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Out of Orbit, Into Gravity

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It's almost five o'clock, and Harry is in a mild state of crisis.

He's scurrying around the flat like a squirrel gathering nuts for the winter, one shoe on and dressed in enough layers that he's already sweating a little: compression pants, running shorts, long sleeves, a tee, two undershirts, and a green beanie for a splash of colour.  The beanie had been an afterthought, carefully styled over his curls after he decided the usual headband wasn't going to cut it.  He's pleased with the outcome.  It's very suave-athlete-meets-hipster-fashionista. 

Unfortunately, he's running late, and that's a disaster in itself if it means his twenty plus minutes of preening might all have been for naught.

"Liam!" he calls down the hallway.  Their two-person flat is small enough that a well-placed shout can never go unmissed. 

Sure enough, his flatmate appears in the kitchen doorway with a bowl of cereal against his chest.  Liam's developed a recent and uncharacteristic addiction to Lucky Charms that's making it impossible to keep milk in the house.  Harry tries not to fret about whether he'll be able to make his tea in the morning, and focuses instead on the emergency at hand.

"Have you seen my other trainer?" he asks desperately.

Liam scrunches his brow up, still chewing.  "Don't think so." 

"You don't think so, or you definitely haven't?" Harry urges, fingers tapping against his shorts pocket.

"I dunno, mate.  Sorry.  Did you check the laundry?"

Harry makes a face.  "Why would it be in the laundry?"

"I dunno," Liam repeats.  His reputation as Mr. Helpful is really not warranted at this moment in time.  "Just a suggestion."

"Damn it, I was meant to leave three minutes ago," Harry despairs, brushing past his flatmate to continue his rampage.

Liam follows Harry into the kitchen, watching in amusement as he scrabbles through a pile of dismantled boxes that they've been meaning to get rid of for several months.  "You know, they did invent treadmills for a reason," he says.

Harry glances up, hands full of cardboard, and deadpans:  "Do we have a treadmill, Liam?"

"We could.  Quite easily, actually."

His logic is undeniably logical, and so Harry dumps the boxes back to the ground.  "Winter running is a thing," he insists feebly.  "And treadmills are boring.  I don't like them."

Liam just shrugs as though to say 'suit yourself'. 

There are a few seconds of belligerent searching on Harry's part and calm cereal munching from Liam.  Then:

"Aha!" With a viciously satisfied—if not verging on maniacal—grin, Harry yanks his lost trainer out from behind the rubbish bin.

Liam lets his spoon fall back into his bowl with a clang.  "How on earth did it get under there?"

"Don't know, don't care, Liam."  Harry hops away, shoving his foot into his shoe awkwardly and stumbling into the wall.  He recovers, ties up his laces, and then he's out the front door, eschewing his usual warm-up stretches and hurrying down the stairs.

"Be careful!" he hears Liam shout behind him.

It's snowy gently outside, and there's a fair blanket of white covering the ground.  More than Harry expected, to be honest, but the pavement has been salted and it seems safe enough.  Twilight is falling, and the sky is faintly blue-grey behind the halos of the streetlights.  Harry puffs along, eyes stinging as he starts to adapt to the cold, and reaches into his pocket to locate his iPod.  When he sees the time on the screen, he feels his heart sink.

Truthfully, his obsessive need to leave the house at exactly 4:55 PM on Mondays and Fridays is probably why Liam once slipped a couple of Coping with OCD pamphlets into the fruit basket.  Harry should really set him straight, but he can't figure out how to do it without giving away his real motives.  He wonders sometimes if he should re-evaluate his life choices when a supposed mental disorder has become less embarrassing than the truth.

It all started a few months ago.  One September evening, he'd switched up his usual route on a whim and there had been a young man.  A beautiful, pixie-faced young man in red trousers and a t-shirt with windswept hair and tanned skin and little bare ankles in Vans.  And he'd stepped out of his car just as Harry had turned the corner, and they'd shared a moment of such exquisite eye contact that Harry was sure angels were chorusing somewhere. 

Harry's never believed in love at first sight, but he was smitten that day.  Like, obsessively, depressingly, you're-all-I-think-about smitten, and after a brief period of trial and error, he has perfected the art of timing his runs so that they coincide with this attractive stranger's Volvo pulling into the drive.  Some might call it stalker behaviour.  Harry thinks that's potentially correct.  He tries not to think about it too much. 

Slowly, it's become a routine.  Harry rounds the corner at precisely five o'clock on Mondays and Fridays, and Pixie Boy is always slamming his car door, bag slung over his shoulder and dressed in some outfit that stylishly bridges the gap between professional and casual. There's a bit of eye contact, a smile, sometimes even a brief wave, and somehow, that little moment acknowledgement has become the highlight of Harry's day. 

It really is catastrophically lame.  Harry doesn't care.  He's not one to deny himself the smaller pleasures in life, pathetic as they may be. 

Tonight, he pushes himself until his lungs burn, but it's likely not going to be enough to make up for his delayed start.  He feels a sort of disappointment creep up as he approaches The Corner.  Harry doesn't want to get his hopes up, but he does a half-hearted little hair fix just in case, and his breath is coming out in jagged spurts of white fog as he steels himself and rounds the bend.

