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Shake Me Down

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Cover art created by whenthebodiesspeak.


 

To say that Harry is nervous about starting school would be a colossal understatement. To say that he is fucking petrified would be more accurate, but Harry’s not saying that because for one thing, cursing is a sin. For another, if he admits his current off-the-charts, break-the-scale, piss-your-pants levels of anxiety, even to himself, then there might be tears. Which is quite possibly the worst thing he could do to himself in this extremely daunting situation. You know, besides actually pissing himself.

“Harry.”

Harry’s jolted from staring out the car window when he feels his mother’s hand close over his own—in what seems like a comforting gesture until Harry realizes it's just to still his fingers, which have been tapping out a familiar anxious pattern against his knee. 

“Harry, are you feeling okay? You look a bit ill.”

“Yeah. I’m fine,” he says, squeezing her hand. “Just nervous.”

Fucking petrified.

“Well, that’s normal,” she says warmly, looking to Harry’s step-father in the driver’s seat, who just nods stoically, ever unhelpful in the face of emotional distress. “It’s a big change. Everyone’s a bit anxious going away to school for the first time.”

“Yeah,” Harry agrees, because even though he’s not convinced everyone feels like this starting college, there’s really not anything else to say.

Harry’s mother, sensing his lingering nerves, pulls the chain of prayer beads off her wrist and places it in his hand. Harry looks down at it: the small wooden cross, the train of knots and beads that composes one decade of the rosary. She always wears this one.

“Keep that with you,” she says softly, gaze reverently fixed on the beads. “As a reminder that someone’s always looking out for you, and that things always turn out for the best. I used it a lot, when—when you were away.” Harry’s mother lifts her eyes to his face and gives him a watery smile that says and now look at us.

Yup, everything turned out for the best. Everything is good now, just how it’s supposed to be.

Harry is just how he’s supposed to be.

“Thanks, Mom,” he says, and slips the chain of beads onto his wrist, tucking it under the cuff of his button-down along with his rubber band. Then goes back to tapping his knuckle against the window in the usual rhythm. Harry’s mother simply pats his knee and turns around to face the windshield, leaving Harry alone with silent neuroticism.

***

“So, Niall,” Louis says when Niall enters the kitchen, bleary-eyed and boxer-clad, and shoves a bowl of cereal into his friend’s hand before he can even finish yawning. “Want to be my best friend in the whole world and drive me to Target?” Louis has long since learned that Niall is most susceptible to granting favors when he’s got food in his mouth.

“Not a chance,” Niall refuses cheerfully, his words stretched out by another yawn as he accepts the breakfast and sinks onto the couch across from Liam. “The frosh move in today, right? That place is going to be packed.”

Louis’ not going to admit it aloud, but Niall has a point. The prospect of entering a throng of too-cool-for-school eighteen year olds and overly emotional parents is…less than enticing. But Louis will be working doubles at the student help desk for all of freshman orientation, so this is the last chance he’s got to catch one of his car-owning roommates for the next forty eight hours.

Of course, this would all be much easier if one of them would just loan Louis his car, but you take the bumper off one time and—

“Why don’t you take the bus, Lou?” Liam suggests from an armchair without emerging from behind his newspaper, such that Louis is left staring blandly at the giant photo of Vladimir Putin’s severe face on the front page.

“Because I prefer the seat of my pants without gum smeared on them, and my general person not smelling like ass, thanks.”

Liam shakes his head disapprovingly, like he can’t even believe Louis said that, like he understands Louis' plight as a frequenter of public transportation.

Louis reverts to his original appeal. “Please, Niall.”

“No.”

“Please.”

“No.”

“Please please please—“

“Shh, Lou,” Liam’s voice remonstrates from behind Putin’s frown, which is much more disturbing than anything at eleven in the morning has a right to be.

Louis ignores Liam’s reprimand in favor of pulling his most plaintive pout at Niall, who appears to waver for a moment. “I need to get some school supplies,” he reasons, in hopes that it will further weaken his friend’s resolve. It’s not really a lie. On the list of things he has to purchase, Louis’ pretty sure post-it notes are there somewhere. That counts, right?

Niall squints his eyes in a way that either means he’s deciding whether or not to believe Louis or whether or not to drive him to the store. Louis hopes it’s the latter.

But then, “Sorry, Lou,” Niall sighs and shrugs. “Josh is coming over in ten to watch the game.”

Louis picks a soggy piece of cereal out of his bowl and throws it at Niall to express his disgruntlement. “Don’t bullshit me, Blondie. Since when do you care about sports?” In Louis' experience, Niall doesn’t really care about things that aren’t guitars, alcohol, food, or friends—except, apparently, when those friends need a lift to the store.

“Since he cares about getting into Josh’s pants,” Liam supplies as a hand reaches out from behind the paper to stir his mug of tea.

Niall picks the cereal out of his hair and pops it in his mouth without even bothering to deny it.

“Liam, then,” Louis redirects his attention, because Louis is many things, but he likes to think “cock block” is not one of them.

When Liam doesn’t so much as lower his newspaper, Louis resorts to chucking cereal at him. Liam doesn’t take it so well as Niall did, and lowers his newspaper just enough so that his eyes peer irately at Louis over Putin’s balding head. “Stop that.” And then promptly shifts his gaze away from Louis.

“Shan’t,” Louis promises, landing a piece of Chex in Liam’s hair. When that doesn’t work, he decides to just stare Liam down. Maybe the heat of an intent gaze will break him. “Please, Liam.”

Liam continues to stir his tea and not look at Louis, though Louis would bet he’s not getting any reading done, either. “Sorry,” Liam says in a tone utterly free of apology, “I can’t really be party to this ridiculousness on account of I’m an adult.”

Louis snorts. Adulthood.

“There’s more to being an adult than reading the paper, Father Time,” Louis informs him, now that he’s got Liam distracted. “Sex, for instance. And beer. And gambling. And sex. And driving your less fortunate friends to the store. Did I say sex?”

“You know, for someone who isn’t having a lot of sex, you sure do blab on about it an awful lot,” Liam critiques lightly as he turns the page of his paper and shakes it out. Niall cackles from his spot on the couch, dribbling milk down his chin.

Louis taps his spoon against his chin and contemplates using it to kill them both. Slowly. But because Louis has never been graced with that kind of patience, he says instead, “For your information, this is nothing more than a bit of a dry spell. And there’s a whole influx of innocent, horny freshmen ready to experiment with their sexuality flooding campus as we speak. I mean, come on.” Louis throws on his best smile when Liam finally glances up at him, wondering if it can get people into the driver’s seat of a car as well as it gets them into bed. For good measure, he tacks on, “Who could resist?”

Liam, apparently. Who goes back to reading.

“Fine,” Louis exhales. “I’ll take the bus. But know this: the next time you need me—“

“We won’t,” Niall puts in.

“—I will refer you to this moment as explanation for why I’ll kindly tell you to fuck off,” Louis concludes with dignity, tipping an imaginary hat to the both of them and sweeping open the door shut behind him.

***

“Harry. It looks fine.”

Harry pauses in his organization of books on the desk hutch to glance abashedly at his mother. “Yeah. Sorry,” he says, rubbing his nose awkwardly and nudging one of the books into place. Not perfect, but he’ll fix it later when they’ve gone. Harry sweeps his hand over the desk and pushes the chair firmly back into place before turning to face his parents, who are standing close enough to the door to indicate their imminent departure.

Harry tries to ignore how his heart leaps into his throat at the thought of them leaving him—it’s perfectly reasonable for his parents to make their exit after helping get everything set up. They’re not abandoning him, that’s not what this is. He’s an adult now, right? Right.

Man up, Styles.

“So you guys probably need to head out soon,” Harry guesses, and lifts a hand lamely to the door in a way that he hopes says I’m completely fine with this development and not at all internally panicking.

He’s not sure it worked, though, because his mother’s brow pinches. “We don’t have to leave just yet, if you don’t want us to,” she says. “You don’t have any orientation activities scheduled until tomorrow, right?”

Harry nods. He would know. He’s read his orientation brochure upwards of a dozen times and knows it backwards and forwards.

“And when do you start work?”

“Not until next weekend,” Harry says.

“Well, we could grab some lunch together before we head out,” his mother suggests.

“Are you sure?” Harry asks, because his step-dad’s wearing a put-upon expression that clearly implies this was not part of his mental itinerary for the day.

“Of course. Your father and I don’t have to get home immediately. Might as well get some food in our stomachs for the drive back.”

“Anne, I am scheduled to bring up the gifts at two o’clock Mass,” Harry’s step-dad reminds her.

Harry’s mom hesitates. It’s clear she doesn’t want to rescind her offer to Harry, but people can’t really shirk their responsibilities to God Almighty for the sake of a sub sandwich.

“Don’t worry about it,” Harry assures her with an approximation of a smile. “I’ll grab something on campus. Who knows, maybe I’ll…meet a friend. Or something.”

His mother looks relieved at having the pressure of the decision removed from her shoulders. “If you’re sure,” she tells Harry, already sounding very sure of the decision herself. “We’ll leave you to get settled in. Perhaps you can go the common room? Meet some of your hallmates. Oh,” she says, clapping her hands together and fixing her son with the fondest of motherly looks, “maybe you’ll meet some other nice kids at Mass. You said there’s a service at nine tonight?”

“Yes,” Harry confirms. “I’ll be there.”

“Looking for friends after Mass,” his step-father puts in. “That’s the Lord’s time.”

Harry nods quickly. “I know.”

“Well, I’m sure they’ve got some student organization for the Catholic students on campus,” his mother says with certainty. “Regardless, Harry is such a lovely boy that I’m sure he’ll just make the loveliest of friends.”

“Mom…” Harry groans, rolling his eyes.

His step-father harrumphs, presumably at the word “lovely” being used to describe his very normal (thankyouverymuch) son, and Harry tries to ignore it, opting instead to hug his mother goodbye. Then shakes his step-father’s hand, nodding at his instructions to “be good, study hard.”

Of all the things about college that terrify Harry, academics are remarkably far down on the list. Whilst navigating the simplest social situation has felt like tiptoeing around a minefield since leaving camp, Harry at least knows he can’t mess up reading a book.

Before Harry even has time to emotionally register what’s happened, his parents are down the hall, getting on the elevator, leaving Harry standing in the doorway of his pristinely organized room with its white walls and crisp sheets. Numbly, Harry closes his door against the chaos of other freshmen bustling about with their parents up and down the halls, settling in to start the best four years of their lives.

Harry heads back to his desk hutch and tries for the dozenth time to get those books just so.

***

Harry can’t find his Swiffer anywhere. He’s sure he packed it; how could he not?

He’d toed off his shoes and socks and taken all of three steps before he lifted one foot to see a thick layer of dust on its sole. He shuddered, tiptoed to the bathroom and gave himself a good rinse before starting this futile search for his cleaning instrument of choice.

Where is it?

Maybe his mother saw it amongst the belongings he was collecting for college in the dining room and thought she’d left it there by mistake. But Good Lord, this place needs a thorough sweep if Harry’s ever going to fall asleep in here.

Harry weighs his options. There’s probably a communal broom somewhere on the hall, but would that really do anything? Probably only get the floor a good bit dirtier. He could go out and purchase a Swiffer, but he doesn’t have a car, so he’d have to take the university bus to the shopping center.

Public transportation is host to two of Harry’s least favorite things, crowds and germs, but in the end, the prospect of not being able to remove his shoes in his own room is enough to motivate Harry out to the bus stop. He takes his phone and one of the four university maps he picked up from the student center (just in case) before stepping out of his room, locking the door, and then checking twice to make sure it really locked.

Out in the hall, Harry slips between parents lugging trunks and students meeting their new roommates. It’s no accident that Harry’s the only freshman on the floor in a single; his parents are good about protecting him from temptation when they can, not that Harry’s complaining. For one thing, the very thought of accidentally walking in on his roommate changing or stepping out of the shower is enough to have Harry aggressively snapping the rubber band around his wrist. For another, he’s never been that great with people anyway, and college is anxiety-inducing enough as it is without sharing a room with a stranger, thanks.

To his dismay, the bus is pretty full when Harry steps on. There is one open seat, but it’s next to a boy who’s wearing a pink tank top that gives sight to several tattoos on his arms and chest, so Harry opts to stand near the front and hold onto the railing.

Harry is acutely aware of the fact that not everyone he encounters at college is going to be God-fearing, but he just has to keep his distance. And not be curious about the tendrils of ink peeking out from behind that pink fabric (what little there is). And keep snapping his wrist. Ouch. Harry looks determinedly out the window for the rest of the trip and drenches his palms with Purell when he gets off.

Target is packed. Has Harry mentioned he’s not good with people? He’s really not good with people. Especially people that are already in tetchy moods because they too are stuck in this florescence-saturated box with hundreds of people they don’t know. He worms his way through aggressive, cart wielding shoppers and makes as straight a course as he can towards the cleaning supplies aisle. He’s just laid eyes on the tool he wants hanging from the top hook, and is stepping on the lowest shelf to reach up and unhook it, when the nose of a cart catches him sharply in the hip. Harry goes down, pulling the Swiffer and several other undesired items with him, and lands awkwardly on his elbow.

“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” The woman who took Harry out pulls her cart back and looks down at him with embarrassed concern.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” It’s not fine, though; Harry’s elbow hurts and everything is all askew. The woman reaches down to put the items back but Harry waves her off. She’d probably just push them all onto a random shelf for a clerk to deal with or something. She’d do it all wrong. “It’s fine,” Harry says.

The woman, obviously mortified by the whole situation, doesn’t linger, and Harry is left to repair the wreckage in the aisle.

“She wasn’t too helpful, was she?”

Harry looks up and nearly lurches back at the sight of the boy standing over him. The boy from the bus, as it happens. From this close, Harry can see that he’s got these blue blue eyes that make Harry’s heart turn over and a stag emblazoned over the bicep of an arm wrapped in a wiry layer of muscle. Harry wrenches his eyes away from the boy’s friendly smirk but only gets one line into his mental Our Father before he feels the boy kneel down beside him.

“Alright, which shit do you actually want and what goes back?” The boy holds up a sponge in one hand and a toilet brush in the other, and Harry knows it’s rude not to make eye contact with someone who’s talking to you but he really just needs this boy out of his space. Like, right now.

“I got it,” Harry bites out, taking the cleaning supplies from the boy gruffly and standing up.

“Are you sure? Because—”

“I’m fine, thank you.” Harry feels guilt clawing at him for being so rude, but he’s just relieved when the stranger raises out of his crouch and takes a step away. Harry can hear heavy kathumps of blood in his ears. He sneaks a glance at the boy, who’s got one eyebrow raised in an elegant arch and his arms crossed.

“Fine. Just trying to be helpful,” he says, and with that, the stranger saunters off.

Harry releases a quivering breath and sets about putting everything back together. Focusing on his reorganization of the shelf relieves some of the tension in Harry’s shoulders, and distracts him from the desire to rip his own hair out. When he makes it back to the bus stop after checking out, he does a quick search to make sure the boy with the pink shirt is nowhere in sight before clambering on.

***

Louis doesn’t even know why he bothers being nice to people, sometimes.

Okay, well in this case he knows. It’s mostly the fact that the kid looked like fucking Bambi with those long legs and big eyes that Louis only got a glimpse of when they were on the bus, and maybe Louis wanted to see him a bit closer up. Sue him. So maybe admiring the view of Bambi Boy in his jeans from a comfortable ten paces back as he strolled through Target was a bit creepy. It’s lucky Louis was paying attention to him, when some sale-crazed soccer mom rammed into the poor kid like a bumper car. Or at least, that’s what Louis thought, until that asshole made it quite clear that he didn’t want Lou’s help. Wouldn’t even look at him, really. What the hell was up with that?

People are, Louis decides, the absolute worst.

He doesn’t head back to the apartment right away even though he’s got about twenty minutes before his shift starts, because Liam’s probably gone to the pool so only Josh and Niall will be home. Louis doesn’t want to interrupt what may or may not be happening in his living room right now, for their sake and for his. Concern for the integrity of his living room upholstery notwithstanding, Louis likes the idea of Niall and Josh together. They’re both the most laid back, generally-delighted-with-life people he’s ever met. Also, Louis takes pride in having been the one to introduce them when he finally got Josh to attend a Spectrum meeting last spring. Louis’ been president of the campus’s LGBTQIA organization since fall of sophomore year, and if this whole NiallandJosh deal works out, he’ll have successfully set up his first gay pair of friends (he’s currently zero for one, after the disaster that was his attempt to get Liam and Nick together last winter—they’d all prefer to forget that ever happened).

When Louis arrives at the front desk, Michael is playing League of Legends on the computer. “You’re early,” Michael accuses without looking away from the screen. To be fair, Louis is rarely punctual, let alone ahead of schedule.

“I am,” Louis confirms and toes off the Adidas sandals he borrowed (stole) from Liam to sit cross-legged in the seat beside Michael. “How long you been here for?”

“Since nine. If I have to tell one more confused frosh what building they’re in, I’m gonna throw a stapler at someone.”

Louis scans the immediate vicinity, finds no evidence of a stapler, and breathes a quiet sigh of relief. He’s known Michael long enough to be sure that professional etiquette is not a sufficient reason to restrain him from heaving office supplies at strangers. Michael is antisocial at best, misanthropic at worst, and Louis will never in a million years understand how or why he keeps his job at the student help desk. Sure, Louis can be a loud, annoying twat—or so he has been informed by Niall and Liam—but he can also charm the nickers off crotchety old grannies if he needs to.

Then again, he thought he was putting on the charm for Bambi Boy this morning, so maybe Lou’s having an off day. He decides he’d probably rather sulk about that alone than listen to Michael’s frustrated mutters at his online teammates. “You can head out if you want to,” he tells Michael. “I’m gonna be here till my shift starts anyway.”

Michael grunts his approval and sticks around just long enough to finish his level or power up or something (Louis doesn’t really understand this game, okay? He only knows the title because when Liam’s in a funk he plays it non-stop). A few minutes later, when Louis’ alone save the constant passing traffic of students, he pulls out his laptop and starts jotting down ideas for the first few Spectrum meetings of the year.

No one was more surprised than Louis, with the possible exception of Liam, that he was nominated and elected for president at the end of his freshman year. Sure, he’d attended the weekly meetings, but Louis, in charge of things? After he’d been convinced that Louis’ name on the ballot was not, in fact, a joke, Liam immediately started to fret about the (literal?) fires he’d have to put out in Louis’ wake. Not an entirely unfounded concern, given that Louis had almost set their dorm room ablaze only a few weeks prior by leaving the tinfoil on his baked potato in the microwave. Louis' not sure why Liam agreed to live with him again as a sophomore, let alone this year. Maybe he worries that Louis might harm himself if left unsupervised.

Despite all that, Spectrum under Louis jurisdiction has not been total anarchy. See, Louis might be a bit scatterbrained sometimes, and he might be kind of selective in the things he cares about, but the group of people that meets in McDuke 203 on Tuesday nights is definitely one of those things. And Louis does not half-ass the things he cares about.

He shoots off an email with his list of ideas and the tagline “thoughts?” to Perrie, who will undoubtedly come back with a million suggestions of her own and want to start planning right away. Even on his best, most caffeinated days, Perrie makes Louis—and most people—look about as productive as a stump.

Louis doesn’t have any other work to do, seeing as how classes haven’t started yet, so he spends the remainder of his shift noodling around on the internet and watching the latest videos Niall’s posted to YouTube. The kid’s impressive, even for a music major, and Louis would hate him for jealousy’s sake if Niall wasn’t the fucking embodiment of sunshine. Louis marvels at the deft shifts of Niall’s fingers on the instrument’s neck and, not for the first time, wishes he could play. Niall tried, for a brief period of time, to teach him, placing Louis’ stiff fingers on the frets with a patience Louis couldn’t match. Which led to a lot of Louis whining and strumming angry, ugly chords and Niall face palming. The first sign that it wasn’t working out was that Liam would flee a room at the sight of Louis holding a guitar. Ultimately, Niall made the executive decision that their friendship would be better served if Louis looked up some “how to” videos online instead.

Around five o’clock, Louis' boss stops by. Mr. Cowell is a surly gentlemen but not, Louis has found, impossible to get along with. Louis' working hypothesis is that the Grumpy Cat demeanor Cowell puts on around most students is to keep them from treating the student center like an indoor playground.

“Hey, Mr. Cowell,” Louis greets, minimizing a website that might, by someone like Mr. Cowell, be considered unprofessional. On principle, Louis tries not to irritate the people who sign his paychecks.

“Louis.” Mr. Cowell shakes out a ring of keys and fits one into the lock of his office. “Sorry you’re stuck on the graveyard shift solo tonight, but by next Sunday you should have someone scheduled with you.”

“New kid from Work Study?”

Mr. Cowell nods. “Against school policy to let freshmen work during orientation or the first week of classes.” Mr. Cowell’s following humph lets Louis know precisely what he thinks of that. “I’d put Michael on with you, but…”

“He works better alone,” Louis agrees.

Louis doesn’t mind taking the late shifts by himself. When he’s not working doubles, he doesn’t have to show up until eight p.m., which is fine by Louis because he usually can’t be expected to be reasonably alert until at least seven. It starts to get pretty quiet in the student center by ten or eleven, since the people in the lounges are studying. It’s essentially the only time Louis can focus enough to get work done.

Mr. Cowell’s just locked himself into his office when someone says, “Excuse me?”

Louis swivels around and tries not to slide out of his chair when he sees who it is. Zayn Malik. Louis has never had a class with him, but you don’t just see eyelashes like that and forget about it. Louis is in and out of the fine arts building with Niall often enough to have seen Zayn’s thumbnail photo at the corner of some of the best still life sketches hanging up.

There’s also the minor detail that Liam is ass-over-teakettle for the guy. If Louis' memory serves him, they had the same literature class freshman year, but who knows? Louis can’t really remember a time that Liam wasn’t moony for Zayn—who, Louis has reminded him upwards of eight dozen times, Liam has yet to exchange a single word with. Still, they can’t pass Zayn in the quad or even his artwork in the halls without Liam getting this look in his puppy dog eyes like a lovestruck prepubescent girl. Louis would find the whole thing irritating if it wasn’t so amusing and endearing.

“Hello,” Louis greets, aiming for nonchalance but he thinks he might have been staring at Zayn for too long. “What can I help you with?”

“I was just wondering whether you knew if campus rec employs any personal trainers. Or like.” Zayn looks much more uncertain than the picture of silent brooding Louis has come to associate with him through photographs. “I just. I need to learn how to swim and didn’t know if there was anyone who could teach me. I went over to the gym to ask but I guess it doesn’t open until tomorrow?”

Louis tries to contain the Cheshire Cat smile that’s threatening to spread over his face, because he doesn’t want to look like (any more of) a creep, but this is too perfect. “I don’t think campus rec employs any swim instructors,” Louis tells Zayn, whose face falls. “But as it happens, my friend Liam is on the swim team and works at the pool as a lifeguard, and sometimes he gives private lessons. I could give you his contact info if you’d like.”

Zayn looks relieved. “Oh, really? That’d be great. Please, yeah.”

Louis does grin now, and whips out a pencil and one of his new post-it pads. “Here’s his email address if you want to send him a message, but sometimes he forgets to check, especially with start of classes stuff, you know? Busy busy. So I’ll give you his phone number too, in case you want to text him instead.” Louis peels off the note and hands it to a still slightly nervous Zayn. “Liam’s the nicest,” Louis says to reassure him, and also because Liam is the nicest.

Zayn puts on a hesitant smile and folds up the note neatly before putting it in the pocket of his leather jacket. “Thanks. Appreciate it.” And hurries away.

Louis props his feet up on the counter. No matter what else happens for the rest of his shift, he is wholeheartedly satisfied with his work today.

Chapter Text

Harry tugs at his sleeves nervously as he enters the church. He’s about ten minutes early so there are still lots of students milling about the atrium, greeting friends and exchanging summer news. Harry nods at the girl who hands him a hymnal and looks for a spot in the back. His parents always sit close to the front—if not in the front pew—but Harry doesn’t like it when many people can see him, especially people behind him that he can’t see. He knows it’s absurd, but he always feels like they’re looking at him. The gnawing fear that maybe they can tell something’s wrong with him makes Harry want to peel away his own skin and melt off the pew and seep into the carpet.

These are rather distracting thoughts to have during Mass, so Harry sits in the back pew. He settles onto the kneeler and puts his hands together.

Please help me. I’m so, so scared. Please help me resist temptation. Please help me be the person you want me to be in this time of change. Let me do Your will. Harry’s prayers have been some variation of this basic format for the past few weeks. Harry knows he should take comfort in the stability his faith offers, but this is easier said than done, especially when he feels like such a fraud. Harry shouldn’t feel like this. He’s supposed to be better now.

Luckily, Harry’s distracted from his inner turmoil when the choir picks up the opening hymn and everyone stands. By the gospel reading, Harry feels right at home. The meditative repetition of familiar responses and sit-stand-kneel choreography is a good distraction. By the Our Father, Harry has soothed himself enough to not hyperventilate when the boy beside him extends a hand. Harry clasps it in his own and tries to take solidarity in the stranger’s expression of camaraderie, all the while wondering whether the boy can feel the dampness of sweat on Harry’s palm. Harry bets he can, but the boy is polite about it and shakes Harry’s hand on the sign of peace anyway.

Out of habit, Harry waits until final chord of the closing hymn is swallowed by the buzz of student chatter before he sidles out of the pew. In the atrium, a few students are standing by the doors handing out flyers for the upcoming Catholic Campus Ministry events. Harry takes one with a polite smile, figuring he can count that as his socialization for the day, and almost makes it out of the church unscathed, but of course he has to elbow some poor girl in the forehead as he squeezes out the door with the crowd.

“I’m so, so sorry,” he says, and holds his hands out uselessly while she rubs the bridge of her nose.

“No, don’t worry about it,” the girl says, but a wince undercuts her reassurance. She brushes the pad of one finger on the underside of her nose. “No blood. We’re good.” She gives a pained smile to Harry, who’s probably florid and still hasn’t put his hands down. He forces them to his sides and shuffles awkwardly. 

“I’m sorry,” he says again.

“It’s really not a big deal. Accidents happen.” She shrugs. “I’m Demi, by the way.”

“Harry.” He extends his hand, watches how it completely encloses her tiny one, which is cluttered with tattoos. Harry’s a bit aghast, because your body is a temple, perfectly designed by the Creator, and doesn’t this church-going girl know better than to desecrate hers like that? But further, probably indiscreet inspection reveals that this girl, Demi, has a cross and a flock of doves embellishing her skin. How…interesting.

“Like my ink?” Demi asks, brightening immediately. “Just got these over the summer.”

“Oh,” Harry says in order to avoid answering the question.

Demi gestures to the flyer gripped in Harry’s other hand. “You a freshman?” Harry nods. “You should totally come to the CCM events. Lots of cool, like-minded people. Total safe space."

“Yeah? I thought I would check it out, ‘cause like. Looking for, kind of, community, I guess? And this seemed. Um. You know. Good for that and. Stuff.” Harry bites down on his tongue before another string of barely comprehensible words slips out.

Demi graciously accepts his botched attempt at conversation. “I’m actually Chair of Community Outreach this semester, so luring in the newbies is kind of my job.” Demi winks and the flyer nearly slips from Harry’s twitching fingers. “First meeting is this Wednesday. See you there?” She raises an expectant eyebrow and Harry nods quickly. “Good. Later, Harry!” And with that, she bounces off.

Harry blinks, then stuffs his hands into his jacket pockets to keep his fingers still and walks quickly with his head down back to his dorm. Definitely enough socialization for today.

***

Freshman orientation passes slowly for Louis as he sits behind the desk for the better part of ten hours each day, and by Wednesday morning—though he would never admit it aloud—Louis is so ready for classes to start. He can’t even care that his first of the day is Comp Sci II. It’s required for all math majors, but Louis just can’t muster the same enthusiasm for Java that he can for, say, differential equations; now that shit is cool.

In most company, the announcement that Louis' a math student elicits an eyebrow raise or an audible, “huh.” A lot of people assume he’s in communications or theater. “It’s because you’re so loud, Lou,” Liam once told him (in the same tone one might use to state that the sky is blue). Louis prefers to think it’s because of his charisma. Regardless, he takes this common misconception as a compliment. Having been in classes with them for most of his college career, Louis’ seen quite a bit of the other math students. Now, Louis’ not saying that all the math kids have boxy glasses or perpetual arrays of pimples on their faces or debilitating social anxiety, but. Well, he’s seen his fair share of walking stereotypes. If people want to assume Louis is someone who could perceivably be on stage or TV, far be it from him to snuff out that opinion.

Still, Louis likes math. Math is hard as fuck to understand sometimes, but that’s what makes it interesting. And Louis’ got a decent schedule lined up for the semester. Linear algebra is his only other class for the day, which is promising to be a doozy but also fascinating. As Louis slides his Poptart into the toaster, he is—dare he say it?—in a good mood.

“Louis!”

Or not.

Louis takes a quick stock of all the stuff he’s done (or not done) that could put Liam in such a foul mood this early, but he draws a blank. Louis' literally not been in this apartment other than to sleep and eat for the past forty eight hours. Maybe he left an unfinished plate of mac and cheese on the floor next to Liam’s bed again. Maybe he used up the last of Liam’s shampoo. Whatever it is, Louis hopes his transgression can be amended with a Poptart, because that’s the only thing he can offer at the moment. He doesn’t answer Liam’s call directly, because he’s bound to storm in at any moment. Louis drums his fingers against the counter and waits.

Liam does not disappoint. He’s wearing only plaid pajama bottoms and half of his face is still covered in shaving cream when he enters, phone held aloft. “Did you tell Zayn Malik that I give swim lessons?” he demands, not even leaving Louis time to make a snarky comment about his present appearance. Whatever. Louis didn’t have anything at the tip of his tongue anyway; it’s too early for this shit. Where’s his coffee?

“I did,” Louis answers, picking his scalding hot Poptart out of the toaster with a wince and flipping it onto the counter.

“Why?”

Louis looks over at Liam in what he hopes is a don’t be so dense way. “What do you mean, ‘why?’ Because you’re always fawning all over the guy. I got you closer to Zayn Malik in two minutes than you have in two years.”

Liam huffs. “That’s not the point.”

“Then what is the point, because I thought this would be an exciting new development for you.” Louis folds his arms, taking the offensive because he’s internally shriveling at the idea that he’s somehow hurt Liam. He just wanted to help, for Chrissakes.

“Because…” Liam flails his arms, as though the right words to explain his dilemma are midair and all he has to do is catch hold of them. “He wants me to give him swim lessons."

Louis raises his eyebrows, still unclear as to what the problem is.

“Like, just the two of us. In a state of partial undress. Oh my god.” Liam claws at his cheeks, apparently forgetting one of them is still lathered in foam, and emits an agonized groan. “His eyes, Louis. Have you seen his eyes. How do I even remember how to swim when I’m talking to that—that…Adonis!”

Louis tries to stifle his snort with a sip of coffee but only manages to blow a cluster of undignified bubbles into his mug. Liam glares at him. “Liam,” Louis says as he wipes coffee off his nose, trying to take his friend seriously and failing. “I think you’re making this out to be a bigger crisis than it is.” Liam’s shaking his head in despair and Louis rolls his eyes. Is this what it’s like to be the rational, level-headed one? It sucks. “Liam, it’ll be fine. If it makes you feel any better, he looked really nervous about asking for lessons in the first place. He’ll probably be too self conscious to even notice if you make an ass of yourself.”

“But what if I get distracted by his…Zaynness and I can’t even teach him how to swim properly?”

“Then you get to be the hero who pulls him to safety and gives him the kiss of life,” Louis says with a wink.

The skin on Liam’s face and neck not obscured by shaving cream blooms red. “Shuddup,” he says bashfully. After a moment’s thought, “Was he really nervous about lessons? That’s so…cute.”

“Alright, I’m out,” Louis says, unwilling to let this discussion turn into another Zayn Malik fan club meeting (he generally only has to deal with such gushing when Liam is obscenely drunk, which means Louis is usually drunk, too). He waves his arm in a circle at Liam’s general person. “Pull yourself together, man. And text him back. If you don’t, I will steal your phone and do it myself.” Liam doesn’t appreciate it when Louis does that, but he also doesn’t change the password lock on his phone, so.

“Alright, alright,” Liam concedes and hurries back to the bathroom. “Have a good day at school!” he calls.

Satisfied that Liam’s mother-henning means the normal balance of their relationship has been restored and Liam is no longer caught in the throes of romantic angst, Louis slings his backpack over one shoulder and takes his Poptart to go.

***

When Harry shows up to the CCM meeting on Wednesday night, he has yet to voluntarily speak to another student (because he wouldn’t exactly qualify his interaction with Demi as “voluntary”). Over the course of orientation, he was forced into multiple stilted conversations with his peers and orientation leaders, but other than that, he’s kept to himself. Harry has found a table in the corner of the dining hall where he can set up his laptop and pretend to work while he eats so it’s not quite so obvious that he’s a completely friendless loser, and he spent all his time in between classes today in his dorm room. From the three he’s had today, Harry can already tell that college classes involve even less student interaction than high school. No group work, no discussion. Just two hundred people all facing the same direction for seventy minutes.

This is college, and Harry knows he’s supposed to be meeting people and having the time of his life, but he just can’t. He doesn’t know how. He went to St. Andrew’s with the same people from preschool all the way through to high school. He hasn’t had to make friends since he learned how to read. Harry is such a freaking mess.

Please let me fit in with the CCM people, he prays desperately as he stands on the porch steps of the campus Newman Center. Then, after wiping his hands on the thighs of his jeans, he opens the front door.

There are more people here than Harry was expecting. In the front hall alone, half a dozen students are standing around with plastic cups (but not the red ones Harry’s seen in the movies—he takes that as a good sign) and little paper plates filled with snacks, all of whom look utterly at ease. Harry closes the door, trying to draw as little attention to himself as possible, but that all goes out the window when Demi strides in from the adjoining room with another girl, and as soon as she spots him, exclaims, “Harry!”

Demi greets him with an enthusiastic hug, which Harry reciprocates after he recovers from the initial shock. When’s the last time he hugged someone who wasn’t his mother? Harry can’t recall. Demi pulls back and gestures to her friend. “Harry, this is Selena. Selena, Harry. He’s new.”

Harry waves shyly at Selena, but is saved the effort of saying something by Demi, who points into the kitchen from whence she came. “Please, take some food, we’re just about to start. I’ll save you a spot in the circle.” With that, she and Selena trot off into the living room, where Harry sees people convening in a circle of chairs. He steps into the kitchen with the intention of getting water for his suddenly very dry mouth. He avoids eye contact with the other students while filling up his cup at the sink, and then slinks into the other room to find an open chair. He pulls out his phone and scrolls through the latest messages from his mother, just for something to do while the room fills around him. A few minutes later, Demi calls everything to order and Harry feels safe tucking his phone away; no one is looking at him.

“Welcome, everyone. I’m Demi, our Chair of Community Outreach this semester, and I just wanted to say it’s awesome to see so many new faces tonight.” Demi grins around at her peers, looking just pleased as punch to host them all. “We’re going to start off with an ice breaker—“ there are some groans “—to get to know each other, because I know how much everyone loves those.” Harry’s gaze accidentally intersects with Selena’s and she rolls her eyes at Demi theatrically. His lips twitch in a small grin, which she returns.

“We’re going to go around the circle,” Demi continues, “and each person’s going to say their name, what year they are, and how they ended up at this meeting.” She turns to her left and looks expectantly at Selena. “You wanna lead us off?”

“Sure.” Selena plants her hands on either side of her hips and pushes herself to sit up straighter. She surveys the group seriously. “I’m Selena, a junior this year, and I’m here because Demi is my roommate and my ride home.” There are a couple of snickers and when Demi bats her on the shoulder, Selena adds, “And because CCM is the bomb.” She sounds sincere about that part--enough to get an approving smile out of Demi, anyway.

Selena’s is the last introduction Harry truly listens to, because as they progress around the circle, Harry’s too busy mentally rehearsing his bit. Good God, everyone is going to be looking at him, aren’t they? Harry taps his fingers against the side of his chair in the usual pattern while he runs through his piece over and over again. When it finally gets around to his turn, Harry opens his mouth and says, almost automatically, “I’m Harry. I’m a freshman this year. I wanted to join CCM because I had a really good experience with youth ministry in high school.”

At the end of the third sentence, Harry is left breathing like he’s just finished running a 50-meter and he can’t bring himself to look at anyone in particular. He vaguely hears Demi say, “Welcome, Harry,” like she has for everyone else, but Harry’s distracted with the relief that he managed not to stutter through any of that. Even if the last part was a half-truth.

The rest of the meeting is spent discussing upcoming events and meetings for the month, and Harry doesn’t have to open his mouth again. All in all, it goes pretty well. When Demi dismisses them, Harry stands up awkwardly, planning to surreptitiously make his exit.

“Harry, wait.”

Harry turns to see Selena worming through the crowd after him. “Demi and I were wondering if you wanted to grab lunch with us sometime this week?”

“Oh.” Harry blinks, because stuff like this doesn’t happen to him. People don’t want to talk to him. And then realizes that in his shock, he’s probably just been incredibly rude. He amends, “I mean yes. Yeah, that would be great. Please.”

Selena grins and she hands him her phone, opened to the new contacts form. Harry fills it out with his information. “I’ll text you,” Selena promises, before disappearing into the crowd again.

***

“Niall could you like, I don’t know. Stand up? Hand out a flyer or two? Niall.”

Niall glances up from his phone with wide eyes. “What? Sorry.”

Louis brandishes the stack of leaflets Perrie stuck him with before dashing off to class. “Flyers. Remember?” Louis knew he should have commissioned Liam to help him instead.

Niall stuffs his phone in his pocket and rises from the bench to take some of Louis' stock. “Yeah, sorry about that dude. Texting Josh about plans for tonight.”

“Mmm-hmm.” Louis squints at him, unimpressed.

“Seriously, I’ll help. Look.” Niall turns on his megawatt smile, the one Louis thinks might knock someone over if they’re not expecting it, and strides confidently up to a passing pack of freshman girls. One of them catches sight of Niall approaching and halts the group. “Excuse me,” Niall says. “I’m advertising for Spectrum, our campus LGBTQIA organization. Our meetings are open to all students. Would any of you mind taking a flyer?”

Niall returns with five fewer flyers in his hand.

“I think you’ve made some new friends. Or fans,” Louis observes with a grin. Louis' skin-tight jeans and perfectly swept hair give most girls the impression that he’d be a better shopping buddy than a date (which isn’t, you know, untrue). But Niall, who works out pretty regularly and wears the ketchup-stained sleeveless shirts to show it, is harder to peg at first glance. Louis' seen him break a fair few female hearts over the years.

Niall shrugs. “You want flyers passed out or what?”

Louis rolls his eyes. This is all Perrie’s idea, of course. It’s the first Friday afternoon of the year and she thought it would be good if Spectrum had a couple representatives outside the student center distributing flyers. “It would be really great for our visibility on campus,” she said. Louis sighs. She’s not wrong, but he’s been standing for what feels like eternity and still has a half-inch thick stack of paper in his hands. Louis' cheeks ache from smiling so much.

Louis is just about to voice a complaint to Niall when he spots the boy from Target coming their way, head down low with this hands balled in his pockets. Louis can’t work out why he looks so uncomfortable when there’s no one within a five foot radius of him. He’s wearing a neat polo and khakis with a pair of loafers: a stiff Sunday Best outfit that doesn’t at all fit the carefree August Friday atmosphere. Everything about the guy radiates a “stay the fuck away from me” vibe. This is one opportunity Louis will not take to rid himself of a flyer. No sir. 

Unfortunately, Louis doesn’t think to warn Niall, who makes a beeline for the boy. “Excuse me,” Louis hears Niall say, which startles the object of his attention so severely that he stumbles back over his own feet. No wonder, Louis thinks, this kid has the legs of a baby giraffe. He’s practically gaping at Niall, a reaction Louis is sure Niall has never experienced before, but Niall soldiers on with his spiel. “Would you care to take a flyer for Spectrum, our LGBTQIA organization?”

The boy’s face slackens, like he’s just seen a ghost, but then hardens into a severe frown. “This is the devil’s work,” Bambi Legs says with a confidence Louis wouldn’t have thought he could muster. “You’re drawing your fellow students into sin and you don’t repent, you’ll burn in hellfire for eternity. Fag.” The last part seems tacked on, as if for good measure.

Louis almost growls with rage. No one talks to Niall like that. He storms over in front of Niall and crosses his arms tightly because if he doesn’t, he’s afraid he might actually knock this kid’s teeth out. “Who the fuck do you think you are,” Louis demands, “to go around saying shit like that to people?” He takes vindictive pleasure in the obvious fear in the boy's eyes. “If you don’t want a flyer, kindly fuck off and take your terrible attitude elsewhere. Just stay the hell away from us.” Louis glowers at Bambi Legs until he makes a hasty retreat, tripping over his own feet again. Louis hopes he falls on his fucking face.

“Jesus, Lou,” Niall says, reaching up a hand to ruffle his hair. Louis isn’t sure if he’s referring to the kid’s comment or Louis' reaction.

“Come on,” Louis says, already leading the way inside to get a drink. “I’m not really in the mood to be the face of Spectrum any more today.” Niall follows him without argument.

***
Harry thumbs at his phone agitatedly and tries to pay attention to the Star Trek film he’s got playing on his laptop. It’s the first Friday night of the school year and he can hear his fellow freshmen drunkenly laughing out on the quad as they head from their pregames to frat parties. Harry idly wonders how people find out about these things—or make friends to go with—so soon into their college careers. Not that it matters to Harry for party-going purposes, since the very idea of Harry showing up at a kegger is so laughable it’s pathetic, but it would at least be nice to be invited, he thinks.

Harry wonders if Demi and Selena, his only two potential friend candidates thus far, attend those kinds of things. His first instinct is probably not, but then he remembers Demi’s tattoos and Selena’s blithe attitude toward the whole CCM experience. Harry can’t pin the two of them down, like the youth group kids he knew in high school, and that gives him a twinge of discomfort. Harry has enough trouble reading and pleasing people like his parents, who are predictable almost to a fault.

Selena did send Harry a couple texts about lunch this week, but Harry evaded her both times. She accepted his rejections with grace, promising they would catch him next time, and Harry knows he’ll have to accept their third invitation. He doesn’t want Demi and Selena to get frustrated and stop asking. Really. It’s just…Harry sighs and sets his laptop down on the mattress beside him so that he can lie down on his side. Isn’t it a stereotype of…those kind of guys, that they have mostly female friends? What does it say about Harry that the only two people on campus who have shown the slightest interest in getting to know him so far are two doe-eyed girls? What kind of impression is he giving?

The worst thing is, Harry can’t decide if it would be worse to have a guy texting him. Then Harry would have to worry he’d been too obviously desperate for…um, male companionship. Maybe he should stick on the safe side and avoid guys altogether? This seems like an implausible plan, but then Harry remembers that he’s sitting in his room on a Friday night with no company but his popcorn and the Enterprise crew. Doesn’t exactly have people lining up to hang out with him, male or otherwise. The most interaction he’s had with a male in the past week involved Harry getting chewed out in the quad earlier today by the boy he’s pretty sure he was rude to at Target on Sunday. Why does social interaction have to be so complicated? And why must Harry be so bad at it?

Harry smashes a pillow over his face. He was just trying to help, honest! He recalls Father Robert’s words on the first day of camp. Sexual sins are some of the Devil’s most powerful weapons against men. The only way to escape these snares and achieve salvation is through shame. You’ve all succumbed to Satan’s temptations, in your thoughts or your actions, and now guilt and shame are your protection--the only way to release yourself from the Devil’s grasp and return to the Lord.

Harry knows about guilt. He knows about shame. And yet was he able to use these graces to help free his fellow man from a life of sin? If anything, Harry’s only further entrenched the boy in his unholy beliefs. Maybe Harry’s not as good as he thought he was (which is saying something, because Harry doesn’t think much of himself at all, these days) and the very notion fills his stomach with the frost of unadulterated dread.

Harry holds the pillow over his face until his lungs burn and tears spring to his eyes, and comes up with a heavy inhale. Harry sits there trembling for a moment, and decides he should get out of his room before he gets the urge to nearly suffocate himself again.

He peels himself off the mattress and shuffles over to his dresser to pull out one of the hoodies he’s got folded up in the bottom drawer. He pulls it on over his t-shirt and tries to smooth out his curls with minimal success. Generally he doesn’t dress so messily, but the only people he’s bound to encounter outside at this hour are inebriated, and besides, Harry’s really very partial to this sweatshirt. One he’s had for so long and has been through the wash so many times that it’s the softest thing he owns. Harry very much doubts he’s supposed to like soft things, but he does.

Harry doesn't have a set destination in mind when he leaves his dorm, but in an effort to avoid the most heavily trafficked paths to the Greek houses and off-campus apartment complexes, Harry winds up near the fine arts building. Harry hasn’t been in here since he toured the school last year, since he doesn’t have any art classes (his step-father’s made it quite clear that his tuition dollars are paying for a marketable degree, like business or…business).

Harry pulls the door handle experimentally and is surprised when it swings open. He wonders how late these buildings stay unlocked. Suddenly thick with the feeling that he shouldn’t be here, Harry casts a quick glance around and slips inside quietly.

The entrance hall has a high ceiling and intimidatingly ornate chandelier. Harry rubs his palms against the thighs of his jeans and pads down the hall, thankful for the maroon carpet that muffles his footfalls. Off the main entrance, there are several hallways that Harry presumes lead to classrooms. Harry heads for the stairwell and climbs up a couple flights; if he remembers correctly from his tour, the practice rooms are up on the third floor. When he yanks open the door to the uppermost landing, Harry’s met with a dark hallway, and startles when the motion-sensitive lights flick on overhead.

It’s dead quiet but for the hum of air conditioning. Harry taps the palm of one hand against his leg in one of his familiar, comforting rhythms if only to spare himself from the itching silence of the hall. But a few paces down on the right, he finds what he’s been looking for: a door with a narrow window that reveals a closet-sized room housing a piano. Harry tries the handle and breaks into a smile of relief when it opens. He switches on the light and closes the door behind him. The silence feels different now—not something to be afraid of, big and intimidating, but something waiting empty, ready to be filled.

Harry used to play piano for the church choir in middle school, when he was still taking lessons. He was never able to join the choir, but would sing along with the rest of the congregation during the chorus, and had a penchant for belting Tenth Avenue North into his shower head and hair brushes when he was home alone. Harry knew singing wasn’t the most traditionally masculine hobby, but as long as he was singing praise and worship music, that was okay, right?

Harry runs his hand along the top of the piano appreciatively. He hasn’t taken lessons in a long time, not since his step-father decided football would serve as a better pastime when he entered high school (a disaster of an idea, seeing as how Harry was lacking in strength, coordination, and motivation) but he still likes to noodle around on the keyboard at home when he gets the chance.

When Harry places his fingers on the keys, muscle memory takes the wheel and suddenly there’s music, and Harry feels like a pitcher being poured out, yet paradoxically gets fuller by the second. For the first time in a week, Harry’s relieved of the buzzing under his skin and the incessant, jabbing thoughts of WrongWrongTryHarderWrongWrong. Everything settles.

Harry isn’t sure how long he plays; he’s got about a dozen songs committed to heart but he doesn’t get through all of them all the way. Sometimes his fingers snag on a chord and he can’t remember how to transition to the next position, and he has to give up, but he’s surprised at how much he does remember.

Harry’s just lifted his his fingers from the final chord of “Better is One Day” when a sharp rap on the door causes him to jump. He spins around to face the newcomer, hands wrung together, because oh crap, he’s not actually sure if he’s allowed to be in here at this hour.

To his great surprise, it’s just another student. Harry isn’t sure whether that’s cause for relief or intensified anxiety, though. The boy is decked in black skinny jeans, a t-shirt repping a band Harry is pretty sure his mother wouldn’t approve of, and a pair of black-rimmed hipster glasses that the boy slides up his nose to squint at Harry. Harry notices that there are his fingers are positively smeared with something shiny gray—charcoal, maybe? And of course there are the tattoos. Gosh, is everyone at this school inked up?

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” the boy says, slumping one shoulder against the door frame. “I just heard you playing from downstairs and wondered who was up here so late.”

“S-sorry,” Harry says. “Should I not be here, or…?”

“No, it’s fine. Practice rooms are open twenty-four-seven.” The boy gives Harry another appraising look. “You must be a freshman.”

Harry nods.

“Figured. I thought I knew most of the practice room moles. Are you a music student?”

“No, I’m, um, undecided,” Harry says, even though, as far as Harry’s parents are concerned, his major is very much decided. But Harry doesn’t want to sound lame, and also doesn’t want to offend this obvious art student.

The boy shrugs. “Too bad, you sounded really good.”

“Really?”

Harry must sound as skeptical as he is, because the boy’s lips curl up in a smirk. “Yeah, really.”

“Oh.” Harry looks down. He’s not used to people telling him he’s good at things. “Thanks.” To remove the attention from himself, Harry guesses, “You’re an art major, though? With the, the hands, I mean.”

The boy looks down at his charcoal smudged hands and chuckles. “Yup. Studio Art B.F.A. I mostly like to draw.”

“Are you working on something now? Like, tonight, why you were downstairs, I mean.” Harry winces. Pull yourself together, Styles.

“Yeah, I am. Do you want to see?” The boy quirks an eyebrow in a way that Harry suspects is supposed to make the invitation seem casual, but Harry doesn’t miss the hopeful lilt in the boy’s voice.

Despite his trepidation about continuing this conversation with a near total stranger, Harry finds himself nodding and standing up.

“I’m Zayn, by the way,” the boy tells him as he leads the way down the hall.

“Harry.”

Zayn nods in acknowledgment and pulls open the door to the stairwell, propping it open with a foot for Harry to pass through. “So, what are you doing up in the practice rooms on a Friday night?” Zayn asks. “Thought all of the first years were drinking themselves sick tonight.”

Harry shoves his hands in his hoodie pocket and clasps them together. “I don’t really do that,” he murmurs.

He feels slightly less self conscious when Zayn hums his approval. “Wise. That shit’s not all the fun it’s cracked up to be. And your liver will thank you.”

It’s then that Harry notices the cigarette Zayn’s got tucked behind his ear like a pencil, but it is so nice to be having an actual conversation with someone that he can’t even care.

“Glad I’m not the only one,” he admits.

“There’s more of us than you’d think,” Zayn tells him. “You just don’t know because we’re not making asses of ourselves in the middle of the street at all hours of the night.”

Harry snorts. He likes Zayn.

Harry can’t see much of the room Zayn’s been working in when they arrive, because there are no lights on but for one desk lamp in the back row of easels, right next to the enormous glass window that overlooks the pond. He follows Zayn back to his sketch and his jaw literally drops.

“Wow. Zayn…” It’s a sketch of the scene outside, painstakingly detailed down to the ripples of lamppost florescence on the water. Harry wishes he could create something so beautiful.

Zayn shrugs modestly.

“No, seriously,” Harry puts on his most earnest expression. “I don’t even…Just wow.” He takes it as a win that Zayn allows himself a smile.

“Is this for a class?”

“No, just relaxes me, I guess.”

Harry doesn’t know what to think about that, because this must have taken hours.

“You’re really talented.”

“You’re good for an ego boost,” Zayn deflects with a smile. “I think I’ll keep you around.”

It’s not until later, when Harry gets home and he’s too giddy to fall asleep, that he realizes he’s just accidentally made the first friend of his college career.

Chapter Text

By the time Louis shows up for his eight-to-two shift on Sunday evening, three hours of debugging his Java code for homework has put him in a pretty shitty mood—certainly no mood to interact with new coworkers. On his way in, Louis finds himself hoping that the freshman has called off sick or something. But no such luck. Louis’ just taken his seat behind the desk when the door to Mr. Cowell’s office opens, and none other than Bambi Legs walks out. When he sees Louis, the boy’s eyes widen comically and he stops up short. Louis would feel smug about inducing that kind of reaction but he’s decently sure that he has a similar expression on his own face. No. Fucking. Way.

“Ah, Louis.” Cowell follows the boy out of his office and locks the door. “Good. This is Harry Styles. He’ll be working graveyard shifts with you this semester.”

“Really.” Louis watches the boy—Harry—shift his weight from one foot to the other and tug on the sleeves of his button-up. He looks supremely uncomfortable. Good, Louis thinks.

Mr. Cowell tugs on his jacket and tucks his office keys into his briefcase, apparently unaware of the frostiness that’s settled between his two employees. “Alright. I’m on my way out for the night. Louis, I trust you can show Harry the ropes?”

“Of course.” Louis puts on his most saccharine smile for Harry, who visibly swallows and quickly averts his eyes. When Mr. Cowell’s gone, Harry sits stiffly in the other chair and sets his backpack down on the floor.

“Not really much to tell, pretty self explanatory job. If you have any questions, ask, but I’m very busy,” Louis says in a tone that positively dares Harry to ask him any questions.

Harry gives a jerky nod and reaches down to unzip his backpack. He fumbles momentarily before pulling out a book and flipping it open to a dog-eared page.

Louis squints at his coworker for a moment, sure that this can’t be all. Could it really be that easy to put the kid in his place? Louis is almost kind of disappointed. He does, after all, have three hours worth of computer-science-fueled frustration pent up, just looking for an outlet. But the voice in the back of Louis’ mind that sounds like his mother (and sometimes Liam) says that deliberately sparking conflict with his new coworker is a stupid move. So Louis gives Harry one last wary look before he pulls out his own homework.

That isn’t quite all, though. At various points throughout the evening, Harry closes his book and straightens up a bit, like he’s working himself up to say something, but then loses his nerve. Out of the corner of his eye, Louis watches as Harry tries to conceal these small interruptions by leaning over to rummage through his backpack or twisting around to check the clock. Inevitably, he opens his book again and continues ignoring Louis. Which is interesting, but distracting. Louis wishes he would just say something, if he’s going to say it.

Harry finally speaks around midnight. “I’m not sorry about what I said.”

Louis’ head, which has been lulling on his left palm as the lines of his computer science text blur like a barcode before his eyes, snaps up. “What?” The numb tingling in his left cheek makes the word come out a bit garbled.

Harry’s not looking at Louis; his eyes are glued on the computer screen in front of him but they’re not moving, and he’s got a white-knuckle grip on the mouse beneath his palm. “I’m not sorry about what I said the other day,” Harry repeats, almost mechanically.

Louis folds his arms and leans back in his chair to study Harry with sheer disbelief, because the nerve of this kid is unbelievable. Seriously, what the fuck?

“What the fuck?” Louis demands aloud, abandoning all semblance of professionalism since no one’s so much as passed by the desk in nearly an hour, and this is an issue obviously that needs addressing if Louis’ supposed to make it through the semester without punching someone (read: Harry Styles) in the face.

“I’m—I stand by what I said, and I’m not going to apologize about it just because we’re stuck working together,” Harry bites out, like it’s physically intolerable to speak to Louis. And he still hasn’t torn his eyes away from what Louis now recognizes as just the university news feed, the default homepage for all school computers. Either someone in the bio department just cured cancer, or Harry’s as much a coward as he is an asshole.

Louis opens his mouth, closes it again, and shakes his head, because if this fucker’s not even going to have the decency to look at Louis while he’s not-apologizing, this battle really isn’t worth Louis’ time.

“Whatever,” Louis says, a bit more wearily than he intends, but he’s about three hours and two shitty cups of coffee past caring. He twists in his seat to hunch over his text, which promises to be no more interesting, but probably less frustrating than the current conversation. And that’s saying something.

Harry doesn’t talk for the remainder of their shift. He just sits there, arranging everything within arm’s reach so that its aligned exactly parallel or perpendicular to the adjacent objects, wiping down the computer screen periodically with a tissue and then folding said tissue into a tiny square before depositing it in the trash, tapping out some incessant rhythm with his loafers on the linoleum floor.

Louis, whose concentration is tenuous on the best of days, demands Harry “cut that shit out” around twelve thirty. Harry does, curling his arms around his body and not looking at Louis, but the reprieve is only brief. It’s not three minutes before Louis hears the tap tap of toes and slams his book shut with excessive force.

They sit there in stony silence until the clock blessedly hits two, and then Louis is out of there without so much as sparing Harry a glance on the way out.

***

Harry supposes it’s only fair and equal now that he’s found his first college friend in Zayn that he had to make his first enemy in Louis. The kid he’s stuck working within a three foot radius of for the remainder of the semester. Excellent.

After he gets out of his morning classes on Monday, Harry is still feeling rather raw from his encounter with Louis, and would like to take comfort in the company of someone who doesn’t hate his guts. But unless he wants to creep around the fine arts building until he runs into Zayn, there’s no real way for Harry to contact him. And Harry somehow doesn't think the best way to foster his tenuous amity with Zayn involves stalking.

Harry would call his mother for a chat, but he’s already called her a couple times this week, and he doesn’t really have anything to report other than his horrendous first evening of work. She usually doesn’t have much to report either, other than stories from Bible Study ladies luncheons or maybe mishaps or strange customers at work, so usually within a few minutes they’re sitting in silence. Plus, Harry’s not sure his step-father likes him calling home so much. The one time Harry’s mother offered to put him on the line, Harry thinks his step-father must have refused, because there was some awkward shuffling and muttering on the other end of the line, and then his mother made some hasty excuse to get off the phone. Harry understands. Normal boys don’t call their mothers every other day, after all.

So the next best thing is to text Selena about lunch, which Harry does. He isn’t sure if or when she’ll reply, given that it’s the middle of the weekday and she’s probably in class or otherwise engaged, but apparently Harry underestimated how attached Selena is to her phone. She responds within the minute, telling Harry that she and Demi are currently heading to get sandwiches at the student center; would he like to come? Harry laments the lack of time he has to mentally prepare for this social encounter, but he accepts her invitation and alters his course to step into the student center.

If Harry makes a conscious effort not to pass the front desk, on the off chance that Louis is working today, no one else need know about it.

Harry is a coward. He’s supposed to be brave in the face of persecution, and he shouldn’t care what some boy thinks about his beliefs. It is better, if the will of God be so, that you suffer for well doing, than for evil doing. 1 Peter, 3:17. Harry knows right and wrong—it’s been positively drilled into him, and he’s been praying for strength every spare second, but it’s hard. Harry is weak—and he knows that’s not just self deprecation, because other people have a penchant for pointing his weakness out to him.

But...but Harry doesn’t want to be hated.

All in all, Harry would say he’s pretty much resigned to feeling like crap by the time he arrives at the sub shop and spots Selena and Demi in line. They wave and usher him up to where they’re standing, despite the ugly looks Harry gets from the people in line behind them. Harry plucks at the cuffs of his shirt and ducks his head.

“Glad you made it,” Demi says, greeting him with her signature hug. “Was starting to think you were avoiding us.”

“No way,” Harry says, wrapping his arms around himself as soon as he’s released from Demi’s bone-crushing embrace. “Just first week business, and all that. You know.”

“Mmm.” Selena tucks her fingers in her back jean pockets and gives Harry a look like she’s not sure whether to believe him, but before Harry can contrive more excuses, she asks, “What are you taking this semester, anyway? Bunch of Gen Ed requirements?”

Harry rattles through his courses while they trudge through the line and order their sandwiches. He is mostly taking Gen Eds, so he concludes with “Pretty boring” as they take their seats in the booth.

“Maybe not,” Demi says, ever optimistic. “Maybe you’ll discover something you like. Are you undecided?”

“Yeah,” Harry says. Another lie. Harry is bad at this whole friendship thing. Harry folds his hands together, silently asking for forgiveness before he closes his eyes and starts his pre-meal prayer. Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts—

“Freshman year I—" Selena begins, but then breaks off.

Harry’s eyes snap open to see Selena with a mouthful of chicken caesar wrap. “Sorry,” she tries to say around her food, gesturing at Harry’s folded hands. “I didn’t realize.” Then gives an unconcerned little wave, as if to say, “carry on.”

Harry’s eyes flick over to Demi, who’s got a fork sheathed with spinach in one hand and her phone in the other, texting. Harry lowers his eyes to the table, feeling terribly wrong-footed. Do these people not pray before their meals? At a church picnic sophomore year of high school, Harry saw Amy actually knock the barbecue sandwich out of Eric’s hands because he started to dig in before saying his prayers. Demi and Selena, Harry would have thought

Harry shifts in his seat and quickly finishes the prayer before crossing himself.

“Sorry,” Harry says, and winces, because he definitely shouldn’t be apologizing for praying. He can vividly see Father Robert’s frown of shame in his mind’s eye and sinks lower in his seat. He wishes these tables weren’t so streaked with the remnants of other students’ lunches. Harry looks around for napkins to wipe it down.

“Troy is being a total knob about this commons table reservation,” Demi complains as she sets her phone back down on the table. “He’s the Fundraising Chair. I shouldn’t be the one organizing this whole thing.”

“Tell him to get his shit together,” is Selena’s unsympathetic suggestion before she takes another bite of wrap.

Harry cocks his head to the side and Demi elaborates, “CCM is doing a Kindness Calls fundraiser this month. Basically, people pay a dollar to put down someone’s name and number, and we call them with a nice message. To cheer them up, spread the love. It’s literally the easiest fundraiser in the world, but we have to book a table to put out in the student center commons to actually set up shop and apparently Troy can’t handle that, for some reason.”

“The reason is he’s a lazy fuck,” Selena supplies. Harry flinches.

“He lacks initiative, sometimes,” Demi translates. “I just wish he wouldn’t ask me to do everything for him, just because I was FC last year.”

“Your fundraiser sounds nice,” Harry says, redirecting the conversation because he doesn’t really gossip, and even if he did, he doesn’t know the person to whom they are referring. “Who are you raising money for?”

“The pregnancy care center downtown,” Demi says. “We volunteer with them sometimes, but it’s nice to support them financially, too.”

“Pregnancy care center? Like, Planned Parenthood?” Harry doesn’t even want to think about what his mother would have to say about that.

Selena shakes her head. “Nah, it’s a small org run by the Sisters of Mercy. They just help out moms who come in, provide counseling, give them baby clothes and books and stuff. I think they even do ultrasounds?” She looks to Demi with a raised eyebrow.

Demi nods. “It’s a great resource, especially for young women who don’t have any support from the father. Pro-Life, obviously, but they aren’t about campaigning or protesting. They’re there to offer help and guidance and love.”

Harry just nods mechanically, unsure whether to listen to voice in his head that says this…this pregnancy care center is indirectly condoning premarital sex and abortion, or the voice that says he should trust a group of Catholic nuns to be doing good work. Harry, suddenly feeling anxious, reaches under the cuff of his sleeve, past his mother’s prayer beads, to hook a finger under his rubber band. He gives it a harsh snap, but is hardly surprised when it doesn’t make him feel any more at ease. He rubs at a streak of grease on the table with the pad of his finger.

“If you wanna help out with the fundraiser, it’s going to be the topic of our next CCM meeting,” Demi says with an eyebrow waggle and a smirk. “Hint hint.”

“Yeah, sounds like fun.” Harry gives a tentative smile and picks the lettuce off his sandwich. In high school, youth group meetings were always devoted to discussing Bible passages or the priest’s homily that Sunday, not planning phone call fundraisers. Is this really how God would want Harry to be spending his time? Harry isn’t sure. (The Big Man Upstairs never seems very forthcoming with information when Harry needs it most.)

As they’re standing up to throw out their garbage, Selena says, “Oh, hey, a couple of CCM guys who live at Forest Point are having a thing on Saturday night. Dry party, obviously.”

Harry looks at her blankly.

“Means no alcohol,” Demi explains kindly, but Harry’s pretty sure he was supposed to know that term already. He blushes.

“Demi and I are going,” Selena says, “if you’re interested.”

“Oh, I. I don’t know.” Harry restrains himself from cringing at the idea, just barely. That sounds like a nightmare, if he’s being totally honest.

Demi looks on the verge of launching into a persuasive speech, but Selena knocks her with an elbow. “You don’t have to, if you don’t want. But it could be a good way to get to know CCM people outside of actual meetings.”

That’s some solid reasoning, and Harry wishes he were equipped to refute it. As is, he manages a weak, “I’ll think about it,” which seems to placate them.

‘Text me if you decide you’re down to join,” Selena says as she leads Demi off into the crowd.

“Okay,” Harry responds, but Selena’s already turned around and he’s not sure she heard him.

***

“I think that went well,” Perrie says, shutting down the podium computer so that the PowerPoint slide with a list of Spectrum’s upcoming events fades to black. There are still a couple of people milling about, but mostly upperclassmen who are catching up with whoever they haven’t yet seen this year. Louis waves at Nick and Andy as they make their way toward the door. The few freshmen Louis spotted in the crowd have already dipped out. Not that Louis’ surprised—the new ones are always quiet and a tad awkward for the first few meetings, especially when they’re going over boring logistics and introductory stuff like today. He’s confident that the newbies will come out of their shells eventually, though. They always do.

“Yeah, I was surprised at the turn out,” Louis says, pausing in his round of pushing in chairs to crouch under a desk and pick up yet another piece of someone’s uneaten pizza crust and a crumpled napkin. He marvels at how thoroughly less than two dozen kids could deface a classroom in less than an hour. Barbarians, all of them.

“Probably because you handed out flyers on Friday,” Perrie says with a grin, extending an arm over her shoulder to give herself a literal pat on the back.

“Probably,” Louis agrees, not even sarcastically, because Perrie doesn’t know he and Niall bailed on the whole flyer thing early on Friday. If she wants to think he put in his four hours' time and contributed to an unexpected wave of popularity for Spectrum, all the better.

“I think we have a couple new upperclassmen, too,” says Perrie’s girlfriend, Dani, who’s sitting on the table where Liam is entering all of the names from tonight’s sign-up sheet into his email contact list. She kicks her dangling legs back and forth and tips her head to rest on one shoulder. “I saw a girl from one of my ballet classes last year. Pretty sure she’s a senior.”

“Always good to have some new blood besides the freshman babies,” Perrie muses, reaching a hand up to tug on one of Dani’s ringlets.

Dani and Perrie, at first glance, make an unusual pair. Dani the dance major is all willowy limbs and hair scrunchies and softly spoken words. She embodies the phrase “go with the flow.” Perrie cuts a sharp contrast with her darkly lidded eyes and darker poetry and general don’t-tred-on-me aura. She runs the literary magazine, the university newspaper, and serves as Louis’ champion VP. But somehow Dani and Perrie work out without Perrie steamrolling her girlfriend. It’s a testament to their relationship, Louis thinks, that Dani will let Perrie touch her hair like that. Louis tried once when they were freshman and doesn’t think he’s ever had his wrist twisted so hard.

Now that Louis thinks about it, maybe Dani isn’t as delicate as she often seems.

As it is, Perrie extends her hand to Dani, who takes hold and hops off the desk like some sort of princess. “We should probably get going, if you’re good to clean up here,” Perrie says, lacing her fingers with Dani’s. “I’ve got a group project meeting in ten and Dani’s coming along to make sure I don’t murder my group mates in cold blood.”

“Group project? Already?” Liam asks without tearing his eyes away from the computer screen.

“Mmm-hmm,” Perrie confirms bitterly. “Presentation tomorrow. We should have been meeting last week but no one texted me back until today.” She lets out an angry noise through her nose like a bull, and Louis’ eyes flick over to Dani, who’s biting her lip against the threat of a smile.

“Come on, babe. We’ll stop for tea on the way over,” Dani says, tugging Perrie toward the door and waving them all farewell. Perrie looks slightly mollified, and yeah, Louis is really glad Pez has Dani.

“Eleven new names from the sign-up sheet,” Liam reports, filing the paper away in his accordion folder. Louis thinks Liam might be the only one in the world who still uses accordion folders.

"That's awesome," Louis says. "More than I thought." He leans down to look at Liam's contact list to see if there are any familiar names he somehow missed during introductions.

“Hey guys, is Niall still here?” Louis looks up to see Josh hovering nearby.

“Uh, yeah I think he just stepped out to go to the bathr—” Louis breaks off when, sure enough, Niall swings the door open.

Louis barely contains his knowing smile when Josh’s face lights up as Niall saunters over. “What’s up?”

“Ah, my roommates and I are hosting a get-together this Saturday, if you wanted to come,” Josh says, bouncing on his heels with anxious excitement. Then, after glancing around at Liam and Louis, he tacks on politely, “you guys too, obviously.” Louis doesn't know what Josh has to be so nervous about; he thinks Josh and Niall must be practically dating now, what with all the time they spend together. And anyone with a set of eyes and a brain can see how moony Niall is for Josh.

Predictably, Niall immediately agrees, “‘course, sounds awesome,” and takes Josh’s hand. Louis has never used the phrase “pleased as punch” to describe anyone before (he likes to think he defies some gay stereotypes, at least) but that’s certainly the most apt description to describe Josh’s expression at the moment. “You going back to Ridgeview?” Josh nods. “Cool, I’ll walk with you on my way home. Just lemme throw out the pizza boxes for Lou.”

