Even some of the teachers call them that. But, if that’s what Barbara wants, Harry’s not going to be the one to tell her no.

“There we go,” Babs says, nodding. “Now, off you scoot. I have a paper to publish.”

Thursday night finds Niall and Harry embroiled in the kind of FIFA deathmatch that ruins lesser friendships, except that Niall and Harry have had so many of those that they’ve become immune to it, talking absolute shit until regulation is over and then it’s back to cuddles and feeding each other snacks. Harry’s got his feet tossed over Niall’s lap, a steady warmth across the top of his thighs as he reaches for another handful of crisps, leaving a slick trail of grease across his controller.

“That’s disgusting,” Harry says without looking at Niall’s hands, but he can just fuck right off, because Niall hasn’t eaten in a whole hour and FIFA makes him hungry.

You’re disgusting,” Niall says, and his fingers slip on the joystick so the tiny Ronaldo on the screen goes shooting past his destination.

Niall tosses the controller next to him on the sofa with a huff when Harry beats him, sliding his phone out of his pocket to better be able to ignore Harry’s victory dance, which includes more samba than any teenager should respectably know. Twitter’s dead, Niall refuses to open Facebook if he’s not tagged in anything, and there are no new Snapchat notifications waiting for him; Instagram it is. He opens the app and flicks through the newest pictures, tapping a couple when the inspiration strikes. Then he scrolls and is suddenly hit by a truck or something with the similar ability to crush his chest, an actual gasp leaving his throat as he takes in the picture.

“What is it?” Harry asks curiously, stopping the shaking of his hips for two seconds to drape himself against Niall’s side. Niall shows him the screen wordlessly, and Harry’s eyes bug. “Good God.”

It’s a Throwback Thursday posted by one Louis Tomlinson, clearly a picture taken from the famed Tommo family holiday in the Bahamas this past summer. It's Louis, holding his phone out at an angle to capture himself in the bottom half of a wetsuit, the top half and sleeves unzipped and pooled around his waist, his chest bare and glistening. Next to him, propped up against a surfboard is Barbara, but she's not in a wetsuit.

No, she's in the most intricate one-piece swimsuit Niall has ever seen, pieces carved strategically from the fabric to bare more skin than she might have even shown in a bikini.

They're both making the classic Tommo Face: crossed eyes, wide, open-mouth smile, and fingers pointed at each other like a late-in-life game of she started it, no he started it. And Niall is destroyed.

“Guh,” Harry says, and while it’s not a language Niall is familiar with, guh seems to sum up Niall's feelings as well. His tongue has, somehow, stuck to the roof of his mouth. He's lost the ability to blink.

Harry's mouth gapes open as his eyes trace the image, over and over and over.

“I'm… I,” he says, doesn't finish either of those sentences. Niall still understands.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “It's.”

“They.”

“Why.”

How.”

They sigh in unison; it would be the most pathetic state they'd ever been in, except that that particular title belongs to the time Niall snuck the six pack of beer from his house when they were ten, only for him and Harry to each finish less than half a bottle each and get caught by Harry’s mum when they fell asleep at nine o’clock, tired from all the excitement. This, though, the two of them staring in lovelorn agony at an Instagram picture, is a close second.

“I never have a chance,” Niall moans despondently. Girls like Barbara, sweet and smart and intimidatingly gorgeous, they don't look at guys like him. He's got braces, he dyed his hair blonde on a dare and then never bothered to change it back, he wears snapbacks and flannel shirts at the same time unironically.

Harry swats him on the arm, looking scandalized. “Niall. You are wonderful and amazing and any person would be lucky to have you.”

Niall snorts; that's easy for Harry to say; he's somehow wrangled his curls under control after those few years he spent looking like Susan Boyles’ gangly sister, and he's got that lost-soul-looking-for-a-muse thing going on, with the headscarves and leather journal and skintight jeans with rips in the knees.

Harry could get someone like Barbara Tomlinson.

And he wants to, apparently. If the drool in the corner of his mouth from her picture is anything to go by.

Niall clears his throat. “Haz. Bro. If you, er, I mean.” Harry tilts his head to look at Niall, but doesn't interrupt. “If you want to go for it, y’know. With Tommo. I'm not gonna be mad.”

Harry's eyes widen. “Wait, you-” He stops. “Um. Are you interested in Tommo? Like, in more than a stare-across-the-room kinda way?”

Niall levels Harry with an unimpressed stare. “Obviously.” He indicates that damn picture still on the screen. “Who wouldn't be?”

“You're right, you're right,” Harry says. “But, Ni. I don't want this to be weird, like. If you like Tommo, you should try starting something. Everyone loves you, yeah? Tommo is no exception, I bet.”

Niall's stomach writhes a little. He hadn't known Harry felt this strongly about Barbara: Harry tends to fall in and out of love easier than anything, obsessed and over it in the span of a week. This time, though… he's letting Niall have a shot, yeah, but he looks strange about it. Nervous, maybe. Weird. “Hazza, you’re m’ best mate. I’m not gonna try and date your crush.”

“But it’s your crush, too,” Harry says, brow furrowed. He sits up, turns to face Niall head-on with his arm wrapped around his bent knee. He chews on his lip. “If you have a chance, I want you to take it.”

It’s only Harry and Niall’s absolute inability to gracefully approach someone of Barbara’s caliber that makes Niall say, “Okay.” It’s never gonna happen anyway, right? Barbara’s going to end up the wife of a future king or an astronaut rockstar or a Formula 1 driver who is also a Michelin chef. “But the same with you, if you get a shot at it, you gotta try.”

Harry’s eyes flick back and forth between Niall’s, like suddenly the one he’s concentrating on will start twitching to prove he’s lying. Niall widens them in sincerity, just to prove he’s telling the truth.

“Okay,” Harry finally agrees. It’s weird; things have never been weird between the two of them, not since Harry shared his sandwich with Niall back on their first day of Year Three and Niall decided they would be best friends for the rest of eternity.

It’s weird now, though. Niall and Harry talk crushes all the time, but Niall’s never really talked about Barbara; doesn’t really know why that is. Maybe because she’s so out of his league he can’t afford to get his hopes up. Probably the same reason why Harry’s never brought her up, either. And Harry looks as confused as Niall feels, like he didn’t think Niall would like someone like Barbara or something, like Niall’s always had an affinity for redheads and suddenly declared it was all about brunettes.

Niall clears his throat again. “Well, y’know. Golden rule still applies, o’ course.”

Harry’s face scrunches in confusion. “Do unto others?”

“Nah, mate. Bros before hoes.”

Harry perks up a little at that, pats Niall’s cheek. “Aw, Niall. Of course.” Then he smack Niall’s cheek a little harder. “Don’t call people hoes.”

“Hazza?”

“Yes, my dear?”

“You’re a hoe.”

And so follows a slap fight so extraordinary it will be forever remembered, culminating in a ripped shirt, a crushed bag of crisps, a dangerously wobbling TV, and Niall and Harry on their backs in the middle of the room, head to head, panting at the exertion and grinning like idiots.

“Ni?” Harry asks.

“Mhmm?”

“You’ll go with me to the football match tomorrow, right?”

Niall reaches back, nudges Harry with his knuckles. Who cares about beautiful, unapproachable crushes when there’s stuff like this? Just Niall and Harry, against the world as always.

“Course, Hazza. Course I will.”

Harry sighs, shifts some silk blouses aside. Sighs again. Rubs at the seam of a pair of jeans still on a hanger, pulls his hand away. Picks at his lower lip. Grabs a fedora. Sighs once more, puts it back.

“Harry,” says Niall despondently. He’s face down on Harry’s bed, having apparently abandoned all hope that Harry will ever be able to choose appropriate football match attire in time for them to make it to said football match. “Please. Just pick something.”

“But,” Harry protests, “what if I choose the wrong thing?”

Niall flops onto his back, breathes deeply like he’s trying to control a Hulk-level strop from bursting forth, and rolls to his feet. He moves Harry aside bodily with not-so-gentle hands and fits his fists against his hips, looking over Harry’s crammed wardrobe.

“These jeans,” he says, shoving Harry’s black trousers with the little rips in the knees at him, “this shirt,” followed by a bright green athletic-style shirt with yellow on the sleeves, “and these boots.” Harry’s worn brown Chelsea boots smack him in the shoulder and fall sadly to the floor.

Harry considers the outfit for a moment, processes, then says, “Okay. I like it.” Niall mumbles something that sounds like hallelujah under his breath. “But…” Niall stills. “What about my hair?”

Niall picks the boots off the ground and wallops Harry in the shoulder with them again.

A little over an hour later, Niall and Harry are walking through the gated entrance to the football pitch, the low thrum of crowd noises whipped through the air by a cool wind. Niall’s got his head down against the chill and his hands in his pockets, chattering about the exam he’s got tomorrow that he doesn’t want to revise for and the pair of thick-rimmed glasses he bought ages back that he thinks he’s finally going to start wearing. Harry lets him ramble, the noise familiar, as his camera thumps him in the chest with each step forward.

His stomach is fluttering, and he doesn’t really know why. It’s just a footie match, it’s just his same old camera. It’s just the stupid school paper. It’s just-

“Harry!”

It’s just Tommo’s sister calling his name, waving him over.

And it’s Niall that stops like he’s been confronted with all his worst nightmares, his hand fisted in the fabric of Harry’s peacoat.

“Harry,” says Niall blankly, “how does Barbara Tomlinson know who you are?”

Harry stumbles a little when Niall jerks his arm and pulls him to a halt as well. He shoots Niall a weird look. “She’s the editor of the paper?” he half-asks. “She’s who I talked to about this job?”

“Harry!” Babs calls again.

“Right,” Niall says in a strangled voice, then lets go of Harry’s arm. He looks down at his olive green shirt and his jeans with the holes in the knees in surprise, like he didn’t pick them out himself. He smooths the front of his shirt, tugs on his hair. “Do, erm. Do I look alright?”

“Uh,” Harry says, tilting his head. Niall’s being weird. Weirder than normal, even. Is this because of his massive crush on Louis Tommo? (Which Harry is still having a hard time wrapping his head around, to be completely honest.) Harry’d had that anxiety-filled moment of oh my God that’s his sister when he first met Babs as well, so maybe it’s not that strange.

Still.

“Your hair looks great, Nialler,” Harry promises, and he’s not even lying. The messy blonde tips ruffle in the breeze, flicking attractively over his forehead. His eyes somehow look bluer than ever under the lights ringing the pitch. Harry feels a moment of fluttery panic. Niall always looks good, even when he’s got lettuce stuck in his braces or shows up to school with toothpaste in the corners of his mouth or when he wears an orange hat with a purple shirt, he can pull it off.

Maybe…

Maybe blonde and bright is Tommo’s thing? Maybe Harry never had a chance of catching his eye?

Maybe Niall is exactly what he wants?

Harry shakes his head, tugs himself and Niall back into a trudge towards where Babs is waiting for them. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. If Louis picks Niall, that’s. It’s fine. Harry will be happy for them.

Eventually.

“Finally!” Babs says as they near. “Thought you were gonna blow me off.”

“Never,” says Harry, and grins when Babs tugs him into an easy hug. When Niall clears his throat, Harry steps back. “Babs, this is my best friend Niall. Niall, this is Barbara Tomlinson.”

Babs holds out a hand, smiling. “Nice to meet you.” Then she narrows her eyes thoughtfully. “Have we met before?”

Niall makes a noise that Harry has never heard before, a horrifying sort of choke-cough that clearly makes him rethink his entire existence, going by the immediate flush that takes over his cheeks. “Er, uh, I,” he garbles out, “w’ad bio-ah-no-chem t’geder ‘n’ah sa’ b’ind ye.”

Harry, who is well-versed in Niall’s particular brand of Irishness, takes a minute to work out what he’d just attempted to say. “Um, you had chem together?” Harry says, and Niall nods gratefully. “He sat behind you.”

“That’s right!” says Babs. “You used to help me memorize the periodic table.”

“Boron, carbon, everywhere,” Niall sings just a hint too loudly. His flush, impossibly, goes deeper red.

