Actions

Work Header

teenage dreams in a teenage circus

Chapter Text

Why does it feel the same
To fall in love or break it off?
And if young love is just a game
Then I must have missed the kick off
Don't depend on me to ever follow through on anything
But I'd go through hell for you and
I haven't been this scared in a long time
And I'm so unprepared so here's your valentine
Bouquet of clumsy words, a simple melody
This world's an ugly place, but you're so beautiful to me
(Blink 182, “Going Away to College”)

---

“You alright?” Gemma asks Louis, sliding in next to him in the common room. Her fingers fiddle with the label on a water bottle, and Louis fights the urge to reach out and stop them.

“Alright,” he agrees. “You alright, babe?”

Gemma nods, tucking back the strand of her dark blonde hair behind her ear.

Noises of confusion from the corridor flare up just as Perrie squeezes by a teacher in order to slide into the common room.

“There are some Year Eights out there,” she says to Louis and Gemma.

“Interesting,” Louis says, sly grin pasted on his face.

They all hover around the doors, peeking through windows to see children from the lower school wandering through the sixth form corridors.

“They wouldn’t let me into the library,” one whinges to her friend. “Miss said it was all full, but I don’t know where to go because that’s what’s on my timetable.”

Louis watches in gleeful horror as another child hurls his notebooks to the floor and kicks them away.

“Well, that one will require an attitude adjustment before he makes it to sixth form,” Louis says under his breath.

“Oh please,” Perrie says, laughing. “That one’s practically a Louis Tomlinson Junior.”

“Oi,” he protests. Gemma laughs next to him; even she knows Perrie’s completely right.

Almost directly in front of them, a girl in Year Eight bursts into tears out of frustration. Her friend kindly pats her arm, but looks just as lost. Practically all of the children are backed up in the corridor, causing a huge mess for teachers and upper school students to navigate.

Louis spots the lower school headmaster pushing her way through the crowd. She towers over the twelve year olds, but for the most part, the space is so crowded, it’s difficult for her to get the children to stop panicking.

Louis sympathises for the headmaster as he sees her try to get their attention. Her gestures work for the children closest to her, but for the ones who are furthest back, spilling into the library, it’s still loud and chaotic. Her voice doesn’t quite project that far as she tries to call for silence.

Louis’ footie coach barrels through children, knocking into them to try to get to the headmaster. The coach blows his whistle, the noise interrupting both the panic of the younger kids and the laughter of the older ones. He reaches over to pass his megaphone to the headmaster.

“There’s been a misunderstanding and a technical error on your timetables for today. Please return to the other building. We will sort everything out there,” she says. The pre-teens scramble to leave the building, leaving behind dumbfounded teachers and cackling sixth formers.

“Well, that made for an interesting morning,” Mel says as she passes by Gemma, Louis, and Perrie. Gemma rolls her eyes while Louis and Perrie exchange knowing looks.

The three of them move back towards a set of chairs, Louis quickly claiming one. Perrie drops her bag on the table in front of them, and perches herself on the edge.

“In other news,” Gemma says dramatically, “Sam’s being a right prick now that he’s taken up with Mel. Honestly, I’m just mad I let him distract me.”

“Babe, nothing’s going to distract you from becoming MP by the time you’re 30,” Perrie says, leaning forwards to pinch Gemma’s cheeks. Gemma shakes her off, but the smile returns to her face.

“Cheers,” she says.

“But if it’ll make you feel better,” Louis sing-songs, his hand dancing up Gemma’s arm, “I can come ‘round later and we can hatch some plan to get back at him.”

Gemma lights up, and then it’s Perrie’s turn to roll her eyes.

“I need better friends,” she murmurs, but it’s lost in the noise of the common room, Louis and Gemma already wiggling their fingers at each other in agreement.

It’s been like this since they were in Year Nine, and Louis and Perrie set out on their mission to get back at Liam Payne for that one time he had laughed when Perrie tripped on the playground when they were in Year Four. As it turns out, Perrie can hold a grudge when she feels like she’s being put on, and Louis is a menace that enjoys riling others up. Gemma, having overheard their plan during registration, had immediately invited herself along for the prank, and since then, the three have been almost inseparable.

Even with Gemma on the warpath for a top-tier university, and pulling down more lessons than either he or Perrie, she still finds the time for a little mischief. It’s one of Louis’ favourite things about her, along with her sardonic wit and her stepfather’s second home.

Perrie takes out a notebook, and worries the end of her pen with her teeth. She flips it open and starts jotting notes down, presumably for homework that she hadn’t completed the night before.

“What’s your timetable today, love?” Louis asks.

Perrie looks down. “Music first. I got a free at the end, which is ace. You?”

“Drama, P.E.,” Louis starts listing, before Gemma cuts him off.

“What did your mum say again when you told her you were doing an A level for physical education?”

Louis shakes his head. “It was a dark time, but it’s in the past. If you’re all bent up about it, you can find somewhere else to sit,” Louis teases.

Perrie looks up to see Zayn across the common room, feet drawn up on the heater, focus clearly on the pad of paper in his lap.

Ever since the beginning of the school year, she’s been looking around, catching notice of different people. She’s known some of these people her whole life. She’s seen these people go from little to big, and this might be her last chance to get to know some of them. Gemma and Louis are all too eager to leave school, what with Gemma already packing her bags to uni, but Perrie wonders if she missed out on getting to know some of these people.

Zayn’s got a charcoal pencil in his hand and a lead pencil tucked behind his ear, but he’s staring at the paper like it’s going to unfold all of its secrets to him. From here, Perrie can’t even see if there’s anything on the paper to begin with.

“Pezza,” Louis says, and Perrie jumps at being caught, redirecting her attention to her mates in front of her. “You’ll still love me even if I’m shit at all my lessons, right? And you’ll still invite me over for tea even when Gemma’s in Downing Street ignoring my calls?”

“Wouldn’t dream of a life any other way,” Perrie laughs, and pulls out her makeup case to touch up her eyeliner before Music. “By the way,” she adds, dropping her voice low so no one overhears, “nice work with the Year Eight timetables, Lou.”

---

Louis spins around on the computer chair a few times to distract himself while Gemma tears through her own belongings. Her mission is to find an appropriately sexy outfit to wear to the pub, because she knows Sam will be there with Mel.

“Look what you’re missing out on,” she mutters, “but not like I’m trying too hard.”

Louis looks up from his copy of The Tempest as Perrie storms into the room, huffing as she does.

“Gem, can I knick a tampon off you?” she asks, as Louis’ eyes bulge.

“Of course, love. Top right drawer,” Gemma responds, not looking up from the shirt she’s judging. “Hey, wait,” she says as she drops the shirt and spins away from her drawer. “I thought we were synced up?” Perrie shrugs and retreats back into the toilet, leaving Gemma to pick her shirt back up, and Louis to make faces at no one in particular.

It’s not a big deal, it’s just that Louis hates when they get like that... all girly. He slaps his paperback shut.

“Is Robin around, Gem? I need to talk about footie or something,” he scoffs.

Gemma rolls her eyes, even though Louis can’t see it. “No. Afraid there’s only H here to reassert your manhood,” she says coolly. “Fair warning, though, his favourite topic of conversation of late has been the patch of vegetables he’s going to plant come spring, so there’s that.”

Gemma pulls out another top, black, plain, and carefully considers it.

Louis hurls himself out of the chair and stumbles to the door, the play all but forgotten on the desk.

