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Some Things Take Root

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“I’ll take another, when you get a minute.”

Louis slides his empty bottle across the bar where Liam is wiping down a glass with a rag that looks filthy, or at least badly stained. By the looks of it he either didn’t hear him or Louis is being expertly ignored, which he probably deserves.

There’s a laugh that comes from Louis’ left, at the back of the bar where the stage is raised a couple of feet off of the floor. From August to May, the Rocking Stone is usually packed full of Duke students on any given night, but there’s no one blocking his view when he looks over on instinct, despite knowing without needing visual confirmation exactly who it came from. Dave’s face is spotlit, his alcohol-pinked cheeks and round face making him look cherubic in the right light, which is ironic. Louis scowls and looks back at Liam, speaking up this time:

“Now would be a good time for that beer, actually.”

Liam uncaps it and plunks it down in front of Louis. “Why don’t you just go home, bro?”

“What? No.” Louis gives Liam his best are you crazy nose-wrinkle, then takes a swig. Liam doesn’t know anything. “I was here first.”

“Yeah, like...four hours ago? Five hours?”

“Yeah, but I can’t leave now, like, I didn’t know he”--Louis jerks his head toward the stage--“was going to be here, and if I leave it’ll just...I mean, I don’t care if he’s here. Really.”

“Right.” Liam goes back to wiping, and mercifully does not point out how little sense Louis just made.

“I don’t like your tone,” he says, haughty, going for sarcastic and failing. He sounds tired, even to himself. “He’s just an asshole. He didn’t need to tell everyone like that.”

They’ve had this conversation countless times tonight; Louis is aware of that. He’ll thank Liam for it later, when he’s not four beers deep and heartbroken, but isn’t this what bartenders are supposed to do? Listen to people complain about their lives and shitty exes? Liam looks angelic, too, Louis thinks, with the glowing Pabst sign behind his head and Christmas twinkle lights still strung up all along the bar, six months after the fact. He can’t believe it’s been that long--he remembers Christmas, his birthday spent at Dave’s family’s house in Valdosta. He remembers six months before that, too, graduating from Duke and moving in with Dave the next day.

For some reason, Liam still engages him, attempting to be reasonable against sound evidence that Louis is far from rational at the moment. “They would’ve found out eventually, wouldn’t they?”

Louis sighs again and drops his chin onto his palm, feeling pathetic because he knows he looks it, too, and he still doesn’t care enough to sit up straight and pretend he is at all winning the break-up. A Shania Twain song reaches its soaring chorus, drowning out any motivation he had to respond to Liam’s question. He’d have to talk too loud. Too difficult.

“Another bourbon?” Liam asks.

“I’m drinking beer, thanks.”

“Not you,” Liam says, pointing to Louis’ right. “Want another, Harry?”

Louis spins on his barstool, frowning. He knows Harry, sort of--knows him like he knows the rest of the guys in Race Canyon, which is not much at all, save for Niall, and that’s only because he lives with Zayn. His last interaction with Harry was four hours ago, when Dave had announced to his band that he and Louis had broken up last week, in front of Louis, but not to Louis, which is why he refused to appear offended or leave the bar no matter how tired or drunk or hurt he was.

“I’ll have another, yeah,” Harry says. He’s English. Louis only ever hears him sing, so he forgets. He turns to Louis when Liam walks away, directing his next question at him: “You like this song?”

“Did you pick it?”

Harry grins, stands up a bit straighter. He’s wearing a stupid hat and his white t-shirt is practically transparent. Louis isn’t sure who he’s trying to impress here. “I love a bit of Shania.”

“Cool.” Louis isn’t sure what to say, really, because he’s not a rude drunk, but he doesn’t want to make small talk with the lead singer of Dave’s band.

“Do you mind if I sit down?” Harry asks, sitting down.

“Uh.”

“Thank you,” he says to Liam, so polite as he reaches for his glass with a wide smile. There are two cherries floating in the brown liquor, and Harry plucks one out by the stem, turns to Louis as puts it in his mouth. He can’t remember if he and Harry have ever had a real conversation, but nothing comes to mind, leaving him very confused as to why he’s forced to be fake-chummy with someone he knows peripherally, and only because of his ex. The same ex Louis is fairly certain is staring over at the bar, unless it’s a trick of the light.

“Want one?”

Louis blinks and looks back at Harry, who’s leaning over with a cherry dangling between his thumb and forefinger. He takes it from him, but now he’s sure that Dave really is staring at them, and he’s distracted when he pops it into his mouth and looks right back at him, past Harry’s shoulder and into the darker corner of the bar where he’s still sitting on the edge of the stage.

Harry follows his gaze, then looks back at Louis. The ice in his glass tinkles as he swirls it around on the bar. “Hey,” he says, and Louis stares at him, waiting. Harry’s lips twist, and he bares his teeth to present a knotted cherry stem pinched between them, his grin wide.

“Wow.”

“For you,” Harry says, placing it onto the bar in front of Louis. Everything Louis knows about him comes from things he’s heard from Dave, and not all of it was positive--most of it was shrouded in resentment, Louis always thought, though he’d never call Dave out on it.

“You really shouldn’t have.” Louis flicks his eyes to the back of the bar again; Dave hasn’t stopped looking at them. “I think I might go.”

But Harry stops him, shifting his body so that it blocks Louis’ view. “Can I ask you something?”

This whole thing is weird, Louis thinks, and frustrating, because he just wants to talk to Dave, and for the first time in a while he has his attention, even if it is from across a bar. Instead he’s got Dave’s tall, hat-wearing, thin-t-shirt clad English bandmate sitting beside him, making forced conversation and and performing weird pub tricks for Louis to see. He wants to say no, that Harry can’t ask him anything, but it’s a combination of curiosity and Harry’s peculiar expression that get the better of him.

“I guess so?” Louis sighs. “What is it?”

Harry takes a long, slow sip of his drink, really milking the pause as he swallows and places his glass down on the bar. He even looks back at the stage again, then at Louis, tilting his head to the side as he asks, “Does he get jealous easily?”

Louis snorts. He didn’t expect that. “Only of you.”

Harry’s eyebrows shoot up. He’s a terrible liar; Louis doesn’t believe for a second that he’s surprised. “Really?”

It’s true, though Louis didn’t fully realize it until that moment. All of Dave’s mentions of Harry since he joined the band six months prior have been delivered with the sort of contempt so unreasonable that jealousy was the obvious justification. Of course he’d be jealous of Harry; most people would, Louis imagines. He’s taller, leaner, friendlier, arguably more talented than Dave. Pity Louis didn’t fall in love with this one, he thinks. He’s probably less of a dick, too.

“Yeah,” Louis says with a shrug.

“Huh.”

There may as well be a cog turning above Harry’s head, with his eyebrows knitted together and his chin turned upward. It gives Louis a rush of anxiety just thinking about what could potentially come out of his mouth next.

“What?” There’s definitely a detectable air of annoyance in the way he prompts him, despite feeling compelled to in the first place. As perplexing as Harry’s presence at his side is, the thought of begrudging him anything seems unnecessarily difficult. He doubts he’s the first person to feel that way around him.

“I was just thinking...that was a bit awkward earlier, yeah?”

Louis stiffens at the mention. He’d been afraid that one of the guys would try to make nice with him over it, maybe attempt to assure him it wasn’t a big deal, but he didn’t think it would be Harry, who he knows the least of them all.

Harry doesn’t wait for a prompt before he continues. “Maybe he just needs to be reminded what he’s letting go of. Sometimes people get comfortable and forget, you know?”

Harry nudges him--elbows him right in the ribs--like a drunken great uncle at a family reunion or something. It’s endearing, even in his despairing state. Louis looks at him incredulously, convinced Harry’s part space alien or something because of the strange effect that he produces so easily with his company.

“I’m pretty sure he knows and still had no problem with it, so.” Louis shrugs again.

Harry hadn’t bothered to pull away after he nudged him and his body is still angled toward Louis’, one of his feet hooked around a peg of Louis’ stool instead of his own. It doesn’t take more than a sidelong glance for Louis to realize that Dave is paying even closer attention now, not even feigning discretion by averting his gaze every so often.

“Why don’t we see about that?”

“What do you mean?” Louis certainly knows what Harry’s implying, but it’s hard to imagine anyone being so bold. Then again.

Rather than elaborating, Harry sidles even closer to him to make his point, bringing his lips to his ear to speak to him even though it’s unnecessary; the bar’s always quiet save for when there’s a band onstage or when one of the patrons knocks back a few too many and decides to get rowdy.

Louis feels that same sense of anxiety start to crop up as he waits for Harry to say something. He figures it’ll be about whatever this plan that Harry’s trying to hatch is, or--god forbid--some sort of actual come on, since the night apparently wants to become exceedingly uncomfortable for him. Harry’s breath hits him below the ear, bourbon-warm and tickling at him, as he finally speaks and manages to surprise him once again.

“Knock knock.”

A laugh bubbles out of Louis, curt, more of a snort than anything, before he quickly remembers that he’s miserable and embarrassed. Still, whether it’s intrigue or that he has nothing to lose, he looks up at Harry and makes an effort to move closer to him, whispering back toward his ear like he’s saying something far more meaningful than, “Who’s there?”

“Me.”

“Me who?”

He didn’t think Dave’s gaze could get more penetrating, but it does. It feels more like before, like the nights he’d looked at him hungrily from onstage, telling him with his eyes that he couldn’t wait to take him home. As absurd as the idea had sounded out loud, Louis wonders if maybe Harry’s onto something after all.

“No, seriously. It’s just me. I’m telling a knock knock joke,” Harry dead-pans.

He grins. Everything about him looks far too pleased and Louis rolls his eyes, though to his credit, he tries his best to make sure it comes across as fond, because Dave’s still watching them.

His beer has been forgotten on the counter too long in front of him. He picks it up, chugging back what’s left so that he can start making an effort to go. The little show he’d put on with Harry had been interesting, but not enough to lend credence to it having any actual impact on his relationship status, or lack thereof. Making an exit before things get weirder seems like the only viable option for how to proceed.

“Alright, alright. Think it’s time for me to take my wallowing elsewhere.”

“Let me walk you out,” Harry suggests, wiping off a liquor mustache with the back of his hand and making a move to get up before Louis can assure him it’s not necessary. He places his hand between Louis’ shoulder blades as they start to walk out, letting it rest there for too long for it to be called an accident, but the touch is gone by the time they’re outside in the muggy early Summer night, the squeaky wooden door swinging shut behind them.

“Are you driving?” Harry asks, his voice clear and deep in the quiet night. There’s a Triumph motorcycle parked right in front of the door, and Harry walks toward it, lifting the helmet off of the bike seat.

“No, I rode my bike here.” Louis points to where it’s locked onto a rack by the curb. The thought of biking over to Zayn’s, again, makes his chest ache, but not more than the thought of going home tonight. Still, it’s shitty; he’s been stupid to think that a whisper in his ear from another guy would send Dave running out after him. The door hasn’t opened, though, and Louis doesn’t expect it to.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Louis says, annoyed at the implication that he could be too drunk to bike home. He might be, but Zayn’s house is only a few blocks away.

Harry shrugs and straddles the padded leather seat of the motorcycle, securing his helmet underneath his chin. “See you around, then?”

The engine revs and the ground vibrates and Louis stares as he shoves his u-lock into his back pocket, lifting one hand to wave him off. He didn’t even know he rode a motorcycle. He still doesn’t know much about him, but he knows he has him to thank for that look in Dave’s eye, which is something he’ll need to explore more thoroughly when he’s more awake and preferably more sober.

Weird, he thinks. What a weird night.

In the end he walks his bike to Zayn’s. The night is warm but not uncomfortable, so he decides to take the long way in hopes that Dave might have followed after him to apologize for earlier. It’s such a stupid fantasy, so unrealistic that Louis doesn’t really believe, even for a second, that it’s a possibility--but if it does happen, if Dave does come after Louis to see that he made it home safe, Louis doesn’t want to miss it.

But of course he’s alone when he arrives at Zayn’s and tiptoes inside, and he’s alone when he curls up on the couch covered in bedsheets, his makeshift bed for the last week. He dozes off feeling dizzy and exhausted, his head full of bourbon smells and Dave’s eyes and the sound of an engine roaring in the distance as he falls asleep.

*

Louis wakes up to the tick of a lighter being struck twice before it catches and sizzles, the telltale sound of Zayn lighting a morning bowl. He blinks against the light--it hurts--and sits up onto his elbows. The couch isn’t uncomfortable, but he wakes up with a kink in his neck every morning, which is really accentuating the hangover headache very nicely. Zayn’s in his boxers on the adjacent chair, a cup of tea steaming on the table beside him, exhaling a puff of smoke through his mouth and nose at once.

He coughs before he speaks: “You were out late last night.”

“I’m an idiot.” Louis groans and swallows thickly. His mouth tastes like something died in it overnight. “Have you seen my phone?”

“Floor,” Zayn says, pointing with his middle finger before lighting up again.

Bending over is a nightmare, and there’s a terrible moment where he considers just sliding to the floor and starting a new life there, but the room mercifully stops spinning once he lies back, phone in hand, and squints at it with one eye shut. He has no missed calls, but there’s one new text from Dave: what was that tonight?

“Oh, fuck.”

“What?” Zayn looks at him, eyebrows raised.

“It was really weird, last night, I saw Dave, and...I sort of let that guy, Harry, the singer? He was kind of flirting with me when I was drunk, and now Dave’s jealous, I guess.”

Zayn shrugs and puts the bowl down, his grin lazy. “That’s not a bad thing, is it?”

Well, no, Louis thinks. It turns out that’s kind of perfect, actually. Dave’s jealousy is enough fuel to get off of the couch and into the shower, because he has to go back to his old house to pick up some fresh clothes, and if he’s going to run into him, he can’t look quite as fucked up as he feels.

The text goes unanswered, then. For now. He has a hunch he’ll see Dave there, but it’s not the anticipation of it that makes Louis’ heart race as he bikes over to his old house. It’s the memory of how drunk and agreeable he’d been the night before, letting Harry lead Dave into thinking they were actually flirting. Harry doesn’t owe him anything, so why would he go out of his way to help Louis get under his skin? Is he always so charitable toward near-strangers?

Parking his bike at the house makes Louis realize how much he misses living there, despite the memories of it being tainted with more bad than good after the last few months. He hasn’t been there since the day he left, almost two weeks ago. The lawn needs mowing and there’s mail sticking out of the box, but he’s more interested in the tell-tale sound of Dave’s drums thudding from inside, mingling with bass and guitar and--shit. Vocals.

Band practice. Louis completely forgot.

He locks his bike up and lets himself inside, wondering if he could possibly get away with seeing no one while he stuffs some t-shirts and a pair of Vans into his backpack. Their bedroom looks the same as when he left, except messier. There’s a mug on the nightstand that Louis put there the night before they broke up, which means he hasn’t done dishes in that long. Dave is the only person Louis knows who makes as much of a clutter as he does; somehow, he still finds it endearing.

The wood floor creaks from the hallway and Louis’ head whips around, eyes wide. He gets up, bag in hand, and pokes his head into the hallway.

“Hi, mate.” Harry’s behind him when Louis spins around, still wearing that black hat and a wide grin, shoving his hands into the front pockets of his very tight jeans. “Alright?”

“Um.” Louis starts to laugh, shrugging and slinging his bag over his shoulder. “Just had to get some stuff.”

“I see you made it home in one piece.” Harry keeps his voice down, too, like he knows Louis was trying to make a quick exit before he got caught.

“Yeah,” he nods, then glances toward the closed basement door, where he can hear Niall warming up and an occasional hiss from the cymbals. “Hey, uh, do you know if Dave is coming up?”

“Don’t think so,” Harry shakes his head. “I just had to use the toilet.” But he leans against the wall, comfortably, apparently content to forego it until Louis’ finished talking to him. “Did you hear from him last night?”

It’s still weird, he thinks, that Harry has a sudden interest in their break-up, but he’s the only person who’s actually asked him about it. Everyone else is worn out on the slightly one-sided conversations he’s had to offer of late. “He texted me, actually.”

Harry walks over, smiling wide as Louis reaches for his phone to show him Dave’s text. He cups his hand around Louis’ so he can read it, then stands up straight again, snorting. “Well, that worked.”

“Sort of,” Louis admits. “It’s fine.”

“Right.” Harry stares at him until Louis fidgets. His dedication to eye contact is admirable and unsettling.

What?”

“Nothing,” Harry says quickly, then looks over Louis’ shoulder. “Hey, Dave.”

Louis’ stomach drops, and he hopes, he prays that he’s joking, but when he looks over his shoulder it’s Dave that’s standing there with his hand still on the doorknob, eyebrows raised. It’s hard not to react at all to the hurt written on his face, but Louis keeps his expression steady and turns to look right at him, slipping his phone back into his pocket.

“I’m on my way out. Just needed some of my stuff,” he says, lifting his bag to prove it. It’s more satisfying than Louis ever expected it to be, watching him trying hard not to be jealous. He doesn’t entirely understand why it’s happening, but if it helps him maintain an upper hand following two terrible weeks post-break-up, he’ll take it.

“Yeah, it’s whatever,” Dave shrugs, trying so hard to be nonchalant as he shuffles into the kitchen. Louis watches him go, and when he looks back, Harry’s grin is so wide he ought to be ashamed of it. It’s so apparent that he’s not.

“Where do you get off on this?” Louis asks him, his voice low.

Harry just lifts a shoulder and keeps smiling. “How do you know I don’t have an ex like him?”

“Oh.” Louis laughs, wondering why he didn’t think of that sooner. He can hear Dave in the kitchen, turning on the coffee pot and humming to himself, and part of his heart tugs at the familiarity of it. He spent a year’s worth of mornings in that kitchen, he thinks.

“Hey,” Harry says softly, nudging him on the arm. His expression looks almost sympathetic.  “Let me give you my number.”

He’s a fucking enigma. Louis doesn’t ask why, not when Dave is on his way out of the kitchen and there to see that very important exchange. Louis stands out of the way so Dave can stomp down the stairs, and lets Harry enter his number into his phone, watching his fingers tap it out, watches him search long and hard for the proper emoji to add to the end of his name. The shrimp wins.

Harry

The garden center had been surprisingly quiet for such a warm morning. Harry was knee-deep in a mound of bark mulch, getting splinters in places he didn’t realize he could when he was approached by the first customer of the day. The only thing in his line of vision was a pair of scuffed black Vans--the toe of one tapping expectantly, already impatient to just get on with it despite not having been made to wait even a full minute.  

“Can I help you with something?” Harry asked, tugging his gloves off and letting them fall down on his pile of already filled bags. He almost groaned when he stood up, not just because of his back muscles fighting him on the stretch, but...it wasn’t often someone so young and good-looking wandered in while he was at work. His pointed features wore a look that matched his fidgeting feet, obviously anxious to be anywhere else.

“Mums, I guess. For my mom. She’s redoing her garden or something.”

“Mums for mum, then.” Harry had laughed at his own joke and dusted his hands together, hooking his thumb over his shoulder to point out the pots dotted with coral and orange and white. “Come on, we’ll find her something good.”

He had actually rolled his eyes as Harry had led the way and, almost certainly, Harry should have found it rude. He should have been ready to send him on his way so he could get back to work, but he hadn’t been. After dealing with haughty professors before he’d left Duke and some of the insufferably entitled types that came in and were more than generous with their demands, Harry could tell the difference. If there was anything genuinely prickly about him, he wore it well.

“Tell me that’s not one of your missing sleeves around your head,” the guy said. He was grinning that time and it made Harry grin with him, sheepishly, refusing to cop to it even though the matching pattern of flannel in his hair did enough to give him away.

Harry found it all incredibly attractive. They’d just met and he’d already taken the piss out of him twice. That was one of the things he’d missed most since moving away from his mates in Holmes Chapel--the banter, the ease with which they could make a joke at his expense. For all the things he loved about North Carolina, he hadn’t really made new friends like that.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“It’s Louis.”

Rather than parroting the question back to him, Louis had left it at that. And then resumed his fidgeting. Harry was certain that he would have made a show of checking his watch had he been wearing one.

“Right. Nice to meet you, Louis. So, I suppose...uh...”

He had a knack for picking out the best plants from the lot. They weren’t necessarily the furthest bloomed or the most pristine, just the ones with the most charm--ones that he knew would turn into something great. It didn’t take him long to pluck out four pots, taking each out from their row and setting them on the sidewalk for Louis’ approval.

“What do you think?”

Louis looked baffled. “They all look the same, don’t they?”

“I wouldn’t say so, no.” Harry smiled as he bent down to feel the soil in one of the planters. It was still a bit damp from the spritz of water they’d received when he’d gotten in that morning. “I think these have a bit of character.”

“You think they have personality?”

“Don’t they? That one looks happy.”

“I’ll tell my mom you said that,” Louis said, mouth twitching. “I’ll take those ones, I’ve just...I gotta get going.”

Harry took him into the shop and rang him up, rifled around behind the counter for sample packets of Zinnia seeds for Louis to take home while he tried to work up the nerve to ask him something: for his number, to hang out. He was so blindly attracted to him that he hadn’t even been sure what he wanted from him, exactly. It was just weird for him to have to stall or consider things. He’d never been shy about things like that before.

“So,” Harry started, coming out from behind the counter. “Do you--”

“Hey, not to be a dick, but I’m sort of in a hurry.”

“Oh, sorry. No, that’s fine--”

“Yeah, I just, I have to get my boyfriend’s truck back, and he’s....”

All his apprehension felt even stupider once he heard it. Boyfriend. Oh.

After awkwardly producing a few envelopes, Harry helped to carry the planters out, positioning them in the corner of the truck bed.

“Well, thanks for your help.” Louis stood in the open space of the door, shooting a half-hearted smile in Harry’s direction.

“Yeah, yeah, course. Anytime.”

“Thanks again,” Louis said, waving.

“See you soon.” What? He wouldn’t, but he couldn’t seem to stop talking. “Come see us again.” Seriously, what was he talking about?

Harry lifted a hand to wave his goodbye, watching Louis from the curb as he shut himself into the truck and revved the engine. He’d barely pulled off before Harry was turning on his feet, clutching his dirty hands arounds his cheeks and laughing miserably at himself. “Oh, fuck me.”

Harry’s phone buzzes on the counter in front of him, scaring the shit out of him. He’s been eating the same bowl of Cheerios for a half hour and thinking about the first time he met Louis, about how he never really anticipated that he’d see him again after that. He’s fairly sure that Louis doesn’t remember that they’ve met before. He doesn’t know if it’s exactly serendipitous that he ended up in a band with the guy he’d been jealous of before ever having met, or that now he’s been trying to produce the same effect on him.

He’s surprised to find that Louis is actually the one texting him when he swipes his thumb over the lock screen and reads the message that’s just come in: At Java Jungle and Dave’s here with another guy.

The thing is, he shouldn’t go. He started it, well beyond encouraged it, but it wasn’t smart to involve himself in a situation that he has nothing to do with, especially not when he hadn’t bothered to think through how getting close would make him feel. That night at the Rocking Stone, he’d been annoyed with Dave on Louis’ behalf, and had wanted to try and smooth things out in any way that he could. It just happened to work out in a way he didn’t anticipate.

Making the smart choice has become something that Harry’s increasingly aware that he rarely opts for, so he texts Louis back to tell him he’ll be there in ten minutes without bothering to ask for details.

Dave’s truck is parked out front when Harry pulls up, finding a space for his motorcycle and locking his helmet to the back of it. It’s almost become tell-tale of wherever Louis is to see his bike locked up somewhere outside of the building.

Harry wonders if Dave notices that, too; if he saw that Louis was there and decided to bring someone else around, anyway. The annoyance he feels at the thought makes him stiffen up.

When he steps past someone coming out on the way in, he sees Dave and said mystery guy in the far corner of the shop, but pretends he doesn’t. Louis is sitting closer to the window, looking out like he’s waiting for someone. Maybe him.

“Hey.” Harry grins, sauntering up to where he’s sitting, confident like he’s had more than a few conversations with him in his life.

Louis looks up from his mug, raising his eyebrows and smiling a bit, looking on curiously while Harry tries as discreetly as he possibly can to lure him up with just a look. It takes a second, but he gets it, finally, and pushes himself out of his seat to wind his arms around Harry’s shoulders. It’s the quickest hug ever, maybe, and Harry notices that Louis has to stand on his toes to do it.

“Took you long enough,” Louis says, sitting back down. He smiles through gritted teeth, playing along, but not terribly.

“Were you here first?”

“Yeah, why?”

“What an asshole.” Harry shakes his head, lifting the rim of his hat up to sort some of his hair back before letting it fall down toward his forehead again. “Rubbing it in your face like that.”

Louis seems skeptical. “I don’t know if he was trying to do that.”

It’s not Harry’s place to insult Dave. He’s not the warmest person he’s ever met, but he also hasn’t been anything but decent to him. They’ve collaborated on a couple of songs, though Harry writes most of them himself. He wouldn’t call them friends, really, though they’re closer to it than he and Louis are at this point. What bothers him is how quickly Louis jumps to Dave’s defense when he clearly hasn’t showed the same amount of concern over him.

There’s no use in arguing about it, so Harry concedes. “Suppose not.”

Tension starts to creep up on them, and it’s the last thing that Harry wants, especially not when the feel of Louis’ body huddling into his for those few seconds had made him sure he’d do anything to make the situation work, never mind that it could actually be successful. Dave might start to want Louis back. As it stands, Harry thinks he’s crazy for letting go of him in the first place.

One of the baristas comes up, refills Louis’ hot water for tea and takes Harry’s order for an iced one. The interruption is brief, but somehow manages to restore them to their default state; still tentative around one another, but without any notable weirdness.

Louis keeps stealing glances over toward Dave’s corner of the cafe, and it’s kind of ruining the effect. “Hey,” Harry says again, until Louis’ eyes meet his. They’re bright blue, but he looks tired, a bit worn. Harry can only imagine how he looks at his best. “Smile at me.”

He does the opposite, his brows narrowed. “Why?”

Harry kicks him on the foot and smiles his widest, trying to get the ball rolling. “Do I need to tell you another knock knock joke? I’ve got a really wide range of them.”

Louis’ mouth twists in something better than a smile; something that feels like a reward, since he’s trying not to. “Please don’t.”

“That’s better.” Harry leans back in his chair, turning his gaze up toward the girl who sets his sweet tea down on the table between them. “Thanks, love,” he says to her, then back to Louis: “Probably not gonna make him jealous if you look miserable around me.”

It’s a wonder Louis hasn’t caught on, because Harry certainly feels like he’s being obvious about what is possibly the strangest and longest-lasting unrequited crush he’s ever had. He wonders if Louis will ever remember him. Maybe if he brings back the torn-up flannel headband.

“Thanks for coming, by the way,” Louis says, voice low as though he’s embarrassed to say it.

“My pleasure.” Harry smiles toothily at him, winning another one of Louis’ eye-roll-half-smile combinations. He watches as Louis reaches for his mug of tea, and sees that his hands are dirty, the corners of his nails smudged with something black. He points. “What’s that there?”

“What? Oh,” he says, placing down his tea to look at his hands. “I just came from work.”

“And where’s that?”

Louis jerks his head to the left. “A few blocks over.”

“No,” Harry says, grinning, “What do you do?”

“I work on bikes. Bike mechanic,” he clarifies with a shrug, as though the title isn’t important. “Over at Lucky Bikes. You know where it is?”

Harry does. It isn’t far from where he works, but it doesn’t seem imperative that he tell him that just yet. “I do. I ride a different kind of bike, though.”

The eyeroll is actually impressive.”We’re all very aware.”

Mid-laugh, Harry hears a cough behind him and follows Louis’ gaze to see Dave--not glaring, but staring, definitely, over his mug of coffee. Harry waves at him, then frowns at Louis, making sure he’s okay, that he’s still alright with them doing…whatever this is.

“All good?”

Louis sighs and tilts his head to the side, thumbing the rim of his mug and staring down into it. “Well. He, uh, last night after I got back to Zayn’s, right? Dave called me and he just went in. He kept saying how he couldn’t believe I’d do something so low. It’s probably why that, over there, is happening.” Louis makes a quick, rancorous motion in the direction Dave and his company are.

“So, I mean…” Harry sounds calm about it, he thinks, no matter how what that knot in his stomach says. “What do you think?”

He can almost hear the words coming out of Louis’ mouth--how they have to quit, how it’s too risky and he doesn’t want Dave’s feelings to get hurt regardless of whether it kills his chances at getting him back or not.

“I mean, I think it’s working.”

Harry looks over at Dave. “I’d say so.”

“I guess it’s a good thing that he cares, but I don’t know. I just don’t want him to give up, you know?” The on me is implied.

Harry knows he should tell him that won’t happen, because no matter how much he selfishly wishes that it would--a thought that he scolds himself for thinking the second it enters his mind--he doesn’t believe it to be true. Deep down, he thinks it’ll work. He thinks Louis will get what he wants.

