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It was the lights, Louis thinks.

When he lets himself remember his dad, when he sees him in his mind’s eye, a tall, dark-haired man in a baseball cap, too small for his head because he never got one that fit, always borrowed it from Louis, he always thinks about the lights. That must have been what drew him to football; the lights hitting the field, just after the Friday night game, when it still smelt faintly of just on the side of burnt hot dogs and grass and there was still a sense of excitement in the air, even if the game had gone badly. It must have been the lights that kept him going, in the seconds after the field was empty, just before someone behind the bleachers cut the power.

That’s his last memory of him, a long shadow extending from his feet making him look like the giant Louis always thought him to be, dressed in red and white, under the lights of the football field. Louis thinks he gets it then; the way he used to get football, the way he doesn’t get it anymore. If it was the lights, then it makes sense; if it was the lights, then maybe for a few seconds Louis can forgive him for running away from them.

The lights aren’t on now. It’s past midnight and it’s a Tuesday, late in August, so the field is pitch black, the occasional car on the 95 blinking in the distance. The only ghostly glow comes from the phone in his lap, headphones in the jack as he shuffles through his playlist.

moms asking when your coming home ?

He ignores Lottie’s text - same as he has all summer, even when he was in another state and his sister kept emoting at him through sad parentheses - and keeps on staring at the end of the field, the slightly fading yellow of the goal post hanging in the dark. He should call his mom, let her know he’s alive and hasn’t ran on the highway in the hopes that some stray truck might put him out of his misery.

He’s been a right fuck all day, he knows, ever since he got back last night from the airport; after he hugged his kid sisters and marveled at the sign they made him - Louis, Louis, Louis, You’re Home, You’re Home, You’re Home, in the school colors, with little Daisy wearing a cheerleading outfit mom had spend probably too much time fashioning - after he held his mother tight as he could because, try as he might, he missed her, he’d turned into his usual teenage asshole self when they drove away from Odessa.

He couldn’t help it - still can’t help it. He hates that he’s back here, back in Texas, back in this fucking town of barely three thousand, where everyone knows his name and everyone knows his dad and no one cares about anything that doesn’t involve throwing a ball around every Friday night. He’d finally felt like he was breathing this summer; properly, filling his lungs with air that wasn’t tainted by Coach Tomlinson and Falcon pride, living in a city where no one fucking knew him, doing shit he’d never even let himself dream of until he’d crossed the Interstate and left all of this behind.

He kicks out in frustration, scuffing his high tops on the grass, getting mud on the side and smudging the smiley faces someone drew on with a Sharpie. At least there’s an end in sight, he figures; at least this is it, the last year before he fucks off officially, leaving this dead end town to its dead end future. He breathes out shakily and falls back on the lawn, the back of his T-shirt getting wet with dew, hair falling across his face as he gazes up and pretends he can count the stars.

He gets to five plus a UFO or something - it went by too fast to be an airplane and he’d watched a couple episodes of the X-Files on his flight back so he has an excuse - when he realises the coughing in his ears isn’t coming from some pretentious indie conceptual art type shit music he’d taken to listening to while he was away. He flutters his eyes open and focuses on the head that’s looking over him upside-down, curls framing the familiar face. It’s still too dark to make out properly but you don’t live in Sterling, TX for three years and not recognise the starting quarterback of the Sterling Falcons; he’s had it drilled into him almost since the first day he set foot here that those curls can make miracles happen.

He pulls his earbuds out - Jesse Lacey is screaming about being eighteen forever - and tangles his fingers over his chest, expectant. When the face above doesn’t do much more than blink slowly, he quirks an eyebrow. “Hey, Styles.”

“Hey, Tomlinson. Louis. Hey.”

The entire four words take like five minutes to roll out of his mouth and Louis can smell it now, the slight tang of cheap beer, the stink of chlorine from pool water. Harry’s famous curls are damp and he’s wearing a white tank top that sticks to him more than his skinny frame allows and there’s a slightly sparkling look in his green eyes that Louis’ always associated with Texas summers. He can hear the rest of the team somewhere far off, probably trying to remember how they’re supposed to play the damn game they’re lauded as heroes for, alcohol in them sloshing too much for proper limb coordination.

“You’re drunk,” Louis points out, wagging a finger in front of him, voice affected with mock disapproval. Harry gives him a goofy grin, white teeth looking alarmingly bright, dimples set deep in his cheeks; Louis smiles back, a little more subtle, because, while he hates football and should probably hate all footballers, he doesn’t hate Harry. Harry’s okay.

He remembers three years ago, two Sundays after his dad had caused a fucking meltdown in Sterling and started a skinny little freshman with too much hair, that same skinny little freshman had come over for dinner, a bouquet of flowers for Louis’ mom and a cake he’d baked himself for the rest of them. It was a tough job, trying not to find Harry Styles endearing, even when his name was all you heard on the radio every Friday.

“I am,” Harry agrees much too heartily, biting his lower lip until it looks like it might bleed. Louis has the sudden urge to slap him softly, stop him from doing just that. He doesn’t.

He tuts instead, tongue hitting the roof of his mouth. “Don’t think Coach Albright would appreciate that. Can’t have our star quarterback puking over the sidelines.”

“I won’t be,” Harry says stubbornly, shaking his head with fervour as if that will make Louis believe him. “Coach won’t care. ‘S long as we don’t get fucked on Friday. Even then...” He turns around, head still hovering above Louis’ and Louis follows his line of sight over to his teammates. He recognises Jade from his AP Lit class screeching on the broad shoulders of Liam Payne - running back - and behind them, waving a bottle in the air and singing the Star-Spangled Banner by the sound of it, is Niall Horan, kicker and Irishman, by order of importance.

“Point taken,” Louis mutters, because he’s heard enough about Niall in action to know that even in his near constant drunken state he can win a game. He settles back down and studies Harry above him. “I know you’re a lightweight, though.”

Harry groans. “That was wine. I hate wine. And it was three years ago, you and my mom are never gonna let that go.”

“You threw up in our driveway after a sip, man, it was pretty pathetic,” Louis laughs. Louis’ dad had allowed them a finger of wine each to celebrate Harry’s start; Harry’s puny fourteen year old body had practically caved in.

“Ugh.” Harry slaps a giant hand on his face, looking mortified. Louis chuckles again and Harry peaks at him through his fingers, not hiding his clown smile. “Did you - um - you just got back, right? I heard - like,” he coughs again into a loose fist and Louis’ beginning to think it’s a nervous thing, “your mom mentioned you’d gone to, like, California or something.”

Louis hums in the back of his throat. “Yeah. Didn’t think my absence would be noted, to be honest.” If it wasn’t so dark and Louis didn’t know better, he’d think Harry was blushing.

“I notice things, I guess,” Harry says after a pause, so quietly Louis’ not sure he heard right. It’s silent after; just distant drunken yells and the honk of a truck on the highway until Horan shouts Harry from across the field. Louis leans up on his elbows, bones aching with residual jet lag or something.

“You guys gonna stick around then? I’ll get going.” He makes to stand up, brushing a hand over his thighs. Harry frowns, a deep line between his eyebrows, and shakes his mess of curls.

“You can stay. If you want. We’re just - we were at Leigh’s, she had, like, a few people over and we just sorta ended up here. You can stay,” he repeats, sounding earnest.

It’s probably the longest conversation they’ve had in years; Louis’ never really had a reason to keep in touch with the team after his dad walked off. He’s kind of forgotten that he actually liked Harry.

“It’s okay, man. Don’t really feel like sharing. More yours than mine, anyway.” He makes a sweeping gesture over the field and stretches his stiff neck. Harry’s taller than him, he notices then; taller, leaner, not so much the soft, rounded edges he was when he was younger and just started running practices. He has to lift his chin up a little to look at him. It’s instinct when he leans on his toes to make himself appear the same height.

“Right. Okay, yeah, cool.” Harry clears his throat and shifts from one foot to another, messing with his fringe and looking all flustered. “I’ll - um - see you, then?”

Louis has to laugh now, because Harry’s drunk and ridiculous. “Sure you will, man. Town’s not that big. Unfortunately.” He shoves his phone in his pocket and makes his way over to the parking lot, waving a hand in goodbye. As soon as his back’s turned, he hears Harry shout.

“You coming to the game on Friday? First of the season?”

Louis turns on his heels, still walking away but looking at Harry now. “When have I ever done that?”

Harry shrugs and Louis can’t make him out well but he thinks he might be smiling. “You used to!”

“That was then!” Louis yells back and he should feel like a dumbass, having a conversation with a drunk half a field away.

“And this is now!” Harry shouts gleefully, as if that makes any sense. Louis laughs, more to himself than anything, and turns, leaving Harry behind him.


---

He doesn’t go to the game on Friday, because three years is a long time and no matter what some jock with curls and dimples tells him when he’s drunk, Louis still doesn’t give a fuck about Sterling and their teenage football fetish. He has a set Friday night schedule every fall; take his mom and the girls to the high school stadium, argue with Zayn until Zayn gives up and goes to the game by himself and then drive through the ghost town aimlessly, revelling in the quiet. He always ends up at the Dairy Queen parking lot on Clarke about thirty minutes before the game ends, sucking on a shake and playing with the radio until Greg James’ voice starts crackling through.

“...his God-given talent. What Albright has to do is find some height on defense, see, the Bartlett Knights have the advantage over us there. But what we have - what we have is Styles. It’s put up or shut up time for the visitors.”

Louis doesn’t really listen; he doesn’t get excited every time Greg shouts “...thirty, forty, fifty! Yes, siree, taking it all the way!”, his heart doesn’t beat to the constant chant of Fight! Fight! Fight! he can hear echoing from the field and he doesn’t care ultimately, when Greg announces the final tally, 45-7, first game of the season. He does allow himself a smile though, when there’s a rush of screams and people and Greg gets down to the sidelines, rounding up the hero of the night.

“And now a few words from our QB! Harry, son, how does it feel, coming back, scoring just as the clock runs out? The Knights have always been fierce opposition, but this time! Come on, son, how excited are you?”

It’s not as though you can really forget Harry’s voice once you’ve heard it but it still comes as a surprise when he finally coughs into his hand and speaks into the microphone. He sounds so fucking morbid, like he’s announcing the obituaries, not winning a home game, and Louis has to laugh, has to lean his head on the wheel until he feels tears in his eyes.

“Um, yeah. I guess, yeah, excited. It was, like, a good game and, we, um, I wanted to win this one, er…”

It’s a testament to how much this town loves him that Greg lets Harry drawl on incomprehensibly for about five long minutes, only letting him go when what sounds like the entire cheerleading squad comes after him. He hears Taylor’s unmistakable simpering laugh and Perrie’s rather aggressive cheer (he wasn’t aware that many words rhymed with murder) and then Harry’s gone, presumably to suffocate under an adoring crowd. He switches the radio off - they will be going on for hours now, about this save and that pass and remember that game in ‘10, when Coach T played the 5-3-3 that took us to State - and glances at his phone, to see if mom called.

She hasn’t, which means they either hitched a ride with a neighbor or someone on the team needs the school nurse to baby him (Niall he bets, probably after one of the cheerleaders knocked him unconscious). Zayn’s texted though - mostly bored running commentary of the match, oh look a ball. the one with the hair caught the ball cool. now theyre ruunning im excited. someones bleeding aha. oh it’s the blonde one i like the blonde one. sad. PERRIE IS GOING TO PUNCH SOMEONE ON THE OTHER TEAM WHAT DO I DO DO I SAVE HER. false alarm she doesnt need saving she punchem me ouch :(

It’s possible Zayn is the only other person within the surrounding two square miles that hates football as much as Louis and that’s because he’s never, ever given a damn about it or any other sport-related activity in his life. On account of him dating the very socially involved Perrie Edwards though, he’s contractually obligated to make an appearance at the stands and yell half-heartedly whenever something vaguely good - for their team - happens. He’s been known to cheer for the opposing team’s touchdown on the rare occasion that he does look up from his phone - Louis remembers that one. Zayn had hid in his house for a week, more than a little disgruntled at the death stares he was receiving from anyone with a heartbeat and also Perrie.

Zayn’s already typing by the time Louis looks down at his phone again.

party at paynes u sad bastard come keep me company. pls. i don’t speak football.

He considers. The town around him is already showing signs of life; cars are driving past, honking and cheering; Dairy Queen is waking up from its slumber, serving blizzards to kids with paint on their faces; and everyone walking by bangs on the hood of his car, fist in the air. “Go, Falcons,” Louis mutters, pasting a smile on his face as the pastor waves at him, and lifts two thumbs in the air whenever someone looks his way. Disdain towards the only thing that gives the population of Sterling joy is not something to be advertized.

That settles it. He would rather be run over by the bus that takes the team to away games than be anywhere near this level of enthusiasm.

He goes to type as much to Zayn - sorry bro im allergic to happiness and sweaty ball players - when his phone buzzes with another text. It’s a number he doesn’t know.

hiiiiiiiiii louiiiiiisssssss
we won! :) :) :)
you didn’t come to the game :(
liam’s having a party tho make it up to me :) ?

He would recognize the (possibly literal) wide-eyed endearing tone of conversation anywhere. Which is, actually, a pretty perplexing turn of events in and of itself. Since when have he and Harry Styles exchanged that much conversation for Louis to be able to do that?

He sits in the driver’s seat, brows furrowed as he reads the texts over. It’s not like - he’s not some social outcast that never gets invited to parties. He’s used to it, even. He knows Liam, he’s friends with Perrie, he and Zayn are pretty damn cool in their own right, football aside. When you come to Sterling as the son of the coach who’s gonna save the team, bring back the glory they deserve, you’re basically royalty. And when you lead them to State, even two years later, people remember. He’s part of a success story, whether he likes it or not.

He shakes his head; there’s no need to dwell on that. He stares at the texts in front of him, then throws his phone on the passenger seat, not caring when it bounces dangerously, and starts up the engine.

Apparently he’s going to a party.


---

“You came? I don’t fucking believe it!”

Zayn’s high on life and something more when Louis finally parks behind one too many pick-up trucks and climbs over the fence (and someone’s puke) to Liam’s porch. He gets a hug around the middle for his efforts - “Someone’s trying to teach me about the offensive unit, Lou, help me.” - and gets passed around between Zayn and Perrie who are giggling on of the couches in the packed living room.

Most of the seniors are here; Gemma Styles is in the corner sipping from a paper cup, still in her cheerleading uniform, red and white stripes smudged on her cheek; the rest of the cheering squad is making the rounds of the players, which is tradition enough and Louis would hate to see that broken; he waves at Leigh and Jade who are surveying the mess from the staircase and grabs a crumbly bowl of nachos just to have something else to do other than watch Zayn and Perrie examine each other’s tonsils with their tongues. He’s all but forgotten about the QB when he feels a hand clamp down on his shoulder and he jolts a little in his seat, causing Zayn to separate enough from Perrie to throw him a look.

“Fuck, shit, who the - ? Oh! Well, if it isn’t it the man of the hour.” He tilts his head to the side as teasingly as he can make it and smiles at Harry standing over him.

His cheeks are flushed pink, his hair still damp from the showers, curlier than usual under a beanie, and he’s wearing a freaking flannel shirt, unbuttoned to his navel for some reason. He looks good - as good as a seventeen year old who just ran about fifty laps around the field and got tackled by 300 pounds of angry football player can look. There’s a blue bruise on his collarbone and he’s leaning his skinny frame to the left like he’s trying to ease pressure on his leg. Louis frowns.

“Got you hard, didn’t they?” He sounds biting, like the Knights personally offended him or something, so he schools his expression to something more neutral. It doesn’t seem to be working; Harry has a demented sort of smile on his face, dimples that look slightly painful embedded in his cheeks.

“I can handle it,” he shrugs easily, hand still loosely gripping Louis’ shoulder. “You didn’t come.” He sounds like Fizz or the twins when they haven’t gotten their way. He’s even sticking his lip out in a pout.

“You’re not used to people saying no to you,” Louis says. “I don’t go to football games.”

“You came here though.” He sounds smug and God, how fucking annoying. Louis shifts in his seat until Harry’s hand falls to the back of the couch.

“I came here because my best friend asked me to. Don’t flatter yourself, dude.”

Harry’s biting his cheek like he’s trying to control his face. He sinks down behind the couch, interlocking his fingers and resting his chin on them, eyes fluttering slowly like he’s sleepy. He’s looking at Louis like he’s hardly ever seen anything more fascinating and Louis - well. Louis’ not used to that. He squirms as inconspicuously as he can, throwing his arm on the rest behind him and lowering his head close to Harry’s.

“Do I have something on my face, Styles?”

“Just your face,” Harry mumbles, lifting his shoulders minutely.

Louis' mouth drops open. “Is that - was that a line? Jesus Christ, it’s a good thing you got football, man, that was the lamest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Harry has the good grace to laugh.

“What? It’s a good face!”

Louis hides his face behind his hands, making himself look as horrified as he can make it, which is definitely not as horrified as he actually is. “Oh my God, I am so embarassed. Get away from me, people will think I’m talking to you.” He feels one of Harry’s long fingers poking at his cheek and parts his hands enough to look at him; Harry’s smiling, slightly smaller now, and it makes Louis swallow down hard.

Something makes Harry prop his chin up enough to break eye contact. Louis lets out a puff of air in relief and turns his head enough to catch Niall Horan waving a guitar in the air, a group of people already gathering around him. Harry groans behind him.

“Let’s get outta here before he does an acoustic version of Bieber or something.”

Louis doesn’t get much more warning after that; Harry’s hand threads through his and he has to stand up, let himself be pulled by Harry Styles through drunk juniors and a hallway that’s more a shrine dedicated to Liam and Liam's achievements than anything else. He counts at least fifteen awards and an embarrassing number of baby photos of Liam in a bowl cut holding a microphone before Harry slips through the kitchen and out onto the backyard porch.