Louis chooses not to tease Niall about the fact that Josh’s place in Ridgeview is about twenty minutes walking distance from their apartment, because Niall is being such a gentleman and taking out the trash. When Niall has vanished out the door with the stack of empty cardboard, Josh leans against Liam’s table.

“I wasn’t just being polite,” he says earnestly. “It’d be really cool if you guys came.”

“I probably will,” Louis says. Louis doesn’t know any of Josh’s roommates or any of his friends outside Spectrum, but he’s usually not one to pass up the opportunity for a social occasion. Especially one undoubtedly that involves copious amounts of alcohol. Moreover, Josh has to be up there in the top ten friendliest people Louis has ever met, so his social circle can't be all that bad. 

“Saturday? I might go for a bit,” Liam hedges.

Louis raises his eyes with faux indigence. “What, you have more important social obligations for the evening?”

Liam doesn’t appreciate the snark. “Yes, as a matter of fact.”

“Swim party?”

Liam’s not much of a party guy in general, and Louis can’t imagine who else he might be getting drunk with this weekend, if not with himself and Niall. He’ll go to swim team pregames and parties occasionally, but Louis thinks it’s more a strategic method of maintaining his social status on the team than something Liam actively enjoys. He has to command a certain amount of respect as co-captain, after all. Louis can’t say it’s not working either; every one of Liam’s teammates that Louis has met have only had good things to say about him.

“No, CCM party,” Liam says, closing his computer and slipping it into his backpack.

Louis smirks. “The Jesus freaks?”

“Lou.” Liam rolls his eyes and fixes Louis with a look of motherly condemnation. “Stop that.”

Yup, just like Lou’s mom.

Louis lifts his hands in defense. “What? Didn’t know CCM threw parties. I thought they thought parties were…morally reprehensible, or something.”

“They host dry parties.”

“Oh, gotcha. So like normal parties, but with no alcohol and no fun.”

Liam doesn’t dignify that with a response. Louis doesn’t blame him; he knows he’s being kind of an ass right now, but he can’t seem to stop. Josh is looking on, twisting his fingers together uncomfortably.

“What do you have against the CCM kids, anyway?” Liam wants to know. “Do you actually know any of them? Personally?”

Louis fish-mouths for a moment before answering, “I’ve had enough encounters with people like them to know we wouldn’t get along.”

“Are you still on about that kid who offended you in the quad last week?” Liam shakes his head. “You have to let it go, Lou.”

“Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate,” is Niall’s sing-song contribution to the conversation as he re-enters the room to collect his belongings and Josh, who looks relieved to have an chance to disentangle himself from this conversation.

“A bit difficult to forget about it when the kid sits beside me for six solid hours a week and won’t even deign to make eye contact most of the time.”

“That might be because you scared the living bejesus out of him,” Niall puts in as he slings his backpack over one shoulder. Louis flips him off, but not fast enough to catch Niall’s eye before he turns away.

Liam raises his eyebrows and nods in Niall’s direction as if to say, "see?"

“I regret nothing,” Louis proclaims.

“Later,” Niall says, waving at them over his shoulder with the hand not linked with Josh’s.

"Bye," Louis says in unison with Liam, trying not to throw up at how adorable Niall and Josh are. Why doesn't Louis have someone like that? (Maybe because he often finds himself being an ass and can't seem to stop himself. Louis squashes that line of thought before hot tendrils of guilt can coil around his stomach.) 

“I’m just saying, you can’t base your perspective of an entire group of people on your interactions with one person," Liam continues.

“Not just one person,” Louis argues. “And trust me, this kid constitutes a representative sample.”

“I don’t believe you, but I also don't want to argue about this anymore,” Liam says. Even when he’s peeved, Liam’s still the picture of reasonability.

Louis shrugs. He doesn’t much want to continue the argument either. “So why the sudden interest in connecting with CCM people? I thought you hadn’t hung out with them since like, freshman year.”

Liam flicks off the lights as they leave the room. “Got a text from Demi asking me to come. You remember Demi? She came over to hang out a couple times freshman year.”

“Vaguely,” Louis recalls. “Real bright? Chirpy?”

“Friendly,” Liam corrects.

“That’s what I said.”

Liam ignores that. “She’s really nice, and I like keeping in touch with people.”

Louis gives Liam a contemplative sidelong look. No matter how he teases Liam, it is kind of impressive—the guy has people he met two years ago still hitting him up to attend parties. Dry parties, but parties all the same. A quiet part of Louis sometimes thinks he should take a page out of Liam’s book.

***

Harry looks at the twin to-go cups of tea sitting on top of the piano and wonders if he’s being not a small bit pathetic.

Here’s the thing: Harry’s been coming into the practice rooms every night this week. When he arrives around eleven, after he has finished all of his homework for the night, there are usually still a few people working in the rooms, but he’s never had trouble finding one open. He gets a bit self-conscious when there are other actual music students around, because he can hear a muffled version of whatever impressively complex piece they’re playing through the poorly sound-proofed walls, and he’s sure they can hear his more elementary efforts just as well. So he plays a bit more quietly than he otherwise would.

Luckily, by eleven-thirty or midnight, the rest of the students have filtered out for the night, and Harry can succumb to his fingers’ itch to pound away at the keys and relieve all his pent up tension from the day.

If Harry’s being totally honest, he doesn’t come to the fine arts building only in search of the comfort offered by piano keys. Every night when he arrives, Harry swings by the studio where Zayn was working last Friday to see whether he’s in. Harry hasn’t yet seen him, but that doesn’t stop him from dropping down every hour he’s in the practice room, just to check (Harry has his casual stroll-by down to an art form at this point). When Harry swings by the local cafe on the way to the fine arts building to grab himself tea, he always gets one for Zayn, too, in case he’s lucky enough to catch Zayn at work. Harry isn’t sure how Zayn takes his tea, so he’s accumulated an arsenal of sweeteners and creamers in the front pouch of his backpack. But so far, no luck. Harry always ends up drinking the second cup of cold tea on his way home.

Harry knows it’s kind of creepy, okay? It’s Thursday night, day four of his Zayn seeking mission with null results, and Harry’s on the verge of admitting defeat. He just. He doesn’t want his encounter with Zayn last week to be a one time deal.

It’s this desperation that rallies Harry to stand up, grab Zayn’s lukewarm cup of chamomile, and exit the practice room at midnight. Harry’s got a system worked out, one that involves two staircases on opposite ends of the building, so that he doesn’t have to stop and turn around at the door when he discover’s Zayn’s inevitable absence from the studio. He can just keep on walking, like that was his plan all along. Not that he ever encounters anyone on his loop, but better safe than sorry.

When Harry reaches the studio, he’s so braced for disappointment that he literally has to backtrack a couple of steps when it registers that there’s a lonely desk lamp illuminating Zayn’s back corner of the room. His heart rockets to his throat when he discerns the silhouette of Zayn curved over the desk, facing the window. Harry tentatively slips through the propped-open door and pads through the maze of desks and easels. Even in the darkness, Harry can tell that Zayn’s whole body is strung tight; his head is bent so low that Harry wouldn’t be surprised if Zayn poked himself in the nose with the eraser of his pencil. Harry can hear the rapid, jerking hisses of graphite moving across the paper, scratching, scribbling. There’s a pile of crumpled papers spilling onto the floor to Zayn’s right.

Maybe it’s not a good time? Harry should probably just come back, but after so many unsuccessful attempts to cross paths with Zayn, Harry is loathe to let this opportunity slip through his fingers. What’s more, Harry’s mother always makes him chamomile tea when he’s upset. If there’s the slightest chance Harry could cheer Zayn up, Harry should at least try.

“Zayn?” Harry’s voice, which he was trying to keep as low as possible, echoes around the cavernous studio. Harry to flinches.

Zayn startles violently and whips around, causing Harry to take a quick step back and splash tea all over his hand. Good thing it’s had lots of time to cool off.

“Sorry,” Harry says, wondering whether all of his encounters with Zayn are going to begin with awkward apologies. Knowing himself, Harry would say it's a strong possibility. 

“Shit, Harry, you scared the shit out of me.” Zayn clutches at the t-shirt fabric over his heart.

“Sorry,” Harry repeats. He holds the tea out as a peace offering. “I just wanted to say hello and. And I’ve brought tea for you.” Harry can’t help but bite his tongue as soon as the words are out of his mouth. Good Lord, could be be any more lame? He seriously doubts it.

For one excruciating moment, Zayn stares at him with a bemused expression, but then he reaches out to take the tea. “Wow, thanks. That’s really cool of you.” He takes a sip and, to Harry’s relief, doesn’t mention that it’s nearly stone cold by now. He kicks out the chair beside him for Harry to sit down. Harry does.

“I hope you like it just straight,” Harry says, almost smacking himself on the forehead when he realizes he didn’t bring his backpack down. He slides his hands under his thighs to keep them from tapping. Harry’s parents don’t like when he does that and Zayn probably won’t either. Ideally, Harry would like to postpone Zayn’s discovery of how freakish and annoying Harry is for as long as possible.

“I’m not too picky when it comes to tea,” Zayn says. He arches an arm around the pile of crumpled papers in front of Harry on the table and scoops them up to dump into the nearest wire bin. “Sorry about the mess.”

“Don’t worry about it. Not like you were expecting company. Sorry again for sneaking up on you.”

“Harry.” Zayn’s tone is firm but fixes Harry with a soft smile. “Seriously, stop worrying about it.”

Harry pulls in a deep breath and nods. “So,” he says in the most laid-back fashion he can manage, “how are things? You look…stressed.”

Zayn chuckles and scratches roughly at his hair. “Pretty stressed, yeah.”


“Project you’re working on?” Harry nods at the bin.

“Oh, no. This isn’t a project. Just stress relief.” Zayn waves his hand disdainfully over the sheet he’s been working on but doesn’t offer any other information.

Harry nods. “Yeah, same.” Zayn cocks his head to the side. Harry blushes and points toward the ceiling. “With the piano.”

“Ah. I was wondering what you were doing here so late.” The corner of Zayn’s mouth quirks up in a smile. “I’m glad you came to say hello. Sometimes I lose track of how long I’ve been in here. ’s not good to be stuck in your own head for so long.”

Harry wholeheartedly agrees, which is perhaps what gives him the courage to say, “Yeah, I’ve been upstairs the last couple nights but I haven’t seen you around.”

“I’ve actually been working on a piece at Winoga Pond, across campus,” Zayn says. “Taking advantage of the morning light. I’ve been out there at five thirty the last couple of days so I’ve been going to bed early. Well, earlier.”

“But not tonight?”

Zayn’s lips press into a thin line before he says, “Couldn’t sleep.” Zayn keeps his voice light but turns in his chair to leaf through his remaining papers, effectively closing himself off. Socially inept though he may be, Harry has pulled that exact move with his parents often enough to tell that Zayn is uncomfortable discussing this particular matter. Harry can respect that. 

“How long do you think it’ll take to finish the piece?” Harry asks.

Zayn tips his head back and forth in consideration. “Eh, hopefully not too long into next week. I’m not much of a morning person. Ready to go back to sleeping in till nine.”

Harry wishes he could sleep in until nine. With his first class at eight in the morning, Harry needs to be awake at least by six in order to take his shower—which can take upwards of a half an hour, with all the washing and rewashing Harry does (sometimes longer, if Harry awakes to find out he’s done something shameful in his sleep)—and clean up his room. Harry can’t leave his dorm knowing a thing is out of place, otherwise he’s hopelessly unable to focus in class.

“Well, if you ever want to grab breakfast or something on your way back, I’m usually in the dining hall before my class at eight,” Harry says. He hopes his voice isn’t too infused with the pathetic hope swelling in his chest.

“Let me just issue that disclaimer that I’m prone to be an insufferable grouch in the morning,” Zayn says with a wry smile, but he pulls out his phone. “So as long as that won’t ruin your breakfast.”

Harry shakes his head vigorously. Zayn's company, grouchy or not, sounds infinitely better than no company at all. 

Zayn appraises him for a moment then says. “Okay. Number?”

Harry gives it to him, knees bouncing up and down in anxious excitement. Zayn is quiet for a moment and then looks up. “Sent you a text with my name.”

Harry doesn’t know why the warmth of relief and happiness weigh so heavily in his chest at this moment; casual exchange of numbers is surely normal among acquaintances in college. But this somehow feels more significant than Demi or Selena giving Harry her number. Harry gets the sense that Zayn is the type of person who doesn’t engage in electronic communication with just anyone.

“I’ll try not to text you too early,” Zayn says with a smirk. “Wouldn’t want anyone else to be awake at such an ungodly hour.”

“I’m usually up by six anyway, so.”

Zayn opens his mouth in an appalled expression. “Why?”

Harry shrugs. “Weird sleep schedule, I guess,” he offers as explanation, because detailing his morning ritual is definitely not in accordance with the plan to conceal his freakishness for as long as possible.

Zayn just shakes his head in wonderment and reaches down to slip his bag over one shoulder. “Thanks again for the tea. I kind of needed this tonight.”

Harry chews the inside of his cheek, wondering whether he should offer Zayn the chance to talk about it or just leave it alone. Zayn flicks off the light of his desk lamp and Harry follows him out of the studio. “Your stuff still upstairs?”

“Yeah.” Much to Harry's pleasant surprise, Zayn heads for the staircase.

They’ve just made it to the second floor landing when Zayn finally speaks up again. “I don’t know how to swim,” he blurts.

Harry doesn’t know what he expected, but it certainly wasn’t this. He tries not to look too taken aback, though, because he doesn’t want to put Zayn off. “Okay.”

“But I’m getting lessons from someone on the swim team, and the first one’s tomorrow.”

“Oh.”

“It’s a stupid thing to get nervous about,” Zayn spits. Harry’s peripheral vision catches Zayn’s hands curl into fists at his sides. “Dunno why I’m so fucking nervous.”

Harry thinks for a minute before he speaks because this is a crucial juncture in his budding friendship with Zayn. “I think whoever’s going to be teaching you probably has a lot of experience with beginners,” Harry says carefully. “The whole basis for their relationship with you is that you can’t swim, so it’s not like they’re going to judge you for it.”

Harry casts a hesitant sidelong glance at Zayn, who still looks grim but doesn’t snap at Harry, so he can’t have messed up that badly.


“I guess,” Zayn concedes. “I mean, it’s not just that. The guy who’s teaching me is…” Zayn abruptly shakes his head, appearing to reconsider whatever he was about to say. “Never mind.”

The final statement leaves little room for argument, so Harry doesn’t broach the subject again as he collects his school supplies and tea from the practice room and shuts off the light.

“If it makes you feel any better,” Harry offers, not at all sure that it will make Zayn feel any better, “I get nervous about way stupider stuff.”

Zayn lifts an eyebrow, waiting for him to elaborate.

Harry sighs. “I got invited to a party this Saturday. With CCM. So no alcohol, but like. I don’t know.”

"You're in CCM?" 

The question isn't pointed, exactly, but something in Zayn's voice tells Harry this is a loaded question. Harry's tongue suddenly feels too big for his mouth and he stuffs his hands in the pockets of his jeans. Please, he prays desperately, not precisely sure what he's asking for. All he knows is that he doesn't want his faith to come between him and the one person he's felt comfortable carrying on an extended conversation with for the past two weeks. If it's a matter of choosing between standing up for his beliefs and befriending Zayn, well. There's not much of a choice, is there? But Harry really, really doesn't want to lose Zayn, though, before he even gets him. 

"Yes." Nearly a whisper due to Harry's nerves. 

"Hmm. Cool." It doesn't sound like Zayn is completely cool with this information, but he doesn't verbally attack Harry. Zayn clears his throat and says, “And you don’t want to go to the party, or…?”

Harry runs a hand through his hair, too agitated to care that he’s messing it up. “I want to, but I don’t.” Harry kind of wants to bang his head against the wall, because that made zero sense, but it’s the best way he can explain it.

Luckily, Zayn seems to be on his level. He doesn’t scoff, or tell Harry to stop being such a baby, for heaven’s sake, that social events are supposed to induce excitement and anticipation, rather than terror. He just says, “If you need someone to pick you up, just text me or whatever. Doesn’t matter what time, I’ll probably be awake.”

Harry blinks. “I—thank you.” It comes out a bit more startled than Harry would have liked, but he is startled. He can’t even believe Zayn, someone he’s known for less than a week and only talked to twice, would be this nice to him. Harry could cry.

Harry doesn’t cry (by a thin margin) because that seems like a sure fire way to get Zayn to redact his offer, only by mashing his lips together and casting his eyes toward the ceiling for a few seconds.

“You okay?”

“Hmm?” Harry looks around to see Zayn watching him as he sticks a cigarette between his teeth. “Yeah. I—What if no one likes me?”

Zayn frowns. For the few seconds it takes him to light up his cigarette, suck in a breathe, and eject twin streams of smoke from his nostrils, Harry thinks he might have crossed a line. Like maybe he and Zayn aren’t close enough for Harry to be this vulnerable. Normal guys surely don’t talk about their feelings this much. Surely Harry’s irrevocably mucked things up now.

Harry reaches up to yank at his hair, but Zayn simply tilts his head back and says, “I doubt that’ll happen. As a general rule, it’s impossible to dislike people who bring other people tea unsolicited at midnight.”

Chapter Text

Harry opens his phone and rereads the address Selena texted him just be absolutely, positively certain that he’s in the right place. It’s nearly midnight, and Harry’s been following the guidance of the maps app on his iPhone down side streets adjacent to campus for the last twenty minutes looking for the location of the CCM party.

He’s just arrived at what he thought was the correct apartment complex, but there are several parties going on at once, it seems, and they’re all bleeding into one another. The people convened in the parking lot and on the upstairs balcony that wraps around the building are flowing freely in and out of five different open apartment doors. Each party has its own heartbeat of bass blaring from unseen speakers and Harry has yet to spot a single person without beverage in hand. Harry gulps. He kind of expected this—just because the CCM party won’t be serving alcohol doesn’t mean people won't show up already drunk—but he didn’t anticipate so much alcohol in the immediate vicinity.

According to his phone, unless Selena made a grievous typo, this is the spot. Now for the task of picking the right apartment. With the doors open, he’ll have to get up close and personal to find number 7558.

This is what Harry gets for trying to be social.

The barrage of noise and energy and human chaos is so intimidating that Harry considers simply turning around and going home. Netflix and a warm bed are waiting for him, both infinitely more inviting than…this.

Unfortunately, as he stands in the parking lot debating, Harry’s phone buzzes. He yanks it out of his pocket with a trembling hand to see he has a new text from Selena. You coming? it reads, and Harry supposes he’s beyond the point of no return now. What could he possibly say in reply, other than yes? Lying and saying that he decided not to come isn’t going to score him any friendship points, but neither is the truth: that he’s a total chicken who’s frozen with fear out in the parking lot all because of some drunken teenagers.

Harry guesses he’d better get this over with. He pads hesitantly over to the nearest apartment, where there’s a large circle of people congregated just outside the door. Harry wrinkles his nose against the sour haze of cigarette smoke he passes through on the way to check the apartment number. Luckily no one confronts him; he might as well be invisible. Harry is perfectly okay with that.

Turns out the number on the apartment door is not 7558 (thank God, Harry thinks, when he catches sight of a bare-chested man with his pelvis thrust out, arms dangling back, standing on a coffee table to lead the crowd in dance while the music thuds, “Wobble baby, wobble baby, wobble baby, wobble”). Harry eventually makes it to the correct apartment. This one thankfully without the strobe lights and hip gyration he’s encountered on the way.

When Harry steps into the living room, he’s met with a scene similar to that in the Newman Center entrance hall for the last two weeks, people aggregating into small groups for conversation—with the notable addition of red plastic cups in their hands. Harry tries not to let that freak him out, and sets off in search of Selena. He meets a couple of familiar faces on the way to the kitchen and one girl, who he sat next to in the circle this past Wednesday, even lifts her cup to him in greeting as he passes her group of friends. Harry finds Selena in the kitchen, her back turned to him as she talks to a brunette boy with wearing a well-ironed button down shirt and holding a Coke can. Harry swallows nervously as he watches the boy nod along with whatever Selena’s saying, a friendly smile crinkling his brown eyes. Harry’s tummy does a flip flop. Nope. There’s no way Harry can go over there. He opts for hovering uncomfortably in the threshold, flattening himself against the doorframe every so often to let packs of people in or out, waiting for Selena to turn around.

Harry is thinking he might try to find a bathroom to hide in when someone taps his shoulder. It is, of course, Demi, who’s grinning ear to ear up at Harry when he startles and looks around.

“Hey,” Demi says. “How long have you been here?”

“Oh, just got in,” Harry says, digging the nails of one hand sharply into the palm of the other for lying.

“Well let’s get you something to drink.”

Harry’s heart rate picks up until Demi whips open the refrigerator door to reveal several boxes of soda cans. “Preference?” she asks.

“Coke is fine, thank you,” Harry says.

“Um,” Demi hedges, reaching her arm to the very back of the box and then pulling it out. “It’s empty. Sorry, Liam must’ve got the last one.”

The boy talking to Selena suddenly looks over at them. “What, sorry?”

Demi pulls the empty box out of the fridge. “You took the last Coke and left the box in the fridge, you doofus.” She punctuates her point by lightly batting Liam overside the head with the offending box. “Gave Harry false hope.”

Liam’s eyes turn to Harry, who momentarily considers ducking down to hide behind the refrigerator door. “Something else is fine,” he tells Demi quickly. “It’s really not a problem. I don’t care.”

“Sorry about that,” Liam says anyway with a bashful smile, reaching a hand up to the back of his neck.

“So careless,” Selena says with an eye roll and a smirk. “Really Liam, you’re the most inconsiderate person I’ve ever met.”

Harry reaches into the fridge to grab a Sprite before this ordeal can be drawn out any further.

“Harry this is Liam,” Demi belatedly introduces, folding the box into the recycling bin and grabbing a drink for herself before tugging Harry over to join the conversation.

Harry cracks open his beverage and gives Liam a tentative smile. “ ’lo,” he manages.

“Liam, Harry,” Demi continues when it’s obvious Harry’s not going to introduce himself. “Harry’s a quiet one.”

Harry chokes a bit on his soda and some of it shoots painfully up his nose. He tugs his shirt sleeve down to dab at the inner corners of his eyes embarrassedly. Harry wasn’t so much surprised by Demi’s statement, as the tone she’d used—familiar and endearing, like they were longtime friends. The kind of way Harry’s mother often introduces him to her own friends, with that gentle warning, “He’s a bit shy.”

“Freshman?” Liam asks, either oblivious to or politely ignoring Harry’s soda mishap.

Harry nods.

“How have your first couple of weeks been?”

Harry is accustomed enough to these types of questions now—from professors he’s visited at office hours, from his mother, from Demi and Selena—that he can go through his thirty-second spiel with practiced ease, despite the distraction of Liam’s big brown eyes. Somewhere between Harry reciting that he’s settled into his room okay and that classes aren’t giving him too much trouble, Selena and Demi slip out of their circle to greet someone who’s just arrived in the living room.

“What year are you?” Harry asks at the end of his blurb, anxious to steer the conversation away from himself.

“Junior,” Liam reports.

“Oh.” There’s a beat of silence in which Harry scrambles to come up with another question. How do people normally get to know each other in these settings? “And you like it here? The school, I mean.”

Harry could smack himself in the face. Obviously Liam likes it here, otherwise he would have transferred. Stupid.

But Liam seems to give the question serious consideration. “Yeah, I like it well enough. I’m here on a swimming scholarship, so. I wasn’t too sure about it freshman year, since I always imagined myself at a smaller school—a couple thousand kids, you know? I was really, really shy right out of high school. Luckily I got paired with the most outgoing roommate ever and he kind of forced me out of my shell a bit. And now the kid is one of my best friends.” Liam's lips curl into a fond, reminiscent smile and he takes a sip of his Coke. “Freshman year you wouldn’t have caught me dead at a party, even one like this.”

“But now you like it?” Harry asks, hopeful that maybe he’ll change too, and eventually find these types of gatherings more exhilarating and less terrifying.

“Sometimes,” Liam says. “With some people, when I’m in the mood. I still prefer smaller get-togethers, but Demi is a very difficult person to say no to.”

“Yeah,” Harry breathes. Liam’s got that right.

“So you met Demi through CCM I’m assuming?” Liam asks. Harry nods and takes a sip of his drink. “And how do you like CCM?”

Harry swallows thickly. “Demi and Selena are very kind,” he says carefully. He still isn’t sure how he feels about the CCM thing as a whole, but that, at least, he knows for sure. “They’re the first people who like, talked to me.”


“Yeah,” Liam says, fond smile back in place. “Demi was one of the first people I met here, too. Was sitting out on the quad the first weekend and she came over to compliment my Iron Man t-shirt. Turns out she was wearing these sweet Avengers sneakers and we ended up chatting about superheroes for most of the afternoon.” Liam sets his cup down and leans against the counter comfortably. “And then, of course, anyone who knows Demi eventually meets Selena. But we also had an English course together sophomore year."

“You don't know them through CCM, then?” Harry asks. He was wondering why he hadn’t seen Liam around the Newman Center yet, but a small part of him was hoping that Liam just hadn’t been able to make the first couple meetings.

“Nope,” Liam says. Harry's heart sinks. “No, my family are Protestant, but I’m not practicing.”

Harry is saved the trouble of contriving a response when music begins to blast from the adjoining room. Harry flinches, curving his shoulders away from the living room door behind him. He would be embarrassed, but judging by Liam’s wrinkled nose, sternum-rattling bass thuds aren’t really his favorite thing either. He tries to shout something over the music, which Harry doesn’t catch.
“What?” Harry tries to yell, but he if can barely hear his own voice, Liam doesn’t stand a chance. The older boy holds up a finger and pulls out his phone. After a few moments’ rapid typing, he holds up his screen for Harry to see. I think I’m gonna head out, do you want a ride back do your dorm?

Harry looks up at an expectant Liam with surprise. Really? he mouths. Liam nods and leads the way through the living room. Harry feels bad about leaving without saying his goodbyes to Demi and Selena, but he can't even spot them amidst the throng of dancing bodies. He thinks an apologetic farewell text from the car might have to suffice tonight. 

When they’ve made it out to the parking lot, Harry says, “Thanks for the ride.”

“It’s no problem.” As they trek across the still heavily populated lot, Liam says, “Sorry I parked so far away, wanted to put as much distance between Myrtle and the—” he waves a hand at the drunken mayhem behind them “—as possible. Don’t want her accidentally puked on. Again.”

“Myrtle?”

Liam presses his key fob and a nearby minivan beeps and flashes its brake lights. “Behold, Myrtle,” Liam says proudly. They step up to the car and Liam rubs a fond hand across the bumper like he’s petting the haunches of his prize steed. “Nearly a hundred thousand miles on this baby.”

“She’s lovely,” Harry says, a slightly bemused by Liam’s attachment to the vehicle, but finding it endearing all the same.

“Thanks,” Liam says, looking genuinely flattered on Myrtle’s behalf. He steps up to slide into the driver’s seat and Harry opens the passenger side door.

“Oh,” Liam says when several kick boards spill off the passenger seat and onto Harry’s feet. “Forgot those were there. Mind sitting in the back?”

Harry carefully reassembles the stack of kick boards, adjusting them just so and trying not to dwell on the fact that they’re sure to slide out of place as soon as the car moves, before taking his spot on the bench seat behind Liam. 

"Alright, where are we headed?" Liam asks, and Harry rattles off his address. "Sweet, you're not that far from my place. Sorry again about all the stuff. Occupational hazard of being swim captain."

“How do you like being captain?” Harry asks, pulling a sharp plastic flipper from underneath his butt and tossing it into the way back.

“’s all right,” Liam says. “I get along pretty well with most of the guys on the team, and I enjoy leading practices. And if an underclassman needs help or someone to talk to, I like being that person.” Liam adjusts his rearview mirror and flips on his turn signal as they approach the parking lot exit. “I love the upperclassmen on my team, but in some cases I’d rather the newbies come to me than som—”

Liam is interrupted by the harsh vibrating of his phone in the cupholder. He picks it up, examines the caller ID, and in the rearview mirror Harry can see Liam roll his eyes. “One sec,” he says politely before swiping across the screen. “Hey.” His tone is more clipped than Harry’s heard all evening, and Harry shifts uncomfortably in his seat despite himself.

“Yeah, I suppose so. I’m leaving Forest Point now. Where are you? Okay wait for me there. Don’t leave, all right? Okay. Be there in five.”

Liam hangs up and slips his phone back into the cupholder. “Mind if we take a quick detour? I have to pick up my roommate.”

“I mean, it’s your car,” Harry points out.

Liam runs a frustrated hand through his hair and switches lanes a bit aggressively for Harry’s taste. “Normally I would just make him wait the extra few minutes for me to drop you off, but he’s pretty hammered right now and when he drinks he has a tendency to wander off.”

“No, that’s. That’s fine,” Harry says, even though it is decidedly not fine that he’s about to be sharing the backseat with inebriated stranger. He tries staring out the window to distract himself from his apprehension, but the streamlines of light from street lamps whipping past the car illuminate streaks and fingerprints on the glass; if Harry keeps staring out the window he’s going to have to start wiping it down with his sleeves, and Liam might find just weird enough to let this be his first and last encounter with Harry. Harry smooths his hands down his jeans and picks at the cuffs of his shirt for something else to do with his hands.

Liam pulls into another apartment complex with a sign in a flowerbed out front that reads Ridgeview, and Harry finds that the scene outside his window is not unlike the one they just left. Liam pulls into a spot in the back and leaves the car idle. “I’ll be right back,” he promises before shutting the driver’s side door and jogging off to find his friend.

Harry sits in tense silence, staring at Myrtle’s dashboard clock, for seven minutes before Liam returns with his roommate in tow. He slides open the back door and Harry immediately scoots across the bench to make way for a boy whose posture and motor control is comparable to that of a cooked spaghetti noodle. His head is bowed low and Liam practically has to unfold him to strap his seatbelt on before the boy lurches forward to hang his head between his knees.

“Christ, Lou,” Liam mutters. “If you puke in Myrtle, I’ll never forgive you.”

Harry’s stomach fills with the vicious heat of anxiety. No, it can’t be—

“No worries,” the boy says, and even with the slur Harry could not mistake that voice. The boy lifts his head slightly to smirk at Liam and Harry lowers his eyes to see the fringes of a familiar stag tattoo peaking out from underneath the boy’s lime green t-shirt. “Already taken care of. Thank you, hedges.” Louis brings two fingers up to his lips, gives them a wet kiss, and holds them above his head in reverent gratitude to the universe. Harry can just make out the profile of his surly coworker. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. Please don’t let him notice Harry. Please, please, please.

Liam rolls his eyes and slams the car door shut. “Don’t puke on Harry, either,” Liam instructs as he puts the car in reverse.

Thanks, Liam. 

At this point, Louis seems to finally realize that there’s another person in the car. He whirls his head around to face Harry and even though Louis has to blink several times before recognition settles across his features, Harry knows there’s no hope of getting out of this unnoticed.

“Heeeey,” Louis says, pointing an accusatory finger at Harry’s nose. Or trying to, rather. His coordination is sloppy and he accidentally jabs Harry in the cheek. “What are you doing here, Harold?”

Harry is too frozen with alarm to point out (a) that Harold is not, in fact, his name or (b) Liam offered him a ride, thank you very much. He’s decently certain Louis wouldn’t remember either point, anyway.

“You two know each other?” Liam glances back at them in the mirror, confusion written on his pinched brow.

“He’s my nemesis! How could you betray me like this, Liam?” Louis declares, leaning towards Liam to fix him with a look of righteous indignation, but getting snapped back by the seatbelt.

“What? Sit back, Lou, or I’ll pull this car over.”

“Louis and I work together at the help desk,” Harry puts in quickly to distract Liam, because it doesn’t look like Louis has any intention of following Liam’s instructions but Harry would rather chew off his dominant hand than spend any longer in this car than absolutely necessary. He’s starting to wish he’d taken up Zayn’s offer for a ride home. Harry pulls out his phone and thumbs anxiously over the screen just in case.

“Oh. Oh.” Liam draws out the second syllable with eyebrow-raising realization, and Harry wants to hide his face in his hands. Of course Louis would have told his roommate and best friend about Harry. Harry can see any blooming potential for friendship between himself and Liam wilting and withering away.

Harry finds himself tapping out the usual pattern against his knee, something to focus on other than the fact that Louis’ gone oddly quiet and is clutching his stomach. Harry closes his eyes fiercely. Oh God, could this get any worse?

“Lou? Louis Tomlinson, I will pull this car over. Are you going to be sick? Lou?”

“ ’m fine,” Louis mutters. “Jus—”

Louis tips forward and Harry feels a warm weight splatter across his shoes.

“Dammit, Lou!”

“Sorry.”

“Couldn’t have waited five more seconds.”

Harry barely registers that they’ve pulled into their third parking lot of the evening—one he prays fervently is outside Louis and Liam’s residence—because there’s vomit on his shoe and he can hardly breathe. The very thought of such filth on his loafers, now soaking through his socks…Harry thinks he might be sick himself. As soon as Liam’s maneuvered Louis out of the car, Harry releases himself from the belt and stumbles out after him, hands in his hair, tugging viciously.

“Harry, I’m so sorry,” Liam says as he drapes one of Louis’ arms around his shoulders. “Oh my god, did he get it on you?”

Harry can find it within himself to respond. He leans against Myrtle, unable to break through the mental barrage of dirtydirtydirty.

“I’m so, so sorry,” Liam repeats, already pulling Louis toward the front door of their building. “Let me just get him in bed and then I’ll get you home, okay?”

And then Harry is alone outside, choking down air while he tries not to panic because he’s in a strange parking lot in the middle of the night outside Louis Tomlinson’s apartment with Louis Tomlinson’s vomit all over his shoes. Before the socially cautious part of Harry’s mind can catch up to the desperate part, he’s got his phone out and is scrolling through his (embarrassingly short) contact list to find Zayn’s name.

“Harry?”

Despite the hour, Zayn doesn’t even sound sleepy. Harry is glad he wasn’t lying when he told Harry that he’d be up anyway, because impending panic attack or no, Harry would’ve felt bad if he’d woken Zayn.

“Um. Zayn.” Harry tries to regain control of his breathing.

“Harry? Do you need me to come get you?”

“There’s vomit on my shoes,” Harry blurts. Then slaps a hand across his forehead because that’s not the answer to the question Zayn asked. “Yes, please,” he amends. “Please come get me.”

There’s some muffled shuffling on the other side and Zayn murmuring something.

“Sorry?” Harry says, covering up the ear not pressed to the phone so that he can hear better.

“No, nothing. Just telling my roommate I’m going out,” Zayn says absently. Harry hears the jangling of keys. “Where are you?”

“Um.” Harry looks around for some sign of address. “I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you use the maps application on your phone to get your location, and you can text me the address.”

“Okay,” Harry says, though he doesn’t want to hang up the phone. “I—I can do that.”

“All right. Do that. See you in a few.” The phone beeps twice, and then he’s gone.

Harry hurriedly pulls up his maps to determine his address and text it off to Zayn. While he waits, Harry has time to take stock of his current situation. In the last half an hour, Harry’s gone from thinking that he’s found a new friend in Liam (intimidating muscle mass and terrifyingly pretty brown eyes notwithstanding) to finding out that he is not, in fact, a practicing Christian, is best friends and roommates with the homosexual boy Harry tried and spectacularly failed to save, and has left Harry alone, covered in vomit in a parking lot for—according to Myrtle—nearly six minutes now. Harry tips his head back against Myrtle and looks up at the sky and wonders, Why me?

Harry knows he’s not exactly on great terms with the Lord, given that he’s been at school for roughly two weeks and already the feelings he worked so hard to squash down and stifle at camp have reared their ugly heads again. His initial encounters with both of the boys who just disappeared inside are proof enough of that. And he hasn’t been in the church except for weekly mass, and sometimes when he gets back from the practice rooms really late, he accidentally forgets to say his prayers before he falls asleep. Actually, now that Harry thinks on it, he hasn’t been a great Christian at all over the past couple of weeks. Maybe he does deserve to be puked on.

Which brings Harry back to the vomit on his shoes, which is all he can focus on until Zayn’s car pulls up beside him. Zayn hops out to approach Harry, who’s still standing numbly next to Liam’s minivan.

“Hey. You okay?” Zayn looks Harry up and down, as if taking inventory of possible bodily harm. His eyes come to rest on Harry’s feet and a scowl tugs at his upper lip. “Oh. You were not kidding.”

Harry lets out a hysterical laugh and gives one of his curls a yank. “I never kid about messiness.” Zayn looks like he’s seriously concerned Harry might have lost his marbles, and maybe that's what compels Harry to continue, "It's not mine. The vomit."

Zayn blinks. “Right. Well, let’s get your shoes off before you get in the car.”

Harry nods and leans down to peel off his sock when he notices that there’s sick on the hem of his jeans too. “Oh God, Zayn,” Harry whimpers, unable to stop the curse as it slips out, “it’s—it’s on my pants, too.” Harry flat out refuses to remove his pants in the middle of a dark parking lot, but what else is there to do? Harry looks helplessly up at Zayn, who is wearing a slightly incredulous expression.

“Jesus, dude, it’s okay. Just, here.” Zayn crouches down to pull off Harry’s shoes and socks, then balls up one sock to wipe off the splatter on Harry’s pants. Harry can’t even imagine how dirty Zayn’s hands must be right now.

“Thank you,” he breathes shakily. “We…we can just leave these here…”

“Harry, we’re not leaving your shoes,” Zayn says firmly. “We can put them in the trunk—”

“Zayn?”

Harry and Zayn look up to see Liam standing on the porch with a plastic Target bag in one hand.

“Liam?” Zayn looks equally startled as Liam closes the door behind himself and awkwardly jogs down to meet them.

Harry looks between the two in confusion. How is it that Liam knows every single person Harry’s met on campus? 

“What are you doing here?” Liam asks, not in an accusatory way, just curious. If Harry didn’t know any better, he’d dare say Liam sounds…pleased.

“Harry called for a ride,” Zayn explains. He sounds unsure of himself and holds up Harry’s soiled clothing rather lamely.

Liam’s face drops. “I’m so sorry,” he tells Harry for the third time this evening. “I didn’t mean to leave you out here so long. Lou was just difficult wrestling into bed. I was going to give you a ride back to your place.”

Harry feels his neck and cheeks heat. Great, now he’s inadvertently made Liam think Harry doesn’t like him or trust him or something.

“I just…it seemed like you needed to take care of Louis,” Harry says, eyes fixed on the ground. “So I thought I’d…” He lifts his hand in Zayn’s direction and lets it drop.

“Oh. Yeah, that’s fine. Just promise you’ll let me make it up to you sometime.” Liam tries valiantly for a grin. “Kind of rude to promise someone a ride home then not follow through.”

“Sure,” Harry quickly agrees, because he really just wants to go home, please.

Zayn must sense his unease. “C’mon, Harry.” He opens the car door and waits for Harry to tuck himself in before closing it. Harry hears a muffled version of Zayn’s “see you Monday” and sees Liam’s face light up with a genuine smile before he hands Zayn the plastic baggy. Zayn gratefully stuffs Harry’s shoes and socks into hit before clambering in beside Harry. He tosses the bag in the back and twists the key in the ignition.

“Thanks for coming to pick me up,” Harry mumbles without meeting Zayn’s eyes.

“Of course. I wouldn’t have promised you I would if I didn’t mean it. Where are we heading?”

Harry provides his address and turns to stare out the window for the rest of the car ride. Zayn is tactful enough to not say anything while they drive.

Upon pulling up outside Harry’s building, though, Zayn says. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Harry nods once, curtly.

Zayn narrows his eyes dubiously. He reaches in the back to pull out the Target bag, which is tied off but still reeks. Harry physically leans away from it and feels his heart rate pick up. Take the bag, he orders himself. Take it, you idiot! But the rest of Harry is still resolutely chanting dirtydirtydirty. Harry takes note that his mouth feels very dry. “Th-thanks.” Take the bag!

Harry is just reaching out with a trembling hand when Zayn shifts the gear into park and declares, “I’m gonna walk you up.” And then hops out of the car before Harry can respond. Harry hesitates for a couple seconds and then jumps out after Zayn.

“You don’t have to,” Harry tries telling him, even as he uses his student card to swipe them into the building.

“Really? Because you kind of look like you’re having a mental breakdown,” Zayn says lightly as the climb the stairs.

Harry trips over a step and rubs at his nose in embarrassment. “I’m not,” he says without much conviction. 

“Harry, it’s just a bit of sick. It’ll come out of your socks and pants in the wash, and we can take your shoes to get cleaned.”

Harry glances up in the process of unlocking his door to meet Zayn’s eyes. Zayn is still wearing a slightly bewildered expression like he can’t quite figure out why this is all such a big deal. Harry just wants to slip inside his room and hide from everyone and everything for the rest of his life.

Given that this course of action isn’t exactly feasible, he pushes open his door and flicks on the light. Harry has his own washer and dryer set in a small closet-like space in the room, since it’s a single. At least that’s one small blessing. He pushes the folding doors to the side and dumps a copious serving of detergent into the measuring cup (probably more than is strictly necessary, but oh well) while Zayn steps into the room.

“If you could just…” Harry begins, one handed extended to take the baggy from Zayn, but then trails off when he sees Zayn’s wide-eyed gaze swiveling around the room: taking in the barren white walls, the neatly made bed with sheets tucked at tight angles under the mattress, the arsenal of cleaning supplies by the door.

“Zayn?” It comes out as hardly more than a whisper, because Harry can see in Zayn’s slightly parted lips and his soft eyes that he’s made the connection as to why “a bit of sick” is enough to send Harry spiraling into a minor panic attack. He’s realized Harry’s a freak, and not a proper eighteen year old male at all. The cleanliness is just the tip of the iceberg, but Harry doesn’t want to think about that right now. “Zayn.”

This time it’s loud enough to catch his friend’s attention and Zayn’s gaze snaps back to Harry. “Sorry,” he says sheepishly, and hands Harry the bag. “Didn’t mean to intrude.” He leans against the door frame in his characteristic casual manner but it’s stiff. Zayn stuffs his hands in his jean pockets. Harry wants to tell him to take off his shoes, but holds his tongue. He very carefully extricates shakes the socks from the bag while gripping the shoes from outside the plastic and closes the machine lid. He quickly reties the bag with his shoes still inside and contemplates simply chucking them out as soon as Zayn's gone.

“Pants?” Zayn reminds him.

Harry freezes. He should add the pants to this load, but the very thought of partially undressing in front of Zayn has a sharp shudder running down his spine.

Harry puts the detergent back on the shelf. “Next load,” he says softly.

Zayn hums distractedly—from the side-eye peek Harry gets while he’s closing up the folding doors, he can tell Zayn is still looking past him into the strikingly immaculate room. “I should head out,” Zayn says, pushing himself away from the door frame and giving Harry a minor smile. “Sure you’re okay here?”

“Yeah.” Harry chews his lip anxiously. “Thanks again.”

“Of course,” Zayn waves him off. “I’m probably not going to be up for painting early tomorrow—it’s fine, Harry” he interjects when he sees Harry wince “—but if you want to grab lunch or something tomorrow, I’d be down. I’m interested to hear how you ended up at Liam Payne’s place in the middle of the night covered in puke.”

It’s a very transparent effort to lighten the mood, but Harry appreciates it all the same.

***

“I feel like shit,” Louis says as he wanders into the kitchen around noon in search of an icepack. He’s got a splitting headache and the world is altogether too bright. He can hear birds chirping through the window Liam’s got thrown open next to his arm chair. Chirping, for fuck’s sake.

“You should feel like shit.”

Louis frowns over at Liam from underneath the icepack he just pulled out of the freezer and pressed against his forehead. “Well that’s rather unsupportive of you.” Louis remembers the days when Liam was too shy to sass Louis even when he was a grouch. What ever happened to that? Now Liam’s got self-confidence, or whatever, and Hungover Lou isn’t sure he likes it.

“You defiled Myrtle last night.”

Louis’ eyes bug. “No.” Now he actually does feel like shit, emotionally speaking, on top of the havoc several shots of Fireball are currently wreaking on his liver. Liam loves that car like Louis loves some of his extended relatives.

“Yup.”

“Liam. I am so sorry.”

“Not as sorry as you’re going to be scrubbing her down this afternoon.”

The mere prospect of venturing out into the sun has Louis reaching for the bottle of Advil in the junk drawer, but he supposes fair’s fair.

“Thanks for coming to get me,” he says before swallowing his pills. “I didn’t get sick on you at all, did I?”

Liam harrumphs from his arm chair. “No, but you did on Harry From Work.”

Louis wheels around and immediately regrets it when his stomach sloshes in protest. He raises a fist to his mouth, swallows, and manages a “What?”

Liam nods grimly. “I offered him a ride back from the CCM party but then we detoured to collect your drunk ass from Josh’s, and then you politely vomited all over his feet.”

There’s just…so much information in that announcement that Louis needs to address. First thing’s first: “Well, better him than you.” Then, overtop Liam’s reprimanding “Lou,” Louis continues, “Why were you giving him a ride? You guys pals now or something?”

“I dunno. He didn’t particularly want to be at the party, I didn’t particularly want to be at the party.” Liam tips his head to one side and then to the other in what Louis thinks is a one thing led to another gesture. Louis cannot say he approves, but before he can cut in with a scathing remark, Liam metaphorically knocks him on his ass with the flippant comment, “He seems like a pretty nice guy.”

“I’m sure most homophobic asshats are perfectly lovely people to you when they don’t know you’re queer,” Louis replies. He shifts his eyes from side to side before leaning toward Liam with one hand cupped around his mouth like he’s about to disclose highly classified information, “Hint, that’s what classifies them as homophobic.”

“It’s probably just what he’s been taught,” Liam says, disregarding Louis’ sass. “The kid seemed pretty sheltered; didn’t sound like he knew too many people outside CCM. Who knows, he might learn to be a bit more open minded if he actually got to know someone queer.”

Louis opens his mouth, closes it, opens it again, and then thinks carefully about what he’s going to say before he says it. He’s just picked out his words when Niall comes swinging into the apartment with the glow and vitality of someone who’s just had sex with the person they’ve been crushing on for months.

“Gentlemen,” he greets, slamming the door shut behind him with a grin. “Lou, glad to see you made it home okay. How were your respective evenings?”

“Not as good as yours, I see,” Louis quips. “You and Josh finally did the no pants dance, then?”

“Nope.”

It might be rude to look as surprised as Louis does right now, but a quick glance over at Liam tells Louis he’s not the only one caught off guard. “Then what the fuck do you look so happy about?” Louis says, because seriously. If Niall doesn’t have stupendous news, Louis should not be required to put in the effort to look like he gives a flying fuck. Especially when sharp pain is stabbing so insistently at his frontal lobe.

“I passed out in bed with him last night and we went to go get brunch this morning,” Niall says with such delight that Louis wants to punch him in the face. And then maybe deliver the same treatment to himself, if it means he can slip back into sweet unconsciousness for a while.

“That’s great, Niall,” Liam says, playing the role of Supportive Roommate, since Louis clearly isn’t stepping up to the plate.

It’s not like Louis is all about peer-pressuring his friends into sex, okay? He’s just never seen Niall put this much effort into a single guy and wait so long. Niall isn’t some sort of sex fiend or anything, but he’s pretty go-with-the-flow, even when it comes to sexual satiation. If he isn’t getting it somewhere, he gets it somewhere else. And since Niall has the face and general disposition of a baby cherub angel, he usually isn’t left waiting all that long. Louis has never seen him hold a relationship down as long as he’s been pining over Josh.

“Well, best of luck with your ongoing courtship,” Louis says as Niall makes for his bedroom, and gives his departing friend a slight bow. “Now, I’m going to go crawl back in bed. I’ll get to Myrtle, I promise,” he tacks on when Liam makes a warning noise. “Here’s to hoping Styles caught the worst of it.” Louis lifts his mug of ice water aloft.

“Lou, I’m serious about laying off Harry,” Liam says.

“What’s with you and being all protective of this kid?” Louis demands with a sneer.

Liam shrugs. “He just reminds me a lot of myself freshman year,” he says. “And I have a difficult time reconciling the guy I met last night with your encounter out on the quad.”

Louis exhales heavily. “People can surprise you, Liam.” Deciding that this has maxed out his quota for serious conversation today, Louis retreats back into his bedroom with an cache of Advil and ice water.

Chapter Text

When Harry rolls over to silence his alarm at nine the next morning, there are two textual notifications emblazoned on the home screen of his phone. One from Selena —you didn’t say goodbye :(  — and one from Zayn suggesting a time and dining hall for lunch. Harry types out a profuse apology to Selena, and then sends the same to Demi in case she is similarly offended, and sits up. He wipes a hand down his face and considers how to respond to Zayn’s message. Harry knows he already accepted in the invitation last night, but in the light of day, isn’t even sure he wants to see Zayn, after everything. Quite frankly, he’s a bit surprised Zayn still wants to see him. But Harry thinks he should probably take what he can get, friendship-wise, so he sends off a sure, see you at noon, complete with the most excited emoji he can find to express his gratitude.

Somewhere between changing over loads of laundry and depositing his ruined loafers in the dumpster last night, Harry decided that he ought to spend most of today in church. There’s the ten-thirty Mass he’s taken to attending, since the nine p.m. service conflicts with his work schedule. After lunch with Zayn he’ll slip back over there, spend some time in silence and try to get a handle on the shit-show that has been his two first weeks of college.

Great, and now he’s even letting curses slip into his regular train of thought. Harry slaps his cheeks lightly (and then not so lightly) to wake himself up and heaves his stiff body off the bed to take a shower. If he spends a bit longer than usual under the spray and takes his water a bit more scalding than usual so that it paints his shoulders red and sears his scalp, then that’s no one’s business but his own. Actually, he remains under the deluge until the hot water runs out and he stumbles into the fog-clouded room to wrap himself in his softest towel.

It’s almost time for Mass by the time Harry has his curls dried looking reasonable and his Sunday usual attire on. He steps out of his room and locks—and re-locks, and re-locks—his door, taking solace in the quiet of the morning. Despite it being after ten, none of Harry’s hallmates have emerged into the common room yet. Probably because while Harry was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling unable to fall asleep last night, he could hear them traipsing back from parties until the wee hours of the morning.

The ten-thirty Mass is similarly subdued, since most students haven’t woken up to populate the church. By the time Harry crosses the quad to meet Zayn for lunch, though, there are finally some people milling about. Harry keeps his eyes on the sidewalk in front of his feet and his hands stuffed in his pockets—his default posture for walking anywhere on campus, trying to draw as little attention to himself as possible.

Honestly, even now Harry is astonished that he was brave enough to stand up to that blonde boy handing out the queer pamphlets. Given his history of very un-Christianlike…ah, tendencies, and his general social awkwardness, Harry doesn’t know where that spurt of evangelical courage came from. Some gift from the Holy Spirit, or something. All Harry knows is that from the moment he stepped on campus, he’d been waiting, braced for the temptation that Father Howard and the other boys at camp and his parents had warned him about. The Devil in disguise who would try to lure him back into his wicked ways.

Though if the Devil were going for disguise, he’d failed in the extreme. The blonde boy and his pamphlet were so obvious a manifestation of temptation it was almost laughable. And Harry, who’d been mentally working himself up to face this Goliath all week, had slung his stone at the beast’s forehead with all his strength, eyes squinted shut while he prayed a Hail Mary.

Harry doesn’t know if he could manage another confrontation with the same gusto. Take Zayn, for instance. When Zayn expressed his distaste for CCM, the Christian thing for Harry to have done would be trying to convince Zayn to join them in worship. Or at least stand up for their moral integrity, somehow. Harry should have advised Zayn to stop smoking, too, because addiction is a tool of the Devil. Harry should have invited Zayn to church with him.

But did Harry do any of those things?

Zero for three. Good going, Styles. Some friend you are.

Harry sucks, he just sucks.

But as Harry arrives outside the dining hall and sees Zayn waiting for him, Harry knows he’s just going to keep on being a sucky person a little while longer, if that’s what it takes, because more than anything else Harry doesn’t want to be alone anymore.

Zayn stands up with a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes and wipes his hands on the thighs of his jeans. “Hey.”

Harry gives a meek “Hi” and toys with the prayer beats tucked under one sleeve. “Sorry and thanks again. For last night.”

“Dude, for the millionth time, it’s fine.” Zayn steps up to hand the cashier his student ID to swipe for payment and turns back to give Harry a look. “This whole guilt-ridden kicked-puppy thing you’ve got going on is bumming me out, and it’s tater-tot day. Do not bum me out on tater-tot day.” Zayn punctuates this instruction with a more genuine grin that Harry can’t help but return.

“Okay. Sor—um. Yeah.” Harry hands over his own card to be swiped. “Okay.”

Zayn gives a brisk nod of approval and leads the way into the dining hall.

"Here?" Zayn suggests, dropping his backpack on a chair at a table near the windows, about as far away from other students as humanly possible.

Harry gives the table a quick once-over and tries not to cringe at the smears of ketchup and other crumbs soiling it. "Sure," he says.

Ever perceptive Zayn, though, notices his hesitancy and drops his gaze to the dirty table. "Actually, if we sit here the sun's gonna be in my eyes," Zayn says, despite the fact that he's facing away from the window. "How about here?" Zayn points to a table nearby, closer to people but cleaner.

Harry feels like someone's blowing up a balloon inside his chest so he just nods. 

“So how do you know Liam?” Harry asks when they’ve both got their food and are sitting back at their blessedly clean table. 

“Hmm? Mmm.” Zayn finishes chewing his mouthful of pancake and swallows. “He’s the one teaching me how to swim.”

“Oh. Yeah, that makes sense, I guess.” Harry taps the handle of his fork against his chin contemplatively.

“What does that mean?”

Harry looks up from his eggs at Zayn’s tone. Harry wouldn’t say it’s defensive, but…yeah, no, defensive is the right word, actually.

“I—Liam’s swim captain. And he’s got all this…stuff, in his car? Swim stuff? So I thought…” Harry feels like he’s wading around in murky waters, not quite sure what Zayn wants from him or why he took such offense to Harry’s comment. He squints his eyes tentatively and tries to gage Zayn’s reaction. Maybe Zayn will think he’s being a smart ass and leave.  

On the contrary, Zayn ducks his eyes and nudges his sausage patty around on the plate with his fork. “Ah. Right, yeah.”

Harry doesn’t know what just happened, but past experience tells him the safest course of action in any treacherous social situation is just to keep his mouth shut. So he does.

Fortunately, after a painful twelve seconds of silence, Zayn elaborates, “Sorry about that. I was being stupid. Thought you were implying that someone like Liam wouldn’t be interested in hanging out with me unless he was being paid.”

Harry…is not sure what to do with that. Zayn seems to have these raw bouts of self doubt where Liam is concerned, which Harry doesn’t like one bit. He also doesn’t understand it one bit, but because understanding seems like a reasonable first step in helping, Harry inquires, “Because he’s like…a jock type person? And you’re…” Harry tries to come up with some unoffensive way of describing Zayn’s persona but thinks he might have dug himself too deep already.

Lucky for him, Zayn has already succumbed to a a self-deprecating smirk. “An art geek?”

Harry decides to plead the fifth with a noncommittal shrug. Zayn’s words, not his.

“That’s a very high school way of looking at it,” Zayn grumbles. “But yeah. I guess. Maybe.”

“Hmm.” Harry sincerely doubts that his high school experience—which, like so much of the rest of his life, was colored by religious obligations—could reasonably compare to Zayn’s. Looks like Harry’s going to have to draw upon the understanding of secular high school life he’s mentally constructed (mainly from watching Freaks and Geeks and the like) for this one.

“Well, if ‘80s movies and High School Musical taught me anything, it’s that you guys have more in common than you think. You're sure to be best friends before the week's out,” Harry informs Zayn as he picks apart his cinnamon roll. “All that’s missing is a big swim meet Liam has to win. And all you need is some eyeliner and a brick wall to slump against.”

Zayn blinks at Harry with poorly concealed incredulity, like he can’t believe Harry just made a joke. Harry supposes he doesn’t do that often—hasn’t found a whole lot to joke about lately, if he’s being honest.

“Well,” Zayn says with a wry smile, “you obviously forgot the whole middle part of all those movies. Drama and social backlash abound.”

“Yeah, but the uplifting music and-or big dance number right before credits roll makes it all worth it.”

“You sap,” Zayn teases. “I didn’t know you were into musicals.”

Harry freezes in the act of lifting a spoonful of Raisin Bran to his mouth. “I’m not,” he says, too defensively to go unnoticed.

Zayn raises an eyebrow. “Alright.”

Harry stuffs his cereal into his mouth for an excuse not to respond.

Zayn is kind enough to pick the conversation back up. “So how did you end up at Liam’s, anyway?”

Harry explains the CCM party and the fiasco with picking up Louis—omitting the part where Louis already knew Harry and hated his guts—skipping ahead to the part where Louis emptied the contents of his stomach onto Harry’s feet and Harry phoned for a ride home.

“Oh, yeah I think that’s the roommate who hooked me up with Liam for swim lessons,” Zayn rubs his index finger around the rim of his cup as he thinks on it. “And I’ve seen him around the arts building before. Short-ish brunette guy with the stag on his arm?” Harry nods. “Yeah, no I’ve definitely seen him walking with Liam before. Kind of…loud.” Zayn wrinkles his nose at that last part.

This is why Harry loves Zayn. Well, not loves loves, obviously. Just. Like…Harry shakes his head as if he could physically dislodge the thought from his brain. He knows what he means, for heaven’s sake. Harry doesn’t need to explain his own mental wording to himself.

“Yeah, that’s Louis,” Harry says distractedly. “Wait, is Liam an arts major?”

Zayn shakes his head. “He’s just in there with this music major, Niall. Amazing guitar player. I hear him in the practice rooms, sometimes. Surprised you haven’t run into him yet.”

Harry shrugs. Even if he has seen Niall around, it’s not like he’s ever spoken to any of the other music students.

“You’re feeling better about swim lessons, then?” Harry says. “You and Liam seem friendly.”

“Yeah, definitely. Got another one on Monday, even. Liam’s a great teacher.” Zayn gets this soft smile on this face as his eyes drift from Harry to the window behind him.

Harry has a gnawing sensation in his core about Zayn’s sudden distant gaze, afraid of what it might mean, afraid if Harry thinks too hard about it he’s going to have to address a potentially friendship ruining suspicion, loneliness be damned. 

Another weakness Harry’s going to have to beg forgiveness for when he’s in church later.

But that’s later.

“Well, I’m glad it worked out okay.” Harry shifts slightly in his seat so that he intercepts Zayn’s line of sight out the window. Zayn gives a distinctly brought-back-down-to-Earth shake of his head, which Harry does not feel the least bit guilty about. Does not.

“Me too,” Zayn says. “Sorry your fear of parties wasn’t brought to rest quite as well.”

“Meh, no great loss,” Harry admits. “An excuse not to go again, if I need one.”

Shortly thereafter, Zayn has to get back to his painting and Harry fabricates some urgent homework he has to get working on this afternoon and they part ways. On the whole, Harry would say that he’s feeling significantly better about the state of his friendship with Zayn. It seems that no matter what faux pas he commits, Zayn is, for some utterly unfathomable reason, still willing to be Harry’s friend. Which only makes Harry want to cling that much tighter to his companionship.

When he makes it back to the church, it seems like pretty much everyone from noon mass has cleared out, and Harry breathes a sigh of relief. But just as Harry is about to dip his fingers in the holy water, who should emerge from the doors to the main church but Selena.

“Harry. Hi,” she says and hooks her thumbs in her belt loops. “What’re you up to?”

“Nothing,” Harry blurts, unsure why he feels so put on the spot and promptly feels stupid. Obviously he’s not doing nothing. And lying about prayer doesn’t seem like very pious. “Wanted some time alone to think,” he amends, and prays fervently Selena doesn’t ask why he can’t do that in his own room or something. If she does, he might have to conjure up a fake obnoxiously loud roommate. More lies.

Apparently the Lord is gonna let this one slide, though, and Selena doesn’t offer any follow-up questions. “Cool,” she says. “Hey, sorry if last night was like, overwhelming. You didn’t have to come if you didn’t want to. Seriously.”

Aaaaaannd cue the renewed waves of guilt, but unless Harry is seriously mistaken (which he very well might be, knowing his people skills) Selena doesn’t even look offended. Harry imagines that if he had this encounter with Demi, there would be a hand over her heart and a puppy-dog pout on her face. Selena, on the other hand, is cool as a cucumber. Like she honest-to-God wouldn’t have cared if Harry didn’t show up if he didn’t want. Harry’s not sure if that makes him feel better or worse.

“No, it was…” Harry tries to come up with a word that isn’t a synonym for “awful.” He settles for pointing out the one positive development of the night: “I got to meet Liam.”

Selena perks up. “Oh, right,” she says. “I’m glad Liam decided to come, haven’t seen him in ages. Friendliest guy ever, am I right?”

“Yeah, I like him a lot,” Harry says honestly.

One corner of Selena’s smile tugs up a bit further. “Yeah? I thought you guys hit it off.”

Selena’s coy tone and accompanying smirk grab Harry’s insides and give them a sharp twist. He opens his mouth to respond but the words are all bunged up in his throat. When he finally dislodges them, a sharp, “No” is what makes its way out first. “No, it’s not like that. I’m not like that,” he snaps.

Selena actually shifts her weight into the other hip to lean away from him. “Whoa. Chill.” Even in the face of Harry’s obvious distress, she’s even-keeled as ever. “Didn’t mean to upset you.”

Harry swallows and tries not to cry. “Sorry,” he says, even though he’s not the one who has anything to be sorry for, because he wants this encounter to be over.

“No, I was wrong to assume.”

Which, Harry thinks, must be Selena for “sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Harry says, like her slight misconception isn’t going to send him spiraling into a mild depression for the rest of the afternoon. “I’m gonna…go.”

And with that graceful exit, Harry steps around to duck into the main sanctuary. He slides into a pew in the very back and waits until he hears the door close behind Selena before letting himself cry.

Is he that obvious in giving off…gay vibes? Is there a sign plastered on his back that says “I’m a fag”? Because really. No matter what Harry does, no matter how he dresses or how little he speaks, no matter how vocally adamant he is against homosexuality (both in regards to himself and others), Harry can’t seem to stomp out the persistent suspicion that he’s…like that. His youth minister saw it. His parents must have seen it (or at least, seen something of it), given that they took Harry’s youth minister’s word for it before even talking to Harry, Selena saw it…God knows who else has seen it and not even told him.

All Harry wants, all he’s ever wanted, since he first began to suspect himself and especially since the afternoon his parents sat him down in the living room with a camp pamphlet, is to make. This. Go. Away. It was supposed to be different after camp. He was supposed to be different. They promised. God promised. Why does it seem like the harder he tries to put this all behind him, the more the universe keeps throwing it in his face?

“Please,” he means to say, but in the midst of crying he can’t quite get his vocal cords to work and he only manages to get some salty tears in his mouth. Gross. Harry doesn’t even know what he’s asking for—something, anything to make this itch under his skin go away, the itch to be clean and good and crush himself because he isn’t.

Harry doesn’t realize he’s full on sobbing until there’s a hand on one of his shoulders and he takes notice of the fact that his whole torso is heaving up and down. He jerks out from underneath the hand and looks up in abject horror, absolutely mortified that he’s been caught in this state. By Selena, no less, who Harry was a hundred and ten percent positive had left.

“Hey,” Selena says with her hand still held out in front of her like she doesn’t want to spook him. Any more than she already has, anyway. “I thought I heard—so I wanted to make sure you were okay. Clearly…”

Not, Harry thinks miserably. He has the urge to order her away, but he doesn’t trust his voice just yet. When Selena invites herself to take the seat beside him, Harry swallows back a sob and says nothing.

“Is this because of what I said?” Selena ventures, and Harry is glad that she looks ahead at the alter instead of at him because he’s sure his face crumples. If God has any mercy left for Harry, the floor will open and swallow him up.

“No,” Harry says, utterly unconvincingly, and gives a wet sniff. God, crying is disgusting. Selena turns her head to give him a frank look.

“Really.”

Harry digs the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Maybe,” he says again, giving up on the lie. Harry would think with all the evil inside him that he’d make for a better liar, but he never has.

Selena props an elbow on her knee and rests her chin up on the palm of that hand to look at him sorrowfully. “I didn’t realize it was such a sore topic and I’m sorry I upset you.”

This is his worst day. Well, no, that’s not even close to true. Harry’s had a lot worse, but still. This is pretty bad. Harry wants to rebuke her, say it’s not a sore topic, because for it to be a sore topic it must mean that Selena hit close to home, that he is—or at least was...but how can Harry possibly deny her statement, when the evidence is right there in the snot and tears on his face?

“Sorry that I’m…” Harry waves a hand over his present state of disgustingness with a grimace.

“Apology unaccepted, because that is a ridiculous thing to apologize for,” Selena says flatly. “Seriously. Cry away. Can’t be any worse or any wetter than the last time I comforted Demi through a breakup. When that girl cries, she puts monsoons to shame.”

Harry gives a wet snort and wipes his nose on his sleeve. Definitely gonna have to do a load of laundry when he gets home. “Could you not…could you not tell anyone about this?”

“I’m insulted you even have to ask,” Selena says airily, in a way that makes it difficult for Harry to tell whether she is actually insulted or not. Regardless, Selena drapes an awkward arm around Harry’s shoulders while he sits there sniffing pathetically. When he’s quieted down, she says, “Sorry, you totally wanted to be here alone and I’m crashing your prayer party. Want me to duck out?”

It’s the most graceful request for dismissal that Harry’s ever heard. “If you don’t mind,” he says. He’d rather be alone now, anyway, but says, “Thanks for checking on me.” Harry means it, too. Mortification or no, it means something, at least, that Selena came back for him.

“Of course.” With that, Selena withdraws her arm and takes her leave.

***

When Louis arrives at the front desk later that evening, Harry is already in position behind the computer. He glances up briefly when Lou’s shadow passes over the desk and then quickly looks back at the screen without saying hello. Louis indulges himself in an eye roll because there’s no Liam around to reprimand him, and flops down in his own seat, kicking off his (well, Liam’s) shoes. A quick glance over at Harry’s screen shows that he is, in fact, working on an essay tonight and not just feigning busyness to avoid interaction with Louis.

Louis has just unzipped his backpack to pull out a book when he hears Harry’s accusatory “You ruined my shoes.” Louis shoots a glance up at Harry, who’s frowning down at his hands on the keyboard and feels a pang of annoyance. Why didn’t he just wash the damn things? “I really liked those shoes.”

Which sounds so wholly pitiful that Louis’ sense of annoyance is dangerously close to morphing into pity. Louis steels himself against that twist of emotion with good ole tried and true sarcasm. He clears his throat and declares, in the airiest of mocking voices, “I say unto you, ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal’—or, you know, wasted college kids regurgitate Papa Johns meat-lover’s pizza all over them.”

Harry looks scandalized, but Louis would bet his left eyebrow that he’s secretly impressed (a wager Louis does not take lightly, having had said eyebrow waxed off with duct tape by his best friend Matt after losing a bet in the eighth grade).

“Did you just quote the Bible at me?” Harry demands, all righteous indignation.

Louis shrugs. “What, you think every copy of the New Testament has some sort of built-in fag repellent? I’ve perused.”

Harry pales and fish-mouths for a second and then lowers his eyes again.

Louis smirks.

“You’re not even going to say that you’re sorry?”

It takes Louis a second to catch up to the fact that they’re back on shoes.

“Well, I could,” Louis muses, opening up to the page he has marked with a sticky note in his Linear Algebra textbook, “but I’m not sure how convincing I could make it sound. I’ll probably just spare myself the breath.”

“You’re kind of a jerk,” Harry mutters.

Louis blinks and almost bursts out laughing, because he probably hasn’t been called a “jerk” since…like, the second grade. If he comes back with a snarky retort, is Harry going to call him a butt-head?

Oh, does Louis hope so.

“Excuse me, but if you take careful inventory of all our past encounters, I think you’ll find that you’re the one who’s constantly being an asshole to me,” Louis says.

Harry doesn’t respond to that, which Louis takes as a sign of concession. Louis enjoys his victory in smug silence.

At least, he does until Liam shows up about an hour later carrying a couple of foil trays and a stack of paper plates. Louis perks up at the smell of food.

“Liam, my favorite person in the whole wide universe,” he gushes as Liam sets his mysterious, wonderful smelling cache up on the counter. “For me? You shouldn’t have.”

“I didn’t.” Liam frowns. “We had a team dinner tonight, and I'm bringing leftover pasta back to the apartment. Stopped by to see if you might have any idea where my sandals wandered off to? I couldn’t find them when I left for the pool earlier.”

Louis kicks the offending shoes under the desk. “Nope, no idea. Sorry.”

“So if I look behind the desk right now, I’m not going to find my Adidas?”

Louis suspects that if he comes clean now there might be pasta in it for him later. “You caught me. Sorry. I’ll ask next time.”

“Yes you will.”

“And you’ll keep Niall from eating all the food before I get back to the apartment?”

“That might be challenging.”