Too much time passes without him saying anything and he finds Louis looking at him expectantly when he lifts his eyes, smiling slightly now.

“And you know what else he said?” Louis asks, like this is the part he’s been saving for last.

“Yeah?”

“He said you’d be over me in a heartbeat, anyway.”

It’s so awful that Harry wants to laugh. Instead, he looks over at Dave, finds Dave looking over at them, and doesn’t hesitate to slid his hand across the surface of the table to cover both of Louis’ smaller ones.

“We’ll just have to prove him wrong, then, yeah?”

*

It’s Harry’s first June in North Carolina, and he’s not really prepared for how oppressive the heat is during the day. He just sweats, a lot, but so does everyone else. He takes two showers a day, sometimes three, depending on how disgusting he feels after he gets home from work. He gets a sunburn on his cheeks that quickly turns to a tan, and at the garden center he and his coworkers swap an industrial sized tube of spf 75, reapplying it every hour like it’ll keep them alive.

Nights, though, are another story. There’s something about a muggy, warm night that feels almost like he’s getting away with something too special. Everyone else must know it, too, because bars are lively even with school out of session, and people spend entire nights on their porch, drinking and smoking and listening to music until the sun comes up and they retreat into their air conditioned houses. Harry likes that part--the staying out and staying up late, usually around Niall’s and Zayn’s house, but often at the Rocking Stone, too. They have a residency there; Thursday nights belong to Race Canyon.

Sometimes the crowd is good. Sometimes it’s rubbish. No matter what, though, Louis shows up to see them, usually toward the end, and Harry sings entire verses to him, sometimes entire songs, if he needs something to anchor him to it. He usually sits at the bar and chats with Liam, only coming over in between sets to talk to him, playing up the laughs in front of Dave, just like Harry told him to do.

Their conversations aren’t so forced anymore, after two weeks of strained conversation each time they happened to be at the same place. Harry isn’t sure that he’d call them friends yet, seeing as they haven’t spent much time alone together--but still, there’s a certain intimacy that comes with holding someone’s hand in public. There’s a certain gravity to it, or else Harry’s just reading into it too much.

No, he’s definitely reading into it too much.

That’s all they’ve done. Harry’s held Louis’ hand--his much smaller, work-calloused hand in his own, he’s linked their fingers, he’s kissed the back of it, even, just to see how Louis would react, but Louis only watches Dave when he does that, and drops it quickly if he isn’t paying close enough attention.

That’s fine, though. That’s what Harry expects him to do.

It turns out they have a friend in common, as well, though Harry doesn’t find that out until two weeks after their meeting at the coffee shop. Niall invites him over to watch a movie on a rainy night, says he has beer and is ordering pizza with his roommate Zayn and a few other people. He stuffs a six pack into his saddlebag and zips over in no time, the warm breeze so soothing on his face, fireflies glowing and fading around him as he pulls up to the Niall’s place.

He’s been there a lot in the last six months. Niall is a treasure.

Six pack in hand, he heads to the front porch, fist raised to knock when he sees a familiar blue bicycle locked up to the railing.

Niall answers, grinning, holding a can of beer in a cozy. “Hey, buddy.”

A chorus of heys and hellos echoes from the living room, where Zayn and Liam and, yes, Louis, are all squeezed onto one couch. A jar of salsa is open on the coffee table in front of them next to a packed bowl and a lighter and a mess of beer cans. They seem comfortable, like none of them have stood up in a while and might be permanently bonded to their places on the couch. Louis’ gaze doesn’t linger on him any longer than Zayn’s or Liam’s, and after a second they’re all facing the telly again, only half-paying attention at Gordon Ramsay’s face all red and screwed up as he yells about chicken.

“This is the film you’re watching?” he asks, placing the six pack on the kitchen counter.

“Got a problem with Gordon Ramsay?” Liam grins, looking over. “He’s English, isn’t he?”

“Do you think all English people just love each other?”

Louis snorts, and Harry grins wide, too pleased with his own joke as he uncaps a beer.

“One more slice of pizza in there,” Niall says, nodding toward a box on his way back into the living room. The four of them just barely fit onto the couch, and Harry knows he’ll have to sit on the recliner alone, which he does, grumpily, pizza and beer in hand.

Zayn looks kind of stoned and Niall seems fine and Liam looks like a cherubic drunk baby and Louis looks exhausted, actually. Harry doesn’t think he’s ever seen him quite so withdrawn before, curled up in a ball on the edge of the couch with his head tilted to the side so it can rest on the arm of the sofa in a way that looks painful.

He pokes Louis on the arm with the lip of the bottle after he takes a sip. “Look alive, mate.”

“What?” Louis seems surprised at the touch, as though he’d been woken from a Kitchen Nightmares-induced daze. He relaxes again, shoulders slumping once he realizes that it was Harry. “I’m just fucking tired, really.”

“Do you not have a bedroom here?”

The chatter between the rest of the guys is loud enough to keep their conversation somewhat private, but Louis still drops his voice when he answers. “I’ve been sleeping on the couch.”

Unsurprisingly, the telly goes largely ignored and the conversation gets louder and louder as the boys drink more and get into progressively dumber arguments (the latest: the proper way to pronounce the word pen, which leads to a raucous round of penis jokes). Harry’s very conscious of his drive home, so he only has a couple of beers and enough salsa on chips to soak it all up.

Doing a favor for Louis ought not to constitute a general concern for his well being, but Harry can’t help checking on him when he isn’t looking, watching the way his back stiffens when he gets up, how he keeps yawning into the corner of his arm, clearly waiting for the party to break up so that he can pass out on the couch. Zayn gets there first, anyway; he’s awake one minute and snoozing the next, peacefully and beautifully with his arms folded across his chest.

Niall looks fondly at him, then to Louis. “You might be fucked for a bed tonight, Lou.”

“He sleeps like a dead man,” Louis says to Harry, punctuating it with a yawn. “Gonna take the four of us to wake him up.”

“Actually, wait,” Harry says, reaching for Louis’ wrist as he starts to stand up. After the look he gets, he drops it just as quickly. “I have an extra bed.”

There’s not even a courtesy pause. “No.”

“So you’d prefer the floor?”

“To a stranger’s bed? Yeah, actually.”

“Okay,” Harry starts, gesturing in the universal just hear me out way. “My housemate is never home, I swear. He’s probably slept in it four times since I moved in. C’mon.” Harry slaps his thigh and gets up, jerking his head toward the door, but Louis doesn’t move.

“Do I have to ride on the back of your motorcycle?” Even his scowl is cute. Actually, his scowl is especially cute.

“No.” Harry grins. “But you certainly can if you’re feeling brave.”

“I’ll borrow Niall’s truck, I think.” Louis sniffs and starts toward the door, clapping Niall on the back on his way. Amazingly, Niall doesn’t resist or attempt to tell Louis that, no, he can’t borrow his car. Harry is slowly learning that Louis gets away with quite a lot.

“My bag is right there,” Louis adds, pointing to an overstuffed backpack on the floor by the door, and, much like Niall, Harry does not hesitate as he reaches to pick it up and says his goodbyes with a wave on his way out.

“See you at practice!” Niall shouts, still wedged up next to Zayn, who does not move or stir at all.

Louis is already in Niall’s pick up truck, motioning to Harry mid-yawn from behind the wheel to let him know that he’s waiting to follow him. Harry is self-conscious the entire drive home; hyper-aware that Louis is watching his every move, feeling naked without the cover of a car roof. He’d do this for any of his friends, he thinks. It’s a favor. Louis deserves a bed. He can’t offer him much, but he can offer him that.

Harry’s neighborhood is more spread out than Niall’s is, with bigger front yards and more distance between each house. Fireflies blink and fade as he pulls onto the front lawn, and the crickets sound just as loud as his engine after he turns it off. The front of his house illuminates and then fades when Louis pulls into the driveway and then turns off the truck, hopping down and sighing.

“Nice place,” he says, courteous, but Harry’s had enough stilted conversations with him to know when he’s being genuine. He thinks he hears it in his voice.

“Yeah,” Harry nods. He tucks his helmet under his arm as they walk side by side up the porch stairs. “I really love it here, actually. Way different to the house I grew up in.”

The front door opens with a creak and he waves Louis in first, flicking the light switch after him.

“So there’s your couch,” Harry says, pointing to the one in the living room.

What?” Louis spins to look at him, ready to argue. Harry’s face gives it away. “Oh. Fuck you.”

A fond ‘fuck you’ is genuinely a quality that Harry looks for in all of his friends; back in England, it’s a daily occurrence. Louis is the first person he’s met in the States who offers up those laughs at Harry’s expense, but never in a way that’s actually mean.

Harry clears his throat. “Are you ready for the grand tour?”

“Are you going to do that voice the entire time?”

“That’s just how I speak, Louis,” he says, amping up the trills so he sounds like every butler he’s ever seen on telly. “It’s extremely charming.”

Louis prods him in the back, and Harry smiles as they make their way through the hall, pointing out the toilet and then his own room and then finally Jeff’s, which is clean and mostly empty.

“Look at that,” Louis says. “A real bed.”

“It’s got pillows, and everything.”

“I see that.”

“And probably only, like, three or four come stains on the sheets.”

“Is it three or is it four, Harry?” Louis turns to him, folding his arms across his chest. “Because I draw the line at four.”

“I can’t be certain.” Harry grins wide, staring hard at Louis. He’s funny. It’s awful. “Hey, do you need anything else before I leave you to it?”

“I don’t think so, no.” Louis sits on the edge of the bed, toeing off his oil-stained Vans. He looks up at Harry, puffy-eyed, forcing a slightly awkward smile. “Thank you again.”

Harry waves him off. He has the strangest, strongest urge to stand right in the doorway and make sure Louis falls asleep comfortably. He frowns and tries to shake it off as he backs up with his hand on the doorknob. “Get some sleep.”

One last look and Harry shuts the door behind him. He’s felt vaguely in over his head since that first night at the bar--or before that, even, just less so because that was back when all he knew about Louis was his name and that he had a boyfriend. It’s so much worse now that he knows how cold his hands get and that he prefers Marvel to DC and that he has a proclivity for mischief.

He sighs. It’s just that knowing Louis is sleeping under the same roof is more difficult than he expected when he made the friendly offer to give him a bed for the night. It doesn’t do anything to quell his constant desire to be close to him, and he’s running out of justifiable reasons to be.

Louis

He doesn’t even care if Dave sees his bike locked up to the railing of Harry Styles’ front porch. He hopes it makes him feel like shit. Anger is easier than being sad, so Louis embraces it and throws some spite in there, too. Whenever he considers giving up the act, he reminds himself of the way it felt when Dave ended things so suddenly--when he gave up on them--and lets that rile him up when sadness threatens to trump his frustration.

Harry keeps saying, “make yourself at home,” but none of his things are there. Sure, Harry’s house is clean and beautiful and cozier, somehow, than his and Dave’s ever managed to be. Sure, Harry’s absent roommate’s bed is like sleeping on a cloud. There’s still no replacement, though, for that sense of ownership he used to get at his own place, the knowledge he took advantage of when he still lived there. Nothing at Harry’s is his own, no matter how many times Harry stresses the opposite.

For two days Louis tries his best to convince Harry that h’ll be out soon, but he won’t hear any of it. There’s plenty of room, he insists, and it’s just temporary. Louis has a difficult time accepting favors, but it’s one of the nicest offers made to him in recent memory, and a bedroom to himself is preferable to a couch in a living room.

It’s his third morning there, and he has the house to himself when he wakes up. Harry is at work, he thinks; his black Chelsea boots are placed neatly on the rug by the front door, and his muddy sneakers are gone. There’s no reason he should feel strange about being left there without a goodbye, but he pouts for a minute, wondering why he wouldn’t give him a heads up if he was going to be out. Louis doesn’t even have his own key.

They’ve missed each other over the past few days, mostly on accident, but a little on purpose. Louis doesn’t even know what their friendship--friendship?--has become, now. He’s somewhat more comfortable with the idea of using Harry as a catalyst to make Dave fight for him. The part of him that knows it’s a bad idea is being staunchly ignored, backed deep, deep into a corner of his mind that he wishes never to visit until he’s well over Dave.

Louis pours himself a glass of tea and settles into the couch, kicks his bare feet up on the coffee table. He turns on the TV and tries not to think. It’s his day off. Maybe spending it there is what it will take to make himself feel at home.

*

After four days, Louis can’t take it much longer. He finds Harry in the bathroom, doing something weird to his hair.

“I’m thinking about coming with you to practice.”

Harry turns away from the mirror with raised eyebrows. “Okay.”

“I don’t think he knows I’m staying here.”

“Did you want me to tell him that? I reckon I could’ve…” Harry trails off and disappears into his bedroom. He comes back out a second later, sliding a belt through the loops on his waistband.

“No, no,” Louis says, shaking his head. “But I want him to know. I’ll tell him. I just want to, like, show up with you. Make it seem like we’ve been together.”

It’s not until Harry finishes his belt buckle that Louis realizes he’s been watching his long fingers fidget with it the entire time. They make eye contact and Harry grins in that frustrating, knowing way of his.

What?” Louis asks.

“You know what.” Still grinning. Louis hates it.

“Believe it or not, I don’t.”

Harry brushes by him in the hallway and goes to the door to put on his boots, really milking the pause for all it’s worth. “You’ll have to ride on the bike with me.” He glances up at him, smiling so wide he starts to laugh. “Suck it up.”

Louis groans. He’s right, of course. There are few things that would piss Dave off more than seeing his bicycle mechanic ex-boyfriend hitching a ride on his bandmates Triumph.

“Fine.”

Harry does a little fist pump in the air. Louis shoots him a look and shakes his head when Harry cackles like a villain, all too pleased with himself for getting Louis to agree. He’s been trying it for a week to no avail.   

“Don’t ever do that again.” On principle, he absolutely refuses to smile back even when Harry beams at him, showing him all of his teeth at once like an overgrown five year old.

Louis watches him with an impatient foot-tap and wonders how much more prodding his hair possibly needs before they can leave. It’s not until Harry dips his thumb into his mouth and wipes a spot off the face of his watch that Louis loses patience entirely. “Are you ready?”

Harry straightens, taking a break from his mission to hold the title of human with the world’s worst posture. “Don’t I look ready?”

“Dunno. Aren’t you missing a stupid hat or something? Maybe some chakra beads? An orange for the road?” Louis teases, and he finally budges and smiles then, because he finds Harry the most delightful when he’s looking incredulous about something.

“For that, you have to wear the wonky helmet. It’s like...it’s been dropped a few times...has a bit of a dent in it. I call it my Gallagher helmet.”

Louis raises his eyebrows. “Gallagher...as in, the watermelon guy?”

“Yeah, cause I reckon if you fell in it your head would go...” Harry holds his hands on both sides of his head and simulates an explosion of some sort, with accompanying noises that make Louis slightly queasy.

“Well, that’s...reassuring. Can’t believe you’d risk my life like that, Harold.” Nonetheless, Louis reaches for the helmet, which, yes, seems to be sporting a pretty sizable dent in one side. At the very least, he figures Dave will appreciate the romantic gesture if his head happens to explode enroute to him. Louis’ never been a man of great subtlety.

Before he can even test out putting it on, Harry snatches it out of his hands, shaking his head quickly. “Uh-uh. No way. I was kidding.” He picks up the helmet Louis sees him in on a daily basis, holding it in front of his chest until Louis reluctantly reaches out for it.

“Don’t know whether to be flattered or scared that you think I need the extra protection,” Louis says, laughing. It’s possible that it does make him feel the slightest bit better.

“You’ll be fine, I promise,” Harry assures him, holding onto the door to let Louis out first.

Louis doesn’t actually know what he’s doing. He doesn’t know how to go about riding on the back of a motorcycle. He’s always been content with the ones he has to pedal with his own legs, that only go as fast as he can take himself. He puts the helmet on first, figuring he can’t go wrong there. He only doubts that when he notices that Harry’s laughing, lowly, looking back at him while he slides one leg over to straddle the bike and raises the kickstand.

“What? Have I got it on wrong?” Louis frowns. The helmet feels heavy and clunky on his head, like he’s better prepared for a launch into space rather than a ride just a few neighborhoods over.

“No,” Harry laughs, only bits of his face visible behind his sunglasses and his own helmet--the stupid dented one. “Just look cute.”

The way he says it is surprising. Sort of. Most of their conversations are casual, or result in pestering one another--primarily with Harry on the receiving end--but he makes the occasional, arbitrary comment that’s a little more thoughtful and earnest among the rest. It’s just how he is. Harry tells Niall he loves him three times in a single phone call.

“Sure it’s not too big?” Louis moves it around, trying to get his head comfortable. “You do have a big head.”

“You know what they say about guys with big heads.”

“I don’t want to know.”

“Big brains,” Harry says, pleased with himself. He does something with the engine that makes it roar. Louis is not proud of the way he jumps back. “Would you get on? We’re already late.”

He walks up the bike and swings his leg up and on the back of the saddle, feeling ridiculous.

“You can hold the seat or hold onto me,” Harry tells him over his shoulder. “And don’t lean with the bike if you feel me make a turn, you know? Just stay sat as straight up as you can.”

Louis doesn’t even have a smart comment to make, really. He’s grateful for the advice considering this is his first time riding, and he feels sort of strange, though not nervous at all. He opts for a grip under the seat behind him, which feels okay. He has to tip his head to see the road around the back of Harry’s helmet and the hair peeking out from beneath it.

The ride isn’t bad at all, actually. Holding the seat is a little awkward, so he leans into Harry’s back after a few minutes with his hands on each of his sides, right below his ribs where he can get a good grip. It’s better that Dave sees them like this, anyway, he thinks.

“Don’t miss the air conditioner, do you?” Harry asks at a red light, looking over his shoulder to grin at Louis. He hadn’t even thought of it before, but no, the breeze feels amazing when they’re moving. Louis smiles back without having to think about it. He can see why Harry likes it so much.

Niall and Dave are on the porch with beers in hand when they pull up to the house. Both heads turn to look at them as Harry slows down by the curb, and Louis’ heart does a somersault but he doesn’t pull away from Harry quite yet.

Harry kills the engine and lifts his helmet off to look at Louis. “Not so bad, was it?” Their faces are close, Louis realizes; he can see every bead of sweat on the top of Harry’s lip and at the sides of his temples. The show is for Dave, so he doesn’t pull back.

“Not at all.” It’s easy to smile back; Harry’s grin has a way of making Louis’ appear, too.

He drops the kickstand and then helps Louis off--not necessary at all--and even helps him unbuckle the strap on his chin, crowding into his space just to get his hands on it.

“I’m not an invalid,” Louis mutters, his grin going tight.

Harry bops him on the nose and then lifts the helmet off the rest of the way. “It’s for effect.” He ruffles Louis’ hair with a big hand and then pushes it back from his forehead. For a second he thinks Harry might kiss him and his stomach drops, but he steps away and waits for Louis to catch up with his stride on his way toward the house.

“Hi, pals,” Harry calls out with a wave. Niall returns it, but Dave stares hard at the label on his beer until they’re too close to ignore.

“Thanks for showing up on time,” Dave says, then looks at Louis. “What were you two doing?”

“We, uh--”

“Just had lunch,” Harry interjects, then looks at Louis. “Lost track of time a bit. We had these massive crab salads. Couldn’t part with them.” He smiles like he’s keeping a secret and Louis realizes, maybe for the first time, how good he is at this--how astute he is at thinking on his feet.

“M’stuffed,” Louis adds. He rubs his hand over his belly for effect, though he’s not entirely sure how believable any of this is from his end.

Sometimes he thinks it must be written all over his face, that he has to be the most transparent person in the universe or maybe the worst actor--probably both. Dave must be even less intuitive than he’d ever realized, though, because despite how little Louis’ actually been doing to try and sell his farce with Harry, he seems to believe it. There’s always this bitterness and impatience in his eyes when he’s around the two of them together.

It’s present then, too, when he sets his beer down and starts to stand to go inside. His back always goes tight when he’s angry--like after an argument with his brother over the phone or when Louis missed one of his gigs. Louis always used to walk up behind him, to flatten both hands out on his back like he was trying to absorb some of the tension out of him, and the desire to isn’t any less then. It’s only Harry at his side, curling an arm around his waist to lead him in after Dave and then Niall that reminds him that he can’t.

“Don’t worry,” Harry whispers, giving him a squeeze. “That’s how you want him to react.”

Louis nods, though he’s not sure it is. Part of him thinks this would all be easier if he could just talk to Dave, try and reason with him and make him realize how much better off they both were together, but he doesn’t see the end of that conversation working out in his favor. It’s easier this way, to make him a bit jealous. It requires no conversation, but it gets a visible reaction out of Dave that satisfies Louis even if it makes him a little sad, too.

Everyone’s eyes are on them when they’re the last downstairs, fitting into the basement around spare equipment and the stupid plaid couch that Dave had fucked him on the first time they were together. Just having the memory in his head makes him feel even more like he’s under a microscope, like everyone can hear his thoughts. It makes him feel spiteful, too, because he’d been so blind sided by an ending he hadn’t seen coming.

It’s that feeling of bitterness that makes him slide his hand down the inside of Harry’s forearm, squeezing the widest part of his palm before he lets him go. Harry looks surprised by it, which Louis understands, because he’s never the one to initiate things. Somehow he still manages to play it cool and just smiles at Louis, like he’s happy to be touched by him--for even a second of his attention. Harry ought to be awarded for his performance, really, because Dave might have loved him but he never looked quite so enamored as Harry does right now.

It’s business from there. Louis reluctantly sits on that same couch, though he feels like being on it now is some sort of sacrilege. The band sounds good, though. It’s understandable that Dave was jealous of Harry even before anything to do with Louis. His voice is what makes their songs believable--brings a life to them that hadn’t been there before. It reverberates off the walls with more soul and more conviction than he’d expect from someone who he’s seen drop two orange juice glasses in the space of a week and who has the indisputably lightest heart of anyone he’s ever met.

They run through four songs before Niall insists on a break, jogging upstairs as quick as his bum knee will allow him to. Louis can immediately tell Harry feels out of place once Niall’s gone. There’s the tension with Dave and the newness of the other guys, who were Dave’s friends first. It’s weird, actually off-putting seeing Harry look uncomfortable because he genuinely never does. It makes Louis want to say something to him, perk him up a bit.

There’s a window in the basement that’s almost level with the street and he can hear the carnival-style music wafting from the ice cream truck that passes down that same route every day. It seems like as good of a way as any to break up some of the heaviness.

“I’m gonna see if I can catch him. Anyone want?” Louis asks, directing the question mostly at Harry.

The other guys don’t seem particularly interested anyway, except for Phil, who wastes half a minute trying to describe what Louis finally guesses is Choco Taco without Phil ever using the words chocolate or taco.

“Can you get me the one that’s shaped like Dora’s head?” Harry asks, scratching the back of his hair thoughtfully.

Louis gives him a look and then reaches to pat his back pocket, looking up mournfully when he realizes it’s flat. “Fuck. My wallet’s gone.”

“Oh, yeah, it’s at mine.” The way he says it is nonchalant, like it’s nothing--because technically it isn’t--but it’s like a bomb has just been dropped on the room. “You left it on the kitchen table.”

Dave’s head snaps up and he looks straight at Louis. He looks like he might say something, and the thought makes Louis panic. He doesn’t think he can handle being called out in front of everyone. He’d probably just make an ass of himself and pathetically confess to the entire thing.

Louis isn’t really paying attention to Harry, but he sees him glancing back and forth between them out of the corner of his eye. He slips out a five dollar bill from his wallet and nods toward the stairs. “I’ll get it. Spiderman, right?”

It’s obvious that he’s giving them alone time, but Louis doesn’t know whether to be grateful or pissed at him for it. He just nods, passing a quick look in Harry’s direction after he leaves. The basement door closes and Louis doesn’t know that he’s ever felt as uncomfortable in this house as he does right now.

“Seriously, Louis?” Dave mutters, walking by him as he crosses the room.

Louis follows him with his eyes. “What?”

“You’re living with him?”

The whole thing about faking it with Harry is that he never knows how much he should say. Not enough and pretending in the first place is effectively pointless. Too much and the whole thing might blow up in his face.

“It’s not like that,” he says, huffing slightly and fidgeting off of one foot and onto the other. He can’t even look at Dave when he’s that near to him.

Before Dave has a chance to say anything else, Harry and Niall both make their way back down at the same time, Niall happily licking a Dora the Explorer shaped popsicle that he’s clearly managed to finagle away from Harry.

“What’s going on?” Harry asks calmly, glancing between them.

“I was just getting ready to ask Louis if he’d want to come with me to an Avett Brothers show tomorrow night.” Dave’s eyes slide from Harry’s and back to Louis. “We bought those tickets months ago, remember?”

Louis’ eyebrows knit together as he settles his gaze on Dave’s face. He’d totally forgotten about those tickets. “You were?”

“There are two tickets and you paid for one of them,” Dave says, voice low. “Just thought you’d want to go.”

Asking Louis to a concert is probably just a way of getting back at Harry, and Louis would be annoyed at him for it if he could think about anything other than how this is the first time Dave has explicitly asked him to do anything with him since they broke up.

“Should be sick,” Harry says, attempting to break tension. It’s a nice effort, but the room is so thick with it that Louis doesn’t think anything would cut through it right now.

“Yeah,” says Louis, still staring at Dave, and just like that, his day is made. He has to bite his bottom lip to keep from smiling at the turn of events, and he thanks Harry with a lot more jovality than is necessary when he hands him his Spiderman popsicle.

Dave taps his drumsticks together. “Want to try that last one again?”

Harry shakes his head and sticks his thumb over his shoulder. “I’ve actually go to get going, mate. Work soon.”

There’s a beat in which Dave coughs, then says, “Maybe try to be on time for the next one?”

Harry’s laugh sounds forced and hollow--it’s terrible, actually. He shouldn’t ever force anything. Louis tries to make a self deprecating joke about it to ease the sudden tension in the room, but Niall practicing riffs on his guitar does the trick much faster and more efficiently.

Before he leaves, Harry turns to Louis and asks him if he needs a ride, but he shakes his head.

“I’m gonna go to Niall’s,” he explains, though he’s not discussed this with Niall. There’s just a better chance of Dave sticking around once Harry’s gone. The thought makes him feel like a dick. “Your turn to use the good helmet.”

The smile isn’t forced this time when Harry waves and then heads up the stairs. Louis can hear the sound of the engine and feels a pang of guilt, like he’s ditching a friend who’s done him a favor. It’s tough to feel bad about anything, though, when Dave shouts, “From the top!” and looks right at Louis as he counts them off into another song which, even Louis can admit, doesn’t sound half as good without Harry’s vocals.


Harry

Two days later, the air conditioning breaks, and Harry doesn’t exactly handle the situation gracefully.

Working at the garden center means his job is almost entirely outdoors and, on particularly hot days, the thought of coming home to an ice cold house is just about all that gets him through hours of hefting 20 pound bags of soil and helping people load terra cotta pots into the boots of their cars. Even though his shifts usually end at 3, right when the sun is at its hottest, the heat is still unlike anything Harry ever experienced growing up in Cheshire. The humidity alone is stifling.

He happens to have off on the day it breaks, and he’d planned to sleep in, but it’s sweat that wakes him up. His bed is drenched and so is his hair, sticking to his temples and the back of his neck. It feels like someone tried to drown him in his sleep.

After a futile five minute argument with the air conditioning knob that he can’t even pretend to understand, he calls his landlord and leaves possibly the most pathetic sounding voicemail of all time, politely begging him to send someone to fix it as soon as possible.

Last night was Louis’ date with Dave, so he’s alone in the house, and he assumes that Louis is in bed with Dave at their old house, enjoying the cool air as they wake up and hold each other and wonder what they ever did without each other. That’s not a bitter assumption, he thinks. It’s just facts. He’s happy for them, and stuff.

He bangs through the screen door in a pair of flip flops and grey briefs to get the paper outside, still half asleep. A woman walking her dog sees him and crosses to walk on the other side of the street, presumably disturbed by her sweaty, sleepy, half-naked neighbor. He still waves his arm in greeting, but something about it sets him off balance so that he trips on the wonky third step from the porch and loses his flip flop underneath it.

It’s too hot to dig around for it, he decides. It’s too hot to look for the paper. Harry goes back inside wearing one shoe and a frown.

“Morning.”

He claps his hand to his chest and closes his eyes for a long second. “Jesus, Louis.”

Louis looks sweaty, too, and unfazed by having just scared the shit out of Harry. “Why’s it so hot?”

“Did you sleep here last night?”

“Tried to,” he yawns, his small hand coming to cover his mouth a second too late. He’s glistening and wearing nothing but a pair of mesh shorts that are, objectively, very ugly. Harry wants to take them off of him very slowly and deliberately. He stares at his ass when he follows him into the kitchen, where at least the tile floor feels cool on the soles of his feet.

“It was too fucking hot, though,” Louis continues. How did Harry not realize that his chest has tattoos, too? “That ceiling fan does nothing.”