The door swings behind them, soft lights triggered as they walk out. No one else is out here; there are a couple of solo cups rolling on the floor, a stain of something sticky on the steps, the porch swing swaying slightly in the humid breeze. Louis can hear Niall’s voice echo quietly through the house along with the guitar.

“He’s pretty good,” Louis says, more to break the silence than anything. He’s suddenly really aware that Harry is still holding his hand.

“Niall? Yeah, he’s awesome. He plays down at the Bluebird on Saturdays. We should go sometime, you’ll like it.” He says it completely seriously, like it’s not weird enough that they’re standing alone in Liam Payne’s porch, away from everyone else. Louis sniffs in lieu of answering and gestures awkwardly at the steps.

“Should we -?”

“No, come on, let’s sit on the swing.” He drags him over - Louis’ kinda amused that this might become a habit - and only lets go when Louis scoots up on one end, one leg folded on the pillow, the other hanging down. Harry does the same, pushing a little when he sits down so they’re moving slowly back and forth.

For a while it’s just quiet; the swing creaks a bit when it comes back down and Louis can still hear the muffled singing coming from inside. He doesn’t look at Harry, just plays with the thread of one of the pinstriped pillows, trying not to lift the corners of his mouth when he feels Harry’s stare on him. It sets him on edge; the hairs on the back of his head stand up and he can see goosebumps on his forearm. He rubs a hand over his wrist absentmindedly. It’s not cool; the air’s warm enough that it feels more like summer than fall but Louis shivers anyway.

“Are you cold?” Harry asks and Louis’ head snaps up. He sounds concerned, as if Louis’ body temperature is something to worry about, and there’s a crease on his forehead as he starts unbuttoning his dumb shirt. Louis raises his eyebrows.

“I think you gotta stand up to strip like the professionals, Styles. I have my iPod with me if you want some music to go with it?” He makes a show of patting his pockets down. “You can totally leave your hat on.”

“Shut up,” Harry laughs, shrugging out of his shirt. He leans over and shakes it in front of Louis. “I’m being nice.”

Louis takes the shirt gingerly and scrunches his nose. “I refuse to wear plaid on principle. And it’s not cold, you weirdo.”

“Just take it.”

Louis rolls his eyes and sits up to push his arms throughs the sleeves. They reach over his hands and he snorts, shaking them until the cuffs bunch up higher. Harry looks way too satisfied to be allowed when Louis leans back again, wrapping the shirt tighter around himself. Instead of making it too obvious that he’s swimming in the damn thing, he glances down at the armrest he’s propped himself against, running a finger on the letters etched there. He can make out Liam’s messy scrawl, the childish L + D he must have written in sharpie in his freshman year, replaced by the slightly more permanent L hearts S, carved in the wood. There’s a faded Texas Forever etched just under that and Louis taps a nail in the ridges of the letters, nostalgic for something that hasn’t even happened yet.

When he looks up, Harry’s watching him, brows drawn together like he’s frowning. Only Louis knows that’s not it; he’s just paying attention. I notice things, I guess. Louis’ never really minded getting noticed. He feels his cheek heat up a little this time.

“Go on, then,” he kicks out, the toe of his Converse tucking itself under Harry’s thigh. He doesn’t move back. “How was the game?” It’s the safest conversation he can have.

Harry lights up, just as Louis’ had known he would, and starts rambling on, a play by play of every quarter. It would be boring if it was anyone else. But since it’s Harry, he gets a pass. He rests his chin on his knee and tries to ignore the slight pang in his chest whenever Harry’s enthusiasm hits too close to home.

It’s quieter in the house when Louis looks down at the time on his phone, lulled a little by Harry’s voice as he mumbles about doubling back into the wide open space left by the Knights’ failed blitz. It’s eleven thirty. He makes a face at his screen - he knows it’ll start blowing up soon - and stretches out, letting his feet drop to the floor. Harry follows him immediately.

“Am I boring you?” He sounds too amused to really mean it. Louis punches him lightly on the shoulder anyway, careful not to hit the bruise he can see blooming on his chest.

“No, that was super fascinating and totally not boring. But I’ve gotta head back home. My mom has a shift at the clinic and the girls don’t like being on their own.”

“Do you need a ride?” He opens the porch door for Louis to go through and it’s. Well, it’s really fucking weird. Nice weird. Whatever, Louis isn’t going to analyse it. He goes in, not waiting for Harry, fluffing his hair when he hears the sound of people again.

“Nah, that’s okay, I got my car up front.” He pauses at the living room door, searching amongst the stragglers for Zayn and Perrie. “Yo! Malik! ‘M leaving, asshole.”

There’s a distinct sucking sound - ew, Zayn - and Perrie resurfaces, waving a bottle at him. “Bye, Lou!”

“Get a room, losers!” He shakes his head fondly and makes his way through Niall’s abandoned guitar, a couple of varsity jackets with suspicious paint on the collar that Harry picks up gingerly, looking puzzled. “You don’t have to walk me to my car, y’know,” he grins, hipchecking the front door so it doesn’t close. Harry throws a frown upstairs and shrugs.

“Haven’t got anything better to do. C’mon, let’s get you home.”

The neighborhood is still, a couple of lights on from porches with people watching tv or listening to Nick Grimshaw and Greg still discussing the game, and their footsteps echo as they walk down the driveway to Louis’ car.

He drags his nails across the chipped paint as he opens the driver’s door, making his back hit the side of the car and folding both his arms over the top. He sees Harry glance inside with interest, cataloguing the stack of books he has on the passenger seat for tutoring and the bunch of toys the twins always have thrown in the back. It’s still strange, how he hasn’t got a reading on what Harry’s angle is exactly. Not totally off-putting though.

“So,” he says, smile curling at his mouth. There’s not much point in fighting it.

“So,” Harry repeats, looking like he knows exactly how much effort Louis put in not smiling.

“Good game, Styles.”

“Says who? Not you, Tomlinson.”

“These nuts don’t like it when you don’t agree on football with them. They’ve got guns here, you know. I could get shot.”

“This is Texas,” Harry laughs.

“That it is,” Louis agrees. “Hey, thanks. For walking me. And, like, tonight, I guess. It was fun.”

“Fun enough to do it again?” He doesn’t even sound hopeful. It just comes across as… challenging. Louis bites his lip, struggling to look unimpressed.

“Forward of you. I’ll think about it.” He slips into the car before he does anything Lottie might approve of.

“All I’m asking.” Harry leans inside a little through the window Louis’ unwound. “Goodnight, Louis.” Louis just nods and starts the car, thankful for the noise of the engine drowning out the strangled noise coming from his throat. He puts it in drive and swings the wheel, not looking in the mirror at Harry on the sidewalk. It’s only when he’s driven way past the block, running the red a couple of times because everything’s deserted, that he realises he’s still wearing Harry’s shirt.


---

The bookstore’s empty as per when he comes in after school and takes over from Grace. He slips his schoolbag under the counter, says goodbye to the owner and avoids a whack on the head after he makes a promise not to light anything on fire. It was Zayn’s fault, that one time was completely Zayn’s fault.

He powers up his laptop, types up some bullshit for Government and then messes about on Facebook, archiving back issues of the school paper and yelling on Fischer’s wall because he had one fucking job and a bullet point list does not make an article. “Dick,” he mutters, fixing the outline of the front page which unsurprisingly features Harry sliding on his knees over the goal line.

He stares at the photo way too long than is probably allowed. Whatever, it’s not like he gets to appreciate football players in full gear that often. And Harry looks stupid wide in those damn shoulder pads. He blinks at the screen furiously, then clicks another tab because it’s less likely he’ll get a boner from reading about the right to bear arms.

Which is, actually, something he should think about. He figured it out on Friday, when he finally pulled into their driveway and spent a good ten minutes in the car, head pressed to the window, trying not to think about the fact that he was wearing Harry Styles’ shirt. He didn’t do anything creepy, like, sniff it or whatever; just played with the frayed ends and resolutely did not think about how warm Harry was when he held his hand. It’s just. He’s never thought of Harry in that context; he’s hardly thought of anyone in that context. Not through lack of trying, because he’s a fucking teenager, of course he’s tried, but slim pickins is definitely a thing in this town. That’s why San Francisco was such a big deal this summer, that’s why he had to - still has to - fucking leave.

Trust Harry Styles to go and grow up and have, like, shoulder blades. Louis never asked for this.

He kissed mom goodbye when he met her at the door, ignored her raised eyebrows when she noticed the shirt and did the rounds of the girls’ rooms, snuggling in with Daisy when she made grabby hands at him. It was past one when he dropped onto his bed, reluctantly taking the shirt off and folding it up carefully, putting it in his closet. He finally gave up on sleep when he realised it was going to nag him all night and tiptoed into his mom’s bedroom, digging under the side of her bed his dad used to sleep. There was a box of his shit there, just like Louis remembered; his dad’s notes on plays the year the Falcons went to State, his too small baseball cap, the newspaper clippings of the final game. He leafed through them - Dreams Dashed in Dallas, dramatic alliteration, way to fucking go - until he spotted a team photo.

Number 17 was kneeling in the front row, under Coach Tomlinson above him. Louis’ eyes skated over his dad - it’s mechanic now - and frowned at the baby face staring back at him, dimples in stark contrast to everyone else’s serious expression. Yep. The shoulder blades were definitely not there at fifteen.

The bell on top of the store door starts ringing while he’s going on a tangent about civil liberties and fish tacos and he looks up, shutting the laptop and pretending to look professional. He sees a head of curls first - Grace has a habit of stacking books to the ceiling, which is why Louis’ best friends with the ladder - then Harry peaks over one of those romance novels Mrs. Swift from mom’s book club pretends she doesn’t read. He sincerely hopes the universe isn’t giving him a hint.

“Harry?” He frowns, wheeling the chair closer to the counter to get a look at him. Harry’s in a hoodie and sweatpants, still pink from running practice, and he’s standing close to the door, hands in his pockets, like he’s about to make a run for it. “I don’t bite, y’know. Much.”

That seems enough to break whatever tension there seems to be. Harry shuffles closer, doing that thing customers do when they’re not really going to buy anything, his fingers dancing along the book jackets. He taps a knuckle on the glass counter and pulls his hood pack, smiling up at Louis. Louis’ breath definitely doesn’t catch.

“Hey, Louis.”

“Hey, yourself. Finished practice?”

“Yeah.” Harry stretches a hand behind his neck, thumbing at the junction between it and his shoulder. “Coach murdered us.”

“Looking alright for a dead man,” Louis says mildly, eyes intent on a bunch of receipts from last year he finds under the cash register.

The corner of Harry’s lip twitches. “Was that a line?”

Louis looks up and it’s not unexpected that Harry looks like Christmas has come early. “No one likes a smartass.”

“You like this smartass.”

“Bold statement.”

“I stand by it.”

They’re both leaning on the counter by the time they’re done, arms crossed and faces inches from each other. And Louis feels the shift then; it could go either way. He takes a small breath and pushes back, smile at his lips probably bordering on manic. “Get outta here.”

If Harry’s disappointed, he doesn’t let it show. He lets out a bark of laughter and swings the messenger bag over his shoulder, eyes trailing the shelves. “So, you work here?”

Honestly. “No,” Louis says slowly. “I killed the owner and I’m trying to figure out where to hide the body.”

Harry looks unfazed. “The lake,” he suggests seriously. Louis snorts.

“I do work here. But now I know where to go whenever I get myself into trouble.”

“Anytime. You doing homework?”

Louis sticks out his tongue. “In theory, I guess? I’m a senior, I don’t care at this point.”

Harry looks at him like he can see right through him. "Yeah, you do. You wanna get into a good college and make your mama proud. I bet you have all your applications ready. I bet you’ve already got your heart set on a nice hipster college.”

“You have me all wrong.”

“Hey, I’m not knocking hipsters, I might be a hipster.” Harry adjusts his invisible glasses. “The plaid is, like, ironic.”

“Like the football?” Louis challenges. Harry’s face falls and settles into a scowl. He lifts a warning finger.

“The football is never ironic.”

“Whatever, jock.”

Harry chuckles. “It brings all the boys in the yard.” He raises an eyebrow, like he’s daring Louis to keep up with him. Louis’ mouth is hanging open. He fixes his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

“Don’t you have like a million AP classes?” Louis swerves. “Go do homework.”

“Fine,” Harry agrees. He dumps his bag on the floor and turns on his heel, tripping over his feet to bring one of the chairs Grace has lined up at the back of the store. Louis stares at him, open-mouthed.

“What are you -?”

“Can I study here?” Harry asks innocently and Louis could’ve sworn he’s fluttering his eyelashes on purpose.

“This isn’t a library…” Louis’ confused. “Sure, though, go ahead, knock yourself out. I have to work.”

Harry bites his lip. “Louis, no one ever comes in here.”

“Excuse you.” Louis’ protective about this place. No one is allowed to talk shit about it. “I’ll have you know this establishment is, like, old. And important. And my job, so shut up. Just because it doesn’t involve eleven dudes venting their sexual frustration on top of a ball.”

“Who says I’m sexually frustrated?” Harry sounds positively offended. Louis tries to tone down his glee.

“I know Niall Horan, is all I’m saying.”

Harry giggles and his curls bounce behind his ear. Louis doesn’t think it’s adorable.

“Fine, whatever, insult my workplace, see if I care. Let’s do homework.” He sits back down behind the counter and stares down his textbook, very aware of Harry’s eyes on him. It makes him feel warm all over, for lack of a better word.

“Okay, let’s,” Harry agrees, voice a little gruff. So they do.


---

It finally feels like fall late into October, just past the sixth game of the season. It shouldn’t be surprising how Sterling measures time in quarters and games and weeks until the play-offs but that’s how it goes; everything is still and quiet and frozen midweek. And, come Friday, it’s like people wake up from a deep slumber, suddenly interested in life again.

Fall used to be Louis’ favourite time of the year, back before they moved to West Texas. He liked the trees changing color, appreciated the poetry of something dying and turning more beautiful; he liked the ridiculously overcharged latte he got from the coffeeshop down by their old house, liked crunching dead leaves under his boots, wearing a thicker sweater just as it started getting cooler in the evening; apple season that meant mom’s apple pie, Lottie going crazy at Walmart before Halloween, filling their basket with any kind of colorful candy.

Not so much here; it’s dry and it’s warm, so much that the twins jump in the kiddie pool as soon as school finishes everyday and he catches himself turning the AC on at the store when he’s slaving over some assignment. It’s better though, marginally, this year. The trees in the backyard have turned golden and orange and it smells of rain, even though there’s not a cloud in the sky. At least he’s distracted from hating the town too much by certain things.

Okay, fine, he doesn’t mean the weather. He means Harry. He’s being distracted by Harry Styles and it’s not terrible.

Because it’s kind of become a thing - not their thing, just a thing, a thing that is happening in his life which he doesn’t apparently hate. Which is a huge achievement according to Zayn, because “Sometimes, dude, it sounds like you’re trying too hard to hate everything about this place.” Louis begs to differ; there’s reason for him hating everything. It just so happens that Harry’s now fallen under the things he hates not so much.

So it’s a thing. A thing that means Harry will bump into him by the lockers and give him a wink which Louis hopes to God he doesn’t think is subtle because his face is all but contorting. A thing that means Gemma will occasionally be waiting outside his house, smirking knowingly while Louis can tell Harry is mouthing at her from the passenger seat - “It’s just a ride to school, Gem, it’s no big deal.”. A thing that means two hours after school’s ended and the few minutes it takes to walk from the practice field to the store, the bell at the door will ring and Louis will look up and see Harry shuffling in with a grin and his homework.

“What are you doing on Saturday?”

It’s Wednesday and Louis’ in the back of the bookstore, stacking the one and only travel guide to Ireland they have - he assumes the Horans ordered it at some point - with the complete works of James Joyce. He had the idea last night; lure them in with great literature, then slip them a reason to leave this Godforsaken place; he’s doing everyone a favor. He hits his head on a hardback copy of Ulysses and walks back front to scowl at Harry.

“I know what I’m not doing,” he says pointedly. “When are you gonna stop asking me to come to the - wait, the game’s on Saturday?”

“No,” Harry says patiently. “I know you’re not coming to the game on Friday. I’m still pissed at you about that. But I was asking about Saturday. Halloween. In case you don’t own a calendar.” He taps his pencil over his French homework. Louis comes closer and inspects the scribbled notes with feigned interest. He shrugs.

“Probably taking the girls trick-or-treating. Why?”

“That sounds fun.” Louis turns his head to look at him; he does actually look like he thinks it’s gonna be fun. Louis doesn’t get him.

“I don’t get you. It’s gonna be screaming kids and fighting over candy and probably really badly drawn whiskers on my face. None of that sounds fun.”

“Whiskers?” Harry asks delightedly. He reaches out to press down on Louis’ nose. “Cute.”

“Trust me, it isn’t.” Louis pulls back and rubs his nose self-consciously. “Why, you wanna join?”

Harry’s eyebrows get lost under his hairline. “Are you seriously inviting me?”

No, actually, he wasn’t seriously inviting him. Sarcasm just doesn’t compute that easily with Harry. Or he just chooses to ignore it. “You seriously want to come?”

Harry gives him his clown smile. “Yeah, I guess. It’ll be fun! I’ve got a costume and everything already so.”

Louis shakes his head. It’s dumb how endearing that is. “Of course you do. Please don’t make it sexually explicit in front of my sisters.”

“I would never.”

Which isn’t all that reassuring.