“I have faith in you.” Louis puts his hand on Liam’s shoulder. “If anyone could fend off that bleach blonde vacuum until I get off work, it’s you.”

Liam scoffs, but Louis can tell his absurd endearment is warming Liam to him despite any shoes he may or may not have stolen. The thing about Liam is that he likes to be included, likes to feel needed even if it’s only for small stuff like saving some food for his roommate. Regardless of the fact that Liam is basically a golden retriever puppy in human form, Louis knows he had a tough time of it in grade school. And since it's common knowledge that Louis is the kind of person who has zero problem tearing people apart when they displease him, and only hands out compliments when he really means them, Louis likes to give reassurances that Liam is important.

But since Louis is also not the kind of person who goes around spouting off “you is smart, you is kind, you is important,” he has to mete out his reassurances in far sneakier ways. Like entrusting Liam to defend some spaghetti and meatballs for him. Or maybe pesto. Or macaroni and cheese. If Louis could actually see inside the tin…

He’s getting off track. In fact, Liam isn’t even looking at him anymore. His eyes have flicked over to Harry, who looks like he’s steadfastly ignoring the conversation going on over his head.

“Hey, Harry,” Liam greets and Harry’s head jerks up like he hasn’t been able to hear everything they’ve been saying anyway.

“H-hey.” Still, Harry looks genuinely startled that he’s being addressed.

“I was wondering whether you wanted to hang out and study tomorrow night,” Liam says, slumping against the counter with distinctly forced casualness. Bless him. “We didn’t get much of a chance to actually chat yesterday, with the people and music and—” Here, he gives an unceremonious jerk of the head towards Louis which, hey now. Uncalled for. “We could meet up in one of the library study rooms?”

Given Harry’s literal jaw drop of surprise, Louis would hazard a guess he doesn’t have much experience accepting invitations. Not that Louis has any trouble guessing why that might be, but his coworker’s inordinate surprise is prodding the vestiges of that pitying sensation Louis was starting to feel earlier. He firmly instructs his conscience to stop that.

“I—yes, please.” Harry nods so quickly Louis thinks he must be dizzying himself. “I mean, yeah. That would be awesome. Thanks.”

Liam looks a little bowled over at Harry’s enthusiasm but satisfied nonetheless. “Great. I’ll text you time and place tomorrow? I got your number off Zayn already.”

Harry’s eyebrows shoot, if possible, even further up his forehead, but Louis is wholeheartedly unsurprised by this revelation. Since their swim lesson on Friday, it seems like Liam’s done little but text Zayn. Or maybe that’s just because he’s done little but talk about texting Zayn: when he should text, what he should text, how he should text—does Louis think Zayn thinks emojis are stupid or cute? Louis isn’t sure why Liam would think he has the slightest idea.

Liam’s raving only redoubled after he apparently ran into Zayn unexpectedly on their porch last night. Louis almost regrets getting blackout drunk on the grounds that he missed an opportunity to see Liam and Zayn interact in the flesh, because he can imagine Liam’s awkwardness but seeing it would be a different treat altogether. Louis wasn’t even been able to fully enjoy hearing about it because he was bent double over Myrtle’s backseat with a washcloth and carpet cleaner for most of today’s installment in the Liam and Zayn’s Epic Blossoming Romance saga (copyright pending). As it is, Louis finds himself hoping that their swim lesson tomorrow culminates in a heated make out session or something of similar caliber, otherwise Liam’s liable to explode of unresolved sexual tension. Louis realizes that this is all thanks to him and his post-it notes—hold the applause, please—but if he’d known that every conversation with Liam after orchestrating the swim lesson situation would be dripping with such Zayn-centric adoration…who is he kidding, Louis still would have done it. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s only been two days and Louis can only stomach so much second-hand pining. Besides, with Liam and Niall’s attention so narrowly focused on the objects of their affections, Louis is feeling a bit attention deprived at home.

His dry spell definitely needs to be over now, please. What ever happened to finding some doe-eyed freshman to seduce? Louis has been so focused on his friends and Spectrum and classes that, remarkable as his fifteen year old self would find it, his libido has taken a backseat to more important matters. Honestly, the last person Louis can even remember looking at with that kind of, ah, appreciation, is Bambi Legs over here, and look how well that turned out.

Speaking of Harry, he and Liam are hashing out plans for their study session tomorrow night and Louis’ just been standing here staring at the counter, entangled in his own thoughts. He hears Liam say, “See you at home, Lou,” and lifts his hand in farewell.

When he looks back around at Harry, Louis finds him watching Liam walk away with a small smile on his face. Liam’s unprecedented kindness can have that effect on people, and it’s strange to watch that kind of post-Liam glow on the face of someone that Louis doesn’t like. Louis knows that Liam wants him to give Harry another chance, but if you ask Lou, Harry’s had plenty of chances to say, “Hey, sorry I was a bag of dicks to you when we first met,” and he hasn’t. Louis has experienced his fair share of waiting around for homophobes to see the light and spoiler alert, it's not a pleasant experience. You don’t go through the kind of betrayal Louis has and come out as naive and trusting and “oh, if you just give them time, they’ll come around” as you were before.

For a fleeting moment, Louis entertains the idea of telling Harry that Liam would very much like to have sexual relations with Harry’s friend Zayn, just to see the look on Harry’s face...before he realizes what he was just considering and is immediately disgusted with himself. Louis is the president of Spectrum, for fuck’s sake. He is not the kind of person who goes around outing his friends for his own vindictive pleasure. That’s not—no.

Louis sighs and slouches back in his chair, feeling a storm of guilt brewing in his stomach. Dammit.

Maybe that’s why Louis seeks out Liam the following evening in Liam’s usual library spot: a nook off the third floor—the quiet floor, gross—with a big window that overlooks the quad in front of the student center and a fake fern residing in the corner. Liam is standing in front of the white board on the wall, drawing out some diagram, while Harry is curled over a book on his lap. As soon as Louis drops into the opposite chair, though, Harry’s head snaps up and his eyes go round. He really needs to stop being so shocked to encounter Louis when he’s around Liam and vice versa.

“Louis?” Liam looks at him like he thinks Louis might be lost. That’s fair. It’s rare Louis makes it into the library, let alone up to the third floor. “Are you studying here?” he whispers.

Louis snorts. “As if. Perrie and I are going to bake some M&M cookies for tomorrow’s Spectrum meeting and I wanted to get your list of attendees from last week, to know how many we should make.”

“Oh, yeah of course.” While Liam goes digging through his backpack, Harry stands up with the quiet announcement, “Bathroom” and hurries off. Louis catches Liam watch Harry’s retreat from behind the front flap of his accordion folder. “Wow, Niall was right, He really is terrified of you,” Liam remarks quietly before turning his attention back to the task at hand. Liam isn't one to use an overt "judging you" tone, but still. Louis can pick up on Liam Disapproval from a mile away.

Louis brings his hands up in a defensive pose. “How am I the bad guy, here? I’m about to go bake cookies for my friends—plus a bunch of people I don’t know. I'm practically a saint.”

“I'm not saying you're a Disney villain, Lou.” Liam draws out the sign-up sheet and hands it over. “You just tend to make snap judgments about people, and I think there might be something more going on here than meets the eye.”

Louis is taken aback by that uncharacteristically cryptic statement. “What now?”

Liam just shakes his head like he’s bound to silence by some invisible power. Louis would like very much to stick the pencil laying on the table up Liam’s nose.

“Nothing, just something Selena mentioned to me. Forget about it.”

If there’s one thing Louis definitely won’t do now, it’s forget about it. But first off, “Who?”

“Selena. Friend of Demi’s.”

“And what did she say about Harry?”

“She told me not to tell anyone.”

“Tell me,” Louis instructs, picking up the pencil and pointing it at Liam imperiously. “Tell me tell me tell me—”

Shh,” hushes some unseen student from behind a nearby book case. Seriously, fuck the third floor.

“Well, since you still seem to be so buddy-buddy with Styles, I take it he hasn’t attempted to jam his ideology down your throat yet,” Louis says conversationally, twirling the pencil between his fingers.

“No,” Liam says primly. “We talked about the upcoming CCM fundraiser, and swimming a bit, and Zayn—”

“About how you’re in love with him?”

If looks could kill, Louis would be dead three times over right now.

No.” Liam turns florid. Serves him right for keeping secrets from Louis. “I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable.”

“Is that it?” Louis teases. “Not because you’re embarrassed to admit that you fawn like a teen girl over a famous boybander?”

“The point is,” Liam says, well, pointedly, “that he hardly talks about himself at all. Like, actively avoids it. I've been trying to get him to open up all night and the most I’ve found out about the kid is that he likes to play piano. And I only know that because I asked how he met Zayn.” Liam huffs. 

“I still say the real litmus test for your new friendship is telling him that you’re into dudes,” Louis says with a shrug. “Until you do that, I will not consider your opinion valid.”

“Oh, I have no doubt he’d react badly,” Liam says, “but I don’t want to risk scaring him off just yet.”

“This feels sneaky,” Louis says, unsure whether he disapproves or feels proud of Liam’s tactics.

“It is,” Liam admits, looking guilty.

Proud, for sure. “So you’re going to trick him into being your friend and trusting you, only to spring the fact that you’re queer on him…later? Like some sort of gay Trojan Horse?” Louis feels like there’s a sex joke in there somewhere but he’s too distracted with the bizarreness of reality to address it properly. “Because of what Selena told you?”

“Exactly.”

“You do realize I’m not going to leave you alone until you tell me what’s up,” Louis warns.

“Okay, fine.” Liam might be able to best Louis in any physical altercation no sweat, but he crumbles surprisingly easily under the heat of an intense gaze. “Not here, though. I’ve seen Harry walk past behind that bookshelf like, three times since we started talking. I think he’s waiting for you to leave.”

Louis swipes the sign-up sheet and stands. “I’ll eagerly await your report at home, then.” He flicks a salute and saunters off to meet Perrie.

Chapter Text

When Liam arrives home later, around one in the morning, he looks nothing short of exhausted.

“Have you been in the library all this time?” Louis asks, glancing over at the kitchen stove. Louis himself has been hard at work on Linear Algebra since about eleven with no end in sight, but Liam’s arrival might provide a much needed break.

“Yeah.” Liam drops his backpack at the door and sinks into his armchair. “Pollard’s class is killing me.

Louis hums sympathetically. “It’s only been like, two weeks. School isn’t supposed to be this much work yet.” He gets up to pour Liam some of the tea he made for himself earlier.

“I know. I think I was the last person in the third floor. Thanks.” He takes the tea gratefully from Louis.

“Harry didn’t stay with you into the wee hours of morn?”

Liam inhales the steam rising off his mug and shakes his head. “Nope. Left for the practice rooms around ten.”

“Practice rooms?”

“Yeah, he plays piano, remember?”

Louis shrugs. If there are things in this world besides Linear Algebra problems he will have surely forgotten them all by morning. “Sure. Speaking of, you were going to tell me something about Harry when you got home.” Louis picks a cookie out of the Tupperware container he and Perrie filled earlier in case he needs some leverage for bribery.

Liam looks torn, like he was hoping Louis wouldn’t remember and he could get away without spilling the beans. Poor, foolish Liam. He should have known better. Louis cocks an eyebrow and holds out the cookie.

“Okay.” Liam takes the cookie with a guilty expression. “But you cannot breathe a word of this to anyone else, because Selena wasn’t even supposed to tell me.”

“What is this, the third grade?” Liam looks so deadly serious that Louis laughs. “Secrets secrets are no fun, Liam.”

“I’m serious, Lou. Just, be cool, okay? I wouldn’t even be telling you if I didn’t think you might be able to help.”

“Liam I swear to god if you don’t just tell me right now—”

“Selena thinks that Harry might be in the closet,” Liam says all in one breath and actually squints his eyes shut toward the end like he’s jumping into a body of cold water.

Louis blinks. “I’m sorry, but what?”

“Like, way deep in the closet. Running-around-an-enchanted-forest-with-a-faun-and-some-talking-beavers deep. Obviously. But she made me swear not to tell anyone.”

Louis closes his Linear Algebra book and crosses his arms over it, leaning forward to rest his chin on a forearm. No way he’s getting his attention focused back on math any time soon, now.

“Why would she tell you that?”

Liam shrugs. “I guess because she knows I’m in Spectrum. She asked me to look out for him, because it seemed like maybe he was going through some stuff that I could relate to? Being, you know, into guys.”

That clearly wasn’t the proper place to start, because Louis is still confused. “Start at the beginning,” he commands.

Liam sighs. “Apparently,” he says, emphasizing the word to highlight the fact that this knowledge is second-hand, “Selena made some comment about Harry and me meeting at the party that implied we were…romantically interested in one another.”

Just when Louis thought this whole situation couldn’t get any weirder. “…okay.”

“And then Harry got really upset and super defensive.”

“That doesn’t mean he’s closeted,” Louis dismisses. “He was probably just super offended someone mistook him for a fag.”

“No, Lou, not angry upset. Upset as in…” Liam mimes something like crying.

“Hmm.” Louis still isn’t sure he buys into this theory, but he doesn’t want to distract Liam from the story with an argument.

“Selena told Harry she wouldn’t tell anyone, but thought maybe I’d be better equipped to help him out than she would. Or at least, maybe she thought I might know someone in Spectrum who was.”

“Huh.” Louis tilts his head and frowns. “I don’t get why she would turn to some Spectrum kids instead of suggesting, like, spiritual counseling? Or confession? Or whatever it is they do.”

“CCM kids are more open-minded than you think,” Liam informs him. “When I went to a couple meetings with Demi freshman year I met a senior who identified as bi.”

“Really.” In Louis’ experience, religious people seem to have a pretty strict policy of “get straight or get out.”

“You can be queer and also believe in a higher power, Louis. They’re not mutually exclusive.”

It’s too late at night for Louis to have his world views questioned. It’s making him grumpy. But Louis can see why, at least, if Selena thought Harry might be Narnia-deep in the closet, Liam would be the person to go to for help. Speaking of…

“Wait, what did you mean about thinking I could help with this?” Louis says. Liam has apparently forgotten the very key point that Louis and Harry are nothing close to friends.

“Well, you’re the president of Spectrum, aren’t you?” Liam says. “You probably have more experience talking to scared underclassmen about coming out than Niall or I do—more than anyone except Perrie, maybe.”

“Ah, but even if Harry is gay--and I’m still only about three and a half percent sure I believe you,” Louis says, “what then? Shall I go up to him and launch into my self-acceptance and freedom of expression spiel? Or should I just skip ahead and give myself a good sock in the nose to save time?”

“What you should do,” Liam says, “is lay off, in case Harry isn’t the one-dimensional homophobe you’re convinced he is.”

“If he goes spouting off derogatory stuff I’m not gonna stand by and let him,” Louis shoots back.

“And how much derogatory stuff has he spouted off at you, since that one time in the quad?”

If there’s one thing Louis hates, it’s having to stop and think for a minute in the middle of a debate. Especially if said debate is against Liam, who’s quick enough to seize upon even a nanosecond of hesitation. 
“See,” Liam says, looking proud through his exhaustion.

“Tell the truth,” Louis says, because bickering is his thing, and dammit if he lets Liam get the last word. “How much of you cheerleading for Homophobe Harry is because you honestly think he’s some poor, self-denying, self-hating closeted gay, and how much is because you like Zayn, who likes Harry?”

“First of all, that’s not how liking people works,” says Liam, holding up his forefinger. “There’s no transitive property of liking people. But second,” he lifts another finger, “Zayn seems to think the kid is alright, and Zayn isn’t the kind of person who goes around making friends with just any old schmuck.”

Louis rolls his eyes, because Liam has known Zayn for all of three days, but doesn’t say anything because to breathe even the slightest bit negative notion regarding Zayn in the presence of Liam is as good as a death wish.

“Okay, okay. I’ll play nice at work,” Louis says. It’s not like Liam is ever there to see the way he acts, anyway, and Louis doubts even if he’s an utter ass that Harry would ever go tattling on him to Liam.

“Thank you,” Liam says smartly. “Now, I’m going to bed. Thanks for the cookie.”

“No problem.” Louis watches Liam disappear around the corner and looks woefully at his textbook. Math can probably wait until the morning. Louis has much to consider. Starting with the fact that he can't get the picture of a weeping Harry out of his head, and it's really fucking annoying how much that bothers him. 

***

“Whatcha looking at?” Perrie leans over Louis’ shoulder to get a better view of his web browser.

“Hey, privacy,” Louis chides, even though he really doesn’t care and makes no move to cover his screen. It’s about half an hour before the Spectrum meeting officially starts but the regulars and exec members like Perrie are already filtering in. Louis’ already set up the powerpoint—they’re talking about sexuality and body image today—and set out the cookies on the front table. In the intervening time, he’s been doing some googling on variations of “homophobic homosexuals” and has recently ended up on a page entitled “Internalized Homophobia.”

“Interesting,” Perrie says, eyes scanning the page and then flicking over to meet Lou's. “What’s this about, then?”

Louis recalls what Liam said about not breathing a word of last night's conversation to anyone. While Louis seriously doubts Perrie knows Harry or would care, Liam is sitting a few desks away and Louis is in no mood to be lectured about the sanctity of roommate secrecy. “Nothing, just doing a bit of research.”

“Think you’re suffering from internalized homophobia?”

Louis can’t tell whether Perrie is joking or not. He isn’t, and thinks it should be quite obvious to anyone who knows him, but Perrie is not one to joke about such matters.

“Someone I know,” Louis says. “Maybe. I don’t know. Liam thinks so.”

At Liam’s name, the boy in question lifts his head and looks around. Louis waves him down. “Nothing.” Liam looks suspicious, as if he thinks Louis might be plotting against him somehow, but returns to his work. Or texting Zayn. Whichever.

“Ah. Internalized homophobia, though,” Perrie says. “That’s sticky business. Attempting to counsel a friend?”

“He hates me, actually.”

“Stickier,” Perrie observes. “Well, if you need any help or support, lemme know.”

“I just—how do you even go about someone that’s dealing with someone like that?” Louis demands of his computer screen, Perrie, the universe at large. Louis’ already found a WikiHow on dealing with internalized homophobia in five simple steps, but he seriously doubts it really is as simple as that.

“Probably the most important thing,” Perrie says thoughtfully, “is to help remove the person from whatever toxic environment is promoting his self-hatred. Because this sort of thing doesn’t just crop up on its own, right? No one wakes up one day and goes, ‘you know what, I’m gay, and I think that warrants detesting my own existence.’ Someone—a religion, family, friends, whoever—has planted the idea in this poor guy’s head. Hammered it in, more likely.” Perrie punctuates that with a wince.

“Yeah, the guy is pretty religious,” Louis says, just to say something because he’s busy thinking.

“It’s probably also important to help that person establish a support system outside the culture that perpetuates that kind of thinking. Cutting yourself off from your main social network is brutally hard, especially if you’re just set adrift without anyone else to go to.”

“Mmm.” Louis has the sneaking suspicion that Perrie means him. “This guy hates me,” he puts out there, as a reminder, because Liam and Perrie keep seeming to forget that very key point.

Perrie shrugs. “Hey, you asked me how to help, and I’m telling you.”

Louis sucks his lower lip between his teeth and chews it pensively. “That sounds like work, though,” he whines. 

“Hello, Señor Presidente.” Perrie gives him a sharp poke in the shoulder. “You’re kind of the face of the out LGBTQIA community around here. I’d say this kind of thing comes with the territory.”

Louis heaves a put-upon sigh. Honestly, Louis really just doesn't want to consider that three and a half percent chance that Liam is right. Homophobia is hard to deal with, but Louis can make do as he has before (his sardonicism game has never been stronger). But this...this would be harder. 

“You know I’m right,” Perrie says before giving him a patronizing little pat on the head and strolling off to meet Dani, who’s just walked in.

In terms of being the most insufferable about being right, Louis would say Perrie could give Liam a run for his money.

***

Harry doesn’t know how he got roped into this.

Well, that isn’t true. He does know: Harry is a massive pushover. That’s how. But that’s not the point. The point is, now Harry has been roped into it and he’s viciously cursing his past self for letting it happen.

Harry’s been sat out in the quad behind the Kindness Calls table for a half an hour now and he still hasn’t worked up the courage to say hello to a single passerby, whom he is supposed to be accosting for charitable donations. Most people speed-walk past the table with earphones in or their eyes down at their phones, and the most Harry has managed is opening his mouth and getting out one half-hearted syllable before snapping it shut again.

Worst Friday afternoon ever. Zayn texted him earlier about hanging out and maybe grabbing a bite before Zayn ducked off campus for the evening for a gallery opening in town, but Harry had to regrettably decline. He’d already promised Demi on Wednesday evening that he would take a couple hour shift at the table. Harry would have to blame this one on straight up, pure Catholic guilt, because he’s not sure what else could have possessed him to accept such an assignment.

The only glimmer of light at the end of this otherwise abysmally dark two hour stretch is that there should be someone else coming to helping him out in a few minutes. Ariana, Harry thinks? He might be making that up, but he’s fairly certain that’s what Demi said her name was.

“She gets out of class about twenty minutes after your shift starts, so she should be joining you then,” Demi said, trying to convince Harry it wouldn’t be so bad. “I’m sorry she isn’t here tonight, otherwise I’d introduce you.” Demi cast a searching glance around the room like she hoped Ariana might suddenly appear from behind a floor lamp. “But she’s really nice, and very outgoing.”

Well, Harry supposes, they could probably do with some extroversion around here to balance out Harry’s crippling shyness. He just has to make it until she shows up and then hopefully it will be smooth sailing.

“Hello, Harry?”

Harry twists around to see who’s addressing him. He finds a girl crossing the lawn with one hand held up like a visor to shield her eyes from the sun and the other gripping the backpack she’s got slung over one shoulder. “Hi,” she continues without waiting for him to answer and drops her bag on the ground beside the seat to him. “I’m Ariana.”

Now that Ariana’s up close, Harry can get a good look at his partner for the next ninety minutes. She’s pretty, he thinks. Really pretty. The kind of leggy, doe-eyed pretty that’s supposed to make Harry go weak at the knees and fill his stomach with butterflies. Oh, Harry feels nervous, no doubt about that. But it’s just regular nervous, the kind he is around everyone, especially everyone new. How disappointing.

“H-hello.” Harry sticks out his hand, which Ariana takes in her own, loose at the wrist with her palm facing the ground like a princess out of a Disney movie. Harry isn't sure whether she intends him to shake her hand or kiss it, so he compromises by giving it an awkward squeeze and letting go too quickly. 

“Thanks for covering for me the first few minutes,” Ariana says as she takes her seat and folds one leg over the other, twisting ever so slightly to face him.

“No problem. Sorry I haven’t gotten much, um. Sign ups. Very many sign ups, I mean.”

“Really? I’m surprised,” Ariana says airily, pushing her thick hair back off one shoulder and flashing him a smile. “With eyes like yours I’m surprised people aren’t lining up down the sidewalk.” Then she winks at him. Winks at him. At Harry.

Harry, who is thoroughly flummoxed, casts his eyes down at the table and says nothing. Not exactly smooth, but infinitely better, he’s sure, than whatever would have come out of his mouth if he tried to speak at that moment.

“Don’t worry,” Ariana continues, adjusting herself in her seat so that she’s perched on the edge. “I’ve got this.”

And got this she does. By the end of an hour, Ariana’s gotten more sign ups than Harry could have hoped for in a week. All she has to do is lean over the table and look up at someone from under those long eyelashes and that’s that. Harry silently collects the money and doles out change while Ariana sweet-talks their customers into donating just a few more dollars because hey, it’s a good cause.

Well, at least she’s using her powers for good, Harry thinks. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of flirting.

Except when it’s directed at him, as it is whenever there’s a lull in foot traffic past their table.

“You’ve got dimples,” Ariana enthuses after wringing an extra fiver out of a wonderstruck freshman, to whom Harry gives a departing smile. The kid deserves that much, at least.

Harry startles. “Yes.”

“That’s so cute.” She gives him a smile, complete with a dimple of her own, and goes back to re-taping the posters on the front of their table.

“So, Dimples, what year are you?” Ariana asks.

“First year,” Harry says shortly.

“Oh yeah? What’s your favorite thing about college life so far?”

Harry wracks his brain, trying to come up with something interesting to say. He’s sure most people would answer “clubs” or “parties” or “all the new people” or something, but Harry can’t honestly answer with any of those things in case Ariana follows up with a more in depth question. “I like…being away from home,” he says, which is both true and not the lamest thing he could have said. Harry misses his mom, of course. A lot. But he definitely doesn’t miss being watched like a hawk—something she and Harry’s step-dad had a proclivity for, both before (and then even more intensely) after Harry went to camp.

“I totally get you,” Ariana says sympathetically. “My mom and I are not exactly simpatico. I think the best thing that ever happened for our relationship was me getting out of the house.”

“Really?”

“Yup. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all that.” Ariana smirks. “And when I’m not around to keep a dirty room right under her nose, or sneak in hours past curfew, or whatever, there’s less for her to be angry about."

Harry wonders if his step-dad will think of him more fondly, now that Harry isn’t around to accidentally slap him in the face with feminine tendencies. He doubts it, but it’s a pleasantly interesting thought to entertain, nonetheless.

Ariana continues a stream of small-talk chatter all the time they work, with Harry occasionally responding when he thinks the situation demands it, which thankfully isn’t often. Ariana has the gift of gab. Not in an annoying way, per se. Allowing her words to wash over him is better than awkward silence would have been. But when he sees Demi coming over, expression bright as the sun overhead, Harry would be lying if he said he weren’t looking forward to getting back to his own room for some much needed alone time.

“Hey kids,” Demi says. “How’d we do?”

“Almost eighty names from today,” Arianna says proudly. “Harry was a big help.”

Harry, for his part, just barely stops himself from letting his face slip into an incredulous expression.

“Knew he would be,” Demi says. If that isn’t a bald-faced lie, Harry doesn’t know what on Earth he did to give Demi that impression, but he sincerely regrets it.

“Thanks for partnering us up,” Ariana continues. “We had a good time.” She turns to Harry with a pout. “I’m sorry I have to dash off to ballet class after this, but we should definitely get together sometime soon.”

Really? Harry thinks. “Yeah, sure,” is what he says out loud, and Ariana beams. Demi beams too, probably fancying herself some sort of friendship matchmaker.

“Here, I’ll put my number in your phone.” Ariana holds out an expectant hand, palm-up, and Harry has little choice but to hand over his cell. He can’t help but feel apprehensive about this, though. Sure, Demi frequently steamrolls Harry with her enthusiasm and extroversion too, but her attitude seems…motherly, almost. Or at least big-sisterly. With Ariana, it doesn’t feel like that.

Ariana hands back his phone and says, “Don’t worry about giving me yours, I already texted myself.”

Harry looks down. So she has. “Great.”

“Harry, I’m going to take the cash box back to the Newman Center,” Demi says, “and when I get back would you mind helping me carry folding table and chairs back to the campus org services center?”

“Nope, that’s fine,” Harry agrees, though Demi has already taken the liberty of starting to pack stuff up.

Ariana slings her bag over one shoulder. “Until next time, Harry With the Dimples.”

“Bye,” Harry says, unable to come up with something cute and witty.

Demi watches Ariana until she’s a good twenty paces away, then over to Harry, to Ariana and back at Harry again, all the while a devious smile spreading over her face. “Well then,” she says with delight. And that’s all. No follow up.

“You just want me to watch the table till you get back from the Newman Center,” Harry says, trying not to sound pointed about it and not having much luck.

“Oh, yes. I’ll be back just as soon as I can. Hold tight. If you get someone who wants to sign up and donate, just tell them we’ll be back out here tomorrow from ten to two.”

Yeah, that’s probably not going to happen with just Harry behind the table again, but he agrees nonetheless. As Demi trots away with the cash box locked tightly under one arm, Harry can at least find some solace in the fact that he’s just got to sit here for ten more minutes. Fifteen minutes, tops, and then this is all over.

On the other hand, maybe just by entertaining that thought, Harry’s managed to jinx himself because here comes Louis Tomlinson. He’s got on the pink tank top Harry remembers him wearing the first day they bumped into each other at Target, the one that shows off his tattoos and toned arms and—Harry knocks the side of his ankle against one of the table’s metal legs to distract himself and lets out a squeak of pain. Fortunately, he thinks Louis might still be far enough away not to have heard. Harry blinks away the water in his eyes and fiddles his phone for something to do until Louis passes.

Or not. Someone stops in front of the table, casting a shadow over Harry’s papers. He doesn’t have to look up to see who it is.

“Hey.”

Harry tries not to look grumpy when he lifts his gaze from the table. When the heck could Louis want from him?

“Hello.” Harry mentally pats himself on the back for managing politeness.

“You guys still selling calls?”

Harry blinks. “What?”

Louis waves his hand over the table. “The Kindness Calls fundraiser. ’s what is says on the poster. You still open for business?”

“Oh.” Honestly, it didn’t cross Harry’s mind that Louis might want to purchase a call. Setting aside the incident with the homosexuality-promoting flyers, even based on Louis’ acerbic personality alone, Harry wouldn’t have pegged him for the charitable type. “Ah, no actually we just closed up shop for the day. We should be open tomorrow from ten to two, though.”

Louis pinches his lips together. “I’m actually gonna be at home visiting family tomorrow.”

Harry doesn’t know what Louis wants him to do about that, so he says nothing. Go away, he mentally orders-slash-pleads.

“You still have your sign up sheet, though,” Louis points out, rocking back on his heels.

Harry doesn’t roll his eyes, but it’s a close call. “Demi already took the cash box away. So.”

Louis shrugs. “I can trust you to hold onto twenty bucks, right?”

“I—” Harry means to ask why this means so much to Louis, but what comes out is, “twenty dollars?” because no one’s paid more than seven, even the weak-willed guys Ariana really turned up the charm for.

“Are you seriously interrogating me about donating to charity right now?” Louis snaps, and Harry’s mouth snaps shut. Louis runs a hand through his hair, disheveling the carefully styled quiff into a spiky mess. Harry tries not to find it cute, he really does. He ends up giving his tongue a sharp, painful bite to punish himself.

“Sorry,” Harry says—well, it comes out as shorry on account of his tongue. Fantastic, now his mouth tastes like pennies.

Louis doesn’t acknowledge the apology, just rummages in impatiently his wallet and whips out a bill. “Do you want my money or not?”

“I. Yes. Thank you,” Harry says. He hands Louis a pen and pushes the sign-up sheet towards him.

An uncomfortable silence descends over them as Louis starts to fill in the names and numbers of people he wants them to call, and picks out a message for each one. Harry itches his arm and fights the urge to bolt.

Apparently, Louis is even worse at dealing with uncomfortable silences than Harry is. “Sorry I’m in kind of a mood. Been a long week, you know?”

Harry’s a bit slow to respond, given that his brain might have just short-circuited. Did Louis Tomlinson just apologize to him? Louis glances up at Harry, who’s got an undoubtedly stupefied expression on his face. “Uh. Yeah, no worries.”

And then the craziest thing happens: Louis Tomlinson smiles at him. Smiles. At Harry. Crazier even than Ariana winking at him, by a long shot. If Harry’s memory serves, this is the first time Louis has ever smiled at him. You know, in a not-sarcastic way. Granted, it looks not a small bit forced and doesn’t quite reach the boy's (blue blue) eyes. But still. What the actual—? Pardon Harry while he picks up his jaw off the floor, please.

Maybe Louis is stoned or drunk or something. On all other counts, the boy appears to have his wits about him, but even so…If he hadn’t already snapped at Harry twice during this encounter, Harry would swear the boy wasn’t himself.

Louis lowers his gaze back to the sign-up sheet and Harry scrambles to think of something nice to say, just to solidify this moment of not-total-antagonism between them. “Thanks again for the donation,” he says quickly, hating how nervousness seeps into his voice. “That’s really, uh, cool of you.” Harry winces. Why does everything sound stupid coming out of his mouth?

Louis shrugs. “Yeah, well, the Sisters do great work,” he says. Then looks like he’s about to add something else, but decides against it.

“Definitely,” Harry says, mostly as a placeholder because the rest of his brain is snagged on what Louis just said. Louis? Is a fan of the Sisters of Mercy? But. Harry’s having a difficult time reconciling that with the rest of what he knows about Louis. He crosses and uncrosses his legs and picks at his fingernails.

Louis finishes writing and hands the money over to Harry, who takes it wordlessly.

“Later,” Louis says, no smile this time but he does give Harry a small wave of farewell.

***

“So,” Liam says when Louis walks in the door, putting a wedging a bookmark between the pages of the novel he’s been reading and setting the book on his lap.

“So what?” Louis toes off his shoes by the door and drops his backpack on the counter.

“I saw you at the Kindness Calls table on my way home from class.”


“Creep,” Louis says, only half-teasing. “I repeat: So what?”

“Were you nice?”

Louis rolls his eyes. “Yes, Liam, I was nice.”

“So you’re on board with my secret friendship plan?” Liam looks hopeful.

“No,” Louis says firmly, “do not consider this as me on board with your gay Trojan horse scheme.” Louis refuses to call it anything else.

Liam looks disappointed, then confused. “So then why were you talking to Harry?”

Louis shrugs. “Their flyer said the money was going to the Pregnancy Care Center. You know, the one run by the Sisters of Mercy.”

Liam thinks on that for a quick moment. “Didn’t you volunteer at one of those places in high school? Run by that same group?”

“Yup,” Louis says, popping the p. He turns away to unzip his backpack. “Maybe I’d get around to helping out at the one downtown if someone lent me their car every once in a while.”

He hears Liam chuckle. “Any time you want to take Myrtle out for a little community service, just say the word.”

“Serious?” Louis looks over at Liam.

Liam blinks. “Yeah, of course. You’re serious?”

Louis does a quick check of himself. “Yeah, I am. Maybe we could do a Spectrum service event with them or something. The place I used to go always needed help sorting and packaging donations and all that.” He shifts his weight from hip to hip under the weight of Liam’s bemused expression. “What?”

“Nothing,” Liam says immediately with blatantly false nonchalance. “Nothing. Just didn’t know you were so passionate about the cause.”

Liam shrugs and starts pulling out his homework so he doesn’t have to look at Liam. “At the place in my hometown they were really good to my mom, when she was pregnant with me, so.” That effectively shuts Liam up for a minute. There isn’t a whole lot Louis hasn’t shared with Liam at this point, but growing up, Louis always got the impression from his mother that this was a touchy subject she didn’t want tossed out in casual conversation, so it hasn’t really come up.

“We can talk about it at the next exec Spectrum meeting,” Liam says, already stepping up as the Man with the Plan. It’s kind of Liam’s move whenever he’s uncomfortable: formulate a strategy to mitigate the situation and associated awkwardness, and execute it as quickly as possible. “Myrtle and I’d be happy to cart volunteers back and forth.”

Louis shoots him a smile. “Thanks. That’d be cool. Could you get the contact info of whoever the CCM people are in touch with over at the Center from your friend?”

“Yeah, yeah of course.” Liam’s already rising from his chair and reaching for his laptop. After a moment of tapping furiously away at his keys, he asks, “How’s your family, by the way?”

“I’ll let you know Sunday,” Louis says.

“Oh, right.” Liam actually claps a hand across his forehead. “When am I dropping you at the train station tomorrow?”

“Eight a.m. sharp,” Louis says, pulling a grimace. An ungodly hour to be awake.

“Great, we can leave when I get back from my run.”

Louis shakes his head, mystified and grudgingly impressed in equal measure.

"Pack tonight so you don't have to worry about it in the morning," Liam advises.

"Yes, mom." Louis' mocking tone kind of loses its bite when he promptly heads into their bedroom to follow Liam's advice. It doesn't take long to pack up for a weekend trip back home. He stuffs a few (probably) clean shirts and shorts into a duffle and goes to forage for balled up socks in the bottom of the closet. He's not sure whether the ones he finds are his or Liam's, but he tosses them in the bag anyway. 

"Hey, Lou."

Louis retreats from his sock search and rescue mission in the closet to sit back on his calves and look at Liam. Who is hovering in the doorway awkwardly. This oughta be good.

"Yeah?"

"You were nice to Harry today."

Louis can't tell whether or not that's a question. "Yes?"

"Why?"

Louis huffs out a frustrated laugh. "You don't like it when I'm mean, you don't like it when I'm nice...There's just no pleasing you, is there?"

Liam crosses his arms and waits. 

Louis shrugs. "On the off chance that you're right. I mean. I've been there, a lot of my best friends have been there." He lifts a hand toward Liam in an Exhibit A type gesture. "And it sucks. It really, really sucks, and I wouldn't want to permanently burn any bridges for the kid. In case he ever..." Louis is about to say needs me but that feels too weighty for this conversation that Liam has snuck up on him. So he just kind of trails off into nothing and hopes that Liam understands.

Liam gives a satisfied smile and bends down to pick something up off the floor next to Louis' bed.

"Don't forget to pack Chester," he says, holding aloft the bear that Louis' had since before he can remember. Given to his mother by the Care Center, actually, but Liam doesn't know that. It's super soft and one of Louis' favorite things and Louis has already threatened Liam and Niall with slow and painful death, should they ever divulge Chester's existence to anyone ever. 

"Oh, thanks. Just put him in the duffel," Louis instructs. 

Liam does and then disappears back into the living room, probably to continue planning upcoming Spectrum service events. Louis collects the rest of his toiletries and some books he'll need for homework on the train ride home tomorrow and stacks them on the bed. Then adjusts Chester so that he's more comfortable in the bag before zipping it up. 

Chapter Text

Louis never stays at home for too long—usually just Saturday morning to Sunday evening. It’s not exactly an economical routine, given how much a train ride costs either way (a more substantial chunk of Louis’ paycheck than he can comfortably acknowledge). But he has few friends in town he still keeps up with, so he remains in the house for most of the duration of his visits. And thirty-six hours just about pushes the limit on the amount of time Louis can find his younger sisters’ exorbitant energy endearing rather than irritating.

In retrospect, Louis seriously doesn’t know how he made it through his formative years surrounded by such chaos twenty-four-seven without acquiring a permanent bald patch from pulling his own hair out. He’s just glad he made it out of there before anyone besides Lottie hit puberty.

So weekend visits are healthy lengths of time. Normally, Louis wouldn’t dash home less than a month after the start of fall semester, but this weekend was his mom and Mark’s anniversary and Louis thought they deserved at least a night out to themselves. You know, to eat at a restaurant where they don’t deliver cups of crayons to the table along with the menus.

They’d better have had the time of their fucking lives, too, Louis thinks as he spends most of the train ride back to school trying to scrub blue polish off his fingernails and ignoring the way the lady across from him keeps obviously wrinkling her nose at the prickly stench of remover. Rather unfortunate that there’s a strict policy against cracking windows in train cars. Louis breathes a sigh of relief when the train pulls to a grinding halt at their final destination.

As soon as Louis slides into Liam’s car at the station curb, Niall pops his head up from the back seat.

“Welcome back, family man,” he says. “How was your weekend?”

“I think I’ve maxed out my Disney quota for the next year,” Louis says as he belts himself in.

“Nonsense,” Niall snorts. “There’s no such thing as too much Disney. Josh and I were considering watching Up tonight.”

“Why would you subject yourself to that kind of emotional turmoil on an otherwise perfectly pleasant Sunday evening?”

“My point exactly,” throws in Josh, who Louis just now realizes is sitting in the back seat next to Niall. In the rearview mirror Louis sees their hands linked. “That’s why I voted for Tangled.”

“Well if you do decide to watch Tangled, at least extend me the courtesy of waiting to start it until after I’ve gone to work,” Louis requests wearily, resting his temple on the car window. “I’ve only just gotten ‘When will my life begin’ out of my head.”

Which of course prompts Niall to belt out, “And so I'll read a book, or maybe two or three!” with Josh joining in for the bit about adding paintings to his gallery with equal gusto.

Louis pulls his hood over his head. “You heartless bastards!” he cries, even though they’re really not doing much to plant the melody back in his head. Niall might know his way up and down the neck of a guitar like a pro, but his vocals leave a lot to be desired, effectively drowning out any tune Josh might be carrying. But what they lack in tonal accuracy, Niall and Josh certainly make up for in enthusiasm. Not even Liam bellowing that they’re distracting the driver does much to dissuade them, and Louis is subjected to a very noisy ride home. He can’t decide whether it’s made better or worse when Liam pulls out a CD booklet at a stoplight and pops in the Tangled soundtrack. To Louis’ “you traitor” look, he simply shrugs and says, “It’s a great song.”

When they get home, Louis flops down on his bed and contemplates unpacking. He decides against it.

“Long weekend?” Liam asks, thankfully closing the door behind him to partially muffle the sounds of Niall and Josh still singing “I See the Light” in atrocious harmony.

Louis flips himself over to lie on his back. “Mom and Mark went out, so I did some hardcore babysitting Saturday night.”

“Lottie wasn’t around to help?”

“No, she was on a date.”

“Ah.”

“Yup. Wouldn’t even let me meet the guy—she was out the door before he even pulled into the driveway. I think she was afraid I’d embarrass her.” Louis waits a moment and then says, “This is the part where you jump in and tell me that’s crazy.”

“You know I respect you too much to lie to you like that, Lou.”

Louis picks a balled up sock from his bedside table and chucks it at Liam without looking up to see if it makes contact. “Lottie, though. Dating.”


“Well, she is sixteen,” Liam says, “This can’t be a surprise.”

“No,” Louis admits. But Liam’s sisters are both older, so what does he know. He's never been through this particular big brother weirdness. When Louis first went away to school, Lottie was just a wee high school freshman and—Louis loves his sister, okay, but there’s no getting around it—she was still in the midst of her headgear days. So while Louis was around the house, the only boys Lottie had any serious romantic contact with were grinning out of the posters plastered up on her walls. It’s just weird, knowing life at home goes on without him. “I won’t be around to kick the ass of any guy who breaks her heart,” he laments.

“I’m sure Mark has any necessary ass-whoopings covered,” Liam assures him.

Louis can hardly argue with that. Marks is a good man, who practically raised Louis from the time he started dating Louis’ mom when Lou was only two. He’s also fiercely protective of his children, as Louis learned when he came home with a black eye in the sixth grade and Louis’ mom had to physically restrain Mark from marching down the street and putting the fear of God in that kid himself. Louis doesn’t think he’s seen Mark so angry since. Louis has no doubt that any boy who seriously hurt Lottie would need reconstructive dental work.

“Hopefully there won’t need to be any ass-whoopings,” Louis says. “But enough about my sister’s romantic life.” He grimaces. “How were things here?”

“Quiet,” Liam says. “Well, as quiet as they ever are with Josh and Niall around. Josh has been here since yesterday afternoon. I think Niall made him dinner.”

“Niall made dinner?”

“I think he heated up dinner,” Liam clarifies. “Frozen lasagna, maybe? Yeah, and then they just had a few drinks and watched a football game. I came into the kitchen around two to grab food and they were konked out on the couch.”

“How…domestic,” Louis comments. “How long have they been…” Louis still isn’t sure whether to say Niall and Josh are “together.” But then, he realizes, he doesn’t think he’s ever seen Niall seriously date someone, so who knows if he’d recognize it if he saw it. He just kind of assumed he’d eventually hear passionate love-making through a wall or walk in on them making out at some point. The usual type of awkward, unintentional roommate announcement.

Perhaps Louis should be concerned by this preoccupation he seems to have with his roommate’s sex life.

“I dunno. They hung out quite a bit when Niall was here over the summer,” Liam says, scratching his chin speculatively. “Has Niall ever been in a relationship?”

“Always struck me as more of a ‘free love’ sort of man,” Louis says, slightly mollified by the fact that Liam seems as bemused by the whole situation as he is.

If he's being honest with himself, Louis is probably only interested because he's jealous. He thinks it would be nice to have someone to make lasagna for. Is that to much to ask?

“What about you?” Louis says, because apparently he’s got an insatiable need to live vicariously through his friends. “How are things with Zayn?”

Predictably, Liam lights up like someone’s flipped a switch. “He invited me to meet him over at the arts building later to show me some of his paintings,” he enthuses, sitting up a bit straighter. “Stuff he’s in the middle of working on right now, and that’s a big deal because apparently he hardly ever shows off anything until it’s finished.”

Louis rolls over to prop his chin up on a hand. “This is an exciting development,” he says. Louis cheeks hurt just watching Liam smile that wide. Like a kid in a candy shop. Then, because Louis has to be sure, on the off chance Liam’s building himself up for a let down (and Louis—nay, the entire continental United States—doesn’t currently have a stock of Ben and Jerry’s big enough to ameliorate the kind of funk Liam would plummet into if that turns out to be the case): “And you’re sure that he’s into guys?” Because up until now Liam’s crush has been, well, a crush. Harmless. Ish. But standing on the precipice of an actual possibly-romantic situation is a wholly other matter, and dammit if Louis is going to let Liam walk blindly into said situation if there’s a gaping chance that Zayn won’t be interested.

Here, Liam’s smile curls into a smirk. “He may have casually slipped mention of an ex-boyfriend into textual conversation the other day.”

Louis fist-pumps the air.

“Yeah,” Liam agrees wistfully, all bright smiles again.

***

Louis is almost relieved when he heads off to work, ready for some peace and quiet—or even just a general lack of Disney music playing somewhere in the background—for the first time in nearly two days. What he isn’t ready for is Harry behind the desk, wearing a tentative smile when Louis walks up.

“Hello,” he says before Louis has even sat down. His voice is light, but Louis sees the way he’s rubbing his hands together and picking at that bracelet he’s always wearing. It seems to be a nervous tick of his, and if Louis reads the situation correctly, Harry’s greeting loosely translates to, are we good now?

This is what Louis gets for being nice. One borderline friendly conversation, and now this.

Louis should explain, lest anyone mistake his present cynicism for…antisocial-ness. Louis is not Michael. He doesn’t hate people just for the sake of hating them, and honestly? Half of Louis wants to smile back, because although Louis can hold a grudge with the tenacity of a bulldog--hell, does he have to say it?--because this kid is still Bambi Legs, the puffy-haired freshman with the big eyes that, under alternate-universe circumstances, Louis would probably have already done unspeakable things to. To make matters worse, those feelings are now tangled up with this strange detached sense of protectiveness that Louis is holding at arm’s length, the protectiveness he reserves for closeted kids who find his email address on Spectrum fliers and send him secret, shame-saturated messages seeking counsel, or hide in the back of Spectrum meetings unsure how to break into the established community.

That’s a very dangerous combination of feelings, especially when Louis looks at Harry’s tentative smile. If Harry continues his recent streak of not being a complete and utter dick, he could be a very, very easy person to like. And in the event that Liam and Selena have made some sort of gross miscalculation, succumbing to the dimpled charm of Bambi Legs would only end badly for everyone involved.

The short of it is, Louis is totally at a loss as to how he should treat this situation. Push Harry away as a precautionary measure? Follow Liam's advice and continue to be friendly? Interrogate Harry about his recent not-entirely-off-putting behavior and put an end to this mind-fuck once and for all? None of these options seems totally satisfactory.

Louis sits down and tries to act like he isn’t navigating a veritable minefield of social nuances right now. “Hey,” he says.

“How was home?”

Almost three full seconds pass before Louis’ brain catches up and he recalls mentioning his weekend trip to Harry at the Kindness Calls table on Friday. “Fine.”

Apparently, that exhausted Harry’s arsenal of conversation topics. Silence falls.

Louis sighs. Blame it on Harry’s baby-faced hopefulness, or a weekend with his sisters softening him up, but he ultimately breaks down and says, “How was your weekend?”

Harry jumps—literally jumps when Louis eventually speaks, he’s so startled. Jesus fucking Christ.

“Good, good,” Harry says, all eager to please. Then, clearly casting around for some way to elaborate, “Pretty quiet, you know?”

Louis is momentarily stumped for a response because that’s not much to go off at all. “Wouldn’t know, actually,” he eventually says. “I spent the weekend at home with my five younger sisters. ‘Quiet’ is not in their vocabulary.”

Harry laughs, and Louis can’t tell whether he actually thought that was funny, or whether he’s just trying to be as friendly as he possibly can be. Louis would put money on the latter. “I don’t have any siblings,” Harry says. “Always wanted some, though. Would have been nice to have a couple brothers to play soccer in the backyard with, growing up.”

Something about that rings false to Louis, but he decides not to call Harry out on it. “I used to play. Wasn’t very good, though. When Lottie joined the school team I used to help her practice. She would kick my ass.”

“Did you play any other sports?”

Louis shakes his head. “Quit soccer when I got to high school—thank god—and took up with the theater kids. Never looked back.”

Harry shifts in his seat like Louis hit a nerve. “Is that what you’re studying now, then? Theater?”

“Nah, math.”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess, uh.” Harry fists a clump of his hair. “Stupid question.”

Louis cocks his head to the side.

“Your books. The math texts,” Harry explains, looking embarrassed for some reason. “I guess a theater major wouldn’t have those.”

“Right.” A beat of silence. “Speaking of,” Louis says—it’s about time he extricated himself from this exchange, because this is the longest he and Harry have ever gone without snipping at each other and Louis doubts it can last much longer—“I’ve got a quiz coming up in comp sci tomorrow that I haven’t even started studying for, on account of my sisters.”

“Oh, sure. Didn’t mean to distract you.” Harry wastes no time whipping out his own textbook and turning away. Louis watches him nudge the mouse pad so that it’s perfectly aligned with the edge of the desk before turning to his own book.

***

“Morning,” Zayn greets when Harry drops into the chair across from him with a plate full of breakfast food. He doesn’t look up, but Harry doesn’t expect him too. True to his word, Zayn is not a morning person. Harry can respect that.

They meet for breakfast almost every day. Harry would have thought Zayn would be done with his pond project by now and have gone back to sleeping in, but Harry doesn’t dare mention it, lest he deter Zayn from continuing their new routine. Harry likes this routine. He likes not having to pretend he’s working on something at breakfast every morning because he doesn’t have anyone to sit with.

“Hello.” Harry digs into his eggs and bacon and starts running through his to-do list for the day in his head.

“Sorry I missed your text last night,” Zayn says, interrupting Harry’s mental scheduling. “I was with Liam and totally forgot to check my phone until I got home.”

Zayn seems to be spending a lot of time around Liam these days, if the number of times Liam's name comes up in conversation is any indication. There's also the fact that Zayn has apparently gotten over his initial self-consciousness about their friendship--he doesn't get defensive talking about Liam anymore, just gets that dopey smile on his face that Harry tries not to be jealous of. It's fine. Zayn can simultaneously be friends with both Liam and Harry. There's no evidence that Zayn is suddenly going to drop Harry just because he's found someone with the kindness of a nun, the physique of an Adonis, and two years' on Harry's age. 

Except Zayn didn't reply to his text, because he was too busy with Liam, apparently. Last night, Harry was left slightly wrong-footed after pulling off a whole civil conversation with Louis at work—well, it was more the fact that now that Louis wasn’t doing the verbal equivalent of throwing acid on Harry every time they interacted, Harry could take the time to fully appreciate Louis’ physical qualities that Harry would really rather keep ignoring. Much as the passivist in Harry is desperate to be on friendly terms with his coworker, he’s not actually sure if that would be for the best. For one thing, he and Louis have some pretty fundamental differences in opinion. Treading lightly around those differences for the time being isn’t just going to make them go away. For another, Louis is pretty much the embodiment of everything Harry isn’t supposed to want and isn’t allowed to have. Because there’s really no denying at this point that all the work Harry struggled to achieve at camp is rapidly coming undone like loose thread. Not that he'd admit that to anyone else. So. Distracting himself from fawning over a Louis who doesn’t entirely despise him is in Harry’s best interest, on all counts.

Hence the text to Zayn promptly after Harry got off work, to see whether he was still in the fine arts building and wanted to hang out. Unfortunately, Zayn was apparently too busy with Liam to answer, and Harry was left to go home to fold and refold his clean laundry. Then Swiffer his floor over several times, as if he could scrub the stress out of his body. Harry knows that it’s stupid to feel jealous. Of course Zayn has other friends besides Harry, must have lots of people that he prefers to spend time with and trusts more and likes more and maybe even talks about Harry with when Harry’s not around—

Harry shakes his head. Stupid. Stupid and paranoid, is what he’s being, and Zayn doesn’t deserve that. “It’s fine,” he says, and Zayn lifts his eyes to give Harry a long look, as if he knows Harry’s just playing it cool. In an attempt to smooth over this wrinkle in the conversation, Harry says, “How was the gallery opening on Friday?” even though he doesn’t know much about gallery openings in general and probably won’t have much to say on the subject.

“Alright,” Zayn says. “It was for a friend of mine, so I spent most of the evening surreptitiously talking up his work to possible buyers.”

“Any success?”

Zayn gives a modest shrug, which Harry takes to mean yes. Darn those eyelashes. Harry doesn’t know a lick about art but there’s a good chance Zayn could cajole even him into buying a piece. And probably overspending on it. “How was volunteering?” Zayn asks.

“Terrible,” Harry quips, and Zayn snorts. “We didn’t get a single sign-up until Ariana got there.”

“Who?”

“The girl I was working with.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, she could have done it all by herself. I don’t even know why Demi asked me.”

“Maybe she wanted to help you make a new friend.” Zayn is clearly tossing out this idea in a half-joking manner, but Harry wouldn’t put it past Demi. And Ariana had given Harry her number (and texted him twice already)…Surely it’s because Demi asked her to. That’s the only possible explanation. Harry might not be the most socially aware person, but he knows enough to be sure he left a pretty bland impression on Friday.

He voices as much to Zayn, who rolls his eyes and crooks the fingers of his left hand to say “give it here.” Harry hands over his phone, open to the conversation with Ariana, just three messages long, including the one Ariana sent to herself on Friday:

Harry : Harry’s number!

Ariana : Hey Dimples ;)

Ariana : How was your weekend??

Zayn smirks. “Dimples.”

“Don’t,” Harry says, intending for it to sound like a playful threat, but it sounds more like begging, even his own ears.

“A winky face, though.”

Harry swallows. “What, what does that mean?”

Zayn frowns like that’s a silly question. Heck, it probably is. “Kind of…flirty, you know?” he explains.

Ah-hah! Harry wants to do a victory dance, because this means he wasn’t totally off-base reading Ariana’s attitude towards him on Friday, and simultaneously wants to crawl under the table and curl up into a ball.

“You look like you just swallowed a spoonful of salt,” Zayn observes, eyes twinkling with mirth. “This isn’t good news?”

Harry tugs absently at his hair and tries not to look too desperate for some semblance of direction. “Should it be?”

Zayn shrugs. “That depends. Do you like her?”

Harry contemplates that. He doesn’t dislike Ariana, but a lack of distaste for a person hardly seems like grounds for dating them. “I hardly know her.”

“Well then, get to know her,” Zayn instructs, handing the phone back.

Like it’s that easy. Harry looks at the phone like it might bite him. He wants to take Zayn by the shoulders and demand What do I say? But, Harry reminds himself, this whole sort of…panic over romantic interaction…it’s very middle school, isn’t it? As an eighteen year old, Harry’s supposed to have this shit figured out already. He’s already given too much of himself away, revealing that he was thrown by Ariana’s winky face.

After a few more moments’ worth of inner turmoil, Harry resolves to type out, Relaxing, how about yours? and slips his phone in his pocket.

Harry spends the remainder of breakfast trying to convince himself that this is a good thing. There’s a girl texting him. A pretty girl, even. Who might like him. Sure, Harry might not have felt the spark of romantic interest when they were working together on Friday, but Harry was in a stressful situation. Like how he was able to ignore his abominable feelings toward Louis whenever the other boy was particularly mean to him (all the more reason to go out with Ariana and get his mind off those feelings, Harry tells himself firmly). Perhaps once Harry and Ariana are just hanging out, no pressure to solicit passers-by for their pocket change, some heterosexual feelings will present themselves.

But morale is low.

***

Morale is even lower when CCM concludes on Wednesday night and Harry has a date set up for Friday. The whole thing happens pretty much like the previous week’s volunteering recruitment did: the idea is suggested to Harry, by Ariana this time (but with Demi’s full support, if her squeeing is any indication), with Harry going along with it because hey, what else is he supposed to do? They’re going to see a movie on Friday. Harry can’t remember which one. All he knows is that the theater is within walking distance of campus, so they’re going to meet up at Ariana’s place at seven and go from there.

Morale is low because Harry’s been trying to dredge up some excitement for about an hour now and…nope. Still nothing. The one positive point of the evening is that Demi, in her excitement, immediately rushed off to find Selena and tell her the happy news of Harry’s date. Harry is resigned to his helplessness when it comes to their sisterly meddling and guardianship, but at least the pronouncement that Harry has weekend plans with a decidedly female person might help suppress some of Selena’s suspicions about Harry’s preferences. He can’t even think about that fiasco in the church last week without feeling like he’s blushing from the crown of his head down to the tips of his toes.

When Harry gets home, he kicks off his shoes and drops down onto the bed. He would head to the practice rooms but...oh, that’s another reason morale is low. Zayn told him this morning that he has plans to swim with Liam tonight, so there’s no chance of Harry running into him in the arts building. Playing piano might make him feel better, but Harry can't muster up the energy to make it all the way over there just to spend a couple hours by himself.

I have a date on Friday, he types out in a new message to Zayn, and then deletes it. Harry doesn't think he could handle the agony of waiting if Zayn took ages to respond. And besides, this shouldn’t be a big deal.

Also, in the not-unlikely event that the date goes poorly, that’s one less person Harry has to face after the fact. Yeah, it’s probably for the best if he just doesn’t tell Zayn.

Harry curls up on his side and calls up a different contact instead. He knows someone else who will freak out over this development even more than he currently is.

“Hello?”

Harry’s mother sounds tired, and Harry reminds himself that not everyone keeps the late hours of a college student. Especially his parents, who attend weekday mass before work.

“Hi, Mom.”

“Harry, love.” She sounds pleased to hear from him, despite the drowsiness in her voice, and there’s some shuffling on the other end of the line followed by the click of a closing door.

“Sorry for calling so late,” Harry says, picking at his thumbnail distractedly.

“No, that’s not a problem. You haven’t called in a few days. I was just saying to your father earlier that I hoped you were doing okay.”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Harry says. “Better than okay, even.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I um. I have a date on Friday.”

Harry’s mother makes some sort of startled squeaking noise that has Harry raising a fist to his forehead and clenching his eyes shut in embarrassment. “A date?” she says with poorly concealed surprise.

“Mm-hmm.”

“What’s her name?”

Harry might be imagining it, but he swears there’s a hint of emphasis on the word her.

“Ariana.”

“That’s lovely. Just so, so lovely.”

“Yup.”

“Well, where are you going? Tell me all about it.”

Harry bullshits his way through describing the date, since he only has a very tenuous grasp on the specifics himself, and his mother positively eats it up.

“That’s so lovely,” she keeps saying. “Absolutely lovely.”

“I’m kind of nervous,” Harry admits, because if there’s a single person on Earth he can admit this to, it’s his mother.

“That’s a good thing,” she says. “The nerves will keep you on your toes to act like a gentleman. And it means you like her.”

Harry doesn’t bother correcting her. He sits and listens patiently as his mother rattles off what he should wear, small courtesies he should extend like opening doors and pulling out chairs, the whole nine.

“I’m just so happy for you,” she concludes a few minutes later. Harry checks the timestamp on his phone. Seven minutes later.

“I’m excited,” Harry lies.

Just then, muffled dialogue on his mother’s end interrupts them. Harry hears an approximation of his own name and he word “date.”

“Your father’s happy for you too,” Harry’s mom says. “Here, I’m going to put him on.”

Harry doesn’t think that’s necessary, but before he can protest, his step-dad is on the line. “It’s late,” is the first thing he says.

Harry winces. “Yeah, sorry about that.”

“You’ve got a date this Friday?”

“Yeah, with a CCM girl,” Harry tacks on for good measure. And then just to score himself some manliness points, “She’s an upperclassman.”

Harry’s step-father grunts with…what might be approval. At least, it’s not disapproval.

“Make sure you pay for everything,” his step-father instructs. “Treat her respectfully, the way a man of God should.”

“I will,” Harry promises.

A moment of silence. “Call us and let us know how it goes.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

Then Harry’s mom is back on. “Harry? We’re heading to bed soon, but thanks so much for calling! Saying prayers to your guardian angel for fun and safe Friday evening!”

“Thanks, Mom,” Harry mumbles. “Love you guys.”

“Love you, too.”

Three low beeps sound in Harry’s ear to signal that the call has ended. He lies there with the phone on the pillow next to his ear for about thirty seconds before it occurs to Harry that his step-dad just extended the first ever explicit invitation to phone home…ever. This is how Harry knows he’s done something right. He hardens his resolve to make a good impression with Ariana and enjoy himself on his date.

***

Louis’ Wednesday night turns out to be much more eventful than he would have guessed when he left for a math study session with Nick two hours ago.

It goes something like this:

Louis flings the door open, prepared to give Liam an earful of complaints about Nick’s attitude because that kid is smart as hell and has a good heart, but he’s an asshole when he doesn’t understand something and gets frustrated.

Much to Louis’s surprise, only the desk lamp on the table next to Liam’s armchair is lit, on its dimmest setting, and at first it appears as if no one’s home. Then Louis notices the person—ah, wait, strike that. The two people on the couch. One pressed on top of the other, until the door Louis swung wide bangs into the wall. The person on top pops up and looks around.

It’s a very surprised, very red Liam, straddling an equally startled looking person Louis recognizes as Zayn.

Oh, so this is happening now.

Louis' just glad he made it back while everyone's still fully clothed. 

It’s ironic that this is the exact scenario Louis has been braced to walk in on for the past month, except every time he imagined it, it was Niall and Josh instead so he's still caught off guard. Louis supposes this is just as good. Better, even, because “Fucking finally,” Louis says. Liam turns, if possible, even redder. Zayn smirks like he’s unfazed but unless Louis is much mistaken, he’s blushing, too.

“You’re Zayn, I gather,” Louis says as he toes off his shoes.

“Er, yes? How...” Zayn looks to Liam, who’s apparently found something very interesting under one of his nails that demands immediate and undivided attention. No matter.


“I’ve lived with Liam for three years,” Louis says. “Your name’s come up a number of times.”

“Lou…” Liam groans mournfully, and Louis will pretend that didn’t just happen while his roommate was sitting crotch-to-crotch with a very attractive man.

Zayn is still looking between Louis and Liam awaiting an explanation.

“People I graduated high school with have earned Associate’s degrees and attained entry-level positions in the time that Liam has spent pining over you,” Louis informs Zayn, because although Liam looks like he’d very much like to leap out the window (and take Louis with him), this is important. Louis hasn’t endured two years of build-up to this moment only for Zayn to treat it like some casual make-out session, or quick fuck, or whatever. He needs to know what’s up.

“Two years?” Zayn demands of Liam, who still hasn’t met anyone in the eye. “Why the fuck didn’t you introduce yourself?” Zayn says, which Louis thinks is probably the closest he’s ever going to get to hearing the sappy “What took you so long?” staple line from cheesy rom-coms said in real life. Liam looks at the boy beneath him in surprise. Zayn actually bats him on the arm indignantly. “Two years?” This time in a blatantly flattered tone.

“He’s an idiot,” Louis agrees. “But he’s our idiot. I’m Louis, by the way.”

Zayn makes like he’s going to extend his hand for a shake, then apparently remembers that he’s still underneath Louis’ roommate, so this might not be the appropriate time. Louis doesn’t mind—god knows where that hand has been in the last few minutes. 
“Likewise. Now, I’m going to the bedroom to pop in some headphones and listen to whale calls on max volume, so feel free to continue about your business.” Louis winks at Liam before whisking himself away to the bedroom. After the door closes, he can hear some conversation on the other side, but has the self-restraint not to press his ear to the door. He’ll wring the information out of Liam later, anyway.

That doesn’t stop him from immediately texting Niall, who must be over at Josh’s, LIAM GOT THE GUY.

The response comes less than ten seconds later: just a series of exclamation points, followed by a gif of a champagne bottle popping open, followed by a selfie of Niall and Josh with their mouths in open smiles of delight.

It doesn’t bother Louis that he’s texting one couple about another couple getting together while he’s sitting in his room with no one for company but Chester. Not at all. And that's definitely not the reason Louis texts Nick about parties going on this weekend. Louis doesn't need anyone, thanks very much, but he is perfectly entitled to a casual hookup if he wants one. It's whatever. 

Chapter Text

“So you obviously have some explaining to do,” Louis says as soon as Liam returns from classes on Thursday afternoon.

Liam eyes him warily and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Can you grant me three seconds to put down my stuff before starting the Inquisition?”

Louis settles himself more comfortably into the corner of the couch and looks Liam up and down. “I’ll allow it.”

Liam gives a mock little bow and drops his backpack before sitting down in his armchair. Louis gives him until three-Mississippi before clearing his throat.

“Okay, okay.”

Louis knows Liam is humoring him on this—he doesn’t owe Louis an explanation. They both know he’s just saving himself the trouble of Louis annoying one out of him later by giving it up right away. “You don’t want to wait until Nialler gets here?” Liam checks.

“He’s recording this afternoon, won’t be back till late,” Louis dismisses. “Now talk.”


Liam props his elbows up on the arms of the chair and steeples his fingers. “What do you want to know?”

“Everything that happened between Nick and me leaving Spectrum to study, and me walking in on you sucking the neck of Zayn Malik with the zeal of a horny vampire.”

Liam wrinkles his nose. “God, Lou.”

Louis raises his eyebrows: I’m waiting.

Liam sighs. “Not much to tell, really. We’ve been hanging out a lot and texting each other, obviously. He just sent me a message the other night asking if I was free after the meeting and I invited him over. I figured we’d probably just make tea and watch a Tarantino film or talk comics or something, but one thing led to another…” Liam separates his hands to lift them both, palm up, as if to say “what can you do?” He looks so pleased with himself that Louis imagines he might simply keel over from happiness any moment.

“I just can’t believe after all of freshman and sophomore year, less than two weeks after you have your first swim lesson, ba-da-bing, you’re engaged in sock-on-the-doorknob-worthy activity in our living room.” Seriously, what is Liam’s secret?

Liam thinks on it. “I guess it probably helped that some of our first interactions involved me adjusting his bare torso and limbs to form a proper freestyle stroke.”

“Oh my god,” Louis tilts his head back and laments toward the ceiling. “How did you have that trump card for two years and not play it?”


“Well I didn’t very well know that he couldn’t swim, did I?”

Louis grins over at Liam. “And who, pray tell, was the Good Samaritan that dropped that opportunity in your lap?”

Liam rolls his eyes. “Louis—”

“Oh yeah, you're right, it was me. So, what you’re saying is, you owe all of your current romantic and sexual satisfaction to me.”

“Nope, that’s not at all what I—”

“Thanks, Liam. That’s kind of you to say. Just remember this moment, the next time you’re filled with righteous puppy anger over me meddling in some part of your life. Louis knows best.”

Liam snorts. “Yeah, I’ll keep that in mind.”

***

If Harry had to rate the success of his date with Ariana on a scale of movie-get-together-montage to disaster-on-par-with-the-eruption-of-Mount-Vesuvius, he would estimate it was an asteroid-impact-that-wiped-out-the-dinosaurs level failure.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. No one died. At least there’s that.

In fact, if you asked Ariana…maybe she wouldn’t say it was the worst date she’s ever been on. Harry doesn’t have many points of reference when it comes to bad dates— couple of junior high and high school dances and youth group mixers, exclusively with female friends. All Harry knows is that this date takes the cake for Most Awkward, among his very limited experiences.

It starts with Harry being late to pick her up. Harry is not late to things. He doesn’t do late. But today of all days he forfeits punctuality because when he turns on his shower in the morning, it’s absolutely freezing. Even after ten minutes of waiting for the spray to approach a temperature close to comfortable, Harry figures, no problem (yes problem, but Harry can deal), it’s probably just someone down the hall taking up all the hot water. He’ll just have to shower after class. It’ll mess up his schedule but at least he will be able to clean up before his date.

Except no.

When Harry gets back to his room later that evening, the hot water was still out. Harry considers his options. He could ask someone else on his hall to borrow their bathroom, but (a) Harry doesn’t know anyone else on his hall, and there’s no way Harry has it in him to request use of a stranger’s shower, and (b) if the hot water is out in his room, there is a decent chance it’s out in other rooms too.

Harry considers asking Zayn…but where does Zayn even live? Harry doesn’t know. It occurs to him that maybe he should know. Maybe that’s how you tell that you’re truly good friends with someone, if you’ve hung out with them outside a dining hall or an academic building.

In the end, Harry settles for washing himself in the sink, which is equally as cold but isolates the freezing water to the places he washes. It’s a rather awkward bathing experience—particularly the shampooing—and takes longer than Harry originally anticipated. By the time he's finished, he only has a half an hour to get his clothes ironed and on, dry his hair, go through his door locking routine, and get to Ariana’s place. He has her address, but still doesn’t know exactly where that is around campus. His heart is positively pummeling his ribcage with nerves.