“Sorry,” he says quickly, not sure why he feels so guilty about it. “I don’t know what happened with the air.”

Louis shrugs. “No need to apologize.”

“I called the landlord, so hopefully…”

“Yeah, I overheard that conversation. And did you trip, or something? There was some kind of loud thump I heard.”

No.” Harry sniffs. “I took an extra step. It was graceful.”

Louis nods, placating, then opens freezer and shoves his head inside. “You should do this,” he says, voice muffled. “Feels good.”

“Scoot that way,” Harry says, coming to stand beside Louis, who’s resting his chin on the inside of the freezer. The cool air feels incredible, but Harry can only focus on the place where Louis’ arm is touching the sticky skin over Harry’s ribcage. “How was the gig last night?”

Louis focuses his gaze on a tray of ice cubes. “It was fine.”

“Have you seen them live before?”

“Once last year, actually.”

“Cool.”

Louis just nods and gives nothing away, and Harry’s too curious not to ask.

“How’d it go with Dave?”

Louis reaches for the ice cube tray and shrugs, then walks away to pull a glass from the cabinet. Not the best time to ask, then.

“Hey, Louis. I think I’m getting a head cold.” Harry shuts the freezer and points at it, grinning, waiting for the inevitable eye roll. “Get it?”

“Wow, you’re so funny.” There it is. “How do you come up with these things?”

“I’m naturally witty.”

I’m naturally witty,” Louis mocks, doing a very poor, very endearing version of Harry’s accent. They each drink their ice water until it’s gone, facing each other in the kitchen in bare feet with sticky, shiny skin. Harry watches Louis from the corner of his eye and can see he looks tired, though he knows the air conditioning wasn’t broken until 6 in the morning. There’s no way he can chalk up a bad night’s sleep to the heat alone.

“You’re off today?” Harry asks as he reaches for Louis’ glass to fill it up again, followed by his own.

“Yeah. Thanks,” he says, taking it back from him. Ice clinks in the glass. “You?”

Harry nods. There’s a line somewhere that he ought not to cross, but it’s so blurred now. He’d flirted with Louis that night at the bar because what Dave did was fucked up, and he didn’t expect for it to get this far, and he never expected for Louis to be living in his house, however temporary. It’s fucking with his ability to see what is and isn’t expected in this whole fake situation; he can’t tell what’s fake anymore. All he knows is that it’s too fuckng hot to sit around inside all day, and they both have the day off, and there’s something right within his reach that he’s not sure if he should try for.

He looks up at Louis. Something he likes about him is that he doesn’t rush him the way so many other people do when Harry takes a long time to form a sentence, even though it’s so obvious that he’s working up to it. He just waits and stares patiently at him. Harry’s never met anyone who doesn’t rush him through his stilted words.

“We should just go to the rock quarry.”

Louis doesn’t hesitate before he says, “Alright.”

“Really?” He fails at not sounding like the definition of someone who has been pleasantly surprised.

“It’s definitely too hot to just sit here all day, isn’t it?” Louis shrugs. “Let me just brush my teeth.”

Last night must have been really bad, Harry thinks, if he’s desperate enough to agree to a day spent with him. But there’s another part of his mind that feels as though a suspicion is being proven. He doesn’t have poor intuition about people, usually. He’s known since he met Louis that they could be friends, which, he’s surprised to find, is something that he genuinely wants from him. It’s more a attainable goal than stealing him from Dave and convincing him that they’d be great together, at least.

Before they leave, Harry gathers all the fruit he has in his house and a bag of crisps he doesn’t remember buying and a bottle of water for them each. Louis doesn’t need a primer before they hop onto the bike this time, and he doesn’t try to convince Harry to take the undented helmet, either.

The breeze on the road is deceptively cool, but Harry can feel sweat dripping down the back of his neck each time they stop at red light. As they get closer to the park the shade from trees provides what Harry likes to call nature’s air conditioning, like a little slice of heaven each time they’re under the canopy of green leaves. The air smells amazing, and Harry breathes deep, his ribs expanding slow beneath Louis’ hands. They don’t let up even once, not until they stop at the dirt car park at the foot of the trail.

There’s no one else on the path to the quarry. Harry doesn’t live in a loud neighborhood, but even he can appreciate the silence of the woods and the intermittent bird sounds and snaps of twigs under foot as they follow the trail to the water.

“I haven’t been here for, like...two years,” Louis says.

“Really?” Harry is careful not to sound too interested by this unprompted information, even though all he wants to do is ask Louis a thousand questions about himself, about what he did the last time he was here, who he was with and why he’s not been back for so long. “I mean, I’ve only been a couple of times. I just assumed it was a popular place.”

“I guess it is.” Louis walks ahead of Harry when the path narrows, throwing his voice over his shoulder as he leads the way. “Just one of those things you take for granted. Easy to get caught up in...other stuff.”

“Right,” Harry agrees. “Well, you’re here now.”

“I am. I guess it’s a little better than sitting on the couch and sweating my ass off for the rest of the day.”

“The couch really appreciates you sparing it of your arse sweat.”

Louis smiles, closed lipped, and Harry might as well have won the lottery. They approach the clearing near the bank of the quarry, a rather abrupt stop that goes from trees to dirt to open water.

“Looks like heaven,” Harry says, and he means it. He drops his bag to the ground and wastes no time stripping out of his t-shirt and shorts, chucking them onto the dirt. He stands on the edge wearing his boxer briefs and leaps into the water like his life depends on it.

There’s a splash and then silence as he goes under, staying for a second and relishing the temperature. It’s so deep and cool that Harry can’t stop laughing as he pops his head above the surface and shakes his long hair away from his eyes, doing his best impression of a drenched dog.

“God, that’s so lovely,” he moans, tipping his head back to go under again. The water’s too deep for him to stand where he is, so he doggy paddles over to the edge of the bank until he feels his toes hit the ground and watches Louis stood beneath a tree, toeing off his Vans.

It’s curious, he thinks, because he’s spent a lot of time watching Louis since he first came into his life. He’s hardly reached Norman Bates’ level of creepy, but it’s difficult to not pay attention to Louis. The effect should have dulled by now, but it hasn’t. Louis frowns when he takes his tank top off and then rolls his neck to the side, fidgeting like he feels more naked than he actually is. He’s beautiful. He’s so beautiful that Harry knows he’ll make an ass of himself if he doesn’t attempt to make a break from his fixation.

“You won’t jump over my head,” he challenges, splashing Louis on his ankles.

“Watch me jump on your head.”

Harry grins. “To die by your thighs is such a heavenly way to die,” he sings.

“Oh my god,” Louis mutters, utterly disgusted, which Harry takes to mean that he’s utterly charmed. “Just stay there.” He starts to back up, crouched low. Harry stands as still as possible and pushes his shoulders back and clasps his hands in front of his hips. The jump seems impossible and stupid, definitely stupid, but something tells him Louis can do it--

And he does, with quite a bit of room to spare. Harry spins around after he hears the splash and holds up both hands, whooping once Louis pops out of the water. Louis gives him a double high five and he’s smiling, too--sparking and wide and lovely. Unsurprisingly, dripping wet Louis reaches an entirely new level of painfully attractive, and it’s all Harry can do not to squeeze his hands and lace their fingers together and yank him in for a kiss that would probably drown them both.

Luckily, Louis takes his hands back before Harry has a chance to embarrass himself, slowly easing himself onto his back until he’s floating along the surface of the water. Spreading both of his arms out at his sides, he flails around, faking like he’s struggling not to be pulled down.

“Help. Save me,” he spouts out. His chest is puffed out above the water, skin already looking gold-cast under the sun. Beautiful.

Harry doesn’t trust himself to actually approach and play out an elaborate rescue, so he just grabs him by the big toe and yanks at him, laughing. “What do you think this is, mate? Baywatch? Should I go back up and run slow motion out to you?”

Louis snorts, finally loosening out his back and treading water instead, turning himself so that he can look over at Harry, accidentally kicking him under the water. “You do look a bit like David Hasselhoff. You’ve got the hair going on.”

“Excuse you.” Harry whips his head to the side, like he’s fixing his hair. “I’m Pamela.”

It makes Louis laugh, like an actual, proper laugh that Harry’s thankful for because their banter is the only thing that’s been keeping him from losing his mind through all of this. It reminds him that they’re mates, that they’re good as mates, and that he doesn’t want to fuck that up by wanting him too much and sabotaging everything. Then again, maybe that’s what he’s been doing from the start--sabotaging himself.

“I don’t think you quite have the breasts for that, Harold.”

Harry looks affronted and covers his pecs with his hands. “How dare you.”

“You do have two more nipples than she does, though.”

“Thank you.”

“Are we calling that a compliment?”

Harry tries to poke Louis with his toe beneath the water, but his attempt isn’t graceful at all and he bobs a bit, chin and head going under. He plays it up and pretends to drown until Louis reaches for him, hoisting him up a couple of inches because he’s practically a feather under the water. The touch to his ribs makes Harry shiver and Louis laughs when he feels him squirm.

“Ticklish?”

“No,” he shakes his head, pushing his hair away from his eyes. “Just caught the breeze or something.”

He wades back a bit to put some distance between them and ignores the curious look on Louis’ face. They fall easily in and out of playing around with one another, breaking up their bursts of energy to let each other enjoy the quiet. It’s like the trees are sheltering them, lining both sides of the lake and casting shadows on the water that they pass through and then back into the sun. On the weekends the quarry is infiltrated with people, but for now it belongs just to them.

“Need some water,” Louis announces after a few minutes of silence.

He paddles himself back to the edge of the water and climbs out, shaking out his hair and squeezing handfuls of water out from his shorts. Harry watches him, because he’s weak and he still hasn’t gotten enough of him somehow. His own boxer briefs barely cling to his hips when he gives in and follows Louis up, trying to wring himself out like a human mop before he wraps one of their towels around his shoulders and moves over to where Louis sitting on a formation of particularly smooth rocks, his eyes focused down on water.

“Did you know there’s snakes out here?”

“What, where...” Harry looks over his shoulder, apparently looking more panic stricken than he feels, because Louis laughs and nudges into his shoulder.

“I don’t mean...not, like, right here...just in the park,” he explains with a wave of his hand, stealing a look behind them as though he’s double checking. “I used to look for them when I was a kid. I practically lived here during the summer.”

“Just to look for snakes?”

“No.” Louis shakes his head, picking up a wet strand of hair from his forehead and twisting it back, looking at Harry while he does it. “For the quiet, I guess. I grew up with four sisters.”

It’s one of the first times Louis’ actually said anything about his life away from Dave and their group of friends--about his past. He’s told Harry a few times how close he is to his family, but never anything beyond that, even when Harry had repeatedly told stories about his mum and what it was like in Holmes Chapel and how his sister had actually moved to North Carolina first.

“Why’d you stop?”

“Coming here?” Louis raises an eyebrows and then shrugs when Harry nods his assent. “I don’t know... busy, I guess. Dave isn’t much of an outdoorsman.”

It isn’t the first time that Harry wants to ask how he wound up with Dave in the first place. He knows every little about their relationship except for the tail end of it, which sounds messy and sad.

But he has to remind himself that his judgement is clouded and that he doesn’t have the right to judge in the first place. It’s not his relationship. He can’t speak for what they had together, how different it was to what he’s seen. It must have been special, he thinks, if Louis is so all-in.

There’s a silence between them that feels even heavier when Louis opens his mouth to speak and then stifles himself, all of his features going tight. He clears his throat, then finally manages what he’d been trying to say: “He didn’t show up last night.”

“Really?”

Louis nods. Harry had imagined the total opposite all night; Dave and Louis back together, Louis ready to move back in with him. While that had seemed like a nightmare to him at the time, he suddenly wishes that even half of the things he’d blown out of proportion had really happened. As much as he would have hated it, it still would have been better than seeing Louis like this.

He looks dejected, and it pains him. He can’t imagine ever wanting to make him feel unwanted.

“Maybe something came up,” Harry supplies lamely.

Louis scoffs and stares down at his hands, shaking his head. “Nothing came up, trust me.”

“Yeah, but--”

“Look, I didn’t tell you so that you could try to make me feel better, or anything. I just wanted you to know I’d be staying with you for. I dunno. A little longer, I guess.”

Harry doesn’t say anything. There are so many things that Louis deserves and being stood up, being tricked, is not one of them. What he doesn’t want is to lie to Louis. He’s already doing enough of that by omission and he can’t bring himself to tell him that Dave blowing him off doesn’t mean anything.

“You can stay with me for as long as you need to, alright? And look, I know it’s shit,” Harry sighs. “And I don’t know why he did that. But I know you’re…”

Louis is still staring down at his hands, twisting them up and picking at his nails. Harry reaches over and covers them both with one of his own, resting it there until Louis looks up at him again. “Things will turn out the way they’re meant to, you know?”

Louis says nothing. His fingers twitch and Harry pulls his hand away. They both turn to look out at the water as the wind picks up and cools down the back of Harry’s neck.

“We should take a picture,” Louis says, looking at Harry. “The two of us. Put it on Instagram.”

It stings, and it sucks to hear, but Louis is right. That’s the reason they’re here in the first place, and Harry keeps forgetting it. He reaches for his phone but Louis gets there first and snaps a photo of the trees and then one of Harry, to his surprise, then hands the phone to him and scoots closer so they can get in the frame together.

“Ready?” Harry asks, steadying the phone in one hand.

“Please don’t drop it in the water, butter fingers.”

They both laugh, and Harry snaps one, then turns his head to press his lips against Louis’ temple, tapping his thumb down just in time to capture it before he pulls away. It’s too fast for Louis to react, but he doesn’t hasten to move away from him at all, he just takes the phone from Harry to see how it came out, shielding the screen from the sun with his palm.

The only word that comes to mind is cute. Harry’s eyes are shut mid-kiss and Louis’ expression is soft and they look sunkissed and happy.

“Never usually take pictures like this,” Louis says, laughing a softly.

“He won’t like that very much then, will he?”

Louis grins, thumbs moving across the screen as he sets it up to post. “Not at all.”

Seeing Louis happy again feels good, but Harry doesn’t want to watch too closely; he knows what’s really going on, why he’s suddenly rejuvenated. There’s fruit to be eaten and a body of water to swim in and a rope hung from a tree branch that looks like it’s just barely on the safe side of treacherous.

It’s one of the best afternoons Harry has had in a while. They have the entire lake to themselves and Harry does backflips into the deepest part of the water and Louis, of course, doesn’t even needed to be persuaded to try the rope swing before he goes for it. They laugh--they laugh a lot--and they get sunburns and Harry does a belly flop that leaves his stomach red and angry for a half hour. They find pieces of driftwood and do their best job of sword fighting in the water, which devolves quickly into who gets hit in the balls first. (It’s Harry.)

When the sun dips below the tree line they start to pack up their things, stuffing empty plastic bottles into Harry’s backpack. Louis rolls the damp towels into neat cylinders and places those inside, too. Harry’s skin doesn’t look red, but it’s definitely burning; even the fabric of his t-shirt makes him wince.

“Sucks we have to go back to a hot house,” Harry says, apologetic.

Louis shrugs and waves a mosquito away from his face as they walk back to the bike. “The ride there will be nice though, won’t it?”

Harry smiles. It will be, and it is. Louis sits close to him the entire time, close enough to hook his hands together over the lower part of Harry’s stomach, practically squeezing him tight for the entire ride. Their t-shirts are so damp that Harry actually feels cold until they slow down in front of his house, where the guys next door are barbecuing in the front yard and someone he can’t see is practicing guitar with a window open, maybe on a front porch. He and Louis walk to the house in comfortable silence, and he’s happy. He really is happy.

 

Louis

What was initially sadness is replaced by anger which mingles with disappointment. He wishes he could just flick a switch and be over Dave, but Louis realizes that he already kind of is over him, at least, the current version of him. It’s the relationship itself that he’s still stuck on, and Dave is all wrapped up in those positive memories. They have such a hold on Louis because he’s not a quitter and it certainly feels like quitting to just let it end, especially when Dave doesn’t seem quite ready to do that, either. If he wanted to let Louis go, he wouldn’t react the way he does when he sees him and Harry together. Louis is sure that faking it is at least sort of working.

He decides against going to the band’s practice every time Harry offers to bring him, though. Sitting around on that old plaid couch isn’t going to change a thing, and in any case he’s really busy in the week following their trip to the quarry, more notably the day he posted that picture to Instagram and obsessively refreshed it for the next two days, wondering if Dave would ever look at it or comment. (He didn’t).

Every year they host a small festival--well, they call it a festival--at the bike shop, and he has meeting after meeting with food truck vendors and breweries, seeing who will sponsor it this year and who he can gift a bike to in order to get a cheaper price on food. His hours are all fucked up and he barely has time to do much else other than work and make room for more meetings on his calendar. It’s a part of the job he likes, planning the Bike Fest, but he forgets how much stress it puts on him.

The last of the meetings is on a Friday afternoon and he’s checked out halfway through, ready to get well and truly drunk to celebrate the end of a hectic week. Niall’s pregaming at his house and Zayn bought weed and they plan to, as Niall put it, “get sloppy.”

His last meeting ends a little after 7, and on his way home he feels a repeated buzz in his pocket, persistent enough that he pulls to the sidewalk and answers Harry on his fourth attempt.

“What’s going on, dude?”

Harry sounds surprised to hear him answer. “Hey, what’s going on?”

“You just called me four times,” Louis laughs out. “You tell me.”

“Oh, right, um.” Harry coughs. “You should probably come to Ray’s tonight, mate.”

“Ray’s? The bar?”

“Yeah, have you got plans?”

Louis starts walking his bike down the sidewalk, too agitated to sit in one place. “I mean, I was going to meet up with Niall and Zayn in a bit, but why, what’s happening at Ray’s?”

“Uh, I just heard, well, I sort of eavesdropped on a call Dave had at practice today and I think he might be, like. Bringing someone there. Tonight at 8.”

Louis stops walking. “Okay.”

“Do you want to--like--”

“Yeah,” Louis says, heart thudding. “Can you be there at 7:30? Make it seem like we were there first?”

“Yeah, yeah, of course,” Harry says. “Sorry, I know it sucks--”

“It’s fine,” Louis says. He’s glad he knows. “See you soon.”

Biking on the heels of so much adrenaline isn’t the best idea. Louis runs more red lights and stop signs than he’d ever admit to any of the patrons who come in and ask him about bike safety every day at work. He locks up his bike ten minutes early and he uses the time to splash cold water over his flushed cheeks and towel off his damp skin in the bathroom. He inspects himself in the mirror, adjusts his grey tanktop so it’s not bunched around his hips and wonders if he looks as anxious as he feels.

The tables are all full when he walks out, so he leans against the bar to order a beer for himself and a bourbon for Harry. “With a cherry,” he adds. “Thanks.”

It turns out that Harry’s early, too. Heads turn when he walks in and Louis understands why; he looks particularly good tonight and Louis can’t quite pinpoint why. His hair is long and soft and maybe still damp, his henley hanging from his shoulders in a way that somehow accentuates his body and softens him all at once.

Louis slides his glass toward him once they’re next to each other. He smells good, too.

“Alright?” he asks, and a small group next to them turns when they hear his accent, but Harry doesn’t look away from Louis. “Thanks for this.”

“I’m good.” Louis shrugs. “I’m fine.”

“Did you come from work?”

He’s good at small talk, and it helps to distract him from the inevitable. They’re midway through their first round before Louis manages to ask Harry about his day. He shrugs it off immediately.

“I just made some eggs,” he says.

Louis stares. “That’s it? That was your day?”

“No,” Harry drawls, grinning slowly as though only just realizing why that was a strange answer. “Other things.”

“No, really, eggs sounds busy. Eggs could take all afternoon.”

Harry laughs, dropping his chin down to his chest. His face is red when he looks back at him. “Thanks for understanding.”

“Mhm,” Louis nods and finishes the last of his beer. It’s tangy and a bit warm from sitting in the palm of his hand for the last ten minutes. He’s not sure why he feels so guilty about checking the time on his phone, as though his conversation with Harry isn’t fulfilling enough--it’s great, actually, but his stomach is in knots for one reason and it’s all down to Dave and his date, whoever that is.

“Sorry,” he says, sheepish after Harry catches him. “Kind of a shitty Friday night for you. A fake date probably isn’t ideal.”

“I’m having fun,” Harry says, frowning. He shifts his weight so he’s leaning his elbow on the bar, hips angled close to Louis’. “Seriously. Better than nothing, isn’t it? I like our fake dates. It’s good practice for real ones.”

“Oh, are you...have you been? Seeing anybody?”

Harry takes a slow sip of his drink, humming what sounds like a no. “Been a while.” He raises his eyebrow.

“A while.” For some reason he’s always assumed Harry got laid nightly. He’s not sure why; there’s no basis for that assumption other than that he’s endearing and friendly and the best looking person in any room. “Since you’ve dated?”

“Since anything,” Harry says.

“What’s a while for you? A week?” He’s not sure why this joke has turned into actual curiosity or why he has to push his shoulders back to work out the tension he feels at the thought.

Harry puts down his glass and rakes through his hair with the same hand, never breaking eye contact in a way that’s somewhat off putting and makes Louis feel like he’s the only person in the room. And also that he’s naked, suddenly. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“No,” Louis scoffs. He needs another drink. “Just asking.”

“It’s not that big of a deal,” Harry laughs. He raises his hand to wave to the bartender, and he nods back. “It’s just better with somebody else. You know what I mean.”

Louis presses his tongue to the inside of his cheek and shrugs. He’s never thought about Harry having sex more than he has in the last three minutes, and now he can’t seem to stop.

“No idea what you could be referring to,” Louis deadpans. He’s definitely not baiting him.

Harry takes his time before he answers him, but it’s with a level gaze and a shrug when he does. “There’s just nothing like when you’ve been building things up with someone all night and then you finally get to take them home and it’s like...” He shakes his head and stares off like he’s thinking into it.

For the first time, Louis feels a nagging sense that he would do anything to be able to read Harry’s mind. The images playing inside of it must be good because he fidgets as he tries to redistribute his weight from one foot to the other and his tongue drags slow along his bottom lip, leaving it glistening and as red as the cherry in his drink. In seconds, he went from looking like the charming, goofy, walking contradiction of a human that Louis sees every day to this new version of himself, or a version that Louis has only noticed for the first time. He never even thought to see Harry this way.

“Are you turning yourself on?” Louis accuses. Easier to make it funny than to think about the front of his own jeans feeling tight. He wonders if he’d move the same way talks--if it would be like a mountain trek, a long climb up and an even slower, winding trip back down. Or if he’d go fast, if he’d wreck someone over and over. If he could even do something like that.

Before he descends further down that spiral, Harry’s warm laugh brings him back in, and then the bartender slides their fresh drinks in front of them. Louis nods his thanks and takes a long sip.

There was something he planned to say, a topic change they desperately need, but Harry distracts him again. He holds onto his own glass without sipping from it, just brushing his fingers through the condensation forming on the surface of it as he watches Louis watch him.

Harry puts down his glass and takes a deep breath. “So I...”

He’s unreadable; Louis has no idea what Harry will say, or if Harry even knows what he’s leading into. His eyes move over Louis, all of him, and his face changes when something draws his attention over Louis’ shoulder.

“What is it?”

“He’s here.”

Sometime during the night, Dave stopped being his focus, but now, amidst some confusing thoughts about Harry, Louis is forced to remember again. He doesn’t turn around to look and see for himself because there’s still a part of him that can’t bear it. It’s one of the worst things about breaking up: the realization that eventually Dave will find someone else--someone who sticks, who he can settle into, who might be a better fit than they were together.

That fear, the same reason he can’t turn around to look at Dave with someone else, is part of why he agreed to such a ridiculously plotted and executed charade. He wants Dave back--he does--but it’s secondary to protecting himself. He doesn’t want to be alone. He doesn’t want to be the only one embittered by jealousy. He can’t cope with feeling as though he’s been left behind.

Louis can’t process any of it as Harry pulls him in and he’s going along with it, easily, with no hesitation as Harry holds his face with one hand and his body with the other.

He kisses him in a way that no one could doubt. He makes Louis a believer.

It’s their first, unbelievably, but Harry treats it like they’ve been doing it for months, maybe years. His tongue snakes across Louis’ bottom lip, wrenching a breath out of him that, in turn, lets him inside as his mouth parts around it. God, it’s really good, and even the first touch makes Louis shiver and push himself closer.

Harry’s hips turn out to be the easiest place to get his hands. He grips him there, fitting his fingers up just under his henley and pushing his nails into his skin. Harry seems to like that, judging by the noise he makes, but only Louis can hear because they’re so close; they’ve made a cocoon of each other’s bodies.

Harry leads, but it becomes easy to fall into step, slowing things down to his favorite pace and mapping his lips on Harry’s, building them back to where they’d been in increments. Sometimes kisses just work, and this is one of them. There’s nothing he wants to change except that he only wants more.

Harry’s fingers find their way from his face down to his back, following the curvature of his spine until he’s low enough to get a palmful of his ass. It’s surprising and possessive, like he’s staking claim over him in front of the entire bar. In front of Dave.

“Um,” Louis whispers, trying to get his hips up against Harry’s. The difference in height is more pronounced than with Dave and it would be more awkward if not for how Harry slouches to accommodate him, pushing his lower back against the bar-top and letting Louis come forward to align them.

They fall into rhythm easily, finding what works best for them. Louis pushes one of his legs between both of Harry’s and grinds his cock against the top of his thigh until his briefs are wet and he feels raw from it. Harry pulls him forward, his hand between his pockets, keeping the heel of his palm tight along the cleft of his ass. It’s maddening. It’s inappropriate, but Louis doesn’t ask him to stop. The thought of stopping makes him feel fitful and needy in a way that he can’t comprehend.

When they do stop, it’s only because Harry’s lost his breath. Louis can tell by the way he sucks in a big gulp of air and his chest goes wide as his lungs expand to take it in.

A few seconds pass and Harry doesn’t go in for another, even though he doesn’t make any moves to let go of him either. Louis can still feel his hand burning on him, making him imagine so much more, so many things that he shouldn’t. He tries to remind himself. Harry makes it hard because he doesn’t stop looking at him and Louis is either seeing things or Harry’s eyes are greener when he wants something. When he’s pretending to want something.

“Where…” Louis rasps, swallows before he can go on. “Where is he? Is he still there?”

“Wasn’t him,” Harry says immediately. He doesn’t even look away to check.

“What…”

And then, oh, it’s so obvious. Harry lied.

Louis can’t confirm it, and it seems so irrational in his head, like he’s giving himself too much credit, but he’s sure.

Louis swallows hard. “Oh.”

Harry starts to put distance between them and Louis is too aware, now. He pays too much attention to how reluctant he seems to do it. When his hands finally fall all the way from Louis’ body, the first thing he does is go for a drink. Louis watches him take a swig. He can’t help it. He makes even less sense to him than he did before.

Louis takes a drink, as well, and it’s a good enough buffer. They stay quiet, and Harry pretends to people watch and Louis tries to think about anything other than the fact that they’re both hard, or were just a second ago. It’s not the easiest to ignore when his body feels over-sensitive to everything, like he might come in his pants if the fan behind the bar blows on him just right or if Harry looks at him too long.

He feels like a house of cards. It’s been a while for him, too.

Harry clears his throat. “Do you know how Maraschino cherries are made?”

The question is so sudden that Louis has to look up to clarify that he’s even been spoken to. Sure enough, Harry is looking down again, and his face is decidedly less frantic than it had been a minute earlier. Somehow he’s managed to harness himself better than Louis has. He started it, and now he’s managing to look more collected.

“No, Harry.”

“They bleach them to hell with calcium chloride and they turn all yellow and gross,” Harry starts, making a face as he plucks it out of his glass with shaky fingers--the only giveaway that he’s at all still fazed by their kiss. “And then they put them in big vats of high fructose corn syrup and red coloring ‘til they soak it all up and come out like this.”

“That’s nasty,” Louis comments, setting his elbow down on the bar and looking down at his own glass like it’s the most interesting thing in the world. “What a thing you chose to have our first conversation about. You just wanted to show off.” He should have known what he was in for when Harry offered him up that stupid stem-knot. His foresight had been absolutely terrible.

Harry frowns. “That wasn’t our first conversation.”

They may have exchanged pleasantries a few times around Dave and the band, but he can’t recall ever having an actual conversation before that. Maybe Harry was drunker than he thought he was that night. Louis doesn’t ask.

“Look, I don’t think Dave’s coming around, man.” Louis reaches into his back pocket for for his wallet and sets out a few bills for the drinks before Harry can protest. “Think I’m gonna head out.”

“Sure,” Harry starts, straightening up, fishing his keys out. “Coming back to mine?”

“Zayn’s tonight. Told him we’d play some Xbox.” Louis  pauses, and wonders if he ought to invite him along or blow off his fake plans with Zayn to go back to his house, but he really shouldn’t be alone with him. Not now, before he’s had a second to consider everything. “Maybe pick me up from work tomorrow, though? We’ll go to that sushi place you keep talking about.”