They win the game on Friday against Dunston and Louis gives in and texts Harry after Greg starts screaming on the radio. “Falcons win, Falcons win!”

not bad superstar

He gets about a billion red-cheeked, smiley emojis in return and then an ominous-looking pumpkin one. Right. He’d forgotten about Halloween.

He wakes up the next day to the smell of mom making peach cobbler and spends all morning sorting out the final details in his sisters’ costumes. Lottie turns her nose up to that; she’s at that weird age between being a kid and being a teenager and she hasn’t quite figured out how to handle it. Halloween is obviously not an option though, because apparently it’s immature and who cares about carving pumpkins anyway, but she still allows Louis to draw matching whiskers on their faces. “As long as nobody sees.”

Daisy’s a princess and Phoebe’s Spiderman and Fizzy’s a minimalist ghost, if the sheet thrown over her head is anything to go by. Louis does his classic cat in the mirror, because at least it’s an excuse to wear all black. He toes on his scuffed Converse and pulls down his tight black T-shirt and resists the urge to rub at the eyeliner on his cheeks that’s tickling him. All four of them - plus an amused Lottie who’s Instagramming her brother’s failure at life, hashtag loser - sit at the steps of the house, the girls swinging their empty plastic buckets, all of them waiting for Harry to arrive. After ten minutes, Louis pulls out his phone to yell at him via capslock.

“Bon soir, mes amis!”

Daisy and Phoebe screech, because that’s what they’ve been taught to do when strange men say hello to them in questionable make up, Louis physically recoils because he gets a handful of girl suddenly in his lap and Fizzy and Lottie are laughing hysterically somewhere in the background. He spits out a mouthful of blond hair and glitter and inspects the damage. Harry’s grimacing at him from the step below.

“Oh my God,” Louis hisses. “You have got to be kidding me.”

Harry shakes his head gleefully and does a spin, hand on his hip when he’s done. Louis plants his face on Phoebe’s back. “Is that a baguette?” His voice sounds strangled.

“D’you get it?”

“Is this why you’re taking French? I thought that was real weird.” Louis deposits twins one and two back on the ground and stands up, throwing as much disgust in his look as he can. Harry crinkles his eyes at him, smudging the black and white make up someone’s liberally slapped onto his face. Louis’ gonna need to have a chat with Gemma.

“No! ‘Course not! It’s where I got the idea though. Mrs. Newton thought it was genius.”

“Mrs. Newton obviously didn’t want to hurt your feelings. Hate to break it to you, pal.” He tilts the corners of his mouth in the tiniest smile and leans over to fold the sleeve of Harry’s T-shirt. He’s feeling fidgety, like he needs to do something with his hands, and this is probably his safest option.

“I don’t get it,” Fizzy says from under her sheet. She hasn’t even cut eye holes in it. Louis pulls back from Harry to stare at the ghost, which is actually starting to look like the scariest of the bunch. The twins jump off the steps in a synchronized move and start running down the backroad.

“He’s obviously a panda,” says Daisy.

“A zebra, you dumb!” Phoebe argues. She points behind them at Harry and Louis walking, ghost in tow. “Stripes!”

“Don’t call your sister dumb, young lady. This costume of yours is a real success, Styles,” Louis mutters. “Gonna need a real niche audience for this one.”

“‘S long as the audience I wanted to figure it out did, I’m good,” Harry says cryptically, gesturing to the twins and to Fizz to head over to the Albrights’ house. “Hey, girls, wait! Think Coach’ll appreciate his quarterback with you all?” The twins nod eagerly and Fizz jumps unceremoniously on Harry’s back, just as he hits the doorbell; Louis stands a little to the side, amused by the picture they make.

The Albrights are pretty generous all things considered and they must be one of their first trick-or-treaters because they get none of the leftover crap everyone hates, like candy corn or liquorice or raisins. The girls say their thanks in high-pitched voices - Fizzy doesn’t speak at all, one can only assume so she doesn’t break the illusion - and fall back while Coach talks to Harry.

“Hey, Louis?”

Louis looks up, sees Coach looking at him. He walks up to the door, feeling ridiculous in his facepaint. “Hi, Coach. How’s it going?”

“It’s good, son, it’s good. How’re you? Haven’t seen you at any of the games.” He’s wearing the red polo, stark white F over his heart, and a red baseball cap that fits him better than it ever did Louis’ dad. Louis swallows.

“I’ve work usually, sir. But I always catch it on the radio,” he lies, twisting his fingers and pasting a smile on his face. A much bigger hand than his comes to cover his clenched fists. Louis doesn’t look at Harry.

“That’s - that’s good to hear, son. Tell your mama we say hi. And - and your dad when you next speak to him.”

Louis nods distractedly. “Sure will, sir. Thanks, g’night.”

They fall back behind the kids at the next house. Probably for the best; adorable little girls are more likely to get candy in the bucketfuls without two teenage guys skulking around them. It’s sorta creepy, on second thought, even with the cat make up. Louis doesn’t even want to begin to explain the whole half KISS, half stereotypical Frenchman costume Harry’s working.

“Hey,” Harry murmurs, nudging his side with a bony elbow. “Y’alright?”

“Huh? Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. Don’t, like, worry, or anything. It’s - it’s just weird when people mention my dad.” He kicks at a pebble on the street and feels Harry follow him, one finger wrapping round one of Louis’ belt loops. He doesn’t put pressure on his grip, just keeps the distance between them minimal. It’s like Louis’ being grounded to something solid.

“I get it,” Harry says quietly. “I mean, I think I do. Your dad was - is a legend around these parts. First time Sterling got to State in like, ten years.” He sounds wistful.

Louis doesn’t mean for it, but his knuckles turn white. “Yeah. Yeah, I’ve had that drilled in me enough. None of y’all ever seem to shut up about it.” He watches the girls’ give hugs to the Nelson family in exchange for Reese’s Pieces. Harry tugs at his belt loop lightly.

“Hey. Louis, hey. Look at me?”

If he didn’t want to, it might be easier to say no. As it is. He turns, sighing dramatically, and meets Harry’s eyes; he’s smiling, privately almost, like it’s meant just for Louis. “What, Styles.”

“You can tell me to shut up anytime. If it’s weird or uncomfortable, talking about football or whatever. Just, like. Say the word.”

Louis desperately wants to clear his head. His brain feels fuzzy, or slow, or something, and the only thing he can focus on is Harry’s mouth and the fact that Harry’s dressed up as a French KISS. “Why are you so nice to me? Why do you care?”

“I like you, Louis,” Harry shrugs, as if that’s obvious. It’s frustrating, is what it is. “Of course I care.”

“Yeah, but,” and Louis needs to get this out, now, real quick, because he won’t otherwise, because running his mouth off doesn’t happen and now it is, and now he wants it to. “Why? I don’t - you’re like, you’re it for Sterling, for everyone here. Everyone falls at your feet. Why d’you care about me?”

Harry plays with his lower lip, pinching it with a thumb and forefinger and frowning. “Does there have to be a reason? I just - I like spending time with you and I’d like to spend more and it’s weird ‘cause my life is football and yours isn’t and I don’t - I don’t care. About that. I’d like to get to know you more.”

Louis wants to pinch himself. He laughs instead, heaving laughs that make him stretch an arm out to steady himself against Harry’s chest. Harry’s watching him nervously.

“What’s so funny?”

“Just,” Louis breathes out, still laughing, closer to Harry than he was before. “Just at you. And your cheesy lines and weirdo flirting and your puns. How d’you ever get laid like that?”

Harry colors, just a little, and ducks his chin close to his chest. “It works. Doesn’t it?”

Louis considers him for a moment, then turns around searching for the girls. “I guess we’ll have to see. C’mon. I think they’re tricking Zayn’s house.”


---

“Say, Tomlinson.”

Louis glances over his locker, calc textbook jammed between his teeth, to see what looks like the entire football team huddled around him. He raises an eyebrow at Niall who’s leaning on Zayn’s locker next to his. When he’s thrown his book over the pile on his shelf, he turns around to check the rest of them out; Harry offers a sheepish wave. Okay.

“Okay,” he says, swinging the locker door shut and adjusting the bag over his shoulder. “Sorry to say I can’t come as all of y’all’s date to Homecoming. You’re gonna have to share. Who’s getting the hips? The lips?” He flashes a smile in Harry’s direction at that; Harry’s eyes go a little dark.

“While that sounds absolutely delightful,” Niall winks at him and bumps their hips together, “I have my heart set on Malik.” He draws a heart with his finger on the Zayn scratched on the door and sighs dramatically; Harvey and Stevens wolf-whistle on cue. Louis snorts and makes a point of tapping the face paint Niall has smudged on his face. He turns pink. “And also. That’s not why we’re here.”

“Disappointing,” Louis says, sticking his lip out to pout. “What do you want?”

Each and every one of them look at their feet, shifting awkwardly. Louis has the sudden urge to cackle. He drums a finger on the strap of his bag. “I’ve got big and important things to do, I can’t sit around being admired by football players all day.”

“Harry’s not that important, to be honest with you, Louis,” Niall quips, earning an appreciative slap on the back from half the team. Louis glances at Harry, just to see how he’s taking it; he’s staring straight back at him, jaw set, and Louis has to blink a couple of time to focus back on Niall.

“Hilarious. What do you want.”

Niall braces both hands on Louis’ shoulders. Nothing about his face is making Louis feel any less apprehensive. “Rumor has it, you were the one who stole a llama from that circus that came around last year. Y’know, the one they found in the Paynes’ farm?”

“Thanks for that, bro,” Liam pipes up from somewhere behind Louis. He keeps his face carefully in check. It was a hazy night and he doesn’t remember that much of it, except that llamas have truly terrible dental hygiene.

“Like you said, rumors. No one can prove anything. I was home,” he flourishes a hand and whacks their number 8 in the face, “drinking tea, probably. Sorry, Stan.”

Niall pushes the fullback away. “Go cry somewhere else, Lucas. Tomlinson. Louis. Did you hear what Arkell did to our lockers?”

Louis folds his lips together so he doesn’t burst into laughter. Harry had cried about in on the phone for hours yesterday, while Louis watched Twin Peaks reruns and brought the speaker to his mouth occasional to mutter, “Aw, yeah, sucks. Uh huh.” It’s not that he wasn’t interested - a good old school rivalry was always fun to hear about and the Arkell Eagles and the Sterling Falcons have hated each other since the beginning of time, if you trusted some of the people going on about it - it’s just that Agent Cooper was marvelling over a damn good cup of coffee again and Harry’s voice was soothing in the background. Louis can fill in the blanks.

“Get to the point, loser. That goes to all of you actually. I hope you have to play in pee-soaked jerseys on Friday ‘cause that’s just embarrassing.”

“We need to get back at them,” Niall says over him, slapping a hand over Louis’ mouth.

He’s not left speechless for long before a big hand grabs Niall’s elbow and pulls him away. “Hey,” Harry says, raising an eyebrow. Niall starts guffawing.

“I didn’t break him, man.”

“And I can totally handle that puny asshole,” Louis says indignantly. He wraps his own hand around Harry’s arm and pulls him back. “Ask politely, puny asshole.”

Niall smiles happily. “Help us get back at them. Between Payne and Styles leading the team, the worst we’re gonna do is teepee their QB’s house or something.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Liam moans. Harry slaps him on the back.

“I thought it was alright.”

Louis meets Niall’s eyes. He looks kind of desperate at this point. Louis gets it now.

He claps his hands together, squeezing Harry’s arm once before he lets go. “Right. Who knows where Arkell keeps their mascot?”


---

Mom wakes him up in the dead of night, bedroom light switched on with no hesitation because she hates him, and the only thing he can do to shield himself from the harsh light is bury his face deeper into his pillow. It doesn’t deter her - she’s seen her fair share of Louis’ stubbornness - but he maybe hoped the groan of pain when he hears her footsteps come closer might make her the slightest bit more considerate. No luck there; the side of his bed facing the door dips down suddenly and a warm body clad in a fluffy - pink - bathrobe presses against his back. He grumbles something unintelligible and clings to the sleep that is slowly slipping through his fingers. Mom rubs a palm down his arm like she’s trying to ease him into wakefulness.

“Sweetheart,” she whispers, a hell of a lot more softly than she usually would when she has to wake him up for class or work or something. That’s what makes him blink awake blearily, trying to focus on the slightly damp wall of his bedroom. Mom’s never sweet when she’s waking him up.

He shoves his thumb and forefinger into the corners of his eyes and pinches his nose, turning carefully on his back and reaching an arm out for his makeshift bedside table, a stack of records and battered books he likes to keep close. Jay gets there before him and offers him his glasses, sliding them down his nose when he fumbles like a blindman. He frowns as soon as she comes into focus; she’s being awfully helpful for someone who just forcibly woke him mid-REM cycle.

“What did I do,” he says roughly, voice catching in his throat. He has a strict rule of no talking before coffee in the morning, though the fact that there are still artificial lights coming through his bedroom window means it’s anything but morning. He pushes the home button on his phone and squints at the time; 2:38 am, his screen reads, numbers glowing over the picture of him and Zayn driving Mom’s truck, hair flapping in the wind.

“Who says you did anything, honey,” she says, her voice honey sweet and slightly more high-pitched now. She’s doing it on purpose. She always gets more Southern when she’s pissed. He swallows.

“Well, if it’s nothing, I’ll just go ahead and get back to sleep again…” He gestures at the bed and attempts to lie down. Mom grabs him by the forearm.

“You have a gentleman caller, darlin’.” She offers the landline in her hand. “Only thing I wanna know is what the heck our team’s star quarterback is doing calling at this time of night.”

Louis nearly chokes on air. “Harry?”

Mom’s eyes go as wide as saucers. “Harry. Since when is Harry Styles, ‘Harry’, Louis. Since when do I not know these things, Louis.” She’s not ending her questions with a question mark. Louis wonders what kind of limb she’s considering chopping off.

“Mom. Just. Please, gimme the phone. I’ll tell you everything, I swear.”

She raises an eyebrow and hands over the phone, standing up from the mattress. “I’ll be waiting outside.”

“Okay, mom,” Louis gulps, the phone in his hand, covering the speaker with his palm.

She gets to the door and Louis thinks he’s off the hook until.

“If that boy has laid one hand on you -”

“Mom! Jesus! Get out!” He flaps an arm, feeling his face heat up. She goes, finally, and shuts the door behind her. Phew. Now to the matter at hand. “There better be a goddamn reason for you waking me up at quarter till three in the morning, Styles.”

“Hiiiiiiiiii.”

It’s the drawled out single syllable that makes Louis more nervous than he already was. “What did you dumbasses do?”

“We, er. We got the mascot head.”

“Okay,” Louis says curtly. He’d figured as much. The plan that far was simple; drive the twenty miles or so between here and Arkell, break into the school (Niall) and steal the mascot they were way too proudly displaying. Foolproof.

Obviously not.

“Have you been horribly beaten up? Because I’m not gonna talk to you anymore if you’re not pretty.”

There’s weird sound from the other line, then something that sounds like a thumping noise and an ow! that sounds suspiciously like Harry. “Go fuck yourself. Not you, Louis. You think I’m pretty.”

Louis rolls his eyes at no one. “Slip of the tongue. Harry.”

“Right. Um. Our car broke down. Somewhere.”

“Fucking - Why are you calling me?” He knows why he’s calling him; he’s already pulled the covers off his bed, tripping over the bottoms of his pajamas as he searches for a pair of sweatpants.

“Please, Louis. My mom’s gonna murder me.”

“Ugh.” Louis has the sudden urge to punch a wall and violently swear at it. He hops on one foot trying to get his shoes. “Don’t make friends with people holding chainsaws before I get there.”

“Louis -”

“I know, I know, you worship the ground I walk on. Don’t say anything else or I might regret this. See you in twenty.” He hangs up before Harry says anything incriminating and grabs the hoodie hanging behind his door. Then he braces himself, mentally and physically, before he swings the door open. His mom is standing there, arms crossed, like she hasn’t just spent the last five minutes eavesdropping on her teenage son.

“Mom.” He prepares himself to beg.


---

They’re parked smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, Liam’s Jeep too dark to make out except for when Mom’s lights hit the shield. Someone’s standing on the hood of Jeep, hand in the air like he’s trying to get service on his cell, and he starts jumping as soon as he spots them coming their way. Jay turns the radio all the way down and glances at Louis through the side of her eye; he squirms a little in his seat and grabs the door handle.

“Go pick up your strays, honey.” She’s still talking to him in that overly sweet tone, too many terms of endearment to be genuine. It’s probably the fact that it’s three in the freaking morning, so it’s not like he can fault her.

He has to rub his arms to keep blood flowing as he jogs over the road. Niall is still standing on the hood, typing like a maniac, face glowing in the dark. He makes a whooping noise when Louis stops in front of him and hops down, enveloping him in a hug. Louis reciprocates, if only because he’s cold and he likes cuddles.

“Marry me, Louis,” Niall breathes on his neck wetly. It’s mildly disgusting. Louis pats him on the back.

“Thought you were spoken for, man.” He raises his eyebrows at the message alert on Niall’s phone. Niall looks sheepish.

“Shh,” he presses his finger to his lips. “She didn’t come down here and save me, so.”

Louis laughs. “Secret’s safe with me.” He glances through the driver’s seat window and sees Liam behind the wheel, eyes drooping and holding on to the head of a giant yellow eagle costume for dear life. He waves warily, like he’s been through hell and back; Louis feels the tiniest bit sorry for him. “Speaking of the Styleses -” Niall elbows him in the stomach, “- ow, rude. Where’s the youngest one?”

Niall looks like he’s trying his hardest not to roll his eyes. “I don’t know why I associate with him.” He’s slaps a hand over his face and gestures vaguely in the direction of the highway.