His heart chokes a bit in his chest when it turns out Pixie Boy is there.

Not emerging from the car, as has become so familiar, but rather on his front lawn, all bundled up in a puffy coat and a scarf.  He's not alone either, but giggling and throwing handfuls of snow at a blond bloke whose laugh booms cheerily against the faces of the surrounding houses.

Usually, this is the point where Harry is torn between faking an Olympic-worthy pace and slowing down to maximize the window of eye contact (a cruel, timeless dilemma), but tonight, he all but freezes out of surprise.  His eyes trail over the scene, strains of indie rock in his ear buds, and he takes it all in: snowflakes twirling gracefully, his dream man with a crinkly-eyed smile of delight, cringing away from a vicious snowball attack and bending down to scoop up a mittenful of ammo.  He looks like he's doing a photo shoot for the Christmas edition of Teen Vogue.  Harry is not worthy. 

When Pixie Boy straightens up, he's patting down a massive chunk of snow between his hands, and he looks straight into Harry's eyes.  Harry feels his breath catch in his throat.  He hastens to pick up his tempo as he approaches the small yard.  Meanwhile, the boy's mouth curves up into a smile, and there's a glint in his eye.  

Harry's answering grin is reserved and careful.  He keeps his arms and legs pumping and makes a conscious effort to appear calm.  Cool and collected, he tells himself.  Eyes straight ahead... Well, one more quick look couldn't hurt.  No! Stop it, you're being creepy.  Casual, like you're just a normal runner.  Just a normal, everyday chap on the street.  Oh, fuck.

In the end, the physical result of his internal turmoil is a shifty, doe-eyed expression that's probably vaguely humiliating.  Every bloody time...  Harry heaves a mental sigh of anguish and forces his gaze to the much less nerve-inducing sight that is the pavement in front of him. 

He's just cleared the yard and is kicking himself internally when something heavy whacks him squarely between the shoulder blades.  It takes him so much by alarm that he loses his stride, stumbling onto the icy shoulder of the pavement.  A mistake.  His trainer catches the smooth, glassy surface and slips right out from under him.  The next thing he knows, he's flat on his back, and he's blessing the squashy knit of the beanie against his skull.

"You tit, you've killed him!" The shout, distinctly Irish, is followed by pounding footsteps. 

"Oh, fuck."  That one, a frantic expulsion of breath, is higher-toned and sort of soft.

Harry stares at the darkening sky for a second, watching snowflakes spiral down and land on his cheeks and forehead.  Then, he sits up, and he is nose-to-nose with a very attractive face.  Blue eyes, framed by snow-flecked lashes, widen in surprise.  Harry is pretty sure he's not breathing.

"I am so sorry," the boy says, moving back.  He's examining Harry in frenzied concern.  "Are you alright?"

"'Course he's not!" The Irish one is hovering above, eyes wide in what is either fear or hilarity.  "Look at him, you've annihilated him.  Jesus."

Harry dusts his gloves together.  One of his ear buds is tangled in his fringe.  "I'm... fine."  He reaches up blankly to remove it, and that's when the shock begins to fade and something new settles in.  Something that feels a lot like mortification.

Pixie Boy reaches out and starts brushing gravel and snow from Harry's legs.  "Absolutely atrocious aim there on my part," he says.  "Fuck, you're bleeding, and I've ruined your trousers, I am so sorry." 

Harry just stares at the hands swiping against his compression tights, ignoring the sizeable rip near his left calf and the red graze hiding beneath.  "No, no, really, s'alright."  Harry Styles, you are an idiot.  He pushes off the cold ground with his hands, rising to his feet with what he hopes is at least a little bit of grace.

Up close, Pixie Boy is even more stunning.  Harry wonders how that's possible.  His fringe is auburn beneath a grey beanie, his eyes a ridiculous shade of blue, his cheeks slightly pink from the cold.  He's like a palette of oil paints against the greyscale of the evening sky.  He's also reaching out to slap a hand against Harry's forearm.  Harry sucks in a breath at the contact.  "Well.  I feel like a complete twat.  Are you sure you've not broken anything?"

Harry can't really feel the rest of his body, so he's not sure he can provide a truthful answer.  Regardless, he nods.

"How's your head?" the Irish bloke wants to know.

Harry jolts, and starts to dust the snow off of his arms.  He reaches up to readjust his beanie.  "Bit sore," he says.  "But all good, I think."

Irish nods solemnly.  "I'm going to get you a plaster."

Pixie Boy is a picture of sarcasm.  "Yes, a plaster, Niall, because that'll fix everything."

"Look at him! He's bleeding all down his leg!"

"I'm alright, mate, really," Harry reiterates.  Embarrassed, shattered, wishing he could spend the rest of his days in a nice, dark cocoon, perhaps, but essentially unharmed.

"Nah, come on, we'll get you patched up," Niall? (It's funny, he actually looks uncannily like a Niall) says.  At Harry's momentary silence, he adds: "Oh, that's probably a bit weird, isn't it?  I promise we're not murderers.  Well, Louis' just come quite close, but in the grand scheme of things we're fairly harmless.  I've just baked shortbread, if that helps."