“Yeah,” Harry says. His expression is different and difficult to translate to Louis’ kiss-addled mind. He might see a hint of smugness. “Sounds good.”

He does know they’re both thinking the same thing: it’s the first time they’ve made plans without a single mention of Dave. He needs to leave before that thought sinks its teeth in.

“I’ll see you at 6 tomorrow,” Louis says, leaving with his beer half full on the bar and a knot in his gut. He can’t remember the last time he’s been kissed like that, and only once he’s outside in the heat and alone on his bike does he let himself realize just how much he’s missed it.

Harry

It’s claustrophobic in the shop. People are trickling out from the space cleared in front of the stage, wedged between rows of bikes on display. Even on their busiest nights at the Rocking Stone, Race Canyon never sees this kind of turn-out. They end up playing most shows to the same faces, old faithfuls who they’ve all learned by name or bought a drink for.

Louis’ clearly outdone himself in planning the event; Harry doesn’t recognize even half the audience that’s congregated for them. Harry had poked fun at him when he realized Louis had used up both his black and color ink cartridges printing out flyers, but everything he put in beforehand paid off.

Standing off to the side of the crowd, Harry overhears three separate conversations from groups of people psyched to hear them play for the first time, and he smiles, pleased and nervous in a way he doesn’t normally feel before they play. There’s also several groups of people sizing up the bikes, clearly interested in making a purchase.

The whole event seems to be working out for everyone. It’s going off without a hitch--promoting the shop and the band all at once.

Of course, Louis’ at the heart of everything. Harry can hardly keep his eyes on him because he’s never in one place for long. If he’s not tending to a customer, he’s double checking the mics or offering someone a drink or fussing with the stereo-music that’s playing until they go on.

In his element he looks so comfortable and it’s so attractive to Harry that he’s having an even more difficult time than usual just reining it in. He’s pretty blatantly staring, watching Louis like he’s the entertainment.

“Did good, didn’t he?” Niall asks. He slaps his hands over the tops of Harry’s shoulders and gives him a squeeze, like he knows that the question would go straight over his head without him physically getting his attention.

To be fair, he’s probably right.

“Yeah,” Harry agrees. His hands reach back to get ahold of Niall’s, giving him a squeeze back before he turns to face him more, resting his hip up against the wall and trying to look casual. “Sick that he’s done this for us, innit?”

“Yeah, man. Brings them a lot of business, too.”

Niall’s stating the obvious, but Harry narrows his eyes at him for it anyway. He doesn’t want to talk about Louis’ business savvy. He wants to brag about him selflessly doing things for him--for them. Whatever. It makes him feel special.

“You are so--” Niall laughs, then laughs even harder when Harry elbows him in the ribs.

“Don’t say it.” He doesn’t need to be called out on how pathetic he is right now.

Finally, Louis makes his way over to them, looking stressed but excited. Harry seriously considers kissing him then and there. Dave isn’t too far off from them, so it’s not like he couldn’t use that as an excuse.

He doesn’t go through with it, though it’s a struggle. Louis’ eyes go all crinkly and his pointy canine teeth dig into his bottom lip when he smiles and Harry just can’t. He can’t kiss him again under the pretense that it’s for anything other than that he just really, really wants to. He’s sure Louis could taste the lie on his tongue if he did.

“Looking good in here, right?” Louis grins, looking between them.

“I know. It’s crazy. I feel like I need to go make sure my guitar is tuned,” Niall laughs, clapping Louis on the arm and shooting a discreet look in Harry’s direction as he walks past them.

Harry pointedly ignores it, looking back at Louis to share in the excitement.

“You did so good, Lou.”

He attempts to shrug off the compliment, but he does look pleased. “Thanks.”

“Seriously, it’s like that movie The Wedding Planner,” Harry continues in earnest. “Where she’s, like, really good at planning--the stuff, like--”

Louis snorts. “Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve ever actually seen it.” He looks at Harry, and he’d swear Louis is standing a little taller at the praise. “But thanks, I’m pretty happy with it.”

For the first time all night, Dave is within earshot of them, which doesn’t seem like much of a coincidence. Harry is curious if they’ve spoken at all, and considering it’s the basis of their entire friendship--sort of--it doesn’t feel out of place to ask about it.

“Has Dave spoken to you at all?”

“No,” Louis scoffs, shifting on his feet and crossing both arms over his chest. “He wouldn’t, though, would he?”

“Shitty,” Harry says, though he isn’t surprised. They both flatten themselves against the wall at almost the same time, bringing them shoulder to shoulder. “I mean, I can’t even believe all this. It must have taken you ages to sort it out.”

Louis doesn’t say anything back right away, but Harry can see him smiling out of the corner of his eye. He’s looking down rather than at him, but it’s there.

“What?” Harry asks, because Louis looks as though he’s on the verge of saying something that needs just a bit of prompting.

“Just, you know. Pretty good how you’re acting nicer to me than my real boyfriend usually did, right?”

The word real probably shouldn’t make his chest ache like it does. He’s never been in denial about what this is. Just hopeful. Too hopeful, maybe.

“Hey, that’s...” People don’t usually fluster him, but sometimes Louis supplies these off-hand comments that make Harry’s tongue feel fat and useless. Everything he wants to say sounds trite to his own ears, and the moment’s gone before he has a chance to offer him anything.

Someone on stage makes a signal and Louis nudges Harry in the rib, then claps his hands together with both eyebrows raised. “You’re on. You ready for this?”

Harry wants to tell him no, that he’s not sure that he is. He always feels this way before he plays a gig, but he doesn’t normally do it during the day in well-lit bike shop. Louis has put too much into this for him to give him anything other than his best, though. He nods and follows Louis toward the side of the stage.

There’s nothing left before he’s meant to go on, but for some reason he can’t bring himself to just walk off. Louis is looking at him expectantly, waiting for him to do exactly that, and the rest of the guys are already taking their places onstage to some scattered applause.

But Harry can’t help it. He pauses only for a second before he hunches and presses a kiss to Louis’ cheek.

“Wish me luck, alright?” His fingers curl around Louis’ bicep and he waits to make eye contact with him before he lets go. Louis nods, but says nothing.

He didn’t do it for Dave, but when he turns around he’s the only one staring at them with greater ferocity than he had that first night at the bar, or when they’d shown up for rehearsals on Harry’s bike. Harry feels good, though, and he grins as he jogs up to his mic and waves goofily to the people he knows in the audience, and all the nerves are gone before they even start. Most people aren’t really watching, which is fine. It’s great, actually.

“Er,” he says as he adjusts the mic. Someone laughs loud, and he looks up, finding Louis’ face toward the back of the garage. “Hiii.” He waves again. “Hello. We’re Race Canyon. These are some...songs.”

Harry points to Dave, who does not look back, but he still counts off the beginning of the song right on time, which is enough reason to believe he won’t sabotage the rest of their set.

It’s a good thing he can’t see Harry’s face, though, because Harry spends the majority of it staring right at Louis. He can’t help it; he usually likes some kind of anchor when he sings, even if it’s just anyone who happens to be staring back at him when his eyes scan a crowd. He’s doing a rubbish job of hiding his bias this time around, however, and anyway it’s fun to watch Louis try not to squirm when Harry sings hard, when he has to squint and throw his head back and open his mouth wide around the words. Harry likes what Louis’ face does when he sings like that, and he likes knowing he has some effect on him, at least, even though he can’t decipher exactly what it is.

They play a few songs, and the best Harry can gauge their performance is that there are more people watching by the time they finish than there were when they started. The applause goes on for a minute before the speakers start playing The Strokes again and Race Canyon leaves the stage to a group of people waiting for them on the side of it, including Liam and Zayn and Louis, who hands Harry a bottle of water.

“Was it alright?” Harry asks, uncapping it and taking a sip.

“Amazing,” Louis says, like it’s obvious, then turns to everyone else. “Hey, guys, thanks again. Free beer for you over there,” he adds, pointing, which is about all he needs to say before the lot of them disperse--with the exception of Dave, who was never there to begin with.

“Come get a drink with me,” Harry says, slipping an arm around Louis’ waist. The spot just beneath his ribs reminds Harry how easily his hands fit there when they were kissing in the bar, and he presses a bit harder, wondering if Louis remembers, too, or if he’s thought about it again.

Harry would guess it invades his normal thoughts about once every five minutes since it happened. Easily.

But it’s not just Louis plastered to his side that makes Harry feel so buoyant en route to the bar. The post-show high is always great, but this in particular felt good and right and he can’t pinpoint why, exactly. Nothing changed, really; they played the same songs and most of the people in the crowd had seen them play before, but something about the combination of the sunlight pouring through the garage door and Louis mouthing the words he’s seen Harry sing countless times before made it something very special.

They get a little tipsy. Louis follows Zayn outside for a smoke that lasts almost an hour, and Harry works the room in the meantime, as he tends to do when there are humans and alcohol. A few people he recognizes as customers, but most of them are his friends, or people he refers to as his friends. His sister teased him for that when he first moved there, that he’d got more drinks bought for him in three weeks than she had during her entire college career.

It’s nothing he does on purpose. He never wears himself out on being friendly--how could he? Unintentionally, he saves the best of it for certain people, like Niall, who is everything Harry wants to be in a living person. There is no one, in Harry’s eyes, cooler than Niall. He just embodies it. He’s so easy. Harry loves him, and he tells him so everyday, or he tries to.

He’s fairly lit when Louis and Zayn come back in, followed by--Dave? Louis doesn’t look very happy and neither does his ex-boyfriend, and before Harry realizes it he’s cutting through the crowd to meet him halfway in the middle of the room, like catching up to him here will negate whatever interaction he just had with Dave. He wants to put it out of his mind.

“All good, mate?” Harry asks. He places a hand on Louis’ shoulder when someone taller and drunker than both of them threatens to barrel past him. “Want another beer?”

“I’ll steal some of yours,” Louis smirks, taking the drink from Harry’s hand. “Dave was just wondering what I’m doing later.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I told him it depended what you were doing.” Louis says it so convincingly that Harry almost believes it, and his stomach flips in a good way. “Got any plans for us?”

“I was thinking of having people back at mine,” Harry lies. “Sound alright?”

Louis nods. “Going there anyway, aren’t I?”

“Yeah you are, roomie,” Harry says, hooking his arm around Louis’ shoulder and rubbing his chin on top of his head, using annoyance as a flimsy excuse to gather him close. Louis pounds a fist against his chest, but Harry doesn’t let him go far when he steps away and hooks a hand around the back of his neck. “Did you have fun tonight?” he asks, earnest and a little drunk.

“The best time.”

“‘re you being sarcastic?”

“No.” Louis smiles and shakes his head. “I worked my ass off on this. It just feels good that it’s done, honestly.” He considers Harry for a second. “You seem happy tonight.”

Harry shrugs and squeezes the back of Louis’ neck once before he drops his hand and steals his beer back, holding the neck of the bottle between two fingers. “I had a good night. It’s like...what I thought it’d be like when I first moved here. It just took a while and I kept thinking I wasn’t gonna stay…”

“Stay in the country?”

“Sounds dramatic when you say it like that.” Harry laughs. “Just wasn’t sure I was cut out for it. It’s hard, you know? Moving and not knowing anyone and I’ve met some amazing people, honestly, but you just kinda miss home unless there’s enough good stuff to keep you busy.” He takes a sip of the beer, then passes it back to Louis, who is listening closely and indulging Harry in his tipsy longwindedness with admirable patience and care. He’s coming to his point, anyway, which is: “And lately I’ve had that...even just getting out and going to the quarry that one day, you know?”

“That was fun,” Louis cuts in, and Harry flushes and resists the strong urge to forget whatever he meant to say and kiss him, instead. He thinks he remembers the way he tastes and he doesn’t want to forget.

“It was fun,” he repeats instead, pausing to watch Louis finish off the last of the beer. “Just stuff like that.” It’s difficult to phrase it all without saying: you, you’re the reason.

“Well,” Louis sighs, looking away and then back at Harry with that pinched smile he gets when he’s about to say something candid. “I’m glad you’re staying. You’re alright to have around.”

“I’ve been told I’m pretty alright,” Harry says, smiling too wide for the words to come out clearly. “By Louis Tomlinson, no less. Wow. What a compliment.”

“Play your cards right and you might get another.” Louis sniffs, and Harry wonders, briefly, if they’re flirting, if that’s what’s happening.

It’s not that it’s incomprehensible, but he dismisses the thought almost as quickly as it comes. It’s actually a thing that they do often--that they do well, even. It’s just that there are a few unspoken rules to how it all plays out: Harry’s always the one who initiates it, and it’s always when they’re out, when someone will see it, when Dave will see it. To think any of it is without motive is dangerous, though Harry really wants to.

The crowd starts to disperse around them, and Louis darts around the shop to make sure everything is in order as the mac and cheese food truck starts to close up and the brewery loads the metal bins and leftover bottles back into their van. Harry tries to make himself useful and picks up spare bits of garbage on the floor when he sees it, but he’s mostly just waiting for Louis to finish since they’re leaving together, anyway. People there seem unwilling to let the party break up; the rest of Race Canyon still hasn’t left, Dave included. Harry keeps an eye on him while he ties up bin liners and carries them out to the dumpster. He’s talking to a guy Harry’s never seen or met before, and Harry wouldn’t ordinarily assume Dave would fake it, but seeing as he’s currently doing the same with Louis, he’s not entirely sure.

They’re close to being finished, but Louis has been nursing the same beer for ten minutes as he pretends to sort out something behind the register and fails to hide his obvious stares in Dave’s direction.

“You ready?” Harry asks as he leans up against the counter, facing Louis. “The after party is just waiting to happen.”

“Oh.” Louis tears his eyes away from Dave and licks his lips, swallows, and refocuses on Harry. “After party?”

Harry shrugs. “I have whiskey and Niall has beer. Sounds like a party.” He taps his hand on the counter and jerks his head. “C’mon, we’ll be really loud about it.”

If Louis is confused, it doesn’t stop him from letting Harry take his hand and walk him toward the group of people still milling about, leaning on bikes as they finish off their beers. “We’re headed out,” Harry announces to them all, lifting a hand in a wave before he points to Niall and Zayn and Liam. “You’re all coming, right?”

They’re met with a round of confirmations, and Louis waves, too, which makes Harry feel like he’s royalty, or something, pretending to be part of this fake couple that decides when a party is over and when the next begins. It’s a bittersweet taste of how things could be between them, if Harry had met him first. He’s convinced they could’ve been the real-life version of what they’re playing at.

“Quick,” Harry mutters, turning to face Louis as they walk out. He pauses to lean down, and Louis takes the hint beautifully, actually smiles into the kiss he gives him. It’s not chaste at all; it’s just sweet enough to make Harry’s stomach feel like he’s just swallowed something warm. He smells so good that Harry squeezes their hands to keep from going in for another, and doesn’t let go until they’re in front of his Triumph. They’ll go back to friends when they’re in Harry’s house, but the trip home is still lovely and warm and sticky but never enough to keep Louis’ hands from touching Harry’s back, holding onto him even when Harry knows for certain there’s no reason.

Louis

“Oh my god,” Harry moans.

He’s on the floor, knees folded under his chest and his neck straight. His forehead rests in the frame of his stretched arms, bowed forward as he forms himself into position. His back is bare and massive looking, broad all the way down past his waist. His ass is up, propped just above his heels from crouching the way he is. His skin is glistening, even in the temperate room, where the air conditioning has been fixed for a solid two weeks now.

The noises he makes are minimal at first--merely contented sounding exhales that are shadowed by a few seconds of silence. It’s a temporary quiet until he slides his arms farther ahead of himself and makes his back lengthen even more. He doesn’t stop groaning after that, first softly and then like each one is being wrenched from somewhere he hasn’t accessed in ages.

“Mmf,” he gets out, the closest thing to an intelligible word that he can manage, apparently.

Louis looks him over, his tongue going drier than the Sahara. Living with Harry has been a test from the start because he’s so comfortable with himself, always in various states of undress, not an ounce of shame in body. It had been strange at first because it was so different from what Louis was used to before.

Harry’s just intimate--all the time--there’s only one version of himself and he shares it happily, wanting people to know him. It’s hard to imagine him more vulnerable than he already allows himself to be. Louis doesn’t understand why it makes him sad to think about. He can only figure that it’s because, if Harry hides so little, the things he does hold close must be incredibly heavy.

Still, if everything else has been a test, this is a full blown challenge.

His intention was to walk straight through to the kitchen for another mason jar of fruit infused water. He’d rolled his eyes when Harry first made him one, but his subsequent addiction to orange and blueberry had forced him to eat crow. Harry had promptly stocked the first shelf of the fridge with pre-made jars because letting them sit was supposed to better infuse the flavors, or so he said. Louis let him have that. North Carolina summers were like living in a wet sock, so he was all for anything that would keep him refreshed.

The distraction on the way there was unplanned, to say the least.

“Um...” He finally calls attention to himself. When Harry turns his head to look at him, Louis makes sure to fix his face to something more appropriate. The corner of his lips quirk up, twitching into a half-smirk and both of his eyebrows raise higher. “That’s not suggestive, or anything.”

“I’ve got a bad back,” Harry says conversationally. He rocks forward into the pose once more before he starts to get up, slowly, his posture better than Louis’ ever seen it as he moves into a normal sitting position.

“So that means you have to do your best porn impression in the living room?” Trying to make him flustered takes some of the heat off of Louis. He feels it, though. He’s suddenly inconvenienced by living in such close quarters with someone who looks...like Harry.

“No,” Harry laughs, standing up from his yoga mat and hanging his arms forward to start rolling it up. “I didn’t sound like I was doing porn,” he protests, though his eyes squint immediately after, his face turning skeptical. “Did I?”


“Let’s just say you’ll always have a career at CockyBoys.”

“What’s that?” Harry’s eyes go wide and Louis hates him for a very brief moment because he genuinely believes he’s not being tongue-in-cheek and now he’s the weirdo who can reference popular porn sites in midday conversation.

The moment lasts for a beat too long before Harry grins, coming up beside him and giving his bicep a friendly squeeze. “M’joking. I’m definitely familiar with CockyBoys.”

Oh. The embarrassment was better, then. At least that had come without the image of Harry in his bedroom, getting himself off while Louis was asleep just on the other side of the wall.

Louis resents that he let his thoughts even reach that point and considers, for the first time since the split with Dave, that maybe he should find someone to hook up with in the meantime. Dave already thinks he’s got something going with Harry, so one night with someone else won’t impede the plan.

With that thought, Louis continues on his quest for infused water while he hears the shower squeak and start down the hall. He almost chokes mid-sip when Harry trots back into the living room wearing sweat-stained grey briefs low around his hips, as though he’d been nude and thought better of subjecting Louis to it.

“Forgot my phone,” he says, holding it up as he jogs back into the bathroom and shuts the door. There’s an iPod dock in there because Harry doesn’t like to shower without music, which doesn’t bother Louis. He likes hearing him sing.

*

After Harry’s x-rated yoga session and a couple of personal CockyBoys sessions with himself, Louis gets to thinking. He’s on Zayn’s front step a few days later, and the topic circles around to relationships--boys, girls, exes. He can’t stop wondering if Dave is finally in his rearview mirror, so to speak. There are few people he trusts more than Zayn to be honest with him and actually give advice, too.

“I’ve been thinking I might actually hook up with someone,” Louis says. This is a bigger deal than he’s making it out to be, but he needs to hear what Zayn has to say. “Feels like it’s about time.”

“That’s cool, bro.” Zayn nods and props a cigarette between his teeth. “I kind of saw that coming.”

Louis frowns. “You did?”

“I thought it was already happening, actually. You’re with him all the time.”

“Who?”

Zayn snorts and gives him an are-you-joking look. “Harry?”

Harry?”

Zayn looks up from lighting his cigarette, blinks his big eyes. He really does look remarkably like a doe. “Are you not talking about Harry?”

“No!” Louis laughs. “I just meant...anyone. Harry’s definitely not--we don’t--”

“Fuck?”

“We don’t do anything! It’s like how you and Niall are, you just hang out--”

Now Zayn laughs, cutting him off. “If you don’t want to fuck Harry, it’s definitely not how me and Niall are.”

“Are you--”

Zayn shakes his head. “No. But I would. Kinda want to. But I didn’t mean to bring that up, I just wanted to ask about Harry, ‘cause, like…” He takes a thoughtful drag, licking his lips after he exhales. “Don’t you think it’s kind of weird that this faking thing has gone on so long?”

“No,” Louis says, immediately defensive. “I want to make Dave feel like shit.”

“I’d just be careful.” Zayn rubs his thumb and forefinger together, holding the cigarette up beside his face, letting it burn while he pauses before speaking again. “I think it’s more likely you’ll make Harry feel like shit.”

What?” Louis had no idea Zayn had this many theories about Harry, or that he thought about him at all.

“I don’t think he’s faking it, dude.” Zayn stubs out his cigarette on the porch railing. “I’m just saying.”

Louis really doesn’t want to think about it; the thought makes him uncomfortable and, weirdly, gives him butterflies that are more confusing than pleasant.

It was Harry’s idea. Of course he’s faking it.

But now Louis can’t stop wondering. He tries to watch Harry closely when he sees him later to decide whether or not he is, in fact, not just pretending to be his boyfriend but if he might actually want to be the real thing. The problem with Harry is that he flirts with everyone--often in a very innocent way, but it’s still flirting. He’s so touchy that Louis no longer considers it for long when he kisses Niall on the face or when he uses Louis’ shoulder as a pillow.

A week after that nagging conversation with Zayn, he and Harry are on the couch with a box of pizza open and empty on the coffee table, melted cheese gone hard on the grease-stained cardboard. Louis is full and sleepy, considering calling it a night because Harry’s been scrolling Instagram with his head resting on Louis’ thigh for the last ten minutes, and the weight is warm and blanket-like.

It is, overall, a good example of what’s become a normal night for them.

Until his phone buzzes, the long kind that signifies a phone call and not a text. Harry feels it and sits up, chucks his own phone onto the couch and points to the bathroom. Louis blinks sleepily at the screen and sees, to his utter shock, Dave’s name and his face on the screen. He answers before he can wonder why.

“Hey,” Dave says, his voice soft. “Do you have a minute?”

Louis sits straight up, his heart slamming. It’s been two weeks since he’s seen him, and longer than that since they’ve exchanged more than a couple of texts or a dirty look in a bar. “Sure, yeah.”

The conversation is already over by the time Harry comes back from the bathroom, yawning into his hand as he settles back into the couch cushions. “Should we watch Late Night?”

“Dave asked if I wanted to come over,” Louis blurts out. His mouth is dry and he feels like he might expel all the pizza he ate before he leaves. “He just called.”

“Dave--wait, really?”

“Yeah, he just--he asked, I dunno, I dunno why, but I’m gonna…” He still can’t believe it, really, but he’s shaking; it’s amazing how quickly that happened. How quickly he gave into Dave’s will without question. He really thought he was closer to being over him, but his voice sounded so genuine, he hadn’t called him in a long time...

Louis steps into his Vans and grabs his bike helmet and glances in the mirror. With his hand on the doorknob he turns around to look  at Harry, curious about that strange urge he has to ask him if he’s alright with this, or if he needs anything.

“I’ll be back,” Louis says, and Harry looks over at him, the blue light from the TV only illuminating half his face. His lips are pressed together in a tight line, and there’s a little notch between his eyebrows.

“Good luck.” Harry gives him a thumbs up. It’s not very enthusiastic. Louis hesitates.

This is what I want, he reminds himself. Maybe it’s curiosity, or maybe it’s something stronger than that, residual love that he thought was long gone--whatever it is, the feeling overwhelms. He shuts the door behind him and takes a deep breath.

Harry

To Harry’s credit, he does not peer out the window and watch Louis bike away. It feels as though someone is pressing him by the shoulders into the couch, anyway. He stares at the ceiling, instead, the telly still not loud enough to drown out his thoughts.

He was sure that he’d been prepared for that moment. It was inevitable--who could deny Louis for long, anyway?--but realizes now that he was certainly not ready. He feels crushed, and he also has the sense that he ought not to be that broken up about it, but he’s never been in the practice of pretending as though his feelings don’t exist. It doesn’t always mean always handles those feelings the right way, but he at least he acknowledges them in some way.

He’s been foolish, he thinks, to assume that Louis wanting to make Dave jealous is the same as Louis being over and done with their relationship. All those touches on the couch, the little ones they sneak in even when they’re alone, they all add up to something for Harry, but they don’t mean anything, or they don’t mean enough to Louis to stop him from running after Dave when he calls.

It’s only been three minutes. Louis definitely isn’t with him yet, and still Harry can’t stop picturing the way their reunion will go. Each scene in his head is more cinematic and ridiculous than the next.

When his phone vibrates beneath the empty pizza box on the coffee table, Harry assumes mindlessly that it’s Louis--but of course it’s not Louis, it’s an email from Groupon, a service he’s sure he’s never signed up for and doesn’t understand. With his phone in his hands, now, he wonders how soon is too soon to text Louis and see how it’s going. Maybe he should wait an hour.

--

He waits a half hour.

The first text is fine and normal:

how’s it going?

He sends it, locks his phone, rests it on his chest, and waits.

--

Another half hour passes with no reply. They’re definitely having the sort of heart-to-heart that they need to have in order to get past the last few weeks of zero communication. Harry knows that. It doesn’t make him feel better, but he understands.

He’s cleaning his bedroom for lack of something better to do--he’s not tired at all--and is in the middle of an inventory of his winter jumpers when he decides to text Louis again.

have you seen my jumper? the black one with those little speckle things on

After that, he tries anything to get him to answer.

When he finds his leather jacket:

how do you get the smell of petrol out of vintage leather?

After he brushes his teeth:

did you clean the toilet recently?

While he watches The History Channel:

do you know which language they speak in Liberia?

His questions become steadily more asinine as he lets himself descend into a panic spiral. The plan had been effortless to come up with, and it’s even been easy to go along with, but all of Harry’s confidence or carelessness, maybe, has been served with a heavy helping of something else. So maybe he’s never been in denial, exactly, but he’s been guiltily, stupidly optimistic. They were supposed to end up like that movie with Sabrina the Teenage Witch and the guy from Entourage. He hoped maybe they’d get their own cheesy tagline about Louis realizing what was right under his nose all along, but he shouldn’t have been so naive.

He’s in full meltdown mode when his phone lights up and vibrates obnoxiously on the table, tapping his bare foot along the edge of it and chewing at his thumbnail like he’s watching a thriller rather than some mundane program about land governance. He considers, briefly, that maybe he should just ignore it--that, even if it’s Louis, maybe it doesn’t matter that much.

His willpower lasts the length of one commercial before he’s leaning forward, grabbing his phone up and unlocking it so quickly that he practically loses his grip on it.

It’s Louis, and though that in itself should be somewhat of a relief, the text is vague enough for Harry to keep wondering about the details of what’s happening at Dave’s.

i’ll help you solve life’s mysteries later harold

Later. The entire statement is pithy and silly, the same way Louis always texts him, and he even tacked on the nickname that he randomly adopted for him in one of their very first conversations, but all Harry can focus on is the word later. Because if Louis’ predisposed, if he can’t get back to him until later, then obviously something else has his attention.

He’s thought about the situation in broad terms. The second Louis had grappled for his helmet and been out the door, he’d started imagining their reconciliation--how Dave would admit to being a total prick and letting go of the best thing that ever happened to him, yadda yadda insincere bullshit, and Louis would tentatively believe him and they’d start rebuilding.

Now, all Harry can think about is the details: Louis’ arms draped around Dave’s shoulders, playing with the strings on the stupid hoodie he always wears even when it’s a million degrees out. Dave looking at him like he owns him. He decides that they’re definitely, absolutely fucking. Right now. Right as he’s sitting alone on his couch, heartily considering breaking--well, more like gently tipping over the lamp that sits on the table next to him; it’s one of his most beloved possessions that he bought from a nice old lady at a rummage sale. Louis thinks it’s hideous.

He definitely needs a drink.

Picking himself back up from the couch, he trudges into the kitchen, going straight to the cabinet for an unopened bottle of wine. They used to live on the top shelf, but have since been relocated to the middle one since Louis can’t reach without getting on his tiptoes. The very thought makes Harry forego a glass and just rifle around for the bottle opener instead.

Maybe he drank half a bottle of wine a little too quickly, then. Maybe he ought to have turned off the telly before he passed out to a penis enlargement infomercial.

“Harry. Hey. Harry. Harold.”

A push to his shoulder finally wakes him from an uncomfortable sleep he doesn’t remember falling into. One leg is resting against the back of the couch, the other is dangling off the edge, and his arm is so asleep that it feels heavy and foreign when he tries to move it from above his head.

“‘s going on?” Harry rasps, finding Louis’ backlit figure standing above him. “Time is it?”

“Almost 6.”

Harry sits up and inspects Louis with one eye squinted shut. “Why’d you wake me up?”

“Because you have a bad back,” Louis says, as though it’s obvious, but it doesn’t keep Harry from smirking into his t-shirt sleeve.