Considering that it’s pitch black, Louis’ not sure what he’s supposed to be looking for. He stuffs his hands in his pockets and walks briskly back on the road, squinting to find Harry. He’s about to turn around and goad Liam into admitting where they’ve hidden the body when his foot knocks into something soft. He yells, sounding a lot more like the twins than he’d care to admit, and tries to fall back, only whatever he accidentally kicked starts wrapping around his ankle.

“Oh my fucking g-”

“Lou! You came!”

Louis topples over, half because his balance is compromised, half out of shock. His face plants itself right on top of Harry’s and he gets way too close and personal with just how white his teeth are. He can feel Harry’s laughter thrum through his chest. “Hey, Louis.”

“Hey, yourself. What are you doing lying on the highway, dumbass?” He braces both his palms, framing Harry’s face, and puts a little distance between them. His chest is still pressed completely against Harry’s torso.

Harry makes an attempt to shrug. “Was waitin’ for you.”

“I drove here, idiot, what if we ran you over? Nice headline for you, ‘Quarterback Dies Reenacting The Notebook’.”

Harry’s dimples break out, his smile as goofy as they come. “You figured it out.”

Louis gives up and buries his face in the bunched up sweater Harry’s wearing. “You’re so embarrassing.”

“You love it.” One of Harry’s giant hands comes to scratch at the nape of Louis’ neck. Louis mumbles something unintelligible, breathing in the warm boy smell and yesterday’s cologne.

He’s reminded there are other people in the world when his mom honks from the car. “Shit,” he mutters, heaving himself up and dusting off his clothes, then offering a hand to pull Harry up. Mom looks like she’s swallowed an entire lemon.

“Crap,” Harry whispers, looking in the same direction. “You brought your mom?”

“She brought me. It’s three in the freaking morning, what d’you expect?”

“Right.” He does a cute wave at Jay and Louis slaps his hand. “What!”

“Don’t charm her. It won’t work.”

“You don’t know!”

“Oh, I do. Now, come on, I wanna go to bed.”

They all pile into the car looking sheepish, Liam apologising profusely the whole way back, Niall trying to keep Harry from snooping at his phone every five seconds. Louis can tell Jay is not as annoyed as she’s pretending to be; she loves the team half to death, and he knows she’s treated Niall more than anyone else in this damn town. Plus, Harry’s turned up the charm by eleven, going on and on about her driving and her hair and how the only reason he does anything on the field every Friday is because she’s watching him. From anyone else Louis’ pretty sure it would come across as try-hard; Jay looks positively smitten by the time they drive past Horan’s Motors.

They leave Liam and Niall at their place first, Liam having a conniption because he doesn’t want anything incriminating in his house (he does take the mascot eventually) and then they drive on, past Murphy street to take Harry home. It’s quieter now; Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers are crooning low over the radio, Mom’s humming as she turns the wheel and the only thing Louis can concentrate on is the tiny circles Harry’s drawing under his wrist when he lets his hand fall behind the passenger seat. He doesn’t meet Harry’s eyes in the rearview mirror.

“Here you go then, hon.” Jay cuts the engine and turns to smile at Harry in the backseat. She doesn’t miss the sudden movement when Louis and Harry let go of each other and her face when she raises an eyebrow at Louis clearly spells out we’re having a talk later. Oh, fun.

Harry gets out of the car and appears at her window. “Thanks, Mrs. T. Honestly, that was pretty great of you.”

“Just promise me you’re not gonna steal anymore school property. Even if it’s not our school.”

“I promise, Mrs. T. G’night.”

“Tell your mom I said hey. Or not. Maybe.”

Harry laughs. “Sure thing.” He glances slyly at Louis and Jay sighs dramatically.

“Five minutes, you two. I’ll be counting.”

Louis scrambles out of the car, his face heating up. Harry’s shifting from one foot to the other on the other side of the car.

“Walk me home?”

“Haven’t I done enough for you today, Styles?” Still, Louis tips his chin to the house and they start walking in sync, Harry ungraceful like he always is off the field, bumping into Louis’ side. Louis’ not all that sure it isn’t intentional.

The steps creak under them as they walk up to the door, some kind of animal mewling when Louis sees it dash past them and whispers “Jesus.”

“Don’t worry,” Harry chuckles, his hand coming to rest on the small of Louis’ back. “‘S just the cat.”

“Figures,” Louis says nonsensically. Whatever, it’s past three in the morning and he’s tired and Harry’s looking at him all soft and quiet and Louis can’t take it, really, this stupid back-and-forth between them. “I want to kiss you,” he mutters, throwing caution to the wind. “I’ve kinda wanted to kiss you for a while now.” Harry lights up like a fucking Christmas tree.

“Good,” he says. Smug bastard. He takes a step closer then, essentially barring Louis’ way. Louis’ back hits the door of Harry’s house and his arms reach out automatically. It’s kind of ridiculous how his hands look against Harry’s chest.

“Easy there, cowboy. Momma’s watching.”

Harry’s shoulders slump. “I’m not, like, deflowering you in front of her.”

Louis lets out a squeak. “Oh my God. Really?”

Harry scrunches up his nose. “I’m not suave.”

“Self-aware, though. ‘S hot.” He touches Harry’s cheek lightly, then draws back. “Okay. Right. Goodbye.” He drops under Harry’s arm and heads to the car but Harry’s hand’s on his wrist before he can make a break for it.

“Hey, Louis?”

He’s not sure why because he’s heard him say it plenty of times before but it sends a thrill down his spine to hear Harry say his name. He lets himself be dragged back to him. Just for a second. Harry’s eyes are shining under the warm glow coming from the kitchen inside. He ducks down and smashes a kiss close to Louis’ nose. “G’night.” They nod, both of them at the same time, and Louis leaves, firmly, finally this time.


---

Breakfast in the Tomlinson household has always been a big deal. Survival of the quickest, Louis likes to call it, especially on a Saturday when there’s no rush to go to school. The kitchen invariably turns into a battlefield, with pancake mix coating the floor, grape jelly smeared on someone’s face, coffee and juice and milk all ending up in a jug and looking like puke. It’s the weekend though, so Louis sleeps in and gets up only when he hears the telltale title music of Saturday morning cartoons.

There’s a chorus of ‘mornings’ from the tv room as soon as he swings his bedroom door open and he waves aimlessly at his sisters. They’re all in their jammies, hair tied up in knots, their faces as close to the screen as they can get them. Mom’s on the couch, leafing through the paper with a mug of coffee in her hands. “It’s still warm, Louis, sweetheart. Cream’s on top of your sister’s Pop Tarts.”

He doesn’t question it; hardly anything in the house is where it’s supposed to be - he finds a stale bagel stuffed in the sugar jar and it’s only a little bit gross when he eats it. He grabs his old chipped Sterling Falcons mug and pours milk and coffee in - equal amounts and he will not be given shit about it, fuck you. He’s tempted to put the radio on - Grimshaw sometimes puts on decent music that doesn’t reference summer and whiskey in between his drooling over Harry’s play - but his phone buzzes against the kitchen table where he’s leaning to stir his coffee.

He rubs his nose and checks his messages; there’s another one sided conversation from Zayn narrating the game and a new one from the familiar number he hasn’t keyed into his phone yet. He frowns. Deeply.

i’m at ur house don’t freak out please 

Louis looks up at the clock hanging over the refrigerator, just as the doorbell rings. “I’ll get it!” he yells. A rookie mistake in this house. He can actually see the girls’ ears perk up as they turn around.

“No, me! Me,” Phoebe screeches and Louis would be in the track team if he thought he could outrun her. As it is, he is not in the track team and Phoebe is running through both doors before he even gets the chance to blink. Taking a deep breath and doing the got my eye on you gesture at Mom and the rest of them, he wraps a hand around his mug and pushes through the front door.

Phoebe has both hands behind her back, looking the picture of the sweet little girl Louis knows she isn’t, and Harry’s kneeling on the floor in front of her. They’re both auspiciously having a chat about yesterday’s game.

“Niall’s my favorite,” Phoebe is saying proudly and at this point, Louis knows Harry well enough to know it’s not an act when his jaw drops and he looks affronted.

“Knock to your ego, isn’t she, Styles? Well done, Phoebs.” He ruffles his little sister’s hair and she beams up at him, apparently pleased at the praise. “Go inside for a sec, doll. I gotta deal with this.”

Phoebe runs off, if only because she gets bored real easy and Harry isn’t Niall to keep her entertained, pigtails bouncing behind her. Harry struggles to stand up again. Louis sips on his coffee nonchalantly. He’s totally got this.

“No need to get up. You looked good down there.”

Harry sucks in a breath, then chuckles when he sees Louis smiling. “Put your money where your mouth is, Tomlinson.”

“I definitely plan on putting something there,” Louis says seriously. Harry chokes on air. Oh, this is fun. He should have done this a lot earlier.

“Jesus,” Harry breathes out. “Where did this come from?”

“Keeping you on your toes, pal. Oh, hey, Mom. ‘S just Harry.”

Harry looks terribly wrong-footed as he says an awkward ‘hi’ to Jay, like he’s replaying what Louis told him in his head. Louis smiles harmlessly at him.

“Congratulations on the game yesterday, hon. That was one hell of a touchdown pass.” She sounds quite genuine for someone who lectured her son on quarterbacks and their quote-unquote ‘randiness’ just yesterday; it was all very uncomfortable.

“Thanks, ma’am. I was pretty proud of that one myself.” He’s got his hands behind his back like Phoebe, looking for all the world like he’s five years old and coming over to ask please, please, please let Louis come over and play, pleaaaaase.

“Whatcha doing here, then, honey?” Her arms are crossed; it’s like Harry coming by is her own personal bat signal for weird mom overprotectiveness. It would be cute if she hadn’t been raving about how that Styles kid is a real darling last week, when that Styles kid wasn’t doing whatever he’s doing with her son.

"I, um.” Harry scratches the back of his neck, a self-deprecating sort of grin on his face. “I kind of - my stepdad promised me a car if we got to the play-offs , and I, like, aced my AP classes. And I’ve done both so far? So, um.” He does a weird hand gesture and Louis and Jay peak over him to see another car in their driveway. There’s still a bow over the hood.

“That’s lovely, Harry. Why is it in our driveway?”

Harry flushes, then physically shakes himself, like he’s trying to throw off the embarrassment. It must work because when he looks up at them again, he’s doing that sideways dimple thing Louis knows for a fact he uses on teachers. Suck up. “I was actually kinda wondering if I could take Louis for a drive? Only to like, the lake?”

Louis squirms as inconspicuously as he can , his stomach settling in with butterflies.

Mom looks like she’s about to get into a debate. Louis looks at her, as imploring as he can. They stare each other down for a good minute while Harry shuffles his feet in front of them.

“Fine,” Jay says finally and Louis wipes his forehead theatrically. “But you’re having breakfast with us first.”

“Mom -”

“Sure,” Harry says easily, like the fucking accommodating asshole he is. Jay smiles, satisfied, and gestures at both of them to follow her. Harry looks way too happy to go along with it. Louis isn’t here for that.

“I hope you enjoy mac and cheese for breakfast,” he hisses scathingly. Harry raises an eyebrow.

“It’s eleven am.”

Louis smirks. “Welcome to the Tomlinsons’.”


---

It’s miles of blue sky and clear horizon when they finally get on the road. Mom - being Mom - waved them off from the porch, eyes keen on Harry when he opened the passenger door for Louis to get in. The lunchbox she made them - because of course she did - was thrown in backseat, over the very suspiciously placed blanket that Louis decidedly did not comment on, and then they were off. The radio was switched off after one too many mentions of God's righteousness in favor of some kind of old school Motown mixtape Harry put on and Louis rolled the window all the way down, wind catching in his hair and making him play self-consciously with his fringe flying across his forehead.

He’s kind of a reckless driver, Louis notices. Not in the sense that he runs every red or is distracted by his phone or his head is turned 90 degrees constantly because he’s looking at Louis - though all of those are pretty much true. His hands are loose on the steering wheel, he turns too narrow and speeds where he shouldn’t and Louis still can’t shake off the weird feeling coursing through him. He can’t put words to it but it’s there whenever he pushes his aviators up the bridge of his nose and smiles at the dashboard because Harry caught him looking. Between them, he’s not sure much of the scenery is appreciated.

They get to the lake a little after noon, when there are already kids cannonballing from the peer and the older men have packed up their fishing gear. Harry drives them a little further away from the main site, so they’re sheltered a little from the screaming; not that Louis’ overthinking it, but it’s definitely not unwelcome.

Harry gets out of the car first, yawning and stretching on the bank, his shirt riding up over his waist. Louis’ not saying he’s doing it on purpose; the shit eating grin he directs at Louis when he turns around is saying that just fine. Two can play at that game though. Louis checks himself in the rearview mirror, sweeps his hair to the side and gets out to sit on the hood. He crosses his legs and braces himself back on his arms, basking in the little sun making its way through the foliage. Harry very deliberately pushes his sunglasses down and watches him.

A beat. “Come on, get up, we’re going in.” Either Louis has issues with his hearing or Harry needs something soothing for his throat. He bites his cheek to keep his smile in check.

“It’s November. I’m gonna have to seriously think about it before I swim in there, Styles.”

“If you don’t get up right now,” Harry comes closer, one hand on either side of Louis, his face all up in Louis’ face. His pupils look darker from this close. “If you don’t get up right now, I swear to God, I will grab you and throw you in myself.”

“I’d like to see you try. The water’s so shallow that the only thing you’ll manage is to get me super pissed at you.” He punctuates his last word with a poke to Harry’s chest. Harry’s fast enough to grab his wrist and bring him in closer, noses a breadth from each other. Louis’ barely daring to breathe.

Harry licks his lips - Louis can’t see him do it but he knows - and his eyes dart down for a second, looking at Louis’. Louis wants to push, he wants to push so much, but either they’re playing a game that only one of them will win or it’s too fun to stop playing and it’s only a couple more seconds before they both pull back. Harry rubs his nose, the corner of his mouth jumping like he’s trying to control a grin.

Louis clears his throat. “Fine, fine, I’m - yeah, let’s go in. I’m just gonna dip my feet in, okay?”

Harry nods easily and offers a hand. Louis considers it, then jumps off on his own, flicking Harry’s bare arm just to be a dick. He leans down to roll up the cuffs of his jeans and toe his shoes off; Harry’s already in up to his thighs by the time Louis winces at the cold water.

“‘S alright for you, you’re wearing fucking cut-offs. Loser,” he adds because he will never admit that Harry looks okay in cut-off jeans. No one’s supposed to work cut-off jeans, it’s pretty much law. He kicks water at him because he deserves it; the only thing Harry does in reaction is open his mouth and stick out his tongue. What did Louis ever do to be punished like this.

“You really shouldn’t have done that,” Harry says quietly, tucking both lips in his mouth. Louis takes a step backwards, apprehensive all of a sudden.

“Styles, whatever’s going through that tiny brain of yours had better stop right - NO! Stop it! Harry, don’t you d-”

He has about a split second’s warning before Harry pounces and then Louis’ world is tilted on its axis and not in the nice metaphorical sense either. He’s aware of Harry’s hands on the back of his thighs and how he’s in full view of the small of Harry's back and then the body of water underneath him is suddenly way too close and it's all can do not to swallow half the lake.

He gives himself a moment to get his bearings when he breaks the surface - Harry's watching him carefully, like he's not sure whether he regrets this after all - then he sinks back in, arms wrapping around Harry's legs. He pulls, once, and thank God for buoyancy and Harry having two left feet because they both fall, screaming and gulping water.

"I hate you!" Louis yells when they come back up and he's hanging half off Harry's neck.

"Such," Harry breathes out, hands circling Louis' forearms, "a fucking - lie."

"Possibly," Louis admits, still not letting up. "Probably."

They mess around in the water until the pads of their fingers turn wrinkled. When it’s darker and most of the lakeside is quiet other than the crackle of the occasional campfire, they finally come back out, shivering and teeth clattering against each other. Louis hugs his arms around himself, eyeing the pile of clothes they’d dumped over the car to dry; his shirt’s way too damp to do anything other than guarantee a cold and Harry’s lips looks more blue than their usual pink. Sharing body heat would probably be a good idea.

“I’m going to get that damn blanket of yours. Don’t die before I get back,” he warns with a finger in Harry’s face. Harry pretends to bite it.

It’s tempting to just sit in the car and maybe turn the heating on so he doesn’t freeze his fucking balls off; he’s kind of attached to them. But it’s not really all that cold and the goosebumps on his arms are fading. Maybe the idea of sharing a blanket with Harry Styles isn't the worst one in the universe.

Harry’s blowing on the tiniest flame when Louis gets back, half naked as he is over a clump of dried leaves. It gets bigger by the time Louis throws the blanket over him - more thanks to the wind than Harry’s frankly mediocre blowing skills. Maybe Louis shouldn’t judge until he’s investigated this further.

Harry looks up at him under slightly lidded eyes and smiles all dopey. “Didn’t die,” he mutters, fisting the air. Louis snorts and ruffles the damp curls on top of his head.

“Well done, QB1. C’mon, scoot up, let’s regain use of our limbs.”

Harry complies, folding one corner of the comforter over his bare chest and throwing his free arm over Louis’ shoulders. “Sounds good to me.”

By the time they heat up the hotdogs Mom packed up for them, Louis’ sure his body temperature is at least back to normal levels. He’s not entirely sure if it’s just the fire he ought to be thankful for; Harry’s skin turns into a furnace after five minutes in front of the flames, melting marshmallows between his fingers. It’s nice regardless and one more excuse Louis doesn't need to keep his head tilted on to Harry’s side.