He moseys down the stairs, past the rows of family portraits, holding shots of Gemma, Anne, Harry and Robin at various ages. There are pictures from Anne and Robin’s holidays, a variety of sunsets and romantic scenes. There’re a few photos of Harry all goofy and undergrown, eyes half shut, but still grinning. There’s the one of Gemma as Louis remembers meeting her, all dark straight hair and choppy fringe, complete with a crooked overbite. Gemma hates that picture, threatens to take it down and hide it whenever she has friends over.

Louis walks into the kitchen to help himself to a glass of water when he sees Anne at the stove and Harry at the counter, both their backs turned to him. Music plays in the background, something slow and tinkling that Louis doesn’t quite recognise, but Anne hums under her breath easy enough.

Only when they hear Louis shut the cupboard do they notice his arrival.

“Oh hello, Louis, dear,” Anne greets, leaving her station at the stove to give him a hug hello. “Didn’t realise Gemma had you locked up there in her room.”

Louis chuckles as he moves to the tap.

“Oh, Harry, watch what you’re doing,” Anne gasps, Louis quickly turning to see Harry with a flush high on his cheeks. “You’re going to chop a finger off, honestly.”

“No, m’not,” Harry mumbles, eyes flicking to Louis and then back down to his hazardously chopped leek.

“And how are lessons going, Louis? Have you submitted your uni applications yet?”

Mums love talking about this stuff, Louis thinks to himself.

He sits down at the island in the kitchen, right across from where Harry’s supposed to be chopping, and takes a sip from his glass.

“Um, no, not really,” Louis starts. It’s the beginning of a fight he and his mum have had many times of late. “I think I might have to re-sit exams already, maybe pick up another subject next year. Didn’t do so well last year, not sure a uni in their right mind would want me,” Louis laughs. It’s self-deprecating, of course.

Harry’s eyebrows furrow but he remains silent, instead reaching over to grab at a still-wet aubergine.

“Oh love, don’t worry yourself over it. You’re a clever one, and if you have to re-sit, then so be it, but I wouldn’t count yourself out.”

Louis smiles kindly at her. Anne is always someone Louis can trust to give a helpful pep talk. Wise, but relatively impartial. Louis doesn’t know how to bring up the fact that more and more, he doesn’t want to go to uni. He wants to travel, he wants to work, he wants to fucking act. He doesn’t want to wait for another three years to go by before he gets a chance to do that.

It has been all the more apparent this year, Louis only looking forward to his time at his Drama lessons. He tolerates P.E., mostly because of practicing for football, but he actually has to drag himself to his English Language and English Literature lessons.

“You and Perrie are staying for tea, yes?” Anne asks.

“We’re making loads,” Harry adds quietly, and Louis looks again at the miniature mountain of leek and aubergine.

“I’d hate to--” Louis starts, quick to politely decline.

“Oh, come off it,” Anne laughs. “You’ve been here long enough to not interfere. Besides, Harry’s taking food development, so really, count this as helping a Year Eleven revise.” Harry flushes red but doesn’t protest.

Louis laughs, fingers curling tight around the glass. “Alright,” he agrees. “S’probably for the best since I think Gem and I are going for a quick pop ‘round the pub tonight.”

He stays and chats with Anne until Gemma and Perrie come looking for him. Harry stays hush, but Louis has always known him to be quiet. Gemma and Perrie set the table and the five of them gather round, filling their plates up.

Gemma, Perrie, and Louis help clean up, quickly shoving dishes into the washer before shuffling out the door and walking down to the pub in the village they know everyone will be at. Louis hates this kind of thing, these appearances, but he also doesn’t want people to forget who he is or think he’s some friendless loser, so he always goes.

He’s bundled up tight, the January night wind whipping across his face. He shoves his scarf further up his face, feeling his nose hairs actually freezing. Louis wishes he had gone home instead.

“I should have driven,” Perrie says.

“Nonsense,” Gemma responds, butting her shoulder against Perrie’s. “Lou and I will sneak you a pint.”

The pub is full of others from their school, sixth formers spilling out of their seats, taking up lots of useless space along the walls. There’s a group of middle aged men that seem to hate their choices as they hustle to pay their cheque and leave. Louis suspects they might not have the worst idea.

The three of them find a corner as Gemma tries to not-so-subtly glance around for her ex-boyfriend.

“I don’t see Sam,” Perrie says, tucking a strand of her blonde hair behind her ear. Gemma shakes her head.

“Neither do I,” Gemma admits, though she quickly backtracks, “not that I want to see him.”

“Of course not,” Perrie laughs, as Gemma slips off to the bar. She orders a round for them, waiting as the bartender pours them from the tapped keg.

Louis helps her bring the drinks back to the table.

“Gem, your newest enemy is here,” Perrie says.

“Who? Mels?” Gemma asks, taking a sip from her beer.

Perrie laughs and shakes her head. “No, James,” she whispers, jerking her head back to where their classmate is standing in the opposite corner.

“Ugh, that prick,” Gemma says, her mouth twisting.

“Not that I disagree,” Louis cuts in, remembering that time in Year Ten James had refused to play Spin the Bottle because Louis had been in the circle, “but what’d he do to make him your newest enemy?”

Perrie shoots Gemma a warning look, but Gemma’s too busy shooting eye daggers over at James to notice.

“You know Niall, in lower sixth?” Louis nods. “He had that party a few weeks back, and H went because they’re quite close. Anyway, James snogged Harry in Niall’s parents’ room and then tried to say that Harry initiated it because he’s just that full of self-loathing.”

“Did you know this?” Louis asks, looking at Perrie.

“Of course I did,” Perrie laughs.

“What a knob,” Louis says, shaking his head.

He takes a sip from his glass to distract himself from the exclamation points popping up in his stream of consciousness.

He’s known Gemma for years, the Styles-Twist family for just as long, but never has he known that quiet and odd Harry was the sort to snog blokes at house parties.

A sudden panic comes to him, as he hopes that they haven’t snogged the same blokes. Their town is quite small, the likelihood of boys who are interested in boys even smaller, and Louis feels the walls of the pub close in on them a little.

He suspects that Gemma has been hiding this tidbit from him, but he’s not sure why.

The door opens and Louis gets a clear view of Sam and Mels breezing through the door.

“Oh shit, it’s them,” Louis says, as Gemma drags her attention away from James.

Gemma doesn’t do anything outlandish, choosing in the moment to take the high road. But if Louis orders an extra couple rounds and convinces the bartender to charge Sam, well, no one’s the wiser.

---

Perrie slides in the seat next to Zayn during Music, ignoring the way he freezes up with her presence.

“I’m really struggling with this composition,” she says, voice light. He looks up and over at her, confusion written all over his face.

He looks behind him, glancing to see if there’s a possibility she’s talking to anyone else except him.

“Me too,” he responds, holding up his notebook. He’s got a whole mess of lines, a few notes that Perrie assumes makes out a melody.

“Pants,” she laughs, “I was hoping you were really good so you could help me.”

Zayn smiles and laughs, and Perrie grins.

“Nah, I was just wondering if I could get away with just adding a triangle and calling it,” Zayn admits.

“I think that sounds inspired,” she grins, and it’s not, it sounds completely terrible, but he’s ridiculously handsome when he’s joking around.

Zayn laughs, and Perrie beams, and they sit there, just smiling at each other, as if they were friends. As if this weren’t the longest conversation they had ever had, despite having classes together for years.

---

“I thought you went into the shop to buy gum while I was filling up, but instead you came out with a bag full of sweets and cakes,” Louis maintains, as he pulls into the Styles’ driveway.

Perrie shrugs and offers him a bite of her packaged cupcake, which he takes. He puts the car in park as he makes sure he doesn’t have any cream on his upper lip.