Louis (fuck, even his name is flawless) rolls his eyes.  "To clarify, I think what Niall is insinuating here is that he can't possibly be a serial killer, as he's been doing Christmas baking."

Harry laughs, considers, and...  Yeah.  There's literally no way he's walking away right now, stranger danger be damned.  This is clearly the work of fate.  "Oh, is that why?" he says, brushing off his elbows.  "I was hoping he was offering me biscuits as compensation."

Louis quirks an eyebrow, looking vaguely delighted.  He laughs and claps Harry on the back.  "They're all yours then, s' the least I can do.  Come on."

And so the next thing Harry knows, he is tapping snow off of his trainers inside a tiny entryway that's all wooden floors and scuffed walls and he's wondering if this is actually his life.  Everything smells of sugar and nutmeg and warm Christmas hugs.  Across the hall, Louis shrugs off his coat to reveal a black scoopneck top and collarbones that are thrust into sharp relief by the evening light.  Harry wants to touch them.  He can't stop staring, drinking in the surrealism of seeing this figure from his daydreams up close for the first time.  If he had to use a word to describe the sensation, it might be 'star-struck'. 

Louis readjusts the neckline of his shirt and Harry could swear he's smirking a little.  "Niall, fetch our guest some biscuits," he says imperiously.

Niall shakes his head and gives a relaxed salute.  "Aye aye, Captain," he replies, and Harry wonders if he imagines the knowing look that he shoots Louis as he traipses into the kitchen without bothering to remove his boots.

It's just Louis and Harry now beneath the golden glow of the light. 

"Right, we've got a first aid kit somewhere," Louis says, and his voice almost shakes a bit.  He clears his throat.  "Come on through."

As they head down the hallway, a door opens and a dark-haired shadow emerges.  It's another young man, it turns out, with a face and body that belong on a Gucci runway.  When he sees Harry, his eyes go wide, his mouth twists in amusement, and he sends a questioning glance towards Louis, who tenses up. 

"Don't. Long story," Louis says abruptly, and the underwear model just shrugs before continuing down the hallway.

Harry is still puzzling over this exchange two minutes later when he takes a seat on the edge of a claw-footed bath tub and dabs at his leg with a damp cloth.  Louis, stretched on tiptoes,  is rummaging through the cabinet above the sink.  A small line of tanned stomach is on display between his belt and the hem of his shirt, and Harry concentrates very hard on scrubbing congealed blood away from his wound.  Also breathing.  Breathing is important.

By the light of Christ, Louis finally flattens his feet and the skin show disappears.  He's clutching a small red tin, from which he pulls a strip of plasters and a Sharpie.  "Right.  Name?"

Harry blinks.  It seems a very random inquiry, but Louis is looking at him expectantly, eyebrows quirked and mouth corners raised, so he says:  "Er... Harry."

"Harry," Louis repeats, grinning faintly, and then he bends over to scribble something down. 

As it turns out, he's written I'm sorry, Harry :( on the freaking plaster.  Who does that? Harry can't stop the stupid grin from spreading over his face when he takes it from him.

Louis, meanwhile, settles one hip against the countertop and crosses his arms.  "I'm Louis, by the way."  He scratches his collarbones.  "In case you were wondering the identity of your almost-murderer."

I noticed, Harry almost says, but he catches himself.  Instead, he teases: "I'll remember that when I'm filling out the lawsuit forms."

"Mate, you won't be getting anything out of me in court, I'll tell you now.  Just students loans and the frankly depressing starting salary of a drama teacher."

Harry feigns disappointment, slapping a fist into his palm.  "Damn it, there goes my plan."

Louis laughs, and they maintain eye contact for a second before he ducks to fix his fringe and starts tapping his fingers against the sink behind him.  "So, are you training for something then?"

"Race-wise? Not at the moment, no."

"Ah, you're one of those nutters who genuinely enjoys going for runs."  Louis fidgets a little so that his bum is resting on the edge of the counter. 

"I prefer the term 'dedicated enthusiast'."

Another chuckle escapes Louis' cold-reddened lips.  "Fair enough, I reckon you've earned it if you're out in the dead of winter."

"It's still December," Harry points out, a trace of defensiveness in his tone.  He doesn't want Louis to think he's crazy or anything.

"Right.   As I said, the dead of winter."  Louis is smiling, wide and cat-like.  His eyes flick down to Harry's leg.  "All sorted?"

"Think so."  Harry rises to his feet, the plaster adjusting against his shifting skin.  The :( is peeking up at him from the side of his calf.  "Thanks again."

"Really not sure you should be thanking me for anything right now, but I'll take it."  Louis pushes himself off of the counter, a spring in his step.  "Right.  Let's go find Niall and get your biscuits."

They find Niall in the kitchen, snapping the lid onto a Tupperware container and shaking his booty to Michael Buble's Christmas.  At the table, the dark-haired boy from the hallway is stationed in front of the source of the music—a MacBook Pro.