“You’re an idiot, stop burning your fingers, Jesus Christ,” Louis slaps a hand over Harry’s when he attempts another misguided s’more. Harry visibly pouts, downturned lip and doleful expression; if that works on normal people, Louis will eat a fucking football. He lifts Harry’s hand and inspects the damage. The melted marshmallow has barely singed his index finger but it’s enough for Louis to bite his lip in frustration.

“Kiss it better?”

Louis knows he’s scowling; that fierce, eyebrows-meet-in-the-middle thing that’s made more than one parent and teacher cower before him. It’s the least surprising thing in the world that it doesn’t work on Harry.

“Are you fucking serious?”

“It hurts, Lou.” Harry's voice wobbles and Louis can’t control the fact that his heart actually pinches at the sound.

“Manipulative bastard,” he whispers through his teeth and shuts his eyes to get it over with. He puckers his lips and makes to lean down and press Harry’s offending digit to his mouth but something gets in the way. He has a moment of blind panic - because those are someone else’s lips - and then rips his eyes open to see Harry bent down at the oddest angle ever, his own eyes wide and open and stupidly green even in the dark. Louis freezes, both hands in midair like he can’t make up his mind whether he wants to shove Harry off or pull him in by the neck. Harry makes the decision for him - he seems to be making a habit of that, a habit which Louis’ going to put a stop at, sometime, in the future, definitely - and leans back, letting the blanket drop so he can give Louis some space.

“I’m - I’m sorry. That was.” He coughs instead of finishing his sentence. His lips aren’t blue anymore.

“Sorry for what?” Louis' pinching himself under the blanket, pinching until it hurts.

“Sorry for - I shoulda - I should’ve asked before -” He’s rubbing every inch of his skin with a flat palm but his eyes never leave Louis’.

“You should’ve,” Louis agrees, then jumps on top of him, fitting their mouths together far better than Harry’s clumsy attempt before.

Harry lets out some kind of noise, a muffled grunt when his back hits the ground and Louis presses his weight down on him. His hand is holding the back of Louis’ neck desperately, like he’s holding on and never letting go, and Louis’ all but lost it, catching Harry’s lips and digging his fingers into his face, keeping him close. There’s a buzzing in his ears - some kind of latent reaction to falling or maybe it's just the fact that he's kissing Harry and Harry's kissing back. Whatever it is, it doesn't make him stop, not until they have to come out for air and Louis pulls back, panting, cheeks aching with the effort of smiling so damn hard. Harry looks like Louis feels, cheeks red and mouth slightly open, looking at Louis like he’s the sun and he’s never, ever seen it before.

He reaches up, kissing Louis half to death again. He's so enthusiastic about it; he kisses every inch of Louis' face, mouth, nose, eyes, cheeks in quick succession and Louis is giddy, there's no other word for it. He's nearly eighteen and his stomach is in knots and his heart is trying to jump out of his chest and he doesn't care because Harry smells like firewood and tastes of chocolate and it's like time is wasted unless he's kissing him back.

There's a crease on Harry's forehead when they pull away again - a no, no, come back, I don't think I agreed on this frown on his face that makes Louis burst into laughter. He shoves his face in Harry's neck to muffle the giggles which only serves in making Harry squirm, ticklish at the sensation. Louis stores away the information for later; he has a feeling it'll come in handy. He settles back, crosses his arms over Harry's chest and presses his chin down, watching him. Harry looks blissed out, blinking up at the orange-tinted sky.

"This went so much better than last time," he sighs. Louis gives himself a minute for the words to sink in. His jaw makes an audible sound when it drops.

"What the hell, you dick." He slaps a hand on Harry's shoulder when he dares start laughing.

"Hey, hey, stop, I'm kidding! Kidding!"

"Are you," Louis mutters, trying his closest approximation to a snarl. Harry lifts his head up to boop their noses together.

"Technically, the last time I came here, I got told kissing me is like kissing a frog, but I was ten and she was an eighth grader. So, in my defense, she had way more experience."

A muscle is stubbornly jumping at Louis' face. "Who is this fine woman and where can I congratulate her?"

"Screw you," Harry says cheerfully.

Louis pinches Harry's cheek. "Did you just share the story of your first kiss with me, Harold?"

Either it's a trick of the light or Harry is blushing. "Maybe."

"That's adorable." He leans down to press a chaste kiss on Harry's mouth, which definitely deserves to be kissed at all times. "I hope I measured up."

Harry's dimples tell him all he needs to know. "I mean, I personally think that practice makes perfect so. You know."

"Oh, no, yeah, I totally agree. Broader samples and stuff."

Harry nods sagely. "Exactly. It's for science."

"I could go with more making out. For science."

"Good," Harry says, looking awfully satisfied.

"Good," Louis agrees.


---

It's raining, a proper Texas storm that turns the sky dark and makes the windows rattle whenever the wind blows. Louis knew it was gonna rain before it did; there was a chill settling in his back this morning, and he could feel the beginnings of a headache curling in his temple when he got out of bed. His body always plays weatherman before a storm and Louis' always been told to trust his instinct. The sky don't really have secrets, y'know. Only got to read it well enough. His dad used to tell him when they first moved here, warned him about the fickle weather he'd have to learn to love.

He figures he has learned to love it, at least more than his dad ever did. For all his speeches about Texas and Sterling being their new home, his dad had only lasted a year here. Or a season, more accurately. Being coach of a high school football team made you ignore the rest of the months in a year.

Louis shakes himself, pushes those thoughts further back because they've never done him any good and squints through the rain spotting his glasses. He's sitting at the bleachers, half covered by a poster advertising Horan's Motors, trying to make out the players on the field. They're running laps in full padding, while the assistant coaches yell at them from under the safety of an umbrella. Niall gives up halfway, planting his face in the mud and ignoring Albright when he leans over him. Harry's sister, sheltered close to the field house, is watching too. "Get up, loser!" Louis doesn't miss the fondness in her voice.

"Kicker off!" Albright shouts just as the sky thunders above them. "Someone get him off this field before he chokes up a lung!"

Louis leans against the railings to watch Gemma - literally - brave the storm and pick Niall up by the armpits, letting him lean over her shoulder. He has a dazed look on his face when he sees her, which only turns more puke-worthy when she smacks a kiss on him as she pushes his visor up. It would be really fucking cute if Harry wasn't giving them both the death stare from midfield. Actually that makes it three million kinds of hilarious.

As if he can sense him laughing at him, Harry looks up and spots Louis in the stands. His chin strap hides most of his mouth but Louis can tell he's grinning at him. He gives in and waves at him, then opens his mouth to try and warn him. Harry's caught in mid-wave when most of the team tackles him to the ground, hooting and wolf-whistling through the downpour.

"What in heaven's name was that lame ass performance, Styles?" Albright turns on the spot and shelters his eyes under his hand as he looks over at Louis. "The Lord is testing me. Tomlinson, get the hell outta here, you're distracting my players!"

Louis is already halfway down the stairs and he jogs over to the pile up to check if Harry's still alive. "Sorry, sir," he grins at Coach.

"That's the least sorry I've ever seen a person be." He gestures furiously at his team to let their quarterback breathe. "Laps, all of you, again! Not you, Styles, you might have a concussion."

"I don't, sir," Harry lisps through his mouthpiece as he takes the helmet off. Louis punches him uselessly on the shoulder pad.

"Thought you got hurt, dumbass."

Harry gives him a plastic grin. "Aw, Lou."

"Don't 'aw' me, Harry.”

“Off the field. Both of you. Before I make you run the stairs,” Coach spits out curtly.

“You can’t actually -” Louis starts but he’s stopped by a giant hand pressing over his mouth when Harry sneaks behind him and starts pulling him toward the field house. Louis reaches a hand between them and tickles the heck out of the sliver of skin as Harry strains himself.

“Fuck, don’t - I’m ticklish, Louis!”

“I know.” He untangles himself away from Harry. “And are you sure you’re prepared for what we might see in the locker rooms?”

Harry’s face turns about as thunderous as the sky. “I am gonna murder him.” He swivels around and heads straight through the doors, only Louis manages to jump onto his back and make him slow down. He tangles his fingers in front of Harry’s eyes.

“I’m doing this out of the goodness of my heart, Styles.”

“Louis, get off.”

“Definitely not, I’m comfortable.”

“Louis, I don’t know where I’m going -” Case in point, he trips over a net of balls and nearly bangs his head on the whiteboard. Louis is now fearing for his life and second guessing his choice in rides. Thankfully though, either Niall is back at the nurse’s office to see Jay or Gemma is smuggling him into her car for a make out session without interruption from brother dearest, so the field house is empty. He hops off Harry’s back to prevent further injury.

Harry does a quick sweep around, cataloguing the absence of his sister groping his teammate - Louis can see the exact moment the thought enters his head and it’s all he can do not to fall on the floor laughing. When he’s done and his expression is a mix of relief and unadulterated disgust, he turns to Louis. He’s frowning, his jaw weirdly set, and then he moves, backing Louis against the uniform rack. Both his palms are flat against the wall either side of Louis and God, it’s really something to know he has this effect on someone. On Harry.

“It’s been,” Harry breathes out, sounding labored, “two days.”

“Two days?” Louis asks innocently, pushing himself up on tiptoes. “Two days since what?”

Harry lets out a frustrated sound from the back of his throat. He leans in - and Louis thinks yes, yes, yes in quick succession, because it’s not been two days, it’s been too long - but he doesn’t do anything much other than graze Louis’ cheeks with chapped lips. “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you, about kissing you since Saturday. It’s like my brain is fucking stuck on you.” Harry draws himself back, eyes flicking up and down, and Louis can feel his heartbeat in every inch of his body.

“Seriously, enough talk,” Louis mumbles, both hands winding around Harry’s neck and pulling the hairs curling at its nape. “Just kiss me, you goddamn idiot.”

“Thought you’d never ask,” Harry grins and closes the distance, finally attaching his mouth to Louis’.

It gets pretty heated for a locker room, even with Harry’s padding decidedly getting in the way. It’s not like Harry’s shy about it; his hands stray quickly and Louis chokes back a gasp when he feels them brushing his thighs and Harry’s leg pushing with intent. Except someone has to be the goddamn designated driver and Harry’s clearly way too drunk on this, so Louis thanks his lucky stars and sense of self-preservation when he manages to push Harry off seconds before the team storm in, war cry in their wake.

Debauched is probably a good word for it, especially considering Liam’s slightly pink-tinged face when he sidles up next to Louis and stares them both down. “You’re in public,” he hisses, not unkindly and not entirely unamused either. Harry giggles and grabs Liam in a headlock, dragging him down to kiss him on top of his head.

“And I think I’ll take that as my cue,” Louis says, raising his eyebrows. Harry grins at him smugly, still choke-holding Liam.

“Meet me outside?”

“Sure,” Louis nods, tilting his head to the side. “As soon as you’re done with your lil’ bro fest in here.”

“It’s actually one of the most genuine bonds, Lou.” Harry releases Liam about two seconds before death and hugs him close. “We love each other very much. Liam, hug me.”

“I’m leaving before the orgy!” Louis waves behind him to a chorus of swoons and chuckles when the door behind him swings shut.

He waits outside the locker rooms, sits on one of the benches and pulls out his iPod to listen to something while Harry gets ready. He settles on his rain playlist and stretches his legs out, losing himself a little to the steady beat. It’s after eight because Coach has been driving them to the ground - four till State - and Louis’ tired a little. He spent all day at school, getting the final drafts of his applications checked, then work until Grace got clued onto the fact that no one’s gonna buy a book during a downpour, then straight to the field to be a supportive - whatever to Harry.

“Hey,” he hears a low voice in his ear over the guitar and he blinks his eyes open to see Harry leaning over him, freshly clean and looking soft in his sweatpants and hoodie. He’s kind of irresistible like this - Louis’ allowed the tiny illusion that he can say no when Harry’s not in loungewear, fuck you - so Louis pulls at the cross hanging from his neck until they’re face to face and he can peck him softly on the mouth.

“Hey, yourself. Want a ride?”

“Mhmm,” Harry hums against Louis’ lips, letting himself be stirred toward the parking lot when Louis gets up. “Yeah,” he yawns as he falls into step behind Louis, his speech slurring to a speed of about two words per minute. Their hands brush together as they round a corner and Louis makes an effort not to feel his skin burning up. He should be used to this by now; casual touches shouldn’t make it difficult for him to concentrate, not when he’s been practically wrapped around Harry Styles for the last few weeks, getting to kiss him now whenever he damn well pleases.

They make a run for it in the rain, hands sliding as they try to get in the car. Harry curls into the passenger seat, his hand moving automatically to the dashboard until Louis slaps it away. “My car, my music.” It’s more of a habit than anything else. Harry shrugs, already half asleep, limbs jutting at odd angles because he doesn’t fit in Louis’ fucking car. Louis catches himself staring at Harry’s barely conscious form for a moment too long and fumbles with the keys in the ignition.

It’s comfortable silence as Louis swerves through the streets. The dive bar, Luke’s, is the only thing lit up, a couple of Chevys parked outside while the flatscreen shows the highlights from Friday’s game.

He parks in front of Harry’s yard and smiles fondly at the serene look on Harry’s face as he snores softly. “Harry, wake up. We’re at your house.” It takes a few minutes of prodding and running a hand through his hair for him to blink his eyes open and, even then, Louis figures it’s safer to slip an arm around his waist and guide him to the front door.

They walk up the steps, giggling like kids, and it’s only when they unlock the front door and walk inside that Harry straightens up, trying to brush the exhaustion from his eyes with a sore knuckle. Louis can hear the tv playing from where he assumes the kitchen is and he's suddenly uncomfortably aware that he's at Harry's, and Harry's mom is here, and Louis’ this close to meeting the parents.

Harry taps under his chin with a finger to pull him out of his reverie. “Louis? You’re kinda not breathing.”

Louis swallows and looks up at Harry, tired, soft Harry and there’s nothing scary about this at least. He can charm the in-laws; he can charm the pants off them.

“Harry, hon, is that you?”

Louis doesn’t hide behind Harry, of course he doesn’t. He just so happens to shuffle his feet a little to the left and suddenly he can’t see anything other than Harry’s back.

“Hey, mom,” Harry murmurs and Louis can hear the smile in his voice. He’s still staring intently at the curls at the nape of Harry’s neck but movement catches his eye; Harry’s hand is gesturing behind him and Louis can't do more than take a step back before Harry’s reaching out and pulling him by his side.

“Oh,” the woman in front of him says, confused frown on her face. Louis’ heart is beating somewhere in the vague area of his throat. “Louis, right? Jay’s son? Harry’s told me all about you.”

“Mom,” Harry moans, ducking his face down as far as Louis can see. It’s that more than anything that makes Louis stop shifting his feet and smile at Harry getting all bashful because of his mom.

“Talk about me a lot, do you, Harry?”

“Oh, you have no idea,” Anne says, rolling her eyes theatrically. She looks pleased though as she waves them through to the kitchen. Louis hangs back.

“I actually - uh - should get back home -”

“Don’t be silly. Come on, you two, there’s spaghetti left.”

Harry shrugs, as if he would do anything about it if he could. Louis pokes him for the hell of it and fixes his hair before he follows Anne. Harry’s giant hand circles his waist, not quite touching, and Louis holds back a shiver when he leans down to whisper in his ear. “Don’t be nervous, yeah? You’ve already made an impression.”

“Not helping,” Louis mutters and walks to the stove, offering to help with the food. Anne shushes him away, dimpled smile all too familiar to Louis.

It’s nice, is the thing. It's nice to share a table with Harry and lean over to wipe his tomato sauce mustache without a second thought; it's nice to know Anne's smiling behind her wine glass at them; it's nice to watch Harry plant his face next to his pasta when his mom starts talking about five year old Harry and his unhealthy obsession with the founding fathers.

Gemma comes in later, hair plastered on her forehead and pursing her lips stubbornly like she’s got nothing to feel guilty about. Harry’s halfway out of his seat until Louis pulls him back laughing at how he looks like he’s about to go on a murder rampage. He gives Gem an exaggerated wink behind Harry’s back and he and Anne share a look which makes him bite back a chuckle. Harry sees - of course Harry sees - and he can’t even make a proper effort to stay mad, just bumps softly into Louis’ side, nodding like he knows something Louis doesn’t.

Even when their dad gets home and starts quizzing Harry on their plays for the away game, Louis sits back and laughs every time Harry gets the Red Right 22 Texas confused, tapping lightly on the back of his hand until he figures it out. He still remembers these from his dad - remembers leaning over his shoulder and memorizing the plays and feeling proud - and now, here, while Gemma dumps a marshmallow in Harry’s chocolate every time he gets one right and Anne rolls her eyes every time they rewind the tape, it’s a little bit like something’s healing.


---

They beat South Pine and Laribee and they get to the semi-finals for the first time since Coach Tomlinson and his twenty-ten miracle. Louis bans the radio at the house; it’s one too many times he has to hear that name and not break whatever’s in his hands. Mom gets it but the girls don’t, Zayn gets it because he’s Zayn and he knows it first hand, but Harry pretends, toning his excitement down whenever Louis freezes at the mention of something that hits too close to home.

It’s a precarious balance and Louis tries, he does, because he’s gotten better at this, at dealing with his dad not being here, but still being around all the same. He goes to practices, he gives Harry’s rally girl a very friendly warning, he has the playbook on his lap whenever they head to school. He can tell Harry appreciates it in the too tight hug before the bus leaves for South Pine, in the slightly lingering kiss that Niall swoons over, in the self-deprecating tone of the hey, we won :) text after the game that Louis knows is hard for him, because Harry knows he’s good. “The best, even. Maybe,” Louis whispers like it’s a secret on the phone on Friday. And he means it.