“You owe me money for petrol, by the way,” he laughs.

“No,” she argues as she gets out of the car. “I’m paying you back with cakes.” She holds up the bag as if to prove her point.

Perrie rings the doorbell as Louis locks his car up, not that anyone in their right mind would try and take anything from it. The bumper doesn’t match the boot, there are stickers left over from its previous owner, and the leather seating is buckled and ripped.

Harry opens the door, eating a banana, which has basically come to be Louis’ worst nightmare.

Louis had tried very hard to ignore the information about Harry’s sexuality from the night at the pub… but he was getting paranoid. Had Gemma been keeping that from him on purpose? Had he and Harry snogged some of the same blokes?

That was the most frequent worry in Louis’ life the last few weeks.

Now with Harry standing in front of him, eating an impossibly phallic fruit, a new fear creeps into the front of Louis’ mind.

How much experience does Harry even have? Has Harry given a blowjob?

Louis hopes his face isn’t pale, but Harry just blinks and lets them in.

“Gem’s in her room,” he says, as the two of them move to take off their shoes. Louis slips off his canvas shoes easy enough, even though they’re wet and cold and soaked through to his socks.

It takes Perrie a little more time, what with her unlacing her precious Doc Martens. Louis tut-tuts impatiently. Harry swiftly disappears back up the stairs without another word.

“You should wear better shoes in the winter you know,” Perrie laughs.

Louis laughs, because he’s stubborn and she knows it.

“Yes, well, you put all your earnings from the shop towards those boots for months. I’m not even sure why,” Louis says.

“Because they make me look badass,” she argues, and then she bangs on Gemma’s bedroom door.

“Stop revising,” she calls. “Open up!”

Gemma swings the door open and lets them in, flopping herself back down onto the bed.

“Aw, what’s wrong, Gemerald?” Perrie asks, crawling up towards the head of the bed. Gemma rearranges herself so her head lies in Perrie’s lap. Louis plops himself down at the foot of the bed and gives Gemma’s ankle a warm pat.

“Nothing’s wrong; I’m just stressed,” she says. There’s a moment of quiet before she adds, “Also Sam stopped by this morning.”

“What?” Perrie gasps.

Gemma nods. “He basically came over because he felt weird about how things were going with Mels and I just, ugh,” she says, letting out a noise of frustration. “I let him get to me and I don’t know why. Why should I have to listen to him complain about his new girlfriend?”

“You shouldn’t,” Louis says, poking firmly at her shin.

“Ouch, fuck off,” she replies. “Well, basically, that’s it. I’m officially over him. New plan of action: the best revenge is success, so basically I’m going to wipe the floor with exams, get into the best uni possible, and make him regret ever being born. Edinburgh or bust.”

“I thought that was already the plan,” Louis says. His eyes find the small calendar of Scottish landscapes that Gemma hangs above her desk.

“Of course, but this just made me realise it more, right? That boys hold us back and distract us from doing our best. If I hadn’t been dicking around with Sam last year, I could have picked up another A level.”

“You’re kind of maxed out, silly,” Perrie says, stroking Gemma’s hair, but shooting Louis a wide-eyed look.

“I think we should make a pact,” Gemma says, sitting up, Perrie’s hand falling to the bed. “Like no boys until uni.”

“That won’t be too difficult,” Louis laughs, “at least for me.” He looks over at Perrie. “Slim pickings.”

“Okay,” Perrie says slowly. “I probably should focus on revising.” She doesn’t sound convinced, but Gemma’s not paying too much attention.

“Good, that settles it.”

“I brought sweets,” Perrie says, leaning over the bed to try and grab at the bag she had discarded in her haste to soothe their friend.

Louis gets up and helps her out.

“I’m going to use the loo,” he announces awkwardly, handing over the bag.

“Alright, thanks for sharing,” Gemma laughs.

Louis lets himself out of the room, shutting the door quietly behind him. The toilet is to the right, Harry’s room straight across, and Anne and Robin’s room to the left. Harry’s door is slightly ajar, and it sounds like Harry’s playing some kind of video game.

Louis steels himself and presses forward, pushing Harry’s door open and walking in.

“Oh?” Harry says, looking up from his controller. Harry’s not alone, though. Niall and Liam, two boys in lower sixth are perched on his bed, with Harry himself down on the floor.

“Hey, Louis,” Liam says, waving. Liam and Louis play football together during the season, and Louis sees Niall along the hallways, so there’s no reason it should be awkward.

Except for the fact that he had just barged in the room without knocking.

Worse is that Louis looks down and Harry’s still blinking up at him owlishly, his lips parted in confusion.

“Oh, sorry,” he stammers. “Is this not the loo?”

Harry huffs out a laugh, and Louis contemplates dropping out of school now if this is what an A level in Drama will get him.

“How many times have you been over this house, Tommo?” Niall laughs as he continues to press buttons.

“Toilet’s to the left,” Harry says kindly. Louis almost hates that.

“No, I mean, I thought there was another toilet,” Louis says. He hopes his confused face is convincing, but he doubts it. He should have planned better; he’s far, far, too impulsive.

“No, just the one, m’fraid,” Harry says and smiles.

Louis takes another step in, gesturing to Gemma’s closed door.

“Your sister’s having a right fit,” Louis says. “Swearing off men forever.”

“Good,” Harry laughs. “I like the sound of that.”

“Come play FIFA, Lou,” Niall says, pointing at the fourth remote. “It’s not fair when Harry gets the computer player on his side.”

“Hey,” Harry says, indignant.

Louis laughs, but settles in next to Harry on the floor. No one mentions anything about the toilet, which is nice. He doesn’t even have to pee, so really, he’d just end up standing in the room, staring at himself in the mirror.

“Start again,” Liam demands, kicking Harry’s back.

“Alright, alright,” Harry says, as he pauses and goes back to the main menu.

It’s weird for Louis to see, because for as long as he’s known the Styles clan, Harry has always been this background figure, silent for the most part. Louis knows Harry has friends, obviously, they cross paths at school and Gemma will throw a mention every now and then about something Harry’s friends said, did, or ruined. Never have they been around while Louis is, since either group will lock themselves up in a bedroom.

Louis is glad to have the buffer, at least. It seems that being with his friends makes Harry more open, more comfortable.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Niall grunts, smashing at the buttons on his controller with seemingly little technique.

“Oi! Yes!” Harry cheers, as Louis’ player kicks it straight into the net.

Louis whoops, reaching behind to punch Liam in the shin a few times.

It happens again, of course, this time with Harry’s player scoring a goal, and Harry and Louis high five.

Liam and Niall try to beat them, of course, but most of their shots go wide, or Harry and Louis manage to tackle them, or something, to the point where Niall and Liam just get frustrated.

“Dream team,” Louis laughs, clapping a hand on Harry’s shoulder. It should seem like a friendly gesture, but the way Harry stills pops the bubble of their bond from their match. Louis might have crossed some sort of line, even though it seems like the sort of laddish behaviour he’s done with the other two.

Neither Liam nor Niall notice, though, too busy grumbling over their loss. Perrie opens the door of Gemma’s room to immediately spot Louis with the boys.

“Oi,” Perrie shouts, crossing over, “Gemma’s gone back to revising. I think I’m going to call me dad to come get me. Too cold to walk home.”

“Nah, Liam has his mum’s car, if you want to ride with us,” Niall says. “We’re just heading out.”

Louis’ eyes widen.

Harry puts back the other two controllers, and Louis sits and wonders what his next move should be. Would it be too awkward to go back to Gemma’s room? Or would that give Harry the idea that he only was interested in spending time with Niall and Liam?