Babs takes it in stride: “Nitrogen all through the air,” she sings back in a voice like a bell, and Niall’s shoulders slump a little in relief. “Anyway, you two should sit with us until the match starts, we’ve got extra blankets.”

Harry turns and- oh, right: the Tommos are the prettiest people in the world who surround themselves with the rest of the prettiest one percent of the population. Cara Delevigne is stretched out across multiple bleacher seats, her long legs kicked up over the empty chairs in front of her as she snaps selfie after selfie. Zayn Malik is reclined against Liam Payne’s chest looking like some sort of panther, his head tilted back and his eyes hooded, dark. Liam strokes idly along the dip in the center of Zayn’s chest, an absently comfortable gesture, as he watches the two teams on the field go through their paces to warm up before the match begins.

Babs does a round of introductions, and Harry squeezes his hands behind his back before settling awkwardly next to her, Niall on his left. Liam and Cara both chirp a “Hey!” but Zayn doesn't bother, his liquid eyes taking in Harry and Niall like they're mildly interesting bugs that wandered across his shoe.

“What kind of camera is that?” Babs asks interestedly, leaning toward Harry and fiddling with the Canon around his neck. Harry—who is always willing to gush about his favorite purchase ever—pulls the camera strap over his head and shows it to Babs and to Cara, who leans up to ask a couple of questions as well. She models sometimes, as it turns out (to Harry's complete lack of surprise), and she’d always been interested in what goes on on the other side of the camera as well. She and Harry spiral off into a conversation about headshots and modeling portfolios, Babs nodding along.

Niall is still rigid in the seat next to Harry; it's so strange, Harry thinks, until he glances over to see Niall staring out over the pitch, another glance confirming that it's Louis Tommo he's staring at. He doesn't really seem to be breathing.

Harry's stomach twists, so he throws himself back into the conversation. It's still weird; not so much that Niall likes a guy, but that Niall likes Tommo. It just. It doesn't fit.

And that's not just because of Harry's personal feelings on the matter.

He can't help his own gaze flickering past Babs onto the pitch as well, though, catching the green and white stripes under the bold number 28, thighs flexing with each stretch and thin shoulders hunched a little from the cold. Tommo looks good out there, that's for sure; Harry might be lacking when it comes to actual footie skills, but he's a bit of a connoisseur when it comes to football players, and Louis Tomlinson has always been top of his list.

“So,” says Liam to Niall after a couple of minutes. Niall jumps a little, and Harry nudges him with a knuckle to let him know he's still there if he needs him. “Do you play guitar?”

“Er, yeah, I do,” Niall says shakily. “How'd you know?”

Liam untangles his left hand from Zayn's, holds it palm up. “Got the same calluses, don't we?”

Harry doesn't even need to look at Niall to know he lights up, but he does anyway. Can't help himself from grinning, either, when Niall scoots a little closer to Liam and the still-silent Zayn, babbling a mile a minute about the new Fender Strat I saw in the window ‘f the music store, and how long’ve ya been playing there, Payno? Because ‘ve been wanting t’ find people to jam with for ages and Harry's decent, but not as good as me yet, ‘ve ya ever written anything ? Me’n Hazza here’ve jotted down a couple ‘o songs, nothin’ too special but not too bad. Liam grins likes he's won a lottery by getting Niall to speak, and even Zayn looks quietly amused. Harry watches Niall fling his hands around exuberantly for a few more seconds until Babs’ quiet giggle draws his attention.

“You two are sweet together,” she says to Harry, and he shakes his head, though not in surprise. This definitely isn’t the first time they’ve made that impression.

“Me and Ni? Nah, we aren't together.” He slings his arm over Niall's shoulder, and Niall's pats his forearm without breaking his earnest barrage of questions and comments for Liam. “Just best friends.”

“Oh!” Babs says, still smiling easily. “So you aren't dating anyone?”

“Nope,” Harry says comfortably, leaning into Niall.

“Got your eye on anyone, then?” Babs asks, and suddenly her innocent line of questioning doesn't seem so innocent anymore; there's a glint there in her eyes, a quiet smirk in the corner of her mouth. “Only, couldn't help but notice you're awfully interested in someone out on the pitch-”

A whistle blows to signal the start of the match and Harry leaps to his feet, his hand scrabbling for his camera. “Gotta,” he says breathlessly, “gotta take some pictures. For the paper, you know.” Immediately feels like an idiot. “Of course you know, you told me to do it. Right. Ni? You good here? Great.”

Then Harry scampers off, ignoring Babs’ laughter and hoping Niall will forgive him for abandoning him with a group of people neither of them really know.

He takes a deep breath, switches his camera on, and decides to pretend that all never happened.

Harry then spends the next forty-five minutes roaming the sidelines of the pitch, trying to catch a good mix of action shots and gritty stills. The team is good, really good, and Babs had told Harry that they'd compile all the photos he takes of the next few games and pick the best ones for a special edition of the paper that'll print just before the end-of-season tournament. Harry snaps a gorgeous shot of a defender’s slide tackle, a close up of Tommo’s captain band, slightly askew, the keeper leaping after an impossible save, Tommo’s small ankles under the heavy padding of his shin guards, one of the strikers, a guy named Stan, arguing with the ref, Tommo’s hands around the ball as he stands at the sideline for a throw in, Tommo’s sweaty hair pushed back from his face by impatient fingers, Tommo’s wide, ecstatic grin after the first goal.

Halftime is signaled and Harry pulls the camera away from his face, pleased with his work so far. He turns back toward the bleachers to see Niall has slid into Harry's abandoned spot next to Babs, and he's saying something that's making her throw her head back in laughter. Harry snaps a couple pictures of them; they make a good couple, Niall and Babs, easy smiles and bright eyes matching perfectly.

They'd be good together, Harry thinks ruefully, taking one more photo before heading over to the group to show Babs what he's got so far. They'd be really good together, actually, he thinks. Too bad she's not the twin he likes.

“These are amazing, Harry!” Babs says as she flips through the photos Harry’s taken. She lingers on one of Louis mid-PK, the green of the pitch and the red of the goalkeeper in front of him muted and blurred, the focus of the shot entirely on the strong stretch of his legs. “Zayn, look at this one. Lou’d have that printed and hung in his room, he'd love it so much.”

Zayn, still wordless in front of Harry to this point, takes the camera and studies the picture for a long few seconds. Harry feels like this is his moment of judgement, somehow, and holds his breath.

But then: “This is sick, mate,” Zayn says, even going so far as to sit up out of Liam’s lap and hunch a little to get closer to the screen. He catches Harry's eye. “D’you ever take any art classes? You have a good eye.”

“Uh, a couple, yeah,” Harry stammers, grinning uncontrollably.

Zayn nods his approval, hands Harry his camera back, and Harry feels like a novel on a bookshelf that's been granted Oprah’s golden seal of approval—he's suddenly a guaranteed bestseller.

The second half passes much the same as the first, Harry ruffling Niall's hair before heading out to slink around the sidelines once more. He gets caught up in the excitement of the match a little towards the end, pumping his fist enthusiastically when Louis places a beautiful shot in the upper right corner to put their team up, 3-2. The movement must catch Tommo's eye: he grins right at Harry for a long moment before clapping Stan and Ed on their shoulders, getting back to his place on the center line.

Harry’s back in the stands cheering along with Niall, Liam, and Babs as the final whistle blows, signaling another win for Captain Tomlinson and his merry band of men. The team mills around on the muddied grass before heading off for the dressing rooms, and the stands start to empty around Harry and Niall and their new group of sort-of friends. Cara stretches when she stands, sliding the thick scarf from around her neck and tying it around Zayn's instead. He takes it in stride from where he's tucked under Liam's arm, and grabs Cara by the belt loops of her jeans before calling to Babs, “Meet at the pub, yeah?” He doesn’t wait for an answer, just tugs Cara and Liam both toward the car park and waves a lazy hand behind him when Babs calls a goodbye.

“C’mon,” says Babs suddenly when it's just her, Niall, and Harry left staring at each other. She holds out a hand to Harry, and he hesitates only a moment before taking it. She, in turn, hesitates only a moment before offering her other hand to Niall. He doesn't hesitate at all before sliding his palm against hers.

Once the three of them are connected in a wonky chain, Babs leads them out onto the pitch, where, suddenly, Harry sees the figure she's pulling them toward and coughs a bit when he loses his breath. Tommo is freshly showered and scrubbed to a bright glow, his hair in damp waves across his forehead. He brightens when he sees Babs, though one eyebrow lifts slightly when he sees the cargo she's pulling behind her. His gaze follows her hand clasped in Harry's up his arm and straight to his eyes, settling there like he's comfortable among the green.  

“Hey, B,” he says easily. His voice is like bells, too. Raspy, shout-roughened bells. Harry swallows hard. “Make some new friends?”

“Hey, Lou,” Niall says. Louis looks away from Harry (and why does he suddenly feel like a thread broken in half?) and brightens immediately when he sees who's attached to his sister’s other hand.

“Nialler!” he cheers. “Where's Babs dig you up, then? Thought you had an exam tomorrow!”

Harry is sufficiently distracted from Tommo’s pretty glowing skin under the pitch lights, because what .

Niall knows Louis Tomlinson? Doesn't just know him, like, in a mumble hellos as they pass in the hallway kind of way, but a real way? A knows his exam schedule kind of way? A calls him Nialler kind of way?

Tommo pulls Niall in for a hug, slaps his back genially. Like old friends. Like affectionate old friends.

Harry is just. He's not offended, that would be ridiculous. It just doesn't make sense , and it doesn't make sense to such an extent that Harry's insides are all roiling with resentment and annoyance. But he's not offended. He's just irritated. Because what the fuck.

Harry tells Niall everything of import that happens during his day. As Harry's best friend, Niall is obliged to return the favor. And becoming close enough with Louis Tomlinson that hugs and nicknames are familiarities between them is most definitely something of import.

“Yeah, mate, it's tomorrow,” Niall answers easily, shocking Harry from his train of thought. Niall's still got one arm around Louis, his other hand still held by Babs. A Tommo sandwich, Harry thinks semi-hysterically. “But Hazza here asked me t’ come with him, thought I oughta tag along.”

“Hazza?” Louis asks interestedly. “Your Hazza?”

Well that's. Well.

Harry’s sufficiently distracted yet again.

Tommo knows who Harry is?

“My Hazza,” Niall agrees proudly. Finally turns to Harry, shoots him a grin. “Haz, this here is Louis Tomlinson. Lou, this is Harry.”

“It's about time,” Louis says, watching Harry through narrowed eyes like he might vanish at any moment, though he still directs his comments to Niall. “Thought you were making him up.”

“Harry's taking over as my new photographer for the special edition of the paper,” Babs says, and Louis looks her way, his other eyebrow raising to join the first.

This is that Harry?” Louis asks. Turns to Harry. “You're that Harry?”

There can't be that many Harrys out there, can there? “I'm that Harry,” he agrees, shaking Tommo's hand. Takes a breath, wonders what it is Tommo thinks he knows about him. “Apparently my reputation proceeds me.”

Tommo grins, tilts his head. Looks pointedly down at Harry's chest, the green of his shirt visible beneath his unbuttoned peacoat. “That's not the only thing, mate.”

Harry looks down; his nipples are vibrantly visible through his shirt, two impossible to ignore bumps ruining the otherwise smooth line of his chest. He feels himself go so warm all over that he’s pretty sure the coat isn’t necessary anymore. Something that sort of sounds like words falls out of his mouth in a jumble. “Ith-jst, mmwhat? Yeah.”

Tommo’s smirk grows wider, and Babs tries to hide a grin behind a yawn. Well, Harry thinks desperately. At least it can’t get worse.  It isn’t often he botches a first impression, but that’s a solid zero on the cool scale. Probably not the best way to get Louis Tomlinson to think he’s unattainably mysterious and gorgeous and start pining after him.

“Where are the other three?” Tommo asks. His arm is still around Niall’s shoulders. Not that, like, Harry noticed.

“At the pub already,” Babs answers. “Ready?”

“You two coming?” Tommo asks, and Harry has to blink a couple of times before he realizes he’s the one being asked.

“Er, uh,” he says, flicking a glance over at Niall, who widens his eyes meaningfully. “Sure?”