He means it until he opens his locker on Tuesday and a white envelope falls out when he tries to shove his Lit essay inside. He frowns; while it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Niall’s started writing poetry about him - Louis swears he’s been kissed by Niall Horan way more times than Gemma has, just because he’s fucking great and knows how to distract Harry plenty - Niall isn’t the type to buy stationary for it. He kneels down in the middle of the crowded hallway and turns it in his hands. There’s not even a scribbled Louis in the corner. Whatever, he’s never said no to a gift before.

He counts the slips of paper in his hands again, just to make sure he’s not getting pissed over nothing. Six. There are definitely six tickets in here. He shoves his empty bag in the locker and takes off toward the cafeteria.

He spots the bunch of guys in red jerseys in one corner, Liam and Niall involved in some kind of food fight that has fries flying over them. Harry’s at a safe distance, Calc textbook held high to defend himself, stupid headband on his head because his hair’s gotten too long. He’d told Louis, either in the car on the way home or by the lockers, somewhere Louis could smile at him and pull at a curl, that he stops cutting his hair as soon as fall hits. Louis has the urge to rip it off and set it on fire. He does have some semblance of self-control.

He slaps the tickets flat on the table next to Harry’s tray when he walks up to them. “Hi, boys. Harry.”

Harry looks like a deer caught in the headlights. One of the injured receivers starts laughing. “Oh, Styles, rally girl looks pissed.”

“Fuck off,” Harry and Louis say at the same time. It’s the only time Louis’ ever heard Harry sound biting but it doesn’t help, it doesn’t make him any less angry.

“What are these, Harry?” he asks, his voice as even as he can make it. Liam and Niall have resumed their food fight with a lot more yelling, like they’re trying to cover for them. Louis would appreciate it if he cared enough.

Harry looks down at the tickets - Sterling Falcons vs. Buckley, State semi-finals - and Louis can see him swallow. So, he knows. He knows exactly what he’s done.

“Louis -” he starts, but at this point Louis doesn’t want to fucking hear it. He lifts both palms up and shrugs.

“I thought you - whatever, I was wrong. Keep your tickets. My family can go to the game with their own. And I’m not even going to be in Texas, so. Screw it.” He turns on his heel and stomps off, dimly aware that the cafeteria is eerily silent. Bunch of fucking nosy bastards. He only turns his head when the door behind him swings shut, in just enough time to see Zayn grab Harry by the forearm and stop him from following. Thank fuck for Zayn.

He’s hiding really, when he kicks the car door open in the parking lot and punches the dial on the radio. Fucking Marvin Gaye starts crooning in the car and, Jesus, that’s not what he needs right now, reminders of Harry rocking out I give you all the love I want in return sweet darling like he could actually sing. He cuts the power and shoves his feet on the dashboard, staring intently ahead of him. There’s a crack on the windscreen that he was supposed to get fixed ages ago.

He sits there, hating everything for a good half an hour. After that, the anger thrumming through his veins starts to dissipate and the quiet bubble of something like guilt starts to nag at him. No, no, he refuses to feel guilty about; if Harry knows anything, it’s that Louis can’t do football. He can do practices and he can run through the plays and he can feel excitement when Harry tells him that Alabama are interested but that’s it, that’s where he draws the line. Even if he hasn’t said it, Harry knows, Harry’s always known and to throw this at him is just. Louis’ got every right to want to tear him a metaphorical new one.

Calmer now, he sprawls more comfortably in the driver’s seat and plays with the piece of paper he’s been keeping in the glove compartment for three weeks. He was going to tell Harry about it today, reverse their roles for once, make Harry proud of him. Dear Mr. Tomlinson… He blinks the rest of the letter away; he’s basically memorised it anyway.

Knock, knock, knock.

He glances up at the passenger seat window. Harry’s face is pressed against the glass, nostrils flaring up in a way that’s completely unattractive but still manages to make Louis crack a smile. He unlocks the door and Harry pushes back, hesitating for a moment before he opens the door and slips in. “Hey.”

“Hell of an opener, Styles.”

“I was thinking of maybe ‘I’m sorry, I’m a dick, please forgive me or I’ll cry’ but Zayn said it sounded too desperate.”

Louis snorts, still folding the letter in his hands. “Begging’s good. Don’t take advice from Zayn.”

Harry lifts his shoulders minutely. “I don’t know. He was pretty good with advice. Like, before.” He moves, one leg folding over in the seat, and looks Louis in the eye. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. Got you a ticket and, like, pressuring you to do something you don’t want to.”

Louis nods, worrying his lip. “No. You shouldn’t have.” He can see Harry shuffling, pulling something out of his back pocket.

“Harry -”

“No, no, listen. I’m - it’s only five tickets. For your mom and sisters. Is that okay?”

Louis pulls up his knees and presses his mouth in the hole in his jeans. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s okay.”

“Cool. So, are we. Are we okay?” He sounds flustered, like he’s not sure what else he can do. Louis considers him.

“I’m not gonna be here on Friday,” he says instead of answering.

Harry bites his cheek. “You said. Can I ask - why not?”

Here goes nothing. “Interview. At San Francisco. It’s on Friday.”

Harry’s jaw drops. “College interview?” It’s not upset, the way he says it; it’s exactly how Louis hoped it would be whenever he tried to rehearse this in his head. “Oh my God, Lou. That’s - that’s so great.”

“Yeah. I kinda think so too.” He laughs, mostly at himself, for thinking this could go any other way. He leans over to press Harry’s hand in his and hits the dial on the radio. They spend the rest of school singing into invisible microphones, with Harry getting so into Sexual Healing by the end of it that he climbs the hood of the car to give a proper performance to the delight of not only Louis.


---

He gives up on packing when it becomes very clear his skills lie elsewhere and Jay very patiently pries his dress shirt away from him to iron again. He’s only going to be in San Francisco a couple of days, just for the interview on Friday and a quick campus tour with his mom on Saturday; it doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t pack a decent change of clothes with him.

“A change of clothes is one thing, honey,” Jay says as she pushes him out of his bedroom and away from the war zone that is his closet. “Four pairs of pants and seven sweaters is another.”

“But -”

“No buts. I’ll deal with this. You need to calm down because you’re nervous about tomorrow and I don’t wanna have to deal with you puking your guts out on the flight.”

“Way to be supportive, mom,” Louis huffs, worrying a hole in his T-shirt. Jay bats his hand away.

“Stop it,” she warns. “Go for a run. Read the twins a bedtime story. Visit Zayn’s.”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?”

Mom smiles sweetly. “Of course not, Lou. Just getting you to bug someone else.”

“Fine!” he mutters scathingly, hopping into his Converse and shoving a beanie over his head. He trips over a Lottie-shaped bundle of blankets on the floor that’s doing her homework on his way to the door.

“I love you, darling!” Jay yells from the kitchen.

“I love you too,” he shouts back as the door closes. He’s a momma’s boy at heart.

Zayn’s house is two doors down so he takes a left for about three seconds before backing up and going the opposite direction. Knowing Zayn, he’ll already be snoring to make up for his lack of sleep tomorrow morning. Louis won’t deprive him of the opportunity to wake up at four am to wish Louis good luck.

He crosses the street instead, hands in his pockets, shivering a little in the cold air. It’s twenty minutes till he gets where he wants to, twenty minutes plus the ten it takes him to find the nerve and text Harry. He leans on the red and white sign in the front yard with the words Styles QB recently painted on. The only light in Harry’s house comes from Gemma’s bedroom; he hopes their mom and dad are asleep.

hey where are u :)

home :) practicing passes
can’t sleep?

“Something like that,” Louis murmurs, pushing through the gate and walking around the house. He hears a ball landing on the concrete and someone cheering in a whisper. “...and touchdown! Whatta a player, whatta a guy…”

The old tire Harry uses to practice on is swinging from the tree in the Styles’ yard, a net of old footballs pooled at Harry’s feet as he takes the snap. He’s in his skinny jeans, his football jersey rolled up at the sleeves and his hair’s pulled back with a hot pink scrunchie. Which doesn’t surprise Louis in the least, if he’s being honest. He watches him, safe for now in the shadow of the house, and doesn’t hide the smile he knows is splitting his face in two.

The ball goes right through the middle. Harry stands up and fist bumps the air, hand sliding into his back pocket to take out his phone. The screen lights up, illuminating his face. He looks a little bit disappointed at whatever's not there. It makes Louis squeeze his arms around his waist to ground himself.

“Not bad, QB.”

Harry looks up, startled, his face breaking into a grin when he spots Louis. “Lou! What are you doing here?”

Louis makes his face fall. “Oh my God, does no one want me around? First my mom, now you…”

Harry’s still smiling his closed mouth smile that makes Louis gulp as he comes closer. “Hey, hey. I didn’t say that. Come on over here.”

As if Louis could resist, especially when Harry stretches his arms out expectantly. He sighs and buries his nose in the crook between Harry’s neck and shoulder, Harry’s arms pulling him tighter against him. It’s nice for what it is, but it’s not what Louis came for. He pulls back an inch, still pressed as close as he can to lean up and kiss the grin off Harry’s mouth pretty effectively. Harry makes a surprised noise but catches on quickly enough, mouth opening under the pressure of Louis’ tongue, his hands bunching up Louis’ sweater, pulling him lower and closer.

“Inside,” Louis pants, mouth apart from Harry’s only enough to get the words out. "Can we -?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Harry nods, sounding wrecked already. He kisses Louis fiercely one more time before he races up the porch to get the door open. Louis follows him, a little dazed, and holds on to the hem of Harry’s shirt for dear life.

It’s dark in the house and so quiet you could hear a pin drop and it makes Louis reconsider when Harry guides them to his room and shuts the door. He’s about to say - he doesn’t know what, maybe “Your parents are in the next fucking room.” or “Your sister is never gonna look at me the same way again.”- but then Harry pushes him against the door and Louis’ brain whites out.

Harry slams into him, crowds Louis against the wall with the door slamming shut, his mouth attaching itself to Louis neck. Louis feels him suck a mark there, teeth biting down until his skin is pulsing and red under his tongue and Louis is threading both hands in Harry’s hair, pulling but not pushing away. He sucks in a breath when Harry lowers his mouth to Louis’ collarbones and Louis squirms, feeling Harry grin into the skin. Its like he’s lost control of this whole thing, he’s pretty sure he was the one to start this and it’s just. Too much. His brain is fucking short circuiting and he's not sure it's an entirely conscious decision when he sneaks a hand between them and lands it flat against Harry’s stomach, pulling at his shirt until he’s scratching at the skin there, hovering over Harry’s belt.

Harry gasps in Louis’ mouth, cold hands on his burning skin. “It’s not a - competition - Louis.” It sounds more like a whine than anything else. Louis pretends he’s got enough grasp on reality to chuckle.

“I still plan on winning,” he breathes out.

They pull apart to catch their breath and Louis feels his mouth, red and raw and bruised. Harry’s in no less of a mess and Louis wants to mark another bruise elsewhere on his body, wants to mark him everywhere.

He laughs again, not loud and snappy this time, but small and quiet, and raises his fingers are to Harry’s face as if he’s never seen a mouth before. He swipes over his sore lips and watches Harry drag his teeth over Louis’ thumb, sucking until Louis’ laugh is cut short.

“Ugh,” he says, like he’s giving something up and grabs a firm hold of Harry’s collar, pulling him down and standing on his toes himself until their foreheads are touching and he feels like he’s sharing a fever. “Fuck.”

“Yeah,” Harry agrees and his voice is so low it’s basically vibrating against Louis’ chest.

“Let’s go to the bed,” Louis mumbles, using the slight leverage to push Harry back and make them both stumble against the edge of the bed.

The mattress dips on his left side and Louis’ lips are soft on him again, kissing his eyelids and his forehead and the bridge of his nose and Harry shudders out a breath every time, making Louis shiver every time cool air touches his skin.

Louis’ kisses dip lower, small and fluttery along the curve of Harry’s neck when he helps him out of his jersey, a nip of his teeth on Harry’s collarbones that make him hiss at the sharp pain, one, two, three, four, each for one of Harry’s nipples which makes him half-moan, half-giggle. A press of his mouth on each hipbone and Louis slides down and settles more comfortably between Harry’s legs. The noises Harry’s making turn into a slow chant of “Lou, Lou, Lou...”. Louis lifts his head up to see Harry’s hands fist around the sheets he’s laying on in anticipation and he smiles at him before finally hovering a hand over Harry’s zipper.

And that’s when Harry grabs his hand to stop him.

“L- Louis,” Harry stutters out. Louis, looks up at him again, his hair ruffled and damp, pupils dark, lips pink and slightly swollen. He feels a wave of something that’s not just the blood rushing to his dick and comes easily when Harry reaches out weakly to bring Louis’ face back to his, kissing him slow. He pulls back with another soft chaste kiss.

“What, babe.”

Harry pushes at his shoulders lightly and it’s a little like deja vu when Harry flips them over, Louis’s back hitting the bed. “Warn a man, Styles,” he chokes out.

Harry giggles, nestled between Louis’ thighs. “I want to.”

Louis raises an eyebrow. “You want to…?”

“I wanna,” Harry says more firmly and he cups Louis once before he unzips his pants and Louis loses his will to live. Or maybe the opposite, he’s not sure at this point.

Harry’s lips and teeth and soothing tongue suck a hickey into Louis’ thigh, close, but not as close as Louis needs to his dick, resting flushed against his stomach. He can feel the stickiness whenever he moves under Harry, mouth firmly shut to keep from begging. It’s like Harry’s taunting, closer but not close enough, hands spreading Louis’ legs apart for him to settle more comfortably between them. He keeps sucking kisses that feel like bruises into Louis’ hips and that’s it, Louis can’t take much more of this.

“If you need a map, Styles, x fucking marks the spot,” he breathes out, tugging at the curls on Harry’s forehead.

Harry doesn’t answer, just huffs out a laugh and - fucking finally - wraps long fingers around the base of Louis’ dick. Louis blurts out a blasphemous “Jesus.” and then loses it all over again when he feels Harry’s mouth on him.

Harry keeps him still with his fingers curled around his hips, concentrating on taking as much of Louis as he can. His head bobs up and down, eyes trained on Louis’ and Louis gulps down air, watching him through the crook of his arm. It’s a good thing on second thought that Harry’s got him pinned down; he doesn’t think he has that much control over his body that he could stop himself from bucking up into Harry’s mouth.

It’s embarrassing how fast the heat in Louis’ belly threatens to make him keel over. Whatever, he’s a fucking teenager and Harry’s so enthusiastic about it, like he’s trying to make up whatever experience he doesn’t have. Louis could make a joke or ten about Harry needing to be the best about every physical activity but his head isn’t screwed on properly right now and Harry’s tongue is doing things Louis never ever needed to know it could do and that’s it.

Harry crawls over him when Louis blinks back to consciousness, dopey smile on his face as he kisses Louis’ sweaty forehead. “That good, huh?” You could hear the smugness from space probably.

“Please shut up,” Louis croaks out.

Harry winks at him. “Make me.”


---

nialls losing it over styles in a skirt aha

his styles. not UR styles.

1ST QUARTER OMYGAAAAAAAAAAD

STYLES 5 FOR 5 YOOOOOO

TOCHWNNNN

TOUCHDOWN I MEAN THOUCHDOWN TOUCHOEN 7-7 OGGSS

2nd quarter i’m fine i’m totally fine your sisters are losing it tho lol

FUCK FIELD GOAL I HATE THESE ASSHOLES

14-21 I DON’T THINK I CAN DO THSISS????

i hate football.

wAT S THE POINT.

4th quarter we gOT THIS TOTALLY GOT THIS

nialls down again omg can someone take care of this kdi im???

STOP TACKLING HIM

3 mins THREEE MINUTES

fuck

is he

he is

he’s runnign otototredcvbgffdvbnm

27-24

i told you we had this :)
harry says do him proud
same tbh :))))))

“Mr. Tomlinson?”

Louis looks up from his phone, hand sweating and knee jerking with latent nerves. The woman from the admissions office smiles down at him.

“Are you ready for us?”

He glances down at the screen again, mouth twitching. He nods and stands up.

“I’m ready.”


---

The early morning sun hits the windscreen and turns everything a tint of orange inside the car. Louis pushes his sunglasses up as he hits the gas, driving past a still sleeping Sterling. There are strings of Christmas lights from one side of the road to the other, the store windows are decked in red and green and even the strip club just on the outskirts of town is looking merry, two girls sharing a smoke in elf hats. It's still early December, too warm to feel like Christmas. Still, it smells like gingerbread as he drives out of town and there's condensation on the window that promises winter.

He sees the scoreboard on the field before he turns into the parking lot. ‘ONE DAY TO THE TEXAS HIGH SCHOOL STATE CHAMPIONSHIP’. He feels a bubble of excitement in his chest as he cuts the engine, something he hasn’t associated with football in years. It’s weird, as if something’s shifted a little inside him, some Harry shaped space that makes him look over the field without that sense of apprehension he’s gotten used to.

He walks over to the bleachers balancing two paper cups in his hands and sits at the team bench. The figure in red in the distance hasn’t noticed him yet. One of the coffee cups perched on the other end of the bench, he leans back, appreciating the slightly cool air.

It’s six am by the time Harry starts running a final lap around the field, breath coming out in small puffs of smoke, dew sticking to his forehead. Louis checks his watch mechanically and smiles to himself when he sees a shadow grow taller over him from the corner of his eye.

He’s dressed in full running gear, running shorts hanging low on his hips, white t-shirt pulled up to his elbows, scuffed kicks and a beanie tucked over his curls. The overall effect shouldn’t be quite so overwhelming; there are still beads of sweat stuck to his forehead and his cheeks are pink with effort but Louis will be damned if he wants anything else more than to fit himself around Harry until warmth seeps between the both of them.