“It is awful, isn’t it?” Harry agrees sleepily. He swings his legs off the sofa and stands up slow, already feeling the effects of that four hour kip. The creaky wood floor is nice and cool, and Louis is within arm’s reach, and Harry can smell whatever it is that trails after him whenever he’s in the room, the same smell he recognizes when he walks out into the hallway in the morning and that he can smell on his clothes after they take a ride together.

Harry stifles a yawn and tacks a question onto the end of it, as though it’ll convince Louis of its nonchalance: “Dave alright?”

Louis shrugs and nods and looks entirely noncommittal. “He’s fine.”

“That’s good.” Harry folds his arms over his chest. Be supportive. “Right?”

“Yeah, I’m just...really tired, dude. I’m gonna head to bed.” He points down the hall with his thumb. Harry waves him off.

The light creeping in through the living room windows is soft and inviting; Harry hates to leave it, would love to sit on the porch and watch the street as it brightens into daylight, but he’s tired, too. They each shut their respective doors behind them, crawling into bed as the morning sun gets warmer and brighter by the minute.

Louis

After the late-night conversation at Dave’s, Louis found himself nostalgic for their relationship as it once was, but not mourning it. The nostalgia is almost worse.

He misses the house, and the stability of it and the way he felt waking up there, in the first place he’d ever shared with someone he was dating, no matter how creaky the floor boards or how buggy it got in the summertime. He misses that fleeting feeling he had when he first moved in, like he had everything going for him just by moving in with Dave, like the future was wide open and he couldn’t count on what might happen, but at least he had that little house, and at least he had Dave. That was a foolish thing to count on.

Their conversation wasn’t as fulfilling as he anticipated when he biked over there on that sleepy night. He was prepared to open himself up as long as Dave did the same, but it took lots of teasing and a few bitter words before they could get to the heart of the matter. It was the most intense anything had been between them since the night they broke up, but even then, Dave refused to flat-out ask him if they could be together again, and Louis wasn’t going to be the one to beg.

There was no offer to stay that night. They shared a brief kiss in the doorway when Louis was leaving--one of his feet was literally out of the door--but it was more curious than emotional. Like, can we still do this? Does this still feel right?

Louis would have stayed with him that night, but there was no offer. What Dave said instead was, “We’ll talk soon.”

Neither of them mentioned Harry, and Louis was relieved about that; he didn’t have an answer prepared and wasn’t sure what flimsy lie he might have told under the pressure of being asked when he was alone, without Harry there to coax a smile out of him and make him look convincing. Depending on how Dave looked when he asked, he might have even offered the truth.

But the lie he was living felt like less of a lie, these days, because something had happened: he and Harry were friends. Good friends.

Louis didn’t know when they’d become far more than strangers partaking in the same weird act, but it was probably somewhere between Harry letting him move in and Harry making him eggs at four in the morning and the thousand inside jokes they’d tripped into in between.

When he moved in, his concern was that they would be awkward together, but it never happened. Louis genuinely likes him in a way he’s only ever liked a few people in his life. He’s glad they can hang out. He’s glad to have a roommate like Harry, who trusts the silence between them and laughs at his jokes and is up for anything.

That mutual spontaneity is how they wind up taking a ride almost an hour away on a Tuesday night to go eat waffles at a diner they saw on the Food Network. It was so simple: they saw it on TV, they both scoffed at the idea that they could drive there in an hour, and then Louis said, with a laugh: “I mean, I’d go.”

And Harry shrugged without missing a beat. “Let’s go.”

So they went. It was the best waffle Louis ever had.

It had taken a significant amount of goading on Harry’s part to get Louis on the back of his bike for the first time, but he’s comfortable with it now. Hell, he even enjoys it. He feels a surge of excitement when they walk out of the diner, their bodies bumping into each other on the way to where they’re parked.

Harry passes over the brand new helmet that he’d surprised Louis with the day before and that Louis had accepted, somewhat hesitantly, too pleased and flattered to point out that he might not need it for much longer. He takes it, then, fitting it over his head and laughing when Harry flicks at the shell of it.

“Get away from me,” he teases, shoving at Harry’s side and poking him in all his tickle-spots until Harry’s laughing, too, and stumbling over his own feet trying to escape.

“I’m sorry!” Harry pleads through his laughter. His eyes are wide and big-pupiled like when he’s drunk. He isn’t--he’s only had a comically sized chocolate shake to drink--but Louis has learned that it’s just The Harry Effect. That’s what he’s deemed it as, at least. He gets excited and it’s palpable and adorable and god, contagious.

“You always play dirty,” he adds. He looks like he’s sizing Louis up as he locks on his own helmet. Louis tries to give him back the most innocent face that he can muster.

“Do you think I’m not supposed to take advantage of the fact that you’re the most ticklish person I’ve ever met?” Louis asks, incredulous, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world that he’s to torture Harry at any and all possible opportunities.

And because it’s Harry, he seems to accept that, yes, Louis should do exactly that. He hoists one leg over his bike and straddles it, moving up on the seat enough so that Louis has room to climb on back. Louis does; he follows the same movement and wedges up close to Harry, winding his arms around his waist comfortably, like he’s done a good dozen times now.

“What d’you think about taking a bit of a detour?” Harry asks over his shoulder, his palms gliding anxiously over the handles and his foot wedging under the kickstand in preparation.

“Isn’t a waffle shack we saw on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives a detour in itself?”

“Only if we were still on our way somewhere else.” He laughs and pushes his back against Louis’ chest affectionately and Louis can feel the vibration of it as well as he can hear it, how Harry’s body rumbles against his. It makes him want to tickle him again just to get him to squirm back even tighter, but doesn’t know why he wants that, so he refrains.

“Yeah, we could do that,” Louis agrees, nodding belatedly because Harry’s already turning to look ahead again.

“It’s not so much of a detour as it is a longer way back,” he explains.

It doesn’t matter either way, really. He has work tomorrow, but it’s not like he can’t crash for a nap when he gets home. One of the only upsides to not being in a relationship is the freedom that it gives him. Sometimes it’s boring and lonely, and he feels directionless, but other times it’s nice not having someone to answer to. Dave had been hard to navigate at times and especially hard to please. He doesn’t have that anymore. He has a roommate that always seems so fucking happy to be around him that it makes Louis excited to come home to him.

The hum of the motor starting up has become something of a comfort, now. Louis sighs when he hears it, no longer having the instinct to tense up when they first pull off. His body eases into it, the same way he feels when he’s riding his own bike and maneuvering just as fast as his legs will allow him. The open air feels good. He feels alert, even though it’s well after sundown and he’s just eaten his weight in waffles and ice cream.

Harry was right when he described the trek as long. The ride there had breezed by, but the route he takes is desolate and meandering. As a Carolina native, Louis has had ample time to appreciate farmland and quaint country roads, but it’s a different way of experiencing it all. It feels like being in another world, out under the stars, not a pair of headlights for as far as he can see. It would be a disquieting thing to be so alone with anyone else but Harry, whose company has a natural solace to it.

It’s half an hour before they slow while passing over a short, narrow bridge and Louis’ surprised when Harry pulls off to the side of the road rather than speeding up again. He clutches his waist curiously, trying to get Harry to look back at him when he cuts the bike off--which he does, turning his head while unlatching the chin-strap on his helmet.

“C’mon, let’s stop for a bit,” he says, strapping it to the handle and lowering the stand to steady them properly.

“Do you even know where we are?”

“Course I do.” Harry nods, sure of himself. He holds out a hand for Louis to take as they get off the bike. The entire atmosphere reminds him of one of those Buzzfeed posts, titled 10 of America’s Most Creepy Abandoned Places, or something like that, but Louis still finds himself taking off his own helmet and putting his hand into Harry’s clutch.

Regardless of Harry’s alleged familiarity with the area, there’s so little around that they’re still nowhere. There’s an old factory building that’s been closed for at least Louis’ lifetime and the remnants of what must’ve been a playground, though the only definitive markers are a picnic bench and a broken swingset.

He leads him over to the bench, letting go of Louis’ hand and foregoing the actual seat to sit atop the table portion of it. Louis sits beside him and wonders why Harry’s chosen here of all places for a late-night pitstop.

“You’ve been here before?” He shifts on the table and wonders how many splinters he’s going to have to pull out of his ass when they get home. “Kind of a weird place. I think I would’ve driven right past it if you didn’t stop.”

“Yeah, a couple of times. I drove around a lot when I first got here. I used to get really homesick.”

Louis frowns. “That’s hard to believe. You’ve always seemed like a wanderer to me.”

It’s true; Harry’s the most at home person that he’s ever known, no matter where he is. It’s like the whole world adapts to his presence, or maybe it’s him who does the adapting, but regardless, there’s such an effortless calm about him. He never looks out of place. Never seems like he would rather be anywhere other than where he’s at or the people he’s with.

“I like to keep busy. See new things, you know?” Harry shrugs. “But it was weird at first...coming so far and not really knowing anyone. Gemma was busy with school and before I made friends, I just used to spend hours riding these back roads,” he says, and makes a winding motion with his hand. “I’d just go straight off work and ride. Still totally filthy, covered in dirt.”

“Just to get acquainted?”

“Exactly,” Harry nods. He sets his forearms down on his knees and clasps his hands together, cracking his knuckles. “I suppose the point was that’s how I found this place, but yeah, that’s what I was doing. Making things familiar helped.”

“Do you still, then?”

“Come out here? No, I--”

Louis shakes his head. “Get homesick?”

He doesn’t want Harry to feel homesick, and the thought that he might be makes him want to squeeze closer, his body lining up with Harry’s until he can feel the heat from their thighs pressing up together. Louis’ gotten so used to his presence and his eccentricities and how much he cares about everyone with his prodigious heart, can’t stand the thought of him being unhappy.

And, selfishly, he would hate for Harry to miss England enough to go back. He would hate to lose him as a friend.

Harry keeps looking him over for a moment and then he smiles, his big, genuine smile, with nothing tentative or unsure about it. He slides one arm around Louis’ middle, gathering him close for a comically tight squeeze. “How could I be?”

It’s almost a relief, like he’d been wishing Harry would do exactly that. Louis’ head drops against Harry’s shoulder and he doesn’t fight the smile. It’s been a while since anyone gave him a hug, and that’s what this feels like.

“You’re still a long way from home,” Louis points out after a moment. “I’d be homesick.”

“We’re only like...twenty minutes away,” Harry protests, clenching his palm around the dip in Louis’ waist.

“I meant from your actual home. You know, Mars, not Holmes Chapel in Cheshire.” He tries his absolute best to imitate Harry’s slow, deep drawl. It’s abysmal. Harry looks indignant.

“M’offended now. You’re rejecting me as a North Carolinian. Am I not cool enough to be in the club? Should I buy a new hat?”

“I don’t think it’s possible,” Louis says, thoughtful. “I’m pretty sure you own every lame hat in the world. Good job.” He pats his thigh.

“Wow.” Harry frowns, his face hilariously calm. “So that’s how it’s gonna be.”

Louis grins. “That’s the way it is. You and your dumb hats.”

Harry presses his tongue to the inside of his cheek, but Louis can still see his dimple. He’s the worst at thinking up comebacks, and what comes out next is a good example of that: “Your impression of my accent wasn’t even good, by the way.”

Holmes Chapel in Cheshire,” Louis  says again, laughing through the words, his voice even deeper and more somber than before. “Mr. I’m so quirky I like to, like, hang out on back roads and, like, ponder life.”

Harry’s jaw drops, which is exactly the reaction that Louis wanted. “That’s it, get off me, we’re breaking up. I don’t want to be your fake boyfriend anymore,” he pouts, pushing at Louis’ shoulder with no intent whatsoever. Louis snorts and hangs onto his t-shirt, pinching and prodding him until he looks back.

“Bullshit.”

“It’s not,” Harry shakes his head, looking regretful. “We’re over.”

“I still call bullshit.”

Harry is already smiling; it’s so easy to break him. “Nope. Done. Dunzo.”

“No.”

“Yep.”

“Say you don’t mean it,” Louis whines, doing his best impression of his younger sisters when they don’t get what they want.

Harry huffs, but he doesn’t try to push him off. He puts his arm round Louis’ waist as easy as anything, and Louis’ bones feel like they go to dust the second he does. He’s badly missed being on the opposite end of someone’s affection, and all those weeks spent putting themselves in Dave’s path had acted as a patch for that loneliness, but it’s been a while since they’ve had an excuse. They’ve held hands, they’ve kissed, they’ve made an absolute scene in public together, but it’s all been contrived. It’s nice to be wrapped up with someone for no reason, even if it’s as a friend.

“I don’t mean it,” Harry admits in a whisper, smiling. His lips knock gently against Louis’ forehead--it’s not even really a kiss--they just rest there. It’s nice. It makes Louis hold on tighter. “We’ll work on your terrible accent.”

“My accent is great,” Louis mumbles, glad for an excuse to make a joke. He’s hyper-aware of his own body when Harry touches it, and wonders as their conversation continues if they’re crossing a line from joking friends to something more. He wants to stay firmly on the side of the former, so he doesn’t do anything other than sit still and let the warmth of Harry’s body mingle with his own.

Louis doesn’t know how long they talk, and once they had back the dark path to the bike he doesn’t really remember much about their conversation, but it’s not the kind of night where the subject matter is important. Sitting with a chorus of crickets under countless stars with his friend means more to him than he can articulate even to himself.

It’s the best night he’s had in a while.

*

Somehow, “let’s have a cookout for the 4th of July” turned into “we’re throwing a big-ass party for the 4th of July.”

Harry’s been there for less than a year, but his friend group is quite vast, considering. He invites just as many people as Louis does, and it’s evidence to just how well-liked he is in so many circles that nearly everyone changed their previous plans to come to his house once they heard he was having a party. Louis invited his usual group, the same people he’s known since grade school along with current and former co-workers from the bike shop.

Neither of them discuss it, but they don’t invite Dave. Louis is certain he wouldn’t show up even if he’d told him he wanted him there, not unless he was feeling particularly vindictive. He’d seen him at the grocery store that morning when he went to buy twenty boxes of Jell-O and two bottles of expensive-as-fuck pomegranate juice for something Harry insisted on concocting.

They had a short, civil conversation that left Louis frustrated only because it reminded him of what they’d done last year for the holiday. It was a good day, and he hadn’t thought about it since the universe decided right then was a good time for him to be stuck behind Dave in line at the register.

He comes home feeling grumpy and weird and hot, because he’s just walked five blocks with three heavy plastic bags digging into his palms. Harry is at the door with hair still wet from a shower tied up in a flag bandana, smelling of cologne as he ties an American flag apron around his waist. All his tattoos are on display-- he’s not wearing a shirt. “Party in the USA” is playing on the crappy speakers in the kitchen.

“Whoa, festive,” Louis grunts, thumping past Harry. “I’m gonna go make Jell-o shots.”

“Beer’s in the fridge,” Harry calls after him. “Everything okay?”

“What?” Louis asks, even though he heard him clearly. He puts the bags onto the counter and wipes sweat from his brow, annoyed at how good and clean Harry looks, more annoyed by Dave and the sweat dripping down the back of his own neck. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

Harry stares at him. Miley is the only sound in the room, and it’s ridiculous enough for them both to start grinning. “The butterflies fly away,” Harry sings loud and points to his belly, where the tattoo is peeking out from his apron. “Get it?”

“No, I don’t understand simple jokes.”

Noddin’ my head like yeah--”

“Harry--”

MOVING MY HIPS LIKE YEAH!”

“Oh my god, get out, please, you’re like an American nightmare--” Louis grabs Harry by the shoulders, spins him around and forces him into the living room, laughing, which he supposes was the entire point of Harry being as annoying as possible. “Go start the grill, or something.”

He does a little hip wiggle as he walks out the door, which is more endearing than Louis would ever admit to. The whole act did make him forget about Dave and focus on making the only food he could make, which was Jell-O, which is probably not technically a food.

“Is there a recipe for Jell-O shots?” is a question he should have asked himself before he started to make Jell-O shots. He fixes them as normal but just adds a lot of vodka to to the mix and hopes for the best.

Harry wasn’t kidding--there is a lot of beer in the fridge. He grabs two and takes a long sip of one on his way outside, where his roommate and fake boyfriend looks like the stereotypical weird neighbor in every shitty comedy Louis has ever seen. He’s in front of the grill, still shirtless, still wearing an American flag apron, with a spatula in one hand and a stack of hot dogs on a plate next to him, singing to himself while he fiddles with the knobs and waves to people driving by.

Louis really likes him. He’s glad he met him.

“Beer,” he says by way of greeting, placing it down next to the hot dogs. “Cheers.”

“Thank you,” Harry grins at him, pushing up his sunglasses with his free hand. “Are you ready, Louis, for the best wiener of your life?”

Louis glances down at them, frowning to resist the urge to laugh. “They look a little small for me, actually.”

“You mean to tell me you’ve seen a more beautiful wiener than this?” Harry shakes it around, making it flop obscenely until Louis can’t not grin. “This is the dream wiener, right here.”

“The dream wiener is only four inches long?”

Harry looks affronted. “It’s a grower, not a shower. Don’t say it too loud, you’ll give it performance anxiety.” He places it onto the grill, then puts another beside it. “Oh, yeah, that’s gonna get real nice and thick, nice and big and juicy…”

“Oh my god,” Louis groans, laughing as he walks toward the sidewalk to greet Niall by his truck. He wasn’t aware that he was bringing a plastic kiddie pool, but it’s clearly the best idea ever. He helps Zayn lift it out of the truck bed and onto the front lawn next to the porch. They drop the hose into it and Niall wonders aloud who’s going to get drunk and pass out in it first.

Party guests seem to trickle in, at first. The first few hours are fairly quiet and relaxed and there are enough rickety old lawn chairs in the basement for everyone to sit in, except for Liam, who drags the pool over to the circle and sits inside of it with the beer bottle resting on his chest. Harry takes a break from grilling to sit in the chair Louis saved for him, and they do weirdly domestic things like confer on the amount of ice inside and on the progress of the Jell-O shots and whether or not they’ll need to buy more burgers.

Turns out they need a lot more burgers. Turns out every person they invited but didn’t think would show up actually does show up.

It’s fun, though. Louis’ never had such a successful house party; to be fair, it’s never been a dream of his, or anything, but it’s more fun than he anticipated it to be. With Harry by his side it’s much easier to handle the volume of people and the demands for beer and the constant runs to the convenience store for more ice and hot dog buns.

All day he manages to have good conversation with everyone except for Harry, who makes sure to grab him by the arms every time they pass each other to ask if he’s alright and if he needs anything or if anyone’s puked in the kiddie pool--again--and then they split off, too busy to linger.

Around midday Louis did feel drunk, but once it’s dark outside he all but forgets to keep drinking, too concerned with making sure no one tries to drive home after they’ve had a few too many. The party doesn’t seem to be dying down as the night wears on, certainly not after Zayn and Niall move the speakers from the living room to the windows to face out and blast Nelly to the entire neighborhood. No one seems to mind that--in fact it drives more partygoers to the front porch and lawn, people Louis doesn’t know, beautiful girls he’s never spoken to in his life who are suddenly very interested in Harry, still shirtless, still decked out in his bandana and the American flag apron.

Watching Harry with other people is something Louis doesn’t even realize he’s doing, but he can’t seem to stop. It’s just interesting, he thinks, to see the effect he Harry has on people of any gender. They just like him. It’s immediate. He can’t imagine what that’s like; what it must do to Harry’s ego. He’s so aware of what he does, too. He so clearly knows that he can make someone blush with his eye contact alone, and that he could probably hook up with anyone at the party.

Louis frowns at the porch steps, where Harry and a tall girl are sat on the steps, facing each other and speaking close. The way he looks at her brings out that look on his face, the dimpled grin and lit-up eyes Louis recognizes. His neck feels hot when he wonders whether or not Harry will bring her inside. He probably won’t even wait for the party to be over. Louis wouldn’t, if he had someone.

He walks by them, sort-of-accidentally brushing his calf into Harry as he descends the porch steps.

“Oi!” Harry calls out, and Louis pretends not to hear him.

“Where are those sparklers, Liam?” He calls out, not entirely sure where Liam is. He fingers the lighter in his hand, the one he’d spent ten minutes digging for in the kitchen junk drawer.

There’s a chorus of sparklers? from people close enough to hear him, and then Liam comes jogging back from his car with bags full, ripping them open to pass them out. All it takes is one being lit before the entire yard is full of white spraying light and the tell-tale sizzle that reminds Louis of being ten years old, barefoot on the sidewalk, much like he is right now. It’s so much fun--drawing dicks in the air and pretending to sword fight as they dodge the dull heat from the tips and light more once they’ve gone out.

Everyone else is a little too drunk to give a shit about where the sticks end up, and Louis, though he’s an absolute mess most of the time, takes a surprising initiative and gathers them up in fists, pushing through the crowd on the steps to get inside. He throws them into the trash, walks out, and sees Harry closing the bedroom door behind him.

It’s not until then that he realizes he wasn’t out there for the sparklers at all. And that he was in his bedroom.

His gut clenches when he sees him, and he can’t look away from the door, just waiting for it to open so he can see someone else walk out of it. Immediately he imagines what he’s done--a quick blowjob, maybe, or they could’ve just made out. Definitely not enough time to fuck.

It’s not like it matters, really. It’s just curiosity.

“What’s going on?” Harry asks, his eyes wide when he looks down to Louis’ hands. He’s not wearing the apron anymore; just cut off jean shorts and no shirt. “I missed fireworks?!”

“Oh, they’re just--I mean, it’s just sparklers…” Louis tears his eyes from the closed bedroom door, lets his eyes flick over Harry’s tattooed skin. He does his best not to sound accusatory: “What were you doing?”

“Oh, just now?” Harry frowns, looking back at his bedroom door. “Changed out of my other shorts. Sat in a puddle. Everything alright out there?”

Louis exhales hard. In an attempt to make sense of it, he wonders if the jealousy that bubbled up is because he’s jealous that Harry has someone to hook up with. He’s jealous of that option. Not Harry, necessarily.

“All good out there,” Louis says, a bit belated. Harry’s staring at him, arms held behind his waist, smiling at him like he knows something. “Coming back out?”

“After you,” Harry says with a smile, pauses, and then: “I can’t believe you thought I was fucking someone in there.”

Louis whips his head around, appalled. “I never said that!”

“Didn’t have to.” Harry holds the door open for him, waits for Louis to walk by before he speaks low enough for him to hear: “I wouldn’t do that with you here.”

“Don’t let me stop you,” Louis says, feeling hot and huffy, more flustered than he wants to admit or give Harry credit for. He steals off to dump ice out of a cooler, clean up popsicle sticks and paper plates that didn’t make it into a trashcan--anything to keep himself from wandering back to Harry just yet, even though he’s all he’s thinking about.

Cleaning up trash strewn about the yard seems to make people think the party is over, which, considering it’s 3 in the morning, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The crowd dwindles down to three people on the porch, and they’re all of Louis’ closest friends, people he definitely wouldn’t kick out no matter how full his house was.

“Now you’re just showing off,” Liam calls out to Harry, who’s lifted four metal folding chairs over his head as he carries them into the back yard.

“I work at a garden center,” Harry protests, groaning for effect despite the fact that the muscles in his arms aren’t even twitching. It’s a thing that Louis is hyper-aware of, unfortunately. “Heavy lifting is what I do.”

“Bet you can’t lift Louis,” Niall says, the challenge in his voice softened by his alcohol-slurred words.

“He’s not lifting me,” Louis says flatly.

Harry appears from the side of the house, smiling as he looks between Louis and Niall. “Nah, I’m fairly certain that Louis weighs less than a bag of mulch.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Louis says, turning his back to hide the grin on his face. He wishes he didn’t love the attention from him so much, but he feels like a moth to Harry’s flame, desperate for more in a way he can’t understand or control. Nothing feels quite as good as Harry talking to him or about him or teasing him. It’s so addictive and he can’t understand it because it’s not like it’s in short supply.

He takes two bags of trash to the curb while the guys on the porch start to amble their slow path down the steps and onto the lawn. Louis already knows the answer, but he still asks, “Do any of you need to crash here?”

“I only had a beer,” Zayn answers for them. He claps his hand into Louis’ and brings him in for a half-hug with lots of back slapping, then holds up Niall’s keys. “I’ll get ‘em home safe.”

“Good.”

“Are you…?” He looks at Harry, then back to Louis with wide, knowing eyes. “Anything going on?”

Louis gives him another slap on the back and ignores the question. “Call you tomorrow.”

Zayn and Niall and Liam squeeze into the truck and Louis gives them a final wave as they drive off, smiling when Zayn honks as a farewell. Harry must already be inside, because the music coming from the living room cuts out and the crickets are suddenly loud and comforting as Louis walks back up to the house. There are still bits of trash on the porch, but he’ll deal with it in the morning. Or rather, in the day time. It’ll be light in a few hours.

That anxious feeling in his gut, the one he got when he thought that Harry was certainly fucking someone in his bedroom, has never entirely subsided. It gets worse, even, when he opens the front door and sees Harry again, rubbing a hand over his bare belly as he checks his phone near where it’s plugged into the wall. He locks it and puts it down when he sees Louis. Harry looks tired but still, somehow, up for more, his face open as though Louis might have one last great idea so their party doesn’t have to end.

“You throw a good party,” Harry says, walking up to him with his arm raised. They high five.

“That was a good party, wasn’t it?”

Harry leans against the wall near the door, his hands behind his back. “Best one ever thrown at this house, by far.”

“I’m assuming I had everything to do with that.”

He was kidding, but Harry shrugs in a way that seems to say it’s not far from the truth.

“Really? Even with your rule in place?”

Harry frowns. “What rule?”

“The one where you can’t fuck someone with me here.”

He laughs, looks to his right, away from Louis’ eyes as he bites his lip. “I didn’t want to fuck her. Didn’t want anyone at that party, really.”

Louis’ heart, he realizes, is racing. He doesn’t know when that started. “No one?”

Harry looks back at him, his eyes staring deliberately at his lips and then his eyes again. He doesn’t say yes or no, he just shrugs, licks his lips.

The silence between them doesn’t sound quiet at all when Louis can only hear his own heartbeat in his ears. It takes him a moment too long to realize he’s staring at Harry’s mouth, too, wondering--thinking that maybe--

What he wants is to feel what it’s like to be in control of a situation he’s willingly put himself in for the last month. What he wants is to take advantage of being single on a night when he could really use someone.

“I want to try something,” Louis says at last, shuffling his bare feet close to where Harry is back against the wall, just waiting for Louis to make good on that claim. He smells like Listerine, like the inside of his mouth must still be tingling and cold.

They’ve done this before. Louis doesn’t know why he feels so nervous, or why it’s different, now, with Harry at his mercy, making no moves even though he must know what Louis wants to do--

“Do it,” Harry whispers, just as Louis leans in, finally, to brush their lips together once as he exhales, and again as he inhales.

This is all it takes for Harry, who unpins his hands from behind his back and yanks Louis close, his hands finding their places on his waist and the small of his back like they’ve been dying to land there all night.

Louis lets it wash over him, just how good this is, how hot Harry’s hands are, how his mouth is, in fact, still minty-cool from mouthwash. He smells incredible, like the whiffs he gets on the back of his bike concentrated into something that goes straight to Louis’ gut. He feels solid when Louis touches over his round shoulders and clutches his biceps, digging his thumbs, curious how hard he can squeeze, as if the kiss isn’t already intense enough.

He hadn’t let himself feel this before. He hadn’t even thought to deny himself the right to. In the moment, though--with Harry’s hands rucking up his t-shirt to feel the curve of his spine--he has to admit to himself that, deep down, it’s something that he’s wanted. All of the feelings, all the yearning that he’s tried to tell himself is still for Dave or some nondescript person in the meantime, passed to Harry through some strange act of transference. He can’t be bothered to try and place the when and where of it. It’s just something that’s happened.

“Harry,” he tries to say, and it comes out as part of a quiet moan. He tries to put distance between their mouths, just to take a breath, but Harry can’t seem to let go of him. It’s so much, to be that desired, so much that he feels like he’s drowning in it. Being in a relationship with someone so closed off had been trying and he’d left the situation with a collection of insecurities and what-ifs that have been at the forefront of his mind until just now because Harry’s kissing him so hard that it’s making his eyebrows knit together. He’d forgotten what it’s like to be kissed this way.

Harry feels so good under his hands. Even in the air conditioned room, his skin still feels warm from being under the sun all day. He’s like a human furnace. He’s the most physically comforting person Louis has ever been around, even when he’s slowly driving him insane with his mouth.

“Sorry,” Harry murmurs, pulling off just long enough to get the word out. When he kisses Louis again, it isn’t with the same vigor as the night’s first. It’s more cautious, more exploratory, like he’s finally allowing himself to believe that it isn’t going to stop at any second.