When Harry finally arrives at Ariana’s, fifteen minutes past seven, he’s so flustered that he completely forgets to tell her how nice she looks, and only manages to return her greeting smile in a half-hearted fashion. While they’re walking to the theater—at a brisk clip because of Harry’s lateness—Harry only provides about 15% of the conversation because he’s so distracted by the backs of their hands brushing up against one another. Harry debates himself into a sweat over whether he should take hold of her hand or if that’s too forward. He settles the matter by stuffing his own hands into his pockets.

They make it to the movie just on time (some comedy flick Harry has never heard of) but not soon enough to snag seats together any further back than the fifth row. One thing Harry does remember Ariana saying on the way over is how much she dislikes sitting up front, because you have to crane your neck to see. Ariana assures him it’s fine, but Harry is dead certain that’s only to make him feel better and get them sitting as quickly as possible.

Harry tries to keep his mind on the movie and get himself to calm down already, you idiot, but there is no armrest divider between their seats, and Harry is once again left to panic over the prospect of handholding. He keeps his hands clasped over his lap, which only makes them hot and sweaty and further dissuades Harry from touching his date. Luckily, Ariana takes initiative by tilting her head to rest on his shoulder and tucking her feet up underneath herself, effectively curling up next to him. Harry gulps.

“Is this okay?” she whispers.

Harry just nods. Then, very slowly moves to put his arm around her. She seems to like that, and snuggles closer.

Harry’s liable to explode at any second.

Over the course of the movie, he hardly pays attention to the characters on screen. He laughs when other people do, louder when Ariana does, and “aww”s at all the right parts. Other than that, he’s focused on taking stock of every interaction between himself and Ariana and his resulting feelings.

A short summary of Harry’s data is as follows: ceaseless anxiety, accompanied by absolutely zero romantic interest. If Harry weren’t cuddled up around this girl, he might as well be at the theater with his mother. He keeps sneaking glances at her profile against the blue glow illuminated by the screen: her cute button nose, the upward swoop of her thick eyelashes, and the way her eyes get bright with moisture when the heartfelt scene between the two main characters comes up at the end. The music swells, she sniffles. Harry tries to be endeared, but…okay, this is really stupid, and it probably doesn’t mean anything, but.

Harry doesn’t even want to bring himself to think it.

It’s just that…he kind of wants to be the one curled up under someone’s arm.

Not Ariana’s, definitely not, but someone’s.

That’s surely not normal.

“What did you think?” Ariana asks when they emerge from the bowels of the darkened theater into the over-bright lobby.

“Funny,” Harry says. “I liked it a lot.”

“Me too.” Ariana grabs hold of Harry’s hand—how does she do that seemingly without a thought? “Who was your favorite character?” she asks.

Harry can’t recall a single name. “Um, I don’t know,” he hedges. “It’s hard to pick.”

Ariana doesn't notice. “Yeah, I know what you mean. The whole thing was really well cast.”

They continue on like that, exchanging fluffy nonsense that Harry pretends to care about, while they stop for ice cream on the way back to campus and eventually end up back at Ariana’s front door.

“I had a really good time tonight,” Ariana says.

“Me too,” Harry says, figuring if she’s going to lie, he can too. They’re standing on the porch under a bare florescent bulb that a fly keeps zooming towards and then ricocheting off with a soft bzzt. Ariana is looking up at him expectantly, and runs her tongue along her glossed-up lips. She still hasn’t let go of his hand. Harry can take a hint. The anxiety is almost blinding—it’s not like he hasn’t done this before ever, but certainly not since camp, so. The stakes have never been this high. And maybe it’s because of his desperation to get out of here, or maybe because he needs to get the final verdict once and for all--is he fixed?--but whatever the reason, in very non-Harry fashion, he just sort of…goes for it.

The kiss is less than stellar. Harry mentally forages around for some wellspring of passion to draw upon, but he’s pretty sure it feels to Ariana like she’s kissing a dead fish. He puts a tentative hand on her hip and resists the urge to extricate the other from her grip, and moves his lips clumsily against hers. It’s wet and awkward and Harry feels like a grade schooler again. When they break apart, Ariana looks decidedly un-dazzled, but before she can say anything Harry gets out a quick “have a good night” and practically sprints off the porch.

***

“Going out, Lou?” Niall asks when Louis emerges from the bedroom. Louis takes in the sight of Niall in oven mitts and Josh perched up on the counter in a pair of sweats. Pretty much the opposite of Louis right now, in his skin-tight pants and a button-up shirt with his hair carefully styled. Louis thinks he smells cookies baking. He approves. 

“Indeed. Club theater’s Guys and Dolls had their first show tonight, so a few of the cast members are throwing a shindig at their place over on Oak Ave. Nick knows a couple of them, so I’m going with.”

“Cool. Should we be expecting you home tonight?”

Louis can’t tell if that’s a loaded question or not, but either way his response is, “If all goes according to plan, no.”

Josh lets out a suggestive whistle.

“Be safe,” Niall instructs, opening up the oven to peer in at the pastries.

“Always am.” Louis casts a glance into the living room. “Where’s Liam tonight?” Not that he thinks Liam wants to join, but it would be rude not to ask. Also, Louis wants to gauge whether or not he can count on a ride from someone, if this whole getting laid thing doesn’t work out. Inebriated Nick is notoriously unreliable for making sure he leaves a party with everyone who accompanied him there. 

“With Zayn,” Josh says at the same time Niall says, “Where do you think?”

“Ah, of course. Well then, I’m off.”

Niall waves a mitted hand and Josh chirps, “Later!”

Louis closes the door behind him and tells himself he’s excited about the evening. Well, he is. He’s impatient to tend to his lately neglected libido. And sure, there’s a certain thrill to the game of meeting eyes across a dance floor, or feeling someone’s hands on your hips before you even see their face… the teasing smiles and coy rolls of hips…ultimately bedding a hot stranger and being able to walk out the next morning without looking back. Louis likes that he has the freedom to do that, if he wants. But it’s really no substitute for being with someone that you’ve spent the evening…well, baking cookies with in sweats. Or something. Maybe that makes Louis lame but that’s what he wants.

In the meantime, Nick is waiting with alcohol and directions to a house probably packed with one-night-stand candidates. It’ll have to do for now.

***

Harry’s been home for a half an hour and he still hasn’t sat down. He’s been pacing back and forth across his room, up and down the hall, even to the late-night cafe down the street to grab himself a decaf beverage, which has since cooled to lukewarm temperature on his desk. He just can’t get his mind to settle. He had one job, dammit: to have a pleasant evening out with a pretty girl. If the situation didn't have such dire implications, it would probably be kind of hilarious how he's found a way to screw even that up. 

Around midnight, Harry yanks on his hoodie and heads out for the fine arts building. It’s almost deja vu of his first weekend on campus as he walks across the quad, surrounded by the loud laughs of his party-bound peers. Except this time Harry’s loneliness seems compounded ten times over and on top of that, he’s furious with himself. Angry power-walking brings him to the front doors of the arts building in half his usual time. He tugs open the door and pauses momently to consider whether he should head straight to the practice rooms and pound out his stress on the keys of a piano, or take a quick detour to see if Zayn is around. Harry never did end up telling him about the date, so explaining his present state of distress might be difficult, but history has shown that spending time with Zayn generally has a calming effect on Harry. So it might be worth making a fool of himself. Harry’s feet ultimately take him in the direction of Zayn’s usual studio. When Harry arrives, the door is ajar, and Harry’s chest floods with relief. Zayn is here. Harry didn’t realize how anxious he was to see his friend until he saw that open door.

He turns into the room and is not even one full step over the threshold, though, when he immediately regrets this decision. Because Zayn is most definitely not alone.

Zayn is wrapped up in the arms of someone whose face Harry cannot discern in the shadows—a very male someone, by the height and build of the person compared to Zayn—and they’re lip-locked, hands plastered on each other’s neck’s and, ah, elsewhere, so tightly Harry thinks it would take a shoe horn to separate them. The passionate embrace is everything Harry and Ariana tried and failed to be earlier this evening. Between Zayn and this male someone. One of Harry’s worst fears confirmed, effectively taking a wrecking ball to the only solid friendship Harry’s constructed over the past month, just when Harry needs said friendship the most. Like Harry's the butt of some great cosmic joke. 

No no no no… Harry’s stuck on repeat, tugging at fistfuls of hair, his face crumpled in an expression of utter devastation.

Apparently some of Harry’s internal lament slipped through his lips, because Zayn breaks apart from—oh God, Harry’s going to be sick. It’s Liam. Liam. As in, the Liam Harry met at a CCM party. Liam who, setting aside Demi and Selena, is probably the closest thing Harry has to a friend besides Zayn.

That day Selena found Harry crying in the church? Yeah, that day has nothing on this day. This one definitely cracks the top five most painful moments of Harry’s life, easy.

Meanwhile, Zayn and Liam (Harry almost lets out an actual whimper) have separated and are both fixing Harry with stares of naked horror.

“Harry,” Zayn croaks. “What are you doing here?”

Like Harry’s the one who’s doing something wrong. Harry, swimming in feelings of utter betrayal, feels a spark of anger. This isn’t his fault. Zayn’s the one who…who…God dammit. God dammit, how could Zayn do this to him? Harry knows he’s not being rational, but in light of the fact that he just had the worst date of his life, and is facing the very real possibility of battling demons Harry thought he put to rest at the end of camp…the fact that Zayn would just slap him in the face with the thing Harry’s been cowering away from…how could he…how dare he…

Harry just really, really needed Zayn, but not this Zayn. Not this.

Harry’s eyes flick back and forth between Zayn, whose eyes are still round with surprise, to Liam, who’s now wearing a slightly pained and regretful expression. Harry tries to say something, anything, but the words are lodged in his throat. He’s too numb with shock to feel anything but the sharp sting of disappointment.

“Harry, are you okay?”

He can’t tell whether Zayn or Liam says it. Liam is still looking at him with deep concern, like he’s just on the edge of taking a protective step in front of Zayn. Meanwhile, Zayn is eyeing him, lower lip pulled between his teeth, tugging at the sleeve of his left arm with his right hand. Harry knows what he himself must look like, the ill expression on his face and the violent tremors lancing through his hands. ‘Are you okay?’ Not “we’re so sorry”? No assurance that there’s been some sort of terrible misunderstanding? How can they just so unapologetically be doing that? How can they look at Harry like he’s the one in the wrong, the threat, putting him on the outside like that?

For one flash of a second, Harry identifies a flicker of jealousy inside himself. He stamps it out. Violently. That’s not what this is about. That’s not why Harry’s supposed to be angry. He’s supposed to be angry because they shouldn’t be doing this. It’s unnatural. The Devil has a hold on Zayn and Liam, has manipulated them into this perversion, and as someone who’s got a lot of experience struggling with these temptations, Harry owes it to his friends to bring him back to the Lord. Or try, at least.

That’s why he’s angry. Because they’ve put him in this position and god fucking dammit Harry was so close to having real, bona fide friends.

“You guys can’t—can’t do this,” Harry chokes out. “It’s not. This is a sin. You're wrong.”

Zayn jerks back like Harry just slapped him. Liam opens his mouth but nothing comes out.

“You can’t,” Harry plows on, because if he allows himself any hesitation, then Zayn’s crushed expression is going to stop him. “It’s abhorrent to God. I’m so sorry, but you have to see that this is just Satan preying on your human imperfections. You have to stop. It’s wrong.”

Zayn looks on the verge of crying now and Harry feels like he could do about the same. He feels awful. Should it feel this awful, doing God’s work?

“Harry.” Liam’s voice is creepy-calm, the kind Harry’s stepdad uses when he’s holding onto self-restraint by a fraying thread. Liam actually does take a step in front of Zayn now and his face is stormier than Harry has ever seen. Harry almost shifts away, because the Liam he knows wouldn’t hurt him, but then, apparently Harry doesn’t know Liam very well at all, does he? “Harry, I think you should leave.”

Harry has no qualms about untangling himself from this unpleasant interaction as soon as possible, but Liam and Zayn aren’t listening, and if Harry has to say his piece, he’s going to say it in its entirety. If he’s going to forfeit two friends, he’s going to make it well worth the pain. Still, he can’t quite look either of them in the face when he says, “If you don’t repent, you’re going to hell for this.”

Harry doesn’t realize Zayn’s stepped out from behind the defensive wall of Liam until Zayn plants his palms on Harry’s chest and gives him a rough shove. “Get out!” he shouts and Harry stumbles backwards. “Get out right now!” 

Harry hears Liam sharply hiss “Zayn!” but he doesn’t need to be told twice. Without a word, he turns heel and, for the second time tonight, practically runs from the scene.

***

Louis wakes up on his stomach with someone else's arm hooked over his waist and the sheets twisted up across his bare thighs, leaving his feet exposed to the frigidity of AC. Damn, this kid keeps his room cold. Louis twists his head on the pillow to look at the sleeping face of the boy he collapsed into bed with the night before. He’s got soft features, jet black hair lazily tousled across his forehead, full lips slightly parted as he emits soft snores. Callum, Louis recalls. Nice guy, playing the role of Nathan Detroit. Louis remembers in the feverish process of disrobing each other, Calum said something about getting over a bad breakup and not looking for anything more than a pallet cleanser—not that it mattered at all to Louis, but he appreciated the warning all the same. One of the reasons--among other things--that after only knowing Callum for a grand total of a few waking hours, Louis can definitively say he’s a nice guy.

All in all, Louis is pleased with last night. He’s just rubbing the sleep from his eyes when he feels Callum’s arm disappear from around his waist. He glances over to see Callum using that hand to cover up a wide yawn.

“Morning,” Louis says when Callum opens his eyes.

“Hey.” Callum gives him a mellow smile.

“How do you feel?”

Callum assesses. “Sore,” he decides. Then he grins. “But in a good way.”

Yes, Louis is indeed satisfied with last night.

“You want food?” Callum offers as he slips out of bed and goes rummaging around on the floor for clothing.

Much fun as that sounds, Louis has a shit ton of homework to do this weekend. The kind of workload that can only be sanely dealt with by splitting it between Saturday and Sunday.

“Eh, I should probably be home soon,” Louis says. He reaches over the side of the bed to fish his phone out of the pocket of his jeans. It’s only nine o'clock. Regardless, Louis should head out; sweet as it is that Callum wants to make him breakfast, Louis thinks accepting that invitation might send the wrong message. “Otherwise I’d stick around.”

“Oh, no, I was gonna suggest we go grab breakfast burritos or something,” Callum laughs. “Sorry, I can’t cook for shit. And I should probably spend most of today in the library. Fucking biodiversity exams.”

Well, Louis would just be a fool to turn that down. He gets dressed and accompanies Callum to the fast food joint a few doors down from his apartment building for a quick bite. Turns out, Callum is just as cool a guy in the daylight as he is when trying to convince someone to have sex with him at a party (spoiler alert, he's very effortlessly convincing). Louis is surprised he hasn’t seen him around Spectrum before.

“I went to a couple meetings freshman year,” Callum says, “but I usually have rehearsals on most weeknights, so it’s difficult to schedule much else in during the semester.”

When they part ways, Callum fist bumps him with the promise to see Louis around. Lou almost considers asking for his number because fuck, Callum is really cool and he seems like the kind of person who’d probably bake cookies with Louis if he asked. But Louis reminds himself that Callum is going through a breakup, and pursuing this is probably not best for either of them just at the moment.

Still, Louis practically skips and whistles back to his apartment. Sex? Check. New friend? Check. The rest of his day could be total shit and he’d still be on cloud nine.

Louis should have knocked on wood or something, because total shit is exactly what he gets upon arriving home.

He walks in on Zayn and Liam again, but the scene is nothing like the one Louis stumbled upon Wednesday night. True, they’re on the couch again, but this time Liam is sitting with his feet propped up on the coffee table with Zayn lying on his side and his head resting on Liam’s lap. Both of them are wearing utterly dismal expressions.

“Why the long faces?” Louis asks, hoping that the cause is something like Saturday morning cartoons giving way to real adult afternoon television programming. Something trivial that won’t bring Louis down.

Louis really has to stop jinxing himself like this, because Liam says, "Harry walked in on Zayn and me last night."

Looks like Louis is gonna have to sit down for this one. He collapses into Liam's armchair and props up his chin in his hands. "Well?"

"It was shit," Liam declares succinctly. 

Let it be known that Louis deserves a Roommate of the Year Award for not saying "I told you so." He has to choose his next words very carefully, especially because Zayn is here, and from what Liam tells him, Zayn was closer to Harry than probably anyone else. Maybe that's why he looks so fucking shattered. He hasn't looked away from the wall across from him to meet Louis' eyes since he walked in. "What exactly happened?"

Liam shrugs. "We were in one of the studios in the fine arts building, kind of...you know." Louis does know. In explicit detail, after Wednesday night. "And Harry walked in and promptly freaked the fuck out. Launched into this diatribe about how we're going to hell, we're wrong, you know," Liam repeats. He waves his hand. "I guess pretty much exactly what he told Niall in the quad."

Boiling rage bubbles up in Louis' chest. It's one thing to spit hate speech at someone you don't know, which is bad enough. But Niall bounced back, because who gave two flying fucks what some random freshman thought, in the long run? On the contrary, for Harry to have betrayed Zayn and Liam like that--the two people who have given that ungrateful fucker more kindness and benefit of the doubt that anyone else on this goddamn campus, that's just twisted. Liam tried so hard to believe Harry was just confused and needed his help. And anyone can see from the expression on Zayn's face that they were close--a relationship founded on trust that Harry quite obviously didn't deserve or value. Louis doesn't know Zayn hardly at all, but Liam is protective of Zayn, and Louis is protective of Liam. There might not be any transitive property of liking people, but Louis is a firm believer in the transitive property of protectiveness. Screw whatever else Louis planned to devote his attention to today. His first order of business is to deal with the problem that is Harry Styles' big mouth.  

***

When Louis finds Harry in his usual practice room on Saturday, Harry hasn’t slept a wink. When he first fled Zayn’s studio, Harry went home and found himself in the same position as before he left, except if he thought he felt lonely and angry before, well. There was a ludicrous irony. 

Harry spent the first several hours oscillating between being angry at Liam and Zayn, redirecting his anger toward God, and then finally reflecting it back inward, beating himself up over the whole situation—both mentally and physically. It was not until Harry decided to tug off his hoodie around three in the morning (because all that pacing around was making him too hot) when he realized he’d snapped a dark, mottled ring of bruising around his wrist with the rubber band. At first, Harry was horrified at himself, but on second thought, he took a sour pleasure the evidence of his self-flagellation. Then on third thought, Harry realized that actually sounded pretty messed up, even in his own head, and he reverted to pinching at his skin and tugging at his hair as an outlet for his frustration instead, things that left less tangible after-marks. Harry’s whole being felt like an itch that needed to be sharply scratched, and he didn’t know how to deal with it.

When Harry’s upset, he usually feels…cold, if that makes sense: sad, lonely. Emotions associated with the color blue. He wasn’t used to feeling so much red hot anger and frustration and hatred—and did he mention anger?—for so long. It was exhausting. Harry knew he needed to sleep it off, but that obviously wasn’t happening any time soon. He needed a distraction.

Around six in the morning, he finally exited his room and made for the library. No one else was in there except the security guard when Harry arrived, although that was hardly a surprise. Harry sat stiffly down at one of the computer desks and started printing sheet music. Stuff he could find for free. Mostly praise and worship music but a few other of Harry’s secular favorites, like the score from The Wizard of Oz and Wicked. By the time he finished up, he had a few hundred papers stacked up and no printing money left on his student card, but he didn’t care. In his backpack, Harry had brought all the binders he could carry and a hole punch. He checked his watch. It was now approaching eight a.m., so Harry thought he could trust that Zayn and Liam had left the fine arts building. Besides, if he was up in his practice room, one of them would have to actively seek Harry out to cross paths with him. Judging by the harsh dismissal he received earlier, Harry didn’t think that was likely to happen in the foreseeable future.

So when Louis busts in around ten, Harry has finished arranging his myriad of pieces in neat stacks around the room, across the piano and bench, and along the whiteboard ledge in alphabetical order and is about halfway through hole-punching them. The mindless organization cleared his mind the way nothing else would, a balm for his anxiety. But when Harry looks up from his kneeling position on the floor to see Louis standing over him, practically crackling with anger, his heart rate speeds right back up again. 

"Hey," Louis says sharply before the door is even fully open. "I want a word with you."

Harry wants nothing to do with Louis. He does not need this right now. But Harry can't quite find his voice to tell Louis to leave because he's been just on the verge of crying for what feels like days, now, so he just shakes his head and goes back to adjusting his papers on the piano bench. Maybe Louis will just deliver what's assuredly a prepared speech and then leave. 

As Harry suspects, Louis launches right in. "What the fuck is wrong with you, that you feel the need to be such an unrelenting bastard to people that are only trying to be nice to you?" he demands. "Zayn and Liam were trying to be your friends, dude. They even had me convinced that maybe I should give you a second chance. But you just shit all over that. I mean honestly, how you could ever look the two of them in the eye, look anyone in the eye and say what you said--" 

A hand suddenly appears in Harry's line of sight and swipes all of his carefully organized piles off the bench. Harry emits a yelp of surprise and scrambles to collect them back up.

"Stop fiddling around with your fucking papers and look at me," Louis says so viciously that Harry cringes away and halts in his attempt to salvage the stacks. He bites down on his trembling lower lip and lifts his eyes to Louis. The expression on his face is venomous. “Don’t you dare come anywhere near either of them ever again, got that?” he snaps.

Harry wasn't planning on it, but he still shakes his head. The malice—no, the pure hatred in Louis’ eyes makes him feel very, very small.

"Good," Louis spits, and then storms out, mucking up several piles on the floor in the process. 

The onslaught of messy messy messy oh my god it's all a mess on top of everything else is just too much. Amidst the cavernous quiet and jarring disarray Louis has left in his wake, Harry pulls his knees up to his chest and hides his face in them, as if he can simply will everything to stop falling apart. 

Chapter Text

Louis doesn’t see Harry for over a week after confronting him in the practice room. On Sunday evening, Louis is braced for conflict or awkward silence or both when he arrives at work, only to find Michael behind the desk in place of his usual curly-headed coworker.

“Where’s Harry?” is the first thing Louis says after he’s seated. If there’s one person he doesn’t have to worry about exchanging pleasantries with, it’s Michael.

“Dunno.” Michael is wholeheartedly disinterested. He doesn’t even take his eyes off the game on screen to answer. “Cowell just sent me an email this morning asking if I could fill in.”

“Oh.” Louis is torn between satisfaction and disappointment that Harry isn’t here. On the one hand, his absence means that he feels so uncomfortable in Louis’ presence that he’s skipped work. Maybe he's asked off this shift for the rest of term. Something vicious in Louis preens at the idea that yelling at Harry yesterday sent the other boy away, tail tucked between his legs. On the other hand, Liam has been moping around the apartment all day, because apparently Zayn left their place early Saturday afternoon on the grounds of needing some “alone time,” and now Louis has no outlet for his residual anger.

Well, Louis supposes that given the choice between having Harry here and not, he prefers the latter.

Except that Michael’s game is filled with blasting noises and murmured expletives at remote teammates. Louis doesn’t miss Harry, definitely not, but he might miss the silence that usually accompanies him.

***

Harry doesn’t remember the last time he slept properly. He can’t get Zayn’s expression out of his mind. Each time he closes his eyes, it seems that Zayn is right there, hands on Harry’s chest, hurt and fury etched in every line of his face, all as vivid as the moment it happened. It’s killing Harry. He didn’t want to hurt Zayn. He wanted to help. Every night he just lies in bed, staring at the ceiling, so afraid to let himself think about anything that he usually turns on a Netflix show and leaves the computer on beside him. Just for the sound of someone else’s voice. It’s halfway between having company and being alone. Sometimes for hours. He thinks he’s gone through an entire season of Gilmore Girls in the last week, but he hasn't really been watching so there’s no way of knowing for sure.

On Saturday evening, after Harry collected himself and his music sheets, he went home and holed up in his room for the rest of the weekend. Saturday night, he sent a desperate email off to Cowell detailing some unpleasant bout of illness and begging off the next day. Harry didn’t like having to lie, but he thought he might actually be sick if he had to spend several hours sitting next to Louis after what happened earlier. Luckily, Cowell responded on Sunday morning that he’d found a sub, and Harry let his shoulders drop with relief.

He only leaves his room to attend classes, go to work, and grab quick to-go meals from the dining halls. Now that September is winding down, the temperature is dropping and Harry can rationalize wearing a beanie practically everywhere he goes. Sometimes a hoodie. It’s sloppy and a pitiful attempt to go incognito, but Harry is probably most identifiable by his bushy hair and straight-laced attire, so. Anything to avoid the attention of Louis, Liam, or Zayn. 

Also, beanies and hoodies are comfort clothes, which is totally a thing that exists, and this week, Harry needs them. Still, every time he walks out of his dorm dressed this way, he has a mild (absurd) fear that his mother is going to pop out from behind a corner and scold him.

He avoids the cafeteria where he and Zayn used to grab breakfast, and Zayn hasn’t texted him. Harry takes to leaving his phone in his desk drawer most of the time to avoid checking it obsessively. He can’t decide whether he’s anxiously awaiting a message or dreading one. Either way, there’s been only radio silence. Harry doesn’t attend CCM on Wednesday, despite a couple of texts from Demi and Selena asking where he is. He doesn’t want to risk running into Ariana, or facing his friends on the off chance that she told him how poorly their date went. She hasn’t texted him since Friday. That’s probably for the best.

By the time Thursday rolls around, Harry has said practically nothing to anyone who isn’t a professor or his RA, who came in for a brief room inspection and left with a slightly wonderstruck expression over the room’s immaculate state. Cleaning his own little section of the world is basically all Harry has done besides homework for the last five days.

It’s around that time that Harry decides he ought to make a visit home. He calls his mother on Thursday night, voice rough from disuse, and makes his case for a bus ticket home. Given that it’s been a month since she’s seen him, it isn’t difficult to convince Harry’s mom. Harry’s dad is harder to bring around—because it’s only been a month, for heaven’s sakes, why does Harry need to come back home so soon?—but when all’s said and done, Harry packs up his stuff with plans to leave right after classes the following afternoon.

When Harry’s mom picks him up from the bus station on Friday night, Harry would have thought he’d be in the mood to talk after so long not talking to anyone, but he isn’t. Over dinner, she tries to engage him in conversation, asking about his classes and church and is he making any friends? Harry tells them about his classes, his professors, the school priest who’s now seen him at Mass enough that he recognizes Harry’s face and waves when they cross each other on campus. Harry’s step-dad likes that.

Harry manages to go the whole meal without talking about friendships, because that might just about kill him. But Harry feels empty through the conversation anyway. He’s simultaneously grateful because the topics his parents are interested in hearing about do something to get his mind off…everything else. At the same time, it’s frustrating and disheartening and oh so isolating, because Harry realizes if he can’t even talk to his parents about what’s happened, then who can he tell? There’s no one. Harry can’t risk mentioning anything that might reveal that all the fixing up he did at camp is crumbling around him, even though he’s trying desperately to hold it together—even though he sacrificed his closest friendship at school to prove to himself that he is the person his parents think he is…Harry still feels like a fraud. Yelling at Zayn, trying to help save him…it did nothing to solidify Harry’s certainty in his own heterosexuality. It did nothing to convince Zayn. It only made Zayn angry and Harry miserable.

Somewhere between smashing his peas with the convex side of his spoon and stirring around his mashed potatoes—Harry’s not really hungry, even though his mother’s food is about a thousand times better than the dining hall’s—Harry feels a flicker of doubt inside himself. That maybe the fact that he’s hurting so much, and it seems to be such a pointless hurt means maybe, just maybe—

“Harry, are you feeling okay?” His mom’s hand close over his own. “You don’t look so good, sweetheart. Is that why you wanted to come home?”

Harry shrugs, because all the sudden he’s nearly overcome with the urge to cry, but there’s no way in hell he’s letting a single tear out in front of his step-dad. He keeps his eyes firmly on his smushed peas.

“Why don’t you go upstairs and lie down?” she suggests, giving his wrist a pat.

Harry nods and leaves the dinner table without a word.

Upstairs, Harry curls up on his childhood bed, with its childhood Transformers sheets and, underneath, the stuffed ladybug he used to cuddle as a kid. Mister Spots. Three-year-old Harry thought that was very a clever name. Harry reaches an arm under his bed and digs out Mister Spots and pulls him to his chest. Why did Harry ever leave him at home? Oh, right. Because he’s eighteen years old and shouldn’t have a stuffed ladybug, for god’s sake. For right now, though, Harry is willing to give himself a pass on what he should and should not be doing. Harry needs Mister Spots, and for a few minutes, he’s going to let himself need him.

Harry has no right to be surprised or disappointed that he doesn’t feel any more okay opening up to his parents today than he did a month ago, or even years ago, before camp ever happened. Harry berates himself for thinking that things might be different when he came home. He doesn’t have any friends to visit while he’s here who can offer comfort or advice. It's not even like Harry could admit what’s wrong to any of them. Harry always felt the need to put on airs around his youth group friends, and often wondered whether any of them really liked him, or whether they were only friends because they were brothers and sisters in Christ. He wondered the same things about his classmates; did they only tolerate him because they were stuck in the same building for eight hours a day?

Harry can’t recall anyone from his childhood treating him with the same openhanded kindness that Zayn has shown him. No one else has been so quietly accepting of his persistent weirdness--especially the ticks that cropped up after camp. And then there’s Liam and Demi and Selena, who, for some unfathomable reason, have tried to draw him out of his shell. Every good person in Harry’s life right now seems totally unreachable. Harry feels like that might be a sign of some sort, but he isn’t quite sure how to read it.

That being said, he can’t quite explain why he does the thing he does next. Harry pulls out his laptop from his backpack and does a Google search of the camp he attended in high school. The banner across the top of the homepage, depicting several grinning adolescent boys, overjoyed by their rehabilitation, makes Harry’s stomach churn. He copies the url and pulls up his school email, hitting “compose new message.” Officially, what Harry tells himself, is that he has one last chance to help Zayn before their friendship ends—as it inevitably must, now—forever. Unofficially, Harry recognizes this is probably some thinly veiled attempt to explain himself. He types in Zayn’s name until the school directory pulls up his email address, and in the subject line Harry types “I’m sorry.”

It doesn't exactly summarize the content of his email, but Harry is pretty sure that’s the only subject line that would convince Zayn to open an email from him. Louis told him to stay away from Zayn. But technically, Harry isn’t anywhere near Zayn. Sending an email might be toeing the line, but this is important. Harry pastes the url into the body of the message, and then considers for a very long time what he wants to say. Ultimately, he decides to keep it simple: Zayn: I am sorry about what happened between us. Please know that I was only trying to help. I know you're probably still angry with me, but please please look into this. They did a lot to help me, and I think they could help you too.

Harry considers adding I’ll pray for you, but Harry can’t recall the last time he properly prayed. He feels so utterly betrayed by God these days that he hasn’t bothered with so much as a good morning or good night. He skipped Mass last Sunday during his period of reclusion in the aftermath of Louis tearing him a new one.

Harry rereads the message. They did a lot to help me. That's false advertising. Harry is nowhere near fixed, but maybe he just didn’t do it right. Perhaps if you do, you actually are fixed and saved and every other wonderful thing they promise. Harry’s always been a fuck up; it really should be no surprise to anyone that he fucked this up as well. Zayn, though. Zayn might actually have the chance to get better.

Harry actually closes his eyes when he clicks the mouse to send the message. Then switches his phone to Do Not Disturb because he doesn’t want to risk seeing a seething, bitter rejection of a reply from Zayn, if one is headed his way.

***

Louis is just about to doze off on Dani’s shoulder when Liam and Zayn burst in the door on Saturday afternoon looking, in a word, urgent. Their urgency contrasts sharply with the lazy atmosphere of the rest of the room, where Lou, Niall and Josh, Dani and Perrie have been watching Netflix. Josh was asleep with his head in Niall’s lap, and nearly head butts Niall in the chin when he jerks upright at the sound of the door banging into the wall. Perrie looks reproachfully up from where she’s curled into Dani’s side, running fingers through her bushy hair.

Louis is about to make some snappy remark about them ruining the mood, but then he takes note of Liam’s face and sits up a bit straighter. “What’s up?” Louis hasn’t even seen Liam today; he spent the night at Zayn’s, as he has most nights this week. After they recovered from the incident with Harry, Louis is pleased to say that they’ve mostly fallen back into the comfortable, happy state in which Louis found them last Wednesday. Though apparently that’s not the case anymore.

“This.”

Zayn strides forward and thrusts his phone so insistently in Louis’ face that it nearly hits him in the nose. Louis leans back and takes the phone from his grasp. “What am I looking at?” It looks like an email, but the print is so tiny on the screen that Louis has to zoom in twice to read it. Upon closer inspection, he sees that it’s addressed from Harry. What does that fucker want now? Oh wait, but the subject line says “I’m sorry.” Louis blinks. This seems too suspiciously good to be true.

Of course, before he can read even read the message, Zayn continues, “Harry sent that to me last night, and now he isn’t responding to any of my texts.”

Zayn might wear a hole right through the floor if he doesn’t stop tapping his foot so aggressively. Louis gives Liam a look as if to say dude, control your boyfriend. Liam places a comforting hand on Zayn’s shoulder. Zayn uncrosses his arms and ceases his foot tapping. “Go on and read it,” he says, voice still strained. Louis can feel four other people crowd around his shoulders to read the message. Louis flips the phone sideways so they can get the whole thing in view.

“Who’s ‘they?’” Niall asks after a few moments of tense silence while they read, and Louis is wondering the same thing.

“Click the link,” Zayn instructs.

Louis does.

“Oh shit,” Josh says.

‘Oh, shit’ is right.

Perrie makes a soft, sad sound in the back of her throat. “Is this the guy you were telling me about? The one you thought had some internalized homophobia problems?” she asks.

“The one who flipped out on Niall in the quad?” Josh tacks on.

Louis just nods.

“Christ on a cracker,” Louis mutters, scrolling through mobile site. It’s pretty heinous, full of phrases like “suppress unnatural urges” and “restore purity.” The boys depicted have on plastic smiles and, Louis thinks, dead eyes.

“He isn’t responding to any of my texts,” Zayn says again, his voice unnaturally high. “What the fuck? Why would he send me that and then just totally shut me out? I don’t get it.”

“Well, how did you respond?” Dani asks quietly. “If you were like, ‘dude, what the fuck?’ I don’t think I’d reply either, if I were him.”

“All I said was that I got his email and thought we needed to talk,” Zayn says defensively. “And then sent, oh, I don’t know, a dozen follow-ups asking if he’d gotten my message.” He’s back to tapping his foot and Louis is having a difficult time thinking straight. He’s trying to tease apart his gut reactions of horror, sympathy, guilt, and concern, but it’s difficult with everyone talking. 
“Maybe he’s embarrassed,” Josh suggests.

Louis nods. Yeah, he has to be. Louis has never met anyone else who’s participated in one of these things—at least, so far as he knows—but he gets the sense that this isn’t the sort of thing you go trumpeting around, even after you’ve been ‘saved,’ or whatever.

“Poor baby,” Danielle murmurs.

Liam is looking at Louis like he should say something. “Why are you showing me this?” he says. First of all, this hardly seems like the kind of email Harry would want Zayn to announce to six other people, four of whom he’s never met (Louis would not classify Harry slandering Niall in the quad as an introduction). Second of all, seriously, why does Liam seem to think Louis is any source of help when it comes to Harry Styles? Louis told Liam about verbally assaulting Harry last Saturday morning (it was a testament to how angry Liam was at the time that he didn’t even tell Louis off for it), and Liam knew that Louis was only marginally on board with his Help Harry Styles friendship campaign in the first place.

But now, well. This kind of changes everything, doesn’t it?

“Now we know he actually is…” Liam can’t seem to come up with the words for what Harry’s email expresses, and just flaps his hand agitatedly at the phone. “We can actually try to help him without having to be sneaky about it.”

“I don’t know what this ‘we’ is,” Louis says. “Even before all this drama, Harry didn’t like me.” As he says it, though, Louis realizes that isn’t exactly true. Harry did try to reach out after their brief friendly exchange at the Kindness Calls table.

“Liar,” Liam quips. “You were actually getting on okay up until…you know. And you guys work together, so you have a ready-made excuse for having to be near him. You’re strategic.”

“So what you’re saying is… I’m a pawn.”

“Yes,” Zayn says flatly. Liam elbows him in the ribs.

“Also,” Liam points out, “now that you won’t be dragging your feet, convinced that Harry’s actually just some homophobic jerkface, I think you could do some real good.” He looks at Perrie. “Any of you guys.”

“Well, Harry called off work last week probably for the express purpose of avoiding me,” Louis says. “So there’s no real way of knowing whether he’ll show up tomorrow, if you’re planning on cornering him then. Or asking me to do it.” Louis can’t imagine any way that could go, other than poorly.

“What about in the practice rooms?” Niall suggests.

Louis shakes his head. “After I blew up at him last week, I seriously doubt he’d go back there for a while.”

Zayn throws Louis a sharp look. “What now?”

Apparently Liam did not share that information with Zayn.

Louis thinks Zayn’s indignation is pretty hypocritical, given how Liam described their fight with Harry in the studio last Saturday after Zayn left. 

“It’s not like I beat him up or even gave him a light shove,” Louis says pointedly. “I just messed around some stacks of paper, told him off for what he said to you guys, and left.” He shrugs. “No real harm done.”

Somehow, that seems to upset Zayn even more.

“What?” Louis demands.

“Dude, he’s really clean,” Zayn says. “Like, OCD caliber clean. That probably really upset him.”

“Oh.” Louis thinks back on his night shifts at the desk with Harry, his seemingly incessant need to have everything just so. The fact that he threw away a good pair of shoes after Louis got sick on them.

“Yeah, ‘oh.’”

“Zayn,” Liam says, as sharply as Louis imagines Liam can when he’s addressing Zayn.

Zayn has the grace to look chastened. “Sorry. I’m not mad at you,” Zayn says. “Well, no. I am—a little, because seriously, not cool—but mostly I’m just mad at this whole fucking situation.”

“I can’t even believe people do this to innocent children,” Danielle says, nose wrinkled in disgust as she regards Zayn’s phone.

“It’s fucking emotional abuse, is what it is,” Perrie says venomously. Louis wouldn’t be surprised if the screen of Zayn’s phone cracked under the pressure of her gaze.

“Let’s all calm down,” Liam says steadily. He pulls out his phone. “We’re going to fix this, don’t worry.”

“How?” Louis asks. “And who are you texting?”

“Demi.”

“Who? And why?”

“Demi. The one you accused of being ‘chirpy?’” Liam looks up from his phone. “She's going to help us clean up this mess.”

***

When Harry gets back to campus on Sunday night, he heads straight for the chapel. He sent another email to Mr. Cowell this morning requesting he find someone else to cover Harry’s shift (and got back a clipped response about “this time only” and “shirking responsibilities”) and on the bus ride back, he finally turned his phone off Do Not Disturb. He had several texts from Zayn, but in all honesty, Harry was still feeling kind of emotionally fragile (gay as that sounds, he cringed to think) and didn’t feel like risking a read through those messages, if they might make Harry start to cry in front of a bus full of strangers. He did have some remaining dignity, thank you very much.

He also had a text from Demi, asking whether Harry would be willing to meet her at the chapel. Harry briefly entertained the idea that he was about to get roped into another fundraiser, but he was so desperate for some warm human interaction that he was willing to risk it, and texted back to set up a meeting time.

Demi is already sitting on the front steps when Harry arrives. She’s wearing a big sweatshirt that she’s got stretched around her knees, which are pulled up to her chest and supporting her chin. She lifts her head up when she sees Harry approaching, though, and gives him a smile. It’s softer than her characteristic bright grin. That makes Harry slightly nervous, but mostly he’s just glad to see her. Screw whatever Ariana may or may not have told Demi about their date. Screw his own bemusement at Demi’s seemingly groundless attempts to befriend him. Harry just needs someone right now, and he’s never been more thankful to have met Demi.

“Hey,” she says. “Want to go in, or stay out here?”

“Inside?” Harry suggests, rubbing his palms against his arms. 
Demi nods and leads the way into church, stopping briefly to dip her fingers in the holy water cup and then crossing into the main sanctuary. She takes a seat in the back row of pews and Harry slides in beside her. He doesn’t know why Demi wanted to meet with him, so he waits for her to speak.

Demi eventually breaks the silence with, “My sister is a lesbian.”

Harry’s mouth pops open. Where did that come from? “Sorry, what?” he splutters. 

“Yeah, her name is Nora. She's getting her PhD in marine chemistry out in California now. I miss her a lot. And her girlfriend, Kendall—they’ve been together about three years now, I think.”

Harry scrutinizes Demi’s face, trying to get a sense for why she’s telling him this, but her expression is impossible to read. “I don’t understand,” he finally says. “Is your family not…” Harry gives a demonstrative little wave around at the church.

“No, my parents are both Catholic, too. Nora’s not anything, these days. She left the Church around middle school, before getting confirmed. I think Kendall might be Jewish, or at least her family is. When she and Nora visit us for Christmas last year, they mentioned something about spending Hanukkah with Kendall’s family.”

“And your parents don’t—” Harry swallows thickly “—they don’t hate Nora? They let her date Kendall?”

“They don’t let her do anything,” Demi says. “She’s twenty-six. Definitely old enough to make decisions about how she wants to live her own life.” Demi turns to face Harry dead-on, and this is the most serious Harry has ever seen her. “But of course they don’t hate her. Sure, it was difficult at first for them to accept, but she’s their child. They love her, no matter who she decides to love. And we love Kendall now, too.”

It’s then that Harry realizes Selena didn’t keep her promise about not telling anyone what happened between her and Harry in church a couple of weeks ago. Demi knows. That’s why she’s telling him this. It also occurs to Harry that he really shouldn’t be surprised that Selena told Demi.

“But…” Harry clears his throat, but it does nothing to dislodge the hot lump that’s formed there, “but if your parents know Nora is sinning, why don’t they try to…isn’t it loathsome to God if…”

“Harry,” Demi says gently, and she puts a hand over his wrist to stop him snapping the rubber band against it. Oh. Harry didn’t even realize he was doing that. “Nora can’t help who she loves any more than I can or you can or anyone else can. God made her in His image. He made her to love Kendall, who deserves love and can love Nora back. I’ve seen it at every holiday and family gathering in the last two years. It’s so obvious to anyone who sees Nora bring Kendall dinner in the living room when she’s caught up reading a really good book, or Kendall kisses Nora on the nose when she’s apologizing for something.”

Harry's chest feels tight with longing. He wants something like that, too. More than anything else in the whole world, probably. 

Demi sighs. “Knowing God is about loving—Him, others, and yourself. I don’t think He wants us to hate each other, or ourselves, for how He made us.”

Harry brings a fist up to his mouth and bites down on his knuckle to keep from crying, shaking his head vigorously. What she’s saying is too good to be true. If he could just get himself to buy into her words—Harry is afraid of what that might mean. How different things would be. How much time he would have wasted hating himself.

“But if God really does accept…that part of…some people, then why…why did I have to…why would they make me feel like—” Harry knows that he’s just confessed the ugliest, most abhorrent part of himself to Demi, but he needs to know. Why would every religious authority figure in his life, his parents, his youth minister, the camp leaders, why would they make him feel like this? Why would God let this happen to him, if it weren’t to fix Harry and make him how God wants?

“Sometimes people get confused,” Demi says, “and they hurt other people. We’re only human. People make mistakes.”

Harry snorts wetly. Could all of the hurt he's felt in the past couple years really be boiled down to a few other people making mistakes?

“I want to believe you,” Harry admits quietly. But how does he know that this isn’t the Devil working through Demi to draw him into sin?

“You don’t,” Demi says matter-of-factly, and oh shit, did Harry just say that last part aloud? “But I want you to think,” she continues, “pray and reflect. When are you your best self? When do you show love to other people and accept their love the best? I think the answer is probably when you’re being yourself—your whole self.”

Harry has no answer for that, but it doesn’t appear that Demi expected one. She stands up and gives him a delicate pat on the head. “You’re okay, Harry. Don’t be so hard on yourself. I expect other people have done that enough already.”

And then she’s gone.

***

Louis gets off work on Sunday night in low spirits. Michael served as Harry’s replacement again tonight, and Louis is an odd cocktail of relieved, disappointed, and guilt-ridden. Not that that’s much of a change from his mood since yesterday afternoon. 
Louis does not like to admit when he’s in the wrong, but.

In this case, it’s pretty indisputable.

Granted, Louis acted based solely on the information he had at the time, when he chewed Harry out in the practice room. It’s not like he was tying to be the world’s biggest jerk.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, he recalls. Regardless of whether or not Louis believes in hell (he doesn’t, if anyone cares to know), but he believes the principle still stands. The fact of the matter is that Louis hurt someone. Probably...probably badly. Louis has unthinkingly offended others before—occupational hazard of having a big mouth and the opinions to match—but he’s never been so deliberate and so vicious about it before. He doesn’t know how to deal with that, and consequently guilt has been simmering in his gut for two days straight.

Louis isn’t proud of what he does as a result, because he doesn’t like the idea of using another person (and he wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t warn Callum ahead of time, like Callum did for him last week), but Louis might have gotten Callum’s number off Nick last night and made a…ugh, he even hates thinking the word. A booty call, all right? Sue him. He’d been feeling pretty miserable about himself all of Saturday and just wanted to forget about it for a while. Callum seemed to understand, especially since when Louis texted him, Callum admitted that he was trying to resist the urge to text his ex. Their night together was pretty similar to the previous one, and ended just as amiably this morning. As soon as Louis got back home, though, he was left alone with his own self-chastising thoughts. His guilt was only exacerbated when he showed up to work and found Michael behind the desk.

Upon arriving home, Louis finds Niall standing at the kitchen counter eating a plate of scrambled eggs.

“Hey,” Louis says tiredly.

“‘lo,” Niall says. “Haven’t seen you all day.”

“You were in the studio, right?”

“Yeah, but not till afternoon.”

“Oh. Right.” Louis sits down at their small kitchen table and props his feet up on the chair opposite. “I spent the night at Callum’s last night.”

Niall narrows his eyes and tilts his head to the side. “You don’t look happy about it.”

Louis shrugs. He’d really rather not have this conversation right now. “I mean, it was all right.”

After a brief pause, Niall moves his plate over to the table, kicks Louis’ feet off the chair, and sits down. “Okay, you know I’m not gonna judge you about one-night-stands and shit,” Niall says, which is how Louis knows to brace himself for judgment, “but you didn’t like, hook up with Callum because of what went down yesterday, right?”

Louis hates that his friends can pick out how pathetic he is right away. He goes on the defensive. “What are you talking about?”

“Come on, Lou.” Niall nudges Louis’ foot with his own under the table. Louis moves his foot away. “I know you’ve been feeling pretty bad about what happened. I’m just worried that you were using sex as maybe…a coping mechanism? Which isn’t fair to Callum.”

“What the fuck, Niall? You really think Harry Styles has that much influence over my life that I need to use sex as a crutch for yelling at him once?”

Niall shrugs. “I’m not saying Harry Styles as an individual has any particular influence over your life. What I’m saying is that you’re the kind of person who would internalize accidentally hurting someone, and beat yourself up about it. No matter who it was.” Niall’s tone is creeping dangerously close to pity and Louis can’t stand it.

“That’s not what happened,” he snaps. “As for Callum, he knew exactly what last night was, so please do not get on me about my sex life, okay? Just because you’re not getting any—” Before Niall can even react Louis slaps a hand over his own mouth, horrified by his own rudeness. “Oh my god,” he says. “I am so sorry. Wow. That was completely uncalled for. I don’t know—”

“Lou.” Niall smiles ruefully. “It’s okay.”

It one hundred percent is not, but Louis knows the signal to shut up when he hears one. Most of the time, anyway. Louis also doesn’t know what words could make up for what he just said.

Niall pushes around the food on his plate with a fork for a few moments, and says, “Josh is asexual.”

Louis lets that sink in, and it registers that that…clears up all of his and Liam's confusion about the Niall and Josh dynamic. Obviously, he doesn’t point out to Niall that they’ve been speculating about his relationship behind his back. “Oh,” is all he says.

Of course Louis is aware of asexuality, in the sense that he follows a couple of Tumblr pages about it and he’s the president of the campus LGBTQIA organization, but he’s never actually met an asexual in real life.

“Yeah. I found out few weeks ago. We’d been taking things pretty slow, right? But one night we were over at his place and I decided to make a move—I figured since he’d invited me to spend the night, then we’d…” Niall makes a lewd gesture with his fingers. “Which pretty much ended in disaster and forced us to have a talk about where our relationship was going and all that shit, and he came out to me.”

Niall shrugs like that isn't the biggest load of personal information he's dumped on Louis ever. Liam likes to talk about his feelings, romantic or otherwise. Niall, not quite so much. “Wow,” Louis breathes. “And you’re totally okay with this?”

“I was surprised at first, obviously. Maybe kind of disappointed at first," Niall admits, "but I got over it. I’d much rather have Josh and no sex than sex and no Josh, so it was a pretty easy decision. I think I might love that kid.” Niall chuckles, rubbing his nose. Classic Niall diversion, to act like something’s a joke when it’s actually totally serious. Louis just barely contains his smile.

“The reason I’m telling you this,” Niall says, “other than to satisfy your curiosity so that you and Liam don’t have to gossip about my sex life behind closed doors anymore—” Louis pulls an apologetic face but Niall doesn’t look the least bit upset “—is that, well. Before that night I tried to put the serious moves on Josh, he had been sending me pretty clear signals that he wasn’t ready to take things to that level, physically. Which I should have noticed, and for a while afterwards, I beat myself up for not noticing them because I hurt him, Lou. I broke his trust.”

Louis almost can’t breathe because this is the most serious he’s ever seen Niall before in his life.

“I was so set on where I thought the relationship was going, what I expected, that I turned a blind eye to things I should have noticed for his sake. I messed up.” Niall exhales heavily. “That doesn’t mean that I ruined things forever, though. Obviously, we’re okay now.” He grins, and Louis smiles reflexively.

“Point is,” Niall says, “beating yourself up doesn’t do anything. You messed up with Harry. You didn’t notice what you should have, and you hurt someone who could have potentially really used your help. So don’t wallow in guilt. Find a way to make it better.”

Louis looks down at the table. “You’re right,” he says, because what else can he say? Niall is completely, totally right. Louis needs to get the fuck over himself and make things right.

Chapter Text

Harry stays in the church for a while after Demi leaves on Sunday night.

By a while, he means about four hours, give or take. He has a lot to think about. It’s just such a…strange concept, that being—um. God, Harry needs to get used to thinking it, because it’s what he is—being gay (every time he says the word, even in his head, he can feel himself grimace uncomfortably) isn’t something to be ashamed of. Something to be cured. Some manifestation of uncontrollable, animalistic propensity for sin that sets Harry apart from other normal people and makes him lesser. The idea that his gayness could be the foundation for a healthy, loving relationship with another person makes Harry’s chest physically ache. He’s never wanted anything to be true so badly in his whole life, and he’s terrified, because how could that possibly be true?

Harry eventually lies down on the pew and stares up at the church ceiling. How could his parents, pastors, youth minister, and camp counselors all have interpreted God’s words so incorrectly? Is Harry’s family in the wrong, or Demi’s? Harry pulls out his phone and Googles “conversion therapy camps,” something he has never done before. Prior to camp, Harry wouldn’t have dared associate himself with anything like this, even via browser history. After camp, Harry just wanted to put the whole experience behind him.

A quick perusal of the first few pages of search engine results pretty conclusively proves that Harry’s family and parish are the anomaly. Not just among Catholics, but among most Christian sects. Christians who invoke spiritual healing for homosexuality are considered extremists. He’s always known that most people don’t agree with the idea of conversion camps, but in his mind, those people were always painted as faithless sinners who hadn’t yet seen the light. If a lot of Catholics don’t believe that homosexuality is the sort of thing that needs to be (or can be) purged from you via therapy camp, though… Harry knows that “majority rules” does not apply to Divine teaching, but isn’t it at least worth considering the possibility that Demi’s family got it right?

God, he thinks, folding his arms over his chest, I know you’re probably really busy, and we haven’t been on great terms, lately, but. Harry sniffles and turns onto his side, fixing his eyes on the hymnals in the rack hanging on the back of the pew in front of him. I could really use your help and guidance right now, because I’m confused, and really, really scared.

Harry has never felt more alone and unloved than the last couple years of high school, in realizing that he liked boys and then trying to strip himself of that fault. On the other hand, every good thing in Harry’s life since getting to college, Zayn and Liam, Demi and Selena, seems to point to the idea that he should accept himself, homosexual tendencies and all. Harry thinks—and he might be wrong, maybe this is just evidence of the Devil’s cunning—that if his friends were drawing him into mortal sin, then it would look and feel more…sordid, if that makes sense. Harry just can’t reconcile the concept of Satan’s manipulation with the honest and, frankly, Christian-like affection that his friends have shown him over the last month and a half. Even the non-Christian ones.

Please, he prays. Please, God, please send me a sign that this is what you want. I’m scared of straying from you, from what I’ve always thought you want from me, but I’m also scared of feeling like this for the rest of my life.

There’s no bolt of lightning, No voice echoes through the church from on high. The air conditioning kicks on and that’s about it. Harry knows it’s unrealistic to expect something dramatic or immediate (not that he would have objected, if God offered it), but he’s willing to wait.

Around two in the morning, Harry gets his answer. Or it’s just some great cosmic coincidence. But Harry chooses to believe the former. He’s just about to fall asleep on the hard wooden bench when his phone vibrates on his chest with a text message. Harry frowns. Who on earth is texting him at this hour? He lifts the phone off his chest and squints at the bright screen. His heart stutters. One new message from Zayn.

One more to add to the pile of seven or eight already sitting in Harry’s inbox. Maybe he should just go ahead and read them. Curiosity is going to get the better of him eventually, and if Zayn makes him cry, then at least he’s alone and it’s the middle of the night. Also, Harry’s been talking himself in circles inside his own head for the last few hours and at this point he’s mostly just glad for the potential of receiving some sort of input from the outside world.

Harry swipes to unlock his phone and tremulously taps the icon to view his messages.

Zayn: Harry, I just got your email. I need to talk to you.

Zayn:  Text me back, if that wasn’t obvious.

Zayn:  Hey, Harry, I know we didn’t exactly leave things on great terms the other night but I really need you to text me back.

Zayn:  Check your phone.

Zayn:  I know I’m being a pushy asshole, but respond to my text messages.

Zayn: Sorry. I’m not mad at you, I swear. Please text me back.

The latest one is just: Harry, seriously.

Zayn isn’t mad him? That is not what Harry was expecting. Especially after his Google searching, which pretty definitively proved that most people find the idea of conversion therapy camp abhorrent. In response to Harry’s email, now more than ever Harry would have expected Zayn’s response to come in the form of staunch refusal, a diatribe against the very idea, or at least some assault against Harry for even suggesting it.

Once Harry gets over the initial surprise, though, he can’t help the warm feeling that permeates the chest at the knowledge that Zayn doesn’t hate him. He still wants to talk to Harry—oh, crap, rather urgently, it seems, and Harry’s the asshole that left his phone on Do Not Disturb all weekend and ignored him. Harry sucks.

He opens up the touch screen keyboard to type his reply, and then pauses, totally unsure what to say. The best he can do is, Sorry for not responding. Had my phone on DND while I was home for the weekend.

Zayn’s response is immediate. 

Zayn:  You’re back at school, though?

Harry: Yes.

Zayn:  At your dorm?

Harry: No, church.
 There’s a five minute break in the conversation after that during which Harry nervously awaits Zayn’s reply.

Zayn: Okay. Will you be around the practice rooms at all tomorrow? I need to talk to you.

Harry: If you want. Usual time?

Zayn: Yeah. You know where to find me.

Harry is simultaneously filled with trepidation at the prospect of this conversation, and relief that Zayn is willingly inviting Harry back into his space, even after Harry invaded and so thoroughly ruined things between them last week.

***

“Demi talked to Harry,” Liam says when he gets home on Monday evening.

Louis looks up from his bagel. Niall turns the TV to mute.

“Oh yeah?” Lou asks. “How did that go?”

“She thinks it went well,” Liam says. “Or at least, as well as it could have gone.”

“What did she even say?” Niall wants to know.

“Her older sister has been dating a girl for the last couple years, but her Catholic parents are cool with it,” Liam says. “I thought maybe if she told Harry her story, he might get to see that even if you’re religious…et cetera, et cetera. Demi says Harry seemed to at least be considering what she had to say.”

“So what exactly is the plan here?” Louis says. “We can’t just walk up to Harry and go, ‘Hey, so you know that super personal thing you told Zayn in confidence? He told us about that and now we want you to tell us all this other personal shit so we can help you through it.’” Louis presses the back of his hand flat under his chin and tilts his head to the side, giving a sarcastically charming smile.

“No, because we’re not all the tactless cave men you clearly believe us to be,” Liam says. “I was thinking, it wouldn’t be entirely implausible for Zayn to have told me about the email, right? Since Harry caught us together and yelled at both of us.”

“Sure…” Louis says.

“Zayn will talk to him first, saying the whole ‘I’m not mad about what happened anymore, but I was checking out the, er, establishment you recommended, and I’m worried about you’ bit, yada yada yada. Then I can do the same thing. After a few days, if Harry knows Zayn, Demi, and I are all on his side and care about him, then he might be more open to idea that what he learned at that horrible place was wrong. But of course we’ll probably need your-slash-Niall’s-slash-other-Spectrum-people’s help convince him. Like Perrie said, he needs to see that there’s a whole community of people who support him, if he’s going to shift his whole belief system so significantly.”

“But he probably won’t believe that Niall and I have really forgiven him for the whole quad thing—and for yelling at you guys—unless he knows that we know about camp,” Louis points out. "If we suddenly start being super sympathetic towards him, he's going to wonder why." 

“Yeah,” Liam says. “So that’s the part I think we’re just going to have to hope he isn’t too upset that Zayn and I spilled the beans. I know Harry, and I think if Zayn, Demi, and I warm him up a bit first, he’ll see that we told you guys because we care about him and were concerned about his state of wellbeing.”

Louis is dubious. There’s a lot that could go wrong with that plan, but since Niall’s pep talk last night, Louis can honestly say for the first time that he’s on board with Liam’s Help Harry Styles campaign. However Liam wants to do this, Louis supposes he should show his support.

“Whatever you say,” he says. “Just let me know what I can do to help.”

"Same," Niall says.

***

Harry brings tea with him to meet Zayn on Monday night. He hasn’t done this in a while because, for the last few weeks, the pressure of winning Zayn over didn’t seem quite so great, but now Harry feels like he’s back at square one. He hopes that isn’t actually the case and he’s overcompensating.

He tugs nervously at the strings of his hoodie as he takes the last few steps towards Zayn’s studio, consciously careful not to grip the cardboard to-go cup so hard that it crumples in his hand. Zayn is at a table with his back to the door, just like the first night Harry found him here. Unlike the first time, Zayn is not hunched over in rigorous concentration. His chin is propped up on one hand while he draws lazily with the other. Harry pauses at the door, reminds himself Zayn said he wasn’t mad, and forces himself to enter.

As soon as he hears Harry’s footsteps, Zayn turns around. He looks tired, Harry thinks, but probably not as tired as Harry looks. Since he didn’t get home from church until around two-thirty last night, he still hasn’t had proper sleep in over a week. This morning, Harry’s stats professor advised, “Styles, go take a nap,” as he was leaving the room. Harry still isn’t sure whether that was meant as detached concern or a reprimand for nearly nodding off in the middle of class.

“Shit,” Zayn says, kicking out the chair next to him for Harry to sit down. “You didn’t have to come if I was keeping you up.”

Harry shrugs and slides Zayn’s tea across the table to him. Zayn looks at it, frowns, and then says, “Thanks. You didn’t have to.”

Harry doesn’t know what that means. Does Zayn not want it? Zayn lifts it to his mouth and takes a long sip, so Harry decides not to overthink it. Too much. He looks down to see what Zayn was in the midst of drawing, but it appears he was just making directionless squiggles across the paper as he waited for Harry to turn up.

A moment passes in which Zayn, apparently, knows no more what to say than Harry does.

“I’m sorry,” Harry bursts out, unable to stand the silence, so intensely that Zayn looks taken aback. “I shouldn’t have acted the way I did when I found out that you and Liam—um.” Harry clears his throat and looks down at the table. “About you and Liam. I thought I was doing the right thing, but I did it in a really mean way, and I’m just. I’m sorry.”

When Harry hazards a glance up, Zayn is watching him with a slightly open mouth and a frown. Why is he still frowning? Harry wraps his arms around his waist and hunches over the table.

“Thanks for apologizing,” Zayn finally says. “Just so you know, I know you’re not the kind of person who goes around intentionally hurting people for the thrill of it. That’s probably why I reacted how I did, because it just seemed like we had such a good thing going, and I trusted you. So I was really caught off guard.”

Harry wilts a bit.

“That doesn’t mean it was okay for me to put my hands on you,” Zayn says, “and if I’d known where you were coming from…”


Harry cringes and hides his face in his hands. He knows Zayn is referring to camp, and after what Harry read online last night, he wishes that he never sent that link to Zayn. “Can we not talk about this?” he begs. “Forget my email. I know it was a stupid thing to suggest.”

Zayn’s frown deepens. “You do?”

Harry nods. “I was talking to a CCM friend the other night. She was telling me…well, basically that she didn’t think God would send a person to hell just for being. For being homosexual.” Heat creeps up Harry’s neck just from saying the word aloud.

“No one ever told you that before?” Zayn sounds disbelieving.

Harry shrugs. “No one I was close to.”

Zayn nods. “Right. I guess not.”

Harry picks at his jacket sleeve. “Yeah. So when I yelled at you, and sent you that link, you have to understand that I was only doing it because I thought if I didn’t—” Harry looks at Zayn desperately. I was trying to save your immortal soul sounds even more horrifyingly intimate than I love you, and even with Zayn, Harry is not yet comfortable enough to express that level of sentiment. “I thought if I didn’t, God would punish you.”

“Yeah, no, I got that,” Zayn says. “But you don’t think that now?”

Harry shrugs. In the past twenty-four hours, he’s been so back and forth on the idea that he doesn’t even know what to think anymore. Every time he thinks he gets close to believing Demi is right, he gets snapped back by memories of what Father Robert or his youth minister or his parents or the Bible have told him, and he feels practically drowned in shame and hopelessness. Then he works himself back up to thinking, but maybe, just maybe, only to yank himself back down again.

“I don’t know,” he says. “My whole life, people have been telling me that being…gay basically means you’re hell-bound, you know?” Harry hugs himself tighter. “That’s not exactly something you just change your mind about overnight. Especially after…” Oh look, Harry’s brought them right back to the topic of camp.

Zayn exhales heavily. “Look, Harry. That’s kind of what I wanted to talk to you about. I’m not totally familiar with those kinds of, ah, institutions. But whatever they told you about being ‘saved,’ or whatever—”

Harry snorts. “I didn’t get saved.”

Zayn cocks his head to the side and waits for him to elaborate.

Harry sighs and curls further in on himself. “You can’t tell anyone about this. Please, Zayn,” he says, shooting Zayn a desperate look. Harry just needs to fucking tell someone, and no one else in the world is a viable option. Plus, half the cat’s already out of the bag, when it comes to Zayn. But if anyone else found out about this, Harry doesn’t even know what he’d do. No one outside the camp itself, Harry’s family, or his closest circle at church even knows about him going to camp. Admitting he failed to fulfill the camp’s purpose…that feels twice as bad as admitting he went in the first place. “Please. You can’t.”

Zayn nods his head solemnly.

“I didn’t—what I’m trying to say is. Uh. After camp. I thought I was fixed, for a while. Lately, though, I just haven’t.” Harry shakes his head, trying to formulate his thoughts correctly. “For a while, I’ve been thinking that I didn’t do it right, that I didn’t work hard enough and all those feelings I was trying to purge myself of at camp didn’t really go away, they just got buried for a while. I thought maybe if I was just forceful enough about doing what they taught us at camp, at least consciously, then maybe I could…” Harry shrugs helplessly. What a failure he is. “That’s another reason I freaked out so hard at you and Liam.” Harry winces apologetically.

Zayn takes a moment to think about that. “Harry, homosexuality isn’t something you can fix by praying hard enough or—or hating yourself enough,” Zayn says. Harry shivers. “It’s the way you’re born, and it’s not something anyone should shame you for.”

Harry nods. This is basically what Demi told him last night, and Harry wants to believe it now as much as he did then.

“You don’t believe me," Zayn guesses.

Harry tips his head onto one shoulder and examines the table in front of him.

“Well, I suppose we’ll just have to keep trying to convince you,” Zayn says, sounding forcedly hopeful.

“We?”

“Demi and me.”

“Oh. Right.” Harry doesn’t know how successful that endeavor will be, but it fills him with warm fuzzy feelings to know that they’d even try. Then Harry blinks. “Wait, how did you know I was talking about Demi?”

Zayn bites his lip like he regrets saying that. “Just a guess. She’s the only CCM person I know of besides you, since she’s friends with Liam. He said you guys were close.”

For some reason, Harry gets the feeling that Zayn is lying to him, but for the life of him he can’t figure out why that would be worth lying about. Also, he’s distracted by the ease with which Zayn implies his relationship with Liam in casual conversation. Like it’s totally normal that he’s dating a boy. Maybe to Zayn it is.

“Oh,” Harry says.

“I know you asked me not to tell anyone about the camp thing,” Zayn says, probably trying to gloss over the momentary awkwardness. “But there are some guys in Spectrum I know who I think you could try talking to—”

Harry is already shaking his head vigorously before Zayn can even finish his thought. No. No way. Oh, God no. Isn’t it enough that Harry’s outed himself to Zayn and Demi, arguably the two people Harry’s closest to in the entire world? Plus Selena. Zayn probably doesn’t understand, because he probably has loads of people he’s closer to than Harry. He doesn’t get quite what a big deal this is. The very thought of discussing these matters with a Spectrum student, though, has Harry’s stomach churning with anxiety. There’s no way he could do it.

“They’d understand,” Zayn says earnestly. “There are a bunch of previously closeted kids in the group, according to Liam. If anyone—”

“No,” Harry says. “No, I can’t. Besides, they hate me. The first week of school, out on the quad—”

“They’d understand,” Zayn repeats.

Harry is about to argue that Zayn doesn’t even know what happened, but then remembers that Louis is roommates with Liam, who might have recounted that particularly unfavorable story of Harry to Zayn. Great.

“Louis hates me,” Harry says. Of that much he is certain.


Zayn pauses. “He told me what happened between you guys last week,” he says. “Louis was just angry. He doesn’t hate you.”

Harry shakes his head, unable to believe that.

“He doesn’t,” says Zayn, “and I really think he’d be sympathetic—”

Zayn.” Harry can feel tears stinging his eyes now, he’s so distraught over the possibility of this information going beyond the walls of Zayn’s studio. “Please don’t say anything.”


“Okay, okay,” Zayn says, holding his hands up in a placating motion. “Hey, it’s all right. Don’t—Ah, Harry. Com’ere.” He wraps his arm around Harry, who’s started to shake, and gives his shoulder a tight squeeze. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m sorry.”

Harry shakes his head to convey no, it’s fine, but he must not be very convincing because Zayn doesn’t let him go. If anything he pulls Harry closer. Part of Harry's brain is blaring alarm bells and yelling This is weird! because Harry doesn't hug people who aren't his mother. Or Demi, he supposes. The other part of Harry just wants to revel in the closeness, so willingly offered. 

“You don’t have to worry, I won’t tell anyone,” Zayn says. "It's okay. We're okay."

As Harry gradually collects himself, he thanks God over and over that He’s sent him Zayn.

***

“That whole thing about not having to be sneaky? Yeah, forget all that.”

Louis looks up from his last-minute preparation of Spectrum meeting slides to see Zayn approaching the podium. Louis’ eyebrows shoot up. He’s never seen Zayn at a Spectrum meeting before. According to Liam, Zayn has a couple of cousins who go here, and his family is very conservative, so Zayn has to keep his orientation on the DL in public, at least.

“What’s happening now?” Louis asks, trying to figure out what they’re talking about.

“Harry,” Zayn says. “I talked to him last night and—”

“Zayn?” Liam pauses at the door as he enters, clearly as caught off guard to see his boyfriend here as Louis is. “What’s up, babe?” He walks over and wraps an arm around Zayn's waist. 

“Here’s the thing,” Zayn says, settling himself comfortably into Liam's side (Louis tries not to be jealous). “Harry super-duper does not want anyone to find out about the whole camp thing. Quite especially you.” Zayn gives Louis a look. “So if we want to help him get over all this whole internalized homophobia thing he’s got going on, we’re still going to have to be sneaky about it. I.e., he can’t know that anyone else knows what’s wrong. Even Liam.”

“Hmm. That complicates things,” Liam says.

Louis thinks this whole fiasco was pretty complicated already, but he doesn't say that. 

Zayn nods. “I tried to convince him to come to a Spectrum meeting, that you guys would understand if he just explained the whole camp situation.”

“But he’s terrified of Louis,” Liam says.