"Perfect timing!" Niall says, spinning around to present Harry with a tub that contains enough biscuits to last at least ten years.

"Are you sure?" Harry collapses a bit under the unexpected weight and glances down in alarm.  "I don't want to take, like, all of them."

"Got another batch in the oven," Niall dismisses.  "They're yours; enjoy.  I hope they're alright."

"Little Niall's first baking experience," Louis coos.  "Actually smell more or less edible, don't they?"

"Delicious," Harry confirms, making a face of appraisal as he looks up from the heaping tub.  "Thanks, mate."

Niall brushes it off.  "No worries at all.  I was just telling Zayn what happened out there.  God, I still can't believe you did that, Tommo."  He's looking at Louis like he genuinely thinks it's the funniest thing in the world.

Zayn shakes his head in silent amusement from the table, an action which is mirrored by Louis, although the latter's face is pulled into a grimace.

Niall, meanwhile, keeps the grin on his face as he turns to Harry.  "How's your leg?" he asks.

"All plastered up," Harry says, giving his thigh a solid pat.

Louis smiles and nods, lips pressed together so that his cheekbones jut.  "I do prepare a good plaster, I'll have you know."

"Such a valid life skill," Niall says, shoving a biscuit into his mouth.  "Mmm, not joking, these are fucking ace.  Try one, Louis."

"Later." Louis dodges Niall's attempt to feed him one by ducking his head to the side.  Harry gets a whiff of his scent as he does this—something sweet and spicy, like chai tea.  "Once I'm sure there's no food poisoning involved.  I don't trust you with an oven just yet."

"Bold-faced lie," Niall declares.  "You liked that lasagna I did on Monday."

"That was a Sainsbury's Heat and Go, Niall.  It doesn't quite count."

"A technicality."

Harry's starting to feel a little lost amidst their banter, so when the oven timer goes off and Niall frantically dons a pair of oven mitts to rescue his next batch, he clears his throat.  "I should head off," he says, tucking the container under his arm.

"Right, nice to meet you, mate," Niall says over his shoulder.  He's poking at the tray in the oven.  "Maybe we'll see you around again, eh?"

"Sure, you never know," Harry agrees.  Zayn gives a lazy salute from behind the screen of the laptop, and Louis surprisingly accompanies Harry back to the entry hall.

"I guess your run's ruined now you've got those to carry," Louis says, motioning to the Tupperware beast. 

"S'pose so," Harry agrees.  "That's alright, though.  I could probably use a night off."

Louis nods, and links his hands behind his back.  "Do you need a lift or anything? You may freeze walking home without a coat."

Harry is tempted to say yes.  Oh, he is so tempted.  But a sixty second car ride round the corner would just be stupid.  "I live quite close," he says, trying to hide his regret.  "So, no worries.  But thanks."

"Right.  Well, enjoy the biscuits," Louis says.  His eyes are sparkling with the outline of the porch lights through the glass, and Harry just stares at him for a moment. 

"Yeah, thanks," he manages dazedly.  And then suddenly, Harry is filled with a numb panic, because the moment is ending, and the window of opportunity is closing.  He is Cinderella and his carriage is disintegrating into a pumpkin all around him.  Get his number... or something, the voice inside his head screams.

Louis clears his throat lightly and crosses his legs at the ankles.  "I'll see you around, Harry."

Well, that's that then.  Harry smiles tightly, dips his head, and says, "Sure.  See you."

As he walks down the frozen steps, he clenches his eyes shut, and his breath gusts out in a huff of blue-white. 

***

Thanks to Liam and his voracious appetite for carbs, the biscuits are gone within two days. 

Anything else that happens within those two days, though, is pretty much a mystery to Harry.  He spends most of his weekend in a haze of Louis lust, replaying their meeting on a loop in the cozy cinema of his mind and attempting to find Louis' Facebook profile (he gives up after two hours of fruitless searching.  The no last name thing is a bit of a setback).  The plaster on his leg loses its tackiness and starts to peel off by Saturday afternoon, but he keeps pressing it back down because the message makes him smile, and because he likes to look at the messy swoops of Louis' handwriting.  When it finally dies and won't stick back on, he wonders briefly if it would be weird to keep a used plaster. 

Yes, he decides, stuffing it into the bin by his desk.  Yes, it would.

By Sunday evening, Harry thinks he may be dying.  His mind is a wasteland of Louis Louis Louis and it's literally been the least productive day of his life.  He's spent most of it attempting to work on his dissertation, and his desk is covered in muesli bar wrappers, empty coffee mugs and notebooks with L's and love hearts doodled all over their pages.  Essentially, everything has become a massive countdown to his Monday evening run.  He and Louis are on acquaintance terms now, so he could potentially stop and chat or something.  But would it get weird, after a few days, when the contrived timing became very, very apparent? Oh, who is he kidding, it's bloody apparent already.  Harry has spent way too much time thinking about this.

He heads out to the kitchen sometime around 8:00 with a handful of empty mugs collected from his room.  As he deposits them in the sink, he sees the empty Tupperware container in the drying rack and has an idea that makes sparks zip up his spine.  The mugs clang into the basin. 