“Hm,” Louis starts, his hands moving to clench around Harry’s waist, feeling the subtle indentation of it and then widening his hands out around his hips. “What for?” Harry’s kisses have relocated without letting up, falling in a sweep to his neck until Louis’ lets his head lull to the side and go limp to let him do as he pleases.

“Not letting you breathe.” Harry laughs, wispy against his skin.

“Shut up.” Louis laughs with him. His hands flatten out on Harry’s chest and he walks into the frame he creates with them, leaning his head down to brush his lips between his collarbones. It’s good, he thinks--that they’re still laughing with each other. It doesn’t feel like he’s in a dream or some alternate universe where the way they see each other is skewed. It’s still just Harry. “Don’t be,” he adds, tilting his head back to take a look at him.

Harry’s lips quirk up when he notices him watching, like he’s ready to drag him off to gorge on whatever food is left over from the party. This could end that fast, and Louis would walk away with the knowledge of what it’s like to kiss him without needing an audience.

Instead, Harry stays there, his expression shifting to something more curious as though he’s considering whether or not he should say what he’s about to say.

“What?”

Harry’s stare lingers on Louis’ mouth and then he draws a slow breath. “I want to try something, too.”

Since he doesn’t say what, exactly, Louis just widens his eyes in a way he means to be inviting, like so try it, then. “That sounds fair,” he says, and it sounds more calm than he feels.

“Yeah,” Harry says quietly, then slides his hand into Louis’ hair at the nape of his neck. “C’mere.” It’s a useless plea because he’s already right there, close enough to feel the heat of Harry’s words on his own lips even before he kisses him again. They each inhale deeply when the kiss hits, as though they’d been surviving on shallow breaths up until that moment. Louis can’t get over how good it is. He can’t believe he’s waited this long to do this.

Harry clasps Louis’ biceps in his big hands and navigates them away from the wall, just a few steps until Louis feels the back of his thighs bump up against the soft arm of the sofa. He lets his hands splay out over Harry’s ribs, feeling his bones and the tight muscles that cover them, pressing both his thumbs there just to feel the way those hard lines tense up under his skin. It’s been forever since he’s touched someone like this and even longer since he’s wanted to. Every fantasy he’s had over the last month, he realizes now, has been about this body, about that chest, those arms with those very tattoos. That fucking mouth.

“Fuck,” Harry whispers, unable to help himself from pulling away to look down at Louis’ hand over his abs, then back up at his eyes. “Lie down there.”

They both fall onto the couch and Louis goes first, flat against the cushions as he stares up at Harry. This is new. This is an angle he’s imagined only in the deepest recesses of his mind.

Harry planks carefully over Louis and then lowers himself down as Louis counts the seconds until he kisses him again, in disbelief that they’re doing this, that Harry is about to be added to a list of people he’s been involved with--

But he tries not to think about that, about what it means or about what it might change or about anything other than the way Harry nudges his thigh between Louis’ legs, making him gasp and rock down against it on instinct. He pulls up Louis’ t-shirt until it’s bunched around his chest and palms down the bare skin as he kisses him again, stopping at the button on his shorts. He pauses there, and Louis thinks, fuck it, and pushes his hips up into Harry’s hand, the universal sign for “keep going that feels good don’t stop.”

Harry pops open the button of his shorts and drops his mouth down to the side of Louis’ neck again, alternating kisses with bites that make Louis shiver noticeably. He feels crazy with how much he wants this and how much he hadn’t even been thinking about it a half hour earlier. This is Harry, his roommate and friend and his fake boyfriend, the guy who makes heads turn when they’re out together, the guy who wouldn’t fuck anyone else when Louis was home, but who--judging by the way he squeezes Louis’ cock in his palm and groans into the kiss--has been wanting him all night.

Louis wants to ask for something--maybe a reassurance or maybe for Harry to tell him explicitly where this is going so that he can relax. He doesn’t want to feel like he’s just waiting for the part where Harry realizes exactly what he’s doing and comes to his senses.

But then...it’s Harry, who doesn’t have sensible in his vocabulary, who looks so excited to be touching him that Louis feels pathetic for wondering if he might stop. The very thought of it makes Louis cry out, though it’s easily passable as being the result of Harry’s hand because that feels incredible, too. It’s less embarrassing than being so turned on just from being wanted.

The heel of Harry’s palm pushes between the open folds of his shorts, making the line of his cock fatten up underneath it while his fingers hold onto him possessively where they rest, trying to grip the flat skin between his hipbones. Louis pushes up again, his head falling flat against the seat of the couch, one of his hands fisting up in the cushion, dizzy with rapid cycling equanimity and craziness. He only feels like he’s not about to lose it whenever Harry stops kissing his neck just long enough to peer down at his face again.

“Can I take these off?” Harry asks while looking at him, his fingers turning around to dip under the band of his briefs.

“Dunno... can you?” Louis swallows. He can’t manage the shit-eating grin he wants to, but mocking Harry is the only way he can hold onto any semblance of dignity. He’s afraid he might break down and beg him to keep kissing him, touching him, totally fucking him up, if he doesn’t hang onto a little bit of their norm. He doesn’t know if he’s quite ready to let Harry see more than that.

May I?” Harry corrects, sounding sweeter about it than he should be allowed to. The smile he offers isn’t even teasing. It’s so earnest that Louis starts nodding eagerly instead of his planned retort--you may.

“Thank you.” He’s grinning when he says the words below Louis’ ear; Louis can feel it, and he shivers, moving his hands down and raking his nails slowly up and down the length of Harry’s sides, his legs trying to widen out around him. Louis’ just about to say his name, feeling the insane need to keep repeating it over and over, but the movement seems to do something to Harry. His eyes are more urgent when he picks his head up again.

Harry’s fingers are steady, but similarly impatient when he starts undressing him. Louis’ cheeks go hot with that quick swell of anxiety that comes every time he’s naked around someone for the first time. He’s seen Harry, accidentally, and because Harry doesn’t seem to like wearing clothes more than he has to, but Harry’s still unfamiliar enough with his body for Louis to wonder if he likes what he’s seeing.

A moment of quiet passes, just enough time for Louis to snort and reach up to cradle both hands around the back of Harry’s head, lacing in his curls.

“I’m staring,” Harry acknowledges.

“You are staring,” Louis confirms.

“Take it as a compliment.”

And Louis does. Fuck if Harry’s not proving his trustworthiness when he holds him by the hips and sidles down until he’s crouching with one of his legs off the couch, looking impossibly too big to be fitting himself between Louis’ thighs.

Louis feels like he doesn’t quite know what to do with his hands when Harry starts kissing down his belly, leaving a wet trail behind as he hollows it out under his lips, biting hard at his own to keep from making the sound he wants to. He settles for leaving them in Harry’s hair, his nails digging into his scalp when the kisses get damper and lower until he can feel Harry’s breath at the base of his cock.

“You don’t have to be quiet,” Harry says, looking up. Louis’ got his hair held back so tight that he can see all of his face when he first wraps his long fingers around his dick, giving him a stroke so slow that it cracks all the will Louis had not to break down.

“Yeah,” he breathes out, letting his eyes travel down to meet Harry’s, just for a second before it feels like too much. When he lets go of Harry’s hair, it coincides with him replacing his fingers with his lips, and his hair falls down in a curtain that tickles him just below the navel. It’s probably for the better that he doesn’t see, that he can’t watch the first stretch of Harry’s mouth taking him in. The feeling alone is enough to convince him that he’s about to lose it and he doesn’t trust himself with the visual.

Harry’s lips make it impossible for him to have not at least thought about it once, but it’s more--it’s different from the limits of his imagination. He couldn’t have made him so beautiful or so hungry. Trying to remind himself that they’re just getting off, that that’s what this is meant to be, is impossible when Harry moans every time his mouth curls down another inch and his hands vacillate on his body, touching anywhere he can get to.

He’s a shit, though--an absolute shit because he draws off with a sound that makes Louis’ stomach flutter and he’s smirking when Louis desperately reaches for him again, pushing his hair out of the way so he can look for an explanation.

“Does that feel good?” he asks. His voice is so sickeningly sweet that Louis’ not sure if he wants to force his mouth back down on his cock or punch him in the jaw.

“What d’you think?” Louis rushes out, breathless and exasperated. He pushes up on one of his elbows, helpless over what to do with himself under Harry’s attention.

He flushes, feeling vaguely embarrassed when Harry just keeps looking at him, with his newly swollen lips, still holding onto the base of his cock in a loose grip. It’s like he’s reading the first page of a book--that’s how curious he is about him.

“I just want to make sure,” Harry muses, smiling at him in a way that makes Louis want to smile back, as stupid as it is. Harry’s got his hand around his hard cock, just had his mouth on it and hopefully will again in the next thirty seconds, and he can only think to smile over how ungodly wonderful he is. There’s nothing normal about it.

“Being so quiet,” he adds. He smiles a bit wider and it’s obscene--how the dimple in his cheek comes out and his eyes flash before he seems to find his focus again.

From anyone else’s lips, Louis might have taken it as a criticism, but it doesn’t feel like that at all with Harry. It settles him. He feels like he’s been given permission to let himself go, in a way he hasn’t done in too long. He’s far from unabashed, but he doesn’t regret the whine he gives when Harry takes him in again or how his nails dig into Harry’s broad shoulders when he feels him swallowing around him.

“Harry--” he gets out, his neck craning back and the muscles in his stomach twitching then going taut. It’s hard to believe they’re on the same couch where they’ve gorged on nachos and reality TV, where he’s stumbled in on Harry strumming guitar in the mornings, humming the tune to a new song he’s written and not stopping even once they’d made eye contact. There’s just enough light coming in for him to see everything he needs to--just Harry’s tender, concentrated face and the way his body winds down, rutting himself desperately against the couch.

He won’t regret this. Even as a one off, it’s more satisfying than he could have known. He should have known, though, because it’s exactly why he’d been so jealous of the girl from their party. It’s addicting having Harry’s attention. It feels better than anything he can remember.

“Look so good,” Harry murmurs, pulling off just to lick his lips and to pepper kisses up his belly. He looks like he’s about to say something more when Louis lifts his head enough to watch him breathe, still pumping his hips forward lazily. Louis wants him to, badly, but he feels afraid of it, and unprepared to know all of the thoughts Harry’s been keeping to himself through this.

“Don’t stop,” he interrupts. He tempts Harry with a tilt forward, his body grappling for something, begging for it in a way that he’d never admit to. It feels like he’s been hard for ages, like Harry’s been winding him up and teasing him the whole month they’ve spent together, even if now is the first time its been intentional.

To his credit, Harry gives him what he wants without making him ask for it again. His tongue is wet and like velvet, forming a cradle along the underside of his cock and bathing him with heat as he licks him and then sucks him down. His hands find somewhere steady to rest, holding him by the insides of his thighs where he’s so sensitive that it makes him shake, and it only takes urging up into Harry’s mouth in two slow, steady thrusts before he’s crying out and filling his mouth up. He can’t remember his own name, let alone how to speak enough words to warn him.

When his lungs start to feel like fire, he has to consciously remind himself to breathe. He gulps air too fast, so fast it makes his head spin, and his body feels dizzy to match when he lifts up enough to check on Harry. It’s all been so focused on him that he doesn’t know how close Harry is to getting off or if there’s the expectation that he’ll return the favor--which he would, happily, just as soon as his heart stops feeling like it’s in his throat.

But then his eyes clear enough for him to get a good look at Harry--still between his legs, digging his nails into his thighs so hard that he’ll have stinging half moons there for days, and not making any moves to try and switch them. His only movement is to curl his hips forward, making his own jaw go slack when he seems to find an angle and rhythm that suit him.

“Louis,” he moans, sounding so pained that Louis feels a flicker of concern before he realizes. Harry’s eyes are steadfast on his, watching his face like it’s some sort of pornography to him, and he’s close--even more-so than Louis first thought because he heaves another grunt and his hips slow to a halt.

The thought alone would have been enough to make Louis come in a minute flat if he’d been on his own, but actually seeing it, actually watching Harry heavy-eyed and panting after getting off just on pleasing him...it’s overwhelming. Louis would be in a full-fledged panic over it if it was anyone apart from Harry. Or if Harry looked any less beautiful then--his Adam’s apple bobbing with every swallowed breath and his fingers moving to hold onto his own body, scratching at himself under the tattooed butterfly on his sternum.

Even the dopey grin that comes once he settles doesn’t ruin it.

“Did you just...” Louis trails off, pushing himself up on his elbows and looking down at Harry, who follows suit into a more upright position.

“Yeah,” Harry shrugs, fucking shameless, smirking like some naughty school boy who professionally charms himself out of trouble.

“But I didn’t even touch you,” Louis points out.

“Have you seen you?”

It’s ridiculous because he just let Harry suck him off...he’s let him pretend to be his boyfriend in an elaborate scheme for the past month, for Christ’s sakes, but it’s that that suddenly makes him feel bashful and wide-open. He’s never seen himself as that particular brand of desirable, especially to someone like Harry, who has beautiful people throwing themselves at him all the time.

“It’s no big deal,” Harry muses, like he’s reading his mind. Crawling up, he hovers over Louis, one hand flattening out alongside his head to brace his weight over him as he leans in for a kiss. Louis hadn’t been expecting that either, or how tender and intimate it feels to be kissing Harry, his friend, and tasting only himself on his lips.

“D’you want to shower with me?” he whispers, lips still nudging into Louis’. His other hand finds its way between Louis’ head and the couch, cradling it. It’s the sweetest, most possessive way Louis has ever been touched.

“Think I’m going to go out for a smoke,” Louis answers. There’s a flash of concern in Harry’s eyes, like he’s worried that Louis might already be regretting this and Louis shakes his head instinctively, desperate to prove to him that he doesn’t. He just needs a second to clear his head.

“Come meet me out there when you’re done?” he suggests.

Apparently satisfied, Harry nods, stroking through his hair and kissing him once more, like he can’t fight the urge to steal just another before he pulls his body up from him. Louis watches him go--watches his broad back stalking off toward the door and feels his stomach twist when Harry flicks on the bathroom light and he catches a glimpse of the scratches he’s just left on his shoulders before Harry’s finally out of view.

He doesn’t have a single clue what he’s doing anymore.

Louis takes Zayn’s pack of cigarettes and the lighter that he left on the coffee table and sees himself out onto the porch. He doesn’t know what time it is, but the sky is noticeably lighter than the inky black of midnight. His body feels tingly and hot, like it does when he’s coming down from a long bike ride, still trying to catch his breath.

He sits on the creaky porch swing and lights a cigarette. Smoking isn’t an addiction for him; more of a hobby that comes in handy when he needs a distraction. Right now he needs it, something to distract him from himself, something to take his mind off the way a few spots on his neck and chest are already starting to ache and bruise.

It’s kind of liberating, he thinks, sitting on a porch swing in his underwear just before the sun comes up. One car rolls by, but otherwise it’s quiet as he takes slow drags and watches the smoke as he tips his head back to exhale.

In his mind he can only replay how it all happened in little clips that play out of sequence--the satisfied look on Harry’s face after he’d swallowed Louis’ come without wincing, the way he’d had bit the inside of his thigh, how Louis could feel the smile in his kiss after they’d finished. Harry’s hands. The way his curls fell over his forehead. His shiny, puffy lips.

Louis stubs out the cigarette and lights another. He doesn’t turn to look when he hears the front door open and then close with a quiet hushing sound. Harry places a frosty glass of water on the small table beside the swing and then leans on the railing facing Louis.

“Feels good out here,” Harry says, looking around. He seems so calm and Louis must look like a desperate basketcase on his second cigarette, holding it with shaky fingers.

“Mm,” Louis agrees, exhaling. “Yard’s a mess.”

Harry doesn’t turn around to check for himself, he just shrugs, stares right at Louis. “I’ll sort it out later.”

Louis nods and stamps out the cigarette, only half-finished. It’s the first time he’s felt tired all night. The buzz from the cigarette mellowed him a little, but he still can’t look straight at Harry without wondering how he’ll feel when he wakes up in five hours, alone in his own bed. He fears he could regret it all, no matter how good he feels right now.

“This is the best time of day,” Harry says, finally turning around to look at the lawn and at the lightening sky, a mixture of pink and orange and dark blue. He gets up and then sits down beside Louis, kicking his foot to make them swing and reaching over his shoulders to tuck him up close, just like that, like they might do it every morning. It’s easier than Louis expects it to be to rest his head on Harry’s shoulder and look at the sky with him. Every time he blinks it seems to change.

“That’s a good one,” Louis says after a moment, pointing up at one cloud that’s a purple he’s only ever seen in movies. He looks at Harry, who’s only looking at him, and seems to have been doing so long before Louis noticed.

“Should we stay up til the diner opens?”

“Aren’t you tired?”

Harry looks it, but he just tilts his head to the side and pushes some of Louis’ hair back behind his ear. “I’d stay up if you wanted to.”

Louis looks at him, his heart racing. He could sit on this porch and let Harry touch his hair for another four hours, if he’s honest. He can barely believe tonight happened, and his sleepiness is only making it more pronounced. Harry’s skin looks cotton candy pink in the light, lips even more pigmented than they normally are. He looks gorgeous and it makes Louis’ eyes swim.

“We should go to sleep, I think.”

“Alright,” Harry whispers. He drags his thumb over Louis’ bottom lip and makes his stomach flip. “C’mon.”

Hand in hand they go back inside, walking wordlessly toward Harry’s bedroom instead of splitting off at the end of the hall like they normally do. Louis wonders if he’ll be able to sleep because this, being in Harry’s dim bedroom, the smell of him all around, his organized trinkets and guitars and his vinyl and his weird antiques hung on the walls, details Louis has only seen in passing when he pokes his head in to ask him a question, or if he leaves his door open when he’s out. This entire room feels like an intimate look into Harry’s big heart, into the things he loves, the way he lives his life. It’s far more intimate than a blowjob, which seems backwards. Louis couldn’t verbalize it even if he tried.

Harry pulls back the sheets and climbs in first, stretching his arms up over head and showing off every taut muscle in a stretch that he punctuates with a yawn. “C’mon,” he says sleepily, raspy-voiced, his eyes all heavy-lidded and beautiful.

He climbs in next to him without a word, shares his pillow, tries to steady his breathing when he tucks his face into Harry’s neck. It’s almost impossible to do with Harry’s fingers dragging barely-there lines down his spine, sending chills up to his neck and to his toes.

They don’t owe each other this tenderness. Harry doesn’t need to cup his jaw in his big hand and Louis doesn’t need to sigh at the touch and they don’t need to give each other a simple, warm kiss before they shut their eyes and go to sleep, or try to--but they do, anyway. Louis places his hand on Harry’s chest and Harry holds him close and they fall asleep like that, sharing breath, too close, the closest they’ve ever been.

*

Louis thinks he’s dreaming the doorbell, at first. It’s more annoying than surprising to be woken up that way; he feels like he only just fell asleep despite how bright the sun in coming through the window in the bedroom. It’s not his bedroom, he realizes as he blinks his eyes open. Harry’s arms is still over him, dead weight, his breath soft at the back of his neck.

The bell sounds again and he’s finally up, stumbling like a zombie in his t-shirt and briefs toward the door with one eye still closed, the other squinting against daylight and real life. There’s no time for a personal acceptance of what happened the night before. His mind can only comprehend one thought at the moment, which is to open the door and make the sound stop so that he can go back to sleep.

But when he sees who’s there, he knows there’s no going back to sleep.

“Hey,” Dave says.

“What.” Louis swallows, both eyes open now, but still squinting. “What are you--”

“I wanted to talk to you.”

“What time is it?”

“Around noon?” Dave frowns and looks at his watch. “Can I buy you lunch?”

This is unprecedented. Dave never has plans. He’s never asked if he could buy Louis lunch or dinner or anything, for that matter. He doesn’t request his presence, he just demands it, and he always has.

He realizes he hasn’t said anything. Louis isn’t often speechless, but he has absolutely no idea what to say. He still has blanket marks on his arm from Harry’s bedsheets.

“Uh, yeah, let me just...hold on.”

Dave takes a step back and Louis closes the door, runs a hand through his hair, and, fully awake now, walks back to Harry’s bedroom. Harry’s awake now, sat on the edge of his bed as he covers up a yawn with the back of his hand and stares blearily up at Louis. He looks warm and sleepy and Louis feels a tug in his gut and his heart does a somersault when he thinks about the night before, when he looks at Harry’s mouth and realizes what he did...what they did…

“Someone at the door?”

Louis licks his lips, feeling dazed. “Dave wants to buy me lunch.”

Harry is unreadable, but Louis keeps staring, fearful of what he might see or what Harry might say. He’s never given much of an opinion on it before, even when Louis left in the middle of the night to see him. Louis knows that Harry doesn’t think much of him, but he won’t say it out loud, which is both admirable and frustrating.

“Do you think I should go?” Louis asks, mostly just to see what Harry will say. He’s tired and he could be easily persuaded to tell Dave to fuck off, which is a feeling he recognizes as new.

Being asked for his opinion seems only to relax Harry, who leans back onto his palms and gives Louis a nice view of his chest and arms and, yeah, a half-hard bulge in his grey boxer briefs that Louis assumes has everything to do with the morning and definitely nothing to do with him. “If you’re curious,” Harry says. “Might be good to see what he’s on about.”

“Yeah,” Louis says, nodding. “Yeah, I’m gonna…” He points to the bathroom and starts to haphazardly get dressed and ready, feeling oddly disappointed by Harry admitting it might not be a terrible idea to meet up with Dave six hours after his cock had been in his mouth, and confused by his own disappointment in Harry’s present attitude toward it.

Harry

Harry stays in bed until he hears the front door shut, but he doesn’t have any hope of going back to sleep. He stares at the ceiling and wonders if Louis’ lovebites are visible above the neck of his t-shirt and hopes that Dave sees them and asks questions that Louis won’t be able to ignore. Something in his gut tells him that Dave’s request to buy him lunch doesn’t mean anything because surely Louis will see that Dave isn’t someone he can count on to love him. It doesn’t even have to be me, he thinks. Just not Dave.

He tries to remind himself that it’s not something he can control, but it’s hard to remain placid when he’d gotten a taste—more than a taste, really—of what he’s wanted from Louis since they met. Before last night, there was always a lingering curiosity that maybe his interest in Louis existed largely because he’s been so out of reach, but he knows now, after kissing him breathless, after biting his hips and nearly choking on his cock, that he was right. Louis is exactly what he wants and, more than that, they’re really good together.

Then again, maybe Louis always whines that loud when he gets a blowjob. Maybe he always comes that hard. Harry is just smug enough that he finds it hard to believe.

Eventually he gives up on trying to shut his eyes and works on cleaning up the front garden, which isn’t as bad as he remembered it. All he can think about is Louis, even more than usual, his brain focused on the smallest details of their night together while he washes pint glasses and wipes spilled beer from the kitchen floor.

Harry doesn’t try to stop those intrusive thoughts, though. If last night was the first and only time it happens, he doesn’t want to forget a second of it.

The only real distraction he has until his work shift at 3:00 is a FaceTime call with his mum. It takes her all of five seconds to ask him what’s going on even though he hasn’t given any hint that anything is, in fact, going on. Telling her about Louis feels like it might jinx it, so he assures her that it’s nothing and listens to her talk about the cat and Robin and the noisy roadworks happening outside of her house. It’s those sorts of details that make him miss home, and he assures his mum, for the hundredth time, that he’ll book a flight soon.

*

Harry’s work shift is only 5 hours long that afternoon, and it’s so busy that he manages to forget, at least for minutes at a time, that he’s supposed to be waiting to hear from Louis. What he imagines, what he hopes, is that Louis will be back at the house when he gets off, sat on the sofa eating crisps and ready to tell Harry that he told Dave to fuck off for good.

*

When he gets home, the lights are off and the house is silent except for the buzz of the air conditioner.

It doesn’t look as though Louis has been home all day. This morning he’d been sure but now he doubts that Louis and Dave’s lunch date didn’t turn into some kind of mutual revelation. It’s just that now that he and Louis are more than just friends--they have to be, right?--just texting him like he normally would is more of a loaded action than it’s ever been.

Not sure what else to do with himself, Harry showers off the dirt and sweat and then goes back out, because staring at the couch at the place where Louis’ thighs had been the night before isn’t doing him any good.

The Rocking Stone it is, then. Being there always feels a little like he’s about to play a gig even when he’s not, and it reminds him of Louis, of course, because everything reminds him of Louis lately, but especially today. He orders a shot of whiskey and a PBR, downs the former first and then washes it down with the watery, flat taste of cheap beer he’s come to enjoy after nearly a year of drinking it in the States.

There’s never a shortage of familiar faces there, at least. That ubiquitous Florida Georgia Line song blasting from the jukebox will always remind Harry of this place, no matter how far he moves away from it eventually. He hums along as he checks his phone for the time and wonders if it’s a bit pathetic that even the lyrics to “Cruise” make him think of Louis.

No matter. He finishes his first beer and then orders a second, engaging in idle conversation with Liam, whose late night shift as bartender has just started, and with people who walk up and say hello to him while they put in drink orders. He likes sitting there and chatting to them, which is why he’s a bit disappointed to see someone’s stolen his seat when he comes back from the toilets.

From close enough, though, Harry realizes it’s not just someone. He coughs into his fist by way of greeting Louis, who looks up and seems genuinely surprised that he’s there.

“Oh, hey,” Louis says, a little breathless. “I found you.”

He’s still wearing the clothes he wore when he said goodbye to Harry that morning. He looks rumpled, tired, and not altogether miserable, which Harry takes to mean that something good must have happened with him and Dave. He can’t keep the disappointment from making his voice flat and a bit monotone, as irrational as it is. “Here I am.”

“Have you been here long?”

Harry shrugs. Every word between them now seems like a desperate attempt for normality and he doesn’t know if they’ll ever get back to it. “Why were you looking for me?”

“My phone died,” Louis explains. “I just biked back home to see if you were there. And I forgot my keys this morning so I couldn’t get in.”

They’re just having run-of-the-mill roommate conversation: Louis forgot his keys, so of course he needed to find Harry. He won’t trick himself into thinking it’s more than that.

“Sorry,” Harry says, and is immediately annoyed at himself for apologizing. “You left in a bit of a hurry.”

Louis clenches his jaw. All Harry wants him to do is say that nothing happened, to put his mind at ease because he doesn’t think anyone else could do that right now, but he ignores Harry’s comment entirely.

“Did you go back to sleep at all?”

“No.” He couldn’t sleep after that. He doesn’t even know how he’s supposed to be able to sleep tonight, now that he’s had Louis pressed up against his chest and won’t have it again. That’s what the beers are for. “Couldn’t.”

“Yeah, you look sort of tired,” Louis says quietly, studying Harry’s face with with an unusual persistence. He doesn’t normally unleash such an intense stare, and it makes Harry stand up a little straighter and fight the shake of a shiver running down his back.

Harry takes a slow sip of his beer, shrugs one shoulder, and licks his lips. “I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

Louis takes the can from him and he takes a sip, too, but doesn’t look away from Harry when he does it, and doesn’t give it back to him, either. He looks coy and asks, “What were you doing up so late?”

“Wait,” Harry says, eyes opening wide. “You don’t remember?”

He doesn’t look so coy anymore,  just a bit confused and perhaps disappointed that his attempt at a joke is being taken seriously. “What?”

Harry takes the beer can back and leans into Louis’ ear, letting his breath warm the skin beneath it before he draws a slow inhale. “I sucked your cock at four in the morning,” he says in a voice just above a whisper, then pulls away and stands up straight, but not very far from him. “Remember that?”

He can’t tell if Louis is furious or amused, but whatever he’s feeling, it makes his eyes go dark and his mouth dry, judging by the way he bites and licks his bottom lip and swallows hard. The bar is dark, but not dark enough to miss the flush on his cheeks. “Vaguely remember that, yeah.”

“You came pretty hard, didn’t you?” Harry asks conversationally, offering Louis the beer again.

“Shut up,” Louis mutters, ignoring the beer. He’s biting his lip so much that it looks like it hurts and it gives away just how much it’s getting to him. Harry wonders how hard he could get him just by talking.

For all of his defense mechanisms, it’s surprisingly easy to rile him up. Harry feels a bit cruel making him squirm, but he doesn’t want him to forget or to think that he’s stopped thinking about it even once throughout the day. He wants him to know that it’s been on a constant loop while he’s been trying to live his life, that his normal life has been put on hold and his normal thoughts have been infiltrated by repetitive, welcome memories of Louis: of his thighs and his smile and his laugh and the quiet sounds he makes in his sleep and the way his hair smells. Harry didn’t think he’d ever get in so deep with him.

“I thought you enjoyed it,” Harry says with a frown, lifting the beer to his lips again.

Louis sighs, but Harry notices his breath is shaky on the exhale. “Okay.”

“Okay, you did?”

“Okay, that’s enough,” Louis clarifies, finally looking right at him with a stare that makes Harry feel as though his insides are burning up. “Are you almost finished with that?”