“Excellent!” Tommo cheers, and he and Niall set off, tugging Babs, who pulls Harry.

Who isn’t expecting to be yanked forward, and so trips over his boots and ends up sprawled across the muddy pitch.

“Oh, shit!” Tommo says, he and Niall (who is shaking with laughter, thanks a lot Neil) grabbing Harry by the arms and pulling him to his feet. Tommo brushes a few clumps of grass off of Harry’s coat, beating a swath of dirt off his sleeve. “Sorry, mate.”

“It’s fine,” Harry chokes, and it is. He just has to go home immediately and never be seen again. He’ll stuff his coat with a pillow and call himself Quasimodo, find a nice bell tower to live in. If it’s atop a cathedral, maybe he can put in an appearance at Niall and Tommo’s wedding, since that’s right on track now that Harry has tripped himself out of the running.

“Yeah?” asks Tommo, and up close he’s even more crushingly pretty. He smells like dew on the grass and devastation left in the wake of a charming smile. Harry sways a little, and Tommo grips him tighter around the arm.

Which. Honestly doesn’t help much.

When Harry nods, Tommo grins brightly. “Good. Can’t have that face all broken from a bit of a tumble.” And then he turns away, like it’s not that big of a deal that he told Harry he wants his face to be safe from danger. “To the pub!”

When they arrive at the pub, Harry slings an arm around Niall’s shoulders and holds him back from immediately following Babs and Tommo inside. Niall, used to Harry’s various oddities, obliges and hangs back for a moment.

The second Babs’ long hair swishes out of sight, Harry smacks Niall in the shoulder.

“Ow!” Niall cries out, clutching his upper arm. “Wha’ was that for?”

“For not telling me you’re best friends with Tommo!” Harry cries back.

Niall’s eyes narrow, and he echoes a punch to Harry’s arm, right on the bone so it hurts even worse. “Well then that’s for not telling me you’re best friends with the other Tommo.”

They eye each other for a long moment, the buzz of the neon sign above the door filling the silence.

“Truce?” Niall says warily.

“Truce.”

Inside, there are two open seats waiting for them at the table, one between Cara and Babs and the other between Louis and Zayn. Harry sends Niall a covert glance before biting his lip and sitting between the girls, assuming that Niall will want to sit by Tommo. Since they’re already friends and all. It’s fine. Niall shoots him a look (probably still mad about the shoulder punch, that wimp) and falls into his chair.

“A toast,” says Tommo, and Liam snorts. Tommo flicks him in the side of the head and holds up his half-empty glass of beer before continuing. “To new friends.”

“To new friends,” the rest of them echo, and bring their drinks to the middle in cheers.

When Tommo clinks his glass against Harry’s, their eyes lock. Neither of them break it as Tommo tips his head back and pulls long, steady drinks from his cup, his throat bobbing after each swallow. Harry does the same, feeling the heat bloom in his cheeks and neck when Tommo refuses to look away. Harry slides his glass back onto the table and leans forward to say something, anything, to break the taut tension between them when Cara lands a hand on his arm and asks him about the maths quiz they have in a couple of days.

The tension breaks then, but it doesn’t leave. It sizzles, right under the surface of Harry’s skin, and ignoring it somehow makes it worse. He’s never been as aware of another person as he is of Tommo, just two friends and a couple million miles between them.

Doesn’t seem to go both ways, though: Tommo spends the whole night talking to Niall.

“Nialler!” comes a cheer as Niall rounds the corner of the building, grinning widely at Louis where he’s perched on a low stretch of wall. “My favorite rulebreaker. Are you going to cut class every day this week?”

“It’s only English,” Niall answers, stealing the cigarette from Louis’ fingers and taking a drag. “I already speak it, see? Don’t need no more education.”

Louis snorts. “Right.” He takes his cigarette back and bats away Niall’s hand, muttering back off, you little thief.  He exhales a stream of cloudy gray smoke between them and says, “So tell me about your friend.”

It's Monday morning. Niall and Harry had spent hours with Louis and his group on Friday night after his match, lingering so long over mostly-empty pint glasses and dismantled baskets of greasy chips that their waitress had to shoo them out so she could close up for the night. Niall's not sure he can remember a time he laughed as much as he did situated there between Louis and Zayn like it was where he belonged. Harry fit right in as well, pretty as a picture between Cara and Babs.

That, by the way, was another thing that happened Friday night.

“Call me Babs,” she’d said, tucking a long strand of hair behind her ear after she'd passed him a salt shaker and he’d answered thanks, Tommo.

“Same for you,” Louis had said, reaching over Niall to poke Harry in the chest. “Strangers call me Tommo. You can call me Louis.”

It was good. A good night all around. Niall had sat on Liam's lap to feed him chips and Harry and Louis had gotten weirdly competitive and giggly over a game of darts with Babs and Cara and sometime around midnight Zayn tugged a tipsy Liam to his feet and nodded goodbye before they disappeared and some of Cara's other friends came and picked her up for a night out and then there were only four; Niall and Louis and Harry and Babs and a mostly empty pub. Words got slower and pauses became longer and the light got softer and-

And Babs hugged Harry goodbye, and Niall saw the way he closed his eyes when her arms wrapped around his neck. And he buried that thought deep, just like how he buried his face in Louis’ shoulder before they broke out of their own hug.

Niall blinks his way out of that minefield and looks over, but Louis is staring determinedly up at the clouds while looking very much like he’s trying not to care. Niall smirks, shrugs grandly. “Which one? I have lots of friends, Tommo.”

“Twat,” Louis said, but his lips twitch around his cigarette. “Your Hazza. Where'd you find him?”

Niall lets his grin settle as he hops up on the wall next to Louis, kicking his feet against the bricks. He thought he’d seen something there; Harry’s like that, he attracts second glances like flowers attract bees. Niall wasn’t shocked when, through the course of the night, Louis started watching Harry over the rim of his glass, when started hanging on the edge of every one of Harry's slow dropped sentences, when he made an arbitrary excuse to drag Harry into a game of darts, leading him over to the board with a hand on Harry’s lower back. He’s not even sure Harry noticed—a real social butterfly, that one, and he lights up under attention, there would have been no way he could’ve hidden it.

“I found him in a garden when I was a kid, watered him for a while and he sprouted into a hipster with too-long legs,” Niall answers, nudging Louis with his elbow.

Louis kicks lightly at Niall’s ankle. “You’re ridiculous.”

“You asked where I found him, I’m just tellin’ you the answer,” Niall replies serenely. “I found him as just a tiny seedling, fit in the palm of me hand, he did, and-”

“Alright, alright,” Louis laughs. “Was just curious.”

Niall grins again, hides it in his shoulder. “Mhmm.”

Tommo’s got a crush, it seems.

That Thursday, Harry and Niall show up to Louis’ footie match to find Babs brought extra blankets just for them and that Cara and Zayn saved them seats. Like they were expected to be there. Like they’re already integral to the group.

Harry starts spending his free periods in the newsroom, since Niall’s got English then and he goes to that class most of the time and Babs is always grateful for an extra set of eyes while she’s putting the paper together. She’s good at it, has a good eye for design and how things should fit, and they can get her work done in half the time when Harry helps. Harry brings his camera and takes pictures of her as she works, leaning over one of her writers’ shoulders as she helps edit a paragraph, crossed-legged in the center of a storm of rewrites and potential front page photo options, curled up in her massive editor’s chair and napping like a cat.

He’s never without his camera now, not since he and Niall somehow became a part of this group of beautiful humans. He takes pictures of Cara doing her nails in maths, pictures of Niall and Liam hunched over Niall’s guitar and singing covers of old favorite songs, pictures of Zayn and his hand on Cara’s wrist, Louis’ hip, Liam’s waist. So many pictures of Louis, Louis laughing and Louis singing with Niall and Liam and Louis playing football and Louis with his head on Babs’ shoulder, smiling sleepily at Harry’s camera.

One day, Niall and Harry are heading to their usual place in the courtyard for lunch when Babs grabs Harry’s wrist and says, “C’mon, you two. Sit with us.”

Settling onto a small patch of grass, Niall by his side, Liam ruffling his hair,  Louis and Babs both grinning at him from across their little circle, has never felt more like coming home.

Harry’s phone buzzes on the table and Niall glances up, swallowing a little when he sees Babs’ name on the screen. He looks back down at his book, scratching a little lightning bolt pattern in the margins of his paper and ordering his heart to get out of his stomach and back where it belongs. “What’s going on?”

Harry snickers down at his phone, typing out a quick answer to Babs’ message before looking up at Niall. “B and Louis are grabbing dinner, wanted to know what we were up to.”

“Yeah?” Niall perks up, dropping his pencil. “Excellent, I’m starving.”

You just had most of a pizza and have written none of your paper,” Harry says, picking Niall’s pencil up and pushing it back into his hand, reaching over and forcibly curling Niall’s fingers around it when he doesn’t move. “We will see them tomorrow. Do your homework.”

Niall grumbles but flips to his next page, dropping his chin to rest on his fist. Harry chuckles when Niall sighs loudly, but he’s distracted when his phone vibrates again. Niall reads about half of his next sentence, then gives up all pretense of doing anything except obsessing over the sound of Harry’s phone buzzing.

“So how’s that going?” he asks, twirling his pencil. He aims for nonchalant, but he’s not quite sure he hits it.

“What?”

“That,” he says, nodding his head toward Harry’s phone which vibrates yet again. “With Babs. How is all... that?”

“Oh.” Harry tugs at his fringe, scrunching up his face. “Good? I don’t know, Ni, you see her just as much as I do. She’s fine.”   

“Well that’s just untrue,” says Niall, dropping his pencil again. “You hang out with her constantly.”

“I do not,” Harry says, holding his hand to his chest like he’s affronted at the accusation. Like it’s a bad thing. The drama, honestly. “If there’s anyone here hanging out with a Tomlinson more than anyone else, it’s you.”

Niall gapes at him. “What?”

“Louis asked me the other day how you plan to pass English since you never go,” Harry says triumphantly, like he’s throwing down a gauntlet. “He says you skip class and hang out with him almost every day!”

Niall throws up his hands in frustration. “Why does it even matter? You get to hang out with Babs all the time, I can hang out with Louis.”

“That’s not how it works,” Harry cries, and Niall’s about to tell him that’s exactly how it works, and Harry can’t be mad that he doesn’t get to have both Tommos when he’s already got the one Niall wants so badly his teeth ache with it. Harry won, and Niall hates thinking in those terms because Babs can make her own decisions and she isn’t an object for the two of them to fight over, but she chose Harry and so Harry won.

He could’ve had either of them, really; when Harry’s laughing with Babs, he’s being watched by Louis, and he doesn’t even notice. So Niall gets Louis, because Harry got Babs. That’s how it works.

He’s about to say all that, but there’s a knock on the door to stop him.

Harry and Niall glare at each other from across the table until Anne calls, “Harry! Your friends are here!”

And in walk, naturally enough, Louis and Babs.

“Whoa,” says Louis, raising his eyebrows immediately. “Not getting great vibes in here. Are we interrupting?”

“No,” Harry says after a moment, looking away from Niall after a long pause. “What’s up?”

Babs holds up a bag. “Ni, we brought you Nandos.”

“And chocolate for Harry,” Louis says, holding up a smaller bag.

And all is not forgiven. But—

“Thanks, Lou,” Harry says, a little shyly, dimples out, and Niall shakes it off.

Harry's his best friend. He's gonna get the girl, probably. And it'll hurt. But he's still Niall's best friend, and a little hurt isn't enough to give up this: Louis perching on the arm of Harry's chair, trying to filch some of his treats, laughing delightedly when Harry flails a little too hard and drops a chocolate biscuit on the floor.

“You got me Nandos?” Niall asks Babs, and she grins.

“Tell me I'm wonderful,” she says, rattling the bag just out of his reach.

“The most wonderful.”

“And the kindest.”

“Like Snow White, you are.”

“The most perfect person on Earth.”

“An actual angel,” Niall promises. “Perfection in human form.”

She smirks like she's won something and tosses Niall his food. He doesn't bother trying to convince himself that he was exaggerating.