Oh, it's perfect.  But should he? Is it too late? Harry nips his bottom lip as his eyes flick to the microwave clock. 

Nope, this is happening.

He spends the next half hour finding a suitable outfit and styling his hair, and he's in the process of bundling up in his winter coat when Liam sticks his head round the corner.

"Where are you off to?"

Harry jumps back from the hall mirror, a hand still pushing through his fringe.  "Nowhe—I mean, like, somewhere, obviously.  Just on a walk.  I wanted to get some fresh air.  Also return this container.  And get away from my desk for a bit."

Liam raises a dull, skeptical eyebrow.  "You probably should have stopped after one excuse, weirdo.  What's up with you these days?"

"Just... dissertation-related psychosis, probably," Harry says vaguely.  "Need to clear my head and all that."

"Okay. Well. Enjoy?"

Oh, he will.  He hopes.  Harry gives himself a final once-over in the mirror once Liam is gone, and he feels quite pleased.  His skin has been cooperating lately, his hair is appropriately devil-may-care, and he's wearing the navy coat that accentuates his legs.  He leaves the flat feeling confident and hopeful.

Unfortunately, after a seven-minute walk in the snowy night, Harry is a shivering, nervous wreck.  Louis' house is all lit up with Christmas lights against the black sky, little white glass orbs twinkling against the snowy eaves.  Rather than welcoming, the lights feel too-bright and disconcerting, like they'll expose his motives and inadequacies to the world.  So, like a twat, Harry does a second circuit around the block, clutching a plastic container under his arm, before he finds the courage to cross the yard and knock on the front door.  

There's no answer.  He waits just a little too long, a little too hopefully, before taking a deep breath and turning. 

Then, a click.  A wave of music and voices pours out onto the porch, and Harry spins around.

It's Zayn who's holding the doorknob, clad in a thick, woolly turtleneck that's covered in small jingle bells.  In his other hand, a bottle of beer.  Harry takes one look at the mass of bodies swarming the lounge through the open doorway and puts two and two together.

"Oh." He blinks.  Zayn hasn't said anything yet.  "You're having a party, sorry, I just wanted to return your container.  From the other day, I dunno if you remember..."

"Hold on one sec," Zayn says, and then he inexplicably disappears around the corner, leaving the door wide open.

Harry rocks nervously onto his heels, hands held behind his back with the tub between them, and wonders what the hell is going on. 

He gets his answer when Zayn returns with a familiar face by his side. 

"Harry?" Louis, dressed in a beautifully hideous sweater with a cat's face appliquéd onto it, is staring at Harry as though trying to figure out if he's a mirage.  "Harry!" he confirms, grinning like a maniac.  "You're here.  Why are you here? Zayn, did we invite him?" He shoves Zayn aside instead of waiting for an answer, and leans up against the door.  Louis may be a tad inebriated, Harry thinks, but it just makes his cheeks glow with a cute pinkness.  Really, is there anything that looks bad on this boy?

"No," Harry says apologetically.  He pulls the plastic box out from behind his back.  "I was—I just needed a walk and figured I'd drop by and return this."

Louis blinks down at the box, a smile lighting up his face like a supernova.  "Well, your timing's impeccable, innit? We're having a Christmas party.  Come in and join us?"

Well, that was unexpected.  "Oh, um... I—"

Louis is already reaching out and grabbing his arm, pulling him into the glow of music and holiday cheer.  He takes the container from Harry's hands and sets it on the shoe rack.  "Have a drink at least? I think I still owe you for the snowball incident."

To be fair, he doesn't owe him anything, but Harry isn't about to point that out.  "Yeah," he says happily.  "Sure, I'd like that."

"Brilliant!" Louis' eyes flick over Harry in a once-over that makes his stomach swoop.  Then, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a Sharpie.  "But you will be requiring an ugly sweater.  It's the law."  He uncaps the marker.  "Hold still." 

Louis is defacing his jumper, and Harry should probably care about that.  Instead, he just looks down at the cross-eyed Father Christmas that has been Sharpie-d across his chest and grins.

Then, there's a pair of hands on his waist and Louis is gently shepherding him down the corridor.  "I'm not stealing you away from anything, am I?"

"Just my dissertation," Harry says. 

"Ah, dissertation-schmissertation.  Fourth year, then? You at Manchester?"

"Yep," Harry confirms.   "Sociology."

"Impressive."

"Not really.  It's just, like, loads of essays and stuff."  Harry shrugs as Louis moves to the other side of the counter and pulls some glasses out of a cupboard.

"Well I am impressed regardless.  Regardlessly impressed.  What can I get you? Daiquiri? I do make a mean daiquiri." Louis is holding two glasses against his chest, eyes bright and inquiring.

"Daiquiri sounds great," Harry says. 

While Louis mixes the drink, Harry toys absently with his lower lip and lets his eyes wander around the kitchen.  It's all very festive, with garlands strung along the curtain rod and music still pouring through from down the hallway.  Louis is humming along with the poppy beat as he pours rum into a blender, and Harry can't help but watch him work.  This Louis is so much less reserved than the Louis he had spoken to on Friday night.  His touchy-feely-ness could almost constitute flirting on some level, but Harry doesn't trust his instincts with that anymore.  Some straight guys are just very handsy people.  Still, he's bothered to invite him in, hasn't he? Normally, that would be a sign. 