Or would staying be more awkward? Maybe Harry wanted some time alone, to browse facebook or watch porn or something.

Louis squeezes the bridge of his nose.

Harry watching gay porn was not on his list of acceptable thoughts.

“Text me when you get home,” Louis says to Perrie, kissing her on the cheek. He turns to Niall and Liam. “Just a warning, Liam, she doesn’t pay back for petrol.”

“I live right down the road, idiot. It’s just cold,” she laughs.

The three of them leave, and Louis sits quietly even as he can hear the muffled radio from Liam’s car roll down Harry’s street.

“Want to play another game?” Harry asks, cocking his head. “I mean, or Gem maybe needs help revising.”

Louis throws his head back and laughs, catching Harry by surprise.

“Oh, you know as well as I do that Gem doesn’t need help revising. And if she did, I certainly wouldn’t be the one to help.”

Harry smiles at that and shrugs. It’s cute.

“Resident Evil?” Harry suggests, showing him the case.

Louis nods, and definitely doesn’t stare as Harry shuffles forward and replaces the disc in the machine. He’s 15, Louis reminds himself. Even if only for a couple of weeks more. He’s 15, and Gemma’s little brother. He’ll always be Gemma’s little brother, so therefore, he’ll always be outside of Louis’ perv zone.

“Why is she revising on a Saturday night anyway?” Harry asks as he settles back in next to Louis, both their backs pressed up against Harry’s bedframe.

“She’s convinced it’ll be a good way to get back at Sam,” Louis says, frowning at the tv screen. “By going to uni.”

Harry nods. This feels safe, talking about Gemma. This is something they have in common.

“Is she really swearing off guys, then? I don’t have to worry about chasing them away with cricket bats?” Harry asks. It’s an interesting mental image, of course, young Harry chasing upper sixth formers away with sports equipment.

Louis laughs and shakes his head.

“Yep,” he says, popping the ‘p’. “We took a pact, even.”

At that, Harry turns to look at Louis. “A pact?” he asks incredulously.

“Sadly so,” Louis agrees. “Not that it makes a huge difference in my life.”

He hammers away at his controller, shouting nonsense at the screen as he shoots, theoretically, at a zombie.

Harry jumps in and shoots the zombie for him, thankfully. Louis’ talents lie elsewhere.

“You haven’t snogged James in upper sixth, right?” Harry asks, eyes still glued on the game.

Louis smirks.

“No,” he says slowly. “So I suppose that just makes one of us.”

“So you did hear about that,” Harry says, turning away to look at Louis.

“Just from Gem,” Louis says. “It’s not, like, making the rounds. I’m sure James would hate that.”

“He is such a knob,” Harry says, shaking his head and going back to the game.

“I feel like we should, um, compare notes or something,” Louis laughs, though it’s forced. “Just to make sure we haven’t overlapped.”

Harry barks out a laugh, but Louis can see from peeking over at Harry that his cheeks are flushed.

“Well, that’s about my list, then,” Harry admits. “Not very scandalous.”

Louis audibly breathes a sigh of relief. “Well, that’s good,” he says. Harry blinks at him. “Well, not for you, really,” he backpedals. “Just that we haven’t, like, inadvertently snogged the same blokes, s’all.”

“That’s true,” Harry replies, smiling slowly.

After a moment, Harry breaks the quiet.

“Your list, then? You know, just so I know who to avoid,” Harry adds with a wink.

Louis laughs. Harry is far cheekier than he’d ever expected.

“Um, not much bigger, I’m afraid. Greg, who you may not remember. He was two years older-- he’s at uni now. And George, who’s in lower sixth. Nothing serious, just snogging.”

“Oh, I know George,” Harry mutters off-hand. “I think he takes Chorus with Liam and Niall.”

Louis hears Gemma’s door swing open, and she appears, complete with joggers and slouchy socks.

“Oh, good. I was going to be so mad if you left without saying goodbye,” she says to Louis.

“Nope,” Louis laughs, “though I should be going. Mum wants to go do the shopping in the morning.”

He pulls himself up to stand, handing the controller back to Harry.

“Alright, babe, don’t revise before bed,” he winks at Gemma. “Thanks for saving my arse with the zombies, Harry.”

Harry smiles.

Louis stumbles back down the stairs, tugging his still-damp trainers on before hustling back through the cold to his car. He sits in the driveway for a few moments, just waiting until his car is warm enough that he can grip the steering wheel without wanting to die. He looks up as he puts the car in reverse, and he sees Harry staring out his window.

Harry waves, knowing he’s been caught.

Louis smiles and offers a wave in return, before turning in his seat and focusing on backing out of the driveway safely.

---

“They say it’s your birthday!” Gemma sings out, banging on the table as if it were her own personal bongo drum. “We’re gonna have a good time!”

Harry laughs but pulls Gemma into a tight hug, pressing a kiss to her temple. Robin and Anne are there too, a regular family celebration.

“This is sick, Gem,” Harry says, beaming at the cake sitting on the table. She swears it’s triple chocolate-- chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, chocolate frosting. She had even piped out “Happy 16th, Harry!” though the cursive looks a little shaky.

“If Gemma made it, I think it might make us sick,” Robin laughs.

Gemma pretends to be affronted, but really, she’s wrinkling her nose up in guilt.

“The important thing, before we cut into it and taste it, is that I tried. It’s very hard to live up to the fact that the favourite child is also the best chef in the house.”

Harry shrugs. “You speak the truth,” he says. Gemma swats at his shoulder, as he pretends to be wounded.

“Children,” Anne says, exasperated. Harry swoops in for another hug, lifting Gemma clear off the ground as she squawks in protest.

“Harry,” she laughs as she kicks her legs uselessly.

Harry puts her down, muttering another ‘thanks’ as she fixes her blouse.

“Yes we’re going to a party, party,” Harry sings to himself as he moves to grab the knife.

The cake slices easy and relatively clean, minus the frosting that clings to the silver of the blade.

“Just a small piece, dear,” Anne says, which is why Harry cuts a thick one, heaving it onto the paper plate with a smile. “Oh honestly, Harry,” she adds, reaching for a plastic fork, “I’m not saying it for a diet, moreso since Gem baked it.”

“Oi, some family you are,” Gemma says, but she’s laughing, smile wide, used to their family’s ribbing.

Anne takes a small bite while Harry cuts Robin a slice, smiling politely.

“Oh no, it’s terrible,” Gemma says.

“No, no,” Anne insists. “I just need some milk.”

Robin holds on to his plate, but doesn’t move to dig in.

Harry passes a piece to Gemma quickly and then cuts one for himself. He’s determined to eat it all anyway, since this must have taken a lot of effort from his sister. He knows she’s been down recently, and the last thing he wants is for her to think he doesn’t appreciate her.

“Oh, Christ, it’s dry,” Gemma says around a mouthful of cake.

“The frosting helps,” Harry points out, shoving the fork in his mouth. It’s sickly sweet, that much chocolate will do that, not to mention that some of the proportions are off. He casts a glance over at the tap, wondering if it’ll be too obvious that he needs about a litre of water to get through the slice.

“How’s that A level in Chemistry going, Gem?” Robin teases, taking a bite.

“Alright, I’ll have you notice that the cake is fully formed as it’s supposed to be. Chemistry clearly isn’t the problem.”

Harry holds the plate right under his chin, lifting small bites into his mouth. His mum smiles warmly at him. Harry can’t tell if she’s just having a normal proud mummy moment or if she’s cottoned on to his plan on finishing the piece. He doesn’t get enough credit for being a good brother, honestly.

“I remember when I had you,” Anne starts.