Harry lifts his camera to his face, waits for an opportune moment; presses down, holds the boxy camera steady in his hands as the old Polaroid starts whirring and spits out a white square into his hands.

Babs looks up, rolls her eyes. “Do you not have enough pictures of me? Honestly, H.”

“Never,” Harry grins. The colors start to fade in, and he watches as the outline of Babs, pencil tapping against her lip, slowly appears in the photo. He pins it up on the corkboard over her desk, right between one of Zayn and Niall napping back to back, using each other's shoulders for pillows, and one of Louis wearing Cara's white bug-eyed sunglasses and Harry's headscarf tied around his neck like he's a flight attendant.

Harry perches on Babs’ desk, rifling through her papers for something fun. They've only really been friends a few weeks, sure, but Harry's always been quick to friendship, and this new group is no exception. He and Niall have a knack for making themselves at home; luckily, they found people willing to let them stay. “Got anything interesting to read?”

Babs digs through a nearby pile of second drafts of the week’s stories, locating a lengthy feature piece on the theatre program’s debut of Peter Pan without ever taking her eyes off a different article held in her hands.

It's quiet as Harry skims the article, only the sounds of rustling paper and the scratch of Barbara’s pen between them, and Harry’s not planning on finding anything interesting until his eyes catch on a sentence including his understudy, Louis Tomlinson and he has to go back and start over, his stomach flipping just at the mention of Louis’ name.

Unfortunately, prolonged exposure to Louis has only made Harry's monolithic crush even worse. He finds himself watching, grinning madly, as Louis spends their entire lunch period speaking only in song titles just to make Liam scrunch up his face in confusion when he can’t place a reference. He goes pink-cheeked when Louis slings his arm over his shoulder, stuttery when Louis thumbs a bit of sugary tea from the corner of his lip, weak-kneed when Louis tosses him a wink when he spots Harry on the sideline of his footie matches.

Sometimes, Harry thinks, there's something there. The spark in his belly isn't just happening to him, surely. Surely Louis feels that rush too, that blossoming heat in his blood when their fingers brush.

But no. No, Louis treats Harry like a best friend—and it's an amazing thing, so wonderful, Harry wouldn't trade his friendship with Louis for anything—and there's no room for anything else. Not between them.

But Niall-

Louis adores Niall. It’s the clearest thing in the world, obvious in their comfort together, the way they fall into step like it’s instinctual. Harry and Louis still have something that keeps them from that, something about the way Louis watches Harry making things more loaded with possibility, more intense. Just more. Like magnets with the same pole, an invisible force pushing them back—maybe that’s Harry’s crush, a barrier keeping them apart. Louis and Niall’s friendship is easy, whatever is between Louis and Harry is something else. Weighted.  

Which is fine. It's good. Niall clearly loves Louis back, so it's great.

Anyway.

Harry rereads the article more slowly this time, lingering over the details about the intricacies of this teenaged version of Pan, the work that’s gone into it and the cast putting it on, until he catches on the sentence that hooked his attention. This is Tom Johnson’s second time playing the lead role in a school production, though the first for his understudy, Louis Tomlinson. The role of Wendy went to Angelina Jones…

“Louis is in a play?” Harry asks blankly. Babs glances up from her article, raises an eyebrow at him again. He pokes her in the temple for giving him that look.

“Yes, Hazza,” she says, flicking him on the wrist in retaliation. “Honestly, he’s been talking about it for ages. Do you actually hear the words he’s saying when you’re staring at his mouth?”

“But he’s playing Peter Pan,” Harry says, ignoring her unsubtle comment about Harry’s fascination with Louis just like he does all the rest thrown his way. “That’s amazing! It’s perfect for him.”

“Peter Pan’s understudy,” Babs corrects. She flicks a paper to the side and grabs another. “He couldn’t get a lead role, he’s got football.”

Harry shifts, picks at his lip. “Couldn’t he do both?”

He gets another pointed look for that. “Not when he’s captain, he can’t.” She shuffles her pages, taps her pen against her desk. Says, almost like he’s not supposed to hear it, “I wish he could’ve, though.”

“Could’ve what?”

“Could’ve gotten a real part,” she answers. “He’s good, Haz. He could do theatre for a living, if he wanted.”

“He’s that good?” It’s not hard to picture, Louis on stage illuminated by spotlights, beaming brightly with roses at his feet. Bringing a crowd to laughter, to tears.

Babs smiles softly. “Better.” And then her smile drops, a little. “But he can’t have two passions that try to take over his life. Football’s bad enough.”

But… “Why not?” Harry asks. He thinks of his own passions, photography, of course, but writing and reading and baking and singing and how all of these seem to fit into his own life just fine. Why can’t Louis do the same?

Babs shrugs, fits her thumb where Harry’s dimple usually appears. “Dunno, love. I dunno.”

Then she clears her throat. “Speaking of people with mysterious motives—how’s, um. How’s Niall?”

What?

Oh.

Oh.

Harry puts down the Peter Pan article. “He’s fine. You saw him at lunch.”

“Yeah,” she says, concentrating incredibly hard on the article in front of her, though her eyes aren’t moving on the page. “I did.”

A grin tugs at the corner of Harry’s mouth. “So what are you asking?”

Babs looks up, sees the grin, and throws her pen at Harry’s nose. “Nothing.”

Harry’s grin is full-fledged, now, even though his nose is stinging. “Really.”

Really.”

“Barbara,” Harry says soothingly, “if you wanna gossip about how cute Niall is, we totally can. I have lots of material to support the claim that he’s actually a baby lion in disguise.”

“God, no,” Babs groans, covering her face. “We are not going to gossip about boys. You’re ridiculous.”

“You brought it up,” Harry shrugs easily, still grinning.

“Shut up, Harry.”

He grins and picks up another article. It’s cute Babs has a crush, and Harry’s no stranger to guiding Niall toward the people who are looking at him like they want to take him home to meet the parents; Callie was a good example, she’d wheedled tidbits about Niall out of Harry for months when they had Algebra together and flirted so overtly that even Harry was blushing when she left, until Harry finally told Niall you need to figure out what you’re doing with Callie because she’s driving me mad and Niall had asked, Callie likes me?

He could easily do the same with Babs; Niall probably just hasn’t seen the way she can’t help but smile when he laughs, and the way she always saves him a little bit of her lunch when she knows it’s something he likes. She’d spent a whole evening once downloading her favorite Spanish music on his phone because he’d asked for some recommendations.

It’s weird, though, that he hasn’t seen any of those same signs in Niall, those ones Harry could name in his sleep. Niall has a few distinct things he does around the people he likes: learning their favorite songs on guitar, going giggly red every time they speak no matter how funny what they’re saying actually is,  memorizing their Starbucks order and pulling the old, oh, they gave me an extra, do you like venti mocha fraps too?  

Actually, no. Harry has seen all those signs recently.

They were just pointed at Louis, instead of Babs.

And suddenly, all Harry’s happy imaginings about pushing Niall and Babs into the metaphorical closet and setting the metaphorical timer to seven minutes all fly right out the open window. And Harry loves Niall, would die for him if he asked, would kill for him even if he didn’t, but Babs is his friend too. He can’t stand to see her hurt, not by anyone; if Niall’s in love with her brother, she should know.

Right?

Harry opens his mouth a couple of times, but he has no idea how to start this. How does he break a heart in order to save it?

Free period ends, Harry quietly gathers his stuff for chemistry class, and he never does figure out an answer.

At Louis’ next football match, Liam brings Harry and Niall’s favorite snacks and Cara passes Niall her extra flask and Zayn snuggles into Harry’s side for warmth when Liam gets up to run to the restroom.

When Harry starts to stand as the whistle blows and the match begins, Babs slides her hand around his wrist and looks up at him, eyes wide. “You’ve probably got enough pictures for the special edition of the paper by now, don’t you?”

Niall sees Harry’s lips twitch. “Probably, yeah.”

Babs grins widely. “Good. Stay here,” she says, holding up the edge of her blanket. “Hang out with us instead.”

Harry laughs, brings his camera to his face to snap a picture of her pout, and tucks himself against her side as the match gets underway.

The next day at school, Louis is quiet when Niall finds him, two cigarette butts already on the ground by his shoes and a third one between his lips. He’s quiet for a long time, and Niall lets him be.

“He likes Babs, doesn’t he,” he says eventually, and it isn’t a question, but he still deserves an answer.

“Yeah,” Niall says, doesn’t follow it up with platitudes or an I’m sorry. Louis doesn’t want it, and Niall knows he doesn’t need it, either.

“So,” Harry says nonchalantly, stealing a corner from Louis’ sandwich and smiling innocently when Louis gives him an unimpressed look. “Tom Johnson. Could I take him in a fight?”

Louis sizes Harry up without asking why it is Harry has suddenly decided to solve his problems with violence. Harry feels it like a physical touch when Louis’ eyes sweep from the pinky-purple scarf tied in his curls to the star-patterned socks sticking out of the top of his boots. “Eh. Probably.”

“Good,” Harry says, popping a crisp into his mouth. It’s quiet in the little cafe near the school, which is why they’re here. Mid-term projects are upon them all, and so Zayn’s typing furiously on his laptop with headphones over his ears, and Liam’s taken up a table by himself, papers and textbooks spread across every inch of the table’s surface. Niall has taken a laissez-faire approach to homework, he’s decided, or at least that’s what he called what he was already going to do when he came across a phrase that fit him perfectly, and Babs, naturally, already has all her homework done and so is reading a biography of Judy Garland with her legs thrown across Niall’s lap.

“Are you going to make me ask, then?” Louis says, taking a sip of his tea . When Harry only raises his eyebrows in cool indifference (or so he likes to think), Louis continues, “Fine. Tell me, Harry, why it is you’d like to beat up Tom Johnson.”

“Well,” Harry says archly, tracing the rim of his own coffee cup. “If Tom Johnson were to suddenly find himself with some sort of non-life threatening but still highly visible injury, his understudy in the school play would have to take his spot.”

Louis takes a long sip of his tea, his eyes fixed on Harry. “And you’re going to be the one who gives him this non-life threatening but highly visible injury?”

“Well,” Harry says. He refuses to sound sheepish. “No. I could tell Liam he made fun of my hair or something. Or tell Niall he said Ireland sucks.” Louis snorts, shakes his head. “But I could do it! If I wanted to.”

“Right,” Louis laughs. “Mr. Sunrise Yoga is going to punch people out. Okay.”

“I’d do a lot more to see you in green tights,” Harry says, waggling his eyebrows. Louis snorts again but breaks his gaze with Harry, biting his lip as he grins down at his plate of half-finished food.

“I can’t make it to enough rehearsals to actually be the understudy,” he says after a quiet moment. “Tommy’s good at the role, he makes a good Pan. I only got the understudy role because my mate Stan’s the director and he knows I was interested.”

“But you’d be so good, Lou,” Harry says, and he isn’t even embarrassed at the earnestness in his voice. “Even if you don’t know all the lines, or whatever. You could improvise an entire new play, I bet it’d be brilliant.”

“That’s not how it works, Hazza,” Louis says, but he’s grinning. He spins his cup of tea, the handle brushing the back of Harry’s hand every time it rotates. It’s not Louis’ fingers but it’s ceramic warmed by them; there’s got to be some sort of transitive property that makes that equal to Louis brushing touches to Harry’s knuckles.

“What’s your dream role?” Harry asks. “If football wasn’t a thing at all and you could do any role, what would it be?”

Louis bites his lip, looks up at Harry through his eyelashes. “There’s actually, um. In the spring, when footie’s over either way, the theatre department is doing Grease.” He spins his cup again, it brushes Harry’s hand again. “That’s m’ favorite movie, y’know. I’ve always wanted to be Danny Zuko.”

“Lou,” Harry gasps. “You have to do it. You have to.”

“I dunno,” Louis shrugs. “I don’t think I’m good enough, honestly. And I don’t really have experience.”

“You? Not good enough to be a T-Bird?” Harry says, scandalized. He holds his hand to his chest in outrage. “Playing the coolest kid in school, able to make normal cars fly with ease,” and Louis is laughing now, but his eyes are bright and he looks so happy, Harry can’t help but grin back. “Total badass with a heart of gold. That’s you, Tommo. Hate to break it to you.”