Is it a sign?

"So, you said you were a drama teacher?" Harry says conversationally as Louis plops a few ice cubes into the mix.

Louis nods.  "I've just started this year, yeah."

"Must be a lot of fun."

"Mmm.  Some days I want to tear my hair out and retire to Alaska, but yeah, it has its moments.  Ah! Sorry!" The last two words are shouted over the blender, which has just roared to life.  "Always forget how loud this thing is."  When the blades jam, he gives it a little shake and presses the button again, and the lapse in sound is almost rhythmic.  Louis notices, and starts jabbing the button in time with the dubstep monstrosity that's just geared up in the other room, headbanging along to the beat. 

Harry actually giggles.  His eyes go wide at the sound, and he's thankful that the crunchy racket of ice on steel has mostly covered it.

"Not bad, right?" Louis says when Harry takes a sip of the pink beverage he's presented to him.  He closes his lips around the straw of his own drink, staring intensely as he waits for the verdict.

"Mmm," Harry says, eyes wide as he swallows.   Very strong, but also very delicious.  "Yum, thanks."

A gaggle of girls stumbles into the kitchen then, all giggles and heels clicking on tile. 

"Fridge is yours, ladies," Louis says, bowing dramatically out of the way.  He reaches out to smooth down a wrinkle in the shoulder of Harry's jumper.  "Come along, Harry," he says, fingers lingering.  His pupils are wide like a cat's.  "Let's go be social."

Louis is a force of exuberance—so different to that sarcastic, docile boy from two days ago.  He flits around, introducing Harry to a slew of people whose names he will not remember, and becoming increasingly loud as the contents of his glass diminish. Everybody he talks to seems to love him.  He's sort of an enigma, Harry thinks.    

On that note, the immediately hands-on nature of their interactions might be weird if it were anybody else, but with Louis it just feels weirdly natural.  Louis spends a lot of time with his hands on Harry's shoulders from behind, leans his shoulder into his arm a few times, and once pulls him up to dance, drink still in hand, twirling him round beneath the glow of the living room lights.  Harry is quite happy to play along.  As his mind becomes more rum-hazed, he falls into as state of zen that is beautiful and everything he has ever wanted.  He spends a lot of time just staring at Louis, at his profile and his eyelashes that are really, actually too long to be legal.

Several drinks later, he is significantly intoxicated, and the handsy-ness has gotten ridiculous.  He's squashed on a couch between Louis and Zayn, Louis' thumb brushing casually against his knee, their sides pressed together like sardines.  There's a general plan forming to start a game of strip poker, and a couple of girls are rifling through the drawers of the lounge cabinet for cards on Niall's orders.  Somewhere in the back of his mind, Harry thinks that Liam might be slightly concerned that he's not come back from his walk yet.  Frowning, and with some effort, he reaches into his pocket and frees his phone.  It's worse than he expected.

did you walk to australia or sumthingg? :P

okayyy getting  legit concerned now

seriously mate where are you let me know what's goign on plz

harry im about to ring 999 CALL ME

Harry squints at the screen and types out a message with thick, tingly fingers.

fine everythgis alrightn just stopped ata friends house go to bed x

"Who ya texting?" Louis asks, leaning over so that his head is almost on Harry's shoulder.

"Flatmate," Harry says.  "He thinks I'm dead."

Louis pokes his shoulder.  "Noooooo Harry, dead is bad."  Okay, he really is mullered at his point, not that Harry is much better off himself.  Louis smiles dopily.  "Are you having fun?"

"Loads," Harry replies, grinning back.  "I'm glad you invited me."

"Okay, really," one of the girls says, shattering their little HarryandLouis bubble as she whips around with her hands on her hips.  "Are you fucking with us, Niall? There are literally no cards in here."

"They were there last week, I swear!" Niall says, raising his hands up in defense. 

"All I see is magazines and a questionable assortment of take-away menus."

"Someone find cards," Niall calls out lazily.

"This sounds like a job for... Card Man!" Louis says, leaping off of the sofa.  "Card Man will not rest until justice is served."

"You are so pissed," Zayn says, shaking his head.

"Silence, Zayn! Who will accompany me on this mission?" Louis' eyes roam around the room, and Harry feels a beat of satisfaction when they stop on him.  "Harold?"

Harry pushes himself up off of the sofa with some difficulty.  "It would be... my honour."

Louis gives a solemn nod, and then points ahead valiantly.  "Onwards!"

Giggling, and with several sets of eyes on them, Harry and Louis stumble down the corridor. 

"Ow," Harry says when he stubs his toe on the raised threshold to a bedroom he presumes to be Louis'.

"Aww, Harry..." Louis tackles him into a messy hug that propels them both through the doorway.  "Hazza. Hazzmatazz," he mumbles.  "Don't be sad.  Don't be in pain."

"M' not."

"I'ss 'kay," Louis mumbles into his shoulder.  Harry feels his entire body thrum with something.  Everything's moving very quickly, but he doesn't want this to stop.