Harry stares down at the can, shakes around what’s left, and tips his head to the side. “Could be. I might--”

He’s cut off by Louis snatching it from his hands and downing the last of it in one go, head tipped all the way back to reveal the column of his throat working as he gulps down a considerable amount of beer in seconds. “I think we should go,” he says when he’s finished, placing the can down on the bar and jerking his head toward the exit.

It’s unclear what’s sparked this intensity in Louis; Harry can’t tell if he’s angry or turned on or if he’s going to take him home and tell him about how he spent his day with Dave. He doesn’t need Louis to ask him again, though, before he obliges. The bar stool nearly falls over when Harry stands up too fast to follow Louis out through the small crowd of people blocking their way to the door.

Louis looks ethereal in the light on the sidewalk, lit only by a nearby streetlamp and the neon signs on the windows of the bar. His mouth is set in a straight line that Harry considers kissing right there. Things were easier when he was only pretending to be in love with him; at least then Louis never second-guessed the things he did, like kissing him when he wanted to and holding his hands and putting on a bit of a show everywhere they went.

“See you at home,” Harry calls over the engine before he drives off, going too fast through a series of winding side-streets that he considers a shortcut back to his house. It’s not that fast, though; he’s still climbing off the bike when Louis pulls up on his cycle.

Now that they’re back at his place, both making the gravel in the driveway crunch under their feet, he has the expectation that things will go back to the same. Louis will come up to him, bump his shoulder with his, and they’ll trek inside to watch a film while pointedly ignoring what happened with them and the fact that Louis left with Dave not long after. They keep on--they’re consistent at that.

That’s why it surprises Harry when Louis walks straight past him, ignoring him completely and letting the screen door crack behind him as he goes in alone. He doesn’t wait for Harry to trudge about, taking his helmet off and following in slowly the way he usually does. He must be pissed, or so Harry assumes. The thought of getting into it makes him move even slower, walking like he has bricks strapped to his feet the whole way in.

He doesn’t even have time to put his defenses up before Louis closes off the steps between them. It’s the first cool night in a month, maybe two, but he feels hot down to his bones from the second Louis stands toe-to-toe with him and kisses away every question he could have asked. There’s a feeling that it gives him that he can’t remember ever experiencing since he was a kid--like being so shell-shocked that he can’t move or breathe until Louis gives him a quick shove on the chest that breaks him from it.

Harry’s lashes hang low as he looks him over, realizing maybe for the first time since Louis left this morning that all he’s hoped for is the chance to touch him again. There’s nothing in the world that he feels less patience for than getting his hands on Louis’ body, feeling him close, tasting it when he breathes. It’s the same way he’d felt at the bar, when he’d realized it was Louis in his seat and not just someone. He’s not just someone when they kiss either. No one else’s confidence or charm or skill could stand up to Louis being all he wants. Harry can’t be bothered to pretend otherwise.

Louis looks at him like he’s angry, maybe at himself, maybe at him, but it doesn’t stop him from pushing himself up on his toes and spreading out the hand he’d put on Harry’s chest to keep them close. Their heights aren’t that different as it is, but the leverage evens them out, makes it so Harry can’t look anywhere but at Louis’ eyes because they’re all that’s in front of him and he feels too dazed and privileged by the view to try. Louis watches him back at first, until it seems to be too much for him, and he narrows his gaze to his lips instead--does that grouchy frown of his at them and Harry’s fucked because even that gives him butterflies.

He gets so close that Harry can feel him exhale, but he doesn’t actually bring their lips together again. “Kiss me back,” he whispers, so quiet that Harry first considers that he imagined it. Louis’ eyes say otherwise when he looks back up again, though, and it’s like a levee breaking the way that makes everything flood in at once. Harry’s been utterly shit at hiding his feelings, but his will to even try is gone. He doesn’t actually care if Louis knows he’s all he thinks about anymore, that he’s pretending they’re real for his sake as much as for anyone else’s.

In spite of his insistence, or because of it, Louis’ the one who kisses him again. Rather than standing like a mannequin the way Harry had done the first time, he does what Louis asks: he kisses him back, lets every sweep of their lips together beg him to not let them become a closed door.

Louis’ a careful person. Harry doesn’t think many of their friends realize that, but he is. For all his exuberance and spontaneity, he guards himself well. That’s why it’s so clear to Harry that something has changed just by the hungry way he parts his lips over his. There’s no restraint in the way he licks into his mouth, like he’s desperate for the last drop of something that Harry wants him to keep trying to find.

He’s not sure which of them started moving first, whether Louis pushed him toward the door or he’s pulled him along, but his back collides with the barrier of it and Louis’ body keeps him there. It feels a bit like he’s trying to climb him, the force of his kisses making Harry’s head crack gently on the wood. He doesn’t care; it barely hurts and his senses are all occupied, too busy tasting and feeling and smelling Louis’ cologne faded and his own stolen beer to register any pain.

“I’ve wanted to do this all day,” Harry confesses between kisses. His hands are all over Louis’ back, trying to feel as much of him as he can.

“How do you just...say things like that?” Louis whispers, sounding baffled, out of breath.

“How can I not?”

All Louis offers is just a flicker of curiosity before he’s winding his hand around the back of Harry’s neck, pulling him down into another kiss until consumes them both. Harry can’t think beyond Louis’ nails digging into his scalp and his hips finding their way against his. The first collision of them makes him bite down hard on Louis’ lip because kissing is somehow not enough, even though he can already start to feel his lips tingling from going at it so hard.

“I just want you to...” Louis starts. Harry can’t tell for sure if he’s looking at him intermittently, in the spaces where they stop to swallow their own breaths instead of each other’s, but he swears he feels it. He knows exactly what it’s like when Louis has his eyes on him.

“What do you want?” Harry asks when nothing follows right away. One of Louis’ hands is pulling at a fistful of his hair and the other is under his shirt, feeling from his abdomen to the space between his hipbones. Harry kisses him again, encouraging him, but Louis cuts it short.

“I know you want to fuck me,” Louis says, and he’s definitely looking at him then, and Harry forgets to breathe for a second. It’s not really an answer to the question, but Harry can’t deny the accusation; nothing has ever been more true.

“Jesus, Louis.” Harry’s voice is raspy, throat tight. He’s dizzy with how badly he wants it.

“Don’t you?”

“Yes,” Harry says, eyes wide. He can’t believe he needs to explain this, but he’s more than happy to tell Louis as many times as he needs to. “Fucking--look at you, god, of course I do--” He reaches down and grabs Louis’ ass in both hands, yanking him forward as he squeezes, satisfied by the way Louis seems to lose his balance as he falls into him. Harry keeps him there, slipping one hand up the back of Louis’ shirt and holding him with a light press to his lower back.

“And that’s what you want, too?” Harry asks as he leans in for another kiss, just to confirm, because it seems he’s rendered Louis speechless, and not just because he keeps kissing him every time he’s about to say something.

“Well,” Louis croaks, voice hoarse as he breaks off the kiss. “Yes, Harry, that’s--”

“Good,” Harry cuts him off, speaking into the side of Louis’ neck. He sucks a kiss there and pulls him forward just as Louis rolls his hips into his, the boldest move he’s made all night save for kissing Harry senseless the second they got through the door. Harry has to stop himself from thinking that this is as momentous as he knows it is, but he can’t help remembering that it’s literally a dream come true, that he’s been so enamored with Louis for so long that he can’t fathom that this is actually happening.

After months of being the one to initiate everything, it’s surprising and so good when Louis reaches for the bottom of Harry’s shirt, yanking it up to his armpits and palming over Harry’s stomach, where his muscles have all gone tight, loving the attention. Louis stops for a second, watching his own fingers as they pass over his chest, his thumb brushing his nipple.

“Nothing you haven’t seen before,” Harry says, smirking.

“You made sure of that,” Louis mutters back as Harry shrugs, unashamed.

“You didn’t like it?”

“Did you know you sound like you’re jerking off when you’re doing yoga?”

“I had no idea,” Harry says. “Be quiet, please.” He kisses him again, slightly calmer now so that he can appreciate this, the way Louis’ tongue battles his own and they finish each kiss only to go in for one more. Louis has his leg wedged between Harry’s thigh, his hips rolling forward every so often when it gets really good, or when Harry pulls the hair at his nape, emitting quiet sounds from Louis that feel like they’re just for him.

It’s a cinematic cliche, the way they shed items of clothing on their way to the bedroom, stopping to kiss each other every few feet. The hallway isn’t long, but Harry can’t help himself from touching every single inch of Louis’ exposed skin when he takes off his shirt and looks at him in a way Harry can’t read.

Louis eventually drags him into the bedroom, where Harry sits on the edge of the bed and watches in fascination as Louis unbuttons his tight black jeans, peeling them off of his calves and down to his ankles, hopping on one foot as he finally stumbles completely out of them.

“Christ, Louis,” Harry says lowly, shaking his head and looking him up and down with a smile threatening to break his expression because he’s just so fucking happy about this, more than confused and more than surprised and more than worried, he’s just happy. He holds out his hands and grasps Louis’ small hips on either side, brushing his nose against his belly and looking up at him. “You look incredible.”

“Nothing you haven’t seen before,” Louis says quickly, smiling. “Right?”

“Mm,” Harry mumbles, too distracted by Louis’ skin to comment on his words being thrown back at him. He can see his cock twitch through the cotton briefs when he mouths over it, and he’s so close, about to roll down the waistband when Louis pushes him back and straddles his thighs. There’s none of the shocked hesitation on Louis’ end as there was the night before, just something fiery and passionate, a side of Louis he hasn’t seen before. Harry feels drunk off it.

But every time Harry tries to lift up his hips, Louis does his best to pin them down, grinding on his cock so perfectly that Harry’s eyes roll back in his head. “Fuck,” he whispers, glancing down between them, both of them still in briefs, both of them leaking through them. “Fuck, you’re good at that.”

Louis kisses him, then, presumably because he’s rubbish at accepting a compliment no matter how much Harry means it. It’s good, anyway, the way he tips his head back for Harry’s mouth when he pauses to take a breath, making noises so sweet it makes Harry bite harder. He sucks until he knows it hurts and then kisses and licks over the same spot, Louis’ hand gripping his hair tighter and tighter until they both attack each others’ mouths again, twenty seconds apparently too long to wait.

And then--and he doesn’t know why, can’t figure out what he did differently that time--Louis whispers, “God, Harry,” right in his ear, a moment of vulnerability that’s sexier than Harry can comprehend. As far as he concerned, he’s done nothing more to draw it out of him. He isn’t begging him to keep talking like before.

That’s what finally cracks any will he had left to just stay there, letting Louis slowly push him into madness with his hips. As easy as it would be to just succumb, to come without Louis ever properly getting his hands on him for the second time, his mind can only focus on what Louis said to him in the living room. It’s on loop in his brain--how Louis asked him to fuck him by way of making it known that it’s what Harry wants. It was the most characteristically Louis method of going about it and just thinking back to ten minutes ago, to his eyes going dark and the sound of I know you want... makes Harry reach for him by the hips, pulling him off his thighs so he can get Louis flattened out on his back under him.

The amount of times that he’s imagined the exact moment is incomprehensible. There were nights when he’d wanted it so badly that it felt he was in agony, turning himself over on his front and fucking his hips against the mattress while trying to keep Louis’ name off his tongue. Seeing him there for real is nothing like even the most vivid moments his imagination gave him. He looks taken aback, his lashes pushed open wide, mouth hanging slack like he’s trying for a breath that he can’t quite take in.

Harry moves over him, crawling up on his hands until he has them braced around his shoulders, one of his knees wedging between his legs until Louis spreads his thighs apart for him. Louis’ arms reach up to hold him around the width of it like he’s afraid to let go. Maybe as a form of reassurance, Harry turns his face in, kissing the inside of Louis’ bicep, teeth grazing the two words tattooed there. He shifts his weight to one arm, using his other hand to curl down the front of his throat, tracing the swell and then fall of it on the path down to Louis’ chest.

“Say it again,” he murmurs, his kisses moving in the same direction. He sucks a mark beneath one of Louis’ pecs at the same time he pinches his left nipple between his thumb and forefinger, rolling and tugging until Louis’ gasps turn to whimpers.

“What?” Louis questions. His hips push up, grinding roughly against the front of Harry’s thigh, burning hot on his skin. The fabric’s so damp that he can’t resist reaching down for him, finding the line of Louis’ cock through his briefs and giving him a slow pull, turning the damp patch properly wet under his palm.

“Tell me you want it.” There’s no reason Louis needs to say it again. His body is riddled with want, shaking and buzzing from attention--Harry knows just how badly he needs it because he’s tuned into every detail. He could explain at length just how different Louis’ breathing is then from normal or how different the flush on his cheeks is from when Harry gives him incessant, stupid compliments every day.

“Want you to fuck me.” Louis swallows after he says it, his hands moving up to hold behind Harry’s neck, clenching along his hairline with his fingers. “Please, Harry.”

Louis could have flat-out refused to ask him again and Harry would have given him exactly what he wanted, but the sound of his voice, the way he says his name--it makes him itch to get them there.

“Yeah, god,” Harry nods, antsy with how badly he wants to feel all of Louis’ skin against his at once. He moves faster even though his body is shaky and jerky, trying to catch up to his thoughts as his fingers dip below the band of Louis’ briefs, rolling them down just under his balls and letting them trap his thighs there.

He just wants to look first, even though it’s not so new to him anymore. Even with the prospect of what’s to come, Louis’ body is just too appealing to him to keep from taking a moment to appreciate, walking his flat palm from the inside of his thigh and up the shaft of his cock until the length of his fingers cover it, feeling it twitch and throb under his touch.

“Would you do something?” Louis urges, reaching to bat Harry’s hand away at the same moment a bead of precome dribbles out from the head of his cock, smearing on his lower belly when he moves their fingers. There’s a hint of agitation in his voice that Harry smirks at, looking at him with raised eyebrows because, well, it’s something to be proud of: having this beautiful, sarcastic, tightly wound, quick-as-a-fox person actually desperate for him.

“Alright, alright.” Holding both sides of the elastic, Harry takes them down the rest of the way, pulling all the way past Louis’ ankles rather than letting him kick them off. He just wants the pleasure of being the one to undress him, as stupid and selfish as it is. He has to hold things up for that little bit.

Even though Harry stops touching him to do the same to himself, Louis actually looks relieved then, content to watch him lift his knees up from the mattress and his cock jutting up between his legs once it’s free. Louis’ seen him before--it’s been impossible to avoid while living in such close quarters, but never like this--never hard for him, though he can’t even count the times he has been now.

It’s a thing that keeps up. They can’t stop looking at one another, never letting their gazes stray for long, only pausing for more frenzied kisses and when Harry curses under his breath at the realization that he has to put distance between their chests to find a condom and a bottle of lube that he swore was in the cabinet next to his bed the last time he saw it.

“Don’t tell me you’re out,” Louis groans, sounding so pitiful at the thought of it that Harry leans over him to kiss him quiet, shaking his head with their lips still together. He pumps Louis’ cock in a slow fist, as a consolation for making him wait.

“No, it’s just...” Harry lets go and points behind his own shoulder, scrunching his face up apologetically and wedging his lips against Louis’ once more before he pushes himself up from the bed. “Haven’t exactly been using it,” he tacks on, making a point to look back at Louis, who looks accordingly pleased, but maybe not all that surprised. He may have gotten a bit jealous that night at the party, but Harry’s sure he has to realize how one-track his mind has been. He’s been as faithful to the their fake relationship as he would’ve been a real one. Louis didn’t even have to ask for that much.

“Hurry up, then.”

Turning his back to the bed, Harry walks the few steps to his dresser, finding a new bottle of lube at the bottom of his underwear drawer and feeling ridiculously triumphant over it. He knew he’d remembered buying some and his cheeks go hot when he thinks harder about when. He hasn’t exactly been sleeping with loads of guys since leaving university, but meeting Louis that first time at the garden center had put the thought in his head. Louis may have had a boyfriend, but he told himself he’d find someone like him. Maybe someone better.

He hadn’t believed it for a minute.

When he moves toward him again, the sight he’s met with almost makes his knees give out. Louis’ thighs are spread apart, hips propped up on a pillow as he moves his hand slowly down his own cock, teasing himself just as thoroughly as Harry had been.

“Shit,” Harry gasps. His mouth is dry as he climbs back onto the bed, his hand smoothing down the outside of Louis’ thigh, feeling how stretched his muscles are from being parted so wide. “Christ, Louis. Look at you.”

Louis hums quietly, turning his wrist and pulling up his cock with just his thumb and forefinger, not giving himself much. “Look at you,” he echoes back, swallowing hard and looking down at Harry’s cock, almost nervously. “It’s been a while. You’re gonna tear me apart.”

Harry thinks about telling him he won’t, but it seems counterproductive when that’s exactly what he wants to do. Instead, he moves between Louis’ legs, getting so close that he can feel Louis’ hand bumping between them, grazing Harry’s cock with the backs of his knuckles as he keeps stroking himself off. Cradling his shoulders in both hands, Harry leans up to him, kissing his chest and his throat and then rediscovering that rush of contentment when he finds his lips for the dozenth time that night.

“You’ll be alright,” he whispers.

“Promise?” Louis whispers back, reaching to guide Harry’s hands up to his face, letting him feel his cheeks go full under his palms when he smiles.

“Think you can take it,” Harry nods, squeezing his jaw affectionately and kissing his chin before he puts just enough distance between them to grapple blindly for the bottle off to his side. He warms it up on his fingers, getting them tacky before he brings them down between Louis’ legs.

The first press of one makes Louis cry out, his hole clenching up to try and keep his finger still before Harry even makes it to the second knuckle. “S’alright,” Harry murmurs, slowing until he feels Louis’ body start to go slack, loosening with every stroke of Harry’s finger into him until he knows he can fit two.

“Ah, that’s...” Louis’ hips shift, his feet flattening against the bed, keeping himself open while Harry fucks him open with his fingers. He can’t stop making sounds, whining when Harry manages to find his prostate and curls his fingers up at just the right angle to make his cock jolt and leak. “Fucking c’mon, Harry,” he grits.

He’s being gratuitous. It may have been a while for Louis, but it’s not like it’s his first time. His body will remember. It’ll adapt to him. Harry’s just greedy to keep his face looking the way it does, then--blissed, spattered in pink, fucked out even though there’s still so much more for them.

“Want me?” Harry says the words against Louis’ cheekbone, giving his fingers another slow curl up  when Louis’ hips flicker toward the feeling, his body clenching and keeping them in when Harry prods at just where he needs.

“Everyone wants you,” Louis huffs, sounding so adorably frustrated by that, that Harry can’t help but smile curiously at him, amused at the idea that he’d been blind to other advances. He hasn’t exactly been paying attention, so he’s not sure what he’s missed out on. “Maybe not more than me,” Louis tacks on, quietly. He should know that’s all that counts anyway.

“M’gonna fuck you now.” It doesn’t need to be said because he chooses the same moment to flatten one hand out on Louis’ belly, trying to soothe him ahead of the  the inevitable sting of emptiness he’ll feel in the moments before he can ease over him and replace his fingers with his cock. He feels Louis’  hole start to flutter the second they slip out and he goes at it with the pad of one, rubbing leftover slick on his rim until Louis whimpers and reaches around to dig his nails into his back.

“Do it.”

Harry can’t remember a good quarter of his hookups, due to his propensity for meeting people when he’s half pissed and because he’s just got a shit memory, really, and a head too full of too many things. But this. This. He knows he won’t forget even the hurried bits. He watches Louis’ face rather than his hand when he rolls the condom down his cock, in awe of the way he’s looking at him, that he even is looking at him. That part will commit to his mind for good, just like the feeling of his hands pulling him down flat and his legs bracketing around him, inviting him in.

It’s a lot on his end when he first pushes in, but he can tell it’s even more for Louis. He’s so tight that Harry feels like he’s going to break him, like the individual centimeters that he moves at a time might split him open. Louis nails dig into him harder, clawing down from his shoulderblades and all the way to his hips, holding him there to steady him when they’re finally flush and past the initial sting of resistance.

“Fuck,” Louis gasps, lifting his head off the pillow just enough to set his forehead to Harry’s. “It’s so much.”

“Good, though?” Harry whispers to him, stroking Louis’ damp hair away from his face and kissing all the same spots he’s just cleared. His lips linger at the top of Louis’ cheekbone and he feels him nod, squeezing his hips and finally pushing his own up just a bit, just tentatively.

“Yeah,” he breathes. “Really good.”

Somehow they find their way into fluid motions: slow, shallow thrusts evolving into deeper ones. Even when Louis whines for more, Harry keeps their pace the same, relentless about letting him feel every stroke and every change in angle. He’s never been particularly quiet or loud, but he’s closer to the latter, then, saying Louis’ name like some sort of plea every time he rocks up and makes his cock slide against Harry’s abdomen. There’s already so much heat in the pit of his belly that it’s like kindling a flame, making it grow wild.

Things build, but it happens in increments. Louis’ whines start to come with less time in between and then Harry fucks him faster. Louis bows his face down to sink his teeth into the top of his shoulder and so Harry pulls a tight fistful of his hair. Harry’s felt frantic since Louis first kissed him, but they take their time getting there, falling into it together. He can only fully process just how far they’ve come when he realizes Louis’ stopped kissing him altogether to let his head lull back against the pillow, all of his body starting to seize up and one of his legs wrapping around Harry, digging his heel into the flesh of his arse.

“Ah, are you--I’m close,” Louis breathes, arching his back.

“Good,” Harry whispers. He doesn’t want to come until he sees Louis get there first. It’s so hot to him, being the one to get Louis this way. He’s always had a bit of a thing about getting other people off, but no one in recent memory has been quite as satisfying as Louis. There’s something about the way he just completely fucking falls apart that Harry finds so appealing he can barely stand it.

He reaches between Louis’ legs for his dick and finds Louis’ hand already there, so he he bats it quickly away to replace it with his own. He circles his thumb and forefinger just below the head of his cock and strokes him there, too lightly, just enough to make his dick twitch and bob and leak, and god, Harry almost loses it right then.

“That’s it,” he whispers, lowering his mouth just to graze against the shell of Louis’ ear. “You want to come for me?”

“Yes,” Louis blurts out with no hesitation at all, voice tight.

“Do it, then,” Harry says, grunts and squeezes Louis’ cock as he buries himself inside of him with a final jerk of his hips, not giving him more than small nudges forward rather than an in-and-out stroke. He slides his hand down his side and nudges Louis’ knee up with his own so he’s stretched up and folded in half for him, bent in a compromising position that won’t last long.

“Oh my god--

“Yes,” Harry whispers, giving him one tight stroke. “Fuck, it’s so hot--”

Louis takes a deep breath as though he has something to say, but the best he can do is a choked off whine as he comes onto Harry’s hands and his own belly, his hips jerking up against nothing, mouth open, utterly beautiful. Harry starts to pull his hips back, careful and slow, but Louis grabs him on his side and squeezes.

“Don’t,” he whispers, eyes only half-open as he looks up at him. “Stay there.”

“Okay.” Harry nods, shocked by how hot that is, that Louis still wants him inside even after he’s come. He keeps his hips moving slowly, fluid motions that are almost lazy, now. He doesn’t think twice about it when he licks Louis’ come from his thumb and then traces the excess along Louis’ bottom lip, leaning in to kiss it away, licking into his mouth. Louis kisses him hungrily, and that’s almost too much--that he actually likes it, either the taste of himself or that Harry nearly fed his own come back into his mouth.

“Can I come on you?” Harry asks between kisses, their lips against each others’ before Louis has a chance to answer. “I want to.”

“Mhm,” Louis hums. Harry snaps his hips forward one more time and then Louis lifts his hands over his head, waiting for him, inviting and sexy. There are still splashes of his own come sticky on his stomach, and that’s where Harry stares as he gets onto his knees and peels the condom off, throwing it to the side and staring down at Louis as he jerks his cock once, twice, and a third time before he falls forward with one hand beside Louis. The bed squeaks under his weight, but Harry hardly registers the sound or anything other than Louis’ expectant face and the way his own cock looks adding the mess of come on Louis’ abdomen. He loves seeing him messy, that golden skin glistening, the whole idea sort of inherently filthy in a way that clearly gets them both off.

“Shit,” Louis whispers, staring down at himself, apparently in awe. He’s a mirror of how Harry feels. He doesn’t even have to see himself to know that his eyes are just as wet and bleary and overwhelmed as Louis’ look to him.

He feels dead-limbed, stuck in place while Louis sweeps his hands along his hips and up his waist, soothing him--soothing them both, really, while they find their way back. Harry only finds the strength to move when he’s too tempted by Louis’ skin not to. He bows over him, crouched between his legs as his tongue slides up Louis’ belly, licking at a particular trail of both of their come until he’s glistening from his saliva instead.

Louis puts up with being touched and fawned over--valiantly, Harry thinks--until a bite to a particularly sensitive spot on his hips is too much and he drags him up by both arms. Harry’s whine of protest is put to rest the second he realizes that his new vantage point makes it so he has nothing to look at but Louis’ eyes in front of his own, a sight that makes him hum appreciatively because...what could be better than that? He’s been stealing glances at him every chance he’s had for the past month, trying to be discreet or passing it off as part of their act, but this. Louis’ given him the freedom to look. He wants him to look.

“You’re so lovely,” Harry muses, sliding his palm up around Louis’ throat, keeping his head tipped back that way--just delicately, touching him like he’s glass, like he didn’t just fuck him so hard into the bed that Louis’ head almost collided with the headboard.

“Mm, you would say that.” Louis smiles, his arms going around around Harry’s neck and palming at the back of it, the same way he does when they’re sacked on the couch while Harry moans about his poor aching bones after a long day at the garden center.

“I wouldn’t say that to just anyone.” And that’s the truth. Outside of his relationships, sex has always been something that’s just fun for him. Something he’s good at. Half the people he’s slept with have been mates and it’s always felt like being with a mate. He has to actually remind himself that that’s the title Louis wears for him, as well, because that’s the reality, even if everything inside of him screams otherwise.

He catches Louis biting down on the corner of his lip, and his expression changes like he knows he’s being looked at under a microscope, like he’s only just become aware that Harry sees him through a different lens than anyone else. “So, I’m special, then?” he asks, chuckling because it might be funny, or maybe because he wants Harry to believe the answer doesn’t matter to him.

“‘Course you’re special,” Harry whispers. “You’re Louis Tomlinson.”

Louis laughs genuinely at that, though he flushes, as well. It’s sickening how precious Harry finds him. Leaning in, he kisses Louis’ forehead, then his lips, smiling against them before he finally shifts his weight off of him and rolls onto his side. Louis’ still so close that he can feel heat coming off of him, their bodies shifting together like bricks into place--settling like it’s the easiest thing in the world.

“You’re an idiot,” Louis accuses, reaching out to smack him over the top of his thigh, making Harry grunt.

“Little bit, yeah,” Harry agrees, turning his head on the pillow, his nose pushing up against the side of Louis’ face. The after-sex bit can sometimes be awkward after all of those desires have been put temporarily to rest, but this, with Louis, is shaping up to be just as good as the main event.

The closeness he feels is something he’s craved without knowing he’d so badly wanted to be this way with Louis. This, whatever this can be defined as, is just a heightened version of their friendship, and it’s even better than he imagined it could be.

Louis

Louis wakes up first, for once. As his eyes blink and finally open, there isn’t a moment of confusion in which he forgets where he is or how he got there; he knows exactly where he is, actually, and exactly which bed he’s in, and exactly whose bicep he’s using as a pillow. He recognizes that faded cologne and, when his eyes wake enough to focus, there’s no doubt in his mind that he would recognize those lips anywhere, today or a hundred years from now, no matter what happens.

He sighs. It seems daunting to move any of his muscles, but he has to pee so bad that he can’t just shut his eyes and doze off again, no matter how badly he wants to. Harry doesn’t stir at all when Louis sits up, swings his legs over the side of the bed and rests his feet on the cool wood floor. The slight ache he feels now will probably intensify when he stands. He gives it a shot, anyway.

It’s…not terrible. He’s fallen off his bike more than a few times, he’s dealt with worse than this—and those weren’t enjoyable aches, either. Not like this. Not like a sex ache, not when it’s been—god, he can’t even remember how long it had been before last night. I had sex last night, he thinks to himself, again and again, marveling at how the thought feels in the daylight.

It feels good. It feels amazing. It feels better than anything’s felt in a really long time.

He experiences no guilt at all when he stares at his reflection in the mirror, just curiosity as he eyes the bruise on the side of his neck and registers the state of his hair, which he reaches up to flatten in an attempt to make himself look slightly less like a tired hedgehog. His heart races when he remembers Harry’s hand fisting there while they’d fucked, the way he’d tugged just hard enough to give Louis shivers. He gets them again now, just remembering.

All he wants to do, he realizes with a swoop of his stomach, is get back into bed with Harry and sleep until one of their stomachs growls too loudly to ignore.

But first, water. The kitchen is sunlit and calming and cheerful, or maybe it’s just Louis’ current state of ardor that makes everything appear more beautiful than it is. Amazing what sex can do. Amazing what Harry Styles did.