“Maybe,” Louis allows. He stops spinning his cup, and his fingers are centimeters from Harry’s. The distance between them is both insurmountable and the easiest thing to breach in the world. Harry’s fingers slide, almost without his permission, toward Louis’.

But then Louis pulls back, smiling softly, and grabs his empty cup to take it up to the counter for a refill.

And Harry’s fingertips ache with missed possibilities.

There’s a reason cell phones were invented, see, and that reason is because when Niall has a brilliant idea for a Vine that will totally go viral, it will, he should be able to summon his best friend from wherever he is out doing his own thing to aid Niall in his moment of need.

Okay, maybe that’s not the main reason. But it’s a reason, and it’s important, and basically Harry has decided to not be in constant contact with Niall and that is unacceptable.

Niall bursts into the newsroom before he realizes they might be in the middle of some sort of super secret newspaper meeting or, like, Harry might have finally made his move and he and Babs could be kissing and that is not something Niall needs to subject himself to-

But no, the newsroom is empty.

Or, so it seems at first glance. At the second glance, Niall sees a flurry of movement in the corner, and steps further inside to inspect the situation.

Babs is kneeling amongst a scattered ring of papers, looking more frazzled than Niall has ever seen her. She’s got two pens, a red and a blue, stuck behind her ear, another red one stuck through the bun in her hair, her eyes frantic as they scan page after page, each one tossed aside when she’s finished.

“Erm,” says Niall, “need some help?”

Babs startles and throws her handful of papers, staring wild-eyed up at Niall. “What?” she asks, her voice little more than a croak. When she sees who it is, she pats at her hair, though Niall will never tell her how ineffectual that is against the pieces escaping from the bun. “Oh, Niall. Harry’s not here, he had a study group.”

“Can I help?” Niall tries again. Then he looks around, taking in the empty room. “Or… find one of your team to help instead?”

“No one can help,” Babs half-mutters, grabbing a new stack of papers. “I’ve got space on the front page that needs to be filled, and not one decent article to put there.” She scrubs a hand over her forehead, looking exhausted. “Three of my writers are out sick, my assistant editor is on holiday, and the rest didn’t bother to show.”

“There’s nothing useable in there?” Niall asks, pointing at the ring of paper.

Babs laughs, and it sounds only slightly manic. “Not a one.” She flips through her options like something new might have appeared in the last few minutes, and then stops. Her eyes flit rapidly over the page, and then she looks quickly up at Niall like she’s assessing his worth. “You know music, don’t you?”

“I’ve heard of it, yeah,” Niall laughs. Babs does not. “Okay, not a joking time. Yeah, I know a fair bit. What do you need?”

Babs stands, brushing off her clothes and handing Niall the article she’d reread. “Someone did a review of the latest Coldplay album, but it makes no sense. Can you fix it?”

Niall reads over the jumble of words; the whole thing reads like someone with no music knowledge googled a bunch of music terms and threw them in without bothering to read the definitions. Martin’s use of scales and arpeggios is masterful, and his staccato style with the treble is unsurpassed.

“No, I can’t fix this,” he says, and Babs’ shoulders sag. “But I can write my own. I like th’ album, I can do a review.”

“You can?” Babs gasps. She flings her arms around Niall’s neck and squeezes him tight. “Oh, thank you, thank you!”

She steers Niall to an empty computer and he just. He writes. He writes in a constant drum of fingers against keys, not even stopping for spelling or grammar errors, just focused on getting his words out. It feels more like a stream of consciousness about Niall’s process of listening to the album than anything else, definitely not a structured critique but the best he can do under short notice. And… it’s fun, which is strange, because Niall hates writing assignments with a passion, couldn’t give a rat’s arse about documenting his feelings on Shakespeare’s symbolism. But this, this is just taking conversations he’s had with Haz and Lou and Liam about the album and translating it to the page, and it’s amazing.

He hits print and holds his breath as Babs grabs the warm paper off the printer’s tray, scanning quickly over Niall’s work.

“Ni,” she says, and her brow furrows. Niall’s stomach drops—did he do it wrong? Is that even possible?—until Babs looks up, wide-eyed. “This is brilliant.”

What.

“It is?”

Babs nods, goes back to reading. “You documented your experience of listening to an album for the first time from memory, and you actually have the musical knowledge to back it up. These insights are brilliant, I can’t believe... This is amazing, Nialler, honestly.”

“It is?” Niall repeats, dumbstruck.

Babs grins and throws her arms around Niall’s neck again, and he, in his excitement, picks her up and twirls her, just the once. When she’s back on the ground, she holds Niall out at arm’s length and beams at him.

“You are my savior,” she says, crinkles appearing in the corners of her eyes. “I owe you, big time.”

Niall laughs it off, but he wonders what she’d say if he told her the truth; that being here with her, when she’s looking at him like that, is more of a reward than he ever thought he’d get.

“You’ve been weird,” Babs says, wrinkling her nose as she bypasses a mud puddle, tiptoeing around the remnants from last night’s rainstorm. Harry doesn’t bother doing the same, his wellies keeping his socks dry and, really, that’s all he can ask of them.

“Have not,” he rebuts immediately, then, “How’ve I been weird?”

He doesn’t have to look her way to know she’s shrugging, so he doesn’t bother. He’s got his camera up to his eye anyway, catching Louis’ profile as he pauses near the center line, watching his defense move with sharp eyes. Harry zooms in until the sweat on Louis’ face is clear, dripping from the ends of his fringe. He’s so caught in it that he almost misses Babs’ next comment.

“You’ve just been weird,” she says testily. “You’re avoiding talking to me about something, and you can’t lie for shit. I know it has to do with Niall, just spit it out.”

Ah. That.

“Um,” he says, focusing on getting a good angle as the other team makes a run at Ed in the goal.

“So there is something,” Babs says triumphantly, pointing an accusing finger at Harry. He knows she does this—even without pulling his camera away from his eye—because her finger slices right in front of his lens and ruins his shot. He lowers his camera and sighs.

“I just… I'm a little caught, here,” he says helplessly. “I don't want either of you to get hurt.”

She goes quiet at that, trailing along in Harry's wake as he crouches to get a good ground-level shot of Stan and an opposing player battling it out.

“So, you're saying what you know could hurt me,” she finally says, and Harry stays quiet. “But it could hurt him, too.”

“That could be anything,” he protests. “That could mean a potential for a hurricane tomorrow, it doesn't have to mean anything specific to you two.”

Is there a hurricane?”

Harry grumbles a “No,” under his breath.

“I didn't think so.” Babs jumps lightly over another puddle, her hand splayed daintily. “So it's something to do with us specifically. Is,” she stops, and he can almost hear her constructing her question in her head. “Is there someone else?”

Harry swallows but doesn't answer; Babs was right, he's a shit liar.

“There is,” Babs says, sounding a little shocked. Harry drops his camera to let it hang around his neck and turns. Babs has her hand up to cover her mouth, like she never thought it could be true. “But I thought- I thought we-”

Harry wraps her in a hug, and she clings tightly to him for a long second. Harry hates this, hates it so much, for several different reasons but the main one is that it causes this, Babs’ hot tears spread through his shirt. Against his shoulder, she clears her throat and asks another question: “Is it Louis?”

Harry still doesn't have an answer for her. All he can say is, “I'm sorry.”

Babs spends a minute in his arms, clutching at his jacket sleeves and trying to pretend she's not sniffling. Then, “It's not your fault. I thought- but no. He's.” A deep breath. “It's fine.”

Harry knows how it feels, and it's not fine. Niall has Louis now, and Louis has Niall, and Babs and Harry have, well. They have each other. They can breathe deep, and they can decide not to let it matter. They can breathe out, and they can move on.

When Babs pulls out of Harry's arms, he picks up his camera again and focuses on the pitch once more, letting her have a moment to pull her walls back up and scrape them into place, maybe throw some cement at the foundations to keep them upright. It’s a weird place they’re in; caught between wanting to be happy for your best friend and wanting so badly for the cause of their happiness to be aimed at you instead.

His lens finds Louis automatically at a break in the action, and his heart jumps and falls when he finds Louis already looking his way. For a long moment, Louis watches him and Babs—her hand still tangled in his coat sleeves—with an unreadable expression.

When Harry turns to take a picture of the crowd, he finds Niall doing the same thing.

Harry’s got a large folder under one arm, a box wrapped in green paper under the other, and is trying to balance his food and books with T-rex arms as he makes his slow way over to where the rest of the group is settling in for lunch. Niall, who has been around Harry long enough he's developed a sixth sense to tell him when things are going to go horribly wrong, can see the wobbling of Harry’s arms from a mile away.  

“Christ,” he says, jumping to his feet. “You idiot, you’re going to drop everything. Hold on.” He slides the folder and the present out from Harry’s arms and passes them to Liam, then clears the rest of Harry’s belongings out of his arms before it all collapses to the ground. When Harry sits, Niall hands him his water, his food, and his phone, and puts the rest of it a safe distance away. Harry pouts up at him, but Niall just pats his head and nudges his books a little further out of a spill radius.

“What’s all this, then?” Liam asks, hefting the folder and shaking it like it’s Christmas morning and he's trying to guess his gifts.

“Pictures,” Harry answers cheerfully, uncapping his water bottle. “I get my best stuff printed for my portfolio.”

“Harry, mate, these are sick,” Liam says, sliding the photos out carefully. Zayn leans over his shoulder interestedly, stopping him from flipping through so quickly so he can inspect the details a little longer.

Harry goes pink. “Thanks.”

Louis is not so easily deterred. “And what’s that?” he asks, pointing at the rectangular green package in Liam’s lap.

Harry goes pinker. “Oh. That’s, um. That’s for you.”

The circle of people goes, if possible, a little quieter. Niall feels his brows furrow, and, across from him, Babs’ do the same. Louis looks startled, a bit apprehensive.

“Me?” he asks. When Harry nods, he shifts a little and reaches out his hand. Liam hands him the package carefully, and the whole group watches it pass from hand to hand. Louis runs his hands over the crisp wrapping paper. “This looks really nice.”

If there was a color redder than red, Harry’s skin would be that shade. He picks at his lip like he’s nervous, and Niall is still so confused. “I, erm, I really like wrapping things? Like, gifts.”

Well, at least that’s not a lie. Every Christmas, Niall buys Harry’s gift, sticks it in a box, and takes it to Harry to wrap for himself. He used to feel bad, but Harry told him it was like the prequel to getting to open the gift, that he loves choosing bows and zipping his scissors to make the ribbon extra curly. Niall doesn't get it, but. There's a lot of things about Harry that Niall doesn't get.

Louis tears the paper carefully, which is not anything Niall would ever expect from him, and it’s so gentle it’s almost timid. When one full side is opened, he slips his hand and pulls out-

It’s a frame. A large, simple black frame with a single photo inside, and Niall can hear Louis’ breath catch from several feet away.

“Is that from the first match you came to?” Babs asks Harry, looking over Louis’ shoulder. Louis is fishmouthing, his mouth agape as he stares down at the photo.

“Let us see, Lou,” Zayn urges, and Louis turns the frame around.

It is a photo from the first match Harry and Niall had went to, a shot of Louis taking a penalty kick, the green of the pitch and the red of the goalkeeper’s shirt blurred in front of him, his green jersey and tan legs and muddied white socks in focus. In fact, it’s the photo Babs had shown to Zayn, the one-

The one she’d specifically said Louis would like best. That he’d hang in his bedroom, if he had a copy.

Louis looks up at Harry for a long, long time while everyone else studies the picture in his new frame. Harry stares back, biting his lip like he’s anxious to hear Louis’ thoughts.

Louis opens his mouth to answer, but before he does, he flickers his glance at Niall.

And Niall knows; he and Louis haven’t been friends long, but he can read that look. Louis is just as lost as Niall is. wondering what it is Harry’s trying to do. He likes Babs, he’d said so all those weeks ago when he and Niall watched her laugh at Louis’ antics from across the courtyard. And yet here he is, giving gifts to Louis right in front of her, waiting for Louis’ approval like it’s necessary.