Louis pulls back, just slightly.  "Your eyes are very green, did you know," he says.  "Like... a frog, or a leaf, or something."

"That doesn't sound very nice," Harry says, frowning a bit. 

"No, no, no.  I like them."

"I like yours better."

Louis moves in a little.  "I like seeing yours up close."

"I like seeing you up close," Harry croaks.

Louis bumps his head against Harry's shoulder for some reason. 

"Should we look for the cards?" Harry suggests at length, making no move to pull away.

"I don't want to play cards anymore," Louis murmurs.  He stumbles forward a bit, and Harry puts a hand round his wrist to steady him.  "Card Man is a bit drunk."

"Card Man is a silly name," Harry muses.

"Oi."

"Cutely silly."  Something tells Harry that he should watch his words, but there's a slight disconnect between his brain and his mouth.  It's all just another dream at this point.

Louis' mouth quirks up at the corners.  "Is that so?"

Harry licks his lips.  "Mmhmm."

They're within inches of skin contact, and Harry sees Louis' eyes flick down briefly to his lips.  That's all he needs to lean in slowly, drunkenly, like a moth to a lantern. 

There's a sharp intake of breath from Louis, and then Harry's lips are falling on the smooth skin over his cheekbone instead of their intended target.  He pulls back immediately, reeling from the implications of this misstep.  Louis is blinking at him, face turned to the side, looking at once surprised and crestfallen.  His lips are parted slightly.

Suddenly, Harry feels his world come crashing down.  He takes two steps back and his shoulder blade rams into the handle of a wardrobe.  "Sorry," is all he can say, feeling gutted.

Louis still looks torn and confused.  "Hold up," he says. 

But Harry is already through the door. 

"Harry!" Louis takes off after him, following him to the entryway.

"I'm sorry," Harry says again, sorting through a bunch of coats with shaky hands in efforts to find his own.  "I'm sorry.  Um.  I have to get home now."

"You don'—you don't have to leave," Louis says feebly.  He wobbles a bit, sticking a hand out for the wall. 

Finally, Harry finds his coat, and he doesn't even bother to put it on, just bunches it up and moves to open the door.  "No, it's—my flatmate's worried, and, and class tomorrow.  Stuff.  And things."

"Alright," Louis finally concedes.  He sounds sad, which doesn't really make sense in Harry's head, but then again, nothing much does right now.  "Bye, Harry."

Harry inhales the crisp winter air, and it hurts his throat, stings his eyes.  "Bye," he says hoarsely.

***

Harry almost doesn't run past Louis' house on Monday.  Almost.  When it comes right down to it, he's just a sad, weak human being.

He'd woken up that morning with a graffiti-ed jumper and a pounding headache, and at once had wanted nothing more than to just curl up and sleep forever.  Instead, he'd gone to uni like a mature adult, though he'd mostly just moped about campus and relived his stupidity from last night until he felt like absolute shit.  Harry's not usually one to remember much after a night of copious alcohol consumption, so of course, this is the one time his brain decides to retain everything in perfect technicolour.  His own mind is a ruthless traitor.

Louis' car is already in the drive, but he's nowhere to be seen, which is... well, which is probably expected, if he's honest.  Harry pulls his beanie down over his ears and turns up the volume on his iPod to block out the sound of disappointment. 

He's nearly around the block when someone falls into step beside him

"Hello," Louis says, and Harry nearly trips over his own feet.  "Mind if I join you?"  He's wearing trackie bottoms,  a long-sleeved Underarmour shirt, and an expression that says this is the most normal thing in the universe.

Harry can't speak, can't breathe, can't do anything, really, so he just nods as he feet continue thudding along the pavement.  They round the block in silence. 

"So the plan," Louis pants, "was to talk as we ran, but as I am wildly out of shape..." He sticks a hand out gently over Harry's chest, slowing them to a walk.  "There's a park over there.  Do you—?"

"Okay," Harry says blankly.

They walk in silence to the snow-covered plastic island and sit side-by-side on the wooden edge, next to the slide.

"I'm sorry about last night," Louis says, and there it is.  Harry feels a small rush of irritation.  Sorry isn't what he wants to hear.  "I was piss drunk."

Harry just looks down at his hands, glaring at his mittens as he brushes the snow off of them.  "Don't worry about it," he says with a brittle smile. 

"But just let me explain myself," Louis carries on, turning towards him earnestly.

"Okay."

"Right.  So.  I like you a lot."

Not what he expected to hear.  Harry stiffens.  "Okay," he repeats.

"Like, really like you.  I, um, you run past every Monday and Friday."  Louis sounds embarrassed, and Harry looks over with mounting confusion.

"I know," he says slowly.

"Alright, so—god, this is stupid.  Um.  I started this thing where I would get home at exactly 5 o'clock, like, just to see you."  He grimaces.  "Shit.  Yeah, sounds even worse out loud."

Harry has actually stopped breathing.  "You're not serious."

"You can laugh," Louis says miserably.  "I'm the lamest of the lamebobs."