“Yup. And Spectrum people in general, but I think mostly Louis.”

Louis looks himself up and down: his red pants, his Bluth’s Banana Stand t-shirt, his relatively slight stature. “I can’t really be that terrifying, can I?” he says skeptically.

“Harry is terrified of himself,” Zayn says, “and Harry is the least terrifying person ever.”

Fair point.

“Where does he stand right now, in terms of what Demi told him?” Liam asks.

“What’s weird is that he apologized to me,” Zayn says. “Like, he must, on some level now, get that what he did when he found out about us was wrong. That it’s not okay to treat people that way. But he doesn’t seem at all convinced that it’s okay for him to be gay.”

“That’s something, at least,” Liam says, looking hopeful.

“So what do we do now that we’re back to sneaking?” wonders Louis.

Liam, apparently willing to defer to Zayn on this one since he’s got the inside scoop on Harry’s headspace, looks expectantly at his boyfriend. Zayn chews his lip. “I think the first thing,” Zayn says slowly, “is to make sure Harry knows you guys aren’t mad at him anymore. That’s the thing holding him back from even interacting with Spectrum people, right? It might be enough for you guys to tell him that I've forgiven him, so you guys have too.”

"But if he's still scared of talking to us, when are we going to have the opportunity to do that?" Louis says. 

“On Friday afternoon,” says Perrie, stepping up with an open laptop in one crooked arm, entirely unapologetic for having eavesdropped. “I just got confirmation from the Sisters of Mercy that we’re down to volunteer on Friday. I was chatting with Troy, that CCM kid who was in charge of the Kindness Calls fundraiser for them, and he says they might be sending over a few volunteers of their own, if that’s cool.”

“That's awesome,” Louis says, “but it has what, exactly, to do with Harry?”

Perrie gives him a patronizing look, like he’s a child who’s just said something incredibly obtuse. “If Harry goes with CCM to volunteer, then A, he gets to see you people look all disarming and charitable and approachable. And B, it gives you the chance to clear the air without having to hunt him down in the practice room again.”

“Ah,” Louis says. “That is a good plan.”


“I know,” Perrie says, and drifts away with her laptop to greet some incoming members at the door.

***

Harry doesn’t know how he got roped into this again. Well, actually he does: Harry is, for one thing, a massive pushover. That’s a given. For another, he now massively owes Demi after her discussion with him on Sunday night. Despite the emotional roller coaster their conversation might have strapped him into (which is still going, almost a week later), it is immeasurable comfort to know that at least two CCM people, Selena and now Demi, know the truth about him and aren’t disgusted by him. There's also now the faint, glimmering hope that perhaps Harry and his homosexual tendencies aren't as damned as he always believed them to be. 

Plus, Harry's just in a really good mood after having spent the last few mornings eating breakfast with Zayn again, like normal, and seeing him in the fine arts building at night. Zayn's resilience, in regards to friendship, is something Harry revels in (and is relieved by). 

This is why, on yet another Friday afternoon, Harry finds himself on his way to do more volunteer work for the benefit of the Sisters of Mercy pregnancy care center. He wasn’t even two feet in the door of the Newman Center on Wednesday evening before Demi was upon him with her usual cheeriness (the polar opposite of her demeanor on Sunday night) and the request that he go with a team of CCM volunteers to the pregnancy care center on Friday. “There will be another student organization sending people too, but I doubt there will be very many people there,” she said, trying to cajole him. “Selena and I are going, if that makes you feel any better.”

It did. And at least this time, his duties only involve folding and sorting baby clothes and toy donations. No accosting random strangers for money. Harry thinks he can manage that.

Demi drives Selena, Harry, and herself to the center after Harry gets out of his last class on Friday.

“I hope you like T-Swift,” Demi says, not giving Harry a chance to answer before she starts to blast what Harry assumes must be a Taylor Swift song. He cringes. Harry has no feelings about Taylor Swift one way or the other, but he does have pretty strong preferences when it comes to decibel levels.

“Calm yourself,” Selena tells Demi from the passenger seat, dialing down the music as they pull out of the parking lot. “Harry’s gonna go deaf.”

“No, it’s fine,” Harry protests, but only very weakly, in hopes that Demi will listen to Selena.

“Fine, fine,” Demi agrees, rolling down all the windows. “But when we get to Shake It Off, volume goes back up. That song demands to be blasted.”

Harry can only hope they make it to the center before Shake It Off comes up.

They do, but only just barely. They’re just about to pull into a spot when Demi starts belting “I stay out too late!” and Selena lunges to stop her from bringing the sound back up.

“We’re here,” she says. “Shh. You’re going to disturb the Sisters.”

“Sister Margaret is a huge Taylor fan,” Demi says dismissively, even as she puts the car in park and lets Selena turn off the stereo. “Get that woman talking about the Blank Space video, I dare you.”

Harry follows Demi and Selena up to the strip mall where the pregnancy care center is wedged between a barber shop and a pet store. There are blinds blocking all the windows but a sign reading “OPEN” in pink letters on the front door. “They like to give their clients as much privacy as possible,” Demi says, probably in response to Harry peering curiously at the windows.

A little bell clinks over the door when they walk in. There’s a woman sitting behind the front desk wearing a neat blouse buttoned up to the neck and her hair pulled back in a bun. She looks about mid-thirties, and gives them all a kind smile.

“Hi, Sister Elaine,” Demi says brightly.

“Afternoon,” Sister Elaine greets. “The rest of you are already in the back. You know your way?”

“Yup,” Demi confirms, leading the way down the hall that extends behind the desk. “Just sorting today?”

“Yes indeed,” Sister Elaine says. “Babies R Us must have been having a clearance sale because there’s clothing donations out the wazoo back there. It’s a good thing we’ve got some volunteers today.”

“We’ve got you,” Selena says with an upward nod and a smile.

Sister Elaine grins and turns her eyes to Harry, who gives a tentative smile and hurries along behind Demi and Selena down the hall. They pass a few open doors on the way, a couple that look like offices, one that has an ultrasound machine, and one that looks like a mini chapel, complete with kneelers and a small stack of prayer books on the table. As they get closer to what Harry thinks must be the storage room, they start to hear the voices of their classmates.

“How many people are going to be here?” Harry asks, trying to brace himself for whatever social situation is just behind the closed door outlined by a thin thread of light at the end of the hall.

“I think there are just two others from CCM coming, and I’m not sure how many from Spectrum,” Selena says.

Harry nearly trips over his own feet. “S-sorry?” he says.

Selena looks back at him, her expression inscrutable. “Spectrum,” she repeats. “The other student organization volunteering today.”

Harry flicks his eyes over to Demi, anxiety rising in his throat, for confirmation, but she doesn’t look back at him. He starts to wonder if maybe she set this up somehow. Would she do that? Harry feels betrayed. But then again, Zayn, when he found out about Harry, immediately suggested he interact with Spectrum kids, and he even knew about Harry’s tainted history with a couple of the members. Demi and Selena, who might have no idea that Harry is on less-than-friendly terms with these people—of course they’d probably think along the same lines as Zayn, would think that interacting with Spectrum would be the best way to support Harry. Maybe this is a setup—

No, no that’s stupid. Harry’s being silly. He’s being stupid, and paranoid, concocting conspiracy theories in his head.

Still, that is not much consolation when Demi opens the door and Harry is met with the sight of almost a dozen people scattered around the room, engaged in various tasks, among whom Harry spots Liam, Louis, and the blonde kid Harry once yelled at in front of the student center.

Yeah, no, this is definitely worse than working the Kindness Calls table.

Chapter Text

Louis is in the process of folding a pastel blue onesie when Harry walks in with a couple of girls who—thanks to the Facebook stalking Louis did after Liam texted Demi last Saturday—Louis now recognizes as Demi Lovato and her best friend (Louis surmises from the number of cheek-to-cheek photos of them on Demi’s page), Selena Gomez. Harry’s wide eyes scan the room, but when they intersect with Louis’ face, Harry looks down and shuffles awkwardly to a point just over the threshold so that the door can swing shut behind him.

Louis glances over at Niall, who’s paused in the middle of pairing off baby socks to look up at the trio that’s just entered. Josh ducks around his boyfriend’s chest to get a look, too. Fortunately, Harry hasn’t noticed their gawking since his eyes are now firmly glued on the floor.

“Hey, guys!” Liam greets. He strides over to give Demi and Selena hugs, pauses when he reaches Harry, and then claps him lightly on the shoulder. Harry still jumps. “Hi, Harry.” Liam’s voice is warm, but only elicits a curt nod from Harry, who digs his hands deeper into the pockets of his hoodie. Now that Louis gets a good look at the kid, he realizes that he’s never seen Harry so disheveled. Jeans and a sweatshirt? Louis realizes he always just imagined Harry's closet filled with repeats of the same button-up and slacks combination, like a cartoon character.

“What can we help with?” Demi says, clapping her hands together and dragging Louis’ attention away from Harry.

“I’m about to go help one of the sisters get a few cribs out of the back of someone’s car, if Selena wants to take my spot next to Andy and Nick. Demi and Harry, why don’t you go help Lou unload and fold the stuff from that box?” Liam jabs his thumb in Louis’ direction.

That gets Harry to look up. Finally. Harry’s eyes snap to Liam and his mouth opens in indignant horror, like Liam’s just sentenced him to the gallows. Then Harry’s eyes flick over to Louis, who waves the blue onesie in his hand like a white flag, trying to look inviting and feeling like a buffoon.

“Sounds great,” Demi agrees before Harry can protest. She practically skips over to Louis, Harry tagging listlessly along behind, and sticks out her hand. “I don’t think we’ve ever actually met. I’m Demi.”

“Louis Tomlinson,” says Lou, shaking her hand. The Facebook pictures really didn’t do this girl’s smile justice; she’s almost radiant with cheer and, yup, Louis immediately gets why Liam and Demi are friends. The two of them could probably host a children’s television show together. Something with puppets and sing-alongs.

Louis peers over Demi’s shoulder at Harry, who’s taking in the sight of Louis’ workspace: piles of unfolded clothes, crumpled-in boxes, dust. Louis can feel him practically itching to jump in and start fixing things up. “Hi, Harry,” Louis says when it’s apparent that unless addressed directly, Harry won’t be contributing anything to the conversation.

Harry looks over at him; well, almost—his gaze lands on a spot somewhere around Louis’ mouth. “Hey,” he says, and then looks back at the counter.

Now, that just won’t do. “Missed you at work the last couple weeks,” Louis tries, but Harry just gives a minor flinch and frowns down at the heap of clothes, like he thinks Louis is making fun of him or something.

Oh. Oh. That’s exactly what Harry thinks. Of course he does.

Louis’ heart sinks into the pit of his stomach. This is going to be harder than he thought.

“What’s the system, here?” Demi waves her hands over Louis’ folding project. 
“Right,” Louis says, and launches into the very detailed instructions Sister Elaine left him with—sorting by color, age, and size, where to put the stacks when they’re done, what to do with damaged clothes, the whole nine. Harry and Demi listen carefully, Harrys’ eyes on the counter and Demi’s determinedly fixed on Louis the whole time. When Louis has finished his spiel, he excuses himself to go to the bathroom. On his way out of the storage room, he passes Niall and Josh’s table.

“So?” Niall says, trying and failing to be discreet about peering over at Harry. 

Louis shakes his head. “Like drawing blood from a stone.”

“Want us to go over and introduce ourselves?” Niall offers.

Louis looks at them—Niall with his pink snapback and Josh with all his…Joshness, totally disarming, in general—and then shrugs. “If you want to.” He doesn't want to overwhelm Harry too much, but it might be good for Harry to see that Niall doesn’t hold a grudge for what happened between them.

Louis watches Niall and Josh go over, Demi’s predictable delight at meeting two new people, Harry’s predictable discomfort. In fact, Harry jerks back when Niall extends his hand for a handshake. Which strikes Louis as slightly ridiculous, until he reminds himself that not everyone has seen Niall cry over a Sarah McLachlan commercial about abused puppies. Objectively speaking, Louis can see how someone might mistake Niall as intimidating. The pink snapback, though. Come on, Harry, Louis thinks.

Alas, Demi appears to pick up most of the slack on her and Harry’s end of the conversation with Niall and Josh, and Louis doesn’t stick around to watch. Besides, he really does have to go to the bathroom. Louis lingers in the hallway for a bit after, hoping to give Harry some time to warm up to Niall, and when he returns, Niall and Josh are back at their station. Louis raises his eyebrows as he walks past, and even Josh just bites his lip and shrugs, looking less than hopeful.

“We’re almost done here,” Demi says as Louis approaches. They are indeed, thanks to Harry’s group of sorted, folded piles, which consist of more clothing than Louis’ and Demi’s combined. And Louis has been here, like, a half an hour already. “Oh, wow,” Louis says, pretending to marvel at both Harry and Demi's work equally. “Looks like we’ll have to find something else to do.” Hopefully something with just himself and Harry involved, because Louis doesn’t think Harry’s going to get a word in edgewise—or even try, for that matter—so long as he’s got the safety net of Demi nearby.

Almost as if Liam has ESP, he reappears in the storage room less than a minute later with the announcement that Sister Elaine needs someone to take out the trash and recycling.

“Harry and I can do that,” Louis volunteers. “We’re pretty much done here.”

“Um,” Harry says, and Demi looks a little hesitant to leave Harry alone, but before she or Harry can say anything more, Selena pipes up, “Excellent idea. Demi, I could really use some help over here.”

Louis decides that he likes Selena.

“Oh, okay.” Demi heads off to help her friend, and Harry pulls his shoulders forward and ducks his head, as though physically feeling stripped of the buffer of Demi between himself and Louis.

“Perfect. Thanks so much, guys,” Liam says. “Apparently the bins behind the reception desk are kind of overflowing.”

“We’re on it,” Louis says. He jerks his head in a come on gesture to Harry and strolls out of the room, holding the door open for Harry behind him. Louis considers what he might say to Harry as they walk down the hall towards reception, but cannot come up with anything suitable, so he stays silent.

“Thanks so much, boys,” Sister Elaine says as they lug the bins of trash and recyclables to the front door. “If you just go around to the back, you’ll see a little gated area. That’s where the dumpsters are.”

“Right-o,” Louis says, hoisting the bin a bit higher on his chest and hurrying to catch the door that Harry’s ankle is holding open for him.

When they get around to the fenced-in enclosure behind the strip mall, Harry dumps out both his trash cans into the dumpster and makes like he’s about to run back inside before Louis says, “Harry, hold on a second.”

Harry catches himself mid-stride and nearly stumbles over himself. Bambi Legs, Louis thinks, almost…almost fondly.

What the fuck? Focus, Tomlinson.

“I just wanted to say—dude, you can look at me, you know,” Louis says, trying not to sound too exasperated, but he’d really rather address this next part to Harry, not the crown of the guy’s head.

Harry reluctantly looks up at Louis, lower lip pinched nervously between his teeth.

Yeah, Louis really needs to focus. He mentally slaps himself on each cheek and heaves a breath. “Look, about what I said to you a couple weeks ago,” Louis continues, “I shouldn’t have gotten involved in something between you and Zayn and Liam. It wasn’t my business, I’m just kind of a protective asshole, when it comes to my friends.”

Harry doesn’t say anything. Louis is on the verge of rolling his eyes but stops himself. “What I’m trying to say,” Louis sighs, “is that I’m sorry. Okay? Zayn—Liam told me,” he catches himself, “that you and Zayn are back on good terms, so I just wanted to kind of. You know. Clear the air between us, or whatever.”

That, Louis thinks as he studies Harry’s slackened expression, was the shittiest apology anyone has ever given to anyone, ever. Has Louis mentioned he’s terrible at apologies? He doesn’t give them that often, even to the likes of Niall and Liam and his own mother, so he hasn’t had a lot of practice. So it goes without saying that Louis is already hella uncomfortable with this, but the fact that Harry isn’t giving him any sort of response—verbal or otherwise—isn’t helping.

Harry extracts one hand from the depths of his sweatshirt pocket to grip a fist-full of his hair and tug on it absently. Louis winces involuntarily. Why is this kid always doing that? Before Louis can do something stupid, like smack Harry’s hand away, Harry murmurs, “Thanks. I guess.” And just when Louis thinks that’s going to be all, that they’re gonna have to walk back inside in awkward silence, both still reeling in the wake of Louis’ horrendous apology, Harry continues, “I’m sorry about—about what I said to your friend. Niall.” Harry says the name slowly and gives Louis a hesitant look, like he’s not sure if he remembers whether Niall or Josh was the blonde one he just met. “I shouldn’t have—I shouldn’t’ve done that.”

If Louis was surprised that he managed an apology, he is downright astounded that he just received one from Harry—an apology Harry explicitly warned Louis that he wouldn’t be getting on their first night behind the front desk together. Louis tries not to let his face show how startled he is, because Harry already looks like he’s considering crawling into one of the dumpsters and pulling the lid shut over his head to escape Louis’ gaze. What Louis needs to do is not make this into a huge deal.

But come on, this is a huge fucking deal.

No, Louis tells himself firmly. No. You can freak out to Liam and Niall later.

It’s only this self-reassurance that permits Louis to calmly clear his throat and say, “Ah, no. That’s o—” well, it’s not okay, so “—water under the bridge.” Louis makes a stupid little undulating gesture with his hand. “Don’t worry about it.”

Harry nods stiffly and removes his hand from his hair to scratch sharply at his neck and then stick that hand back in his pocket. Louis tries not to stare too much at the angry red mark his nail’s left behind.

Feeling nearly suffocated by the silence, Louis says in a forcedly chipper tone, “I guess we should get back in there, huh?”

“Y-yeah,” Harry says, and leads the way back to the front. Louis trails behind and blinks away a momentary flashback of himself following Harry through a Target aisle nearly two months ago. He considers how different things were, how he’d openly ogled Harry without any knowledge of what would transpire between them, and now—Louis catches his eyes drifting south of the hem of Harry’s sweatshirt and shakes his head. Well, maybe things are not all that different, after all.

***

Harry can’t bring himself to look at Louis as they trek back inside, afraid his face might give away too much of what he’s feeling. Which—what is he feeling?

Relieved, certainly. He’s been as taut and tense as a loaded mouse trap since he, Demi, and Selena entered the storage room. The anxiety knotted around Harry’s chest loosened marginally when Niall and Josh (Niall’s boyfriend? Harry’s basing that solely on their interlocked hands) came over to introduce themselves. Niall made no mention of the fact that he and Harry had crossed paths before, though Harry was certain Niall could not have forgotten what happened between them. As Demi and Niall chatted next to him, Harry mulled over the wild idea that perhaps Niall had forgiven him, but almost immediately scratched that out as a possibility; why should he?

Now, though, it all makes sense. Zayn apparently vouched for Harry—who sends up the gazillionth prayer, give or take, thanking God for sending Zayn into his life—so Louis and Niall (and Liam?) have decided to forgive him. Harry isn’t sure what Zayn possibly could have told them to offset the hatred that Harry’s sure the others must have felt towards him after…everything. Whatever Zayn said, though, Harry is definitely glad he said it. Now Harry can go back to work without fearing Louis’ wrath. He doesn’t have to fear arriving at Zayn’s studio only to find Liam there too, and facing Liam’s wrath. Niall, as of ten minutes ago, is a friendly acquaintance..

Harry scratches his head as he pushes open the door to the storage room and holds it open for Louis. Is it weird to be suspicious of how well this whole situation unfolded? To be so paranoid about the fact that no one seems to hate Harry? Quite frankly, it’s a bit of whiplash, suddenly not having any enemies. Harry’s used to at least someone breathing down his neck.

Then he remembers what his parents might say if they found out Harry’s been having (significant) doubts about his supposed conversion to heterosexuality. That one of Harry’s best friends at school is in a gay relationship and Harry isn’t doing a darn thing to stop it, anymore. That Harry is kind of afraid to look at Louis, because the last time Harry thought they were on civil terms with each other, the budding sense of attraction Harry tried to stamp out on that first day in Target started to spring up again.

Somehow, it’s reassuring that at the drop of a hat, Harry might be the subject of condemnation and vitriol once again.

That’s a bit messed up, isn’t it?

Harry doesn’t have time to unpack just how messed up, because as soon as Liam sees that Louis and Harry have returned, he’s plunking down boxes of plastic toys in both their arms.

“To be sorted by age,” he instructs with a smile, and points to an empty expanse of counter space next to two boys Harry hasn’t met yet. Harry’s stomach churns with nerves, but Louis just nods and says “aye aye, sir” to Liam, who gives Louis a light smack upside the head.

“Ouch,” Louis says with affected disgruntlement as he leads the way over to their new workspace. “Watch the hair.”

Liam rolls his eyes at Harry with a smile and mouths “princess,” indicating Louis’ back. Harry cracks a smile, if only because the joke must truly mean that Liam wants to be on amiable terms with Harry again.

Harry sets down his box on the side of Louis furthest away from the other boys, who are folding baby blankets and burp cloths. Well, folding maybe isn’t the right word for the haphazard rearranging work they’re doing. Harry’s fingers are tingling to get in there and do it right, for heaven’s sakes, but no, Harry can’t do that. Harry doesn’t even know them, and—oh, great, now Louis’ looking at Harry looking at the piles of “folded” donations. Harry drops his eyes to his own box of toys and pulls out a Tonka truck, wondering what age this might be suitable for.

“Guys, what even is this?” Harry hears Louis ask, and jerks his head up to see Louis regarding the other boys’ sloppy workmanship with great disdain. “Come on, now. It’s not like they’re fitted sheets. Nick, you’re a math major. You have heard of right angles, yes?”

“Fuck off, Lou,” the tall brunette says, but shakes out the blanket on the top of his stack to refold all the same.

“Love you too,” Louis says sweetly, before giving Harry a conspiratorial smirk and returning to his own task.

Harry blinks and looks back at the toy truck in his hand. What just happened? Was that for Harry’s benefit? Surely Louis doesn’t care about the folding integrity of baby blankets; Harry saw (and adjusted) Louis’ pile of donations while he was in the bathroom earlier. Is this another gesture of goodwill on Louis’ part? No, surely not. Even if Louis has forgiven Harry for what he’s said (er, shouted) at Louis’ friends, what reason would Louis have to go out of his way to do favors for Harry?

“You okay?”

Louis’ voice breaks Harry out of his reverie, and Harry realizes he’s been staring down at the plastic truck for some indefinite amount of time. He can feel himself turn pink and clears his throat. “Yeah. Just—yes,” he says, and gives his undivided attention to the task at hand.

Louis doesn’t try to engage Harry in conversation while they work alongside each other, apparently satisfied with silence now that, as Louis says, the air is cleared between them.

Just as they’re wrapping up work about a half an hour later, Demi and Selena wander over, apparently also finished with their Liam-assigned task. “You about ready to go?” Demi asks.

“Yeah, lemme just stick this with the rest of the recyclables,” Harry says, holding his empty box aloft. “Want me to take yours as well?” Harry points to Louis’ box.

“Sure. Thanks.” Louis flashes him a winsome grin that has Harry blushing again. Stop it, he orders himself and hurries off, boxes in hand.

Liam is hovering near the trashcans, checking off the list of chores Sister Elaine set out for them. He glances up at Harry, who’s trying to figure out where he can put this stuff that it won’t be in the way. “Just leave them here and I’ll fold them up with the rest,” Liam instructs.

“Okay. Thanks.” 

“Oh, Harry.” Liam puts a hand on Harry’s shoulder to stop him from leaving. “We should hang out again sometime this week to do homework, if you’re free?”

Harry is floored by how genuinely hopeful Liam looks. Hopeful that Harry might want to spend time with him. What even… “Yeah, of course,” Harry says. 

Liam’s smile looks almost relieved. “Awesome. I need a study buddy to stay motivated, and it’s not like I can ever get anything done with this one around.” Liam nods at Louis, who’s just wandered over with Demi and Selena.

“So I like having some white noise in the background when I work,” Louis defends. “It helps me concentrate.”

“I don’t think Friends qualifies as white noise,” Liam says.

“It can be if you’ve already seen every episode like, five times,” Harry says. Louis and Liam turn to him, looking just about as astonished as Harry is with himself for making a kind-of-joke in their presence. At least, Harry hopes it sounds like a joke, and not (as is the truth) what he did with his summer vacation before sophomore year of high school.

Louis recovers first. “See,” he says, turning to Liam. “Harry gets it. How about this, you can study while Harry and I watch Friends.”

Harry’s mouth drops open. Did Louis just invite Harry to hang out with him? It must still be part of the joke.

“You’re a terrible influence,” Liam reprimands. To Harry, he says, “As you can see, we’ll probably have to meet up in the library. Those book theft detectors at the entrance are like anti-Tomlinson force fields.”

“I just don’t see the point of going to the library if you’re not checking anything out,” Louis says. “What are you there for? Chairs, tables, light fixtures? All things we have at home.”

Liam shakes his head with a woeful expression like he’s personally wounded by Louis’ fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of libraries. “I’ll text you,” Liam promises Harry. To Louis, “Five minutes and we can go, I promise. I’m just going to debrief Sister Elaine.”

Louis makes an impatient noise and hops up onto the counter, kicking his feet back and forth. “Make haste, young Liam,” he instructs, shooing Liam imperially with his hand.

“Ready to go?” Demi asks Harry.

He nods and makes to follow them. “See you Sunday,” Louis calls to Harry’s retreating form. Harry pauses to give Louis a startled little wave before making his way out the door.

***

When Louis arrives at work on Sunday evening a few minutes past the hour (as per usual), Harry is already seated behind the desk (as per usual). Good, Louis thinks. At least Harry showed up tonight. And then, when Harry looks up and gives Louis that tentative smile of his, Louis thinks, Even better.

“Evening,” Louis says. “How goes it?”

Harry shrugs. “Sunday night. Things can only be so good, can’t they?”

Louis can tell the question is meant to sound sarcastic and off-the-cuff, but Harry’s nervous hand-wringing slightly undermines the effect. Still, Lou is pleased that his work on Friday afternoon seems to have paid off, in regards to Harry feeling ever-so-slightly more comfortable in his presence. So he smirks and says, “Yeah, got that right.” And to encourage Harry to maybe even say a bit more, if he feels inclined, “I’ve got a shit-ton of homework. You?”

Harry runs a couple fingers along his lower lip thoughtfully, and even though Louis understands that Harry does not understand how distracting that is, fuck. “…just don’t get stats, I guess,” Harry is concluding when Louis yanks his attention back to what Harry’s actually saying.

“Well, math is kind of my thing, so if you ever have questions,” Louis says, not really expecting Harry to take him up on that, but figuring it might mean something to him for Louis to offer, anyway.

As expected, Harry’s eyes just go as round as quarters and he shakes his head. “No, no that’s okay. But thanks. Thank you, really. I’ll let you know if I ever—yeah.”

Louis shrugs. “Whatever floats your boat.” Louis reclines in his chair and reaches his arms over his head to stretch, and when he tilts forward again, he catches Harry looking at the region around his navel. “What?” Louis asks, tugging his shirt back down.

Harry twists away from Louis in his chair and swallows heavily. “Sorry, sorry,” he rushes to say. “I was just reading your shirt.”

Louis sincerely doubts that (especially since his t-shirt just has a long string of pi digits printed across the chest), but can’t decide whether he should feel smug about Harry eyeing him or not. It’s one thing to catch a boy staring at your exposed midriff. Under normal circumstances, Louis would already have hitched on his characteristic self-satisfied smile, or maybe quirked a coy eyebrow at his admirer. This is Harry, though, and much as a part of Louis (the part that keeps ogling Harry from behind) wants things to be that simple, the fact of the matter is that things are not that simple. This is a boy who, for the first time in his life, might be entertaining the idea that he can let himself look at boys like Louis and not have to spend ten hours on his knees in church after the fact, beseeching God for forgiveness. Or whatever it is they do. So Harry’s probably just curious. Louis knows better than to take that as an invitation to flirt. Plus, he’s just gotten Harry back to the point of being able to look Louis in the eye. Right now, Louis is Spectrum President, and his mission is to help Harry find self-acceptance and a community that can support him, not to confuse or intimidate the boy with innuendos.

Eye on the prize, Tomlinson, Louis tells himself. You can fantasize about coming on to Bambi Legs again when you make up for what you’ve done. Which, hopefully, will inherently involve bringing Harry to the point that Louis putting the moves on him won’t completely, utterly terrify him.

They are clearly nowhere near that point, though, Louis can see plainly from the distressed expression on Harry's face. Louis casts around for a distraction and says, “Speaking of shirts, this is not the Sunday Best wear I’ve come to expect from Harry Styles.” (Like he and Harry are friends or something.) Louis nods at the t-shirt sweatpants combo Harry is rocking. He means it to sound complimentary and teasing in a friendly way, but Harry’s eyes narrow defensively and he bristles.

“What’s wrong with that?” he demands, a bit too steely for Louis’ liking.

Louis raises an eyebrow, unwilling to let this escalate. Not when things were going so well before. “Nothing,” he says slowly. “Just an observation.”

Harry just seems to crumple in on himself at that, and it strikes Louis now (as he reflects on previous times when he’s stepped—or stomped—on Harry’s toes) that Harry can’t keep up an argument. He’s not the type, not like Louis, who, in his anger, takes vindictive pleasure in trouncing his opponent. Harry, on the other hand, seemingly has to work himself up to an argument, puffing himself up like some sort of tropical bird only to deflate and retreat, fold in like a house of cards. Louis should have seen it before, that the fire of a fight just isn’t in Harry. Someone else tried to put it there, but it hasn’t really taken. Harry’s just a big softie that a bunch of insular bigots tried to brainwash into believing otherwise.

“For what it’s worth, I’m a firm believer in the therapeutic effects of sloppy dress,” Louis says.

It’s Harry’s turn to raise an eyebrow.

“Seriously, doesn’t everything just feel ten times better when you’re in sweats?” Louis continues. “They’re like…”

“Comfort clothes,” Harry finishes.

Louis snaps his fingers. “Exactly. Like the Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream of daywear.”

That elicits a small smile from Harry, which Louis is counting as a win.

It’s a start.

Chapter Text

“You’ve never been to my place,” is the first thing Zayn says when he sits down to breakfast with Harry on Friday.

Harry looks up from his cereal, unsure what kind of response Zayn is looking for, if he wants one at all. “No?”

Zayn studies Harry with an amused smile. “Well, you should come over and hang out at some point, is where I was going with that,” he says.

“Oh,” Harry says.

“Do you not want to?”

“No, no, I do,” Harry says, trying to be just effusive enough to convince Zayn, but not so much that Zayn can tell just how desperately Harry wants that. “I was just surprised, that’s all.” Harry shrugs and stirs his spoon around in his soggy Corn Flakes.

“Why?” Zayn says. “Honestly, I’m shocked you’ve never been over. We’ve been friends for what, a month?”

Almost six weeks, Harry corrects in his head, but not aloud because that might sound creepy. Also, Harry is busy trying to stifle the warm fuzziness that has settled in his gut at the word “friends.” He knows Zayn is his friend. He just likes hearing it, okay?

“I’ve never invited you over either,” Harry points out.

“Yeah, but that’s different,” Zayn says.

Harry fiddles with the rubber band under his sleeve, suddenly on guard. “Why?”

Zayn pauses, of course sensing that he’s said something to put Harry on edge because he’s Zayn. “I just mean that you seem like the kind of person who really values your space, and not having other people coming in and potentially mucking it up,” he explains patiently. “You’ve got a single room, you keep it neat.” Zayn shrugs. “That’s all.”

“Oh. Right.” Harry doesn’t bother elucidating the real reason his parents put him in a single. “Thanks.”

“Point being, we should hang out someplace other than a dining hall or a studio sometime,” says Zayn. “How do you feel about a movie night tonight? Liam’s been dying to see Interstellar and I saw they just got it in the RedBox at the Shell station.”

Ah, of course Liam will be there. Harry should have expected that. Not that Liam is constantly encroaching on Harry and Zayn’s space; when Harry and Zayn are in the fine arts building late at night, sometimes Liam shows up to hang out with them, sometimes not. He usually just sits next to Zayn, working on homework and popping in and out of conversation. Harry’s even noticed that while Liam and Zayn will occasionally exchange kisses and casual touches in front of him, they seem to have come to some sort of agreement about keeping it mostly PG in Harry’s presence (Harry feels slightly guilty about this, but mostly relieved, so he doesn’t ever bring it up to Zayn). But when Zayn shows up to breakfast in the morning, Liam is usually with him—before Liam ducks off to the library to work—giving Harry the impression that they tend to spend most nights together.

Interstellar sounds fine,” Harry says. “I haven’t seen it yet.”

Later that afternoon, Harry receives a text from Zayn, asking whether he can invite a couple other people to their movie night. Liam’s roommate Niall is apparently a sci-fi fan.

Harry thumbs his phone contemplatively for a moment. This is gradually turning into a social thing, not just a hanging-out-with-Zayn thing. The latter, Harry could probably handle no problem, but this?

On the other hand, what if it were just Harry, Liam, and Zayn? Harry already feels like he’s third-wheeling sometimes when they hang out in the studio together. If they were alone in Zayn’s darkened apartment watching a movie…

Yes, that’s totally fine, Harry replies, pauses, then forces himself to type, the more the merrier.

***

“Movie night. Zayn’s place. Tonight, nine o’clock,” Liam says as he enters the apartment.

“Not interested,” Louis says. He collapsed on the couch after returning from classes and hasn’t moved since. He had three tests this week and is exhausted and fully prepared to spend the next few hours prone with no one for company but the cast of How I Met Your Mother and a bag of popcorn. Possibly several.

“Harry’s going to be there,” Liam sing-songs.

Despite himself, Louis is interested. “Really.”

“Yes. I wouldn’t try to peel you off the couch if that weren’t the case,” Liam says.

Liam is a good egg.

“What time?”

“Nine, Lou.”

“And what time is it now?”

“Six.”

That’s enough time for a nap. Louis rolls over.

“Don’t sleep all afternoon, or you’ll be awake all night,” Liam advises.

If Louis’ eyes were open, he’d roll them. “What if I want to be awake all night? I have a social life. I go to parties.”

“Are you going to a party tonight?” Liam asks patiently.

“…No.”

Louis can practically sense Liam shaking his head. “Well, after the movie Zayn and I are probably going to hit Phi Kappa Tau, if you want to come.”

Louis opens his eyes for that.

“What’s this? Is Liam ‘I’m The Most Adult Adult That Ever Was’ Payne gonna get smashed and throw down with some frat bros?”

“No.”

“No?”

“No, I’m not going to get smashed. I invited Zayn to come with, and it’s so far that we’ll have to drive. Rude to invite someone to a party then make him designated driver. I’m just going because Ian invited me, and he’s a co-captain this year.”

“So, this is a diplomatic venture.”

“Basically.”

Louis hums to himself. Well, at least he knows the movie night will only last a couple of hours, then. He can be back in his bed and under the covers by midnight, for sure.

“Okay. What are we watching?”

Interstellar.”

“Did you invite Niall? He’s obsessed with that movie.”

“Yes. Josh was going to come too, but his parents are in town.”

“Count me in. Wake me up when it’s happening.” With that, Louis permits himself to doze off.

***

Liam’s going to pick you up on his way over, that cool? Zayn texts Harry that evening, just as Harry is starting to wonder how on Earth he’s going to make it to Zayn’s apartment.

Harry waits outside for Liam, bundled in a coat and gloves since it’s finally getting seriously chilly outside. He wishes he had a scarf wrapped around his neck, but Harry doesn’t even own a scarf. It always seemed like the kind of thing only effeminate guys would wear.

Harry wonders how anyone could want to spend time with him, the boy for whom it is a scandalous thing to own a scarf.

Myrtle pulls into the parking lot a few minutes later, and Harry waves at the windshield, even though he can’t see Liam behind the bright glare of the headlights.

“Evening,” Liam says as Harry hops into the passenger seat—thankfully devoid of swim gear this time. “How was your week?”

“Fine,” Harry says. “Sorry we didn’t get a chance to be study buddies.” Harry suppresses the urge to smack himself on the forehead for how stupid that sounded.

Liam chuckles, but not in a mean way. “That’s okay. Homework will be there next week, too, I'm sure.”

Harry bites down on the forefinger of his right glove to pull it off, then removes his left. “Who else is going to be there tonight, do you know?”

“I think it’s just going to be five—Zayn, us, Niall, and Louis. Josh—you met Josh, right? Yeah, he might make an appearance towards the end, depending on how long his family wants to hang out.”

“Okay.”

Just four other people. Harry can handle that. Plus, he knows all of them. Even if Louis and Niall still make him nervous, Harry would rather spend time with them than strangers. Better the devil you know, and all that.

“Oh, I’ve been meaning to tell you—thanks for helping us out at the pregnancy care center last Friday,” Liam says. “Sister Elaine really appreciated us being there.”

“Yeah, of course,” Harry says. “Glad to help out.”

They dip into a valley of silence, and before Harry can stop himself, his stupid mouth decides to start saying, “I didn’t—I didn’t know that Spectrum volunteered there.” Harry hopes vehemently that doesn’t sound too much like I didn’t know the Sisters would let a group like Spectrum volunteer there, even though that is, in fact, what he means.

Liam either doesn’t notice or is going to let this one slide. “That’s actually the first time we’ve been there,” he says. “Louis only suggested it a couple weeks ago, after he visited your Kindness Calls table.”

“Louis?”

Harry’s voice must have been tinged with just too much incredulity, because Liam throws Harry a sideways look across the console. “Yeah. I know he can come across as a bit…prickly, sometimes, but Louis is a really good guy.”

Harry winces and hooks a finger under his rubber band to give himself a sharp snap. “I didn’t mean—”

“Harry, it’s okay.” Liam removes a hand from the steering wheel to reach over and pat Harry’s shoulder. It’s all Harry can do not to startle under the unfamiliar touch. “I was super afraid of Lou for like, the whole first semester we roomed together freshman year.”

“Really?” Harry is fairly certain Liam could bench-press Louis if he had a mind to.

“Yeah, I mean, I was really shy, Louis was really…not. He doesn’t keep his opinions to himself, like, ever. Which seems like a bad thing at first, and keeps you really on edge, but is actually kind of comforting in the sense that you always know where you stand with him.” Liam gives Harry a significant look. “So, if the guy says you’re in his good graces, you can trust that.”

Harry picks at his lower lip in silence and Liam appears content to let that sink in, because he doesn’t say anything else until they’ve pulled into the parking lot of what must be Zayn’s apartment building. Harry follows Liam up the sidewalk to the front door.

“Thanks for letting the rest of us crash your movie night with Zayn, too,” Liam says as he locks up Myrtle behind them. “Niall and Zayn haven’t hung out much, and it’s important to me that they’re—they get along. You know how it is. ”

Harry doesn’t know, never having gotten far along enough in a romantic situation that he was concerned about his friends’ approval of a significant other. Harry’s always been way more concerned about making sure he doesn’t like certain people than getting around to actually liking them (he grimaces at the recollection of his disastrous date with Ariana). But he can appreciate the fact that this is important to Liam, and after all Liam’s done for him, Harry is happy to facilitate however he can.

“I’m glad you guys are here,” Harry says, which is at least half true.

Liam’s smile is worth the half-lie part of that statement. He turns to press the buzzer for Zayn’s apartment.

A groggy voice comes over the intercom. “’lo?”

“Hey, Ant. It’s Liam. Is Zayn—”

A loud zzzzttt sounds and Liam opens the door. “That’s Zayn’s roommate,” he explains. “He’s very friendly, usually, but he tends bar on weekends so he probably just woke up.”

“Oh,” is all Harry can think to say as he follows Liam inside and up the stairs.

Zayn’s apartment is a four story walk-up, and Harry is panting by the time they arrive at his door (not Liam, though, with his swimmer’s respiratory system). Liam doesn’t even knock, just strolls right in and leaves Harry to trail hesitantly along behind.

The first thing Harry’s sees is a cozily messy living room, with a couple of slouched couches laden with knotted piles of blankets. The first thing Harry smells is something sour, but he can’t immediately place the scent…it kind of reminds him of skunk-smell. Then Harry notices the ornate glass ornament-looking-thing perched on the upside-down cardboard box serving as a coffee table. Is that—

“Hey, babe.”

Harry tears his eyes away from the living room paraphernalia to see Zayn emerging from the kitchen adjacent to the living room. He immediately curls one arm around Liam’s waist and tilts his chin up to land a kiss on Liam’s lips. “Where are Louis and Niall?”

“Niall’s driving them over separately, since I got tired of waiting on Louis to get himself out of bed. Or the sofa, rather,” Liam says.

“Ah,” Zayn says, and his eyes fall on Harry, still smiling. “Hey, Harry.”

Harry lifts a hand in greeting. “I like your place,” he says tightly.

Zayn makes a disbelieving sound with his nose. “Thanks, but you don’t have to humor us. It is kind of a wreck right now. If Ant would clean up after himself—” Zayn raises his voice to apparently no one, until a lanky, boney someone with dark sleep circles raccooning his eyes emerges from a bedroom door to Harry’s right. Ant, Harry presumes.

“—then Ant wouldn’t have time to go to work and earn the money it takes to keep the electricity on for Zayn to host movie nights,” Ant grumbles good-naturedly as he pulls a ratty green beanie over the tangle of his hair.

“You work twenty hours a week, tops,” Zayn says.

Ant shrugs, like that has no bearing on the validity of his argument. “Whatever,” he says, and gives a hearty sniff. “Did you bake cookies?” Harry wonders how he can smell that over the green odor hanging in the living room.

“They’re in the oven right now.”

Ant’s shoulder slump. “But I’m heading to work, like, right now.”

Zayn shrugs. “I can’t help that.”

Ant shakes his head. “Why would you tease me like this?”

“Sorry,” Zayn says, looking simultaneously amused and genuinely apologetic. “I’ll make sure to save you some for when you get back.”

“Do,” Ant says, tugging on his jacket. “Later, boys.”

“Bye,” Liam and Zayn say in unison.

The door closes. “Cookies?” Liam asks, casting a hopeful look at his boyfriend.

“Tollhouse chocolate chip, from the package,” Zayn replies. “There’s still some cookie dough left on the counter.”

Liam, evidently lost for the words to properly express his appreciation for Zayn at that moment, just gives him an enthusiastic kiss and spirits away to the kitchen to pilfer a chunk of cookie dough.

Harry remains awkwardly where he is.

“Want to grab a seat?” Zayn asks. “I’m really sorry about the mess. Here, lemme…”

Zayn makes to start tidying up the living room, but Harry stops him.

“No, don’t feel like you have to,” Harry says. “It’s okay.”

“You sure? I would have, if I’d gotten home a bit earlier today.” Zayn's lips pull down in an apologetic frown.

Harry nods. To prove his conviction, he takes a careful seat on one of the couches and folds his legs criss-cross-apple-sauce in front of him. He looks up at Zayn, who’s staring back at Harry like he thinks he might blow sky-high at any moment, surrounded by such filth. Harry sucks in a deep breath and pushes it out his nose. “I’m okay,” he says. “Really.”

“Okay,” Zayn says, “but, you know, you have to tell me if that changes. House rules.” He flashes a smile to undercut the seriousness of the moment.

Before Harry can agree, Liam returns from the kitchen, cupping a frozen hunk of cookie dough in the palm of one hand. “I’m so happy,” he says around the mouthful of dough he’s chewing now, and drops down onto the other couch.

Zayn shakes his head. “So easy to please,” he says fondly.

Zayn just about to sink down next to Liam when there’s a knock on the door. He leans over to swing it open and Louis and Niall spill into the room, holding two liters and bags of chips.

“Evening, gentlemen,” Louis says, grinning around at them all, his eyes—unless Harry is imagining it—resting a fraction of a second longer on Harry than any of the others.

“I smell cookies,” Niall says immediately. He deposits his stock of snack food on the cardboard coffee table before zipping into the kitchen.

“They’re not ready yet,” Zayn calls futilely after him.

Louis gives a hearty sniff and his eyebrows quirk up, along with the corners of his mouth. “Something tells me more than just cookies got baked before our arrival,” he says. His gaze comes to rest of the glass figure Harry was inspecting earlier.

“Ant’s bong,” Zayn explains. “He’s the resident stoner, not me.”

A bong. Harry turns the word over in his head and then widens his eyes in realization. Ah. Like. For smoking marijuana with.

“Good thing,” Louis says, nodding in Harry’s direction. “See that look of relief?”

Zayn’s eyes immediately flit over to Harry’s. “Oh, shit, sorry, Harry. I hope you didn’t think—”

“I didn’t. I didn’t think that,” Harry says, attempting to conceal his relief because he doesn’t like Zayn looking at him like that. Like he’s a child. Like Harry’s never seen a…a bong before. Even though he hasn’t. Has only smelled marijuana once or twice in his life before, and he's certainly never been in a room with anyone smoking it. Has never been invited to smoke it himself.

The nails of Harry’s right hand dig into his left wrist.

“Only joking, Harry,” Louis says. “Liam would never stand for that kind of tomfoolery, anyway.”

“That’s right,” Liam says, tone firm but expression loose and reassuring. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make sure Niall doesn’t eat all the remaining cookie dough.”

“Uh-huh,” says Louis, eyeing Liam as he goes. To Zayn, “Hope you’ve already baked all the cookies you were planning to. Between the two of them…”

“It’s ridiculous. I keep telling Liam he’s going to get salmonella,” Zayn says. 

Louis barks out a laugh and toes off his shoes. “Mind if I pop a squat there?” he points to the spot next to Harry.

Harry nods and scoots himself over so that he’s wedged up against the armrest to make room for Louis—and then some.

Louis flops down on the open cushion and says, “Do I smell?”

“What? No,” Harry says, almost too forcefully, but Louis is smiling.

“Then relax,” Louis insists, gently tugging Harry’s sleeve so that he’s sitting upright, not leaning away, in a more comfortable position. 

“Sorry,” Harry mumbles. He fusses at his sleeves so that he doesn’t have to look at Louis.

“I’m so pumped about this movie,” says Niall as he and Liam return to the living room. “Have you seen it yet?” He directs this last part at Harry.

Harry shakes his head.

“Prepare for tears,” Niall warns.

“Spoilers!” Liam complains.

Niall takes his seat on the third cushion of Liam and Zayn’s couch and roll his eyes. “It’s about a dude going into space and leaving his little kids behind. Of course there’s going to be tears.”

Liam hmmphs and drops an arm across Zayn’s shoulders. “Just play the damn movie before Niall gives anything else away.”

“I didn’t—”

“Hush,” Louis says.

Liam reaches behind the couch for the light switch and the room goes dark as Zayn fiddles with the remote to cue up the movie.

Louis bends down to pick something up off the floor, and when he unfurls it, Harry realizes it's a blanket.

“Blanket?” Louis offers, holding one corner out to Harry.

“Sure,” Harry says, too surprised to do anything but spread his half of the blanket over his knees.

This is weird, the position Harry is in right now. Curled up on a couch, under a blanket, less than a foot away from Louis Tomlinson, in the dark…but he kind of likes it, in a way that would have terrified the living hell out of him a few weeks ago. Oh, don’t get him wrong, Harry’s still scared to the point of sitting stiffly and not really focusing all that much on the movie. Every time Louis so much as scratches his nose, Harry is hyperaware of the movement.

Harry can’t help comparing this not-even-remotely-romantic situation to his movie date with Ariana a few weeks ago. How he hadn’t even wanted to touch her, but felt obligated to. How she’d curled up next to him and that felt wrongwrongwrong. Now here Harry is, and if he can imagine a universe where this kind of thing is totally acceptable and Harry never did anything to make Louis hate him, Harry could maybe—he could see himself curling up next to Louis like that.

It’s a good thing it’s dark, because Harry’s face must be fuchsia at that thought. He keeps his eyes locked determinedly on the screen, listening distantly to the others’ commentary on the movie and watching Louis in his peripheral vision.

Harry practically jumps out of his seat when the oven timer goes off.

“Relax, Curly,” Louis says quietly. “Just cookies.”

Something in Harry’s chest warms at the—is it a nickname? A term of endearment? Whatever it is, it’s a signal of familiarity that has Harry’s heart doing double time. Oh dear.

“I’ll get them,” Harry volunteers, standing up before Zayn can pry himself out from under Liam’s arm.

“Are you sure?” Zayn says, though he looks comfortable enough in his current position that Harry doesn’t believe it will take much convincing to get him to stay there.

“Sure,” Harry says, already circumventing the coffee table box.

In the kitchen, Harry pulls the pans out of the oven and sets them on the stove to cool for a minute before he spatulas the cookies off. In the meantime, he peers through the kitchen doorway to watch the other boys, facing away from him, watching the movie. He can hear them debating Matthew McConaughey’s hotness. Niall is in favor, Louis very adamantly is not.

How is it that Harry’s gone from knowing no non-heterosexual people to knowing, like, a million?

That’s a wild exaggeration, but Harry thinks his point still stands. Is this…Harry recalls his night alone in church, after his conversation with Demi, how he asked for a sign. How he pleaded with God to show him whether or not being non-heterosexual was acceptable, even—even that accepting it would be a good thing. 

Could this be the answer? Harry looks into the living room, the silhouettes of limbs draped over shoulders, bodies slumped comfortably together, hands petting hair. The loose-hug, light-shove kind of camaraderie of close friendship and love. In comparison to the self-conscious, sometimes postured friendships he had with youth group friends? There’s suddenly a thick lump jammed in Harry’s throat that he can’t even swallow down with his glass of water.

Just as Harry is setting his glass in the sink, someone says, “Thought you might’ve climbed out the window and fled down the fire escape, you’ve been gone so long.”

Harry looks up sharply to see Louis leaning in the doorframe, arms crossed, crooked smile in place. In his sweats and t-shirt and feathery ruffled hair, he looks…soft, which is not the word Harry thinks he ever would have used to describe Louis last month. Louis’ always seemed just so…to use Liam’s word, “prickly,” with his biting comebacks and sharp words and tattoos.

“Oh, sorry,” Harry says. “Waiting for them to cool.” He points at the cookies, still on the pan.

“Gotcha. Well, if you want to get back in there, I’ve already seen the movie. I can wait on these, if you want.” Louis inclines his head in the direction of the pan.

Harry knows a dismissal when he hears one. “Okay.” He yanks off the oven mitts and sets them on the counter before hurrying back to his spot on the living room couch.

***

Louis meant that to be a kind gesture. He didn’t want Harry to feel like he had to be doing any work for the rest of them at the expense of seeing the movie. As Louis watches Harry slink out of the kitchen, though, like Louis ordered him away, his stomach twists guiltily. Why does every nice thing he tries to do for this kid feel like a mistake?

Louis sighs, starts removing the cookies from the pan even though they’re nowhere near cooled, and piling them onto a plate.

At least Harry is here. In the least patronizing way possible, Louis is proud of him for coming. He knows it must have been difficult for Harry to accept the invitation, given present company, and then actually stick around, given the current state of disarray that characterizes Zayn’s apartment. Seriously. Louis has stepped on, like, three Cheetos since entering the kitchen.

He turns off the oven and cracks the door to let it cool before carrying the pastries into the living room and setting them down on the coffee table box.

“Cookie?” Louis offers Harry, having plucked two off the stack before Niall and Liam could get their hands on them.

Harry’s eyes shift from the TV screen to Louis hand up to Louis face, and the wide-eyed surprise on his face strikes a painful chord in Louis. Like Harry still can’t believe Louis would do a nice thing for him. Even something as trivial as this. Louis can’t come up with of anything else to do but hold the cookie closer under Harry’s nose and fervently think, Come on, man, just take the fucking cookie. Please.

“Thanks,” Harry says, carefully plucking the treat from Louis’ palm with his thumb and forefinger and taking a bite. “'s good,” he comments, looking about as awkward as Louis feels.

Louis sits down next to Harry, a little closer than last time, and breathes a sigh of relief when Harry doesn’t automatically start scooting away again. Fortified by that, Louis pulls the blanket up over them. Harry’s attention is back on the screen already, but a quick glance at the other couch shows Louis that Zayn, Liam, and Niall are all looking at them—or rather, Harry—with expressions of approval. Liam glances over at Louis and gives him a reassuring smile.

Louis likes that he gets to be the one under a blanket with Harry. But he’s also very, very glad that he’s not alone in this.

We’re going to take good care of you, Harry Styles, he thinks.

***

Niall was right. There are tears towards the end of the movie, but luckily Harry is not the only one, and there is enough time before the lights come on for him to dry his eyes.

“What did you think?” Niall demands of Harry, with a tone that implies if Harry didn’t like the movie, they’re going to have a problem.

“I liked it,” Harry says promptly. “A lot.”

Niall grins. “Isn’t it great?” he says, stretching his arms over his head.

“It was all right,” Louis drawls, lazy grin spreading across his face.

“You shut your mouth,” Niall orders, pointer finger jabbed in Louis’ direction. “Or you might be walking home.”

“Oh, speaking of rides,” Liam says as he closes up half-empty bags of chips, “Zayn and I are driving over to the PKT party, if anyone wants a ride.”

Niall perks up. “Party?”

Harry bites his lip. Does thus mean he’s walking home? He will, if that’s what it takes not to attend a party.

“Not tonight, I don’t think,” Louis says through a yawn. He twists to each side to crack his back. “I’ve got Netflix and sleep waiting at home for me.”

“Psh, Netflix,” Niall says dismissively. “Alcohol, Louis. Alcohol.”

“Netflix is bae,” Louis says.

“If you use that word again, you are not allowed back in my apartment,” Zayn says, dead serious.

Louis laughs.

Harry is still waiting to hear what this means, in regards to his transportation back home.

“Well, I’d supremely enjoy getting smashed tonight,” Niall says. “So if Liam’s going to be DD…” Niall looks hesitantly at Louis, who hitches on a diabolically eager smile.

“I’ll be driving your car home then, shall I?” Louis says, as though nothing in the world would please him more.

Carefully,” Niall says. “Don’t break my baby. Again.”

“Just the bumper!” Louis protests. “One time!”

Niall pulls his keys out of his pocket and twists his neck to avert his eyes as he drops them into Louis’ waiting palm, like he can’t even bear to watch.

“Excellent,” Louis says, and turns to Harry. “Want a ride back to your place? Unless you’d rather go with these hooligans…”

It’s a testament to either how kind Louis has been to Harry over the past week or how much Harry hates parties that he immediately answers, “A ride would be great. Please.”

“So polite,” Louis teases, tone warm.

“Be a bro and watch him for me, will you, Harry?” Niall says.

Harry nods solemnly, which earns him an approving smile from Niall.

“Well, let’s get the show on the road, then,” Louis says, ushering Harry towards the door with his arms. “Places to be, people to watch on my computer screen till I fall asleep.”

Harry nearly trips over a pile of blankets in his haste to get to the door. “Thanks for having us,” Harry says to Zayn. “This was really fun. And I finally got to see your place.”

“You’ll have to come over again when it’s some semblance of clean,” Zayn says, scratching his jaw, “but tonight was good too.” He hops up from the couch to pull Harry in for a farewell hug, and Harry almost doesn’t move his arms up fast enough to reciprocate because he’s so stunned.

When Harry finally manages to call his limbs to attention, he’s swallowing the urge to cry again. “Thank you,” he mumbles into Zayn’s shoulder.

Zayn gives Harry’s back a hearty pat with one of his hands and releases him, then gives a hug to Lou. “Drive safe.”

“You guys too,” Louis says. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“That does not greatly limit our potential behavior,” Niall points out.

Louis flips him off and leads the way out.

***

Niall’s car is about as cluttered as Liam’s, though instead of kick boards it’s mostly filled with crumpled burger wrappers and Dorito dust and the like.

“Where to?” Louis asks as he puts the car in reverse.

Harry holds his hands up to the vents, which are huffing out only moderately warm air. “Harper Hall?” He hates how it comes out like a question.

“Nice. I lived in Harper my freshman year.”

“Really?”


“Mmm-hmm. With Liam. Do you like your hall mates?”

“Um, I don’t know,” Harry admits. “I don’t really know any of them.”

“Not even your roommate?”

Harry shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “I’m in a single.”

Louis lets out an impressed whistle. “Nice. I mean, not that I would change anything, knowing now that my roommate would be Liam, but if I could convince my parents to let me have a single freshman year, I definitely would have gone for it.”

Harry would never want to subject someone to living with him, but for the first time since arriving on campus, he wonders if perhaps he’s missing out on something (or someone, rather) by living alone.

“You wanted a place to yourself, though?” Louis plows on with his interrogation.

“What’s with all the questions?” Harry shoots back, regretting the rude words as soon as they’re out of his mouth. He curls up a bit closer to the car door.

Louis, though, apparently doesn’t put a whole lot of stock in conventional social protocol among acquaintances. He seems totally unbothered, and simply replies, “We’ve worked together since the beginning of the school year and I barely know you.”

“Yes, but we’ve spent half that time hating each other,” Harry reminds him. This feels strangely reminiscent of Harry’s conversation with Zayn at breakfast this morning. What’s the deal with everyone trying to get to know Harry better, all the sudden?

“True,” Louis grants him. “But there’s still the rest of the semester to get through, and god forbid we have to suffer through it in the same uncomfortable silence we have the last two months.”

Harry lets out a chuckle and stops up short with the realization that this might be the first time he’s ever laughed in Louis’ presence.

Louis seems similarly startled, and even turns his head to look at Harry before putting his eyes back on the road. Harry doesn't look over to see Louis’ expression.

“You never answered my question,” Louis says. “About living alone.”

Harry shrugs some of the tension out of his shoulders. “I guess. I didn’t really—my parents wanted me to have a single, but I’m a pretty neat person so it worked out. Don’t have to worry about anyone else’s mess.”

“Your parents wanted you to get a single?”

Harry should not have divulged that, because he doesn’t have a good excuse on hand except the truth. “I think they were just looking out for me,” Harry says slowly. “I’m not…good with people.” He gives a hollow, self-deprecating laugh. “Preaching to the choir here, though, right?”

“On the contrary, in all my...admittedly very limited experience, I think you’re a perfectly lovely person to be around,” Louis says, and when Harry gives a loud, incredulous snort, “when you’re not, you know, evangelizing.”

Harry still has a difficult time believing that, but doesn’t want to argue the point. “Sure,” he says, eyes out the window.

Louis is silent for a time—as long as it is possible for Louis Tomlinson to stay silent, Harry imagines—and then says, “You don’t think so?”

Harry gives another shrug and licks his lips. He isn’t quite sure why he’s telling Louis this, except that maybe since this friendship(?) already has such a shoddy foundation that at this point, it hardly matters if Harry does something to monumentally screw it up. “I’m not,” he begins, closes his mouth, and starts over. “I don’t think I’m a very likable person,” he admits. “Not that I try to be mean to people. Although sometimes I am. Sorry, again.” Jesus, where is Harry going with this? Why did he open his mouth, again? “I’m not someone who knows a lot of people, or has a lot of friends or anything. I think I’m just…off-putting. In general. Probably.”

Louis mulls that over. “I think,” he finally says, “that lots of people would like you, if you gave them the chance.”

Harry hums doubtfully and rests his temple against the cold window of the car.

“Seriously. Have a little faith in yourself, Styles. All four other people in Zayn’s apartment tonight genuinely wanted to have you there. Otherwise, trust me, you wouldn’t have been there.”

Harry considers that.

“You know I’m right,” Louis says.

Mmmph,” Harry says from his slumped position against the window.

“What was that?”

“I said ‘don’t be smug.’”

“Just telling it like it is,” says Louis, not even bothering to deny his smugness. “You know what they say. ‘Truthful lips endure.’”

“Proverbs…something-something,” Harry mumbles. “Did you grow up Christian or something?”

“Or something,” Louis says. After a slight pause, “The Sisters of Mercy really helped out my mom when she was pregnant with me, and when I was a baby.” Louis combs the fingers of one hand through his hair. “So we had a couple of Bible verse books for kids around the house when I was younger. Plus, when I grew up and learned that a bunch of people were going to hate me, in all my gay glory, on account of a few Bible verses, I figured it’d be in my best interest to arm myself with at least some knowledge of the book.” Louis grins over at Harry. “If only to throw it back in their faces.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that statement, but Harry isn’t touching the second half of it with a ten-foot pole. Not tonight, at least. “Is that why you got Spectrum to volunteer for them last week?” he ends up asking. “The Sisters, I mean.”

Louis shrugs. “Yeah, I mean I’ve got the personal connection. But also they’re just doing really good things for a lot of people, y’know?”

Harry nods. He looks out the window and realizes they’ve been idle outside the front of his dorm for some time. “Oh, sorry, sorry.” He fumbles to unbuckle his seat belt and elbows open the car door.

“No, no problem,” Louis says, even though Harry knows he wanted to get home and go to bed, like asap. Stupid Harry. “Hey.” Harry leans down to peer at Louis through the open door. “I wasn’t kidding when I said we should hang out and watch Friends sometime.”

Harry’s mouth pops open. “Okay. Do you…” He digs in his pockets for his phone but Louis shakes his head.

“Don’t worry, I’ll lift your number off Liam tomorrow,” he says. “Have a good night.” Louis flashes Harry a smile and Harry’s insides feel like warm jelly all the sudden. He does manage to nod, blurt out a “you too” and close the car door, but his feet won’t carry him inside until Harry’s seen Louis peel out of the parking lot and turn the corner.

What a strange evening this has been. 

Chapter Text

When Louis said he wanted to watch Friends with Harry “sometime,” apparently what he meant was “tomorrow.” Harry is halfway through his laundry on Saturday afternoon when he receives the text.

Louis : Harry Styles! It’s Louis Tomlinson.

Harry’s phone very nearly slips from his hand into the mouth of the washing machine.

Harry : Hello?

Louis: [.gif of a man tipping his top hat in greeting] What are you up to today?

Is this really happening? Harry gives his arm a scratch and blinks a couple of times.

Harry : Nothing much

It’s true. Harry planned to call his mom for a chat today, but when he tried earlier it went straight to voicemail. Demi sent him a text about possibly going to the mall later, but that sounds like a lot of noise and a lot of people and no. Just, no.

Louis : Well given the shitty weather, I’m probably going to hole up with some Friends and comp sci homework this afternoon, if you want to join

Louis:   Just to clarify, you are not required to bring homework

Harry laughs through his nose.

Harry: Sure. Address?

Louis: Do you have a car?

Harry:  No?

Louis: Well I’m not going to make you walk [eye-rolling emoji]

Harry: Okay

Louis: I can swing over and get you in a bit

Harry: Sure you can be trusted with Niall’s car?

Harry hesitates before sending that one, not sure even moderate levels of snark are permissible in this situation, but he feels bolder behind the safety of a screen.

Louis:  Hey now

Harry bites his lip. Or maybe he miscalculated.

Louis: [smiley face emoji]

Harry exhales in relief. Before he can reply, his phone lights up with another text.

Louis: Snagging Myrtle today, actually. Liam doesn’t usually like me to borrow her, either, but he’s willing to make an exception for you

To Liam, that’s probably not a very big deal, but Harry chews one of his fingernails and tries not to smile.

Harry: That’s really nice of him. Lemme know when you’re on your way?

Louis:  [.gif of man giving a salute]

As soon as Harry pockets his phone, he realizes that he should have asked Louis what time in particular he was thinking about stopping by. Now Harry has to wait in nervous anticipation. He can’t leave his dorm; what if Louis intends to get him imminently? On the other hand, now he’s just stuck here, possibly for hours, waiting. Maybe he should text back and ask. Is that too overbearing?

Chill, he commands himself. This is not how normal people react to getting invited places, but Harry so rarely gets invited places—especially not by former enemies—that he can’t get his heart rate back to normal pace. He loads the last of his clothes into the washer and then, even though he’s already gone through his rigorous shower routine once today, steps back into the bathroom and strips down.

He’s only been under the spray for about ten minutes when he hears his phone buzz against the bathroom counter. He sticks his head and one arm out of the curtain, wipes his hand on a bath towel, and swipes to unlock his phone.

Louis: Oh, sorry I suck at planning ahead. I’m here

Louis: Take as much time as you need, though

Harry leaps out of the shower like he’s been scalded and nearly forgets to turn the water off. He shakes out his hair and towels himself off, yanking on his pants and a sweatshirt as he crosses the room to collect his backpack and keys.

The locking/re-locking routine at Harry’s door takes its usual couple of minutes, but faster than Harry has ever left his room before, he’s downstairs and power-walking towards Myrtle. God, it’s cold out here. Especially with wet hair. Harry wishes he thought to put on a hat.

“Thanks for the ride,” Harry says as he slides into the passenger seat.

Louis winces and points to Harry’s wet curls. “Sorry,” he says. “I should have given you some better warning. That’s my bad.”

Harry shrugs and pulls the collar of his sweatshirt up a bit.

“Here,” Louis says, pulling the beanie off his own head and tossing it onto Harry’s lap before shifting gears. “Can’t have you catching cold on me. There are no tissues in our apartment.”

“No tissues?” Harry asks, in lieu of addressing the fact that Louis just offered Harry his hat. He pulls it tentatively over top of his head.

“No tissues,” Louis confirms. “I only know this because every time I need a tissue, I go spelunking under the bathroom sink with no luck and end up having to use toilet paper instead.”

“So why don’t you just buy tissues?” Harry fails to see how a twenty-something guy surrounded by all the trappings of first-world, twenty-first-century civilization has this problem.

“That’s just it,” Louis says. “When I’m out, I never think to buy them. Tissues are the kind of thing real adults just seem to have around the house, right? But you would never think to actually buy in the first place. Like throw pillows. Or potholders.”

“If you say so,” says Harry, unconvinced. 

“Enough about my ongoing tissue deprivation crisis,” Louis says. “What’s up with you?”

Harry twists his fingers into the fabric of his hoodie. “Since you saw me last, twelve hours ago?”

“Sure.”

Not very much at all. Harry didn’t get a lot of sleep last night, kept awake with the inescapable task of running over his conversation with Louis in his head again and again, unable to believe he would say those things to someone he hardly knows—“I don’t think I’m a very likable person” he hears himself admit on repeat—like pressing on a bruise. Maybe, he considers miserably, that's why Louis invited him over today: pity. “Laundry,” he replies.

“Scandalous.”

Harry snorts, eyes out the passenger-side window. “I live a very secret adventurous life, can’t you tell?”

“Your story rivals only my own epic tale of making waffles this morning,” Louis informs him. “Although, that actually turned out to be far more adventurous than I’d originally intended, given that I burned a batch and nearly set off the smoke detector.”

“Uh-oh.”

“Indeed. Niall was way less than pleased when he woke up to the smell of smoke. It served him right, though, because he fell asleep on the living room couch last night and was seriously cutting into my morning cartoon watching time. Someone had to light a fire under his ass—metaphorically speaking, of course.”

Harry chuckles and shakes his head. What a ridiculous human being this Louis Tomlinson is, when he’s not purposely scaring the bejeezus out of Harry.

***

“Welcome to our humble abode,” says Louis when they arrive back at his place a few minutes later (“safe and sound, take that, Nialler”), swinging the door open to reveal a small, neat living room and kitchen area.

“You look surprised,” Louis notes, scrutinizing Harry’s expression as he comes inside.

Harry follows Louis’ example of removing his shoes. “It’s…cleaner than I was expecting.”

Louis laughs. “I can’t tell whether I’m supposed to be complimented or insulted.”

Harry’s stomach drops. “Sorry! I didn’t mean—”

“Harry,” Louis says soothingly. “I’m only joking. Normally this place is a pigsty, despite Liam’s best efforts.”

“Where are Liam and Niall?” As if they’re all one big friend group, now.

“Both out with their respective boyfriends today, and it was too quiet around here,” Louis says. He grimaces. “Not to imply that you’re my backup for company, but—”

“I’m your backup,” Harry says, trying to smile so that Louis can tell he doesn’t mind. He really doesn’t. Actually, it’s a slight relief. It makes it less weird to know that he wasn’t Louis' first choice, because why on Earth would Louis just want to hang out with Harry, of all people?

“Of course, you’re also here for coworker bonding purposes,” Louis adds, waving a hand over to the couch to invite Harry to sit. Harry does (thankfully it’s only a two-cushion couch, and Harry doesn’t have to decide for himself how much space to put between them) and sees that Louis has already set up shop with his school work stuff on the coffee table.

“Plus, I need someone to lend a sympathetic ear as I ride the struggle bus through my Linear Algebra problem set,” Louis continues, taking a seat beside him and turning on the TV. “My homework is usually punctuated by a lot of expletives, so be prepared for that.”

“I’ll try not to be too offended,” Harry says. “Or accidentally write anything I hear you say into the English essay I’m working on.”

Louis wrinkles his nose. “English. Forgot they make all the freshmen take that, first semester. Gross.” As soon as it’s out of his mouth, Louis appears to backpedal. “Unless you’re going to be an English major, in which case—”

“I’m not,” Harry says, taken aback by Louis’ active effort not to offend him. “I’m—not sure what I want to study.”

“You seem pretty into the whole music schtick,” Louis comments while he flips through the panel of recently viewed Netflix shows on the TV screen to find Friends. “Zayn says you, like, live in the practice rooms.”

Harry shrugs. “My parents want me to study something practical, like business.”

“Do you want to study business?”