“Oh no,” Gemma sighs.

“You were a bit of a surprise, to be honest, and when I was in labour, the doctor looked down and saw you with your hand sticking out.”

“Attention seeker from birth,” Gemma laughs. Harry pouts at her.

“Had to go into an emergency caesarian, then, but you were worth it,” she finishes, leaning over to give Harry a sloppy kiss on the cheek. Harry wipes it off indignantly.

“My babies are all grown up,” she sighs, looking over at Robin. “When did that happen?”

---

Zayn spots Perrie across the car park, standing next to a car he thinks belongs to Louis Tomlinson.

She’s bundled up in a thick wool coat and a tan scarf that sits on her neck but extends up to her chin. Her hands, covered in fingerless gloves, type away at her phone.

Zayn hustles across the pavement, calling out to her before he can even stop himself.

“Perrie,” he says, and he cringes, because it sounds breathless even to his own ears.

“Hey,” she greets, lifting her eyes up off her phone to meet his. “You alright?”

“Yeah,” he agrees, blowing on his hands to keep warm. “Class was well dull, yeah?”

“Deffo,” Perrie agrees. “Why is Chris doing Music A level when his voice makes me want to, like, I don’t know, hurl myself into a wall.”

Zayn laughs. “Don’t get too violent now,” he says.

She laughs and tucks a strand of her hair beneath her tan beanie. “It’s all I could think of in the moment.”

“What are you doing right now?”

“Waiting for Tommo to get out here and drive me home. He’s quite slow despite the blistering cold.”

Zayn nods. He looks down at their matching boots, smiling. Perrie kicks at a little pile of snow with hers.

“I could give you a lift, if you want?” Zayn asks, tentatively. He’s not sure if he’s crossed a line, since they’ve barely talked, can’t really be considered friends, even. He mentally thinks to the state of his car, doesn’t know the last time he could afford to take it for a wash, and he shudders at thinking how many wrappers and scratched CDs line the backseat. “I mean, if you’re sick of waiting.”

Perrie glances up at the door of the school and decides she is sick of waiting for Louis.

“Yeah, thanks. I can direct you to my house from here.”

She taps away at her phone, and Zayn assumes she’s telling Louis that she’s ditching him.

He leads her over to his car, and he suddenly feels very uncool. He knows he’s lucky to just have a car, really, but it’s not something that would impress anyone. Not something that would impress Perrie, more off.

“Thanks again,” Perrie says, as she opens the passenger side door. Zayn mentally slaps himself-- he should have opened it for her.

“Of course,” Zayn says. “Can’t have you freezing now, can we?” Zayn flushes and hopes Perrie’s not looking as he shimmies his key into the ignition. It’s an elaborate procedure: one that has to be done in a precise way, and sometimes requires the use of a spare pen.

Perrie watches him go through the motions, though.

“Well, that looks intricate,” she laughs as the engine roars to life and the heater sputters on, blasting cold air at them for a moment.

“I’m trying to save up for uni, so this is the best I could do,” Zayn shrugs. He tries to play it off like it’s no big deal, like it’s romantic and edgy to have a dying piece of metal for a car.

“Looks alright to me. Much better than my imaginary car, anyway,” she shrugs.

The air finally gets warm as Zayn backs out of his parking space.

“Oh, wait,” he says. “I remember I found this book at the library on composing songs. I haven’t looked at it yet, really, so I don’t know if it’s rubbish, but do you wanna take a look? Since you said you were having trouble with composing.”

“Oh yeah,” Perrie says. “Definitely.”

“Do you have to be home straight away?” Zayn asks. “We can pop round to mine.”

“No, that’s great. Thanks for thinking of me,” Perrie says. Zayn flashes a smile over at her.

“Did you have a nice weekend?” she asks after a moment of silence.

“Yeah, it was alright. I just went to the library, like I said, and then watched my little sisters. And I was at the restaurant, helping out, so not a whole lot of time for homework,” Zayn says. He suddenly becomes aware that he sounds like he has no life. “Not that I’m a nerd,” he adds.

Perrie’s hands twist on her lap as she lets out a laugh. “Okay. You work at a restaurant?”

Zayn flips his direction signal and checks his blind spot. “Er, sort of. I don’t get paid. It’s my mum’s restaurant.”

“Oh my god, I didn’t know that,” she says. “Is she good?”

Zayn chuckles, “Yeah, she’s really good.”

“Oh, you’ll have to tell me the name of it so I can go,” Perrie says. Zayn tries not to notice the way her right leg is bouncing to the low hum of the radio. Zayn can’t even make out the song, but Perrie can pick out the beat.

“You can come around for tea some time, if you want,” Zayn says.

“Wicked, thanks,” Perrie says.

Zayn pulls into the driveway of his house, parking behind his older sister’s car, but leaving space for his dad.

“If you want, you can stay today,” he says, fiddling with his keys. “There are always leftovers. My younger sisters are picky eaters.”

Perrie smiles warmly, and it almost makes Zayn feel like winter’s already passing. Her smile reminds him of new beginnings.

“Are you sure?” she asks, unlocking the door and stepping out, looking upwards at Zayn’s house.

“Yeah,” Zayn nods, locking the car behind them, more on instinct than anything else.

Zayn’s little sister eyes them warily from her corner of the sofa when they enter.

“You’re late,” she says drily.

“Are you my keeper?” Zayn shoots back.

Zayn leads Perrie up the stairs to his room, and he can hear his little sister scurry to the stairs to watch them leave.

He can practically hear the ‘mum said no girls’ cry now.

His room is thankfully in an okay state, mostly due to his insomniatic fit last night, where he folded and put away his clothes in the dull lamp light. He had organised his desk, even, shuffling drawings around until it seemed like a coherent pile.

“And you said you weren’t a dork,” Perrie laughs, tugging the beanie off her head and pointing at the Marvel poster above his desk.

“That’s different,” he says. “Comics are cool.”

Perrie laughs and perches herself on his desk. She’s clearly interested in the drawings there, but trying to be respectful. Zayn appreciates that.

“You can look, if you want,” he says, gesturing. Perrie’s eyes light up. “I’ll find that book.”

Zayn tries so hard not to watch Perrie as she looks at his drawings. He hates people seeing them, but he wants to judge her reactions. Will she think they’re stupid? Or awful?

“Oh my gosh,” she gushes. “This is sick!”

Zayn turns slowly. “What?”

“I love this,” Perrie says, gesturing to the caricature of their chorus teacher, Mrs. Shah. She looks like a superhero. Zayn isn’t overly fond of her, but he was bored in class one day and decided that it’d be better to draw her than another student. Especially not another student that might find his work in his bedroom.

“Is this the kind of stuff you do?” Perrie asks, peeling her eyes away to look up at him.

He shrugs. “I dabble.”

“So cool,” she says, before flipping to the next picture.

Zayn doesn’t look for the composition book.

Waliyha must have tipped their mum off about Perrie’s presence, since his mum makes her way upstairs as soon as she gets home.

“I’m making kebabs, I think,” she says. “Perrie, will you be staying?”

Perrie looks to Zayn again, and Zayn nods encouragingly at her.

“Yes, if you don’t mind,” Perrie says. It’s the politest Zayn’s heard her yet, an entirely new side of her. His mum blissfully leaves them alone after that, though she does send a stern glance to the open door.

“My mum works evenings a lot, so I tend to eat supper at Louis’ or Gemma’s,” Perrie says, shrugging. “I hate cooking.”

Zayn nods. “I do too. And well, you’re always welcome here if you can stand the annoying kids.”

“I’m sure your sisters are sweet,” she says.