“Morning, you,” Louis says quietly, squinting at the sun behind the boy in front of him.

Harry smiles, tired and sleepy, and scoots up next to him, giving him a kiss that misses his mouth by half a mile. “Ugh, sorry. I’m beat.”

“Never apologise for nostril kisses. Always welcome. Here, have a shot of healthy caffeine.”

“You’re a saint,” Harry sighs, circling his hands around the cup and inhaling the coffee. “I love you, thank you so much for putting up with me.”

Louis is dimly aware of the fact that his heart could audition for the marching band the way it’s beating against his chest. He gulps too much scalding coffee and feels his throat burn and tears appear in his eyes but he makes no move, just stares ahead at the goal line. Harry hasn’t noticed a thing.

“...some kind of dinner thing tonight so Coach can give us a pep talk. But it’s like? I can’t wait for tomorrow? I know I should be nervous but I’m just - excited, y’know? I think we can do it, I think we can totally win, I’ve got a feeling? Which is total bull, I know, but, like, I can’t help it? And it’s - uh, Lou? Louis?”

Louis blinks at the fingers snapping in front of his eyes and refocuses on Harry. He's got his dimples out in full force.

“Sorry, sorry, blanked out there for a sec.” He coughs and fixes Harry’s scraggly fringe, his thumb resting on his forehead a moment too long. Harry nuzzles up to it, pleased.

“‘S okay. I’m sorry I woke you up this early. You’re not the one that has to travel five hours to Dallas, you coulda stayed in bed.”

Harry’s skin is freakishly warm. Louis drags his thumb down until it catches in a dimple.

He makes a decision then. “I’m coming.”

“Huh?” Harry says, still lost to the feeling of being petted. Louis pulls his hand away.

“I’m coming. To Dallas. To the game.”

Harry waits a beat, eyes swivelling over Louis’ face like he’s expecting the punch line. Louis gives him a moment until the silence gets a bit too much.

“I’m being totally serious, Harry.”

Harry’s nostrils flare up and his eyes get really wide and Louis’ scared for a moment that he’s broken him somehow. Then he pounces, arms flailing and trying to get a grip on Louis, while Louis screams his lungs out half-laughing. They both end up groaning on the floor, Harry flat over Louis wearing the most manic looking grin known to humankind probably.

“You’re coming to a football game.”

“Yes, Harry,” Louis barely breathes out. “‘S what I said.”

“You’re coming to a football game,” Harry insists, saying the words against Louis’ lips now. “For me.”

Louis laughs into his mouth. “For you.”

Harry cackles; it sounds alarming in the empty field. He bites the soft skin on the side of Louis’ neck and Louis swallows; that’s all he needs, to get hard in an open field when Harry has to wave a very public goodbye to his adoring public. He nudges at Harry’s shoulders until he rolls off, still pressed shoulder-to-hip against Louis.

He can make out the sound of Harry opening and closing his mouth like he's hesitating. “This isn’t - it’s not because of what I said before? Because, like, I didn’t say that to make you feel guilty or force you to come or -”

Louis turns, lifting his head and resting it on a crooked arm over Harry. “Hey. Hey, no. I was thinking it before. It’s senior year and, I don’t know, no regrets and all?” He sucks in his lip. “I’d regret not seeing you play before I leave.”

Harry nods his head slightly. It’s not like they’ve broached the subject before - the whole Louis leaving and never coming back thing - and it seems like a stupid time to start. He pastes a playful smile on his face. “C’mon. Y’gotta be a little nervous that I’m gonna be watching finally. Have a lot to prove, pal.”

"Is this a pep talk? Because if it is, it really sucks,” Harry says evenly. Louis punches him.

“Hey! You want a pep talk? I’ll give you a pep talk, Styles.” He stands up and pats the grime off his pants. Harry makes a move to follow him but Louis pushes him down by the shoulder.

Harry quirks an eyebrow and tilts his head at Louis' crotch. “Really? We gotta be quick though. I need to be on the bus in like ten -”

“Shut up, oh my God, Styles. Shameless, that’s what you are. Take the knee, we’re doing this right.” He can feel his face flush a little at Harry’s assumption. Harry sucks in his cheeks - Louis would bet his left arm that’s on purpose - and kneels on one leg, looking up at Louis attentively. His fist shakes slightly as he wraps it around the cross hanging from his neck.

Louis nods. “You can do this. I know you can do this. You’re a great leader and you’re a great quarterback and you deserve it, the Championship ring and the scholarship offer next year and everything good in the world.” He breathes harshly through his nose, his chest going a little tight. He’s getting emotional over football, Christ. Harry’s still looking up at him, eyes a little glassy. Fuck it.

Louis takes another deep breath and settles himself on one knee in between Harry’s legs, covering his white knuckled hand. He can see Harry’s Adam’s apple bob up and down when he rubs a soothing thumb over Harry’s wrist.

“Just go out and do your thing, y’know? Fuck everyone watching. Even me. Especially me.”

Harry ducks his head low, shaking more with laughter than anything else now. Louis feels inordinately proud of himself. He covers Harry’s fist loosely and pulls the cross from between his fingers. He’s seen him do it at practices, just before he runs to the field after Coach has given him the play.

He considers it in his palm, then brings to his lips, kissing it lightly before he tucks it back under Harry’s singlet. He doesn’t miss Harry staring at him intently.

“Cinch up your laces,” he says, quieter now, holding Harry’s chin between his thumb and forefinger and pulling him down, puckering up his lips for a chaste kiss. “Cinch up your laces, put tape on your hands, make sure that helmet’s on good and tight. And kick some ass, Styles.”


---

Louis’ leg is bouncing up and down, so much that the stupid glass of water he poured himself - fuck if he knows why - is half spilt on the carpet. He stares down the stain pooling around the heel of his foot and sucks in a breath, putting the glass carefully on the floor at the foot of the bed. The tv flashes with a scene change; he glances at it mechanically, feels a muscle in his jaw jump when he sees the ESPN interviewer struggle under the weight of a dozen sweaty teenage boys who’ve just won State.

Sterling Falcons: 2013 Texas Champions, the caption reads under a red-faced Niall Horan who looks like he’s about to make out with the interviewer on national television. Louis’ distracted from the nerves for a second; he can see Liam looking delirious under a puppy pile, Coach Albright openly sobbing and blowing his nose into someone’s jersey, what looks like half his hometown breaking into the lockers and hugging their boys.

He feels an overwhelming affection for all of them in that moment; that bone deep sense of wonder he’d shivered through when he watched the coin toss from the stands, because somehow he’d missed it, all of it, every stupid tradition and foul play and every time the scoreboard lit up, point to Sterling. It’s dumb, because it’s still ages until he’s gone, but it feels like there’s an end coming too soon and he’s not sure he’s ready for it yet.

He shakes his head and cough hollowly into his fist; he’s getting sentimental in his old age.

“Lou?”

He jumps a little and has to grip the mattress so he doesn’t topple over at the sound of Harry’s voice.

“Jesus,” he breathes out, one hand over his heart. “Stop doing that.”

“Coming inside my hotel room?” Harry asks sounding amused, dumping his gym bag on the floor. Louis’ eyes skate over him; he’s in the suit he had to wear to some congratulations thing they had to go to straight after the game, red tie tucked in his suit pocket, shirt halfway undone already.

“Surprising me,” Louis murmurs and it’s more to himself than anything but Harry must hear it all the same. His face softens and he waits for Louis to walk over to him from across the room.

He stops when there are a few inches between them. There’s a lump stuck in his throat.

“We match,” Harry says quietly. “Y’look good in red.” He plays with the hem of Louis’ red T-shirt, then tugs at it until Louis’ chest presses against him. Louis laughs.

“Mom refused to let me leave the house wearing any other color. It was this old thing or full facepaint. I can deal with tight clothes more than I can makeup.”

“I appreciate it,” Harry says wisely. “So?”

Louis’ face breaks into a smile. “You did good. You did so good.”

He can see Harry chewing the inside of his cheek. "And did it - was it weird? Watching football again?"

Louis considers, playing with the hair curling at the nape of Harry's neck, hand curving over his shoulder. "It was always my dad's thing, you know? Like, football and my dad, Sterling and my dad, football and Sterling. It was always the same in my head, almost. I could never, I don't know, like separate them maybe." He studies the frown on Harry's face; it's not like he's angry. It's like he's paying the utmost attention, trying to understand what Louis' saying completely. "I think I can now. I think you did that. So, I guess. Thanks. Not just for that."

Harry lets out a shuddering breath, his forehead brushing over Louis'. "I'm glad. I'm glad you were watching. I'm glad you were there. I'm glad you're here now."

Louis smiles against Harry’s mouth. "At the risk of making us sound even more like a Lifetime movie -" Harry slaps his ass weakly and scrunches up his face to disagree, "- hey, I like Lifetime movies, me and my mom sob like babies, it's really gross, that one with the soldier was the worst acting I saw in my life -"

"Louis," Harry admonishes, bumping their noses to stop Louis' case of verbal diarrhea.

"Right, right. I totally have a point. This is your fault, you and your rambling are rubbing off on me -"

"Lou," Harry interrupts, leaning down for a kiss. "I don't know why you're nervous, but don't be. 'S just me, yeah?"

"Right, fuck, sorry." Louis takes a heaving breath. "What you said yesterday, on the field -"

Harry pulls back a fraction. "That wasn't - you don't have to -"

"No, no, I know I don't have to," Louis rushes. "It's just - it's only been four months and you're here for another year and I'm not and -"

"You're talking like it's already over, Louis."

"It's not," Louis says firmly, tugging at Harry's lapel. "It's not, of course not, and I'm here for it all and I - love you. Too. I think. I love you too."

The smile spreading over Harry's face is kind of scary. He's kissing Louis again before he's finished his speech.

"And it's stupid -" kiss, "- 'cause high school sweethearts, right -" another kiss, "- and it's such a cliche -" more kisses, "- and I'm completely okay with it -?"

"Louis," Harry moans into his mouth, walking Louis backwards until the back of his legs hit the bed and Louis collapses in a heap of limbs, Harry braced on top of him.

Louis blinks as a mass of curls drops over him, a line of deep concentration firm on Harry’s forehead. He fixes his widest grin on his face, all bright white teeth and half-lidded eyes and pulls Harry down by the neck. With an audible ‘oomph!’, he lands heavy on his torso and Louis lets out an excited yelp when Harry’s hair starts tickling his chin, both of them squirming in each other’s arms but refusing to give in first. It’s only when Louis grabs a handful of Harry’s hair and pulls roughly that Harry goes pliant, his face soft. His fingers are losing themselves in Harry’s curls.

“I should shower,” comes a sleepy voice on Louis’ chest. Louis wills himself not to burst into a million pieces just at that sound and snakes down until they’re face to face, noses almost touching.

“Harry,” he says slowly, carefully, because this is important and big and a lot. “I want,” he punctuates his sentence with a kiss, letting his mouth slip over Harry’s lower lip and biting, then soothing it over with his tongue. Harry’s gasp catches in the back of his throat; Louis can see his eyes open, boring into Louis’. He amends. “I need -”

Harry nods frantically. He slides his hands down Louis’ back and squeezes Louis’ ass once - Louis laughs because he’s getting bold now - until he’s got a good hold and then hauls him further up the bed, fingers gripping Louis’ thighs tight. Louis’ forearms press around Harry’s face, holding him close.

“Harry,” Louis pants out, hand sliding into Harry’s trousers and making his eyes roll to the back of his head. It’s some fucked up sense of achievement deep in the pit of his belly. He rolls his hips against Harry, pressing close, deft and quick with the belt and the zipper. Harry tries to do the same but he’s fucking shaking and God, does it hit Louis then, like a fucking wave.

“I love you,” he whispers and it’s like Harry’s given new life or a clearer sense of how this is supposed to work because he pulls back, makes quick of any unnecessary item of clothing. Louis does the same, T-shirt catching at his hair and making it stand on end. He looks like an idiot, he must, but Harry laughs and sounds delighted when he kneels back on the bed, mouth on Louis.

“I love you,” he murmurs and he doesn’t say I love you too and Louis isn’t sure why, but that’s important, that’s so important.

They’re not graceful, either of them, they’re seventeen and eighteen and eager, fingers frantic and trembling. Louis falls back on bed, refusing to let go of Harry’s mouth, his nails tracing deep lines on Harry’s back as he pulls him on top. The weight is familiar and makes Louis groan as he’s pushed further down, heart stuttering as Harry’s leg moves between Louis’ thighs, pulling them apart.

“Do you have -?” And, God, that’s a blush, that’s Harry ducking down and smiling like he’s as vulnerable and as scared as Louis feels. He nods into his mouth, pulls away enough to lean up and get what they need from the bag he brought with him. Harry folds his arm away - “I’ll do it.” - and Louis stares at the ceiling, mouth open like he’s swallowing air or swallowing down laughter, he’s not sure which.

Harry’s sat up, hands twisting and awkward like Louis’ never seen them and mouth pouting ridiculously. Fucking hell, why does he have to be endearing even when he’s staring at bottle of lube, looking like he’s reading the very fascinating list of ingredients.

“There’s no way that’s more interesting than I am,” Louis laughs. Harry looks at him, in all his naked, shameless glory, mane of hair falling on his face. He tips his head to the side, mouths come over here, as if there’s someone else around.

Louis sits up, slides, onto Harry’s lap and presses bruises, one by one, at Harry’s chest and collarbones. He pushes him down, taking control as Harry doesn’t know how, sucking bruises into his skin, guiding his slick hand to the small of Louis’ back. Harry gets the picture then, sinking a finger into Louis slowly and Louis has a moment when he gasps at the contact, then continues marking Harry, biting down a whimper every time Harry stretches his knuckles apart.

It’s slow and drawn out, the way Harry moves his fingers and Louis’ trying to muffle his moans behind kisses to stay quiet. They fall back again, carefully, and Harry’s taking his time, the absolute fuck, grinning into Louis’ torso and biting the space on Louis’ left side, just over where Louis’ heart is beating.

“Ready,” Louis pants breathlessly, bracing himself when Harry holds him tight around the waist and pins him down. He fits his face to Louis’ shoulder and Louis run a hand through his hair, curls damp, soothing the trembling he can feel coursing through Harry. There’s a moment when it all seems to stop, no movement, no sound, no nothing; then he feels Harry turn his head, pressing a small, soft kiss to Louis’ neck, like he’s asking permission, of all things. Louis tangles one hand with Harry’s, running the pads of his fingers over the ring on Harry’s knuckle. He squeezes once and Harry nods, still hiding his face under Louis’ jaw and then pushes in, Louis’ fist clenching in his hair.

“Lou, Louis,” Harry mumbles, shifting his head to join their lips, and Louis tastes blood, not sure whose it is. He bites his lip, trying not to make a sound and Harry just pushes harder, like he’s trying to get every noise he can out of him. They’re pressed so close together, the friction on Louis’ cock is just enough and not enough at the same time, and he tilts his hips up almost involuntarily, adjusting to the feeling of everything all at once.

“You first,” Harry says stubbornly, like he’s not a fucking teenage boy, grinding his hips in slow circles, trying to hold himself up on his shaking arms with his head bent over Louis’ neck. Louis wants to laugh, wants to say remember how it’s not a competition, but then he feels Harry’s hand wrap around his dick, hard and leaking against his stomach, and he loses it. When Harry comes, body tensing and shuddering, Louis strokes his back through it, pressing closer until it’s too much and he digs his nails into Harry’s scalp.

They lie there, flushed and sticky against each other, breathing in in unison. It takes him awhile to remember what motor skills are before he pushes Harry softly off, giggling at the lump of useless boy beside him. He leans up on one arm to kiss on the expanse of his back, the soft skin between his shoulderblades. He strokes his matted hair with a clean hand, and watches Harry force his eyes open, lying back on his side to look at Louis properly.

“I don’t think I’ve mentioned it today,” Louis murmurs, fingers dancing along the curve of Harry’s cheeks and ghosting over his still-warm lips. “But I love you. Did I mention it?”

Harry inches closer, enough to nudge his nose against Louis’. “You’re only saying that because I fucked you.”

Louis’ jaw drops, shocked. Then he pretends to reconsider, pressing a light kiss to Harry’s lips. “Probably.”

“Are you saying I’ve got to keep fucking you to make you love me?”

“Your words, not mine, Styles.”

“I can do that,” Harry says, trailing a hand over Louis’ chest, a wicked smile playing at his lips. “I can definitely do that.”


---


They lose Niall and find him ten minutes before the bus back to Sterling has to leave, surrounded by Irish expats and hailing himself the king of football. Albright makes the executive decision to let him drive home in Gemma’s car, which Harry definitely objected to but the whole team was definitely on Albright’s side; they’d all had their fair share of experience when it came to Niall and his hangovers.

Which is how Louis ends up in the back of the bus, a seat to himself but somehow more Harry’s lap than anything else. It’s not that he’s complaining - Harry absentmindedly drawing circles on Louis’ thigh is obviously no cause for complaint - but the bus is full of football players, loud football players, loud football players who are under the impression that they can freestyle rap. So, it’s a long five hours that make him regret not investing in earplugs, but Harry keeps looking at him like the sun is shining out of his ass and, honestly, Louis’ always been one to appreciate a silver lining.

It’s quiet before they get home, the whole bus falling into some kind of state where they’re fiddling with the Championship rings on their fingers and staring at their phones and shaking their leg up and down, in Harry’s case. Louis grips his knee with as much force as he can muster until Harry settles, his jitters making Louis tremble. “Hey. You did it. You’re here now. Everyone’s going to be so proud.”