Harry scratches the back of his neck. “I don’t know. Maybe.” Doubtful. 

“If you want to know what I think—and I’m not sure why you would, given that we’re only friendly acquaintances and this is your whole life plan and all,” Louis says, “but I think you should do what you want to do. Yeah, it’s important to respect your parents’ opinions, and be grateful if-slash-when they help you pay for school, but at some point you have to start taking their opinions with a grain of salt and start becoming your own person.”

Louis has turned to face Harry straight-on, now, and the intensity in Louis’ eyes makes Harry feel like they’re not just talking about school anymore. Harry gives a quick nod to show he understands and ducks his head, unzipping his backpack to pull out his spiral notebook and a pen.

Louis scrolls through episodes and lands on “The One with the Chick and the Duck.”

“This one okay?” he asks Harry, who nods.

They don’t talk for much of the episode—other than Louis’ occasional blurted profanities—but it isn’t nearly as weird as Harry thought it would be (although that’s not saying much, as Harry anticipated epic levels of weirdness). There’s one moment where the bare skin of Louis’ arm brushes up against Harry as he leans forward to tear a new sheet of paper from the notepad on the coffee table, and Harry finds himself holding his breath. Also when Harry asks Louis for the time, and Louis looks around with a pen gripped in his mouth and Harry’s heart stutters. Other than that, Harry is fine. Cool as a cucumber. So normal.

“It’s kind of sad how after season six or whenever, the chick and duck drop out of the series,” Louis says when the credits start to roll. “I guess they can’t really be keeping up with poultry all the time when there’s human drama to document.”

“Too bad the writers had to kill them off, though,” Harry laments.

“Oi, they died of old age,” Louis defends.

“Yeah, but ducks can live to be ten or twenty,” Harry says. “In real life.”

Louis twists his neck to look at Harry. “And you’re just carrying that fun fact around on the tip of your tongue, why?”

Harry hazards a glance at Louis because of his judgmental tone, but Louis is smiling, like he’s amused. Or endeared. “Because I had a duckling, once,” Harry explains. So much for normal.

“You ‘had a duckling once’? What does that even mean?”

Harry turns pink. “I bought a duckling at a farmer’s market one time. Max. He didn’t live that long, though. Might have been sick or something.”

“When was this?”

Harry has no idea why Louis is so absolutely fascinated by this aspect of his life. Max, despite Harry’s effusive TLC, only lasted about five weeks. Harry tries not to think about him too much, anymore. His parents only let Harry get Max because after he returned from camp, even they could tell that he was more isolated, less willing to connect with people. Harry supposes that they supposed a pet would at least keep their son company. And give him something to do other than clean his room again and again (really, though, Max simply gave Harry more to clean).

“In high school,” Harry replies, thinking it best to keep things vague.

A few seconds pass in what Harry thinks might be awed silence on Louis part, before Louis says, “huh,” and plays the next episode.

Harry’s mom calls him back in the middle of his third body paragraph and their fourth episode of Friends. Louis pauses the show at the sound of Harry’s ringtone, but Harry insists that he keeps playing.

“Sorry, it’s my mom. Do you mind if I…” Harry nods at one of the ajar bedroom doors, hoping for some privacy.

“Yeah, yeah, of course. Do what you gotta do,” Louis says, scratching his head agitatedly with the eraser end of his pencil, clearly ensnared in some particularly gnarly math problem.

Harry steps inside the bedroom and flips on the light, closing the door behind him. He takes a seat on one of the beds, which has a stuffed bear perched on the pillow, and holds the phone up to his ear. “Hi, Mom.”

“Harry,” his mom says. She sounds pleased and relieved to hear his voice. Granted, Harry hasn’t spoken to her much since getting back to school. Hence calling her earlier—the guilt was wearing on him. “How are you?”

“‘m alright,” Harry says. “Hanging out with a friend at his place.”

“A friend!” Harry’s mom enthuses. He tries not to be too stung at how surprised she sounds. “What’s his name?”

“Louis.”

"Did you meet him at CCM?"

Harry bites his lip. "No, work."

“Oh. And what are you two up to this afternoon?”

“Hanging out, watching TV. Doing homework.”

“Well, I won’t keep you. Just saw your call earlier and wanted to make sure everything was okay.”

“Yeah, everything’s fine,” Harry says. “I just hadn’t talked to you guys in a while.”

“That’s so sweet. How are your friends? The two girls you mentioned when you were home.”

“They’re good,” Harry says, even though he hasn’t seen Demi or Selena outside their weekly CCM meeting in the last week.

“Good. If your father and I come up to visit you sometime next semester, we’ll have to take them out to dinner.”

“That would be nice,” Harry says. He picks at a loose thread on his sock.

“I knew you would find some nice people to spend time with in that campus ministry program,” his mom continues. “And that girl you were taking out to a movie a few weeks ago! What ever happened with that?”

Harry’s stomach does a flip-flop. He hasn’t given much thought to Ariana in the last couple of weeks, and even when he has, it’s only been in the context of comparing her to Louis. Heat permeates Harry’s neck and face, as though his mother can hear his thoughts on the other end of the line. Suddenly, Harry can’t quite stand to be on the phone with her anymore. “I think we’re just going to be friends,” he manages to choke out, clutching the phone now with both hands.

“Oh,” his mother says, obviously disappointed but trying to be supportive. “Well, that’s good, too. There will be other girls.”

“Yeah,” Harry says, and immediately clears his throat to cover up the crack of his voice. He swallows. “Hey, Mom, I think Louis wants to start up the next episode, so I’m gonna go, okay?”

“Oh, okay, go, go. Have fun,” his mom says. “Love you.”

“Love you.”

***

Harry has been in Louis’ room for a while now. Like, a suspiciously long while, given that Louis has paused the TV and cannot hear Harry talking on the phone anymore through the door. Is it creepy or intrusive if Louis goes to check on him? What could he possibly be doing in there? Louis decides to wait until he’s timed out a solid ten minutes of silence before he stands up and goes to knock on his bedroom door.

“Harry?”

Nothing. Then, “Yeah?” Small, hesitant.

“Can I come in?”

Harry mumbles something.

“What?”

“I said, ‘it’s your room.’”

Louis takes that as a yes. He tentatively pushes open the door to reveal Harry sitting cross-legged on his bed, back against the wall, practically smashing Chester with his left hip. Louis does not like the sight of Harry’s fists buried deep in his bush of hair.

“Sorry,” Harry says, in a voice that’s making a valiant attempt at ‘not miserable,’ but is failing pretty spectacularly.

“For what?”

“Um.” Harry seems uncertain about what, exactly, he’s apologizing for. Only very certain that he should be sorry for something. Louis’ stomach clenches. “Awkwardly hanging out in your room for a long time?” he tries.

Louis shrugs. “You clearly weren’t bothering anyone. Except Chester, maybe.”

“Who?”

Louis points to his smothered bear. “You’re squashing him.”

“Oh!” Harry immediately pulls Chester out from under him and sets him up carefully on the bedside table. “Sorry.”

“Dude, you have to stop apologizing,” Louis says, going to flop down on his bed next to Harry’s legs and looking at the ceiling. “Chester will get over it. Plus, you’re already on his good side for not making any snide comments about a twenty-year-old guy owning a stuffed bear.”

Harry considers that. “I’ve got a stuffed ladybug at home that I got when I was little. His name is Mister Spots.”

(Harry’s never told anyone that before, afraid it would make him seem childish or worse, effeminate, but somehow it seems okay to tell Louis. Maybe it’s Chester or the fact that Louis is gay or Harry's observation that Louis seems to like Harry best when he’s not so uptight.)

Louis snorts. “That’s so fucking adorable,” he says to the ceiling, so he doesn’t have to look at Harry.

Silence.

“You sure you’re okay?” Louis says. “I know we’re not like—” Louis crooks and hooks his two forefingers together to indicate closeness “—but you’ve been so good about listening to my math struggles…if you want me to return the favor.”

Louis glances over at Harry, who isn’t looking at him. Harry just brings his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them. “Parents,” he finally says into his knees. “Just…my parents, stressing me out.”

“Yeah, parents do tend to do that,” Louis agrees. “Anything in particular?”

Louis knows it’s a long shot, the idea that after hanging out twice Harry will suddenly trust him enough to invite him into such an inner sanctum of personal privacy, so he isn’t surprised when Harry finally says, “No.” But Harry does mull it over for at least three-Mississippi before turning him down, and Louis considers that a reason for hope.

“Okay. Well, I know I gab a lot,” Louis says, “but occasionally I do shut up, and during those windows of time I can be a good listener. For future reference.”

Harry looks at Louis, and Louis is further fortified by the somewhat marveled (instead of incredulous or disbelieving) look on his face. “Thank you,” he says sincerely.

“Yup. So…do you want to chill in here some more with Chester, or go watch more TV?”

“TV, please,” Harry says immediately, and hops off the bed.

***

Harry stays until evening and both of them have reached their limit for screen-viewing time for the day. 


“I think my eyeballs are going to pop out of my head,” Louis says, rubbing his eyes with his fists.

“I need a nap,” Harry says, standing up to stretch and crack his back, “and Advil.”

Louis drives him home in Myrtle, and when they reach Harry’s building, Harry doesn’t immediately get out. He stares at the dashboard for several long seconds, apparently working himself up to say something. Louis gives him time.

“Why are you being so nice to me?” is what Harry wants to know. “I mean, I get that you forgave me for…everything—and I really appreciate that! I do. I’m just…confused.”

“Why?” Louis tries not to take too much offense to Harry finding it so impossible that Louis could be nice for the sake of being nice, because he suspects this has more to do with Harry's feelings about himself than his feelings about Louis. 

Harry tugs on the strings of his hoodie and twists them together. “Dunno. You just—you don’t owe me anything.”

Jesus Christ, Louis just wants to wrap this kid in a blanket and feed him tea and pastries and kiss the top of his head. “You think I’d need to owe you something to be nice to you?”

Harry gives Louis a look like just answer the question.

Louis exhales deeply. There are many reasons he’s being nice to Harry, but so few of those he can actually tell Harry. Crediting Harry’s general adorableness when he’s not being a grade-A douchebag in the name of the Lord is probably not the best way to go. Which means Louis also probably shouldn’t bring up his persistent fantasies about bedding Harry. He also can’t mention feeling bad for pegging Harry as a plain-and-simple homophobe, or that he’s sympathetic to Harry’s in-the-closet struggles. Or that all he wants to do when he looks into Harry’s green eyes or sees him pick at himself or hear him apologize profusely for tiny transgressions is tell Harry something—anything—that would undercut the horrible things people have told this boy about himself. Anything to make him believe that he’s worthy of someone’s time and attention, just as he is.

Fuck, Louis didn’t realize he had so many feels about this kid.

Louis can’t say any of that, though. Not yet.

“Because you volunteered for the Sisters and have a stuffed ladybug and you talk to your mom on the phone and you once bought a duckling. Also, you tolerated a whole afternoon listening to me complain about my homework,” Louis says. “That’s the Harry Styles I’m interested in getting to know—and the one I definitely would have tried to befriend at the beginning of the year, if we didn’t get off so horrendously on the wrong foot.”

Harry seems simultaneously embarrassed, flattered, pleased, and off-put by Louis’ response, but he also seems to accept it. “Oh.” Harry rubs the back of his neck. “I’m—all right, then. I guess—th-thank you.” Like he’s never gotten a compliment before. “Thanks again for having me over.”

“Of course,” Louis says. “This was fun. We should do it again sometime.”

(Louis very nearly does rear-end someone with Myrtle on the drive home, distracted by the thought of Harry’s departing smile, like he actually believed Louis.)

***

“Why is the living room so clean?” Liam asks by way of greeting when he comes into their bedroom later that night.

“Harry was over today.”

Liam stops in his tracks. “Louis. You didn’t let him clean our apartment, did you?”

“No!” Louis is affronted. “What do you take me for? I cleaned it before he came over.”

Liam’s face shifts from angry, to surprised, to delighted in the span of about half a second. “Oh, Lou.”

“Don’t ‘oh Lou’ me,” Louis scoffs. “You know the poor kid can hardly breathe in the presence of even minor clutter.” Louis shakes his head and turns away because Liam’s smile is either patronizing or doting or smug or…or something else Louis doesn’t want to see.

“That was very nice of you,” Liam says in his best Apartment Mom voice.

“Yeah, yeah. Stop doing that with your face.”

Liam does not. “Doing what?”

“You know what.”

“I’m just happy for you. I can’t be happy for you?”

“I guess. Can you be happy somewhere else? I’m trying to read.”

***

Harry and Louis, against all odds, much to Harry’s continued astonishment (but also secret pleasure), start hanging out. It’s definitely weird, sometimes, but nowhere near enough for Harry to want it to stop. Not at all.

It starts with Louis texting Harry. Like, frequently. For Harry, “frequent” is anything more often than a text every few days.

Mostly, Louis just sends Harry funny pictures from the internet, or amusing things that occur in the flow of his daily routine (Today, I overhead someone in the dining hall call cirque du soleil “circus olé” and i quite literally face-palmed). Harry doesn’t initiate text message conversations, only responds when Louis sends him messages—and even then, all he can usually contribute is a “haha” or “lol.” Still, for some reason, Louis sees fit to continue communicating with him. God knows why. Harry doesn’t want to think about it too much, lest nerves get the best of him and he do something to unravel it all.

When Liam and Harry do get together for homework on the Thursday after their movie night, Louis makes a fleeting appearance and invites Harry to hang out again that weekend. A pleasantly flustered Harry accepts. He even gets through the whole interaction with minimal awkwardness—until he falls asleep midway through an episode of Psych, wakes up with his head on Louis’ shoulder, and promptly freaks out so intensely that he springs up from the couch, trips over the coffee table, and just barely manages to right himself.

“Are you okay?” Louis asks, still seated but holding his arms out uselessly, as if braced for the impossible task of catching Harry.

Harry, heart pumping hard and fast and limbs quivering, crosses and uncrosses his arms. Scratches his nose. “Sorry,” he says.

“For…?” Louis has his eyebrows raised and looks like he wants to smile, like this is a joke, which both irritates Harry and catches him off-guard.

“For falling asleep on you?”

When did Harry get to a place in his life where he was relaxed enough around Louis Tomlinson to fall asleep around—on him? Of course, Harry did not get much sleep last night, either, having discovered in his routine cleaning that the underside of his mattress had a mysterious stain on it (Harry slept in his sleeping bag on the floor last night and took the bus to Target to buy three mattress pads this morning). 

“Eh, it’s fine.” Louis flaps his hand, as if wearied by Harry’s overreaction. “I’ve had Niall fall asleep full across me before. As in, on my lap.”

“Yeah but that’s different,” Harry says. “You guys are...”

“Are you saying that you and I are not friends?” Louis says, hand against his chest, feigning offense.

“Roommates,” Harry corrects. “Is what I was going to say.”

“Sure,” Louis says slyly.

“But also friends,” Harry says, still not sitting down. “I mean, real friends. You and I have only hung out all of twice.”

“Well, just so you know, I’m the type of person who goes un-offended by friends falling asleep on him, be they two-year or two-week friends,” Louis says.

“…okay.”

“So will you come sit down and stop looking like I’m going to attack you?” Louis says, and after a few moments’ hesitation, Harry does.

That’s the most awkward encounter of their blooming friendship to date. Harry tries to get himself to not be so high-strung in Louis’ presence, but it’s difficult sometimes. Especially when, the less nervous Harry gets about seeing Louis as Former Enemy, the more nervous he gets about seeing Louis as Very Attractive Friend.

See, if Harry is reading the signs correctly, he would say that he’s almost convinced at this point that God is telling him homosexuality isn’t an immediate sentence of damnation. Harry hasn’t been able to bring himself to say anything of the sort aloud, ever since his reconciliation with Zayn in the studio a few weeks ago. But the more Harry thinks about it, the more time he spends around Louis’ apartment and sees how Niall and Josh, Liam and Zayn act with each other…their obvious affection, sweeter and more doting than a lot of straight couples Harry has seen, it’s…it seems wrong to say that they could be wrong. If that makes sense. On top of that, it's increasingly difficult to ignore the ache of want in his chest, whenever he sees Niall press a kiss to Josh's temple or Zayn curled up against Liam's side on the couch. 

So Harry is settling into…wow, in rejecting what he’s believed his entire life. What was hammered into him at camp. Which still gives him intense bouts of anxiety in the middle of some nights and sometimes catches him unaware during the day (see: Thursday morning hyperventilating in a stall of the men’s bathroom of the math building). On the other hand, it’s so liberating to have his homosexual tendencies framed this way: instead of feeling like he’s sliding down a slippery slope, Harry feels, for the first time, like he might be climbing out of a hole.

Where was he? Oh, right. Louis. So, yeah, Louis is attractive. Like, really, really—you know what? Harry doesn't want to get into it. Suffice it to say, if Harry weren't already constantly on edge around Louis as a result of his social awkwardness, he would be from the sheer fluttering of butterflies in his stomach Louis could induce. And Harry...Harry has no idea what to do about it. Up until very recently, he wouldn't have even had to consider his course of action: avoid Louis at all cost, hate himself a little more vehemently until the feelings were suitably suppressed, continue on with life as usual. Now, though...

It's all very complicated and painful, this shifting world views business, and Harry knows that, logically, it would be a bad idea to introduce some sort of romantic entanglement (almost certainly doomed to painful, pining failure, since Louis is Louis and Harry is just Harry) into the turmoil that is Harry's life right now. After the drama and the anxiety of the last month, Harry just needs to appreciate the friendships he has and not push it. It's just a minor inconvenience that the illogical part of Harry that melts into a puddle whenever he's the focus of Louis' attention is working against him. 

Chapter Text

When he arrives at Harry’s practice room at eleven p.m. on a Tuesday night, it occurs to Louis that he might have done well to text in advance. As it is, Louis flings the door open, all ready to bemoan the great injustice of the universe—specifically tonight, Liam and Zayn’s rather noisy love-making in the bedroom Louis shares with Liam—and Harry startles so severely that he bangs his knee against the underside of the piano and then doubles over the keys in pain.

“Oh, shit,” Louis says, closing the door behind him and rushing over to Harry before stopping up short. He wants to touch Harry’s shoulders, his head, something, but he's still in that no-man's-land of his friendship with Harry where he's not sure what touching is acceptable and what isn't. He's never seen anyone so much as hug Harry other than Zayn. “Are you okay?”

“Yup,” Harry bites out, but Louis calls bullshit because Harry’s forehead is still pressing a somber F#-G#-A# combination down on the keyboard.

Louis hovers awkwardly by the piano bench. “Sorry,” he says. “Can I get you some ice?”

That gets Harry to let out a pain-filled laugh. “From where?”

“Good point,” Louis says, surveying the practice room as though an ice bucket might somehow miraculously present itself. “Offer rescinded.”

Harry snorts. Still clutching his leg, he lifts his forehead off the keys and turns to give Louis a tight smile. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Louis echoes, holding out the travel cup in his right hand to Harry.

“What’s this?”

“Tea.”

“Why?”

“Because Zayn told me this is customary, when one visits a friend at the fine arts building in the middle of the night.”

The corners of Harry’s mouth twitch up in a smile. “Well if it gets me tea, I’m not going to argue with that.”

Louis’ heart swells at the quiet delight in Harry’s voice. He marvels at how easy it is to make this boy happy sometimes.

“Zayn isn’t here tonight,” Harry adds, taking his tea.

“I know,” Louis deadpans, sitting down on the corner of the bench with his own tea. “He’s currently in my room.”

“Wh—oh.” To Louis' simultaneous sympathy and delight, Harry turns bright red and looks down at his tea. “Forgot you room with Liam.”

“Yup. Got home from studying with Nick after Spectrum, and…” Louis shakes his head woefully. “Chester is in there.”

“Oh no,” Harry says, looking genuinely sympathetic.

“Yeah,” Louis says. “The things that poor bear is seeing right now.” Louis shudders. “Figured I would hang out here until the coast is clear. That all right?”

“Okay,” Harry says, scooting over on the bench to make more room for Louis. “How did you know I was here?”

“Just a guess,” Louis says. “And I already knew which room you’d be in, since…” Louis grimaces. The incident in Harry’s practice room is something they try not to mention when they hang out. Really, anything pre-pregnancy-care-center-volunteering seem to be topics safer left untouched.

“How was studying with Nick?” Harry says, predictably skipping over the Spectrum part of what Louis just said. Another topic that sometimes comes up in conversation, but Harry doesn’t seem comfortable acknowledging.

“All right,” Louis says. “We’ve got an exam coming up in one of our classes, so that’s a bummer.”

“Yeah, I’ve got a stats test next week,” Harry laments. “I’m probably going to bomb it.”

“Hey, no,” Louis says. “I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

Harry looks dubious.

“Like I said, if you ever need help,” Louis offers. “I’m your guy.”

Harry must really find himself in a bind because he appears to give it serious consideration. “I’ll let you know,” he says solemnly.

“Do,” Louis says. “I’ll help you whenever. Except Saturday, though. That’s Halloween, and Niall and Liam and I are throwing a party at our place, which you’re invited to, by the way.”

Harry looks up at Louis with wide eyes, then looks down at the fingers of his free hand, silently skirting over the piano keys. “Oh. Um. Thank you, but I don’t think…”

“It’ll be fun,” Louis cajoles. “Liam and Niall will be there, obviously, and Zayn and Josh. Liam says he’s invited Demi and Selena, too, so you’ll know a bunch of people.”

“I don’t drink,” Harry says, like that settles the matter.

“Neither does Demi,” Louis counters, and when Harry doesn’t look convinced, “and I won’t be drinking a whole lot, either. For the sake of making sure people don’t demolish our apartment too thoroughly.”

Louis usually leaves that sort of thing to Liam, but Louis can stand a semi-sober evening if it means convincing Harry to come. There are going to be several Spectrum people there that Louis doesn’t even know how to get Harry into the same room with, otherwise. Although Louis knows from Liam that Harry isn’t big into parties, this is at their place. Harry’s been over several times now, which gives him home field advantage. It’s quite literally the best-case scenario, when it comes to Harry attending a social event.

Harry seems to be wavering. Louis just needs one or two more points to tip Harry in his favor.

“Liam never lets people in our bedroom when we have people over,” Louis says. “As in, he locks the door. If there’s too many people or you’re tired or anything, then I’ll give you the key and you can hang out in there.”

Harry sucks his bottom lip between his teeth. Louis forces himself not to become distracted. “Please,” he says. “It would mean a lot to me, and the other guys, if you came.”

“Okay,” Harry relents.

Louis fist-pumps the air, sloshing some hot tea onto his hand in the process.

“Do I have to wear a costume?” Harry asks nervously.

Of course, Louis is on the verge of saying, but stops himself just in time, just in case that might be a deal-breaker for Harry. “Only if you want to,” he says, “but just so you know, we’ll all be dressed up.”

“Really?” Harry looks intrigued. “As what?”

“Liam will inevitably go as some superhero,” Louis says. “He’s cycled through his favorite Marvel characters every few years since he was ten, I think. Niall will probably go as something punny and cheap. Last year all he did was draw black stripes on his cheeks and carry around a sign that read Go Ceiling!

Harry blinks.

“He was supposed to be a ceiling fan,” Louis explains.

“Ah. And you?”

“I pretty much go as the same thing every year: Peter Pan.”

Harry narrows his eyes and tilts his head, scrutinizing Louis. “That’s…weirdly perfect,” he says.

“Isn’t it? Ergo, my default costume. I wore it for the first time when I was twelve and never went back. Ready-made excuse to wear super tight pants and throw glitter on people." Come to think of it, Louis' parents should have been zero percent surprised when he came out to them. "My mom has this whole photo album at home of me in Peter Pan costumes over the years. Last year’s is a selfie Liam and I took and texted to her while standing on top of a pong table at some frat party.”

“Wow,” Harry says, looking nothing short of awed. “I cannot imagine sending something like that to my mom.”

Louis takes a moment to appreciate how laid-back his own mom is. “Yeah. Well, with all my little sisters to deal with, I guess she just has to take some things in stride. Like her son wearing skin-tight leggings, standing inebriated on a table surrounded by a sea of strange men.”

Harry chokes in the middle of his sip of tea.

Louis grins. “You okay?” 

Harry nods and wipes a dribble of tea from his chin.

Louis generally tries to avoid making Harry uncomfortable at all costs, but…he’s found that he quite likes the blush that pervades Harry’s cheeks and neck whenever Louis alludes to his own sexuality. Is that wrong? Probably. But dammit, Louis is going to let himself have this.

“So you’ll be there on Saturday?” Louis says, just to be sure.

“Yeah,” Harry says. “I’ll text Demi about getting a ride.” Harry reaches around to pull his phone out of his back pocket with his left hand, pushing up a bit of his sleeve in the process. He pulls it back down immediately, thoughtlessly, out of habit as he taps away his text to Demi, but Louis’ eyes linger on the now cloth-covered arm. Louis’ eyes have been snagging on Harry’s wrist a lot, lately.

The thing is, two Saturdays ago, when Harry came over to hang out, the poor guy fell asleep on the couch after only about an hour. Louis wasn’t altogether surprised; when he picked Harry up, he could see the dark hints of sleep deprivation under his eyes, and he was a bit quieter than usual. When Louis glanced over at Harry to find his head tilted back against the couch, mouth slightly ajar, he couldn’t help suppress a smile. Sure, he felt bad that Harry was obviously so exhausted that he couldn’t even keep himself awake through the screaming sirens of a Carlton Lassiter car chase, but wasn’t this a testament to their new friendship, that Harry was comfortable enough at Louis’ place to drift off?

Obviously, Harry was going to flip when he woke up. That much was a given. Thus, Louis decided to let him get as much sleep as possible. He made these adorable soft sleepy noises, and when his head eventually slid down the back of the couch onto Louis' shoulder, well. That was just an added bonus.

Louis didn’t notice it until half an episode later, Harry’s exposed left wrist, resting on the couch between their legs. Louis had never taken much notice of Harry’s wrists before; typically they were covered by the neatly pressed cuffs of his button-ups or, more recently, the array of soft sweatshirts and T-shirts Harry had taken to wearing (Louis enthusiastically approved of this wardrobe change). Now, though, with the sleeve of Harry’s hoodie riding up his arm, Louis could see the chain of prayer beads and the rubber band that girded Harry’s slender arm. Louis would have expected the former, but he was mostly concerned by the latter. Especially given the ring of red, chaffed skin around Harry’s wrist.

Louis, eyes on Harry’s face, on high alert for any signs of consciousness, reached down and gently picked up Harry’s hand. Harry snuffled a bit in his sleep but did not wake.

Louis’ first thought upon inspecting the rubbed-raw state of Harry’s wrist was, why on Earth would Harry keep wearing this damn thing if it were so uncomfortable? Then, up close, Louis made out the yellow tinges of mostly-healed bruising, and he understood this to be one more thing like the hair tugging. Louis had heard of people using the rubber band-snapping method to break themselves of bad habits and ward off unwanted thoughts. Louis glanced back and forth between the prayer beads and the rubber band and thought he had a pretty good idea of what thoughts Harry was so vigorously trying to vanquish.

Louis had to be very careful, because he was almost jittery with rage, and Harry was asleep next to him, hand clutched in Louis’. Louis momently considered the possibility of simply slipping the rubber band off, but no. Harry would definitely notice, and how would Louis explain himself? Maybe he should confront Harry after he woke up, but how would that work? Louis had taken such care to nurture this sapling friendship between them, and springing his knowledge of the rubber band on Harry was about the equivalent of taking a chainsaw to said friendship sapling. What a mess this was. What the everliving fuck was Louis supposed to do?

Ultimately, the only thing he could do was put Harry’s hand back on the couch, and accept the fact that this was just one more thing he would have to watch out for. One more thing to handle when he'd gained Harry's trust (and that list of things seemed to be getting longer with each passing moment Louis spent in Harry's company).

Fortunately, Harry was asleep long enough for Louis to cool himself down, and when Harry inevitably lost his shit upon waking, that presented something else to deal with. A good distraction. But Louis didn’t forget about the rubber band. Not even a little.

***

“You and Louis have been spending a lot of time together.”

Harry’s been idly swirling the dregs of his tea around the soggy bottom of his cup for a few minutes, but at that comment, Harry turns his full attention to Zayn, who doesn’t even glance up from his sketch.

“Yes?” Harry says. “Is that…?”

“I’m glad,” Zayn says. He finishes a spot of shading and meets Harry’s eyes.

“Because…”

Zayn shrugs. “I dunno. He’s a good guy, you’re a good guy. I’m glad you two are getting along now.”

“Well, that’s kind of on you,” Harry says, folding his arms on the table and resting his cheek on them to look up at Zayn.

“On me?” Zayn looks genuinely surprised.

Harry frowns. “Yeah, because of whatever you said to Louis and Niall about us making up,” he says. “Louis told me when we were volunteering together. The only reason he and I are even remotely friends is because you forgave me, after…”

“Hey,” Zayn says, in that tone he uses whenever he seems to suspect Harry’s about to beat himself up over something. “Of course I forgave you. You didn’t—you’re not—”

Harry can tell he’s trying to place the blame on camp, without actually bringing up the subject of camp because he knows it upsets Harry.

Zayn pauses before continuing, “Louis said you guys were cool, just because you and I were on good terms again?” He sounds less curious now, more like he’s making certain of something.

“Yeah,” Harry says slowly. “So thank you, for whatever you told them.”

Instead of saying “you’re welcome” or waving it off or shrugging modestly, Zayn pulls what almost looks like a grimace, and quickly averts his eyes back to his sketch.

“Speaking of us making up,” Zayn says, in a tone that Harry does not like, not one bit, “have you given any more thought to what we talked about?” When Harry doesn’t say anything, he elaborates, “I know you’ve been cool around Liam and me, and Niall and Josh, and I appreciate that. I was just wondering how much of that was you being a good friend, and how much of it was you…” Zayn makes a gesture with his hand that must translate loosely to having a complete change of heart and rejecting your long-time, family-held, camp-enforced values.

Harry turns his face into his arms so he doesn’t have to look at Zayn. It’s been a little over a month since Harry was in this same chair, having Part One of this conversation with Zayn. A month that Harry’s been mulling this over in his head. It shouldn’t be this hard, especially because Harry is about to tell Zayn exactly what he wants to hear. Just…saying it to someone seems to seal the deal, that Harry truly is shedding an old version of himself. Harry doesn’t like to think about what it means that so much of his identity hinges on railing against homosexuality in the name of his faith. He doesn’t like to think about what it means that God could give him such mixed signals.

“I think…God is okay with people not being straight,” Harry says slowly, angling his face just enough that the words won’t come out muffled. That way, Harry won’t risk having to repeat himself.

You could hear a pin drop in the studio. Harry feels Zayn’s eyes on his head like the weight of a waterfall.

“Harry.”

Harry feels a hand on his back. He has noticed over the last couple weeks that Zayn is comfortable touching Harry more regularly now, about on par with Demi, but Harry finds himself strangely okay with that.

“Harry, that’s great,” Zayn finally says forcefully. “And just so we’re clear, you know that includes you, right? It’s not just for people in general, that it’s okay to be gay or bi or ace or pan or whatever. It’s okay for you to not be straight.”

Harry grunts noncommittally.

“What’s that?”

“It’s one thing to say it, and consciously think it,” Harry admits into his arms. “It’s another to really believe it all the time, you know?”

Zayn nods sympathetically. “Yeah, I get you.”

“Like, when I see an attractive…” Harry inhales and exhales, hunches his shoulders under Zayn’s hand. Zayn starts to move his hand up and down Harry’s spine soothingly. “…guy, I know—or at least, I think I know, now—that God is okay with that. Maybe even wants me to feel that way, but.” Harry doesn’t know when he got so close to crying. He lifts his head to wipe at his nose with his sleeve. “That doesn’t stop me from having a gut reaction that’s. Um." Panic. Nausea. Fear. "Anxiety."

Zayn nods again, eyebrows pinched together. “After, er, camp, and everything, I wouldn’t expect anything else,” he says. “It’ll probably take some time for the anxiety to go away.”

“Maybe,” Harry says, not even bothering to bring up the fact that his parents will probably renew any abated fear every time he visits home.

“Have you reconsidered going to a Spectrum meeting?” Zayn asks. “Now that you know Louis and Niall don’t hate you, and all.”

“A little,” Harry concedes. 

“And?”

Harry sighs. “I just…it would feel so, ah, final. Like, going to one of those meetings, admitting that I’m…”

“Straight people can go to the meetings, too,” Zayn reminds him. “If you weren’t ready to come out yet.”

“Maybe,” Harry says, “but eventually the point would be for…for other people to know, right? But Zayn, I’ve—” Harry clears his throat wetly “—I said such horrible things to—about—and even if they forgave me for it, then how would I explain to them—to Louis—” Harry sinks the bitten-down nails of his right hand into his left palm.

“They would understand,” Zayn says with upmost certainty.

Harry gives Zayn a skeptical look.

“Hey,” says Zayn. “Remember that time I told you that Louis and Niall would forgive you, and you didn’t believe me? How did that turn out?”

Harry stays grudgingly silent.

“That’s right,” Zayn says, smugly (or as smug as Harry would guess it’s possible for Zayn to be). “So, you should listen to me now. Trust me, they’ve dealt with closeted kids before. They’re not going to get angry with you or judge you or make you go away.” He rubs Harry’s back a bit more vigorously now. “Okay?”

Harry nods and retracts his nails from the soft, dented flesh of his palm. “Okay.”

***

Impending party notwithstanding, Harry would say he has a pretty good week up until Friday.

Harry would not have anticipated an innocuous trip to the mail center would be the reason for everything to go downhill so suddenly and so devastatingly.

Harry goes to check his campus box after dinner because he’s due for his bi-weekly paycheck. He’s in a fairly good mood, too. He hasn’t decided what he will dress up as for the Halloween party tomorrow, but at least now he’ll have a bit of spending money in case he needs supplies. Maybe Louis will help Harry figure out his costume when Harry goes over to his place later. Niall and Liam are at haunted corn maze tonight with a few friends and Louis, like Harry, is not into that. (“Why would I pay someone to scare the piss out of me?” Louis wondered aloud incredulously.)

Much to Harry’s surprise, he’s got more than his paycheck waiting for him in the mail. There’s also a Halloween card from his mother, a generic Hallmark note with Have a Spook-tacular Halloween! written on the front and a fiver tucked inside. Harry pockets the money and makes a mental note to text his mother thank you. Then he flips to the third envelop in his stack and his heart does a somersault.

The stamp has a picture of a cross on it. The letter is formally addressed to “Mr. Harry Styles.” The return address in the upper-left corner is familiar in a gut-clenching, heart-stopping, horrifying way. Familiar from all the envelopes Harry’s parents addressed to him when he was away at camp.

Why would they…what could they possibly be sending him?

Harry suddenly feels like he might be sick. He needs to exit the student center pronto.

It’s all Harry can do to resist sprinting across the quad back to his dorm, and when he gets home, Harry can’t make himself to sit down. He perches on the edge of his bed as he hooks his finger under the back flap of the envelope and rips it open, but as soon as he fumbles the letter out, he’s on his feet again.

Harry can’t even calm down enough to read the letter in its entirety, so he settles for panicked skimming. The gist of the note is this: The camp wants to revamp its website, and they're currently looking to update the page of alumni testimonials. The ones they’ve got posted now are several years old, and for the sake of PR they would ideally like to have some more recent attendees write about their post-camp experiences. Would Harry be willing to answer the Lord’s call and give back to the camp in this way (while he’s at it, would Harry mind sending in a monetary donation)? The camp’s director thanks Harry for his consideration, is sending Harry his thoughts and prayers, and looks forward to hearing from him soon.

Harry can’t breathe. He really, really can’t breathe and he’s on the floor next to his bed now, legs apparently having gone out underneath him. Oh God, oh God.

Harry crumples the letter in his fist, feeling like a fool for ever thinking that simply being away at school, surrounded by a different group of people, starting to feel and think a different way would mean that any of this was behind him. What does it matter that he’s been tentatively starting to believe that God means him to think that being gay is okay? What does it matter that Zayn and Demi support him, or that Harry might even entertain the idea of attending a Spectrum meeting someday? The fact of the matter is that college is just a brief reprieve from Harry’s real life, the life where he went to conversion therapy camp, where his parents believe him to be cured, the life where they will never, ever accept this part of Harry the way Zayn and Demi do.

Who is Harry kidding, with his recent shift in perspective? Among his Catholic family at home, he’s a freak. If anyone other than Zayn ever finds out that Harry went to this…this place in high school, then he’s the freak who tried to pray away his gayness and failed.

Harry—Harry needs to clean something. Or everything. Yeah, probably everything.

***

Louis checks the clock on Myrtle’s dash yet again. 7:15. He’s been waiting outside Harry’s building for about ten minutes and he’s starting to get concerned.

Louis thumbs his phone, which has his text conversation with Harry on-screen. The last text Louis received from him was at 6:17, when Harry was leaving dinner and heading back home, where Louis would pick him up for their decidedly not scary movie night. (Seriously, fuck Halloween and all its traditional horrors.) Since Louis arrived at Harper, he’s sent Harry three messages.

From Louis: Here!

From Louis: In Myrtle

From Louis: Harry…

Anyone else, and Louis would be irritated, but Harry is not late for things. Ever. Which means something is wrong.

Louis decides to wait until he’s suffered through fifteen minutes of radio silence before he pulls into a parking spot and exits Myrtle. He then has to suffer through another nine minutes out in the cold before one of the dorm’s residents leaves the building and he slips inside. Now, which room is Harry’s? Louis has never been inside Harry’s room. They always hang out at Louis’ place because Louis gets the impression that Harry’s the kind of person who covets his privacy. Louis has three floors to check and, according to his recollection, Harry doesn’t know hardly anyone in his building, so asking around won’t help. Louis wanders down the one of the halls, metaphorically scratching his head—ah ha! Luckily, he sees that the RAs have posted the residents' name-tags up on their doors. All Louis has to do is find the one with just Harry, no roommate, which narrows the choices down significantly in a freshman dorm.

Louis eventually locates Harry’s room. He pauses before knocking, debating whether or not invading Harry’s building might be a tad reactionary or intrusive, but then he hears what sounds suspiciously like a sob. Fuck it. Louis knocks his knuckles gently against the door. “Harry?”

Silence. Louis is just about to knock again when he gets a muffled, “Louis?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Can I come in?”

Another pause, not quite as long as the last one but close. “Um.”

“I can go wait in the car, if you’d prefer that,” Louis offers. He would definitely not prefer that, but if it’s what Harry wants…

“Um,” Harry says again, “I’m not—you shouldn’t—don’t. I don’t. Er. I can’t come over tonight. I’m sorry.”

Louis’ stomach twists a little tighter. “Why not?”

“I can’t. I’m not—it’s not clean. Louis, I can’t get it clean.” Ear pressed against the door, Louis hears another sob-like sound. “Nothing is clean.” Harry’s voice cracks on the last word and that does it for Lou.

“Harry, I’m coming in, okay?” he says, and opens the door.

Upon entering the room, Louis does not immediately see Harry. What he does see is a bootcamp-caliber-clean room with bare walls, smoothed bed clothes laden with folded laundry, a desk organized to usual Harry Styles perfection. Which is where his eyes eventually fall on Harry: on the floor, partially obscured by his desk chair, curled over on himself. Shoulders shaking.

Louis can hear his heart beating in his ears as he closes the door behind him, just loud enough so that Harry can hear it, so Louis doesn’t sneak up on him. Louis catches sight of the perfectly lined-up row of shoes next to the door and removes his sneakers. He considers removing his socks for good measure (has he washed these yet this semester?) but decides against it. Louis walks around the desk chair and crouches down a few feet from Harry, who’s got his hair in one fist, a cleaning towel in the other, and appears to be highly engrossed in the task of scrubbing a scuff mark off the tile floor.

“Harry,” Louis says lowly, startling Harry into looking up.

The kid’s cheeks and nose and the rims of his eyes are red from crying and he’s got his trembling lower lip trapped between his teeth. Once Harry gets over the initial surprise of seeing Louis’s face less than an arm’s length away from his own, the shock on his face crumples into shame and misery. “Wh-what are you doing?”

“Well, I was going to bring you back to my place so we could stuff our faces with caramel corn and watch Halloweentown,” Louis says, trying not to convey just how freaked out he is because Harry is quite obviously embarrassed enough. Be cool, he orders himself. “But I see you’re busy.” He looks down at the ceaseless motion of Harry’s scrubbing hand. “Whatcha doing?”

Harry gives his hair a particularly vicious tug and Louis flinches. “The floor is so dirty,” Harry practically moans. “I—I just wanted to c-clean the floor but I can’t. It’s n-not coming out.” Simply voicing this misery brings a fresh round of tears and Louis has absolutely no idea what in Christ’s name he’s supposed to do.

“Harry,” Louis placates, hands up in the air, not sure if he can touch. “It’s a scuff mark, dude. It’s not dirt, it can’t come out. It’s not your fault. Whoever lived here before you fucked it up, okay?”

Harry shakes his head desolately. “No. No! I have to get it out.” He scrubs with renewed vigor. “But I can’t. I c-can’t. I’m no good.”

“Hey, no. Harry. Here. Stop.” Louis gently moves one hand to rest over the back of Harry’s hand, still clutching the cloth, to stop his motion. Then, cautiously, Louis brings his free hand up to the hand Harry has buried in his hair. “Harry. Haz,” Louis says quietly but firmly. “Stop. Come on.” Very carefully, over the course of several seconds during which Harry stares resolutely at the floor (or Louis’ hand laid over top of his own, Louis can’t tell), Louis extricates Harry’s fingers from the knots of his hair. The silence between them is punctuated only by Harry’s periodic sniffles.

“The floor is clean,” Louis says, very slowly, hands still holding Harry’s, lightly restraining him. Harry must be quite distracted with the state of the floor, because he doesn’t flinch away or try to shake Louis off or anything. Louis tries to catch Harry’s eyes and fails. No matter. “It’s just a scuff mark. If you want, I can call my mom in a bit and ask her how we can get it up, sound good?”

After a few painful moments, Harry nods at the floor.

“Okay,” Louis breathes with relief. “Right now, though, we should maybe get up off the floor? Come on.” Louis gives Harry’s hands a comforting squeeze and stands up, pulling a reluctant Harry with him. Even standing, Harry curves his shoulders and bows his head as if trying to make himself as small as possible. When Louis eventually releases his hands, Harry wraps his arms around himself. His curls are sticking to his damp cheeks and it takes all of Louis’ willpower not to reach up and brush them back himself, lest that cross a line and redouble Harry's distress. Louis is still surprised he got away with all that hand holding, and were this situation wildly different, he might even be grinning with self-satisfaction right now.

But the situation is not wildly different, and Louis has more pressing concerns than mentally congratulating himself on getting to—well, if they’re talking bases, Louis supposes what just happened would qualify as sitting down in the dugout before the game even starts. Still, at least Louis knows he’s actually in the baseball stadium. That’s something.

But Harry. Right. “Why don’t you sit down,” Louis suggests, maneuvering the stacks of clothes on Harry’s bed so that they’re all arranged at the foot, giving Harry a place to sit. Louis desperately hopes he hasn’t just destroyed some sorting system Harry had in place for his laundry, but Harry takes a seat without argument.

Louis casts a quick look around the room, then ducks his head into the bathroom to find—ah, yep. Tissues. Right on top of the back of the toilet. Of course Harry does not suffer Louis’ tissue acquisition problems. Louis grabs the whole box and brings it back to Harry, whose eyes are on his knees. Louis pulls out a couple of tissues and hands them to Harry. Harry nods gratefully without saying anything and wipes at his eyes, blows his nose, deposits the soiled Kleenex in the trash bin by his bed. Louis takes a tentative seat down next to him.

“Sorry about…” Harry trails off, voice rough, his hands splayed white-knuckled over his knees like starfish.

“Don’t even worry about it,” Louis says. “Sorry about the scuff mark.”

Harry snorts. “I'm such a baby,” he admits. “It wasn’t even—I mean, it’s a stupid thing to be upset over.”

“Not necessarily,” Louis says. “Were you upset before you started cleaning? Is that why you were scrubbing the floor?”

After a split-second’s hesitation, Harry nods.

“Right, so if you’re already upset and just trying to clean the goddamn floor, and then here’s this mark that won’t come up, that’s pretty fucking annoying.”

Harry shakes his head. “Don’t try to make this—” He waves generally at himself “—seem normal. It’s weird. I know I’m weird about this.”

“Everyone gets to be weird about some things,” Louis says. “I, for example, have a very strong aversion to nail clippings. When I roomed with Liam freshman year, I once came home to him trimming his toenails on our bedroom floor and I wouldn’t come in the room till he picked them all up. I make him and Niall cut their nails out on the porch, now.”

Harry blinks at him with an expression that’s some weird cross of surprised, incredulous, and reluctantly amused. “I don’t think that’s a valid comparison,” Harry says at last, “but thanks for trying to make me feel better. That’s very nice of you.”

“Always with the surprise about my niceness,” Louis says, shaking his head dramatically. “You wound me, Haz.”

Harry gives a wet laugh. “No, I know. I’m sorry.” He inhales and exhales shakily. “You’re nice. The nicest. I must have been—” Harry gives a weird hitching hiccup “—musta been particularly awful, to have incurred the wrath of someone so nice for so long.”

“Well, I can be nasty bastard when I’ve got a mind to be,” Louis allows. “I hold grudges like it’s my job. So really, it should be a testament to your awesomeness that we’re even friends right now.”

Harry hums thoughtfully. “You called me that twice, now,” he eventually says.

“What?”

“Haz.”

“Oh, yeah. It just rolls right off the tongue. You never had a nickname before?” Louis says.

Harry shakes his head. “No. You?”

“Lou, I guess,” Louis says, “Particularly when Liam is frustrated with me. My mom calls me Boo Bear, but if you tell anyone I'll be forced to kill you.”

Harry stifles a laugh, and the coils of anxiety start to loosen around Louis’ chest. “Can I call you Boo Bear?” Harry teases. They might just be out of the woods.

Louis sniffs haughtily. “You most certainly may not. That’s reserved strictly for my mother, Harold.”

“How about Lou Bear?”

“Revised versions of the nickname still count as using the nickname.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll come up with something different.”

The thought of Harry bestowing a nickname upon him makes Louis chest bloom warm with pleasure. “Be warned, I’m very difficult to impress,” he says.

“Be warned, you have no vetoing power when it comes to nicknames,” Harry says, pulling out another tissue to wipe at his nose. “So, you better be nice to me, or I’ll make it something purposely awful.”

“You wouldn’t,” Louis says. “You’re not nearly mean enough.”

Harry raises his eyebrows, all adorably challenging. “Oh yeah? Who got you to hate him within ten seconds of knowing him?”

Louis shakes his head, unwilling to indulge Harry in his self-deprecation. “That doesn’t count.”

“Why not?”

“Because you weren’t being mean on purpose,” Louis says, “or on your own behalf.”

“How do you know?”

Louis fixes Harry with a look and takes great satisfaction in the fact that Harry can’t seem to look away. “Well, for one thing, you apologized. And you’ve hung out with both Niall and me since then, as well as Liam and Zayn and Josh, and if you’re still making an honest effort to get us to hate you, spoiler alert: you’re not doing a very good job of it.” Harry pinches his lips together like he’s containing a smile, which makes Louis think it might be safe to ask, “Be honest with me right now. Do you still believe those things you said to Niall in the quad?”

Harry’s eyebrows pinch together and for one, horrible second, Louis thinks he might start crying again. Seems he’s hit a nerve, as well as affirmed his suspected reason for Harry being upset tonight. It’s something to do with those evil assholes at that camp, Louis knows it. He just knows.

“I don’t—I don’t think so,” Harry says. “No.”

Louis’ mouth almost pops open in ecstatic surprise, on the verge of gushing about how awesome that is, but before he can say anything, Harry continues, “Can we not, um. Can we not have this conversation right now, though?” He looks at Louis pleadingly, and out of the corner of Louis’ eye, he can see Harry’s right hand reaching over to the cuff of his left sleeve.

“No, yeah, sorry,” Louis says quickly. “We don’t have to talk about that. Sorry. Do you still want to come over to my place and hang out? If you want space, I completely get it.”

Harry looks around his room and the corners of his mouth pull down. “Your place, please,” he says. “If that’s okay?”

“Course,” Louis says, standing up. “Caramel corn awaits. Apple cider, too.”

“How festive,” Harry comments.

“Fitting, since a fall festival is where Niall and Josh got all this stuff,” Louis says, walking over to retrieve his shoes. He follows Harry out of the room, watches him flip off the lights, flip them back on and off again. Then lock and re-lock the door. Something prods uncomfortably at Louis’ heart. “It’s still happening this and next weekend,” he continues, so that there isn’t just silence while Harry goes through his locking procedure. “The festival. We still need to get pumpkins, if you want to go next Saturday.”

“Sounds like fun,” Harry says, forehead creased with concentration as he locks the door one last time and takes a forced step away.

***

Harry doesn’t fully unwind for a long time, even after they’ve gotten to Louis’ apartment, even after Harry has wrapped himself up in a blanket and wedged himself into the corner of Louis' couch and sat through most of Halloweentown. Louis knows because he can see Harry’s hand clenched around the blanket. Better the blanket than his hair, though, so Louis lets it slide. They don’t really talk through the movie and decide to call it a night early—mostly because they’re both exhausted and Louis knows when the other boys get home they’re all going to be hyped up on caffeine and adrenaline and no thank you.

As Louis drives Harry home, he toys with an idea, uncertain whether it’s crossing a boundary, whether it will put Harry back on edge right before the poor kid tries to go to sleep. However, the memory of Harry not shaking off Louis’ hands fortifies him.

So, when they pull up to Harry’s building and Harry steps out of the car with his characteristic “goodnight” and “thank you thank you thank you,” Louis puts Myrtle in park and hops out too, striding around the hood of the car to wrap a very surprised Harry in a hug before he can second guess himself. Louis thanks the universe that Zayn tested these waters first a couple weeks ago at their group movie night, so Louis knows a little of what to expect. He expects Harry’s initial stiff response and his hesitancy in wrapping his own arms around Louis’ waist. What Louis does not expect is for Harry to tighten his hold on Louis and tentatively duck his head into Louis’ shoulder, like he’s not sure if he’s allowed to do that. It’s all Louis can do not to reach up and card his fingers through Harry’s hair.

None of this is how Louis anticipated Friday evening unfolding, but right now, he is a hundred percent okay with that. 

Chapter Text

Louis glances at his phone again, waiting waiting waiting for the screen to light up with a text from Harry. It’s almost midnight and Louis’ apartment is flush with a veritable melting-pot of people: swimmer friends of Liam’s, gads of Spectrum kids, random people Niall knows (since Niall seems to know everyone and everyone loves Niall), what seems to be half the theater department, pretty much all the math department (though Louis could count all his fellow junior math majors on one hand), other miscellaneous friends, the neighbors, and floaters from other apartments’ parties…but no Harry. No Demi or Selena either, though, according to Louis’ last crude census of the living room, so Louis is holding out hope.

Louis wouldn’t blame Harry if he didn’t come. He knows Harry didn’t sleep well last night (a concerning emergent pattern). Louis himself was awake long past his roommates’ return home, contemplating, typing, and deleting texts he might send to Harry in light of what had happened, but unable to settle on anything suitable. Really, what could he say?

Louis was eventually woken up by an incoming text at 3:37 in the morning, having fallen asleep with his phone on the pillow next to his head.

Harry: Sorry again about earlier tonight and thank you so much for everything.

Louis had just peeled his cheek away from his pillowcase, yawned, and rubbed the sleep from his eyes to compose a reply when another text arrived.

Harry : I wasn’t kidding you really are the nicest and a million apologies for ruining our movie night.

Louis pinched the bridge of his nose, frustrated and disappointed about the fact that there was no way Harry had fallen asleep and then awoken to send those texts, meaning Harry had been beating himself up about this since Louis dropped him off at home.

Louis : 1) Don’t apologize, you didn’t ruin anything, k? 2) Of course, that is what friends do, especially friends who are the nicest

Louis was pretty fucking proud of the lack of spelling errors in that as he squinted at his phone in the dark. He rummaged around on the bedside table for his glasses and knocked over an empty cereal bowl while he was at it. An angry “shhh!” sounded across the room, either from Liam or Zayn, there was no way to be sure.

Louis watched the “…” under Harry’s name for a couple of minutes, indicating he was in the process of typing a message, before it disappeared. Louis waited another several minutes, but it seemed that whatever Harry had been about to say, he’d lost his nerve. Louis yawned again.

Louis: I’m serious Haz, don’t beat yourself up about it. Sleep so you have energy to party it up with us tomorrow night [confetti emoji] 

Harry didn’t respond for a couple of minutes, but when he did, Louis’ face split into a big, sleepy grin.

Harry: Brave no sleep. Go for DAYS without sleep.

Louis: This is why we are friends

Was Louis bashing Harry too much over the head with the idea that they were friends? Perhaps. But Harry hadn’t seemed to clue in quite yet, so Louis would just have to keep at it.

Harry: [smiley face emoji]

Louis: I hate to be a Wendy but seriously go to sleep and don’t stress, k? You’re fine, we’re fine, it’s all fine

Harry: Ok. Thanks

Harry: Again

Harry: For everything

So if Louis had to guess, he’d say Harry probably went to sleep around 4 a.m. A generous estimate. No matter what Louis said (er, texted), Harry's probably been stressed out all day today, too. Louis wouldn’t blame Harry if he simply wasn't up for a party tonight.

This thought, of course, does not stop Louis from checking the door and his phone every few minutes for some indication of Harry’s arrival or the imminence thereof.

“Hey.”

Louis glances up from his task of mixing another bucket to see Zayn slouched casually against the counter with all the grace of a magazine model. How is it that he manages to look this goddamn cool when he’s sporting green outer-underwear? He’s currently acting the Robin to Liam’s Batman—Liam’s changing it up with a DC character this year, apparently.

“Liam says that Demi just texted,” Zayn announces. “They’re on their way.”

“Cool,” Louis says, jerking his head up in a little nod, trying not to let on that it feels like fireworks just went off in his stomach.

Zayn, of course, is having none of it. His bullshit detector is even more finely tuned than Louis’. Zayn rolls his eyes and takes a small sip from his solo cup. “Cut the crap. You’ve had your Peter Pan pants in a bunch all night waiting for him to get here.”

“First of all, rude,” Louis says. “Second of all, don’t act like you haven’t been waiting, too.”

Zayn shrugs, as if that is neither here nor there, but Louis knows Zayn’s been as tense with anticipation as Louis has in Harry’s absence—okay, maybe not as tense, but close. Louis gave him and Liam the low-down on Harry’s emotional breakdown over brunch (post-noon Poptarts) today. Not all the details, only that he’d happened upon a desperately cleaning Harry and stayed with him until he’d calmed down. Louis figured that if Zayn was the one Harry trusted with his camp secret, Zayn might be able to provide some counsel on how to deal with a distressed Harry. As for Liam…well, anything Louis told Zayn would eventually reach Liam’s ears anyway, so why bother?

In regards to advice on Harry, Zayn did not prove to be the wellspring of knowledge that Louis had hoped.

“I don’t think there’s anything else you could or should have done,” Zayn said, either helpfully or unhelpfully, depending on how Louis looked at it. “The vibe I get from Harry is, the most important thing is that he knows you’re not going to bail on him.”

Liam agreed with Zayn, although Louis didn’t put too much stock in that, since Liam was wont to agree with Zayn anyway about anything.

Regardless of what Liam and Zayn said about not being able to help last night’s situation, Louis noted that they were both a little on protective edge today: “Harry’s coming tonight, right?” Liam asked, oh, four or five times this afternoon.

Not that Louis can judge. Honesty hour? If Louis hadn't promised Harry that he’d keep his wits about him, the anxious anticipation would have Louis well into his fifth drink of the night. Currently, he’s nursing his third solo cup with only enough alcohol lacing his veins to make the room a little warmer and softer around the edges.

Louis has just finished stirring the last of the vodka into the fruit punch when he hears the door slam shut and sees a mop of curly hair over the sea of heads in the living room. Excellent. Louis cuts through the crowd with the efficiency of a weed wacker and when Harry’s eyes land on him, he can see relief pervade the kid’s expression. It’s crazy how stupidly happy it makes Louis, just knowing that he’s the cause of that expression. The alcohol might be somewhat to blame for his current euphoria, but probably only, like, twelve percent.

“You came,” Louis says, all smiles now.

“You make an awesome Peter Pan,” Harry replies, hands busy fiddling with the buttons of his jacket. He’s rocking a gray peacoat today, and Louis means rocking it. 

Louis gives a little bow. “Thank you, thank you.”

“You look amazing, Louis,” says Demi, who Harry has been trying rather unsuccessfully to hide behind. She’s wearing pink pants, a yellow sweater, and a backpack.

“Thanks,” Louis says, “…Kimmy Schmidt?”

“Yes!” Demi says, looking positively over the moon to be recognized.

Talk about weirdly perfect costumes. Louis turns to Selena, who’s wearing a simple black dress. “And you’re…?”

“Not a big fan of Halloween,” she says with a chin-jutting what of it? expression.

“Fair enough,” Louis says. “No judgment for not dressing up.” He says this for both Selena and Harry’s benefit, as Harry is wearing a simple shirt-jeans combo under his coat. “Drinks in the kitchen—including non-alcoholic, if that’s what floats your boat. Snacks…may have been consumed. I’ll check on that. Make yourselves at home. Mi casa, et cetera.”

“Thanks so much, Lou!” Demi says, giving him a grateful little pat on the shoulder before dragging Selena off into the kitchen by the wrist.

Louis redirects his attention to Harry. “I’m glad you came.”

“I feel bad I didn’t dress up as anything,” Harry says, fidgeting with his sleeves self-consciously. "I didn't really get a chance to think about it, today. Sorry."

“I would give you Chester so that you could last-minute dress up as Michael Darling,” Louis muses, “but I’d rather leave him in our room. Lest he get spilled on, or worse, puked on, later.”

“Yeah, it’d be a real shame if a drunken someone vomited on one of your possessions,” Harry says, voice filled with tentative sarcasm. 

Louis laughs, then bites his lip apologetically. “Yeah, sorry about that.”

Harry waves his hand in a the past is the past gesture.

“Still, if you want a costume…” Louis says, tapping his chin thoughtfully.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m fine,” Harry says, even though his arms wrapped around his middle and his slightly curved-in shoulders give him away.

Louis casts a searching glance around the living room for something, anything. Apparently, the universe is going to let him have this one. “Ah ha!” He reaches down under the coffee table and pulls out a pair of silver bunny ears, which must have been left carelessly behind by that girl who came dressed as a slutty bunny with one of Liam’s swim teammates. They’ve since departed to do god knows what, god knows where (Louis has never been more grateful for Liam’s locked-door policy), and Louis doubts they’ll come back for the ears. They were hardly the focal point of the girl’s costume.

“Here ya go,” Louis says to Harry, reaching up to stick the ears on a befuddled Harry’s head. “You can be my Lost Boy.”

Harry adjusts the ears on his head, cheeks visibly red even in the dimmed light of the apartment, but he doesn’t take them off. “Aren’t you supposed to have a whole fleet of Lost Boys?” Harry mumbles in half-hearted protest.

“Yeah, but Niall and Josh came dressed as the fox and the hound,” Louis says, trying his hardest to make Harry feel as not-weird about this as possible because Harry wearing bunny ears is the highlight of Louis’ party so far, no contest. “So we can pretend they’re Lost Boys, too.”

Scratch that. Harry’s grateful smile is the best part of this party so far.

***

Louis finds Harry a soda and a spot in the kitchen where there are slightly fewer people clogging up his breathing room. Harry sits on a bar stool by the counter, sipping his drink and looking like he’s trying to take up as little space as possible while Louis politely engages a couple of Nick’s theater friends in conversation, acting the good host.

“Is that him?”

“Jesus!” Louis whips around to see who just leaned up to murmur that in his ear and finds himself face-to-face with a guiltily smiling Dani. She jerks her head not-so-subtly in Harry’s direction.

“Is that Harry?” she asks, smile turning hopeful.

“Yeah,” Louis says. “I’ve actually been meaning to introduce you and Perrie. Where—oh.” Perrie appears from behind her girlfriend with a matching eager smile on her face.

“Didn’t peg him as a bunny ear kind of guy,” Perrie says, twisting a lock of blonde hair around her index finger. “Not that I’m complaining.”

“Don’t say anything to him about it,” Louis warns with an accompanying finger-wag. “Do not ruin this for me.”

“Chill,” Perrie says. “We’ll be perfectly cordial Spectrum representatives.”

“Promise,” Dani says. She gives a slightly wobbly curtsey.

Under normal circumstances, Louis would trust Perrie and Dani to handle a conversation with Harry, no question. Perrie, with her deadpan professionalism and Dani with her soft-spoken demureness. These strategically useful characteristics (especially when interacting with someone like Harry), however, go straight out the window when Perrie and Dani have gotten a few drinks in themselves.

Consequently, no way in fuck is this conversation happening without Louis’ supervision.

“Hey, Haz,” Louis calls, beckoning Perrie and Dani to follow him.

Harry startles and caves a bit further in on himself when he sees Louis leading two strangers over to him. It probably does not help that Perrie and Dani are currently dressed as Harley Quinn and Enchantress, respectively, à la the upcoming Suicide Squad movie.

“This is Perrie, my second-in-command for Spectrum,” Louis introduces, “and her girlfriend, Dani.”

“Nice to meet you,” Harry says promptly, sticking out his hand with a rigid arm, which Perrie takes with a grin.

“So nice to finally meet you,” Perrie says, with just a hint too much emphasis on the word ‘finally.’

Louis nearly face-palms when Harry’s eyebrows shoot up and he looks uncertainly over at Louis. Damage control time. “I may have mentioned you once or twice,” Louis says with affected nonchalance, and shuts down the urge to throw Perrie and Dani a reprimanding look.

“Right,” Perrie says, immediately on board, slipping Louis an apologetic look in the fraction of a second before Harry turns his gaze back on her. “Actually, we should be offended that Louis hasn’t mentioned us to you.”

Harry winces apologetically, as though he is to blame for that. “Sorry,” he says, adjusting his position on the stool and reaching up to pull on one of his curls. “Maybe…maybe Louis has mentioned you and I just wasn’t listening.”

“You don’t have to cater to their wounded egos,” Louis says, just drunk enough to find himself throwing an arm over Harry’s shoulders and nearly getting himself stabbed in the eye with a bunny ear. Luckily, though, Harry doesn’t recoil from the touch. On the contrary, Louis feels him leaning into it, just a little. Louis wonders if it’s simply because Harry is so ill-at-ease with his current situation that he’s seeking the comfort of familiarity wherever he can find it. Even if that’s the case, then that still means that Louis is familiarity and comfort, and that in and of itself is a reason to take a celebratory swig of his drink…because if he doesn’t then he might do something else much stupider with his mouth.

“Harry!”

They all look around to see a red-cheeked, grinning Niall bounding forward like the hound he’s portraying, all drunkenly pleased to see Harry with a cheerful Josh trailing behind.

“Hello,” Harry says uncertainly, clearly flattered that someone cares enough to say hello to him but nervous about Niall’s energy.

“Sorry about him,” Josh says, curling one arm around Niall’s waist and putting his other hand over his abdomen. “He’s riding the high of a recently won pong game. We just came over to say hello.” Josh wraps Dani and Perrie in hugs and turns back to Harry and Louis. “Two things. One, I think Zayn is looking for you.” He points at Harry, then flicks his eyes over to Louis, “And someone named Callum is asking for you.”

“Oh,” is all Louis can say. He should go say hello to Callum, but he’s loath to leave Harry behind when his eyes are as round as quarters. He can’t very well bring Harry with him to meet Callum, though, can he? Louis cannot pinpoint exactly why that would be weird, only feels very certainly that it would be.

Fortunately, Zayn comes to the rescue.

“Hey, Harry,” he says, ducking around Niall and Josh. This corner of the kitchen is quickly becoming one of the most densely populated areas of the apartment. However, Harry looks nothing short of relieved that Zayn is here now. Louis might have it in him to feel jealous, except that a) Zayn has been Harry’s friend twice as long as Louis has, so Louis has no room to talk, b) Zayn is so gone for Liam that Louis would be not at all surprised to receive a joint Christmas card from them this year, and c) more than anything else, Louis feels as relieved as Harry looks that if Louis ducks out for a few minutes to greet Callum, Harry is in good hands. 

“I’m gonna go find Callum,” Louis tells Harry, regretfully retracting his arm. “Okay?” Harry nods. “Okay. Also, Perrie, Dani, a word?”

Louis extricates himself from the knot of people that’s collected around Harry.

“He’s lovely,” Perrie says sincerely when they’re out of Harry’s earshot, which for Perrie is practically gushing.

“I know, but would you guys please be cool?” Louis begs. “You’re freaking him out.”

“I can’t help it,” Dani says, pouting her lips in away that would probably have a lesser (or straighter) man melting into a puddle, “he’s just such a cutie pie.”

“I know,” Louis repeats wearily. Preaching to the choir, Dani.

“So sweet,” Perrie agrees.

“Yes, yes, he’s absolutely adorable,” Louis says. “He’s also overwhelmed. Can we turn down the doting a few notches? I get that you’re all protective of the baby closeted freshman, but be low-key protective, will you?”

“What, and you’re so subtle, Mr. Arm Around the Shoulders?” Perrie challenges with a wink.

Louis is either too drunk or not nearly drunk enough to be having this conversation right now.

“I’m going to find Callum,” Louis announces. He points at each of them. “Be. Cool.”

Louis weaves his way through the living room crowd to find Nick and Callum standing near the window, chatting. When he catches sight of Louis approaching, Callum breaks off mid-sentence and says with a smile, “Hey, there you are.”

“Here I am,” says Louis, opening his arms like wings.

“Nice costume.”

“Thanks, you too.”

“Oh yeah, because I put so much effort into this,” Callum says, indicating the word BOOK written in black marker across his face in imitation of Jim Halpert.

“See, but the lack of effort quite obviously means you’re channeling Jim’s spirit,” Louis says. “Successful costume.”

Callum huffs out a laugh. “I suppose.”

“Thanks for noticing my outfit, Lou,” sulks Nick, sweeping his cape around himself indignantly.

“My apologies, Dracula,” Louis says.

Nick gives a dignified sniff. “Mmm-hmm. Well, I’m off to the kitchen. I could make up some excuse, but if we’re being real, I can’t tell whether this—” he points back and forth between Louis and Callum “—is about to get flirty, so to be on the safe side, I’m taking the exit ramp out of this conversation now. Goodbye.” With a flurry of black robes, Nick whisks himself away to the kitchen.

“What a weirdo,” Louis says, half-condescendingly, half-fondly as he watches Nick go.

“Well, he wasn’t exactly wrong. This totally would be getting flirty,” Callum says, a small smile curling up the left corner of his lips, “except that I see that you and Mr. Bunny Ears already have something going on, and I don’t want to interrupt.”

“Harry? No, we’re not involved,” Louis says quickly. Not because he would rather be involved with Callum instead, but because if Harry gets wind that people at the party think that they’re dating, he’s sure to be back in his shell (as well as out the door) faster than Louis can say “platonic.”

“But you want to be,” Callum counters.

Louis sighs. “It’s complicated.”

“Uh-huh. Well, I’m not going to lie: the main reason I came here was to see you, but,” Callum presses on when Louis opens his mouth to apologize, “I’m not the home-wrecking type, even if the house is still under construction, as it were. So be straight with me. Is there any point in me hanging around here until everyone else leaves tonight? Or inviting you over to my place under the guise of ‘Netflix and chill’ at any point in the near future?”

Louis heaves a long exhale. “No,” he admits.

To Louis’ surprise, Callum just shrugs. “Okay then.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I mean, I still think you’re a cool guy,” Callum says, seemingly unfazed. “If you ever want to grab breakfast burritos with someone, hit me up. And, of course, if things don’t end up working out with Mr. Bunny Ears, you know how to reach me.”

Louis smiles gratefully. “Thanks.”

Callum downs the rest of his drink and says, “’s all good. By the by, I am still glad that I came tonight. Nick and I were frat-hopping before this and ugh.” Callum pulls a face. “It’s Halloween, for fuck’s sake. You won’t undermine your coolness by throwing on the Monster Mash.”

“You can’t grind to the Monster Mash,” Louis reasons.

“Never underestimate the adolescent ability to grind,” Callum says sagely.

Louis snorts. “I’ll remember that. You can thank Josh for the music tonight,” he says just as the Adam’s Family theme song comes on.

“I don’t think I know Josh,” Callum says, craning his neck to look around the room.

“You guys would be best friends,” Louis says, and he means it. “C’mon, I’ll introduce you.”

***

Harry doesn’t realize how difficult he was finding it to breathe in that apartment until he steps outside into the frigid October air. It took Zayn all of about five minutes being in Harry’s company before he suggested that Harry join him while he stepped out for a smoke, and Harry lunged at the opportunity like a drowning man reaching for a life preserver.