"No," Harry says.  "No, no, it's just... me, too.  I leave the house at the same time every day because I know you'll be there."

Louis freezes, his mouth gone slack.  "Are you taking the mick?"

"No, of course not."

"You are."  Louis' eyes almost look watery; they're wide and sparkly as stars.

"I'm not! Five o'clock sharp.  You get out of your car at five every Monday and Friday."

Louis shakes his head in disbelief.  "Only because you run past at five every Monday and Friday."

"Are you saying we both did this deliberately?"

"I think so.  Fuck."  Louis suddenly picks up momentum.  "I didn't hit you by accident that day.  I didn't mean for you to fall over, obviously.  It was more... I'd spent months trying to figure out how to get your attention, dealing with this stupid crush on the cute runner who always smiled at me.  And then that night I like, looked down at the snowball in my hand and was like 'fuck it, that'll do'." 

"But then..." Harry frowns.  "Why—"

Louis exhales shakily.  "I didn't want to kiss you while drunk, because I had this stupid idea in my head that I wanted it to be, I dunno, real or something.  All I could think was 'shit, don't ruin this, you'll regret not doing this properly'."

A beat of silence.  "Properly," Harry echoes, and then he's kissing him, pushing him back against the snowy plastic slide.  Louis' arms rise to grip him hard, and his lips are cold with winter as they drag over Harry's, slightly chapped in a way that's mostly just really appealing.  Harry kisses Louis with everything he has, with all the anticipation of months and months of imagining, until he's blind with it.  Louis' hands are in his hair, threading through the curls as his thumbs pad gently against the sides of his face. 

"The whole time?" Harry demands breathlessly between kisses.

"The whole bloody time," Louis says, hooking his hands behind Harry's neck and pulling him back in with impatience.  Harry thrills with the wild concept that Louis actually wants this, wants him, as much as he wants it, and it's enough to make his veins buzz with pleasure.  They kiss until they're both smiling like loons, lips stretched too tight to do much more than just stare at one another in joyful disbelief.  Harry wonders if Louis' heart is beating as fast as his, and absently slides a hand down his front, splayed against his warm chest through the compression fabric.  The action makes Louis hum into his mouth, recapture his lips in a kiss that is strong and intense and full of want.  He squashes Harry against him so that his hand is trapped there, right against his heart. Harry presses himself into the strange comfort of the too-tight squeeze.

When they finally separate, Harry shivers.  "I can't believe this," he says, voice gravelly.

Louis' lips are bright pink.  "Niall and Zayn are going to be pissing themselves," he says, and he sounds a bit breathless.  "They've been mocking me for months, thought it was the funniest thing in the world when I knocked you over.  I just—" He leans in to press another quick kiss to Harry's lips, smiling massively.

It's so much to take in that Harry just sort of sits there with a bemused expression on his face, staring at Louis' animated features as he keeps talking.

"Niall calls you 'the curly haired devil'," Louis carries on.  "He actually wrote a song about your curls once to piss me off.  And then he had to go and pretend he didn't know who you were.  Waited until you left and then burst out laughing.  God.  He essentially hasn't stopped since, he's such a shit."

Instead of replying, Harry just takes Louis face between his hands and pulls him in for another kiss.  His back is icy cold and wet against the slide, his bum similarly icicle-like, but he doesn't care.  Louis curls his hands around Harry's elbows, gripping his sleeves and running his thumbs gently along the crooks of his arms.  The sensation adds to the already electric warmth spreading through Harry's abdomen.

Finally, they draw apart, Louis' hands still looped around Harry's biceps, and they exhale faintly at the same time.  It makes them both laugh, Louis ducking his chin to his chest so that his fringe falls over his eyes.  He flicks it aside as he straightens up. 

"You know what, I am glad I chucked that snowball at you," he says, a glint in his eyes.  "I'd say it was one of my more genius plans."

Harry makes a face.  "I don't want to know what your other plans were, then."

"No, you probably don't," Louis agrees. 

Harry smiles.  "Come finish the run with me?"

"Fine," Louis says.  "But after that, we're doing something fun."

"Running is fun," Harry says, pouting.

"Imminent death is not fun.  I vote we watch a Christmas movie."

"I do like Christmas movies," Harry relents.  

"Good."  Louis nudges his side.  "I want to get to know you," he says.  "Without the meddling influence of Bacardi."

Harry just smiles widely—he can't seem to stop—and nudges him back.

Louis hops up and offers his hands to Harry.  He has a dark patch of damp all over his back and bum, and when Harry rises, he feels the cold cut through his own wet clothing.  It probably looks as though they've been lying on their backs in a puddle or something.

As they make their way back towards the pavement, Harry looks down at the snowy ground and hangs back for a split second, bending to scoop some into his hands.  By the time Louis turns to look for him, it's too late.  Harry dusts his hands off, smirking as ice crystals explode all over Louis' shoulder and stomach.  "There," he says soundly, as Louis stares at the ice dripping down him in shock.  "Now we're even."

Louis shakes himself off and takes two brisk steps back towards Harry.  "I'll get you back for that," he says, and then pulls him over into one more kiss under the snow-specked glow of the street lamps.