Zayn’s sisters, of course, love Perrie, and spend almost all of dinner complimenting her dress, her boots, her accent. They ask what her favourite movie is, what kind of music she listens to, which celebrity would she choose to marry if she had the option. Zayn grins at his lap for most of it, mostly because Perrie takes it all very seriously. She weighs her options, thinking carefully.

“Seal,” she says, though none of Zayn’s sisters know who that is.

“Seal? What?” Zayn laughs. He can’t stop getting over how Perrie insists on blindsiding him.

“He’s ruggedly handsome and mature,” she argues. “Oh, fine. Who would you say?”

“Rihanna,” he laughs, matter-of-fact. “No question.”

“Fair enough,” Perrie says. “I might have to change my answer.”

Zayn accidentally, and coincidentally, inhales his water.

---

“Why does your stepdad even have a pool?” Louis asks as he dumps the bag of groceries he had been carrying on the table.

Gemma does the same, and then quickly steps through the living room to the sliding door.

“Don’t insult the bungalow,” she says.

“Not an insult,” Louis says, coming up to hug her from behind. “Just not sure why there are even pools in England, much less in one’s second home.”

“I’ll never be able to explain Robin,” Gemma laughs, “but I’m not complaining.”

“Especially not when this place also comes with a hot tub,” Perrie cheers from her place on the sofa. It hadn’t taken her long to get comfortable.

Gemma’s phone buzzes, so Louis lets go to let her answer it. He takes a running leap on to Perrie, as she squeals and tries to push him off. She gives up and lets him cuddle in, patting him on the head fondly.

“Okay,” Gemma says, “Harry and his friends are almost here. Friendly reminder that my parents think this is just brother-sister time at the bungalow. So don’t break anything,” she says slowly, staring purposefully at Louis.

“What?” Louis asks, affronted, while Perrie giggles beside him.

Gemma laughs and squeezes herself into the other end of the sofa, arranging their legs in her lap.

“I’m tired from driving,” she announces. “Louis, I think it’s your turn to unpack the food for the weekend.”

“Fuck no,” Louis says, until Gemma takes it upon herself to pull one of his trainers off and tickle the bottom of his foot.

Louis squirms and kicks, which of course leads to Perrie groaning and yelling, until the two girls manage to upheave Louis onto the carpet.

He grumbles as he stomps back to the dining room area, pulling the items out of the bags and putting them either in the refrigerator or the shelf, one by one. They’ve got sweet waffles, salt and vinegar crisps, about half dozen avocados, a can of garbanzo beans, some pain au chocolat, and a bag of cherries. The list goes on, of course, but nothing resembles anything that could form a meal. He should have tried harder to keep Perrie away from the cart itself. He can only hope that Harry and his friends fare better.

He’s balling up the plastic bags when he hears the front door handle shimmy and open. Within seconds, Harry, Niall, and Liam bustle through, rucksacks on their backs and grocery bags weighing them down.

“Hi,” Louis chirps, sneaking behind them to close the door before too much cold air gets in. The place is still warming up-- Perrie had found the heating switch right away-- but they didn’t need to help it get colder by any means.

“Hi,” Harry breathes.

“Hey, Tommo,” Liam says, clapping him on the shoulder. Niall nods his hello, and hurls the groceries down as fast as he can.

“Glad I didn’t give you the bag with the eggs,” Harry says quietly, as he moves to unload his bags as well. He grabs Niall and Liam’s rucksacks, and carries them over to a spare room.

Louis unpacks those groceries, while he’s at it, pulling out the carton of eggs, the onion, the milk, the box of Cheerios, the bananas, laying them out on the counter.

Liam and Niall move away to chat with the girls, and Louis hears the dull sound of their conversation mixed with Niall’s loud laugh.

Harry rounds back into the kitchen to see Louis putting the milk in the fridge.

“Oh, you didn’t have to,” Harry says. Louis looks up at him.

“It’s no hardship, mate,” Louis says.

Harry smiles, and moves to put some of the non-perishables in the cabinets. Louis’ not sure why, since they’ll only be here for two days, not nearly long enough to move in, but he chalks it up to nesting.

“I’m glad you guys did some shopping as well. If it were up to Pez, we’d be eating bickies the entire weekend.”

Harry laughs, his nose crinkling. “Liam would have cried.”

“Oh, I wish you hadn’t done shopping then,” Louis laughs. “He takes our coach’s diet so seriously.”

Harry glances over at Louis, and Louis feels Harry’s eyes look him up and down. Louis’ not quite sure how to take that. Sure, Harry’s grown up a bit, lost a little of the baby fat that filled out his cheeks, and sure, he snogs blokes at parties now, but Harry’s not… sexual. Not in Louis’ eyes at least.

“I’ll make sure to cook up something really unhealthy then,” Harry says, turning back to the cabinets.

Harry opens and shuts each cabinet, rummaging through their remains. “Didn’t need that pasta,” he mutters to himself, holding an extra box of fettuccini. “Good, good, plenty of oil. Oh god, who knows how long that box of Coco Pops has been there.”

“You are aware you’re talking to yourself, yeah?” Louis asks, leaning up against the counter.

“No, I’m not,” Harry laughs, but he’s turning red. “I’m talking to you.”

“Will you be cooking supper or will we be ordering takeaway?” Louis asks while he picks at the bed of his nails.

Harry hops down from the counter, and Louis looks up, startled from the noise. Harry’s face looks affronted, as if the mere mention of takeaway undermined all of Harry’s being.

“I’ll cook,” he said. “Would hate to have done all of this shopping just to eat Chinese for two days.”

Louis grabs one of the several cases worth of beer from the fridge, and holds it out to Harry. Harry takes it, and Louis grabs another one for himself. He pops the top off with the opener he keeps on his keychain, and passes it back to Harry.

“Fair enough,” Louis says with a wink. “Trust me, you don’t want me near an open flame.”

“How do you feel about something with pasta?” Harry asks. “I’ll make something fancier tomorrow, maybe, but that’ll kind of please everyone, I think.”

“I’m fine with it. Should I ask the others?”

Harry waves him off. “They’ll eat what I give them,” he sighs.

Louis stands there awkwardly as Harry gathers the onion and peppers and pulls the chicken back out from the fridge.

“Do you need help?” he asks, even though he had basically just told Harry that he was a walking disaster in the kitchen.

Harry looks over, smiling, and nods. He looks very… endearing, Louis decides. Endearing is the word.

“Can you boil water?” Harry asks.

“Oh, can I,” Louis repeats. “Actually, that’s a good question,” he finishes with a wink. Harry rolls his eyes.

Harry kicks his leg out to gesture to Louis where the pots and pans are, and Louis goes digging for one that looks about a good size. The clanks and bangs are overwhelming and annoying, and Louis just grabs a big one, even without its lid.

He fills it up with water and puts it on the stovetop, turning the burner until the flame flickers up.

“Can you put a little salt in that?” Harry asks as he’s washing the raw chicken.

“The water?” Louis asks. Harry nods.

“And a splash of oil,” Harry adds, though he looks like he doesn’t want to say it.

“Of course,” Louis says, reaching around for the bottle of olive oil. His wrist slips a little, so more comes out than he wants, but Harry doesn’t say anything, so he shrugs it off. He grinds some salt into the warming water, and then turns back to Harry.

“Is that some fancy technique?” Louis asks with a wink.

“Oh yes,” Harry responds dryly, “fancy technique they teach in GCSEs.”

Louis laughs, and Harry grins at him.

“Are you going to do A levels for food, then?” he asks.

Harry nods.