Niall had never thought Harry would be the kind to string anyone along and break their heart, but now he’s not so sure.

Louis hasn’t known Niall very long either, but he seems to be able to read Niall’s thoughts plain as day on his face, because his expression shutters closed.

“Thanks,” he says quietly.

Niall watches Harry’s shoulders hunch inward, and he’s never been so unsettled.

Autumn chill has made her arrival, and so Harry bundles himself up with scarves and gloves and hats in the mornings to wait outside for Niall to arrive. They’ve always walked to school together, have done for years, and even though things are stilted and weird between them, that still continues.

Harry hates that he’s the one who caused the awkwardness, but he had to try. He’d been choosing pictures for his portfolio when he’d run across that one, and. Well, maybe it hadn’t gone so well. Lunch had been more than awkward after Louis had opened it, and Harry hadn’t looked up from his food through the rest of lunch, picking at his chips and bracing himself from the hot feeling of other eyes watching him.

He’d thought, for a minute, that maybe it would work. Work to do what, Harry couldn’t tell, but he thought something might happen. But it had taken one look, a quick flicker of a look from Louis to Niall, and Harry knew it was moot.

So now they’re here, and everything is weird. Harry doesn’t know if Niall and Louis are holding off from starting whatever they’re headed toward because of him or not, but it feels that way. Liam and Cara send Harry pitying looks when he’s around, and though Zayn never says anything, he watches Harry carefully over the rim of his drinks or through the smoke from his cigarettes.

Niall tries to pretend it’s not awkward, going weirdly hearty every time they speak, clapping Harry on the back like he’s a jovial uncle greeting his confused nephew.

And Louis, well. Harry just tries to stay out of Louis’ way, just to make it easier.

At least he’s got Babs. The one consolation.

Harry’s pulled from his thoughts by Niall’s arrival, his good morning elbow to Harry’s ribs. They fall into step as they march toward the school, yawning and sniffling but otherwise quiet.

But Harry- Harry’s sort of fed up. These past few weeks have been the strangest of his life, somehow  both the highlight of his seventeen years and his biggest mistake at the same time. Two months ago, Harry pined for Louis Tommo from afar and spent his days wasting time until Niall came up with an adventure for the two of them. There weren’t any love triangles or love squares or whatever the fuck this is, no second guessing what he could say around Niall or do in front of his friends.

And, really, loving Louis Tomlinson—because this has to be love, right? This ache that goes deeper than his bones, this need to be around him even when it’s not in Harry’s best interest, that has to be love. That smile that works itself onto his face when Louis announces his arrival into Harry’s day, that can’t be anything but love—is both harder and easier up close. When Louis is right there, the immediacy of him is almost too much. He overwhelms Harry and baffles him, like staring at the sun through the lens of his camera: dangerous, overpowering. Bewildering in its intensity. And yet, when the possibility exists that Harry can reach out and touch Louis, when he’s so close that Harry can feel the heat of him, it wipes out anything that isn’t Louis in his mind. It’s a flash of white light to the senses, it’s a reset button. Louis smiles, and Harry forgets that there’s pain attached to it.

Whether loving Louis up close is a good thing or a bad thing for Harry’s poor beaten heart, he’s done with tiptoeing around his best friend and flinching away from his new friends. He wants things to go back to normal; he swung for the fences, but the fences were too far. He fell flat; Louis chose Niall. But he’s standing again, and this is him dusting himself off.

“Ni,” Harry says. It’s the first words they’ve spoken to each other, though they’ve been walking for fifteen minutes. The gates of the school loom in the distance. “Can we just- can we just forget all of this, for a little while?”

Niall shoots him a scrunched look of confusion. “Forget wha’?”

Harry waves his hand vaguely. “This. All of it. Things are weird, Nialler, and I hate that. Can we just, like, forget about the stuff with Louis and, and Babs, just for a minute?” Niall doesn’t answer for a while, his expression still clouded, and Harry sighs. “I miss you, mate. We haven’t talked normally in ages, and this shit is tiring. Aren’t you tired?”

“Yeah,” Niall finally says, knocking his shoulders with Harry’s. “I am, you’re right.” He chuckles a little. “Things were so much easier when it was just the two of us.”

“Aw, Niall,” Harry laughs, pulling Niall in for a one-armed hug as they enter the building, heading for the hallway with their lockers. “It’ll always be the two of us against the rest of the world, you know that.”

“Careful,” Niall snorts. “You’ll make someone jealous.”

Harry immediately wants to stiffen and pull back, but he won’t. This is Niall, his best friend since forever, he’s not going to balk at hugging him. In fact.

“Oi,” Niall huffs as Harry flings his arms around him, “geroff me, you useless lump.”

“Such sweet nothings so early in the morning,” comes a voice, and Harry leans away from Niall’s flailing arms to find Louis and Babs watching them in amusement, Louis’ arm thrown over his sister’s shoulder.

“Nialler adores poetry,” Harry says archly, as though he isn’t maneuvering Niall into a headlock as he says it. “It’s the best way for him to come to terms with the morning.”

“Understandable,” Babs grins. She bends at the waist so she’s eye level with Niall and tilts her head. “Morning, Ni. Sleep well?”

Niall surprises Harry with an elbow and Harry releases his hold with an oof, the books under his arm clattering to the floor. Niall, red-faced, says, “I did, thanks. How about yourself?”

Louis crouches to help Harry gather his things as Niall and Babs joke about being woken up by the same text from Harry at two in the morning (he thought he’d seen a shooting star, but it turned out to just be a reflection from a car’s headlights). Louis and Harry both reach for the last book at the same time and their hands collide, both of them stuttering out half-apologies and Harry pulling his hand back out of instinct. Louis grabs the book and flips it over; it’s Harry’s copy of The Princess Bride, still worn, still tattered, still well loved. He expects a smart comment from Louis about reading books for fun, but instead he gets a soft smile.

“I love this story,” Louis says. They’re still crouched down by Babs and Niall’s knees, but they might as well be the only people in the world. “It’s one of my favorites.”

“It’s my favorite,” Harry says breathlessly. His heart is doing strange things beneath his ribcage.

“I love that line, um, the one that goes, ‘Love is many things, none of them logical,’” Louis says, and he almost sounds shy . Harry is fascinated by this new facet of Louis’, the one that reads fairytales and memorizes his favorite parts. “But my favorite part is where he’s talking about the most perfect kisses. Always made me want one too, y’know?” Louis grins deprecatingly. “Haven’t gotten one yet, but I hold out hope.” He stands, holds out a hand to help Harry up. Harry takes it, feeling like the ceiling and floors have somehow switched and all the blood is rushing to his head.

Louis loves his favorite book. Louis wants the world’s sixth perfect kiss. Louis quoted his favorite book to him.

“Ready, Lou?” Babs says, cutting into where Harry and Louis are staring at each other. Harry can’t read the look on Louis’ face, but it makes him warm all over.

Louis and Babs toss fluttering waves over their shoulders as they walk away, and Harry finds himself leaning heavily against his locker as he watches Louis walk away, Niall slumped next to him and doing the same.

They both sigh like spurned maidens left behind when the gallant knight goes off to war; somehow, that’s what breaks the final pane of tension between them, and as Louis and Babs round the corner out of sight, they catch each other’s eyes and break into hopeless laughter.

Maybe things aren’t so dire after all.

Something’s different.

There’s a weird feeling in Niall’s chest, thumping out a beat Niall can’t help but follow. Or maybe it’s a thrumming whisper in his ear, do it do it do it.

“Have you ever told anyone you love them?” Niall asks. Louis shakes his head, gaze unfocused.

“Nope,” he says belatedly. “You?”

“No.” Niall rolls his shoulders, twitches his fingers. He feels like a horse being led to a starting line, jumpy with energy, wanting to be let loose. Ready. “Want to, though.”

“Yeah?” Louis asks. “I think you should.”

Niall looks over at him, expecting a smirk. There’s none to be seen, just wide, sincere eyes. “You think?”

Louis is quiet for a minute, considering. “I do,” he says, and he almost sounds surprised. “I think you should go for it.”

“Even if people might get hurt?” Harry. Harry might get hurt. Niall can’t keep pretending he doesn’t want Babs, but he can’t ignore that it’ll pit him against Harry. Either way, someone comes out of it in pain.

Louis grinds the last of his cigarette against his shoe, exhales a stream of smoke. He’s gazing back off into the middle distance again, like he’s thinking hard. Like he’s weighing something heavy in his head.

“Life is pain, Highness,” he says distantly, and Niall’s pretty sure he’s quoting something, though he couldn’t say what. “Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

It’s weird, but it works. Niall grins shakily at Louis, who grins back.

He’s gonna do it. He’s gonna tell Babs he loves her.

Soon.

“You’re tense today,” Babs says easily, though her eyes are careful. They’ve been like that since Harry’s failed attempt at wooing Louis with a picture of himself, though he can’t really blame her. He hasn’t really been trying to keep up the pretense of everything being wonderful and awesome in his life.

“I’m just.” He stops. He is tense, but why? There’s something in the back of his head that has been niggling at him all day. Not something he can’t remember, more like something he can’t seem to be able to put into words. A puzzle missing its final piece.

“Just?” Babs prods. The newsroom is busy around them, but no one’s paying attention. Her staff has recovered from its illnesses and lack of motivation and this week’s edition of the paper is coming along smoothly.

“I don’t know, actually,” he says honestly. “Something’s off. I don’t know what, but I’m tired of it.”

Babs hums. “What feels off?”

Your brother, he wants to say. He barely bites it back. “You ever keep a secret to try and keep from hurting someone else?”

“Sure,” she says immediately.

“Did it work?”

“No.” She  flips her hair over her shoulder. “It always comes out in the end, innit? And there’s no use covering it up when that happens, and everyone looks bad. Better to just confront it, I think.”

Harry tears a spare bit of paper into methodical little pieces. “It’s scary.”

Babs looks up at that, then leans over to squeeze Harry’s hand. “It is, yeah. No use pretending it isn’t.”

“But it’s worth it?” Harry asks, glancing up to see if pity flashes across her face. It doesn’t, but he does he something that looks a lot like determination.

“I don’t know,” she says. “But I’ll let you know if I find out.” Then her contemplative frown clears, and she pats Harry’s knee. “Hey. You should come over to mine Friday night, and bring your pictures from the football matches.”

“Sounds good,” Harry says. “I’ll bring cake.”

Babs throws her head back and laughs. “Good. I wouldn’t let you in without a toll.”

Harry grins back, and whatever that niggling thought is in the back of his head stops prodding him for attention, just for a moment, and Harry thinks to himself that maybe just asking for help is what he needed all along.

Friday night rolls around and Niall has no plans, no invites, no messages waiting to tempt him out to cause some trouble. He texts Harry, doesn’t get an answer. Tries again, still nothing. So he taps Louis’ name and tries him instead.

ey mate what u up to

Louis’ answer comes quickly: not anything at all, nialler. playing some fifa. wanna join?

Niall is already standing, grabbing a hat to throw on over his messy hair and sliding into his shoes. b there in 10.

Printed copies of Harry’s photos are spread over Babs’ bed, a grid of pictures that they are trying—and failing—to narrow down for the special edition of the paper they’ll be putting together soon. Harry keeps arguing for his favorites, but Babs keeps shooting him down without a reason.

“What’s wrong with the ones I’m picking?” he asks sullenly at one point when Babs holds up two he hadn’t chosen.

“The special edition is for the whole football team, Harry,” Babs says patiently. “Not just Louis.”

“That’s not-” Oh. Yeah, okay. He had been picking all his favorites, and his favorites were all of Louis. “Still-”

“Nope,” Babs says. “Now. Do you like this one of Ed or this one of Jaime better?”

Harry sighs. “Ed.”

“Good.”

There’s quiet music playing from Babs’ laptop, the soft strains of Frank Ocean a perfect complement to the low light cast from her lamp and the scattered candles around the room. This is the first time Harry’s ever been here, but it feels like how Harry expected it would; the whole house is cozy and warm, tastefully but lovingly decorated, worn but classic furniture. Babs’ room is simply decorated and clean to a fault, minimalistic and sparse, with subtle pops of pastel against the cream walls and duvet.