Harry is glad that he came to the party, in all sincerity. For some reason, it's very important to Louis that he be here, and after yesterday, Harry thinks he would do just about anything for Louis. Also, horrible as Harry is at meeting new people, he’s touched that Louis’ friends want to get to know him. Still, Harry was starting to feel pretty claustrophobic in the kitchen. Out here with Zayn is much more manageable.

“How was the haunted corn maze?” Harry asks, jamming his hands in his pockets and bouncing on his heels while Zayn lights up his cigarette.

Zayn takes a heavy drag and ejects the smoke from his nostrils. “Pretty fun. How was your movie night?”

Harry kicks a pebble with his foot. Louis said not to worry about it, and Harry’s been trying all day to do just that, but every time he remembers last night he can’t suppress an involuntary wince. “It was all right.” He casts around for a new topic of conversation before Zayn can press for details. “I forgot you smoked,” he says lamely. 

Zayn shrugs. “I don’t so much anymore. Liam doesn’t like it.” He sucks down another lung-full of smoke and puffs out a ring. Harry can’t help but be impressed. “These days I mostly only smoke when I drink.”

Harry nods like he understands, even though he doesn’t. Of course he doesn’t.

“You okay?” Zayn says. “You seem a bit…off.”

“I’m at a party,” Harry says with a wry smile. “Hardly in my element, am I?”

“I was surprised that you came,” Zayn admits. “I’m happy that you’re here, of course. But still.”

“Louis said I should come,” Harry says.

Zayn tilts his head to the side and smiles.

“What?” Harry says defensively.

“Nothing,” Zayn says in a voice that does not sound like nothing.

Harry watches Zayn suspiciously for a moment but Zayn isn’t giving him anything.

“Speaking of Louis,” Harry says, searching with the sole of his shoe for another piece of gravel, “who was that guy he was talking to in the living room?”

“Who, Callum?” Zayn raises an eyebrow.

Harry shrugs. “Yeah, I just didn’t recognize him. But they seem…close.” The small part of Harry (that he’s had minimal success stifling lately), whose heart beats a little faster and is slightly quicker to blush whenever he’s around Louis, felt punched in the gut when he looked up from his conversation with Zayn in the kitchen to see Louis and Callum standing oh so close to each other, smiling.

Harry knows it’s not fair to feel jealous, not even a little bit, for a laundry list of reasons. For one, Louis and Harry haven’t even been on good terms for a month yet. For another, Louis doesn’t even know that Harry is into guys. Even if he did, the chances of Harry mustering the courage to pursue him romantically are essentially nonexistent—Harry is a walking travesty when it comes to romance; look at what happened with Ariana, who has not attempted to contact him since their botched date. Harry doesn’t think he could stand it if something similar happened with Louis. And rest assured, Harry is dead-positive anything with Louis would end just as poorly. And quickly. Louis knows what a mess Harry is (see: last night). Louis is outgoing and has lots of friends and is so nice and doesn’t descend into funks where he tries to clean everything in sight. Louis is so far out of Harry’s league it’s not even funny.

And, Harry keeps remind himself yet again, none of this matters because Louis doesn’t know he’s gay.

“I don’t think Callum and Louis are that close,” Zayn muses, watching Harry like a hawk. “They hooked up a bit earlier this semester, but trust me, I spend a lot of time around this apartment, and I’ve never seen Callum over.”

Harry is simultaneously relieved and disheartened. On the one hand, Louis and Callum aren’t close, and the irrational back of Harry’s mind is, well, irrationally happy about that. On the other hand, Zayn’s mention of hooking up reminds Harry of one more reason he can never, ever in a million years pursue anything more than friendship with Louis: It’s occurred to Harry lately that since he could never get married in the Catholic Church, if he ever gets into a homosexual relationship, then that whole “no sex until marriage” thing goes right out the window, doesn’t it? Still, Harry doesn’t think he’d be ready to have sex with someone for a long time—he’d want to be in love first, and in a long-term relationship. This presents yet another difference in philosophy between Harry and Louis, apparently. 

Of course, none of this matters, Harry repeats to himself again, like a mantra, because as far as Louis knows, Harry is straight.

"Why do you ask?" Zayn says, sounding like he has a pretty good idea already of why. 

“Just curious,” Harry says evasively, without looking at Zayn.

Zayn is kind enough to let the subject drop, but not without a disbelieving “uh-huh” first, to let Harry know that it won’t be forgotten.

***

Harry hides out on the front porch with Zayn for about twenty minutes before he feels like he can brave the indoors again. Besides, a few more people have trickled outside to smoke, so their sidewalk oasis has been compromised anyway. Harry follows Zayn back upstairs and remains glued to his side as they navigate the living room, which is currently in the midst of a drunken, semi-coordinated Electric Slide.

Luckily, Louis is not a participant. They find him standing in the kitchen with Liam. If Harry’s heart feels a little lighter when he sees that Callum is not with them, no one ever has to know.

“There you guys are,” Louis says. “Was wondering where you’d wandered off to.”

“Outside for a smoke,” Zayn says, and Harry notices that Liam quickly reroutes his lean-in to kiss Zayn on the cheek instead of on the lips.

Harry stifles a yawn with his fist.

“Tired?” Louis guesses unnecessarily.

Harry nods. “Yeah. Sorry. Didn’t sleep well last night.”

“I know,” Louis says, then bites his lip like he didn’t mean to let that slip. “If you want the key to our room, just say the word.”

“Actually, I think I will, if that’s all right?” Harry says. “Maybe just for a little.”

“Yeah, yeah, of course. Liam, you heard the man.” Louis jerks his head in Harry’s direction.

Liam reaches into his Batman utility belt and pulls out the key. “Here ya go. If it doesn’t unlock right away, try jiggling it a little. Sometimes it jams.”

Harry nods. “Thanks again.”

“Course,” Liam says. “Feel free to crash here, too. One of us can drive you home in the morning.”

Harry has absolutely no intention of sleeping here—where would he sleep, on Louis’ bed? Liam’s?—but he nods anyway and spirits himself away to the bedroom, careful to avoid the flailing limbs of several overzealous dancers along the way. 

As soon as Harry gets safely inside, he slumps against the bedroom door and tilts his head up to look at the ceiling. What is he doing? Why isn't he just texting Demi and asking whether she'd be willing to drive him back to his place now? 

Harry trudges over to Louis' bed, with its bunched-up sheets and un-fluffed pillows and sits down. Stifles another yawn. Kicks off his shoes. Lies down on his side and curls his knees up to his chest. Pulls off the bunny ears so that he can rest his head comfortably on the pillow. 

If Harry's really honest with himself, he knows why he isn't trying to go home. At home, there's a spotless room in the wake of Harry's cleaning frenzy, there's the crumpled up letter from camp under his bed (he's so paranoid about anyone else finding it that he hasn't even brought himself to throw it in the garbage), there's solitude. Sure, Harry's technically alone in here, too, but everyone he knows is right outside. Louis is right outside. 

Harry reaches down to pull the tangled pile of sheets up over to cover himself. He's not going to fall asleep. He just needs to rest his eyes for a bit. He's so, so tired. Soon enough, Demi will text him or someone will barge in and Harry will go home. Until then, Harry's going to—what's this? Harry's socked toes find a squishy, fluffy something at the bottom of the bed. He reaches down and retrieves Chester. The bear is really quite soft. Harry brings the stuffed toy up to his face and rubs it against his cheek. It smells like Louis, Harry notices.

Is that weird, that Harry knows what Louis smells like? That Harry likes it? Suddenly, Harry feels like he's doing something dirty, invasive, but...but that doesn't stop him from lying back down with Chester tucked under his chin. It's fine. It's fine because Harry isn't going to fall asleep, so no one ever has to find out about him being a total creep in this moment of sleepy weakness. Definitely not. 

Chapter Text

Louis is standing on the sidelines of an intense pong match between Liam and Zayn, Nick and Callum when Demi comes over to tap him on the shoulder. “Where’s Harry?” She’s got both fists wrapped around the straps of her backpack and her usual cloud-nine smile has been replaced by a concerned frown. “He isn’t answering his phone. Is he still here?”

“Last I saw him, he was going to hang out in my room for a while,” Louis says. He checks his watch. It’s nearly two. Louis has been trying not to hover, but he will gladly take this excuse to go check on Harry. “Are you and Selena on your way out?”

“Yeah,” Demi says. “If he wants to stay, that’s fine, I just didn’t want to leave without seeing if he still needed a ride home.”

“Okay. Lemme go see where he’s at,” Louis says. He weaves his way through the crowd in the living room, which has only marginally thinned over the past hour, to reach his bedroom door. Louis lifts his knuckles to knock, but doubts he’d be able to hear Harry’s response. He settles for twisting the knob and pushing the door open very slowly, popping his head in first to see what’s what.

The overhead light is still on, but Harry’s shoes are on the floor next to the bed and—what’s this? Harry himself is tucked under Louis’ sheets. Louis inches through the cracked door and closes it behind him, lest the noise outside jar Harry from his sleep. He pads over to the bed to look down at Harry, who’s curled up in a tight ball. God, this kid even sleeps high-strung. Still, at least he fell asleep. In Louis’ bed. In Louis’  bed and Louis can see the familiar fur of Chester’s plush head poking out from beneath the bracket of Harry’s arm, tucked under Harry’s chin. Louis blames it on the shot of Svedka Niall peer-pressured him into downing a few minutes ago, but he feels so light-headed with warmth that he has to put a hand on the bedside table, for fear that he might otherwise ascend into the atmosphere.

A particularly loud cheer sounds from the other room, and Louis cringes away from the door, eyes on locked Harry’s face, checking for signs of consciousness, but Harry is dead to the world. The most movement he makes is wrinkling his nose slightly and tucking his face closer into Chester. Good thing, too, Louis thinks. Not just for the sake of Harry’s mounting sleep debt, but also because Louis is currently standing over him, watching Harry slumber like an absolute creep. Louis should leave. He knows he should, he just—his heart feels positively molten as he looks at Harry. He reaches down and, after an inhale of hesitation, brushes back a curl that fell into Harry’s face when he nuzzled closer to Chester. Harry’s nose twitches, but he doesn’t stir.

Louis exhales shakily and straightens up again. He does have to go report back to Demi, after all. Louis retreats from the bed, flips off the overhead light, and closes the door as quietly as he can behind him.

“He’s passed out,” Louis tells Demi when he finds her by the front door with Selena. “I can drive him home tomorrow.”


“You sure?” Demi asks. Like Louis is about to let anyone wake Harry up and ruin the precious, fragile thing Louis just got to witness in his bedroom.

“Yeah, it’s no problem,” Louis says. “Drive safe, okay?”

“Thanks, Lou.” Demi, of course, goes straight for the hug. Selena fist bumps him, and then they’re out.

“What’s up with you?” Liam asks when Louis makes it back over to the pong table wearing a ludicrous smile that he just can’t seem to wipe off his face.

“Nothing, nothing,” Louis says, still unable to stop grinning.

Liam looks suspicious.

“Really, it’s nothing, don’t worry about it,” Louis says. “But Harry is asleep in my bed, so when you and Zayn go in, be very quiet.”

“Will do,” Liam says. “You want me to help clear off the couch?”

Louis looks over at the soiled mess of red cups, costume fragments, and crushed chips that is his living room sofa right now. “Nah, that’s all right,” he says. Seriously, Louis doesn’t even care. Harry Styles is asleep in his bed right now. Louis could sleep on the floor and still be satisfied with tonight's turn of events.

***

Harry wakes to the sound of someone noodling on a guitar.

Wait, what?

Harry sits bolt upright in bed and whips his head around to survey his surroundings. He’s in…Louis’ room. There’s late-morning light slanting in through the window and two snoring bodies asleep in the other bed. Harry spots Zayn’s tattooed arm sticking out from under the covers. Harry looks down at the bear lying on the mattress next to his hip.

Harry’s gut floods hot with shame and regret. He can’t believe he let himself fall asleep here last night. Did anyone see him? Of course, Zayn and Liam must have, at least, but maybe they were drunk enough not to really see him. Louis, though. Did Louis see? He’s not in the room, so he must have seen Harry sleeping on his bed. Right? 

Oh God, Harry doesn’t even want to think about it. What an intrusive idiot he is. What must Louis think of him, commandeering his bed and his bear, invading his space like that? Where is Louis now?

Harry stumbles out of bed, snapping his wrist and straightening his rumpled shirt as he goes. He opens the door as quietly as he can amid his panic and slips out into the living room, where he finds Niall and his guitar.

“Morning,” Niall says, strumming a couple of lazy chords. “Sleep well?”

“Yes,” Harry chokes out, hoping against hope that he doesn’t look as flustered as he feels. “Thank you. Do you know where Louis is?”

“Kitchen,” Niall says, hoisting himself off the reclining chair he’s been slouched in and crossing to his bedroom door, still playing his guitar as he goes.

Once Niall’s door closes behind him, Harry can hear the music playing in the kitchen. He walks hesitantly over to the door and is met with the sight of Louis standing in front of the stove, swaying his hips and singing along to what sounds like “Shout” by Tears for Fears, which is playing from the laptop on the kitchen counter. He doesn’t appear to have heard Harry come in. Harry yanks his eyes up above Louis’ waist (he’s still wearing his Peter Pan outfit from last night) and raps his knuckles against the door frame.

Louis spins around, and his face lights up when he sees it’s Harry. He presses the laptop spacebar to pause his music. “Morning, Curly,” he says, waving his spatula in salutation. “Pancakes?” He points to the pile he’s got loaded on a plate next to his computer.

“I, um. I’m fine, thank you,” Harry says. He looks down at the floor. “I’m so sorry about last night. I didn’t think I was actually going to fall asleep. You could have woken me up.”

“Haz, it’s fine,” Louis says, flapping the spatula dismissively. “You were tired. Nothing wrong with that.”

“I took your bed, though,” Harry says miserably, grabbing some of his hair and giving it a jerk.

“Haz.” Louis walks over to stand right in front of Harry, apparently momentarily unconcerned with the fizzling batter on the stove. He reaches up to wrap his fingers around Harry’s wrist. Harry lets Louis remove his hand from his hair, dropping his arm to his side. Louis doesn’t let go of his wrist. “I've fallen asleep in far more uncomfortable places than on our couch,” Louis says, “so this was not a major inconvenience. Okay?”

“Okay,” Harry agrees, looking down at Louis’ hand around his arm. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to these moments when Louis is so gentle with him, after being intimidated by Louis for so long. He marveled at Louis' kindness on Friday, he marvels at it now. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get over how nice it is. “Thank you, for letting me stay here.”

“Of course,” Louis says, giving Harry's wrist a light squeeze before returning to his post at the stove. “Glad you got some actual sleep.” He flips a pancake and looks over his shoulder at Harry. “Seriously, do you want in on this breakfast food? Because as soon as Niall comes in…”

Now that his anxiety has abated, Harry can feel the ache of hunger in his stomach. “Sure. Thank you.”

Louis opens a cabinet to retrieve a plate for Harry and dishes up a couple of pancakes for him, directing him to use the syrup and butter on the table.

Louis is right about Niall; Harry is glad he grabbed food when he did, and he watches with a combination of awe and discomfort as Niall wolfs down six or seven pancakes in the span of time it takes Harry to eat one.

“Holy hangover, Batman,” Louis says, looking over Harry’s shoulder with a crooked grin. “You look like shit.”

Harry looks around to see Liam entering the kitchen wearing boxers, an inside-out shirt, and sunglasses.

“Thanks,” Liam grumbles, walking right past the pancakes to the sink, where he fills a glass with water and downs it all in a single go. Then he rummages around in a drawer for Advil, refills his glass, and repeats.

“Where’s Zayn?”

“Asleep still. Lucky bastard,” Liam says, which might be the first time Harry has ever heard Liam curse.

“Ah. Well, there’s food—” Louis begins, just as Niall takes the last pancake off the communal stack, douses it with syrup, folds it in half, and takes an enormous bite out of it. “Correction: there was food.”

“Don’t even talk to me about food,” Liam begs. He takes one more swig of water and then says, “I’m going back to bed. Or…or the bathroom.” With that, he trudges back out.

“Is he going to be okay?” Harry asks, leaning around the door frame to watch the retreat of Liam’s downtrodden form.

“He’s fine,” Niall says through a mouthful of pancake, tone utterly devoid of concern.

“Liam drinks so little, so infrequently, that he’s got a delicate constitution when it comes to alcohol,” Louis explains. “He’ll vom or he won’t. He’ll grouch for a while. By this afternoon, everything will be peachy.”

Despite Louis’ reassuring tone, that sounds like a pretty raw deal to Harry. He’s never been more relieved that he doesn’t drink.

After they’ve finished breakfast, Niall offers to drive Harry home. “Heading to the fine arts building, anyway,” he says. “You live in Harper? Yeah, it’s just on the way.”

Harry can admit that he’s somewhat nervous about Niall giving him a ride, since the two of them have never spent any alone time together, but it’s just a few minutes back to Harry’s place. In any case, Niall offered and what’s Harry going to do, say no and walk home?

“Lemme just go collect my guitar and shit from my room,” Niall says, pancake in one hand as he deposits his dish in the sink.

“Sure,” Harry says, and stands up to stretch. He looks woefully at the dirty cookware piled high on the counter and in the sink, and rubs his hands agitatedly against his thighs. He’s been ignoring the general filth of the kitchen over the course of breakfast, because it seems impolite to start cleaning someone’s home without their consent, but he could at least offer. “Do you need help with dishes, or?”

“Nah, I got this,” Louis says, kicking a stray solo cup across the floor. “The whole apartment needs a deep clean after last night, and given that Liam’s pretty well out of commission, I guess maybe I’m playing adult this afternoon.” Louis pulls a face. “Might as well start with dishes.”

“Sorry about your having to ‘adult,’” Harry says, biting back a smile. “Ironic, given…” He indicates Louis’ Peter Pan costume.

“Oh, this is definitely coming off before I do anything,” Louis says, plucking at his tights. “Too restrictive. Need a full range of motion.” Louis spreads his feet to shoulder-width and does a couple of sideways lunges.

Harry shakes his head, full-on smiling now. “Have you ever cleaned before?” he asks. “Or seen anything be cleaned, for that matter? Do you know what cleaning is?”

“You’re stifling my self-expression,” Louis accuses. “I feel suffocated. I’ll not have it.”

“Fine, fine, I’m going,” Harry says. “Thanks again for letting me stay over.”

“We’ve been through this, Harold,” Louis says, shaking his head with exaggerated exasperation.

“I know, I’m just.” Harry shrugs, smile wavering because Louis let Harry sleep in his bed last night with his bear and that means something, at least to Harry. He steps forward and slowly, awkwardly, pulls Louis into a hug. Louis responds much more quickly and naturally than Harry usually does, arms around Harry’s shoulders almost immediately, but that doesn’t stop Harry from asking, “This is okay, right?” Fear makes his voice come out quieter than he intended. Harry tries to stifle the feeling that this is too close and too affectionate and too effeminate. Too gay. He knows, logically, that Louis thinks nothing like—is nothing like—the people who planted those thoughts in Harry's head. That Louis isn't going to taunt him, rebuke him, push him off. That it would be the height of all ironies if Louis accused Harry of acting "too gay" around him. Still, that doesn't totally suppress the fear. 

But when one of Louis’ palms rubs up and down Harry’s spine, Harry can't do anything but hold tighter. “Of course it is, Haz,” Louis says, soft, reassuring. “If I’ve given you blanket permission to fall asleep on me, you can pretty much take that as default permission to hug me whenever you want, too.”

Harry hides his relieved smile in Louis' shoulder.

Much as Harry would never, ever like to leave this embrace, he can hear Niall moving around in the living room. He withdraws and wraps his arms around himself instead. “See you at work tonight?” he says, feeling stupid for how needy it comes out, because Harry’s spent practically the whole weekend with Louis. It seems silly to miss him for the mere hours they’ll be apart.

“Yep,” Louis says, then winks. “Try not to miss me too much.”

Harry blushes and turns gratefully to Niall, who’s just reemerged in the kitchen doorway. “Ready?” Niall asks.

“Just have to grab my shoes and coat,” Harry says, dashing away to get his stuff. He does a quick job of making Louis’ bed and arranging Chester against the pillow before following Niall out the door.

***

“Zayn says you’re an amazing guitar player,” Harry says as Niall loads his instrument and accessories into the back of the car, mostly just for something to fill the silence. And because it's important to Liam that Zayn and Niall like each other, so maybe Harry can help with that. And maybe also to flatter Niall. Harry is not above ingratiation.

Niall barks out a laugh. “I’m all right.” He slams the trunk and gets into the driver’s seat. 

“I’m surprised I haven’t ever seen you in the fine arts building,” Harry continues as he slides into the passenger seat. 

“Well, I’m usually in there for so many hours during the day, I try to follow a personal rule about leaving by nine or ten o’clock, for my sanity,” Niall says. “Sometimes I’m in there later. I’ve actually heard you playing piano in the practice rooms before.”

Harry frowns. “How’d you know it was me?”

“Not a whole lot of people play gospel hymns up there, if you can believe it."

“Oh, right.” Harry fiddles with the sleeves of his coat. He wants to ask why Niall didn’t say hello, but is afraid to hear the answer.

“Yeah, you’re really good,” Niall says.

“Really?”

Niall snickers. “Yeah, dude. I wouldn’t lie to you about that.”

Harry feels his neck turn red and turns away to look out the window. “Thanks.”

“We should jam together sometime,” Niall says. “I’ve got a keyboard back at our place that I mess around on sometimes. If you aren’t opposed to playing something other than church tunes.”

Harry flinches at that last part, even though Niall’s tone remains light. “I—I sometimes play other things,” Harry says, fingering at the loop of prayer beads around his wrist. “Mostly…mostly Broadway type stuff, though. Wicked, Grease…”

“Does Lou know that?” Niall asks. “You know he played Danny Zuko in his high school musical, right? Like, as a sophomore.”

“Really?” Harry vaguely remembers Louis talking about high school theater when they were at work some time ago.

“Mmm-hmm. Maybe I’ll have to learn some show tunes,” Niall muses. “I’ll look up some tabs later today.”

Silence falls, and Harry shifts in his seat uncomfortably. “I always wanted to learn how to play a bit of guitar,” Harry says, again, just looking for something to say. 

“I could teach you, if you want,” Niall says brightly.

“Oh, no,” Harry backpedals, “I don’t—I can’t pay for lessons or anything.” He’s already doing work-study so that he can afford housing. Harry doesn’t think his step-dad would be down with Harry spending money on something like this. Especially given that it’s music-related, and not even the praise-and-worship brand of music.

“No charge for friends,” Niall quips. “I love teaching people to play. So, let me know if you ever want to learn, even just a few basic chords or something.”

“Okay,” Harry agrees, because he can’t come up with any other response amid the heavy glow that fills his body at the word “friends.”

When they pull up in front of Harry’s building, Niall says, “Thanks again for coming last night.”

“Thanks for having me,” Harry says, “and for letting me crash at your place.”

Niall waves away Harry’s gratitude. “Course. Louis’ bed, not mine. He must really like you, man. One time I was super drunk and wandered into his room instead of mine, and when he found me asleep in his bed, he physically rolled me out of it.”

Harry tries not to laugh, but he can’t keep it in. “Really?”

“Really,” Niall says. “Anyway, see you around.”

“Yeah. Thanks for the ride.” Harry closes the door and restrains himself from skipping up to his door out of sheer giddiness. Niall doesn’t hate him; in fact, he wants to "jam" with Harry sometime. What. Also, He must really like you, man.

Even ten minutes later, as Harry gets ready for Mass in his room, he can’t stop smiling.

At church, in addition to his usual prayers of gratitude for Zayn, Harry thanks God over and over again for letting Louis forgive him.

***

Louis is kind of astonished at how quickly Harry Styles becomes a permanent, prominent fixture in his life. By mid-November, it’s weird if Louis doesn’t see Harry for more than a couple days at a time. There’s work, for one thing, during which Harry is finally letting Louis help him out with stats—although this might speak more to Harry’s mid-November academic panic than the closeness of their friendship.

Harry also comes over to their apartment with more frequent regularity now. Sometimes he shows up with Zayn after they’ve been in the fine arts building at night, since Zayn effectively lives here now. Since Louis' sleep schedule is already fucked due to his late-night shifts at the front desk, he's usually up way late doing homework on the nights he's home, so Harry hangs out with him in the living room after Liam and Zayn fall asleep. Much as Louis likes having Harry around, he disapproves of this habit because apparently Harry wakes up at six in the morning every day (only after much nosing on Louis’ part did he find out that Harry has a fairly extensive morning shower routine, which Louis guesses he should have expected). As a result, Louis finds himself getting started on his homework earlier so that he can finish and drive Harry home at a time that is not, say, two in the morning.

Harry comes over to their apartment during the day, too, either to work on homework with Liam or play guitar with Niall, because Niall is apparently teaching Harry guitar now?

“You should join,” Harry tells Louis at one point, but Niall pretty immediately shuts that idea down.

“Nope, already tried with that one,” Niall says. “He’s certifiably impossible to teach. God bless any professor who's ever had him in class.”

Louis sticks out his tongue but doesn’t disagree. Besides, he likes the idea of Niall and Harry having something to do together, just the two of them. Despite the fact that Niall has the disposition of that laughing baby sun from Teletubbies, Louis can tell Harry is still nervous around him sometimes. As far as Louis is concerned, guitar lessons are the ideal antidote to that lingering intimidation.

“Thanks for the invitation, Haz,” Louis says as he passes behind the couch where Harry is sitting, running his fingers through Harry’s hair as he goes. “But it really is best for everyone if I stay out of this one.”

This is another development that Louis is inordinately pleased about. They’re almost to the point that Louis can reach out to Harry—to hug him goodbye, to put an arm around his shoulder, to ruffle his hair (or pull Harry's own hand out of his hair)—without startling him. Sometimes, even though the incidents are still few and far between, Harry even finds it in himself to initiate contact. When they go to the fall festival the weekend after Halloween, Harry flings an arm across Louis’ chest to stop him from stepping in a deep puddle of mud. Some nights, Harry is the one to hug Louis goodbye. The biggest triumph of this week, though, touching aside, is that Harry falls asleep on Louis’ couch on Friday afternoon. When he wakes up, he merely rubs his eyes and apologizes to Louis, who of course could not care less, but is supremely satisfied at Harry’s lack of hysterics.

All in all, it’s progress.

Louis doesn’t realize he, too, is changing until Liam walks into the living room on Saturday afternoon to find Louis texting on the couch and says, “How’s Harry?”

“Fine?” Louis says, looking up from his phone. “Why would you assume I’m talking to Harry?”

“Are you not talking to Harry?” 

Louis doesn’t say anything.

Liam grins. “Told you.”

While Liam grabs a soda out of the fridge, Louis takes quick stock of his life. Sure, he and Harry have gotten close, but it’s not like all Louis does is talk to Harry. He’s got school stuff, Spectrum stuff, he still hangs out with his roommates and their boyfriends constantly, he goes to parties. Yeah, Louis thinks about Harry a lot because the more time he spends around the kid, the bigger that I want to hold you and keep you forever part of him seems to get. Louis didn’t realize how obsessed he might seem to other people, though. Is Louis obsessed? He doesn’t think so, but he’d also be lying if he said Harry Styles isn’t the human being that occupies the most of Louis’ attention these days.

“I can practically hear you thinking,” Liam says as he sits down in his armchair and opens his laptop. “What’s up?”

Louis chews his bottom lip. “Harry and I are friends, now,” he says slowly, and when Liam raises his eyebrow like yeah, so? Louis continues, “like, real friends. As in, he doesn’t look like I’m about to knife him every time I go in for a hug.”

Liam nods. “Ah, the mark of true friendship.”

Louis throws a pillow at Liam, who catches the projectile with ease and throws it back in Louis’ face. 
“What are we talking about here?” Liam asks, taking a sip of soda. “I feel like it’s not news that you’re friends with Harry.”

No, not news, exactly. Louis doesn’t know quite how to word why he feels so weird. “I guess I just find it strange,” Louis says, “that six weeks ago we weren’t on speaking terms, and now he texts me about—” Louis scrolls through his recent messages to find a good example “—laundry detergent. The merits of different brands of laundry detergent. And I’m actually reading these texts in full and responding to them.” Louis looks at Liam with a helplessly confused expression.

“So, is your real question whether or not your friendship with Harry is weird?” Liam says.

“Maybe.” Louis doesn’t want to say that they’re "moving too fast," because that would be talking about this in couple’s terms, and friendships are obviously different. Is there such a thing as moving too fast for friendships? Louis doesn’t know. What he does know is that he’s never gone from hating someone to caring about that person so much so fast in his whole life, and that seems to warrant examination.

“For what it’s worth, I think it’s a good thing,” says Liam thoughtfully. “Harry’s spent so long around people who don’t care about what he genuinely thinks and feels—and, in fact, have forcibly tried to alter the way the thinks and feels—that he needs someone to pay attention to him, watch out for him without trying to mold him into something.” Liam shrugs. “Why not you?”

Why me, though?” Louis says, lying down on the couch and folding his hands over his stomach, like Liam is playing therapist. “Wouldn’t you have thought, given everything, that Harry would be texting…well, someone like you, actually, about laundry detergent?” Louis isn’t complaining about being the subject of Harry’s attachment, and it’s actually rather unpleasant to imagine Harry spending more time with Liam instead. Still.

“Don’t question it,” Liam advises. “Whatever you did, or are doing, that makes Harry want to be your friend, just roll with it. He needs you.”

He needs you. Louis’ heart squeezes, not altogether uncomfortably. “I know,” he says. “I’m just…befuddled, is all.”

Liam chuckles. “I think your problem is that you underestimate how desperately Harry wants to be friends with people,” Liam says. “Think about it. Who is he closest to other than Demi and Selena? Us, a bunch of tattooed, party-hosting, smoking, drinking, queer kids, right?”

Louis rolls his eyes. Sure, they’re no after-school special, but their friend group isn’t exactly Hell’s Angels, either.

“From the perspective of Harry’s strict religious upbringing,” Liam presses on, “we are arguably some worst people he could possibly make friends with.”

“Yeah, but we’re awesome,” Louis says.

“We are,” Liam agrees, “but that’s not the point. What I'm getting at is, deep down, none of that other stuff matters to Harry—real Harry, not the Harry who's trying to behave like they wanted him to at camp—as long as you’re kind to him. And you’ve been nothing but kind to him since you found out about the whole camp thing. That’s why he’s latched onto you like a baby koala.”

“I don’t want to fuck that up,” Louis admits, because much as Louis loves being there for Harry, it feels like a lot of responsibility, trying not to hurt someone who’s been hurt so badly by people he trusted in the past. Who's so quick to hurt himself. 

“You won’t,” Liam says with enough certainty for the both of them. “It’s not your job to fix Harry, and he doesn’t need fixing. That’s where those twisted people at that camp got it wrong. He’s just been going through some stuff, and he needs someone to be there for him, which you’re already doing. Don't overthink it.”

Louis wipes a hand down his face. “Yeah, all right. That’s another thing, though, is that he’s going through all this heavy stuff, and he won’t tell me about it." Louis recalls Harry's breakdown a couple weeks ago, his desperate plea that they not have this conversation right now. Harry hasn't mentioned the incident since Halloween, and Louis would feel like an asshole bringing it up. "I talk to or text the kid everyday, and he still hasn’t told me about…you know. How am I really supposed to help him if I can’t address this huge thing that he doesn't trust me enough to tell me about?”

“You just have to be patient with him,” Liam says. “Think of it this way. Zayn was probably the first person Harry ever told about camp, and he only did it as a means to an end, which was trying to save Zayn’s immortal soul. He felt like he had to. When Harry tells you, or anyone else, it’ll be the first time he’s told someone about this whole nasty business since his perspective on it changed. It’s going to be really hard for him.”

Louis turns to lie on his side and chews on the inside of his cheek.

“For what it’s worth, I don’t only think you’re good for Harry,” Liam says. “I think he’s good for you, too. Not that I’ve ever minded your naturally sour, sassy self, but I think he brings out good in you.”

Louis covers his face with a hand.

“I’m serious!” Liam says. “Around Harry you’re patient and nice and only a few of your responses are sarcastic comebacks—”

“Thanks, Mom,” Louis says, turning over so that his face is buried in the couch cushion.

“I’m rolling my eyes at you,” Liam says, since Louis can’t see him.

Louis simply shrugs.

“You’re terrible at taking compliments,” Liam says agitatedly, and Louis waits until he hears the sound of Liam tapping away on his laptop before he emerges from the cushion.

“And thoughtful, and courteous, and clean, it's unbelievable how clean you are,” Liam continues, the traitor.

Louis simply stands up and walks into their bedroom with his fingers in his ears going “la-la-la-la” so that he can’t hear anymore.

***

On Monday night, Harry is over at Zayn’s place working on homework. With the end of the semester visible on the distant horizon, a lot of music students have recitals coming up, which means the practice rooms are increasingly crowded these days. Harry, intimidated out of his usual spot, and Zayn, pestered by the fellow art students who have taken up late-night work in the studio, have retreated to Zayn’s place to do work and watch TV. Or, in Harry’s case, watch in anxious fascination as Ant rolls a joint beside him.

“Liam is on his way home, so I’m gonna head over to his place if you want to come with,” Zayn announces.

“Sure,” Harry says at once. For all the limited time he’s spent around Ant, Harry has decided that he likes Zayn’s roommate. Ant is the one of the most mellow human beings Harry has ever met (barring the moments just after Ant wakes up). Still, even being in the company of someone conducting illegal activity is enough to put Harry on edge, and the evangelist in Harry threatens to say something whenever Ant lights up. Therefore, it’s probably in everyone’s best interest that Harry vacates when Ant is smoking.

As Zayn and Harry pack up their stuff, Harry asks, “Where’s Liam been? Library?”

“I think prepping for the Spectrum meeting tomorrow,” Zayn says. “Louis is usually in charge of slideshows, but he’s swamped with a comp sci exam on Thursday, so Liam’s covering for him.”

“That’s nice of him,” Harry says, following Zayn out of the apartment. He watches Zayn lock the door, and then twists the knob himself to check it truly is locked. Zayn is gracious enough to act like that didn’t just happen.

“Hey, Zayn?” Harry asks as they descend the stairs.

“Hmm?”

“Do you ever, um.” Harry jams his damp palms in the pockets of his jacket. “Do you ever go to those meetings? For Spectrum.”

If Harry weren’t so hyperaware of Zayn’s every action at this moment, he might have missed the minute pause in Zayn’s steps down the stairs. “Not usually, no,” Zayn says. “Why?”

“Just wondering,” Harry says, but when Zayn turns around to fix him with a dubious expression, Harry knows there’s no point in lying. He sighs. “I was thinking…I was thinking about going to one,” he admits. He doesn’t reach under his sleeve to snap his rubber band, but it’s a very close call.

Zayn actually stops to turn around and look at Harry dead-on. Harry wishes he wouldn’t. He pauses on the step above Zayn and tries not to look too deer-in-the-headlights.

“Really?” Zayn says.

Harry shrugs and moves around Zayn to continue down the stairs. He hears Zayn follow but doesn’t look back. “Yeah,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it since Halloween, and I’ve decided it could be…”

Harry can’t say what, precisely, he thinks it would be. Weird? Definitely. Uncomfortable? For sure. Terrifying? Harry is terrified just thinking about it. But he also thinks it could be...good. Even though Harry feels tentatively better about himself thanks to Demi, Selena, and Zayn, he still feels small and alone most of the time, trapped by his own secrecy. If Harry is eventually going to embrace this part of himself (and that prospect, nowadays, looks infinitely more inviting than reverting to his post-camp state of mind) then Harry has a lot of questions and concerns and fears that he can really only get help with if he admits that he's gay. He doesn't have to tell everyone, he reassures himself. Just the people that would understand.

On top of that, when Harry is, say, hanging around Niall and Josh and can tell that they're holding back on the PDA for his sake, or when Louis talks about Spectrum around Harry, he feels...kind of slimy, hiding this from his friends. They're so open with him and he's so...not reciprocating. And Louis has been so good to him. Harry feels like he owes Louis the truth about this, after everything.

If Harry is being 100% honest, he also has this teensy-tiny spark of hope in his core that if he tells Louis he's into guys, that might open up the possibility of their friendship maybe someday potentially becoming something more. Conceivably. Perhaps.

Besides, Harry is no longer afraid of Louis reacting badly. Louis told Harry that the Harry Styles he's interested in being friends with is the one who owned Max and Mister Spots and calls his Mom on the phone. Being gay seems like it falls into that category of Things About Harry—and is actually the reason that category of Things About Harry usually remains a secret.

"I think it could be good," Zayn says, as though reading Harry's mind. "If you decide to go to a meeting, I'd definitely go with you."

"You would?" Harry says, relieved that he didn't have to ask, that Zayn just knows

"Yeah, of course." Zayn claps Harry lightly on the shoulder. "There's one tomorrow, but if you want to wait, I'll go with you whenever you want."

"Thanks," Harry says, already feeling ten pounds lighter just from the reassurance that Zayn wouldn't leave him to do this alone. 

***

When they arrive at the guys' place, Louis is, predictably, camped out on the living room couch.

"Bedroom," Louis says to Zayn before Zayn can even open his mouth, without looking up from his computer. 

Zayn gives Louis a tired salute and makes a beeline for the bedroom door. 

"Hey, Haz," Louis says, already scooting out of the way to make space for Harry on the couch. "How goes it?"

"Well, it's a Monday," Harry says as he sits down. "Things can only be so good."

"Preach," Louis says. "Java is eating my soul." Now that he's up close, Harry can see in the blue-white illumination of Louis' computer screen that he has dark rings under his eyes. 

"I hear you have a test this week," Harry says, leaning over to inspect the indecipherable jargon on Louis' screen. He lets his left shoulder brush Louis' right, because Harry still hasn't gotten over the moderate thrill it gives him whenever he touches Louis and Louis doesn't push him off or call him out on it. 

"Yup," Louis says dismally.

"My condolences."

"Thank you, thank you." Louis shakes his head wearily. "I know you're still undecided and all, but if you're considering a math major, my advice? Reconsider. It's not worth the coding. Trust me." 

“I do,” is what comes out of Harry's mouth before his tired brain can catch up to his words. He promptly snaps his mouth shut upon realizing that's not at all the kind of reply Louis was looking for, that this is not the right context to express that sentiment. Louis looks over at him, and Harry scratches his arm awkwardly.

“You do, don’t you?” Louis breathes with soft acknowledgement, and it’s nothing like Harry thought his response would be. Something snarky, maybe a comment about how that is very unwise on Harry’s part, but no. Harry is surprised into meeting Louis’s earnest, searching gaze.

“Yeah, I trust you,” he says, almost in a whisper, hoping Louis will chalk this moment of unwarranted seriousness up to the lateness of the hour.

Louis studies Harry for another long moment. Harry doesn't know what to do other than stare back. He has no idea what Louis is looking for, and Harry feels somewhat naked under his scrutiny. It vaguely registers in Harry's brain that it's strange how he doesn't feel like recoiling from Louis and hiding under the couch. In any case, whatever Louis sees in Harry's face, he must like it, because he gives Harry a smile before turning back to his computer. 

Chapter Text

In the twenty or so hours between Harry voicing his interest in Spectrum to Zayn and the Tuesday night meeting, Harry changes his mind approximately eighteen thousand times about whether he should tell Louis he’s coming. Because Harry is definitely coming to this meeting. Thanksgiving break starts next week after classes end on Tuesday, so even if Spectrum convenes that night, Harry won’t be on campus for it. If he waits until after he sees his family over break to attend a meeting, he’s sure to chicken out.

On the one hand, if Harry doesn’t warn Louis beforehand, then Louis is bound to be quite surprised when Harry shows up to Spectrum. A surprised Louis is an attention-drawing Louis, and that’s the last thing Harry wants. Also, if Harry doesn’t tell Louis that he’s coming, will Louis feel lied to? Or upset that Harry has chosen passively coming out via meeting attendance rather than flat-out telling Louis himself? Or will Louis just assume that Harry’s finally being a good…ally? That’s what they’re called, right? (Harry googled gay-straight alliances all throughout his English class, not exactly sure what he was looking for, or even what he might find that would be helpful. All he knew was that he didn’t want to walk into this thing blindly, if he could help it.)

On the other hand, Harry hardly has the opportunity to tell Louis about his plans to attend Spectrum beforehand, because that’s probably not the kind of information he could drop in a conversation or even a text with no follow-up discussion. And Louis is crazy busy, what with his comp sci exam and everything. When Harry was over at Louis’ place last night, he briefly toyed with the idea of bringing it up, but Louis looked so busy and so stressed and it was so late that Harry couldn’t bring himself to say anything.

So, here Harry is at 4 pm on Tuesday, thumbing over the screen of his phone, still torn about texting Louis. Harry already sent a message to Zayn earlier today, to make absolutely certain that Zayn was available and willing to attend tonight’s meeting. He got a thumbs-up emoji in response and a request to meet Zayn outside McDuke at five to seven. Harry promptly agreed. He likes having a plan of action.

Harry also texted Demi about tonight. He didn’t intend to. It’s just that he opened his phone around noon to text Louis, wavered, and texted Demi to procrastinate. Predictably, Demi’s response was immediate and enthusiastic.

Demi: thats awesome! so proud of you! praying for you! tell me all about it tomorrow at ccm!

Harry would have been slightly overwhelmed, if not for the fact that excessive use of exclamation points is par for the course in Demi’s texts. He then received a message with a link, which took him to a page with prayer for strength:

Lord, I reach out to you for your guidance.
Please show me which way to turn.
Calm my anxious thoughts, come speak into my mind.
Strengthen me as I falter and feel weary.
May I feel strength rising up within my heart.
Bring clarity into my visions and dreams.
I trust that you are with me, no matter where I go,
Or what I decide to do.
You journey with me always.
Amen*

Harry copy-pasted the prayer into his Notes application and thanked Demi.

He’s since read the prayer to himself a dozen times, give or take, over the course of his shift at the front desk. Luckily, Harry pilots the desk solo on Tuesday afternoons, so no one else is around to see him silently freaking out, tapping his fingers in his usual rhythm against the desk, rearranging everything in the top drawer, snapping his rubber band. Harry can’t help it. He keeps telling himself this Spectrum idea is a good thing. Everyone—well, all two people Harry’s told about it—supports the idea. Harry is, dare he say it, kind of excited about the prospect. Amid all the terror and anxiety, of course. Mostly, Harry is looking for the relief of honesty. Harry’s only publicly acknowledged his homosexuality once before, and last time, his shameful admission was followed by several successive weeks of Harry trying to strangle that part of himself. This time, it’s going to be different. Harry feels like he might finally be on the brink of breathing again.

Still, Harry thinks as he hooks his forefinger under the rubber band and stretches it out, old habitual thoughts die hard. Snap. Harry does not like to be left alone with his thoughts. Harry looks glumly at the empty chair beside him. He used to cherish these hours working quietly by himself. Now he wishes he had some company.

When Harry gets off work, he picks up a to-go box of food from the dining hall even though his stomach is too hot with nerves to feel hungry. He heads back to his room and nudges broccoli around the cardboard box with his plastic fork while he watches Friends on his laptop. He picks “The One with the Chick and the Duck,” which is kind of the Chester of Friends episodes for him, these days.

Since he can’t calm down enough to concentrate on actual homework, Harry occupies himself with more Friends episodes (which he’s only half-listening to) and reorganizing all of his class binders in the stretch of time before Spectrum. Deep breaths, he tells himself between Hail Marys.

This is what You want for me, right? he prays. Every signal You’ve given me since September seems like it’s pointing to this and I—just please, please, if this is what You want for me, let me know somehow. Let tonight be okay.

Deep breaths.

***

“Hey, just FYI, Harry is almost certainly coming to Spectrum tonight,” is the first thing Zayn says when he walks into the apartment with Liam on Tuesday evening.

Louis doesn’t actually spit-take, but he does dribble an embarrassing amount of his sip of orange soda down his chin. Louis swallows, swipes across his face with the arm of his sleeve, and blinks at Zayn. “Wait, what?”

“Yeah,” Zayn says as he shrugs off his coat and drapes it over the back of Liam’s recliner. “He mentioned it last night, but he just texted me earlier today to confirm.”

“He didn’t mention it to me,” Louis says, feeling stung. Harry was here for two hours last night. Plenty of time to bring up that very important tidbit. What gives?

“He’s not out to you,” Zayn reminds him, “at least, so far as he knows.”

Oh, right. “Well, so what, then? Is he going to come out? Is this him coming out, just going to the meeting?” Louis hopes not; he always envisioned Harry finally trusting Louis enough to disclose this kind of personal information in a setting where Louis could reassure him, validate him. You know, be there for him, in some other capacity than just as Spectrum President.

“I don’t know, Lou,” Zayn says wearily. Louis knows he’s being a nosey asshole, but he can’t help it, where Harry is concerned. “All I know is that he asked me to go with him, so I am. Just don’t make a big deal out of him being there, okay?”


“No, I know,” Louis says. If there’s a surefire way to scare Harry away from ever attending a second Spectrum meeting, it’s making a big deal out of him being there. For Harry’s sake, Louis can be chill. He can.

***

Harry rocks back and forth on his heels and watches clouds of his breath dissipate in the streetlamp light outside McDuke while he waits for Zayn. It’s three till seven. Zayn is two minutes late. Not that Harry expects everyone to be as neurotic about time-keeping as he is but—

“Hey.”

Despite expecting Zayn, Harry still startles. When he turns around, though, Harry feels his shoulders slump at the sight of his friend. Thank you, he sends up in quick prayer. “Hi,” Harry says.

“You feeling okay?” Zayn asks. “You look…”

Based on Zayn’s furrowed brow, Harry thinks he can mentally fill in the blank just fine.

“I’m okay,” Harry says, and cringes at how false his voice sounds to his own ears.

“Sure you still want to do this?”

Harry nods quickly. “Yeah.”

“Okay. Then here.” Harry looks down at the to-go cup of tea Zayn is holding out to him. “Chamomile,” Zayn explains.

Harry shoots Zayn a relieved smile and takes the warm cup, grateful to have something to do with his hands other than wring them nervously and pluck at his rubber band. “Thanks.”

“Ready?”

Harry nods, suddenly unable to trust himself with the task of formulating words. He follows Zayn into the building and up the stairs feeling slightly more light-headed with trepidation as he takes each subsequent step. Zayn pauses outside room 203. The blinds are drawn over the window in the door, but Harry can hear people talking inside.

“We can leave any time you want,” Zayn says. “If you’re uncomfortable, or whatever. ’kay?”

Harry nods his assent and starts up another mental Hail Mary as he follows Zayn through the door.

There are a couple dozen students in the classroom, some of whom have apparently taken the liberty of moving desks out of their usual neat grid to form a sloppy semicircle. Others stand around in small groups of animated conversation. Harry sees a few floaters sitting in desks by themselves, including Liam, but they all have their laptops out and seem engrossed in work.

“Let’s go find a spot,” Zayn suggests, since Harry seems to have been temporarily stricken with paralysis. Zayn nudges Harry’s shoulder and points to a couple of open desks near Liam. “There. Come on.”

Harry numbly follows Zayn through the room, avoiding other students and desks like they’re security laser beams. His meticulous effort is undermined when someone closes her hand over Harry’s forearm. Harry flinches and looks around to see…Dani? Yeah, Harry thinks that’s Dani, but it’s difficult to be certain without all the dour green-gray makeup.

“Hey,” she says. “Harry. We met on Halloween. I’m not sure if you remember, but I’m Dani.”

“Yes,” Harry says. “Enchantress.”

Dani’s smile gets, if possible, wider. “Yes,” she says, “and you met my girlfriend, Perrie…” Dani cranes her neck to look above the heads of the other students. “Oh, she’s helping Louis and Nick set up. I won’t bother her now. We’ll come say hi after the meeting.”

“Okay,” Harry says, heart pounding like he just ran up a flight of stairs. “Y-yeah. Will do.”

Harry whips back around to search for Zayn, who’s paused several paces away, waiting for Harry.

“Friend of yours?” Zayn asks when Harry catches up to him.

“No,” Harry says, following Zayn over to Liam. “I mean, not that we’re not friends—I.” Harry runs a hand through his hair. “We met on Halloween. She’s one of the girls I was with in the kitchen, with the Suicide Squad costume.”

Zayn looks over Harry’s shoulder, squints his eyes. “Oh,” he says, nodding in realization. “Right.”

Liam, apparently having heard Zayn’s voice (or maybe just sensed his presence in the general vicinity using some sort of soulmate sonar) looks up with the hopeful eyes of a puppy that smells bacon.

“Hey, babe,” Zayn says, leaning over to press a kiss onto Liam’s cheek.

“Hi,” Liam says, characteristically aglow under Zayn’s attention. “Hi, Harry.”

“Hey,” Harry says, feeling guilty that he’s unable to return Liam’s greeting smile, fiddling with his shirt sleeves. He waits for Liam’s expression to transform into a frown, for him to have a “wait, what?” moment and ask Harry what he’s doing here. But Liam does neither of these things. Perhaps it’s fairly common for apparently straight friends of Spectrum students to attend these meetings. In any case, to get himself over the hump of awkward silence, Harry points to the empty desk on one side of Liam. “Do you mind if I sit here?”

“No, of course not,” Liam says. “Please.”

Harry sinks into his chair and hooks his ankles together to prevent his legs from jostling with nervous energy.

The boy seated on the other side of Harry looks up from his textbook. “Hey,” he says, in a gently accusatory way that makes Harry shrink away from the stranger, even as he looks around at him. Harry recognizes this boy from Louis’ Halloween party, too. He only saw him briefly in the kitchen, but apparently that is enough for the stranger to snap his fingers and point at Harry with a grin. “Bunny ears,” the stranger says, exuding pride at his powers of facial recognition.

“Dracula,” Harry replies, surprisingly evenly, given his current state of mind.

Dracula laughs. “Nick, by day,” the boy corrects and extends his hand.

Harry shakes it, praying that his palms aren’t too clammy, but not feeling very hopeful. “I’m Harry.”

“Nice to meet you. First time at Spectrum?”

Is it that obvious? Harry laces his fingers together and nods.

“I better make a good first impression, then,” Nick says, rolling up his sleeves before standing up and walking to the front of the room, where Perrie and Louis are waiting at the podium.

“All right, guys,” Harry hears Louis say over the hum of conversation. “Guys. Guys!”

Perrie sticks her pinkies in her mouth and whistles, hard. That pretty well shuts everyone up.

“Thanks, Pez,” Louis says, looking slightly in awe of his vice president. Then he turns back to the rest of them. “If you’ll find your way to sitting down, we’d kinda like to get started, so.”

As everyone files into their desks, Louis surveys the room with the fond majesty of Mufasa gazing out on his kingdom. Harry tenses up, waiting for Louis’ eyes to fall on him, and actually finds himself holding in a breath when Louis finally looks at him. But his expression doesn’t morph into shock or confusion or anything Harry feared. He doesn’t…he doesn’t even look surprised. Is that weird? Harry’s working himself up to Anxiety Level: Rubber Band Snapping again when Louis flashes him a smile.

That, more than anything, makes Harry relax. It’s like a tight string running from the base of Harry’s spine to the crown of his head has just been snipped. He leans against the back of his chair and balls his hands up in his lap. Louis is here, and, more importantly, he’s not blatantly weirded out by Harry being here. For the first time since arriving, Harry feels like this might actually be okay.

For all of about five seconds. As soon as everyone’s sitting, other than Louis and Nick, Louis says, “Okay, before Nick gets started, we’re going to do introductions, because I see some new faces tonight.” Louis makes a flamboyant sweeping gesture with his arm. “Welcome. Newbies: if, at the end of this meeting, you decide you’d like to see more of our beautiful faces, please see Liam—” who raises his right hand without ceasing typing on his laptop with his left “—afterwards to be added to our email list.

“Right, so, introductions. Tonight let’s do…name, pronouns, and favorite…” He taps a forefinger against his chin contemplatively.

“Sex position!” someone throws out, and gets a couple of laughs. Harry shrinks further down in his chair.

Louis, for his part, simply rolls his eyes with an indulgent smile. “Let’s have some class, shall we, Andy? Just for that, I’m going to make it something terribly wholesome. How about, favorite childhood cartoon character. Ah, okay. Let’s see. I’m Louis. I use he-him pronouns, and when I was a kid, I idolized T.J. from Recess.”

“Course he did,” Liam murmurs, giving Harry an amused side-eye, but Harry is not in on the joke, never having seen that show before. Besides, Harry is suitably distracted with having to contrive his own introduction. He’s got the first two parts down, obviously—although what is all this pronouns business about? Shouldn’t people be able to tell just by looking at Harry that he’s, well, he?

Apparently…apparently not, as evidenced by Andy’s introduction, during which he—no, they, Harry mentally corrects himself—requests that everyone use they/them pronouns for him. Er, them. Harry is bad at this. Since when do people use they/them to refer to a single person? Harry has always been…vaguely, vaguely aware that there are people in the world who have gender…body…alignment issues, but. Well. He’s never given it much thought because he’d never met anyone like that. Besides, Harry had a hunch he knew exactly what the Church would teach about that, what his parents and youth ministers and people like Father Howard would think about it. That is to say, they’d probably chalk it up to some internal aberration. Unnatural, they would say. Against God’s intent, when he carefully, lovingly molded that person into a male or female human being. Wrong. But…but that’s what they said about Harry’s homosexuality, too, so maybe—

“Harry.”

Harry snaps his eyes up from his desk to find the whole room looking at him, and it’s all Harry can do not to slide out of his chair and curl up under it. Or flee.

“It’s your turn,” Liam says, giving Harry’s elbow a gentle nudge with his own.

Harry’s words seem to be jammed up in his throat, so he clears his throat and scoots in his chair to sit up a little straighter. He finds Dani’s eyes across the semi-circle and she flashes him an encouraging smile. Harry knows he probably looks like he’s just seen a ghost, or is about to be violently ill, but finds it in himself to say, “Hi, I’m, uh. I’m Harry. I use h-he-him pronouns, and um. My favorite cartoon character growing up was Bob the Tomato. From Veggie Tales.” Harry wills himself not to wince as that last part leaves his mouth. He didn’t plan to say that; even as far as childhood cartoon characters go, a tomato is pretty lame. A tomato, Harry, really? Couldn’t think of an action hero on the spot?

Before Harry can mentally tear himself down any further, Andy pipes up, “Fuck yeah, dude. Larry the Cucumber was my boy.”

There’s a smattering of laughter, but it doesn’t sound mean, and Harry finds Andy’s eyes to give him—thema tentative grin. Get it together, he orders himself. If this person is considerate enough to validate Harry’s opinions, Harry could at least extend them the courtesy of using their pronouns. Strange as it is for Harry.

Liam goes next, citing Static Shock as his favorite cartoon character, followed by Zayn, who says the same thing. They fix each other with stupidly fond looks that have the girls of the crowd cooing and Louis mime-puking at the podium.

When everyone else has finished up their introductions, Louis says, “Thanks guys. Now I know who was cool as a kid. And who I can judge. Looking at you, Perrie.”

Perrie, who picked Angelica Pickles, shows Louis the finger.

“Anyway,” Louis says, politely ignoring her non-verbal obscenity, “the topic of tonight’s meeting is pansexuality awareness and education. Much as I would love to take credit for any of this, shout out to Liam who made the PowerPoint, and Nick is gonna be the one speaking tonight. Since he’s actually, you know, pan.”

“Also because you haven’t prepped for anything all week but comp sci,” Nick says with a teasing grin.

“Also that,” Louis allows. “So, without further ado, Nick.”

There’s some light applause, during which Nick takes a theatrical bow—three, in fact—and then pulls up the first PowerPoint slide, which just reads “Pansexuality.” Louis takes a seat in an empty chair next to the podium.

“What is pansexuality, exactly?” Nick asks the room at large, pacing in front of the PowerPoint projection. “The most basic definition is the sexual orientation characterized by sexual attraction to all genders. Essentially, a pan person can feel attracted to someone regardless of gender or sex.”

There’s a difference? Harry thinks.

“So, someone’s genitals, gender identity, and gender expression don’t factor into whether or not a pansexual person is attracted to them,” Nick says.

Harry squints at the screen, which is now showing the definition Nick just laid out, trying to follow. Trying to wrap his head around this. This is the they/them pronouns all over again, blurring lines that Harry was always taught were very clear. For Harry, it’s always been black and white, right and wrong, straight and gay. But then how do you explain…any of the rest of this?

“Now, I know that this is difficult to hear, given how insanely attractive I am,” Nick says, and receives an “ow ow” from somewhere in the audience. “Thank you. But just because a pansexual person’s attraction isn’t limited by sex or gender, that doesn’t mean that pan people are attracted to everyone.” Nick holds his hands up with his palms out to console the group’s collective broken hearts. “I know, I know.”

As Nick launches into a very convoluted description of the difference between pansexuality and bisexuality (apparently, this is a hazy distinction at best), Harry starts to feel like he’s just been shoved into one of Louis’ upper-level math classes mid-semester. From what Harry gathers, you can acknowledge gender as a factor in your attraction to someone: bisexual. Or your attraction can be gender-blind, as it were: pansexuality. At some point, Nick throws out the word “gender non-binary,” like Harry is supposed to know what that means, and Harry starts to feel like he should have brought a notepad. Oh, wait! Is that what Andy identifies as, then? Gender non-binary? Harry wishes he knew Andy well enough (er, at all) to ask.

And then, just when Harry is thinking he’s got a tenuous grasp on this whole “potential to be sexually attracted to everyone” thing, Nick just casually throws out there, “Of course, even if you identify as asexual, and you don’t feel sexual attraction, your romantic orientation can still be panromantic.”

‘Of course’? What about any of this is obvious? Has Harry been living under a rock? On second thought, don’t answer that; he already knows.

“But,” Nick goes on to say, “if you have questions about asexuality and romantic orientations, you can get them all answered the week after we get back from Thanksgiving, courtesy of Josh and Leigh-Anne.” Harry looks over to see Josh and some girl he’s never seen before waving their hands to identify themselves. Josh? But Josh is dating Niall. What, how…

At the conclusion of Nick’s talk, Harry is, in a word, confused. Terribly confused. Sexual orientation (or lack thereof, apparently?) is far messier than he ever would have thought. Still, despite all his bewilderment, there’s some consolation in that messiness. Harry feels certain now that no one here will ever judge him, for one thing. For another, in light of all this range of feeling or not feeling or different kinds of feelings people can have, it seems downright odd to think that God would have picked one way for people to be and decided that was the best (only) way to be, all other kinds of people be damned. Literally.

It’s a strangely, almost scarily liberating thought. He recalls his prayer from earlier this evening, begging God to please, please show him somehow that coming to this meeting wasn’t a mistake, that in doing so, Harry wasn’t straying from His plan.

I’m interpreting this as reassurance, Harry tells God, almost as a warning, just so you know. And then also, because Harry feels a little silly talking to God like that, he adds, Thank you. Thank you for letting this go okay. Harry is a hundred and thirty percent confused and wrong-footed by everything that’s happened in the past hour, but he somehow feels much better about being here than when he walked in.

“All right, so that’s a wrap,” Nick says as he clicks to the final slide, which just has his contact information and a picture of Nick giving the camera two thumbs up. “If you have any more questions about pansexuality—or if you’re a fellow pan person who wants to bond over relatable pan things, or really anyone at all, I’m not too picky about my company—then hit me up. Follow me on Twitter, friend me on Facebook. You know the drill. Also, I’m gonna be here for a while after the meeting, so come find me.”

Nick gives another bow and turns the floor back over to Louis, who stands up to clap Nick on the back and say, “Thank you very much for that very informative talk and thinly veiled solicitation for Twitter followers. If there aren’t any other announcements…” Louis looks to Perrie who shakes her head “…then we’re gonna break for tonight. Thanks, guys.”

The room refills with clatter and chatter as students start to depart. Liam looks around at Harry and closes his laptop. “What did you think?”

“Uh,” Harry says, trying to be as diplomatic as possible and categorically failing.

Zayn, who’s leaning around Liam to see Harry, chuckles. “It’s okay to be overwhelmed, dude.”

“Yeah, kind of threw you in the deep end, this week,” Liam agrees ruefully. “Kind of an info-heavy meeting.”

“No, I’m, ah. I’m still glad I came,” Harry says first, because he feels that’s important. “It was just. Yeah. Info-heavy.” Harry looks around in the crowd for Louis. “Is Lou…?”

“He’ll probably be over in a few. Usually after meetings he stays around in case people want to talk and consult with Perrie about the schedule,” Liam says. “But feel free to go over and—” Liam is cut off by the appearance of two cautious looking students, probably freshmen.

“We’re new,” one of them explains, “and we wanted to add our names to the list?”

“Oh, yeah, of course!” Liam says brightly. “I’m Liam.”

The two kids introduce themselves and scribble their names and email addresses on a piece of paper for Liam before exiting with matching waves and tentative smiles. Harry can see why Louis has delegated this task to Liam, who has a natural knack for putting people at ease.

“Hey, Harry!”

Niall and Josh weave their way through the crowd with their patent dazzling grins, and Harry is struck by how unsurprised, like Louis, Niall apparently is about seeing Harry here. And Harry once called Niall a fag. Harry swallows thickly at the memory and plasters on a smile.

“Hi,” he replies, trying to keep it light. “How are you guys?”

“Excellent,” Niall says. “On our way back to Josh’s place, but just wanted to come over and say ‘lo before we left. First Spectrum meeting!” He grabs Harry’s shoulder in one hand and gives it a bracing little shake. “Exciting.”

That’s one word for it. “Yeah,” Harry says.

“Back in August, never would’ve expected to see you here,” Niall says, and before Harry can even wilt in shame, “this is awesome. The whole fam, here together. Where’s Louis?”

“President responsibilities,” Liam says as he packs up his backpack.


“Responsibilities.” Niall waves his hand at the word like it’s a pesky fly. “Psh.”

“So, you’re running the meeting in a couple weeks?” Harry says to Josh, courteously curious, because Harry has not spent much time with Josh and still feels like he needs to make an active effort to get on his good side.

“Yeah, we totally dropped the ball on ace awareness week earlier this semester,” Josh says, shaking his head, “but better late than never, right?”

“Ace?” Harry asks before he can bite down on his tongue.

“Asexual,” Josh translates kindly.

“Oh,” Harry says, like that’s all the clarification he needs.

“Anyway, we’re going to head out. Got a ton of Game of Thrones to binge watch tonight,” Niall says, patting Harry, Liam, and Zayn each on the head. “Later, all.”

“Bye,” the three of them chorus.

Harry feels his phone vibrate in his pocket and pulls it out. A text from Selena.

Selena: Hey man. Demi told me that you’re going to Spectrum tonight. Sending you prayers and good vibes [peace sign emoji]

Harry feels like the end-of-movie-Grinch, all the sudden, with a heart three sizes too big for his body. He doesn’t remember the last time he felt so…accepted, by so many people. It’s all kind of overwhelming in a way that would be super awesome, if not for the fact that Harry is in a public place and blubbering happy tears into his empty tea cup probably breaks social protocol.

“Zayn and I are going back to his place,” Liam says, drawing Harry out of his reverie. “Are you going to be okay here?”

“Yeah,” Harry says, and his voice comes out thick with emotion. He coughs in a vain attempt to dislodge the lump in his throat. “I’m gonna go find Louis.”

“Okay, good.”

“Breakfast tomorrow?” Zayn wants to know as he and Liam stand up and put on their coats.

“Yeah, definitely,” Harry says. He lifts up his empty tea cup at Zayn. “Thanks again for the tea.”

“Any time,” Zayn says, before wrapping his arm around Liam’s waist and steering them toward the door.

Harry watches them go, trying not to feel jealous. Which reminds him: Louis. Where is Louis? Harry stands up and peers through the thinning crowd to find him.

***

Louis covertly watched Harry like a hawk throughout the whole meeting. Not that there was much risk of catching Harry’s attention. The boy had his eyes on Nick and the PowerPoint, straight-backed at full attention, trying not to meet anyone else’s eyes since the presentation had begun. Louis could see him occasionally cracking his knuckles or clutching almost desperately at his to-go cup, but no signs of that abominable rubber band. Thank Christ for that.

When they broke for the evening, though, Louis lost track of Harry. Caught up with thanking Nick, confirming end-of-semester meeting plans with Perrie, and meeting a couple of the wide-eyed newbies, Louis’ been a little busy. Besides, he doesn’t want to crowd Harry, but he sincerely hopes that Harry hasn’t slipped out without so much as speaking to Louis. Consequently, when Harry weaves his way over to Louis wearing a nervous smile, Louis feels a relieved grin take over his face.

“Hey,” Harry says, sounding more nervous than he has when addressing Louis in weeks.

“Hey,” Louis echoes back, trying to look as unintimidating as possible. “I’m really glad to see you here.”

Harry’s smile falters. “You’re...you’re not surprised?”

Ah, shit. “I am,” Louis says placidly, “but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m glad to see you.”

That seems sufficient to drain the rest of the tension out of Harry. He smiles more genuinely now, even if his eyes are on the floor. Then he frowns, licks his lips, and pauses before speaking. “I,” he starts, licks his lips again and lifts a hand up to his hair, but then appears to think better of it and lowers his hand.

Louis tries not to explode from the sheer anticipation. Chill, he reminds himself.

“Being here,” Harry restarts, “I feel like I kind of owe you an explanation.”

“You don’t owe me anything,” Louis is quick to say, because he wants Harry to tell him things, fuck, he does, but not because Harry feels like he owes him.

“Okay,” Harry agrees, a little too quickly, “but like. I want—I need.” Harry huffs in frustration and, obviously unable to help himself, gives a lock of his hair a sharp yank.

Louis, almost out of habit now, removes Harry’s unresisting hand from his hair and holds it between them.

Harry looks down at their hands and inhales, exhales. “Can I talk to you? Not here.”

There may or may not be a New-Year’s-Eve-in-Times-Square caliber celebration going on inside Louis’ head right now.

“I know you have this big test coming up,” Harry barrels on before Louis can even open his mouth to respond, “so if you don’t have time I completely—”

“No. Stop,” Louis instructs firmly, giving Harry’s hand a firm squeeze to match. “Of course I have time to talk to you. Let me just get all my shit together and we can go back to my place, yeah?”

Harry throws his empty cup in the trash while Louis makes quick work of gathering up his stuff and asking Perrie to do him the favor of shutting everything down. At first she’s annoyed by his abandonment, but then she sees Harry hovering nervously in the background and her sharpness softens. “Sure,” she says. “Have a good night, Harry.”

Harry gives her a small wave before following Louis out of the classroom. They make it all the way back to Louis’ place across the cold, dark campus without Harry saying a word. Which, fine. Harry can choose where he feels comfortable saying whatever he needs to say. That doesn’t stop Louis from setting their pace at a veritable power-walk in his haste to get back to his apartment. Upon arrival, Louis drops all his stuff at the door and gestures for Harry to take a seat on the couch. “Tea?” Louis offers, because this feels like a situation that calls for tea.

“Please,” Harry says, hardly looking like he’s anxious to start this conversation. That’s cool. They can ease in.

Louis puts on the tea and wanders back into the living room to find Harry sitting stiffly on the couch. Louis plops down on the empty cushion, back against the armrest so that he can wedge his socked toes under Harry’s jean-clad thigh. Louis isn’t sure how much space Harry wants right now, but that small contact, at least, seems welcome enough. At least, Harry doesn’t scoot away, or even tear his eyes from the coffee table. Louis can hear his quick, shallow breathing, and wonders whether or not Harry is waiting for an invitation to speak. On the off chance that he is, Louis says, with as much calmness as he can muster, “So. What did you want to talk about?”

 

*Prayer that Demi sends to Harry found at: http://www.living-prayers.com/petitions/prayers_for_strength.html#ixzz3uguNOHGL  

Chapter Text

“So. What did you want to talk about?” Louis says.

Harry takes a long, quavering breath. “I wanted to tell you why I was at Spectrum tonight,” he says slowly, like he’s checking each word over in his mind before laying it out in the space between them. “I know you said I don’t owe you an explanation or anything, but I. Louis, I—”

Louis sees Harry’s right hand reaching for the opposite wrist and leans forward to take it between his own hands. He rubs his thumb over Harry’s knuckles. The gesture calms Harry enough to say, “I haven’t been totally honest about, well. About this thing—and it’s not like I was trying to lie to you about it. I only just realized recently—or, I knew, but I didn’t want to know, and now I’ve kind accepted it—but I thought, given everything…”

Harry looks so heartbreakingly upset with himself and unsure of himself that Louis almost can’t stand it. Everything in Louis is poised to spring forth with acceptance and reassurance, but if there’s one thing he’s learned from listening to other Spectrum babies come out to him for the first time, it’s that this is not the kind of thing that can be forced or rushed by an outside hand.

“Haz, you can tell me anything,” Louis says, and even he is surprised by the weight of seriousness in his voice.

Harry nods, still not looking at Louis. “I know, I’m just afraid you’re going to be surprised or confused or—or mad, maybe—” Before Louis can interrupt Harry continues, “—but this is all just me stalling because the thing I’m so nervous about telling you is that I’m gay.”