Harry’s biting his lip like he’s got something to prove, teeth sinking into the chapped skin until there are indents Louis fully intends to soothe with his tongue at some point later. “It’s just. I did this three years ago, you know? The same thing.”

Louis’ hand spasms around Harry’s leg but Harry doesn’t notice, too intent on the lights appearing in the distance. They drive past the ‘Welcome to Sterling’ sign too fast to make anything out but Louis knows that by this time tomorrow someone will have updated it. Home of the Sterling Falcons, 2013 State Champions.

“But it’s not, is it,” Louis says quietly, quiet enough that only Harry can hear over the din the team are making as they get closer to the stadium. There are lights blinking at intervals in front of them and a low hum of some kind of chant, like there are too many people shouting as the bus approaches. He can feel the nervous bubble of excitement from every seat, every boy with their nose pressed the window, each wearing their red varsity jackets. Well, all of them except Harry; he’d insisted that Louis take it, a kind of nonchalant shrug when they woke up next to each other before they had to leave.

“It’s not the same,” Louis repeats, because it bears repeating. He strokes down the side of Harry’s face and he’s smiling now, smiling like he can’t help it when he looks at Louis. “It’s not the same because you won this time. It’s not the same because your coach is coming back with you this time.”

He doesn’t mean to say it and he doesn’t mean for his voice to choke a little as he does, but it’s out now. Harry’s hand presses over Louis’, still smiling that stupid smile that makes Louis kind of ache.

“When this is all done -”

“When you’ve drowned in Bobby Horan’s tears and homemade beer,” Louis interjects with a raised eyebrow.

“That, too,” Harry agrees, tilting his head slightly. “Don’t disappear, yeah?”

“What, no tired of me yet, Styles? Woulda thought after that workout -”

“Hey! Shh.” He taps his index finger to his lips, not really looking like he wants to keep it quiet. “No, it’s just - kinda the last big football night you’re gonna be here for and I wanna spend it with you, y’know?”

Louis isn’t blushing; it’s just really warm in here. “God. Fine. Sap.”

Harry winks. “You love me.”

There’s a roar that acts as a warning as soon as the bus rolls to a stop and Louis almost climbs over Harry, chin perched on his stupid fat hair to look at the crowd waiting for them outside. It turn out the roar isn’t even for them. Harry starts cackling when he spots the lone blond head crowdsurfing in a red jersey, the people holding him up chanting a loud ‘Horan, Horan!’.

“Bastard stealing the spotlight,” says someone fondly from the right. Liam punches them in the nose.

“Ow!”

“Control your boys, Styles,” Louis whispers, leaning back so Harry can climb over him and assume his reluctant leader role. It involves a lot of shuffling around and fake coughing when he’s not in full gear and yelling obscenities at the opposition. Louis wishes he didn’t find it adorable. Dumb, is what it is.

They file out, one by one, after Albright and Harry and it’s deafening to hear what sounds like the entire population of Sterling, Texas screaming at the State champions. Louis crosses his arms and leans on them over one of the seats, watching the team look over the crowd with stunned expressions, like even they can’t believe this is happening. It only goes silent for a moment, just before Harry raises the trophy above his head and everyone stills, looking over at it like it might break. And Louis still thinks it’s unbelievable, how one game played by twelve skinny boys in suits too big for them can make an entire town go crazy. It still makes no sense how this is what gives this town life, but when Harry is lifted on Liam’s shoulders and they start pouring into the stadium, Louis realizes he’s getting there.

“You coming down, son,” the bus driver asks, looking over his shoulder as he steps off the bus.

Four months ago and it wouldn’t even be a possibility; four months ago and the Falcons winning would only be a reminder of what they lost three years ago, and what Louis lost with them. Now, he thinks it’s okay, now he doesn’t need to hide in his mom’s pick-up truck from anything that reminded him of his dad. Football isn’t his dad, not anymore.

He nods at the driver - Don, apparently, “Hi, Don.” - and gets off with him, following the trickling crowd into the field. He gets assaulted instantly by his family, Mom and the girls all with face paint that stains his hair and then he’s passed along, half receiving congratulations from random churchgoers, half having kisses planted on him by a delirious Gemma and a seriously overcome Taylor. He joins Zayn when he escapes and they both sit at the bleachers, sharing a beer Zayn smuggled from one of the Horans.

Louis’ rolling the empty beer bottle in his hands by the time Harry finds him. It’s after midnight and it’s silent now, everyone either gone to bed or to Luke’s to ensure tomorrow’s hangover. Harry watches him from the stairs, hair falling in wet strands over his forehead, goosebumps on his arms visible even from this distance; Louis watches him from his seat, legs apart, head turned to the side, his face breaking into a smile that just so slightly tilts his mouth up. He’s not sure what they’re waiting for, either of them, but it’s nice to know the distance doesn’t matter. Louis feels a pinch in his chest as he thinks that.

It must show on his face, or else he shivers at the sudden gust of wind that makes the old goal posts creak, because Harry moves suddenly, ducks under the railing and tucks himself close to Louis. Louis pulls the sleeve of Harry’s jacket down, covers his hands until the tips of his fingers and stares at the empty space in front of them. It’s kind of full circle, he thinks and it hits him then, how this is where he saw Harry again four months ago, the one who stubbornly buried himself in Louis’ life and still refuses to give.

“Where’s Zayn?” Harry asks, breath coming out in small white puffs of air. It’s finally just cold enough to call winter.

“Niall came after him. Something about, ‘a totally epic night, bro, let’s get wasted’. Which Gemma translated into Niall trying to get into the strip club.”

“Jesus,” Harry breathes out, laughing. “He’s got a whole lot coming for him if he thinks Gemma will let him do that.”

“I don’t know, she seemed pretty game if you ask me.”

Harry groans and buries his head dramatically between his legs. Louis snickers and reaches out tug on the strands at the nape of Harry's neck. "Sure you don't wanna go the strip club? I hear it's epic, man."

"Unless you're willing to give me, like, a private lap dance, I'm not really feeling it," Harry mumbles and Louis can totally hear the smile in his voice.

"Good answer," he says nonchalantly and Harry peeks between arms, grinning. "Maybe later."

"Holding you to that," Harry sits up, eyebrow quirked and looking challenging. He rubs his hands over his thighs and stares down the expanse of the field; the grass is glistening with dew and the board is still sparkling under the lights they haven't turned off yet. "This is my favourite place in the world," he says, and it sounds almost wistful. Louis moves in closer, bumping his shoulder into Harry's.

"So surprising. You playing football and all."

Harry snorts. "Well, yeah, I guess. Not just that though. I mean, this is where your dad gave me my first chance. It's kind of important. To me."

Louis nods, the side of his head now pressed against Harry's bare arm. "He was always proud of you, y'know. Like, finding you, starting you. It was always - he was proud of that."

Harry smiles on top of Louis' head when he leans down. "Thanks. We don't have to talk about this though."

Louis shrugs. "It doesn't matter. He's still my dad. And he's still the greatest high school football coach this place has ever known. Like. I think I'm - at peace with that. I can't forgive him for being a shit father or husband but I don't hold it against this place anymore."

"So, you don't hate Sterling?" Harry's voice is soft, like he's scared he might shatter something if he raises his voice. Louis reaches over and tangles their fingers together, his right hand with Harry's left.

"I don't hate it," he says carefully. "But that doesn't mean I'm not leaving."

Harry hums and Louis feels the vibration in his chest. "Doesn't mean you're not coming back."

Louis laughs. "Right."

"Seriously, though," Harry says, freeing his arm to snake it round Louis' shoulders and catching their fingers with his other hand. "I can see you coming back after you travel the world. Maybe give this town the next Coach Tomlinson."

Louis nudges him. "You're not serious."

"I can totally see it. C'mon, I bet you'd love telling kids what to do. Winning another State title. Giving your starting quarterback a hard time.” Harry’s smiling dopily, for all the world lost in some kind of fantasy where Louis is yelling at teenagers for his own sick enjoyment.

“Okay,” he says slowly. He digs his chin on the bony part of Harry’s shoulder where he knows he’s still sore. “And, in this scenario, are you off winning the Super Bowl? While I get to watch you on Thanksgiving with my three fat babies on my lap?”

“Three?” Harry giggles. Louis kicks him.

“Not the point.”

Harry shakes his head, dimpling his cheeks and trying to look self-deprecating. “No. I don’t,” he shrugs. “I don’t think so. I mean, I’ll play in college but - I don’t know. I always kind of liked the idea of teaching. Bio, maybe. I’d be a cool biology teacher.”

Louis bites his tongue. “So. Lemme get this straight. I’m a coach. You’re a teacher. And we’re both back home, here.”

Harry shrugs again but doesn’t answer. His stupid smile says enough.

“Interesting,” Louis drawls out.

“But, I mean. We got a few years to figure all that out,” Harry says flippantly, waving an uncoordinated arm in the air that Louis has to swerve to avoid.

“Plus, we have, like, eight months or so to be horny teenagers around each other -” Harry chokes on air and Louis pats him on the back, “- so, I mean, the future can wait.”

Harry mhms his agreement. They can hear honks from the road and the creaking of the floorboards as someone walks underneath them. The lights opposite them turn black, until they can’t see the farmland behind them anymore. Harry squeezes Louis’ fingers in his. “Eight months,” he whispers. “Okay.”


---

There's a box marked books perched precariously in the trunk of the car, tipping slightly to the left like it's threatening to fall off. Louis watches it like it's done him wrong personally, waiting with crossed arms for the inevitable. He's been here for the better part of this morning, up since eight am trying to get all his stuff in the car, and now, almost three hours later, all his hard work is on the line because of a stubborn pile of books. Maybe he'll just make Zayn hold it on his lap for three days; it'll totally work, Zayn is a very obliging person.

"Louis, honey, are you done yet?"

He turns to scowl at Jay like it's her fault. She pays him no mind, just watches him from the porch with slightly wet eyes. Louis' stomach turns.

"Oh, mom, no, you promised."

"What!" She wipes at her eyes with her palm and gives him the same stubborn look he knows he's wearing himself.

"No crying, I'm not going to war, I'm going to college."

She raises a finger at him. "You don't know what it's like to watch your baby grow up, Louis, you have no say in this."

Louis makes a show of rolling his eyes and walks up to her, arms raised for a hug. She looks like she's about to turn him down for a moment but he can see the exact train of thought in her eyes - I'm not seeing my baby until Thanksgiving - and she falls into him, suspiciously close to sobbing. He squeezes his arms around her and then pushes back, because she's getting needy about it. He's half expecting she'll grab his car keys from him and flush them down the toilet.

"All better now?" he asks with a raised eyebrow. She nods and sniffs inconspicuously.

“Is everything ready then? You sure you don’t want me to make y’all a packed lunch?”

“Mom, c’mon. We’re adults now. And Zayn’s too cool for a packed lunch.”

“Fine,” she sighs. “I’m only being helpful.”

“Sure, Mom.” He glances down at his watch, then back up at the street. It’s quiet, like the interminable Texas summer has put everyone to sleep; the only sound is the sprinklers from a few doors over and some kids playing in their pool at the yard opposite. He catches Mom watching him from the corner of her eye.

“He’ll be here soon, don’t you worry, baby.”

“I told him I’d pick him up at his place, he said he wanted to say goodbye to Perrie first,” he says, playing with his hands, balled up in fists. Jay laughs.

“Oh, you know I wasn’t talking about Zayn.”

Louis lifts his head. “He’s at practice, Mom. It’s Friday, remember?”

“I also remember him leaving this house at four in the morning, so it’s his own fault if he falls asleep during runs.” Louis has the good grace to blush; they were supposed to be going through the new plays again yesterday but they’d both gotten kind of… distracted. “He asked me again, you know. Yesterday, before you came home.” She says it with a soft smile playing at her lips, the way she’s been saying it since the start of this summer and Harry’s ridiculousness.

“What did he ask 'again'?” He knows already.

“You know exactly what, honeybunch.”

Louis slaps a hand to his forehead. “I freaking told him to stop doing that. He just completely pretends he doesn’t know what I’m talking about.”

“It’s sweet. Completely impractical, but sweet.”

“Mom. You’re my mom. Stop encouraging him.”

Jay’s spared another word in the conversation by a yelp and then Harry rounds the corner, sweaty and disgusting and every inch the idiot that Louis loves. He resists the urge to do something dramatic like run into Harry’s embrace and just walks calmly up to the gate, crossing his arms. He waits for him to catch his breath.

“Fuck,” Harry breathes out, folded over himself and pressing a hand flat over his chest. “Sorry, Mrs. Tomlinson! Hi, sorry, g’morning!”

“Hi, Harry, darling. How was practice?” Louis can see her fighting her own battle with the boxes that still refuse to fit in the trunk.

Harry seems to be lost in a daydream that involves Louis’ mouth or something because it takes him a second to realize Jay asked him a question. "It was - um - good? I mean, yeah, good, great, Coach was being a real hardass. We've got something to prove now we're State champions apparently."

"Ain't that the truth. You want lemonade, boys? It's homemade." She winks. Louis' mother is completely embarrassing. It's no surprise she gets along with Harry.

"Sounds good, Mrs. T!" He keeps a smile on his face until the porch door swings shut behind Jay and then Harry's on him, fingers carding through Louis' hair. Louis' - pretty feeble, to be honest - protests are muffled against Harry's mouth. "Hiiiii. Missed you."

"My mother informed me you last saw me seven hours ago, so tone it down, Styles."

"Whatever, you did too," Harry dismisses him. He inspects the loaded car over the gate. "You're done here, then?"

"Pretty much. Just gotta pick up Z." Louis rubs the back of his neck nervously. This is it. He's leaving. This is definitely goodbye. He glances back and the front door is still safely shut so now’s the time to do it, isn’t it. He grabs Harry’s hand and swings himself over the gate, pulling them both to where the street curves. He sits on the curb first and drags Harry with him.

“Oof,” Harry pants, knocking down on the concrete. “I mean, I like it rough but…”

“Not now, Harold,” Louis says with as much of a severe tone as he can manage. Harry waggles his eyebrows.

“Oh, this is gonna be good. Are you breaking up with me again?”

Louis slumps. “Look, Harry. If you can’t take this seriously -”

“No, no, I’m sorry.” Harry’s face contorts into something that resembles one of those creepy drama masks. Then he bursts out laughing. Louis pats his back with a closed fist.

“You’re the fucking worst.” Harry’s still chortling. “I’m trying to be, like, the logical one here, not going around asking your mother for your hand in marriage -”

That cuts Harry’s laughter short. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Harry,” Louis says patiently. “Is that a ring box in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”

“I’m always happy to see you.” He looks like he’s biting half his face from the inside to keep from smiling. Louis rolls his eyes.

“You’ve been happy to see me all summer, according to my mother.”

“I don’t think that’s the kind of the thing you should talk about with your mom, Lou. It’s kinda weird talking about your boyfriend’s b-” Louis pushes him at him until Harry’s back hits the road.

“You’re a goddamn idiot.” It’s a moot point when he scoots over to make sure he hasn’t seriously damaged Harry; for his own guilty conscience and his own safety, if he’s honest. He knows a few people who would murder for their starting quarterback. “You’re a goddamn idiot that’s smiling after I hit you, oh my God, react like a normal human person please.”

Harry keeps on smiling on the scorching sidewalk. “I know something you don’t know.”

Louis narrows his eyes. “I hope you haven't done anything stupid.”

“No more than usual,” Harry shrugs. He’s gotten tan over the summer, too many days spent lounging in Louis’ backyard until Louis threw a bucket of water on him. He keeps his face in check at the thought.

“Spill.”

“Just. You’re gonna say yes.” He sounds so sure of himself, Louis’ jaw actually drops.

“Harold -”

“Not now,” Harry interrupts, lifting his head up to bump it with Louis’. “But you will. I know it.”

Louis shakes his head and steadily ignores the butterflies in his stomach. He really has to get up, he promised his mom they’d stop over at Santa Rosa overnight and he was planning on making good timing. Except it’s hard to leave, especially now, when he’s got a stupid, stubborn boy underneath him who’s asking. Again.

“Harry. A lot can change. I’m not -”

“Hey,” Harry says softly, his arms circling and meeting on the small of Louis’ back. “I don’t want you to say yes now. But you will. Because you’re you and I’m me and that’s how it happens.”

“You’re so -”

“I am,” Harry agrees. “But so are you. So, we’re stuck with each other.”

Louis can hear his mom calling for them from the house. He looks down at Harry, still incredulous, and pecks him on the lips. “C’mon. Get up, you said you’d help me finish the packing.”

“Ugh, fine,” Harry pouts, like he’s not a weird organizational freak who loves this kind of thing. “Did you do it alphabetically?”

“Harry -”

“No, I’m serious, it helps a lot -”

“Harry -”

“- and it’s gonna make unpacking so much easier -”

Louis lets him keep talking as they swing the gate behind them and dust off in front of a suspicious Mom. He’s not really listening, or he is, he’s paying all the attention in the world to Harry’s voice and Harry’s hands waving with conviction and Harry’s furrowed brow as he begins to take the boxes out again. In the back of his mind, Louis knows this is all distraction, Harry’s quiet attempt at a ‘don’t go’ that he doesn’t really mean. It’s nice, though, because he knows it’s going to be a while until he sees him again and he knows that, even if they didn’t say it, this was an end to something.

But he knows too, like Harry knows, like Harry’s known long before him, that it’s not ending forever. Texas and forever and the yes that Louis knows he’ll say one day, they’re all settling inside him somewhere and he knows he’s coming back to them, maybe soon.

He takes the lemonade from Mom’s hands and starts shaking his head when Harry starts messing with his Google Maps route. “Harry, do not even…”

It’s three more hours until he leaves. He’s okay with it.