Another thirty minutes passes and they choose a few more photos, but by then they’ve devolved from talking about work to talking about anything else; Babs pulls a bottle of wine out from under her bed and she and Harry pass it back and forth, their lips red and their cheeks redder.

“You’ve never kissed a boy?” Babs gasps dramatically, her hand fluttering to her chest. “Ever?”

“Nope,” Harry says, accepting the bottle when she passes it to him. “Had a couple of girlfriends when I was younger, but then I realized I was always hanging out at their houses for their older brothers or their dads instead, and so I gave up on all that.” He grins when Babs falls over in laughter, slapping her knee like it’s the funniest thing she’s ever heard. He takes a swig of the wine, passes it to Babs. “What’s it like?”

“What, kissing a boy?” Babs asks. Her voice has gone funny from being sprawled on her back, her ankles crossed where they rest above her on the edge of the bed. “It’s awesome. Like…” she trails off, tracing patterns on the floor with an absent finger. “When his hands are warm on my waist, that’s the best feeling. Or the sounds, that’s nice too. And stubble. God, I love stubble.”

“Yeah?” Harry asks. His face feels warm, and now it’s not from the wine.

“Mhm,” Babs says. She passes the bottle back to Harry, and he’s taking a long pull when she says, “Course, I like his stubble against other parts of me even better, but-”

That’s the point at which Harry chokes, a laugh and wine both caught in his throat. He thumps at his chest, sputtering, as Babs cackles and hits him on the back to clear his airways.

“Oh my God,” she gasps, still laughing, “I’m so sorry.”

Harry looks down at his shirt, which was white when he put it on but is now speckled in purple drops from the wine, and he falls back against the floor with a thump, laughing.

“What a night,” he says, chuckling, and then sits back up to pull the shirt over his head, the fabric already sticking to his skin.

“Here, I’ll get you something else to wear,” Babs says, still grinning, getting to her feet and wandering to her wardrobe. Then she says, “Or not. All my stuff’s in the laundry.”

“No worries,” Harry says. “I can just rinse it out in the bathroom.”

“It’ll stain,” Babs protests, but Harry waves his hand.

“It’s an old shirt, it’ll be fine.” He crosses to Babs’ door, opening it quietly. “Be right back.”

The hallway is quiet; Louis’ door is shut, and Harry doesn’t even know if he’s home. Seems weird to ask, at this point, now that he’s been here a few hours. Especially since Babs would give him that look, the one that says you aren’t subtle, Harry Styles, and you have no idea how to play it cool.  

Harry’s got his hand on the bathroom doorknob when Louis’ bedroom door flies open and out tumbles-

“Niall?”

He’s red-faced, his hair mussed, his smile is so wide is almost looks painful. There’s a blossoming red mark high on his throat, and his shirt is rucked up at the bottom so that a thin strip of pale skin is visible over the waistband of his jeans. He stumbles to a stop at the sound of his name, his smile freezing.

“Harry?” he asks, voice brimming with confusion. His eyes widen when he sees Harry is shirtless, taking in the purple splotches over his stomach and the flattened back of his hair from laying on the floor. Harry has the oddest feeling that he should cover himself up, like he’s been caught doing something wrong, even though he hasn’t.

“Harry, you forgot your-” Babs says, and the feeling intensifies; Harry almost wants to step in front of her so Niall can’t see, like he doesn’t know who else lives here. She stops when she sees Niall, Harry’s shirt held loosely in her hand. “Niall?”

“What’s all this, then?” comes one more voice, and then the gang’s all here: Louis steps out into the hallway, just as sweaty and disheveled as Niall, and his mouth drops open. “Harry?”

Babs’ head turns toward Louis so fast that she winces. “Lou?”

“Babs?” Louis says, perplexed. “Was Harry with you?” His eyes narrow in on Harry’s chest. “Naked?”

“Are you-” Harry says lowly to Niall, swallowing hard. “With Louis?”

“No,” Niall says, frowning. “Are you and Babs-”

“No!”

Meanwhile, a few steps away, Babs and Louis are glaring at each other, their crossed arms and scrunched eyebrows making them look more like twins than they ever have before.

“What are you doing with Niall?” Babs says through gritted teeth. “Boys night in?”

“Playing FIFA,” Louis shoots back, “and we were fully clothed, unlike you and Harry-”

“He got wine on his shirt!”

“Why were you drinking wine alone together?”

Niall pokes Harry in the chest. “Are you mad about this? You’re making your angry face.”

“Of course I’m mad,” Harry hisses. “You come falling out of Louis’ room with a fucking lovebite”—Niall claps his hand over his throat and opens his mouth to argue, but Harry rolls on—”looking like you’ve been rolling around on the floor together for about three straight days, yeah, I’m fucking mad.”

“What t’ fuck,” Niall says, poking Harry in the chest again. Harry bats his hand away. “‘s not a lovebite, he pinched me when I beat ‘im at FIFA, you arsehole. Wha’ abou’ you, then? At least ‘m fully clothed, yeah? Least I don’ have fuckin’ bruises all over me stomach, yeah?”

“Those aren’t bruises, you idiot-

Don’t call me an idiot, you moron-”

“What is Harry even doing here?” Louis asks, his voice going high-pitched.

“He’s helping me with the paper! Why is Niall in your room?”

“Playing FIFA, B, I told you, I just don’t know why you and Harry have to be alone in your room to work on the paper, you know-”

Niall shoves at Harry’s chest, and it’s like all the wrestling they ever did as kids but so much worse because there’s force behind the pinches, anger behind the thrown elbows, and Niall’s eyes look hurt as he shoves Harry back.

“I can’t believe you,” Niall says, his voice cracking. “This isn’t fair, H.”

“Know what?” Babs asks wildly a few feet away. “What do I know?”

“What’s not fair?” Harry asks, throwing his hands up in defeat. “Explain it, Niall, because I’m lost!”

“You know I like Harry!” Louis cries, just as Niall shouts, “I’m in love with Babs, you idiot!”

Silence rings.

Silence clangs like church bells in Harry’s ears, silence throbs at his temples and silence might even steal his breath. Harry is staring at Louis, because, at this moment, it’s not possible that anything else exists. His mind has no concept of anything that isn’t Louis, Louis, Louis, or the words that just exploded out of him.

Babs breaks it, because Harry’s brain dissolved into mush the moment his name left Louis’ mouth. “What?” she asks Niall breathlessly. “What did you say?”

Niall takes a breath, scrubs his hand through his hair. “I said, I’m in love with you, didn’t I.”

“But,” she says. “But I thought, you and Lou.”

“No,” Niall shakes his head firmly. “I thought you and Harry-”

“No,” she answers. “No.”

“Hold on,” comes Louis’ voice, and it’s almost a croak. Harry makes a noise, something small and strange in the back of his throat. Louis aims his words at Babs, but his eyes don’t leave Harry. “You two aren’t-”

“No,” Harry promises on her behalf. Nothing makes sense, but there’s a flare of hope in his chest. “No, Lou, it’s only you. You’re it.”

“What?” Louis asks. His eyes are wide. “Me?”

“You.”

“Wait, wait,” Babs says, a hand to her temple. She spins and points at Harry. “You like Louis. Not me.” Harry nods, his mouth dry. She turns to Louis. “And you like Harry, not Niall.” Louis nods as well, his cheeks pink. “And you’re- you’re in love with me?” she clarifies again with a shaky voice, looking at Niall.

Yes,” Niall answers earnestly, and a piece clicks into place in Harry’s head, everything makes a little bit more sense. “And you aren’t in love with Harry?”

“No,” she answers, and both of them look shell-shocked at the word. “No,” she says again, like an echo.

A pause; it’s a breath of air before a plunge underwater, and all four of them draw in deep breaths before they’re submerged.

A quick flurry of movement: Babs grabs Niall by the front of his shirt and yanks him forward, tugging him along behind her into her room, closing the door with a wink and a click.

Silence is back, permeating the air between Louis and Harry like fog. They’re still staring at each other.

“You like me,” Harry says, the words dumb in his mouth, the answer beyond anything he could’ve hoped for.

Louis huffs a laugh, quiet and small. “I do more than that, I think. I love you, Harry.” And so like water into wine, with a few words Louis turns Harry’s blood into molten gold, melted sunbeams. But he’s still a few steps away, watching Harry come apart at the seams with how badly he wants to cross the distance. He asks, apprehensive,“What do you want from me?”

“Everything,” Harry answers honestly, desperately.

“God,” Louis bites out, and then he’s there, there in Harry’s space, mere breaths away from his face.

The kiss hits Harry like a lightning strike, and he suddenly understands why the most destructive storms are named after boys like this. Boys like him .

Louis kisses like he lives, bright wild passion thrumming under his skin, refusing to be overlooked, light and heat and a magnetism that holds Harry in place. It’s bitey and rough, it’s raspy stubble against Harry’s chin. Louis has got one hand tangled in Harry’s hair like a lightning rod, tugging when he changes angles and directing blasts of energy into Harry’s veins, and his other hand clutches at Harry’s shoulders, his back, hot fervor against Harry’s flushed skin. Louis’ mouth is slick and soft, an antithesis, crackling electricity and rolling thunder. He tastes like cream and sugar, and Harry chases the sweetness like a drug.

They break apart only for air, panting desperately, shoulders heaving.  

Louis grins, and they reconnect. Lightning strikes twice.

There have been five great kisses since 1642 B.C. Harry thinks desperately, deeply, wonderingly, his lips finding their home against Louis’. He can see the words in his mind, highlighted and underlined in his copy of The Princess Bride.

This one left them all behind.

One month later.

The door creaks open quietly and Babs sticks her head out, giving Harry a once-over like she didn’t just see him an hour ago.

“Hey,” she whispers.

“Hey,” he whispers back. Pauses. “Why are we whispering?”

“Oh,” Babs says at full volume, and straightens up, opening the door wider for Harry to come inside. “I dunno, actually. I’m the only one here.”

Harry raises a skeptical eyebrow at her and sends a pointed glance at her t-shirt, which is inside out. “Right.”

She flushes but grins. “Okay, Niall’s here. But we’re just about to leave.”

“Good,” Harry says, feeling a little warm under his coat at her smirk. “You said I could have the house tonight.”

“And I meant it,” Babs says, grimacing. Niall comes thumping down the stairs, looking similarly rumpled and pleased with himself. Harry knocks him on the shoulder in greeting, Niall pinches him back. Babs laces her fingers with Niall’s and pats Harry’s cheek on the way out the door. “Have fun,” she says, then winces again. “I mean, don’t have too much- Or, I guess- Ugh,” she says, doing a full body shiver. “Just don’t tell me any details about what’s going to happen.”

“As long as you never tell me what happened in the backseat of Niall’s car that made you laugh the last time I had to sit there,” Harry answers. Babs nods gratefully, she and Niall both kiss Harry’s cheeks again, and then he’s all alone.

His stomach bubbles in anticipation as he jogs up the stairs, entering Louis’ room to find it just the way it always is: where Babs’ room is simple and airy, Louis’ is an explosion of color. The walls are slate grey, and one entire side of the room is entirely covered in Manchester United banners and band posters. Two frames hang in the empty space over Louis’ bed, set apart from the rest of his decorations: one is the photo of himself Harry gave him over a month ago, back when everything felt a little more dire, the other is the cover of the special edition of the paper, filled with stats and analyses of his team and their chances heading into the end of the season, bursting with photos from Harry’s time on the sidelines. His bed’s a mess (always), his floor’s covered in discarded clothing (always), and Harry loves him so much his heart’s thumping with it (always, always, always).

Harry makes quick work of the laundry, shoving the clothing into baskets and hauling them to the laundry room downstairs. After the third time caught washing Louis’ clothes, Louis and Babs’ mum had given up on stopping Harry and merely pointed to the hypoallergenic washing powder that is good for Louis’ skin, though she still helps Harry fold Louis’ socks when they’re dry and she watches Harry with a barely-hidden smile, like she’s remembering days she used to do ridiculous things for a boy’s attention. Harry starts a load of clothes in the washing machine and bounds back upstairs, straightening Louis’ sheets and kicking all the rest of his shit under the bed.