Louis is not surprised. As long as he’s known Gemma, and by proxy Harry, Harry has always been in the kitchen, whether it was helping his mum cook supper or baking fresh biscuits. Every now and then Gemma will show up to the canteen at school with a baggie of something sweet.

“I mean, granted I get in to sixth form,” Harry adds.

Louis laughs, loudly.

“Oh, please. You’re a Styles, of course you’ll get in. You’re nothing like me, who with some divine force of Something, scraped enough GCSEs to get in. You’ll be fine.”

Harry shrugs, but smiles anyway.

He moves to slice the chicken, his blade sliding effortlessly through the breasts.

“I’m feeling the urge to make jokes about you being good with breasts,” Louis says. “Does that happen to you often?”

Harry completely cracks up, has to put his knife down really, and he looks at Louis like he’s lost it.

“Good with breasts?” he repeats, sounding winded, as his giggles slow down. He gets very serious. “No.”

Now it’s Louis’ turn to giggle.

“My mates make breast jokes a lot, though. ‘Are you a thigh man or a breast man?’ Stuff like that. You’re much funnier, though,” Harry adds quietly.

Louis, of course, lives for the times where he’s called funny, so he preens.

He notices the water start to bubble, so he nudges Harry.

“Holding a knife,” Harry reminds him.

“It’s boiling. What should I do?” Louis asks.

Harry’s eyes are bright as he laughs at Louis. “Put the pasta in.”

“Which pasta?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Harry says. “Do the fettuccini, I suppose.”

“Nice, thank you for the direction,” Louis says. “I think you overestimate my kitchen skills.”

“I really don’t,” Harry says, and Louis grins.

Louis loves this version of Harry. Harry’s been so quiet ever since Louis first became friends with Gemma, Louis had no idea that this wry side of him existed. Giving each other shit like this makes Louis feel more like Harry’s friend and less like… the out-of-place friend of a sibling. It’s nice.

Louis pours the pasta in, stepping back as some of the boiling water splashes.

“Oh, go sit over there,” Harry says, placing his hands on Louis’ waist as he pushes Louis away from the stove.

Louis hates how long it’s been since he’s kissed a guy. That’s the excuse he’s using for why he can feel Harry’s hands on him long after Harry’s turned back to the stove.

Niall comes bustling in the kitchen as soon as he hears the sizzle of the chicken hitting the hot pan, bits of hot oil spitting angrily at Harry.

“What are you making?” Niall asks, peering over Harry’s shoulder.

“Out,” Harry says, pushing Niall away with one hand, not bothering to take his eyes off the pan.

Niall makes a face at Louis, and Louis grins. Niall grabs a banana and an armful of beer bottles and bolts back to the others.

Harry pulls what looks like pre-minced garlic out of the fridge with a pained look on his face. “It’s for the best,” he says, to himself or to Louis, and he drops some on to the hot pan. It pops and sizzles, and Louis breathes deep, because there’s nothing he loves more than the smell of cooking garlic. Harry throws the onions and peppers in there, and lets them heat up. Louis watches the curve of Harry’s shoulder blades as he grinds the salt and pepper over the food.

“Seasoning is the key,” Harry says, sparing Louis a glance over his shoulder. Louis looks up quickly, hoping he hadn’t been caught. But Harry’s attention focuses again on his pan, stirring the ingredients.

“I didn’t realise this was a lesson,” Louis says.

“First one’s free,” Harry responds, turning again to give Louis a quick wink. “Drain the pasta? Please?”

Louis nods and searches for a colander. He holds the pot steady as he pours the cooked pasta into it, letting the steam rise up and blind him momentarily. He breathes in, letting the steam clear his sinuses, at least.

“Cheaper than a facial,” he says, which has Harry snorting.

“Well, that really depends,” Harry snickers, eyebrows wagging.

“Harry Styles, is that a sexual reference?” Louis laughs.

“I’m only human,” he defends. “You’re the one who said it!”

“You’re the one who made it dirty,” Louis says. “I’m appalled.”

“Oh hush,” Harry says, “get that over here.”

Louis brings the cooked pasta over to Harry, muttering ‘ged ‘ere’ in his most dramatic voice in an effort to make Harry laugh. It’s successful, of course, but Louis suspects it wouldn’t take much effort at all to make Harry laugh.

“Mix, please,” Harry says, handing the wooden spoon over to Louis, while he slips away to rummage through the fridge again.

Louis stares down at the pan, unsure of what to do.

“Mix,” Harry says again, his head fully immersed in the fridge. He stands up, holding a block of parmesan cheese. “I have no idea how long this has been in here,” he admits. He takes a tentative sniff, then another, before he shrugs and moves to get the grater out of the drawer.

Harry takes the pan back from Louis, hip bumping him to the side. He stirs the vegetables and meat and pasta again, before holding the cheese and grater over the pan, and liberally adding cheese on top. Louis looks on approvingly.

“Oi,” Harry calls out. Gemma must recognise it as Harry’s dinner call, because she’s first in line, cuddling up to Louis’ side.

“Louis, you didn’t cook, right?” she asks warily.

Louis just looks at her and takes a sip of his beer.

“You know, Harry,” he says, “your sister is quite rude. I don’t think she deserves any food.”

“Don’t I know it,” Harry mumbles, laughing as Gemma kicks out at his bum.

She turns to Louis, narrowing her eyes. “Stop that. You’re supposed to be my mate.”

Louis smirks, bumping into her hip. “Load up your plate, Gem. You’re holding up the line.”

They eat dinner sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, letting the hum of syndicated Friends episodes play in the background. Louis sandwiches himself between Gemma and Perrie, but he can’t help but stare as Niall practically inhales the pasta and vegetables.

“Are you even tasting that?” Liam asks sarcastically. Niall doesn’t even waste the time to respond.

Louis looks down at his plate and forks more of it in his mouth, but he can feel someone’s eyes on him. If it’s not the girls, it must be Harry, and Louis focuses in on the plate. He doesn’t look up.

He closes his eyes after he finishes, tilting his head back to use the couch cushion behind him as a pillow. He feels someone lift the plate off his lap, and he cracks an eyes to see Perrie and Liam carrying plates to the kitchen. He hears them loading up the dishwasher, and he closes his eyes again, tuning out the argument that Gemma and Harry have over the television.

He ends up heading to the guest bedroom not long after, the combination of the school day, the drive up to the bungalow, and a couple of beers making him exhausted. He knows himself, and he knows that if he tries to stay up much longer, he’ll get cranky and turn everyone against him, so he decides to call it earlier than he normally would have.

Of course, this leads to Louis waking up at three with an overly full bladder. He rolls out of bed to see that Perrie had climbed in next to him at some point, if the mass of blonde hair on the other pillow is anything to go by.

He drags himself to the loo and takes a leak, the brightness of the overhead light waking him up. He flushes, and washes his hands of course-- he’s not an animal-- and splashes a little water on his face. He’s feeling better now, but it’s still just gone 3 and he’s wide awake. He peeks out into the living room area to see Niall sprawled on the sofa, the remote control snug under his armpit. He grabs a couple of year-old magazines from the holder by the television and moves back towards the kitchen.

He rifles through the refrigerator and freezer, trying to figure out what to eat as his midnight snack. There was some leftover pasta, some of the crisps and cakes they bought earlier, and some of that fruit, but Louis always held a belief that any midnight snack had to have an illicit feel to it. He spots a pint of ice cream sitting at the back of the freezer, and Louis digs through the bags of frozen peas to get at it. No one would miss it, he tells himself.

After sparing a glance at the stools in the kitchen, he wanders back to the toilet, lowering himself into the bathtub. It’s more comfortable than the stools, at any rate, and he doesn’t feel bad about keeping the light on.