It makes his conversation with Dave yesterday seem someone pathetic, when he thinks of it now. He’d made him an offer, one that was easy to refuse, but Louis listened to it, anyway.

The house’s lease is up soon, Dave had said; the house that he and Dave used to live in. Dave’s suggestion was that renewing the lease might be a chance to start over for them. He suggested it might help them get back to the way things were, as though that blissful period was at all long-lasting.

It was nearly impossible to have that conversation at all while Louis was running on approximately three hours of sleep and thinking primarily of the way his cock disappeared so smoothly into Harry’s mouth. All day he had been distracted and fitful, annoyed that he’d left without charging his phone and even more annoyed once he realized he didn’t have his keys, either. He spent the time after his lunch with Dave just hoping to catch Harry at their house and, when that failed, he’d crashed on Niall’s couch for a much-needed nap.

If he was even a little bit unsure yesterday what he wanted to do about Dave’s offer—and he was fairly sure, even then, that Dave’s words weren’t anywhere near as meaningful as they would’ve once been—being with Harry even one time is enough to make Louis realize that everything he thought he missed no longer holds weight. It’s less that Harry is the solution to the problem and more that he’s helped distance him from that sexless, three month black hole where he was obsessed with trying to make Dave feel like shit, but not necessarily win him back.

Louis stops in front of the sink and downs two glassfuls of water, refills it one more time, and carries it back into Harry’s bedroom to place on the nightstand. He uses the moment before Harry wakes up to appreciate his hair wild on the pillow and the way his stomach looks defined even in sleep, when his belly is soft, rising and falling in even breaths.

He’s less gentle about getting back into bed than he was getting out, hoping to wake Harry, and it works. He looks confused and sleepy and then, very quickly, happy to see Louis, a smile meeting his eyes as he takes his first deep breath.

“Can’t believe you left me here,” Harry says, reaching for Louis’ arm and yanking him down. Louis goes without a fight, but he looks offended.

“Oh, c’mon. You didn’t wake up.”

“I did,” Harry whines, looking at Louis with one eye half open, the other still closed. “‘s lonely.”

It’s way too early for Harry to be this cute while having an endearing pout. Louis bites him on the chin to snap him out of it. “I’m hungry.”

“What time is it?” Harry’s eyes are already closed again, preparing to drift off.

“Around ten. Got somewhere to be?”

Harry groans, resting one hand on Louis’ waist as he sits up onto the opposite elbow. “Work in an hour.”

“Gross.”

“Awful.”

Awful,” Louis repeats in his slow, comically horrible version of Harry’s accent, hoping to get a rise out of him, but he’s focused on reaching in for Louis’ neck, on the mark he left there. He brushes his thumb over it and hums appreciatively, making Louis swallow under the pressure of being watched so intently.

“I need breakfast,” Harry says calmly, as though he’s not currently pressing a slow line of kisses down the side of Louis’ neck.

“Four pieces of leftover pizza,“ Louis clears his throat, tries to compose himself. God, has he always been this easy? Is it just Harry? “I think.”

“Hm,” Harry murmurs. He puts some space between them, rests his head on the pillow across from Louis’.  “What do you want?”

To fuck again before you go to work, Louis thinks, pausing for too long.

“Besides that,” Harry says, grinning, squeezing Louis on the side.

Louis does his best to look appalled, not intrigued. “You’re disgusting.”

“C’mon.” Harry taps him on the hip twice. “Let’s go eat pizza.” He swings his long limbs around as he locates each of their underwear amidst messy bedsheets and a pair of jeans on the floor. They both tug them on and head to the front of the house, into the sunny kitchen and directly to the fridge.

It’s like any other morning, except for this time they’re both nearly nude instead of just Harry, and also Harry seems downright jolly, definitely happier and more animated than Louis’ ever seen him, except maybe on stage. They stand in the middle of the kitchen, toeing at each others’ feet as they take disgustingly huge bites of cold pizza and talk about what their favorite breakfasts were when they were growing up. Harry mentions a bunch of cereals Louis has never heard of and Louis tells him how his mum used to load up his toast with cinnamon and butter and sugar. He promises to make it for him one of these days. He promises him that without thinking once about the lease renewal, or about Dave’s offer to ‘think it over.’

“Wish I didn’t have to work today,” Harry mumbles, munching sadly on the last bit of pizza crust.

Louis tips his head to the side, doing his best to seem curious and not smug. “Why’s that?”

Harry shrugs, finishes chewing and wipes crumbs from his mouth with his thumb. “I just like talking to you.”

It’s so honest and simple that it ought not to take Louis so off guard, but it hits him hard, right in his heart. “You do?”

“Yeah,” Harry says, stepping closer. He brushes the hair back from his forehead and tucks some behind his ear. “I can talk to you about anything. Not many people I can say that about. Even at home, I mean, you’re just...yeah.”

Louis doesn’t know what else to say, so he just says, “You, too,” because it’s at least the truth.

Harry kisses his forehead and then the top of his cheek. “D’you think we can hang out tonight?”

They hang out every night, but Louis doesn’t say it out loud. He just snorts, squeezes Harry on the hip and looks up at him. “Don’t see why not.”

“Good.” Harry lifts his chin with his finger and kisses him once, more a tease than anything else. “I’ve got to get dressed.”

“You mean you can’t go to work like that?” Louis smacks him on the butt as he goes, watching his long back and shoulders as he retreats.

“You think I haven’t tried?”

Louis  snorts, staring at a spot of sunlight on the floor, thinking that Harry’s probably not joking.

*

It’s really easy, sleeping with Harry. It’s probably the least complicated sexual relationship Louis has ever had, but he supposes that having some practice is helpful. Pretending to be boyfriends made them friends. Being friends made them want to fuck. Or something like that.

The next two days pass in a joyful blur; Louis is too in the moment to recognize it now, but later he’ll see that they’re the best 48 hours he’s had all year.

All he and Harry do is laugh together, which is what they might have been doing from the start if Louis hadn’t been so determined to see Harry as someone who was doing him a favor and not a friend. So they laugh a lot, and share bags of chips and beers, and do what they always do: enjoy each other’s company.

The only problem is that Louis can’t stop kissing him, and it seems to be a struggle for Harry, as well, because he kisses him awake in the morning when he still smells of toothpaste and something sweet and minty he puts on his face after he shaves. He kisses the backs of Louis’ knees when he crawls into bed after him. Louis can hardly believe that someone could ever want him so much.

He has so many questions, but he can’t bring himself to ask any of them. Is there ever a correct moment to ask your friend how long he’s wanted to fuck you, though?

After three days, Harry gets there first, and Louis isn’t prepared at all.

On their way down from a post-sex high they’re lying on top of rumpled sheets in bed as an ancient vinyl from Harry’s collection spins on the turntable. It’s the golden hour and everything in the room looks gilded, dust motes swirling through the light, sun illuminating the side of Harry’s face where it rests on Louis’ thigh.

“You’re the only person I know who actually likes rum raisin,” Louis says, picking up on a too-long conversation they’re having about ice cream flavors. He tugs one of Harry’s springy curls and lets it drop over his forehead. “Well, you and my granddad.”

“Smart man.”

“Smart man, shitty taste in ice cream.”

“Excuse me, Louis,” Harry says, rolling over and crawling up toward the pillows. “Not a nice thing to say about an old man. Or a young man.”

Louis huffs and scoots left, making room for Harry to lie on his side beside him. “Now I want a milkshake.”

“Hey,” Harry says, suddenly very close.

“Hi.” Louis rolls onto his side, too, facing him, waiting for the inevitable comment about some other ice cream flavor no one likes; probably pistachio.

“Did you know that I really liked you?”

He wants to laugh, but no sound comes out. Harry had given no inclination that he was about to say anything of that sort, and Louis isn’t at all prepared to discuss them, not when he’s still boneless and happy from good sex and was satisfied to just keep it at that for as long as possible. “What?”

“When we started...all of this.” Harry continues with a wave of his hand, speaking calmly, no trace of sarcasm or teasing in his voice. “You had to know.”

Louis sits up, his heart pounding as it tends to do whenever Harry speaks with unabashed honesty about something that would send Louis into a panic before he ever considered bringing it up. He’s thought about it, of course; he’s had a feeling ever since their first kiss in the bar, the one where Harry pretty obviously made up a Dave sighting just to kiss him

“I don’t think I did a very good job of hiding it at all,” Harry goes on, actually grinning now, apparently content to discuss this.

“Harry, you don’t have to say that,” Louis says, shaking his head. “Like, don’t--don’t just say that.”

And then the worst thing happens: Harry actually looks hurt. “Hey,” he says again, only this time he places his hand on Louis’ thigh, sitting up to look at him. “I’m not. I wouldn’t.”

It’s just too hard to believe, and not because Dave fucked him up, he tells himself, because he refuses to let Dave ruin this for him--except, he realizes, that of course he fucked him up. The reason Harry’s confession has made Louis so tense is because his last relationship was such a let down and he can’t bear to imagine the same thing happening with Harry. It’s nothing more than admission of like, but Louis is still hesitant to accept that calmly or quickly.

“I believe you, I just…” Louis laughs, a bit hollowly. “A lot to process.” He squeezes Harry’s hand and slides off of the bed, his tongue pressed to the inside of his cheek as he stares from Harry’s face to the door and then back again. “I’m not mad,” he says, just to clarify.

“I’m not either,” Harry says.

“Okay. We’re fine?” It’s absolutely not the end of a the conversation, but he can’t do it right now. Really, Louis just needs to be told that they’re fine while he thinks about how to tell Harry exactly what he means to him, and how he’s done more for him than anyone has in a long time, and how he’s been everything great about the last three months, and how he’s so genuinely good that Louis hardly feels like he deserves his friendship, sometimes, let alone anything more than that.

“Yeah,” Harry says, drawing the word out. He obviously had a lot more to say on the topic. “We’re still fine.”

“I’m gonna get in the shower.” Louis almosts ask him to join, but in the end he’s glad to be alone. It gives him time to stare at the tiles and wonder how badly he just fucked up.

Harry

Race Canyon broke up two weeks ago, but it’s been such a long time coming that Harry actually forgot to tell anyone after it happened. Dave sent a group text, of course, telling everyone that he was “over it,” and that he’d prefer if they didn’t go by the same name anymore since it wasn’t the original line-up, like they’re Queen, or something. It’s exactly the kind of selfish shit that Dave’s been pulling for as long as Harry has known him. He and Niall both agree: they’re better off without him.

It’s not really that bad, actually. He and Niall were the creative heart of the band, anyway: Harry wrote lyrics and showed them to Niall and they constructed much of the songs without anyone else. Their so-called residency at the Rocking Stone has turned into Harry and Niall, instead, a nameless duo just there to sing and play.

Playing in a band with Dave now would be hard, anyway, what with the unbearable awkwardness now that he’s become closer to Louis, which would be even worse now that they’ve been together. Or whatever they are.

Harry had told him his feelings without thinking hard about how, exactly, Louis might react, only to be met with a less than stellar response that left that both a little awkward for the next few days. By no means did they ignore one another, but they were both a little busy with work and Harry could tell that parts of it were purposeful; each of them feigning exhaustion at night instead of staying up together like they normally did. It was hard to lie to one another when they lived in such close quarters and, more than that, knew each other well enough to see right through whatever excuse they gave, but the short break from each other seemed necessary after their conversation.

There wasn’t much serious thinking Harry needed to do in the three days that followed. To him, it was simple: he had very straightforward feelings about Louis in a complicated situation.

*

The Yes Tavern is smaller than the Rocking Stone, but it’s also a lot cooler and more legitimate, which is why the butterflies in his stomach are particularly forceful before his and Niall’s set there on that Thursday night. They have a banjo and a guitar and no name, but they’ve got five songs listed on a white piece of paper. Harry rests it near his foot when they step onto the creaky plywood stage.

No one really looks up from their drinks or stops talking; well, no one except for Zayn, who’s sat at the table closest to them with a beer and a soft smile on his face, giving a thumbs up to Niall as he plucks a banjo string to test the sound.

Harry doesn’t know what to say, so he doesn’t say anything before they start their first song. There are so few people there that it kind of feels like playing in a living room, but it doesn’t matter; once he starts, he gets that feeling he always gets when he plays music, something indescribably good and irreplaceable. He can lose himself in it even if really is only playing to ten people, most of whom aren’t paying them much attention.

At the very least, there’s a bit of polite applause after they finish.

“I’m Harry,” Harry says into the mic, waving. “That’s Niall.” Niall waves, too. That seems like enough of an introduction, but Harry still tacks on a, “Thank you.”

As they prepare for their next song, Harry sees that Liam has arrived; he’s leaning against the bar holding a beer and wearing a wide smile, encouraging as ever. It was good of him to come, he thinks, but his presence makes Louis’ absence more glaring than it already was.

Conversation picks up again as Harry glances down to that white piece of paper, triple-checking that their next song is, in fact, the cover of “Winding Wheel” they’ve played a thousand times by now.

There really isn’t anything like performing, even when it’s in such a smell venue. He’ll never get over the thrill of seeing the looks on the faces of people who are really listening because they’re so different to the people who just glance over on occasion or at the end of a song to applaud. Harry just wants to know what they’re thinking as they play and as he sings, but on certain people he can see it if he looks closely enough. He’s been told he has a staring problem more than once, but he likes music because of the instant connection it gives him with people, and seeing emotion on someone’s face is just as good as hearing a compliment.

They go right into the next song, playing the opening chords over louder applause than before. At the back of the bar the door is open and Harry can see as he sings that their playing has brought in a small crowd. It’s the kind of pressure he likes, because the people who wandered in are there because they liked what they heard as they passed by on the sidewalk.

The bar gets full enough that he doesn’t even notice Louis, at first, not until he’s pulling up a chair at Zayn’s table and stealing a sip of his beer. There are black grease marks on his fingers as he wraps them around the pint glass and he looks a bit hot from having biked there, but he looks glowing and ethereal as always. He looks like Harry’s muse if Harry had a muse.

Harry smiles around a note, suddenly inspired to go big with it, riding it out until his voice is hoarse and his eyes squinted shut.

At the end of the song, he kicks their short set list aside and turns his back on the audience. Glasses clink and people chat to fill the silence when the applause dies down, and Harry whispers into Niall’s ear, making a suggestion he’s sure will come as a surprise.

“Are you sure?” Niall asks, leaning away from the mic.

Harry grins, trying to seem confident. “It’ll be fun.”

It’s a new song. It’s so new, in fact, that they’ve never played it live and they’ve only rehearsed it a few times since Harry finished writing it two weeks ago. Yesterday they agreed it was too early to debut just yet because they hadn’t successfully played it straight through, but it only seems right to try it now. The person he wrote it for is in the audience, after all.

“Sorry about that,” Harry says into the mic, waving his hand toward Niall. He adjusts his guitar strap, then tips up the front of his hat and looks at Louis. “This is a new song. We’ve never played it live before, so...be nice to us.”

He glances back at Niall, who gives him a firm nod and a shrug, everything about him saying exactly what Harry’s feeling: here goes nothing.

“Right,” Harry says, and licks his lips. He really hopes he can do this. “This is called Happily.”

*

It’s their last song. It’s their best song. The crowd reacts better to it than anything else they’ve yet played, which Harry considers to be just another reason to be thankful for Louis. He’s the reason Harry couldn’t put down his notebook for months. He’s the reason he started to write music he actually liked rather than music he thought would first best with Race Canyon’s sound. No matter what happens, no matter who he’s with, he’ll never play that song and think of anyone else but Louis. No one else deserves that much of him.

They wave themselves off the stage as the jukebox starts to play music again, and each of them head straight into the crowd, Niall for Zayn and Harry for Louis, who stands up from the table when he sees him.

“Hi,” Harry says, but Louis is already stepping into him, wrapping both arms around Harry’s in a tight squeeze.

“Sorry I was late,” Louis says, shaking hair out of his eyes. He takes a small step back but stays close, one hand resting briefly on Harry’s hip before he drops it back down.

“Did you enjoy it?”

Louis smiles, the closed-lipped smile that makes his eyes go all squinty, the one Harry wants to kiss just to feel the way his lips are spread wide. “It was amazing.”

“Ah, well--”

“No, it was really--that’s the best you’ve ever sounded, and--”

“Drinks?” Niall cuts in, pointing between them. They both agree to two PBRs and then steal the seats left at the table once he and Zayn are gone for the bar. Harry still feels buzzed from singing, and he reaches for Louis’ hands without thinking, holding them both in his hand on top of the table. He wants to hear what else he was about to say, and he doesn’t even have to prompt him before Louis continues.

“That song,” Louis starts, looking hard at Harry, who nods, quietly encouraging. “But--wait, I wanted to talk to you first, about, um.” He frowns, squeezes Harry’s fingers. “I hope you don’t think I freaked out the other day because of you...saying that.”

God, he’d tried so hard not to get his hopes up, but the relief he feels is all the proof he needs to know he’d be crushed if Louis hadn’t said something to that effect. He picks up one of Louis’ hands and kisses the back of it, trying to calm him down even though this feels big, somehow. “Okay.”

“It’s all I’ve been thinking about since you told me,” he says, staring hard, never looking from Harry’s eyes. “And I know I probably seemed like I was freaking out but it’s only because, like--I thought I needed to think about it but I didn’t, really, because I want...when we were faking. That’s what I want. But I want the real thing.”

Harry’s being thinking of it, too, imagining this outcome. Even in the moments where he’d tried to convince himself to be practical, to hope for the best while expecting the worst, his gut had still been a pool of optimism. He’d always believed in them and what they could be if Louis let it happen.

“You really want that?” Harry asks through the widest smile his face can accommodate, squeezing his hands harder, needing him to be sure. Their start has been far from conventional and far from easy. There’s been someone else in the picture from the beginning, someone that Harry’s just been waiting to lose Louis to, and he’s under no pretense that things will just suddenly stop being complicated.

“I really want that,” Louis confirms, biting his bottom lip. Neither of them can seem to stop smiling; Harry can barely believe his luck. “And maybe we should take it slow, or whatever, but...I do. I like the way you make me feel.”

“Whatever you want, Lou,” he says, combing his fingers back to thread through his own hair, tugging it off of his face as he smiles across the table at him. It doesn’t matter to him whether they go slow or fast or if they stay at the very same pace. Just having Louis is all the solidity he needs. He just wants him and having that opportunity makes it impossible to consider details or to be smart about anything when he wants to dive straight in.

“Well, it’s what you want, too,” Louis points out. He does seem nervous, but Harry holds onto his hands, wishing they were stood up or alone so he could do even better than that.

“I want you to be happy. Like, that’s all I’ve wanted, that’s why I wanted to help you that night at the Rocking Stone.” Harry pauses. “Actually, um. Do you remember meeting me before? Like, before that night?”

“At band practice?”

“No,” he says, shaking his head. “You actually came to the garden center once.” Harry smiles at the memory. He was sure at the time that he probably wouldn’t see Louis again until the next time he had to by his mum flowers, and then he’d bumped into him a month later at Race Canyon’s second band practice. “I helped you pick mums for your mum, d’you remember?”

Louis seems genuinely surprised and it’s obvious he’s trying his best to remember because he so badly wants to take part in what would make a really fun story to share, but he shrugs. “I really can’t. Was I nice to you?”

“Nice enough,” Harry says, tipping his head to the side. “Now, this may come as a shock to you,” Harry continues, placing his hand gently on Louis’ knee. “But I had a massive, massive crush on you.”

Louis snorts. “You? A crush on me?

“I know.”

“Wow,” Louis breathes, staring at Harry, shock replaced by unmistakable glee.  “And that night at the bar I thought you were some weird, helpful English guy just trying to do me a favor.”

“Hey.” Harry tries to sound put out, but he’s laughing too hard.

“Well, I’m happy with the outcome, no matter how it started.”

“I just thought I could cheer you up,” Harry says, truthfully. “Take your mind off of everything.”

“You don’t even have to try, though,” Louis continues, pressing on as though it’s important for him to get this out. “That’s the best thing, is that it’s just how I feel when I’m with you,” he adds, kicking his leg out under the table and hooking the toe of his Vans around the back of Harry’s ankle. “Happy. In case that wasn’t obvious.”

“I do try quite hard,” Harry admits.

“It worked.”

“You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Harry wiggles his eyebrows, making faces at him that are the antithesis of seductive.

“God, I’m dating the biggest loser.”

“Music to my ears.” Harry grins. “Every embarrassing part of me is all yours. You’re quite lucky, really.”

Louis groans, acting moderately but fleetingly convincing that he doesn’t love the idea. “What have I gotten myself into?”

“So much homemade vitamin water, you have no idea.”

“I swear to god, if you say the word ‘acai bowl’ to me, or whatever--”

“Shh, don’t worry about that,” Harry starts, sliding his body out from the table without actually letting go of Louis’ hand in the process. Louis accommodates him, starting to follow without even asking Harry where they’re off to.

“Just feel like we should get out of here before they stop us,” Harry says, low into Louis’ ear. “I wanna be alone with you.”

Louis doesn’t object, even though it’s a bit like the guest of honor leaving his own event. Harry figures he’ll have more than enough time to bask in the glory of having a set closed off with all of Harry’s attention on him, singing lines that he’s been sending out into the universe long before he penned them down. For now, though, he just wants to get him home, to indulge in the first night he’s had with him where he won’t have to worry about a thing or pretend to be pretending.

The crowd feels swollen and claustrophobic as they make their way out, navigating around sweaty bodies and only stopping for a few people to clap Harry on the shoulder and offer their praises on the first gig. Of course it’s satisfying. He appreciates it. His focus is just elsewhere--on Louis’ short nails curling into his palm and the way he presses up to his back whenever someone moves to get by them.

Outside they take deep breaths and stare stupidly at each other for a moment until Louis laughs. “What?”

Harry shrugs. “Just wish you didn’t have your bike so that you could ride home with me.”

“Me too,” Louis admits, leading Harry over to where he’s locked it up. “See you in a few minutes?”

“Yeah, just…” He can’t seem to walk off just yet, not without basking in this for a bit longer. Just for another minute. Winding his arms around Louis’ shoulders, he brings him so he’s standing on the edge of the curb while Harry’s stepped down on the other side of it. His fingers go into the back of Louis’ hair just as he kisses him, rough and unrestrained even though there are people trickling out of the bar and passing them by.

When they retreat to take a breath, Louis’ lips look full and shiny and Harry’s waist stings from being held so tight. They’ve kissed in public before, but he’s never let himself fully feel this way; in fact, he’s never felt the way he does right now with anyone other than Louis, like his body has met its better half.

“Shit,” Harry laughs out, pressing his mouth against Louis’ cheek and muffling the word against his warm skin. Louis paws up and down his sides, pinching the fabric of his t-shirt in his fingers and winding it up tight to keep him close.  “We’ve gotta go or we won’t even make it past the streetlamp.”

Louis hums in agreement, his hands still working their way around various parts of Harry’s body as he leans in to kiss him square on the mouth, hard, like that’s the last one, he swears. They each take big steps back because several feet is the only distance strong enough to resist that magnetic pull.

“Meet you there?”

Harry pulls on his helmet and straddles his bike, throwing Louis a thumbs up before he pedals off. Harry watches him go and thinks of all the nights he’s come home to him before, and smiles when he thinks of how this is not technically any different than all of those other times, but it is the first time it’s felt this right.

 

Epilogue

There’s little more satisfying than the first truly chilly day after a summer that seemed at times as though it might stretch all the way to the end of October. By halfway through the month, the leaves are on their way to shriveling up into vivid colors that even make Louis’ everyday bike commute seem picturesque and cinematic. Crunchy leaves and hot cocoa seem like a novelty that ought to get a bit tired, year after year, but everyone spends small fortunes on fancy hot drinks and posts pictures of themselves in leaf piles. The fanfare around something as simple as the weather makes it hard not to fall in love with the season.

Doesn’t hurt that Louis’ got a few more reasons to be happy this year than he has in previous. Part of it’s to do with getting a raise. Most of it’s to do with his best friend who also happens to be his roommate who also happens to be his boyfriend.

After the success of summer’s 4th of July party, a Halloween party is the only logical move. The garden center sells every tacky Halloween decoration known to man, and Harry brought home one of each, much to Louis’ delight and the probable disgust of some of their more conservative neighbors.

“I’m just saying, if we’re going to have a party, our house has got to be, like. The Halloweeniest house on the block,” Harry explains as he stretches a fake cobweb over the stairs. “Hey, do you need help with that?”

“No,” Louis grunts. He’s doing just fine stringing lights over the top of the roof, thanks very much. He might break his legs in the process, yeah, but he’s determined to finish. Alone. Except that he nearly cries out as the ladder wobbles; it’s still just a little too short for him to use comfortably.

“Your arse looks great from this angle,” Harry calls up to him. Louis can feel him standing at the bottom of the ladder now, with his hands on either one of Louis’ calves, his thumbs snaking around behind his knees and squeezing lightly. It’s distracting and probably a little dangerous.

“It’s not gonna look good when I fall and it lands on your face if you don’t stop squeezing me—“

“Hey,” Harry drawls, “I happen to love it when you sit on my face.”

“You’re annoying,” Louis huffs lamely, but he has to hide his grin when he starts to climb back down.

“Got a leaf in your fringe,” Harry says once both of Louis’ feet are on the ground. He plucks it out and flicks it away, head tipping sideways. “Hey, question for you.”

“Hm?”

“Do people decorate for Thanksgiving?”

Louis frowns. “Not really. Why, d’you want to put a giant turkey on the lawn, or something?”

“No, I was just thinking of going home between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Didn’t want to leave a turkey on the lawn when we should have Santa, you know?”

Turkeys and Santa aside, Louis’ main interest in that sentence is that it’s the first he’s heard of Harry going anywhere in December. The thought triggers something in him, a feeling of worry that he doesn’t like because it’s mixed with fear, too, as unfounded as it may be. “You’re going home?”

“Just for a week.” Harry pauses when Louis doesn’t say anything, then smiles a little, prodding Louis in the cheek. “Hey, what’s that face situation?”

Annoyed that his so-called “face” is recognizable enough to mention, Louis looks around, shaking his head, doing his best to seem nonchalant and a  bit more carefree than he feels about Harry going back to England, back home, which he talks about missing all the time and which is probably even more enchanting around the holidays than any other time of year. “Nothing. I don’t have a face situation, I was just—just making sure it wasn’t for good.”

Harry narrows his eyebrows, that tell-tale crease between them a sure sign of mild frustration. “It’s not for good,” he says softly, starting to smile, almost amused. “As if I could stay away now that I’ve got you.”  Harry shakes his head and slides both hands alongside Louis’ neck, squeezing lightly.  “Thought I made that fairly clear.”

“Well, I don’t know—I guess—yeah,” Louis splutters, trying to talk even when Harry presses a kiss to his temple and then the top of his cheek. He’ll work on being excited for him, then, since it’s obviously a trip he needs to take. Louis would be lost if he didn’t have easy access to his own mom, even if he doesn’t actually see her as frequently as she’d like.

“Well, now you look sad,” Harry mumbles. “Which sort of ruins the surprise, but…”

“What surprise?”

“The ticket—I mean, I got you a ticket.” Harry grins so wide and it is so infectious that Louis starts to grin, too, even though he’s not entirely sure what he’s saying yet. “To come with me.”

When people tell Louis he’s in for a surprise, he rarely ever is, but this—he’s actually sort of in shock. All he can do is smile and stare in disbelief at Harry, who’s eyeing him so closely, smiling hesitantly. He feels like he’s just won some kind of award. That ticket might as well say I’m serious about you all over it, for as far as Louis is concerned. There are some things he can be skeptical about, and signs he could take the wrong way, but there’s nothing to question about this gesture. It is only good.

“You’re excited, right? This is alright?”

“Yeah, god, of course I am, it’s amazing,” Louis says, still in awe. He flings his arms around Harry’s shoulders and laughs into his shirt, hanging on when Harry squeezes him so tight he lifts off the ground.

“I booked them last night. I don’t know how I made it this long without telling you.” Harry beams. “My mum can’t wait to meet you.”

“I can’t believe this is happening.” Louis palms at his own face with both hands, so happy he doesn’t even know what to do with them.

“Believe it, babe.” Harry takes both his hands in his own and pulls him close again, looping Louis’ arms over his shoulders. “The whole country is gonna love you.”

“If it’s anything like you, I’m going to love it, too.” It slips out, the first blatant hint Louis’ ever dropped at a thought that runs through his mind no less than one hundred times a day. It isn’t lost on Harry, who just stares at him for a long moment, nodding in agreement to a statement they’ve still not yet voiced, but the sentiment is there and it sends something electric through Louis.

This is still the beginning for them. This is only the first trip to England and this is only the first time they’re decorating for Halloween and Louis thinks, as he kisses him, that he wants to do all of it with Harry, that he could do anything with him because they’ve already been through the hardest parts. He’ll never stop being thankful or surprised about it, either; that two months of faking led to the realest thing he’s ever known.