With the room cleaned (more for Harry’s sake than Louis’, though he knows Louis appreciates it), Harry reaches for his bag and unzips it, grinning down at its contents. It had taken a combined effort of Liam, Zayn, and Stan’s readiness to break into a locker room and steal what Harry’s got hidden, and Harry’s willingness to push Louis up against any nearby surface when he started getting suspicious and throwing all his effort into thoroughly distracting Louis by any means necessary. Luckily, Harry was willing to make that sacrifice.

He changes quickly, anticipation prickling at his skin, and then he waits.

His heartbeat picks up when he hears the front door open, Louis’ voice shocking his pulse into double time even though he’s only calling, “Anyone home?” Harry doesn’t answer, just maneuvers onto his knees in the middle of Louis’ bed and listens to Louis’ footsteps draw nearer.

When Louis opens the door and sees Harry, his bag falls to the floor with a satisfying thump.

Harry?” Louis asks, his eyes wide. Harry stands, and he’s never felt more graceful, never felt more sexy, than he does now, crossing the room in slow steps, watching Louis’ eyes darken the closer he gets. Louis’ spare football jersey is a little tight across his shoulders, but it falls down to the tops of Harry’s thighs like it was made with him in mind, sliding up with each step and not doing much to hide that Harry’s completely bare underneath. Louis’ football socks are tugged up all the way to Harry’s knees, muffling the sound of his steps as he approaches. Not that it matters; Louis has Harry in his sights with laser-like intensity, the rising of his chest with each inhale matching Harry’s steps.

One more step, and Harry’s there, his favorite place, chest to chest with Louis and nothing between them but some air. He slides his hands slowly over Louis’ shoulders and around his neck and then even the air between them disappears, Harry pressing the curves of his body against Louis’ matching ones.

“Welcome home,” Harry murmurs into Louis’ ear, sliding his right hand up to toy with the long strands of hair covering the nape of Louis’ neck, “captain.”

That snaps Louis out of his stillness; he moans, loudly, in Harry’s ear, wraps his hands around Harry’s thighs, and carries him back across the room to throw him onto the bed. Harry settles with a bounce in the center of the mattress, staring up at Louis with hooded eyes.

“What good deed did I ever do,” Louis rasps, standing at the end of the bed and watching Harry’s chest rise with each breath, sprawled out just for him, “to deserve you.”

It’s not a question, so Harry doesn’t answer, just bites his lip and lifts his arm, reaching for Louis.

Louis doesn’t make him wait.

“So gorgeous, love,” Louis kisses into the dips of Harry’s hips when he falls over him, covering him up in the best way, “so perfect.”

Harry’s breath hitches, his socked feet sliding across the sheets as Louis kisses a path across his stomach.

“Best boy in the world, you are,” Louis continues in a murmur, biting little bruises on Harry's waist and making his hips jump.

Harry's hands scrabble desperately against Louis’ shoulder, making him quirk an eyebrow up at Harry. “Kiss me,” Harry begs, because Louis loves foreplay, loves the slow rolling heat of it as he takes each piece of Harry in his hands and cracks it open, only to put him back together again with lips and fingers even better than he was before. If he had his way, he'd spend the next hour carrying Harry to the edge over and over until he was begging to fall.

But this is not Louis’ game; he's the captain, will always be the captain, but today Harry's the referee.

Harry wraps his legs around Louis’ waist and flips them so that Louis lands underneath him. “Kiss me,” he demands again, and Louis tugs him down with a hand in his curls to comply.

After their perfect first kiss, Harry didn't think it could get better. It was honestly enough that the first press of their lips was enough to send his world spiraling in the opposite direction, his center of gravity shifting so that suddenly he revolved around the pretty boy with eyes like the ocean and a voice like sunshine reflecting off of glass. That one perfect kiss was all Harry'd ever wanted—the idea of more than one seemed impossible. Too much.

He's happy to say he's been proven wrong, though, because while his and Louis’ twin worn copies of their favorite book outline a perfect kiss and that title’s sheer unreachability, Louis and Harry seem to have perfected perfection. Each time Harry's lips touch Louis’ it's new, it's better, it's the same, it's everything. There were five perfect kisses throughout history, until Louis and Harry came along and ruined the average.

This is the thousandth perfect kiss in a row, or something like it, Louis parting Harry's lips expertly and taking the lower one between his teeth. His hands bury themselves in Harry’s curls, soft tugs that have Harry squirming above him. Louis slows the kiss, melts into something deeper, hungrier, and suddenly Harry realizes how overdressed Louis is.

“Off,” he bites out between long kisses, yanking on the bottom of Louis’ shirt. “Lou, off.”

Louis pulls back from Harry’s mouth and grins, waggling his eyebrows. “As you wish.”

“Fuck,” Harry breathes, and leans down again, his hand melded to Louis’ jaw as he takes another kiss, another. “You know quoting that book gets me hot.”

“I do,” Louis agrees, pushing Harry back so he can tug his shirt over his head. “S’why I do it, see?”

“Tease,” Harry breathes, then sucks a bruise onto Louis’ bare collarbone.

He has to roll off of his perch on Louis’ hips to let him undress fully, kicking his shoes and socks off in one go and his sweatpants and boxers in another. Then he’s bare, gloriously bare, warm caramel skin calling to Harry like a siren song.

“C’mon, love,” Louis says softly. “C’mere.”

Harry burrows into Louis’ arms, the jersey caught between them on their sticky skin. The socks are starting to itch, and Harry reaches down to shuck them off when Louis stops him with a hand around his wrist. “Leave them on,” he says quietly, kissing up Harry’s throat. “You went to all the effort, I want to appreciate it.”

His hands slide down to cup Harry’s bum, and Harry shivers, pressing closer to Louis, closer. His mouth feels bruised and swollen from Louis’ kisses, his skin hot where Louis’ hands lay. Sweat makes each slide of arms and legs slick, and Harry can feel his hair matted to his forehead. He feels shaky and overwhelmed in the best possible way; he was supposed to be in charge but it’s too easy to fall apart when Louis is looking at him like that, holding him with possessive hands and leaving his mark across Harry’s body.

“‘m ready,” he mumbles against Louis’ lips. “Lou, ‘m ready.”

“Are you?” Louis asks lightly, working Harry’s hips into a slow grind against his own. Harry tosses his head back and gasps. “Ready for what, darling? Ready for my fingers?”

“Yes,” Harry pants, “yes, please.”

“Yes what?” Louis prompts, and Harry’s hips falter in confusion.

“Yes Louis?” he tries, and Louis nips at his lip, shaking his head.

“Nope.” His hands dig into Harry’s shoulders, leaving a line of heat in their wake.

Christ,” Harry moans, his eyes falling shut.

“Not quite,” Louis chuckles. He’s nineteen, he’s nineteen and only a boy but he sounds like a man, collected and cool with Harry in his arms. It makes Harry’s insides rearrange, softening him into something more delicate. Delicate but needy, loud and fragile. “You said it earlier, love, let me hear it again.”

Harry’s heartbeat goes supernova when he pieces it together. “Captain,” he gasps, his hands desperate where they scrabble against Louis’ back. “Yes, please, captain.”

“There we go,” Louis murmurs approvingly, and then he’s rolling Harry onto his back, kissing him deeply as he flings out a hand to rummage under the pillows. The click of the lube bottle lid is quiet, muffled against the blood rushing in Harry’s ears.

Time falls away when Louis slides his first finger into Harry, slow and careful, tempered with kisses and hushed adulations. Time disappears completely when he brushes the spot inside Harry that makes his vision go white.

When clocks start moving again Harry finds himself shifting his hips with every slide of Louis’ wrist, another finger already squeezed in beside the first. The sheets are clenched in his hands, Louis’ jersey pushed up to his chest to give Louis access to his ribs and hips so he can leave trails of burning kisses.

“Please,” he moans one last time. “Louis.”

Louis takes that as permission and slides on a condom, two fingers still scissoring Harry open.

When he pushes in Harry feels his limbs go weak, his knees falling open where they were tight against Louis’ waist. He meets each thrust with a roll of his hips, pliant when Louis moves him, soft noises falling from his mouth.

At least it’s affecting Louis too; his composure fled along with his use of full sentences, and his breath comes in sharp bursts against Harry’s throat. They’re tangled together like two strands of a rope, Harry’s arms and Louis’ hands and Harry’s thighs and Louis’ hips.

Louis shifts and catches Harry just right; the angle is intense and Harry shouts his appreciation for it, calling out to whoever’s listening as his vision flickers and a low pulse starts to thud up his spine.

“There,” he chants, and Louis obeys, “there, there.”

Louis works a hand between them and only barely gets it around Harry's cock when he comes, arching so hard his bum comes off the mattress, crying out so loud his throat scratches with it. Heat and pressure and tingling bliss pour outward from Harry’s center, pounding through his veins like a drug.

Louis follows just seconds after, his hips stuttering as he moans, “Harry,” like it’s the last word he’ll ever speak. They collapse into each other, sated and sore, slick and sweaty, and Harry grins in exhaustion.

“Don’t be so smug,” Louis mumbles, but he’s grinning too.

Harry burrows into Louis’ chest and hums, his eyelashes fluttering shut.

“Love you,” Louis says before they tip over into sleep. “You beautiful, ridiculous boy.”

It’s a mild late autumn day, the sun falling in dappled patterns through the leaves of the trees, and Niall is trying to wheedle Harry’s homework away from him so he can copy it.

“Haz,” he says seriously, poking Harry’s hand with his pencil. “This is dire, mate. Life and death.”

“If it was life and death,” Harry tosses back to him, turning the page of his book, “you’d have done it earlier.”

Niall drops his head to rest against the table and groans, just loudly enough to catch Zayn’s attention and make him laugh.

“Here, you idiot,” Zayn says, motioning for Niall to pass his homework Zayn’s way. When he starts to fill out the blank spaces on Niall’s page, Niall climbs half across the table to kiss his forehead.

“Bless you,” Niall says, fighting Zayn’s flailing hands to smack another kiss to his hair. “Let me love you, Zaynie!”  

Liam takes Niall’s arms and pushes him gently back into his seat, patting his wrist gently. “Thank you, Ni, but I think he gets it.”

“Love you too, Leemo,” Niall grins, and Liam’s eyes crinkle with a smile as he pats Niall’s hand again.

Harry, completely unperturbed, turns another page in his book, the same worn copy he’s thumbed through for years and that he’ll probably continue to write cramped essays in the margins of for years to come. Ever-changing, Harry is, but that’s one thing that’s stayed the same. Well, that and-

“Hello, love of my life,” says Louis, dropping into Harry’s lap and dropping a loud kiss on his lips. Harry lights up, his cheeks a little pink as he wraps his arms around Louis’ waist.

“Hello,” he says back to Louis, who is just as smitten and equally disgusting. “You look beautiful today. I love you.”

Cara throws a chip at them, and Zayn rolls his eyes. Niall is about to make a comment of his own when a familiar warmth presses into his side and he loses his breath for a moment. “Hello, there,” he says to Babs, who smiles back at him like sunlight catching on a diamond and wiggles her way under Niall’s arm.

“Hi,” she grins, kissing his cheek. “Picked this up for you.” She slides a copy of this week’s newspaper to him, still warm from the printer, his review of the new Adele album right there above the fold. Niall kisses her temple in thanks.

“You’ll never guess what happened at rehearsal today,” Louis says, and launches into a story about the some wild malfunction Greased Lightning had as the theatre group had been practicing You’re the One That I Want and how he’d had to put out a fire with his leather jacket and it’s probably only half true but Harry hangs on every word, gasping and grinning in all the right places.

He looks up, Harry does, and catches Niall watching him. They share a grin that is far too wide to be cool, but it doesn’t matter: Babs is still pressed to Niall’s side, Louis is still perched happily on Harry’s lap, and there’s no plan for either of them to let their Tommo go.

Harry looks back up at Louis and Niall buries his face in Babs’ hair and maybe he’d picked up more from Harry’s frequent rereading of The Princess Bride than he thought, because there’s only one word filtering through his mind: inconceivable.