He flips open the outdated House and Garden, and starts to thumb through it. His set-up is intricate, with the magazine propped up against his knees as he balances the pint of ice cream on his chest. Lesser men would not be able to handle it.

“What the-- oh.”

Louis looks up, caught in the act. He’s not even remotely surprised to see Harry standing in the doorway, rumpled and confused.

“Oh, hi,” Louis says, the spoon sticking out of his mouth.

“Hi,” Harry says, rubbing at his eyes. His voice is even raspier than usual.

“Just enjoying some ice cream that comes with a layer of frost about a centimetre thick,” Louis says.

Harry just nods, and moves to the toilet. Louis averts his eyes, but he can hear Harry peeing. He tries not to hear, hoping that he can at least preserve some form of toilet etiquette, but it’s useless. Harry flushes and washes his hands, for which Louis silently commends him, but instead of leaving and going back to bed, Harry moves to climb into the tub with him.

Louis blinks repeatedly at Harry, who just holds out his hand for the ice cream container.

Louis passes it over without a word, and pulls the spoon out of his mouth to do the same. He watches Harry poke at the ice cream before scooping a bit for himself.

“Wow, that really is frozen,” Harry mumbles.

“It’s thawing a little bit,” Louis says quietly, watching the way the spoon fits in Harry’s mouth when he goes for a second bite. Harry’s tongue comes out to flick at the ice cream before the spoon even goes in his mouth, which Louis finds strange.

“Couldn’t sleep?” Harry asks, looking up from the carton.

“No, no, I’ve just been dying to catch up on my House and Garden reading.”

Harry smiles.

“You did go to bed early.”

“I was exhausted,” Louis admits. “If I get too tired, I get really grumpy.”

Harry nods and takes another spoonful before passing the carton back to Louis.

Harry’s fingers are cold as Louis brushes over them to grab the ice cream.

“How’s your no-boy pact going?” Harry asks.

“What?” Louis asks. “Oh, right. Well, trust me, I don’t need a pact to keep the boys away.”

Harry laughs. “Stop,” he says.

“No, I’m serious. Obviously, I don’t want a repeat with George, and god knows James is off limits now, not that I fancied him before anyways. I can’t think of anyone else,” Louis says offhanded.

Harry smiles. “I know what you mean. But I suppose, like, it’ll get better with university,” he says trailing off.

“I don’t think I’m going to university,” Louis says, staring down at the ice cream.

Harry exhales. “Shit, I think I do remember you saying that. But I wasn’t sure if that was, y’know, decided.”

Louis shrugs. “I mean, I didn’t apply anywhere, so definitely not this year. But I don’t think I’m going at all. I don’t even really want to. I want to save up and move to London, try my hand at acting for real.”

“That sounds cool,” Harry says, reaching out and snatching the ice cream back. He even goes so far as to take the spoon out of Louis’ mouth.

“Don’t know what else to do with this Drama A-level,” Louis says, resting his head against the porcelain.

“You should act,” Harry says resolutely. “Why waste money at uni if it’s not going to be what you want, right?”

“It’s like you’re not even a Styles,” Louis laughs, nudging Harry’s knee. Harry smiles around the spoon.

“Just because Gem has been obsessed with uni since Year Nine doesn’t mean I think everyone has to go. Just go if it makes sense, you know?”

“What if I’m rubbish, though?” Louis wonders. “What if I get stuck in a job that’s complete rubbish and can’t do anything else? What if I can’t get any acting gigs and end up being a waiter for my entire life?”

“You can be a waiter, then, though between you and me, that’s probably the highest you’ll get in the restaurant field.”

“Even if it’s your restaurant?” Louis asks.

Harry grins, his dimple peeking out.

“Well, we’ll see about that. I could make you a sommelier, I suppose.”

“I don’t even know what the fuck that is,” Louis moans into the porcelain.

Harry reaches out and squeezes Louis’ calf.

“That’s okay. Actors don’t need to know that stuff. And when you’re raking in the roles in West End, I’ll come see you. I’ll even drag Gemma away from her coursework.”

Louis chuckles.

“I’ll be sure to set you up with all my actor friends.”

“Mutually beneficial,” Harry laughs. “I approve of this plan.”

“Yeah,” Louis says with a yawn. “What’s your preference? Blond? Brunet? Muscley? Lanky?”

“With a dick,” Harry laughs. “Um, brunet, I suppose. Not lanky, but not a gym rat. But someone into sports. Maybe more masculine than me, but not a crazy macho guy, you know?”

“No,” Louis says. “That was the vaguest description I’ve ever heard.”

Harry laughs, shaking his head because he knows Louis is right.

“I don’t know what you’re thinking with James, mate. He’s a brickhouse.”

“Don’t I know it,” Harry says. “Like you said, slim pickings.”

“Why’d you snog him then?”

“‘Cause I was turning sixteen and hadn’t snogged a boy. Opportunity presented itself.” Harry shrugs again. “It’s not like I found him unattractive. He’s got, y’know, abs, and like, his legs are nice. Good thighs.”

Louis gulps, and hopes it’s not noticeable. The temperature of the space between them spikes, thick with something he’s not willing to put his finger on.

“Thighs are good,” Louis agrees, though it sounds idiotic even to himself. How could he make a break from this room without it being ridiculously awkward?

“Is George your type then?” Harry asks.

Louis shrugs. “Kind of. Sort of dull, though. I don’t know. I don’t know what my type is.”

“Good thighs?” Harry laughs.

Louis nods. “Something like that.”

Louis waits a beat before unfolding himself from the tub, careful not to kick Harry. Harry blinks up at him, the spoon sticking out of his mouth.

“I’m going back to bed,” Louis says, snagging the ice cream carton. “I’ll take care of this. See you in the morning.”

Louis books it out of the room, not looking back to see Harry’s confused face, spoon still firmly in his mouth. Louis throws the ice cream back in the freezer, and practically jogs back to the guest room, where he crawls back in beside Pezza and wills himself to think of anything except Harry.

It proves easier said than done, since the rest of their weekend is made up of the boys in varying shades of undress, hopping in and out of the hot tub. The beer doesn’t help to clear his mind.

“It’s cold out here,” Perrie says, shivering in her bikini as she looks around the screened-in sun room.

“It’s February,” Gemma says. She’s not in the hot tub, but she’s cozy with a big, heavy blanket swathed around her.

“It’s warm in here,” Louis says, splashing about a little bit. Harry’s in the other corner of the hot tub, and Louis would very much value Perrie coming in and distracting him from the fact that Harry, in the last year, has lost a lot of that baby fat.

Perrie hastily slides into the tub, floating over to where Louis is.

“Much better,” she agrees. “Why are the Twists so great?” she asks Louis.

“Because their last name isn’t Styles?” Louis guesses, which earns him a splash from Harry’s corner. Louis grins over at him.

Perrie’s jeans buzz over on the floor by the doorway. Her head snaps over to look at them.

“Do you want me to get that?” Gemma asks from her chair outside the water.

“No,” Perrie says hastily. “It’s probably just mum checking up on me.”

Still, Louis notices Perrie sneak another couple glances over at it. He opens his mouth to call her out on her obvious lie, but then Harry stands up, and Louis shuts it, for fear of saying something else entirely.

Gemma throws a towel at Harry without a word, sighing as he shivers and leaves the sun room to go find Niall and Liam.

“Finally,” Gemma sighs. “So, I’ve been thinking about getting some revenge on that idiot James. What do you say?”

“I’m in,” Louis says, before Gemma even finishes voicing her thought.