Harry says the last part so quickly that it almost smears into a single word, and if Louis didn’t already know what he was listening for, he might have missed it. As it is, Louis has the sensation that his brain is a gong that’s just been rung, because it’s one thing to know that Harry’s gay, to have known for months actually, and to be aware that Harry attending a Spectrum meeting must mean that this conversation was imminent. It’s a whole other thing to finally hear it from Harry himself. To know that Harry is in a place where he can tell Louis himself. Louis is momentarily snagged in a weird limbo of emotion where he wants to bark out a relieved laugh, cry, whoop, and tackle Harry with a hug all at once, and of course, in the interest of not petrifying Harry, he can do exactly none of these things.

Louis does need to choose some course of action and quickly, though, because Harry is sitting statue-still with his eyes fixed on his knees, awaiting judgment.

“Harry,” Louis says quietly, gently stroking the back of Harry’s hand. “Can you look at me? Please.”

After a couple beats’ hesitation, Harry lifts his eyes to Louis, and something in Louis cracks at the sight of Harry’s fretful expression. Louis tries for a smile anyway, because he figures that’s probably what Harry needs. “Thank you,” Louis says, “for trusting me enough to tell me. That was really brave of you.”

Harry snorts and averts his eyes again. “Doesn’t feel very brave,” he mutters, scratching harshly at his neck with his free hand.

“It is,” Louis says, giving Harry’s hand a couple of reassuring squeezes. “Coming out to anyone is always hard, because you never know for sure how people are going to react, right? Doing it takes a lot of courage.”

Harry shrugs, “Yeah.” He looks up at Louis, and now the misgiving on his face is mixed with confusion. “You’re not…you don’t seem surprised,” Harry says, his tone a mixture of apprehension and awe and puzzlement.

“Well, you did come to a Spectrum meeting tonight,” Louis says, grimacing internally at the lie of omission. Harry is being so rawly honest with him right now, and here Louis is, maintaining this weeks-long charade. Louis shoves his guilt to the back of his mind. Clearing his conscience in this moment might make Louis feel better, but it would surely only further upset Harry to know the secrets his friends have been keeping from him. And Louis would sooner douse himself with the hot tea he’s got brewing than say anything to further upset Harry right now.

Harry nods, seeming to accept Louis’ explanation. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was coming,” Harry says. “I thought then I’d have to tell you that I was—that I’m gay, and didn’t know how you would react. You’ve got so much going on and I didn’t want—”

“Harry,” Louis interjects, “you’re one of my best friends. Stuff that’s going on with you? Way more important than some stupid fucking comp sci exam, okay?” Harry nods, and Louis nods back. “Good.” Louis mostly says it to himself. “But still, how could you even think I would react badly to you telling me that? That I could be mad at you?”

Harry chews his lip. “I didn’t think you’d be mad at me for being gay,” Harry clarifies, and Louis releases a sigh of relief. “I thought maybe…I don’t know what I thought,” Harry admits apologetically. “That me telling you this would remind you of all those horrible things I said, how awful I was to you and Niall and Liam and Zayn and I just.” Harry looks on the verge of tears now and it takes everything in Louis not to scoop the kid up into his arms. “I thought you’d probably wonder why or how someone g-gay could say such horrible things, and that you would be upset with me for keeping it a secret that I’m.” Harry plants his free hand over his mouth and squeezes his eyes shut.

Fuck it. Louis tugs Harry’s hand toward him, wrapping one arm around Harry’s shoulders as Harry leans into him much more willingly than Louis would have predicted. Harry pulls his feet up onto the couch so that he’s folded up between the V of Louis’ legs, head resting against Louis’ shoulder. Louis resumes swiping his thumb over Harry’s knuckles. “Is this okay?” Louis checks. Harry just nods, turning his face further into Louis’ chest. Louis rubs his other hand up and down Harry’s shoulder.

“First of all,” Louis says. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again until you believe me. Any of that shit you said at the beginning of the semester, it’s all forgiven. I forgive you. Niall forgives you. Liam and Zayn forgive you. Haz, I know this is somehow weird for you to hear, but we like you, and we know you’re sorry about what you did, and we’re past it. We wouldn’t—I wouldn’t ever hold that against you, or think it somehow invalidates your identity.

“Second of all, I really appreciate you trusting me enough to come out to me, but I would never judge you for being in the closet. It should be each individual’s choice when they’re ready and willing to come out, and to whom.” Louis feels guilt brewing like a storm in his gut again. “No one has the right to know your identity. It’s a privilege that you get to extend to the people who have earned your trust.”

Harry mulls that over. “Sorry I don’t know anything about this,” Harry murmurs against Louis’ collarbone, and Louis has to suppress a shudder. “If it wasn’t obvious, my family’s kind of super religious, so coming out was never really…” Harry gives a one-shoulder shrug. “I’ve never done it before.”

“Never?” Louis says, because what? Yes Harry has.

“No,” Harry says. “At least, not on purpose. Selena kind of figured it out, and I think she told Demi. So they know. And Zayn, who I kind of told on accident, I guess?” Harry’s grip on Louis’ hand gets minutely tighter. “I don’t really—it’s a long story. Not worth getting into.”

“You sure?” Louis says, attempting to steer his tone toward “inviting” rather than “prying.”

Harry hunches his shoulders a little more and even before the words are out of his mouth, Louis knows his answer. “Maybe…maybe I’ll tell you sometime, just. Not now. Please.”

“Okay, that’s okay,” Louis says immediately, palm going slightly numb from its ceaseless motion up and down Harry’s sleeved shoulder.

It does not escape Louis’ notice that Harry did not mention his parents, although they are surely the reason Harry attended that camp. Louis wonders whether they “kind of figured it out” too, or whether Harry revealed it to them on accident. However they discovered Harry’s orientation, Harry apparently did not disclose that information voluntarily.

There’s a pause, and it’s so quiet in the apartment that Louis can pick out the exhale when the rhythm of their breathing syncs up.

“I know you forgave me, but,” Harry says, and Louis is at attention immediately, ready to undermine whatever dreadful self-deprecation Harry is about to lay on him, “you’re not—not weirded out at all that I’m gay and that I was so…”

“No,” Louis says before Harry can say something demeaning about himself. “I’m not saying that it’s okay to say the things you did, but it’s understandable. If you’ve been raised to think that way, and you’re also scared out of your fucking mind that you might be gay, and you’re trying not to be, because of your religion and all…I get why you acted the way you did. Inasmuch as anyone can understand.”

Another long silence falls, during which Harry seems to be contemplating Louis’ words. Louis can wait.

***

Harry almost can’t believe himself right now, for a couple of reasons. The first of which being, he actually just deliberately told someone that he was gay. With his words. For no other motive than Louis just knowing. That happened. That’s real life.

Secondly, Harry is currently cuddled up on Louis’ couch with Louis and he’s not scared or even nervous about all this touching. It’s like a hug, but sitting down. Only much better because Harry is completely tucked up against Louis, sitting between Louis’ legs and in his arms, face hidden under Louis’ chin. He’s never felt quite as safe as he feels right now.

Louis knows. He knows, and they’re okay. He knows and he’s holding Harry like this. Harry almost wants to cry with relief. He’s never been so happy to have someone in his life before. Of course, Harry is inexpressibly grateful for Zayn and Liam and Demi and the rest. Everyone he’s met, really, since coming to college. But no one has ever made Harry feel this…important, before? Just. Harry can’t imagine Louis cuddling every Spectrum kid that comes out to him. Harry is lucky to have all of his friends, but Louis does this thing, in moments like this, where he makes Harry feel not only like he’s a worthwhile person in general, but also that he’s worth all of Louis’ attention. All of Louis’ care. Maybe it’s just because Harry is harboring this (not so) tiny crush on Louis. Or maybe this is simply the way it feels for everyone, being the focal point of Louis’ attention.

Maybe Harry should try to just stop thinking and second guessing and undercutting himself, for once, and just be grateful.

***

“When Zayn found out about me,” Harry finally says, “I thought it was going to be this terrible thing. I felt so embarrassed and guilty and I didn’t want anyone to know and I just thought—basically, I thought it was just a really bad thing to have happened. But actually, it was a good thing, right? Without Zayn knowing, he never would have forgiven me, which means you wouldn’t have, and Louis.” Harry’s voice cracks on the last word and Louis pulls Harry a little closer. “I don’t even—I can’t imagine us not being friends.”

Louis tilts his head to rest his cheek on the top of Harry’s head. “Yeah, Haz. Me neither.”

“Am I really one of your best friends?”

The fragile hope in Harry’s voice makes Louis want to smile or cry or both. “Course you are,” he says. “There’s no one else I’d voluntarily clean my apartment for.”

That actually elicits a small laugh and Louis mentally raises his hands in triumph.

“Liam appreciates it,” Louis continues. “He thinks you’re a good influence on me. Not just because of the cleaning.”

“Me?” Harry sounds almost amused with disbelief. “He thinks I’m a good influence?”

“What, you think you could corrupt me, church boy?” Louis teases. “Hate to break it to you, but if we’re debating who would corrupt whom, here, I’d definitely be the one doing the corrupting.”

“Oh no, I know that,” Harry says, and Louis can tell just from his tone that Harry’s rolling his eyes. “I just mean—never mind.”

“What? No. Now you have to tell me,” Louis says, jostling Harry in his arms plaintively. “Please.”

“I only meant, well. I always thought, like, since I started thinking I might be…gay, that there was this evil inside me, you know? Because if there’s something unnatural about who you are, something that isn’t the way God wants it, then that thing must be evil.”

Harry says this so matter-of-factly that Louis is positively stricken. “Harry, you are the least evil person I’ve ever met,” Louis says, voice constricted with suppressed anger at anyone who ever made the kind, gentle boy in his arms believe such deplorable things about himself.

Harry gives a small, forced chuckle. “I don’t think that anymore,” he says. “Demi told me that she thinks God made us to love who He wanted us to love, and there’s nothing evil in that.”

“Is that what you think, now?” Louis says, just to be sure.

“I…think God made me homosexual for a reason,” Harry says, but it comes out slow, stilted. “I don’t think He hates me for that.” Louis almost breathes a sigh of relief, but Harry is apparently not yet finished. “That doesn’t change the fact that I was super paranoid about other people finding out that I was gay. Especially after—er, especially after I finally accepted that’s how I was. And I was paranoid about making sure I helped anyone else with, um, homosexual tendencies get rid of those feelings, because I thought if I didn’t, that would be the same thing as condoning those feelings. If that makes sense?” Harry huffs out a frustrated sigh. “So, when I found out about Liam and Zayn and I was so mean to them, I did honestly think I was trying to help them, but it was also kind of selfish in a way, right? Because shutting them down like that would make me look and feel less gay.” The last part comes out almost in a whisper, and Louis can practically feel the guilt and shame rolling off Harry in waves. “Just being that mean, anyway. That was a little bit evil.”

Louis will never admit it to anyone, least of all Harry, but in this moment he finally might understand Harry’s incessant urge to tear at his own hair, because listening to Harry call himself evil is one of the most frustrating, gut-wrenching things Louis has ever had to do. Not being able to change the way Harry feels about himself right now, and not even knowing how go about assuaging Harry’s self-hatred, fills Louis with a horrible, helpless frustration.

“You were doing what you thought you had to do,” Louis tries. “Organized religion—well, I don’t want to get into that right now.” Louis feels himself slipping into Debate Mode and no. That’s not what this is about. “What I’m trying to say is, because of what you were taught, you were trying to do what was best, for Liam and Zayn and for you. That’s not evil.”

“That doesn’t stop me from feeling like crap,” Harry says, seeming determined to drag himself down.

“Well, it should,” Louis says. “Trying to save your soul, and save two other people? Not evil. Misguided, maybe, but not evil.”

“Being an unrelenting bastard to people that were only trying to be nice to me?” Harry scoffs. “How could I ever look them in the eye and say the things I said—”

“Harry.” Louis is much sharper than he intends to be, because since befriending Harry, Louis has tried very hard not to think about that day in the practice room, where he tore Harry a new one, disrupted his paper piles, made Harry feel even worse about a situation that Louis now recognizes as quite possibly the most distressing event of Harry’s college career. It’s abhorrent to Louis to think that something he said that day had such a lasting impact on Harry that the kid can practically repeat it verbatim now. “Don’t say that about yourself,” Louis bites out. “I was wrong to say that.”

“No, you weren’t,” Harry says dismally. “It doesn’t matter how I was brought up. I’m the one who said those awful, cruel, vicious thi—”

“It does matter,” Louis shoots back, “and I’m not going to sit here and let you take the blame for what your parents or preachers or those sick fucks at that camp forced you to believe about yourself or anyone else.”

It’s not until Louis draws in a deep inhale after his diatribe that he realizes his mistake.

***

Harry doesn’t remember the exact moment the implication of Louis’ words registered. He doesn’t even remember wrenching himself away from Louis, standing up off the couch. He doesn’t remember Louis standing up. Everything between Louis’ voice saying the word “camp” and the present moment, which finds Harry standing several paces away from Louis, arms wrapped around his own torso as he watches Louis with a look of abject horror, is a blur. What Harry does know is that it feels like his stomach is trying to digest itself, his heart is doing double time, and he’s finding it difficult to breathe.

Louis looks just as distressed, hands raised but not reaching out to touch Harry, like Harry’s a spooked animal.

Harry is a hairline away from fleeing, but the need for an explanation fetters him here.

“How—” Harry says, and doesn’t even know where to go from there. “You know? You knew?” His tone is threaded with the agony of betrayal but he’s so in shock that Harry doesn’t even feel the threat of tears yet.

“Yeah,” Louis says, voice hushed with guilt.

Harry tries to take a deep breath but he falters. “How long?” 

Louis hesitates. “A couple months,” he says. Harry has the distinct sensation that the floor has opened up beneath his feet. He puts a hand on Liam’s recliner to steady himself. “When you sent that email to Zayn.”

Harry’s hands fly up to cover his mouth, and he closes his eyes because there is a very real chance he’ll cry now. He can already feel the tears burning behind his eyelids.

“He didn’t mean to hurt you,” Louis jumps in. “I swear, Harry. He was so worried about you, and what had happened to you. He only showed us because he thought we could help.”

Harry pries his hands away from his mouth and digs the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Who is ‘we’?” he demands, hating how his voice cracks.

Again, Louis seems reluctant to divulge that information, but finally he says, “Liam and me, Niall and Josh, Perrie and Dani.”

Harry lets out a whimper. So, everyone, then. Everyone Harry’s gotten close to this semester, other than Demi and Selena. All those friendships tainted with this secret they’ve all been keeping from him, about his secret. Why would they do that to him? How could they do that to him? Was that all he ever was to them, this weirdo whose parents sent him away to some camp to strip him of his queerness, some kid they all felt sorry for?

“How could Zayn do that to me?” Harry says, voice trembling now. “I don’t…”

“He cares about you,” Louis says earnestly. “He was only trying to help—”

“No, Louis!” Harry says, peeling his palms away from his eyes (and hating that they come away wet) to fix Louis with a glare, because Louis does not get to try to make this okay. None of this is okay. “That camp—that was the worst, most painful, most humiliating thing that’s ever happened to me, and Zayn just spread it around to a whole bunch of people I didn’t know? And then none of you guys told me?” Harry swallows a sob. “You didn’t tell me. I trusted you.”

Louis looks like he very well might cry any second now too. “I know,” he says, “and I’m so, so sorry. We wanted to tell you right away, but you told Zayn you didn’t want anyone to know, and we wanted you to come out when you were ready.”

Harry lets out a hysterical laugh. “But you already took that away from me when you read that email! Weren’t you the one who was just saying that no one has a right to know someone’s identity? That it should be each person’s choice to come out when and with whoever they want?”

“Yes,” Louis says, his soft voice striking a sharp contrast to Harry’s high, thin one. “We messed up, Haz. I messed up. I’m so, so sorry.”

Harry shakes his head, pulling on his hair viciously just because he knows Louis won’t invade his space to stop him right now. “I’m leaving,” he says, feet carrying him to the door almost of their own accord.

“Haz, wait,” Louis says, following him but still not coming close, not touching.

No,” Harry says, jamming his feet into his still-tied shoes and pulling on his coat. “Leave me alone. I don’t even want to look at you right now.” Out of the corner of his eye, Harry sees Louis flinch, and Harry almost feels bad. Almost.

“Please, don’t leave,” Louis begs. “If you just let me—”

“I don’t want to listen to anything you have to say,” Harry says, whipping around to face Louis. He tries to arrange his expression into something stern, but suspects that the trembling of his lower lip ruins the effect. “Because anything you say is just another reminder that you knew, and you, or anyone else, knowing about this is…” Harry sucks his lips between his teeth and shakes his head, determined to leave the apartment with at least some of his dignity intact. With that, he yanks open the door and stumbles out into the hall, tripping over his own feet in his haste to get away.

“Haz,” Harry hears Louis say, and Harry thinks Louis might be about to follow him, but then he hears the whistle of the teapot inside the apartment. Harry keeps walking without looking back until he hears the door close.

***

“Who the fuck is this?” Ant’s tinny voice comes over the intercom.

“Louis.”

“Liam and Zayn are in Zayn’s room, so...”

“Don’t care. Tell them to make themselves decent and buzz me up.”

No response.

“Ant, I swear to god if you don’t buzz me up right now, next time I see you I’m going to kick you in the balls so hard—”

“All right, all right. Jesus,” Ant says, and buzzes Louis in.

Louis takes the stairs in twos to get up to Zayn’s apartment and knocks insistently until the door opens, revealing Ant’s frowning face.

“What is your deal?” Ant says, with as much indignation as Louis assumes someone stoned out of his mind can muster.

“Liam and Zayn?”

“Watching a movie, apparently,” Ant says, sinking back onto the couch. “You’re safe to go in.”

Louis does, without knocking. Liam and Zayn are smushed together, sitting with their backs against the headboard of Zayn’s bed.

“Hello?” Zayn says, frowning as Louis invites himself in to sit down on the foot of Zayn’s bed. “Can we help you?”

“Harry knows that we know about camp,” Louis says flatly.

The sleepily relaxed, if somewhat bemused expressions on Liam and Zayn’s faces vanish.

“Uh-oh,” Liam says at the same time Zayn says, “Shit.”

“Yeah,” Louis says. “He’s pretty upset, as you might have guessed.”

Zayn whips out his phone, Louis would assume to text Harry. Louis doesn’t bother to tell him that he’s not likely to get a response. Louis already sent Harry three messages on the cold trek over to Zayn’s apartment with no reply.

“What happened, exactly?” Liam asks.

Louis sighs and cards his fingers through his hair. “Well, after we got home, Harry came out to me, and everything was going really well, but then I, ah, let it slip that we already knew.” Louis cringes at the memory of how rapidly things had gone downhill. How in five seconds flat he’d gone from holding Harry in his arms to having Harry halfway across the room, looking like Louis had physically burned him.

“Did you explain to him the circumstances?” Liam says patiently.

“Of course I did,” Louis snaps. He feels bad about being short with Liam, but he’s just so agitated right now. The idea that Harry is distressed and alone, and that Louis cannot comfort him because Louis is the cause of that distress—it’s maddening. “He wasn’t really in a proper state to listen, though. Understandably. God, I cannot believe I fucked this up so badly.”

“Hey, he had to find out sometime,” Liam says, resting a hand on Louis’ arm. “Give him some time to calm down. We’re his friends. It’s going to be okay. Eventually.” Liam, ever the pragmatist, ever the optimist.

“Well we can’t just sit around and do nothing,” Louis says, almost angrily, because how can Liam be so calm about this?

“That’s exactly what we have to do,” Liam says. “We can try to apologize, but he’s the one who has to forgive us for knowing, right? We can’t make him.”

Louis rests his chin in the palm of his hand, feeling powerless. “I really hurt him,” he admits. “We really hurt him.”

Liam is quiet for a moment. “Yeah,” he agrees. “Yeah, we did.”

***

This might actually be the worst Harry has ever felt. Worse than when his parents sat him down on the living room couch and announced that they were sending him away to be fixed. Worse than when Selena found him crying in church. Worse than when Zayn shoved him and demanded that Harry get out of his studio.

When Harry gets home on Tuesday night, he stands in the middle of his room for a while, not sure what to do with himself. This is a misery not even cleaning can alleviate, so Harry just wraps himself in his comforter and lets himself have a good cry.

Everyone knew all along. Louis knew. That’s why Louis forgave him when Zayn did. That’s why he wasn’t surprised to see Harry at Spectrum, or even “learn” tonight that Harry is gay. Is that why they’re friends at all, because Louis only ever felt sorry for him?

Liam and Niall and Josh and Dani and Perrie and God knows who else, at this point. They all know too. Harry has never felt so foolish, so embarrassed.

Harry hears his phone vibrate against his desk a few times, but he doesn’t pick it up. Unless it’s Demi or Selena or his mother, the only people who have any business texting Harry are people he doesn’t want to talk to. In fact, he doesn’t know how he could ever talk to those people again, in light of the burning humiliation he feels just thinking about them.

Over the next couple days, Harry ignores all texts from Zayn and Louis and Liam, and even the ones he’s surprised to get from Niall and an unknown number that might be Josh. He doesn’t end up going to CCM on Wednesday night, despite the concerned texts he reads from Demi and Selena (the only texts he’s willing to read), because he knows that if he went, they would want to hear all about Spectrum and Harry doesn’t want to think about it. Ironic, he thinks wryly, that the most safe and at home he’s ever felt was at that meeting, and now…

Why would you do this to me? Harry asks God, again and again. Why would God make something that made Harry so happy hurt so much?

***

“Anyone heard from Harry?” Louis asks when he gets home on Friday night. Josh and Niall are watching something on TV, but neither of them looks too enthused. Liam and Zayn are at the kitchen table. Zayn, out of all of them, looks the most downhearted. He’s had a proverbial raincloud over his head and Louis has seen him check his phone upwards of a thousand times since Tuesday night.

“Nope,” Liam says glumly.

“Haven’t seen him in the practice rooms, either,” Niall says.

Louis sighs. He understands giving Harry his space, but it’s difficult. Especially given that Thanksgiving break is right around the corner and what if Harry interprets this whole fiasco as some sign that queer people really are as wicked as he was always taught, and goes home for the week only to have those suspicions reinforced by his family? If Louis lets Harry go home in his present state of mind, with their friendship (really, Harry’s friendship with all of them) in the state it’s in, Louis doesn’t even want to imagine the consequences.

Nonetheless, every time Louis suggests simply going to bang on Harry’s dorm room door, Liam shuts him down. “Give him time,” Liam says. “He’ll come around.”

Will he, though? Harry’s someone who’s had his trust broken and thrown back in his face before. What if they’ve all fucked him over so unforgivably that Harry simply abandons their friendship? Could Louis blame him?

That camp—that was the worst, most painful, most humiliating thing that’s ever happened to me. Louis hears Harry repeat it over and over again in his head. I trusted you. The past tense is killing Louis. He has to do something.

Louis walks into his room, all ready to flop down on his bed and sulk, and stops in the doorway when his eyes land on his bed. He’s got an idea.

***

When Harry wakes up on Saturday morning, he’s prepared to stay in his room all day. Over the past week, he’s practically taken up hermit-hood again, only leaving his room for classes and work, hardly speaking to anyone. Demi and Selena invited him to lunch today, but Harry turned them down. He’s just not in the mood for human interaction, and he doesn't think he could maintain the facade of being okay long enough to get through lunch without them asking what’s wrong.

In the spirit of perpetuating his solitude, Harry decides to go make himself some tea in the common room kitchen to sip while he binge-watches Netflix in his bed. When Harry opens his bedroom door, though, he finds a drawstring bag sitting on the threshold. Harry looks to his left, then to his right down the hall, wondering whose this is and why they left it here. Maybe some drunken hall mate stumbling home last night accidentally dropped it. There might be a wallet or phone inside to help Harry identify whose it is.

Harry opens the bag and sees, to his great surprise, a familiar furry head. Harry retreats into his room and pulls Chester out of the bag, as well as the folded up piece of loose leaf with the frilled edge that’s clinging to Chester’s fur. What the—? Harry hangs the drawstring bag up on a hook by his door and goes to sit on the edge of his bed, bear in one hand, paper in the other. He holds Chester in his lap while he unfolds the paper and finds a wall of Louis’ disaster chicken-scratch handwriting inside.

Haz,

I am so, so sorry for not telling you that I knew about The Thing (trying to keep it vague here in case someone finds this note before you do), and for letting you know that I knew the way I did. I regret hurting you like that. I don’t regret reading that email, though, and maybe that makes me a bad person but I really don’t give a flying fuck. If I hadn’t read it, I wouldn’t have realized what an unrelenting bastard I’d been to you, and that you didn’t deserve any of it. Maybe I started being nice to you at first because I felt guilty, and maybe I figured I could help you—at least, that’s what Liam and Zayn thought. But I wasn’t lying the other night when I said you’re one of my best friends, and it means the world to me that you trusted me enough to be honest with me. I’m sorry that I wasn’t honest with you from the start, and I hope I eventually prove that I’m worth your trust again. In the meantime, since I know you don’t want me around, I’m sending along Chester instead. I always find him to be good company when I’m feeling like shit. Hopefully he makes it there safe and sound without being stolen by one of your hallmates. Sorry again. Hope I see you real soon.

Lou

Harry lowers his face to press his nose into Chester’s plush head and inhales. Is there something wrong with Harry, that he can be so angry with Louis and still feel comforted by his smell? Harry reads the note over again several times, and at the end of the third iteration, there’s a reluctant smile tugging at the corner of his lips. He folds up the paper and sticks it under his pillow, hugging Chester tightly to his chest. On one level, Harry knows that sending Chester is a ploy to get Harry to talk to Louis, because even if Harry is mad, he’s not heartless enough to keep Chester away from Louis forever. Well played, Louis. On another level, Harry is just incredibly touched that Louis would part with his bear for the sake of sending him to Harry as surrogate comfort.

Harry hesitates before pulling out his phone to text Louis. He doesn’t bother to read through the many messages Louis has sent him since Tuesday.

Harry:  Chester made it here safe and sound. Thanks

He sends it off, hoping that Louis doesn’t take the text as an invitation to resume his barrage of messages or, God forbid, call Harry or come over. Harry hasn’t forgiven Louis or Zayn or any of them quite yet, and he’s certainly not ready to see any of them. He needn’t have worried, though. The only response he gets is:

Louis: Phew. Thanks for letting me know. He’s a nervous traveller [heart emoji]

Harry has no idea what to make of the heart symbol. He doesn’t know whether it’s directed at him or Chester or both, or why. But it does make Harry’s chest feel warm and fuzzy for the first time in four days, so he’s going to let it slide. For now.

Chapter Text

On Sunday afternoon, Harry receives another text from Louis. Harry decides to open the message, since it’s the first one Louis has sent since their extremely brief conversation about Chester yesterday.

Louis: Wanted to make sure you hadn’t called off work tonight to avoid me again. If you want, I can get Michael to sub for me, but please don’t give up your hours just cause of something stupid I did again, k?

Harry, who’s been trudging through the morass of stats homework at his desk with Chester on his lap for most of the afternoon, blinks down at his phone. Louis would forfeit his shift for Harry? Harry’s not going to lie; he absolutely considered emailing Mr. Cowell last night to beg off work again, but he’s already done that twice this semester and doesn’t want to push his luck. Cowell terrifies Harry even more than Louis used to.

Harry: I haven’t called off. And thanks for your offer, but you don’t have to do that.

Louis:  *strokes chin, narrows eyes* Can’t tell if you really mean that, or you’re just being nice...

Harry can’t resist smiling a little.

Harry: I really mean it.

Louis: That’s probably for the best, actually. Michael’s nice and all (or at least I’m sure he has been to someone at some point in his life) but working desk w/ him is a chore

Harry: Isn’t he the reason we got that email from Cowell about “professional etiquette” last month?

Louis:  Yeah. Some freshie complained about not being able to find the help desk phone # online and Michael told the kid that he’d have trouble finding it too if *his* head were stuck up his own ass. To be fair, the # is literally right at the top of the fucking school homepage

Harry muffles a giggle with his hand, but after a moment, the light-heartedness of their conversation makes his stomach twist uncomfortably. He’s trying to be mad at Louis and the rest of them, because what they did really, really hurt, but that doesn't stop Harry from missing Louis. It’s been weird not seeing him. Harry didn’t realize how much time they spent around each other, or at the very least texting each other, until he cut Louis out. And it’s been less than a week.

Harry is glad to have had Chester these last two days, but as much comfort as the bear has provided, it’s also served as a constant reminder of the person Harry really wants to see. But also doesn’t want to see. It’s all very confusing and painful but this is Harry’s life, so what else is new.

He sends Louis back a hahaha and shuts off his phone.

***

Harry arrives at work to see Louis already behind the desk, and immediately checks his phone. Harry can’t be late, can he? No, it’s 7:54. And Louis is here. Strange.

“Hello?” Harry says.

Louis looks up from his textbook and gives Harry a tentative smile. “Hey, Haz.”

Harry tries not to let on just how much he warms at the sound of the nickname. “Hi,” he says, depositing his backpack under the desk and sitting down behind the computer. “You’re early.”

“Am I?” Louis says, and even stranger is the fact that Harry doesn’t hear a trace of sarcasm in his tone. Louis leans over to look at the computer screen clock like he genuinely hadn’t realized. “Oh. Well, then, Sarah took off before her shift was over.” He shakes his head disparagingly.

Ordinarily, Harry might tease Louis about the fact that he usually shows up at least seven minutes late to their shift, but not tonight. Harry simply nods and pulls out his notebook, even though Louis is still turned to face Harry in his chair. Harry feels rude, but he sticks to his guns and starts hashing out an outline for his next English paper. For a tense two or three seconds, Louis remains facing Harry, but then, to Harry’s great surprise, Louis turns away to bend over his book again. Harry exhales. He can do this.

Louis barely makes it through five minutes of silence, but that’s still five minutes longer than Harry expected, so.

“My best friend when I was growing up, Matt, was deathly afraid of spiders,” Louis says, apropos of apparently nothing.

Harry is bewildered into looking up from his notebook. “Sorry?”

“Spiders,” Louis repeats, like that’s where Harry needed clarification. “One time in elementary school, we were at this amusement park, and I wanted him to go on a coaster with me because it had lots of loops and I was too scared to go alone. Matt didn’t want to go because he was afraid of getting sick, and I was super bitter about it. So later that day when we were eating pizza, I told him that I saw a spider crawl onto the piece he’d just taken a bite out of, and it was going to lay spider eggs in his stomach if he didn’t throw up, like, pronto.”

Harry just blinks.

“Obviously, that was kind of a stupid thing for him to believe, but I guess fear makes people do crazy things. It convinced Matt to go on the coaster with me, and as soon as we stepped off, he started spewing like a busted fire hydrant. I’m talking Family-Guy-Ipecac-drinking-contest levels of puke.” Louis gesticulates wildly with his arm as though to assist Harry in visualizing the spray.

Harry does not watch Family Guy, and so does not know the scene to which Louis is referring, but mere thought of vomit has Harry reaching for the bottle of Purell in his backpack. Louis winces. “Sorry, sorry,” he says. “Anyway, he didn’t even make it to the trash can. All down his shirt. Right in front of this group of middle school girls.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Harry says as he scrubs hand sanitizer between all of his fingers.

“Um,” Louis says, seeming to have lost track of his original point. “Oh! Right. To put it in perspective that I’ve done some terrible shit to some very good friends of mine. Up until this year, I would have said that moment with Matt was the sorriest I’ve ever been about something I purposely did to someone I care about.” Louis takes a deep breath. “But I feel a hundred, nay, a thousand times shittier about…” Harry sees Louis glance out at the mostly empty student center before looking back at him. “…you know.”

Harry sighs and looks down at his hands, which are clasped tightly together in his lap, still shiny with a liberal coating of Purell. “I know you’re sorry,” he says slowly, “and Louis, I—” Harry crosses his arms over his chest, each hand clutching the opposite shoulder. He doesn’t want to voice what he was going to say next, because that would show Louis a crack in his armor, make Harry look more pathetic than he must already seem to Louis. Harry doesn’t have anyone else to tell, though. He doesn’t want to be stuck inside his own head with this feeling anymore, as he has been for almost a week. “I want to be mad at you,” Harry confesses quietly, eyes stuck on Louis’ left knee, “but I…” Harry’s breathing hitches. “I miss you.”

“I miss you, too,” Louis says immediately.

“But it’s also weird to be around you,” Harry says, still unable to make eye contact with Louis, “knowing that you know.” He takes a deep breath. “I don’t know what to do about that.”

Louis thinks on that. Then he snaps his fingers. “I could tell you all the things I would most hate for someone else to find out about me,” he suggests. “Like when I was younger, I went through this phase where I was obsessed with Cher, so the Halloween before I started going as Peter Pan—”

“Lou,” Harry says, finally looking at Louis with what he’s trying to make a serious face, but the corner of his lips is traitorously twitching with amusement. “You don’t have to do that.” Much as Harry is tempted to hear about the absurd and embarrassing early life of Louis Tomlinson, he doesn’t think that would actually help.

“Then tell me how I can make this better,” Louis practically begs, and from the way Louis is compulsively rubbing his palms against the tops of his thighs, Harry can tell that if they weren’t in a public place, Louis would be reaching out to touch him right now. Harry appreciates his restraint.

Go back two months and don’t read that email, is the first thing that comes to Harry’s mind, but that is both unhelpful and... not actually what Harry would want. Like Louis said in his note, if Louis never read that email, then he and Harry probably would never have become friends. That’s not what Harry would have wanted, no matter how dismal he feels now. “I don’t know how to make it better,” Harry admits.

Louis’ face falls. There are several seconds of silence before Louis says, in the most tentative voice Harry has ever heard him use, “Are we still going to be friends?”

“Of course,” Harry says earnestly. “I just. I need some time. I think.”

Louis nods in a resigned sort of way. “Okay. Okay, yeah, I can understand that.” As if to show Harry just how much he means it, Louis turns back to his textbook and doesn’t try to engage Harry in conversation for the rest of their shift. Harry is caught between being grateful that Louis respected his request and wishing he wouldn’t.

When Harry gets home, he falls into bed and curls up with Chester in his arms. He withdraws Louis’ note from under his pillow and reads it over a couple times before falling asleep.

***

Louis is barely over the threshold of his front door when Zayn’s voice asks, “How’s Harry?”

Louis’ heart rattles in his chest and he takes a step back, one hand clutching the door jamb. “Jesus,” he says, eyes sweeping the room to find Zayn’s prone form on the living room couch. “You scared me.” Liam and Zayn are never awake when Louis gets home from his Sunday night shifts. Come to think of it, “What are you still doing up?”

“Waiting for you to get home,” Zayn says, planting his palms on either side of his chest on the couch cushion to push himself up into a sitting position. Louis drops his bag at the door and sinks into Liam’s recliner. Now that he’s up closer, he can see the wine-colored rings under Zayn’s eyes. Louis chews the inside of his cheek and watches Zayn sympathetically. He doesn’t know if Harry has even texted Zayn back since Tuesday. And Louis thought he had it bad.

“He wasn’t mad,” Louis says thoughtfully. “I don’t know if he’s totally forgiven us, but he definitely still wants to be friends.”

“With you, or with me?” Zayn says dolefully.

“With all of us, I think,” Louis says. “He said he just needs time.”

Zayn shakes his head. “No. That’s not good enough. Tuesday he’s gonna go back to those god-awful parents of his and they’re going to convince him—”

“I know, I know,” Louis says. “Trust me. Been there, considered that.”

“So?” Zayn says, sounding angry now. “What are we going to do?”

“I dunno,” Louis says. He wipes a hand down his face. He’s only going to say this because Liam isn’t awake to feel smug about his perpetual state of being right, but, “I don’t think there’s anything we can do, other than hope he comes around before Tuesday.”

“You think he will?”

Louis’ silence is answer enough. After a few moments, Zayn nods, like that’s about what he expected.

God, does Louis hope they’re both wrong.

***

Harry’s mother calls him twice on Monday and both times he lets it go to voicemail. He knows that she probably just wants to confirm his travel plans home or something, but talking to his mother inevitably dredges up a lot of feelings and memories that Harry would rather ignore. After this past week, Harry thinks he’s maxed out his quota for dwelling on the most painful parts of his past.

There’s also the small point that his mom has texted him three times over the last few days asking her to call him when he’s got the time. Harry’s mother having a pressing need to speak with Harry never bodes well for him.

Harry can’t ignore his mom forever, though, so when she calls on Monday night, he concedes to pick up the phone. “Hey, Mom.”

“Oh, thank God. Why didn’t you pick up earlier? I was worried,” his mother says.

“I was in class,” Harry says, grimacing at his lie. He folds another shirt and arranges it neatly in the suitcase on his bed. “Sorry.”

“That’s okay. I only wanted to make sure you had your bus ticket for tomorrow.”

“Yup,” Harry says. “I get in at 6:40.”

“Okay. I’ll have your father pick you up on his way home from the office.”

“Sounds good,” Harry says, even though car rides alone with his step-dad are usually anything but good. Honestly, that’s pretty much the case for any alone time Harry spends with his step-dad. If Harry weren’t holding the phone with his right hand, he’d be plucking at his rubber band for sure.

“Great. I’m looking forward to seeing you, sweetie.”

“You too, Mom,” Harry says, wishing that didn’t feel like a lie, too.

“I’ve got all your winter clothing out of storage and it’s in the laundry room, so you can bring your heavy coat and gloves back to school at the end of break.”

“Okay.”

“And your father thinks that he might have left his pocketknife somewhere in your room on move-in weekend, so would you mind doing a quick search to see if it’s in a drawer somewhere?”

Harry’s frequent dorm cleanings have equipped him with a fairly detailed mental inventory of everything in his room, so he knows already that the knife isn’t here, but he says anyway, “Sure, Mom.”

“Hmm, what else,” his mom says, as though she’s not going to see him in less than twenty-four hours, when she can relay all this information in person.

Respect thy mother and thy father, Harry reminds himself. He breathes out. Be patient.

“And I’m looking at the dining room table right now, where I’ve got all your mail that’s come in the last few months stacked up. Remind me to give it to you when you get home. Completely slipped my mind when you were here in September.”

“Mail?”

“Mmm-hmm. A Halloween card from Grandma, the quarterly church youth group newsletter, since I thought you might want to see that. Your school bill—already paid, but just thought you might want to see it. Something from camp, too.”

Although it isn’t phrased as an inquiry, Harry knows a question from his mom when he hears one. “Oh,” he says in a cracked voice. “Yeah. That’s probably—thanks for letting me know. I’ll make sure to get it all when I’m home.”

“Okey dokey. I thought it was odd that they would have sent something to the house, since we forwarded them your new campus box number when we sent it to St. Andrews and changed the shipping address for your Magnificat subscription. Have you been getting those, by the way? It seems to me we haven’t received our copy in a couple months. Maybe I should check on that...”

Harry closes his eyes. Please stop talking, he mentally pleads with her. Get me off the phone so I can have a minor breakdown in peace, please.

“I’ve been getting it,” Harry says, even though he hasn’t.

“Oh, good. Okay, maybe it’s an issue with our address. I’ll look into it.”

“Okay,” Harry says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Sounds good.”

“Safe travels tomorrow, love. I’ll be at the hairdresser's tomorrow afternoon, but text me in case of emergency, all right?”

“Sure,” Harry says, the heavy thumping of his heart almost impossible to ignore now. “Love you. Bye.”

Harry presses the end button and takes a deep breath like he’s just emerged from underwater. When he’s had a few moments to collect himself, Harry reaches under his bed to fish out the balled up paper he’s been resolutely ignoring for the past few weeks. He un-crumples it to look at the note. Did they send one letter to him at school, one at home, to cover all their bases? Or did they send one to his home address after they received no response regarding the first letter? Why can’t they just leave him alone?

Swallowing a sob, Harry rips the letter in half. Then in quarters. Then in eighths. He keeps ripping until the paper has been reduced to a handful of confetti, which Harry dumps in his trash.

He paces back and forth across his room. God, how is he even going to make it five days at home with his parents, going to Mass back at his old church, pretending like everything is the same as when he left for school, opening the letter that waits for him on his dining room table? And unavoidably having to relay to his mother and step-father what it says? Of course his mom will want him to write the testimonial. Harry’s step-dad might even make him write it, if he thinks Harry is at all resistant the idea. Why should Harry refuse to give back to the Lord and the people who are doing His good work? Harry’s all fixed now, so why not share his grace and wisdom with lost souls? Unless, he’s not really fixed…

Before he fully registers what he’s doing, Harry pulls out his phone and presses the damp pad of his thumb against Louis’ name in his list of recent calls. As Harry holds the phone up to his ear, half of him is chanting please pick up, please pick up, please pick up, while the other half is hoping against hope that it goes straight to voicemail.

Of course Louis answers on the second ring. Of course he does. “Harry?”

“Lou,” Harry says, and hides his face in the hand not holding the phone when he hears the blatantly plaintive note in his voice.

“Haz, what’s wrong?”

“Um.” What is wrong? Harry doesn’t even know how to articulate it. “Can you come over?”

“Yeah, of course,” Louis agrees before Harry has a chance to regret blurting that out. Harry hears muffled movement on Louis’ end and Louis addressing someone else in the room. Probably Liam or Niall, asking to borrow a car. God, Harry is being such a hassle right now.

“You don’t have to—”

“Haz. Shh. I’m coming, okay? I’ll text you when I’m outside the building.”

“Okay,” Harry says, already feeling his breaths coming a little easier, a little slower. “Okay. Th-thanks, Lou.”

“Any time. Be there as soon as I can.”

Harry drops his phone onto the bedside table, clears his half-packed suitcase off the bed, and lies down on his side with Chester in one arm. He surveys his room and wonders if he made a mistake asking Louis over. Harry doesn’t invite other people into his living space. Ever. That one time with Louis notwithstanding. Although Harry would hardly count Louis barging in to find Harry mid-panic attack as a proper invitation.

Then again, Harry couldn’t have gone over to Louis’ place. Someone else is home. That means Harry would have had to face Liam or Zayn or one of the others, and Harry isn’t ready to do that. Not even a little bit. He isn’t even sure whether or not he regrets calling Louis, yet. Because surely Louis will take this as a signal that Harry has moved beyond the whole lying and secrecy business, that Harry doesn’t want to stay away from Louis anymore.

Is that the message Harry wants to send? Harry doesn't know. Does this mean that he and Louis are friends again? He doesn’t know that either. What he does know is that when Louis held him on the couch last Tuesday, it was the safest, most content Harry had felt since Harry could remember. Harry desperately wants that safety back. He’s been feeling so small and alone, especially now that he’s imminently heading home, where he has to be so careful with what he says and does and who he is. At home, Harry feels like Edward Scissorhands maneuvering through a room filled with balloons.

Harry curls reflexively around Chester when he hears a knock on the door. “Haz?” Louis’ muffled voice asks. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah,” Harry says, and then repeats it louder when Louis doesn’t seem to have heard.

Louis cracks the door and sticks his head in first. “Hey,” he says when he spots Harry on the bed, and comes the rest of the way in, closing the door with a soft click behind him. He toes off his shoes by the door. “I followed some kid who lives here through the front door,” Louis explains. He approaches the bed cautiously, and Harry realizes belatedly that maybe when you’re receiving guests, it’s more polite to greet them at the door, rather than have them find you wherever you’ve collapsed in distress on that particular day.

“Can I sit?” Louis asks.

Harry nods his head against the pillow and scoots over to make room for Louis until his back hits the wall. Louis sits down so that his hip is right next to Harry’s face and reclines against the headboard. He’s wearing a soft looking pair of sweatpants, and Harry wishes he’d dragged himself out of bed to change out of this pair of jeans before Louis got here. He looks up at Louis and sees Louis looking right back down at him with a concerned pucker between his eyebrows. It occurs to Harry that he hasn’t said a word since Louis’ entry.

“Thanks for coming,” Harry says.

“Not a problem,” Louis replies, and a crooked grin tugs up one side of his mouth in a way that means Louis is about to make some joke that diminishes the burden of taking care of Harry. “The happy couples were both home tonight, so you provided a welcome escape from some hardcore fifth-wheeling.”

Yup, there it is. Harry doesn’t mind. He’d rather Louis make light of things than comment on how dramatic Harry is being, practically ignoring Louis for days on end before summoning him from across campus. Harry is the worst.

“Hey,” Louis says, presumably in response to whatever wretched expression just twisted Harry’s face. Louis reaches down with one hand to comb his fingers through Harry’s hair. Harry closes his eyes and presses his forehead into Louis’ hip. “What’s up?”

It isn’t until Harry tries to form words in response that he realizes he’s choked up. He swallows convulsively a couple times. “I don’t want to go home,” he whispers into the fabric of Louis’ sweatpants, glad that he can’t see Louis’ face when Louis hears that is the reason Harry’s so upset. The mere prospect of going home. Harry is such a baby.

Harry feels Louis’ hand falter momently in its rhythm of brushing Harry’s hair. “Why’s that?” Louis says, in a tone that suggests he’s already got a pretty good idea of why that might be.

“My…my parents, mostly,” Harry says.

Louis remains silent, evidently waiting for Harry to elaborate. Harry is unsure whether it’s more freeing or terrifying to be able to discuss camp-related matters openly with Louis. He’s never voiced these particular anxieties aloud to anyone, not even Zayn.

Then again, Harry’s never held Zayn’s beloved childhood stuffed animal under his chin while Zayn sits in his bed petting his hair before.

“My parents, um,” Harry says, floundering for a proper place to start, “have, uh. Pretty specific expectations for how they want me to be.” That’s probably the most generous way Harry could have stated that.

“Namely, straight, I’m guessing,” Louis quips.

Harry nods against Louis’ hip. “Yeah. They’re the ones—well, no, my youth minister was the one who recommended to them that I go, but they’re the ones who sent me…away. This past June.”

Louis makes an unhappy noise.

Harry plows on, “Now they expect me to be fixed, obviously, like how I was in the summer after I got back from camp. And I don’t know if I can do it.” Harry tries to ignore the sensation that he’s going to cry, but it feels kind of inevitable, like the moment you feel a sneeze coming on. Harry’s done so much crying lately, he’s sick and tired of it, but he can’t seem to stop. “I mean, I thought I was acting straight before I went away to camp, too, but everyone apparently saw through that, and that was when I was trying to convince even myself that I wasn’t gay. When I got back from camp, I don’t know how I made it through July and August with them thinking I was actually fixed, but Lou I don’t know if I could do it now, especially with everything this past semester and what if—”

“Haz. Haz. Breathe. Come on. Breathe, dude.”

Harry feels Louis’ hand in his hair and that’s something to focus on while he tries to suck in shallow gulps of air, made even more difficult by the fact that Harry refuses to withdraw his face from where it’s smashed against Louis’ hip. It feels like he’s inhaling through a coffee straw. His eyes are scrunched shut and he’s got the hand that was holding Chester now fisted in the leg of Louis’ pants.

“Deep breaths. You’re doing fine. It’s all going to be fine.”

When Harry’s slightly regained his composure, he loosens his grip on Louis’ pants and tilts his head to glance up at Louis. “Sorry,” he says, voice rough.

“For what, being upset?”

Harry shrugs. “For being upset over something so stupid.”

“Harry,” Louis says, tone lightly reprimanding. “None of that is stupid to be upset over.”

“You said the same thing about the scuff mark,” Harry points out. “So your threshold of too-stupid-to-be-upset-over is pretty high.”

Harry thought that would make Louis chuckle, distract him for a moment from the pathetic sniffling ball of distress that is Harry right now, but Louis doesn’t even crack a smile. “I’m serious,” Louis says. “That wasn’t a stupid thing to get upset over, either. I wish you’d stop, like, hating on yourself for the way you feel.”

Harry lowers his eyes to examine the wet spot of his tears on Louis’ sweatpants ruefully. “Sorry,” he mumbles.

“Shit, Harry,” Louis says, sounding frustrated now, “I don’t want you to be sorry, I just.” Louis sighs heavily. “I’m going to say this because I can, now that things are, ah, out in the open between us. No, don’t,” he adds when he feels Harry tense up beside him, smoothing the hair back at Harry’s temples. “It’s okay. All I was going to say is, I know you’ve had a lot of people tell you how to feel in the past, like, what things are okay to feel and what aren’t. And that sucks, it sucks so much and I wish I could go back and meet baby high school Harry and tell him that that’s all bullshit, and what you feel isn’t for your parents or your priest or anyone else to decide.”

Harry wedges his face between Louis’ leg and his pillow again, and Louis’ hand shifts to rub up and down Harry’s back.

“Since I can’t do that,” Louis says, “I guess I just have to tell you now. I’m not gonna judge you for feeling a certain way, or think you’re being stupid for getting upset over something. And neither will any of our other friends. Okay?” The slight emphasis Louis puts on the word “our” does not escape Harry’s notice.

After a few moments, Harry emerges from the pillow enough to say, “Okay.”

“Okay,” Louis agrees.

Harry licks his lips and sniffs wetly. If that’s how it’s going to be, then maybe Harry can say, “When I found out that you knew about everything, I was—it hurt, because I felt like maybe the only reason we became friends was because you felt sorry for me. Or I was your…project, or something.”

Louis nods, eyes fixed on his own lap while he rubs Harry’s back. “I’m sorry I made you feel like that,” he says. “I’m not gonna lie, I did feel sorry for you. I still do, because some shitty people did some shitty things to you.” Louis’ jaw clenches. “That’s not the reason we’re friends, though, and I wish…”

“What?” Harry says, curiosity momentarily eclipsing his anxiety.

“You told me the first night we hung out, like really hung out, over at Zayn’s place, that you didn’t think many people liked you,” Louis says. “Remember that?”

“Yeah,” Harry mumbles. How could he forget?

“I wish you didn’t think like that,” Louis says, “because then it’d be a hell of a lot easier to convince you that I actually enjoy your company as a friend. One of my best friends, in fact, if you’ll recall.”

Harry can’t suppress the smile that spreads across his face. See? That whole Louis-making-Harry-feel-like-a-worthwhile-human-being thing. He’s doing it again. How could Harry possibly have hoped to stay mad at Louis for any extended period of time? Louis might put on this hard, sarcastic exterior, and maybe sometimes he's a protective asshole (Louis' words, not Harry's), but underneath Louis' as soft and warm as a microwaved marshmallow Peep. 

“Thanks for coming over,” Harry says, because he doesn’t think one expression of gratitude for Louis being here is quite (nearly) enough, “especially after I was so crappy to you this week.”

“Dude, you ignored me for a few days and then were forcedly polite to me at work,” Louis says, sounding utterly unimpressed. “Your standards for being a crappy person are abysmally low. Were you not listening when I told my Matt puking story? Besides, the debatable crappiness of your actions was totally warranted. I’m just glad we kiss-and-made-up before Thanksgiving break.”

“Me too,” Harry says, hoping that his face is well enough tucked away that Louis cannot see how Harry blushed at his phrasing. “I dunno if I could’ve made it through all of break with my parents, knowing that we were still…” Harry points his index finger back and forth between himself and Louis, unable to figure out the proper wording to describe the state of their friendship this past week.

“Yeah,” Louis muses. “I’ll be honest, I’m trying not to hate your parents, but…I kind of hate your parents. Sorry.”

“Yeah.” Harry gets that. He hasn’t exactly painted his parents in the most complimentary light for Louis. “I mean, I don’t hate them,” Harry clarifies, because of course he doesn’t. They’re his parents, and despite how much it hurts Harry, he knows that everything they do is because they want the best for him. Still, “I just hate being around them. I always feel like I’m about to do the wrong thing. That I’m disappointing or embarrassing them.”

“Embarrassing? You?” Louis says incredulously. “Polite, check. Hard-working, check. Well-dressed, check. Church-going, check. Dude, you’re a conservative parent’s wet dream.”

Harry wrinkles his nose. “Gross.”

“Sorry,” Louis says. “You were saying?”

“I was saying,” Harry continues, “there’s a lot of things that I’ve done or liked or wanted, that my parents didn’t like. Because it was just too…gay.”

“Like what?” Louis asks in a voice of forced calm.

Harry shrugs again. “Like…having a stupid stuffed ladybug. Or wanting to play show tunes on the piano instead of worship songs. Or, okay this is a good example—you know those Hawaiian-type shirts? I got one on vacation the summer after sophomore year, but my step-dad wouldn’t let me wear it out of the house because it was…too bright and flowy or something. I think he eventually threw it away, because I put it in the laundry one time and then couldn't find it ever again. And when I was in high school I wanted to grow out my hair for a while, but I couldn’t because that would be too girly.”

Harry takes a deep breath. “Pretty sure my parents hated Max, too, when I got him this past summer. Thought it was suspicious that all their teenage son wanted to do was hang out with a baby farm animal, I guess. I think they were happy when Max died.” Harry breathes through his nose because he’s not going to get emotional about Max right now. He’s not. “But I think they were still mostly relieved that I was doing something other than clean, ‘cause I’ve always been a pretty neat person, but like. After camp it got worse. I didn’t—I wasn’t always some idiot who gets upset over scuff marks.” Harry wipes at his nose with his sleeve. “Normal teenage boys aren’t supposed to be obsessed with cleaning,” he whispers.

In the silence that follows Harry’s word vomit, Harry doesn’t dare look up at Louis, very certain that he’ll be met with the overwhelmed, slightly appalled expression of someone who's just had way too much personal information dumped in his lap.

Fortunately, Louis just combs the curls off Harry’s forehead. “That,” he says after a painfully long moment, “sounds like a lot to keep track of.”

Harry snorts. That doesn’t even hold a candle to what Harry’s mentally juggling every second of the day. “Yeah,” he agrees. “M-mostly I’ve, um, taught myself to just not want or think about those things, but the list seems to keep getting longer.”

“Taught yourself with this?” Louis’ hand that is not petting Harry’s head reaches across Louis’ stomach to take hold of Harry’s left hand, which is still fisted in Louis’ pants. Louis thumbs at the rubber band under Harry’s sleeve and Harry’s stomach does a somersault. He knew, vaguely, that Louis must have seen the rubber band. It’s darn near impossible to spend any extended period of time with Harry without seeing him snap it once or twice, but no one’s ever brought it up to his face before. Not Harry’s mom or his step-dad, any of Harry’s youth group friends or anyone Harry’s met since coming to school.

“Y-yeah,” Harry says, voice barely audible, eyes on Louis’ hand around his wrist. Harry clears his throat. “They, um. I got it at camp.”

Louis makes a soft humming noise that Harry doesn’t know how to interpret. Louis’ thumb starts rubbing soothing circles around Harry’s wrist bone. “I wish you wouldn’t,” he says.

“I don’t quite so much anymore,” Harry says quickly, “but sometimes I don’t even notice it’s happening.”

“Like the hair pulling?”

Harry bites his lip and nods. “Yeah.” Harry’s eyes are itchy with dried tears, but he doesn’t want to extract his hand from Louis’. “Do you think the others have noticed?” Harry asks nervously.

“Maybe,” Louis says, “but I doubt any of them would bring it up to you. They’re not nearly as nosey and tactless as I am.”

“No, you’re not—it’s. It’s nice that you care,” Harry mumbles.

“Course I do,” Louis says earnestly. “We all do. And I’m not—don’t take this as me telling you what to do, because I have no right to talk in this department, but I really think you should talk to Zayn soon. He’s kind of losing his mind over you.”

Harry cringes guiltily. “He is?”

“Yeah, dude. I’m not trying to make you feel bad, I’m just letting you know what’s up.”

Harry doesn’t answer right away. He knows it’s not fair to forgive Louis and still be angry at the others, despite the (very) soft spot he apparently has for Lou. But, “Zayn was my first friend here,” Harry says slowly, “like, the first friend I’d made in a really long time. I don’t want to lose him, but he’s the one who actually went and told other people about this really private thing of mine that he should have known I didn’t want other people to know.”

“Only because he cared about you,” Louis says.

Harry nods, because he knows that.

“I’m not saying you have to be all buddy-buddy with him again right away,” Louis says. “All I’m saying is, if you can find it in yourself to text him, that would be great, for him and for me.”

Harry looks up at Louis quizzically.

“What, you think he’s not going to attack me for information like a rabid wolverine the second I get home from your place?” Louis says, eyebrows raised.

“Okay, okay,” Harry agrees. “I’ll text him back.”

“Good man,” Louis says, patting Harry on the head with approval.

“Speaking of,” Harry says, fighting hard not to let himself sound too desperate, “does that mean you have to go home soon?”

“Not if you don’t want me to,” Louis says.

“Could you—you could stay and watch a show or something?” Harry offers. It comes out small and pathetic but Harry cares far more about not being alone for a while than retaining what little dignity he has left.

“Sure,” Louis says. “Laptop?”

“Yeah, I’ll grab it,” Harry says. He hoists himself out of bed and stumbles over to his desk, then pauses. “Lemme go put on pajama pants.” Harry grabs a pair out of the dresser, hesitates, and then makes a beeline for the bathroom. Harry’s sure that normal college freshman boys have no qualms about changing in front of their peers, but of course Harry can make no claims to normalcy, can he? Particularly around Louis, removing his pants would feel…nope. Harry doesn’t want to think about that right now.

Harry emerges from the bathroom and grabs his computer, crawling awkwardly over Louis to sit beside him, back against the headboard. “Any preference?” he asks while Louis reaches down to pull the bunched-up comforter at the bottom of Harry’s bed over their legs.

“Niall recently found this show on Netflix that I think you’d like,” Louis says, adjusting his position so that his arm is flush up against Harry’s. “It’s called IT Crowd. Heard of it?”

Harry shakes his head.

“Oh, man, you’re in for a treat,” Louis says, sounding positively gleeful as Harry logs in and pulls up the web browser. While Harry searches for the show, Louis says idly, “It’s nice you’ve got a single room. It seems like whenever I want to watch something, Liam is in ours doing homework.”

“Well, there are these things called headphones,” Harry says, which earns him a light shove with Louis’ shoulder.

“Still, must be nice to have some privacy,” Louis says.

“Sometimes,” Harry admits. “That’s why I’m in work-study, though. Most of the money from my desk hours goes to paying for the room.”

“That sucks,” Louis says. “Why? Aren’t your parents the ones who wanted you in a single?”

“Well, yeah,” Harry says, mouse hovering over the play button, “but I kind of have to be in one.”

“Why?”

Harry exhales shakily. “Because I can’t be trusted,” he says, his voice saturated with shame, “sharing a room. With a boy.”

Dead silence. Harry continues staring at his computer screen, grateful that it’s bright enough that he and Louis cannot see each other’s reflections in it. Then, Louis simply says, “I think you’re going to like Moss the best. He’s kind of adorkable,” and lowers his head onto Harry’s shoulder as he hits the play button.

Chapter Text

Louis does not pay much attention to IT Crowd . He’s otherwise occupied with cataloging every minute sound and movement Harry makes: the way his breathing, for the first time tonight, is consistently slow and steady; the way he brings a hand up to cover his mouth when he laughs; the way he gradually gets quieter over the course of the third episode, merely exhaling sharply through his nose when he’s amused, which probably means he’s getting sleepy.

So is Lou, honestly. Who would have thought simply listening to someone else bare his soul could be so exhausting? Mostly, though, Louis is languid with relief that he and Harry are back on good terms. Distressing, disgusting, and downright infuriating as some of the things Harry relayed to him were, Louis wouldn’t have traded tonight for anything. Even though Louis so recently betrayed his trust, Harry opened up, even a little, and Louis finally, finally got the opportunity to undercut some of the maddeningly offensive and, frankly, emotionally abusive things Harry’s parents have told him. Progress.

Still, Louis has to wonder: if Harry was taught to be ashamed of something as innocuous as his taste in show tunes, what else is he hiding? What other parts of Harry Styles have been smothered and rubber-band-snapped out of him?

Harry stifles a yawn just as the credits of their third episode start to roll, and Louis gives Harry’s right hand a light pat. “Bed?” he asks through his own reflexive yawn.

“Mmm,” Harry says noncommittally, and Louis lifts his head off Harry’s shoulder to give Harry a once-over.

“Bed,” Louis confirms, looking critically at the tired lines under Harry’s eyes. “Don’t you ever get enough sleep?”

Harry chuckles and rubs his eyes with his knuckles. “Not usually, no. Plus, been stressed, about…” Harry makes a circular motion with one hand, apparently in reference to the entirety of tonight’s conversation.

“Well, I would suggest you sleep in for once, but,” Louis says, shrugging. Then, hesitantly, “Is the showering thing new, too? Like, since-camp new?”

Harry shakes his head. “No. Well. No.” Louis raises an eyebrow and Harry averts his eyes to the computer screen, where he exes out of the web browser and selects shut down. “I guess it got worse after camp, but I remember doing it earlier in high school, too. When I first started to think there might be something wrong with me. Like, that I might be gay. I just felt like I was…dirty? All the time.” Harry rakes the nails of each hand down the opposite arm. “I didn’t really know how else to deal. So. Lots of very long, very hot showers.”

Please excuse Louis while he picks up the fragments of his shattered heart. Fuck, is this kid ever going to stop saying things that make Louis feel gutted? Or, at the very least, stop saying them in that matter-of-fact tone, as if what he’s divulging isn’t royally fucked up? Louis doesn’t even know what reply to give other than a lame, “You’re not dirty.”

Harry’s mouth pulls up in a sad little smile. “I know that, now, I think. Old habits, though.”

Louis eyes Harry’s rubber band. “Yeah, I guess so,” he says, once again with the knowledge that this is horribly insufficient, but unsure what else he can offer in the way of response. What is unquestionable, though, is that Harry needs sleep. Louis stretches his arms above his head and regretfully crawls out from under the warmth of Harry’s comforter. “Chester going home with you for break?” Lou asks, pointing at the bear cradled between Harry’s left hip and the wall.

“Oh! Sorry,” Harry says, immediately dislodging Chester and holding him out to Louis. “Thanks for letting me borrow him.”

Louis shakes his head. “That wasn’t me passive-aggressively telling you to give him back. I was actually asking. You can take him with you, if you want.”

Harry chews on his lip, clearly considering it for a moment, before he shakes his head and holds Chester out more insistently. “That’s okay. I wouldn’t—my parents might see.”

“Okay, if you insist,” Louis says. Anything to wipe away the nervous expression on Harry’s face. “Just know that you’re breaking his heart. Trips home to the Tomlinson household invariably result in Chester running through the washer; my sisters always manage to smear him with glitter glue or spaghetti sauce or something equally difficult to get out.”

Harry tries for an approximation of a joking smile and says, “Better than him going through the wash at my house. He might never re-emerge.”

Louis doesn’t find that funny, not one bit, but he gives Harry a grim smile and takes Chester. “For what it’s worth,” Louis says, “you could totally pull off Hawaiian t-shirts, and long hair, if you wanted.” Louis says it because 1) he doesn’t know how else to deal with his hatred for Harry’s step-father right now, 2) it’s absolutely true, and 3) Louis would do anything to see Harry’s eyes light up the way they do when Louis says this.

“I’ll let you sleep,” Louis says, heading for the door. “What time do you leave tomorrow?”

“After I get off working the help desk, in the afternoon,” Harry says.

Louis wrinkles his nose. “Damn. I have Probability Theory tomorrow afternoon, otherwise we could hang out. My train isn’t until tomorrow night.”

“Well, I’ve got a long bus ride with nothing to do except homework...” Harry says. Louis makes a face. “Yeah, exactly. So, send me funny pictures or something.”

“Yessir,” Louis says with a formal salute. The brittleness of Harry’s smile makes Louis suspect Harry’s need for a distraction stems more from his anxiety about heading home, rather than homework-related boredom, but either way, Louis is here with absurd cat .gifs for days. “Text Zayn,” Louis reminds Harry as he slips on his shoes.

“Will do,” Harry promises. Louis thinks that’s going to be all, but when he opens the door, Harry goes, “Wait!” and scrambles out of bed. Louis catches the door with his foot and watches with pleasant surprise as Harry stumbles with his Bambi legs across the room to pull Louis in for a tight hug. True to form, Harry tucks his face into Louis’ neck, and Louis gives Harry’s back a couple of yes, this is okay strokes.

“Thanks again for coming over,” Harry says, for what Louis estimates to be the six thousandth time tonight.

“Of course. This was fun,” Louis says. Harry looks skeptical, and Louis qualifies, “Okay, watching IT Crowd was fun.”

“It was,” Harry confirms, taking a reluctant step back, out of Louis’ space. “I’m definitely going to binge-watch the rest of it over break. Probably get through it in the first day or two, since I don’t have anyone to talk to, other than my mom and my step-dad.”

No high school friends? Louis wants to ask, but decides not to, for fear of accidentally pulling Harry back into a dark mood. “Well, if you run out, try Black Books next. Same writer. Although, that’s pretty short, too. You know what? I’ll just text you a list of things to watch.” 


“Okay,” Harry says, looking delighted at the prospect. “Yeah, please.”

“Okay,” Louis agrees. “If you promise to please, please get some fucking sleep.”

Harry’s smile widens. “Hey, you’re the one standing in my doorway.”

“All right, all right, I can take a hint.” Louis rolls his eyes and steps out into the hall. “Goodnight, Curly,” he says over his shoulder.

“Night, Lou Bear.”

Louis whips around to fix Harry with a reprimanding expression, but the door is already closed. No matter, Louis thinks. Louis has successfully shepherded Harry back to emotional high ground—at least, enough so that Harry is feeling bold enough to call Louis “Lou Bear”—and that’s all that really matters.

It might not be such a dreadful nickname, after all, if Harry’s the one using it.

***

Harry hasn’t seen Zayn this nervous since the night before his first swim lesson with Liam. That puts Harry on edge, even though Harry tells himself that he has no reason to be nervous. Harry’s not the one in the wrong. In fact, Harry’s the one riding the high road; after Lou left last night, Harry took his advice and finally responded to Zayn’s deluge of messages: Breakfast tomorrow? Zayn responded within ten seconds: Please .

Now, as Harry approaches the entrance to the dining hall, where Zayn is rocking back and forth on his heels, wringing his charcoal-smudged hands, Harry can’t help the stumble in his heartbeat or the sudden dampness of his palms. Zayn looks up at Harry’s approach, and his expression is a mixture of apprehension and relief. It seems wrong that Harry could be the one to put Zayn, cool-calm-and-collected Zayn, so ill at ease. When Zayn gives Harry a hesitant, “Hi,” it takes all the self-control Harry can muster not to take off sprinting in the other direction. This is so awkward. Zayn is being so awkward. Harry is usually the awkward one. They can’t both be awkward, otherwise this whole encounter is going to fall apart before it even begins.

Oh God, how long has Harry been standing here thinking about how awkward this is? Long enough that the word “awkward” doesn’t even sound like a word anymore. Awkward. Awk-ward. Aw—

Get out of your own head, you idiot, and say something!

“Hi,” Harry echoes back. Smooth.

After a painful pause, Zayn gestures to the dining hall. “Do you wanna…?”

“Yes,” Harry says, much louder than he intended, and strides off toward the register.

Harry deposits his backpack at a clean table and goes off to collect his food without looking at Zayn. When he arrives back at the table, Zayn is already seated with just a cup of coffee. To be fair, Harry isn’t sure how he’s going to get through this bowl of cereal, given how his stomach is knotted with nerves. Harry sits down and Zayn gives him a wan smile.

Harry sighs. Since he’s the one who invited Zayn to breakfast, he feels like he should be the first one to say something, but what that something should be, Harry hasn’t a clue. Harry buys himself some time by saying his pre-meal prayer. As per usual, Zayn simply waits for Harry to finish.

By the time Harry crosses himself and looks up, Zayn’s apparently withstood all he can of the awkward silence. “I’m so sorry,” is how he starts, hands wrapped in a viselike grip around his coffee mug. “I don’t even—I can’t even tell you—just. Yeah. I’m so sorry.”

Harry nods, picking a Fruit Loop out of his bowl and munching on it, just for something to do. He heaves a deep breath. He knows what Zayn is waiting to hear. Being Catholic has engrained in Harry the ideal of repentance and forgiveness: If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.

So yeah, Harry knows what he’s supposed to do. He knows his script. Three words. That’s it.

Here’s the thing, though. While Harry is pretty intimately familiar with being on the repentance side of the things, he has limited experience accepting apologies. Harry is usually the one screwing things up. He doesn’t want to tell Zayn that he’s forgiven if it feels like a lie.

Harry, coward that he is, cops out by saying, “I know. And...Louis keeps telling me that you only did it because…” Harry swirls his spoon around in his cereal. “Because you were worried about me.”

“I was,” Zayn says, leaning over the table, eyebrows pinched. The picture of earnestness. “Shit, Harry, when you sent me that link.” Zayn roughly shoves his fingers through his hair and pushes his glasses up his nose. “I freaked the fuck out, and you wouldn’t answer any of my messages. I didn’t know what else to do. Who else to ask for help. I know that’s no excuse. What I did was a really, really shitty thing to do, especially given…I mean, even then I got the sense that you weren’t the kind of guy who went around telling people about this. Or much of anything about yourself. So, I’m sorry I suck, but you have to know that I never did it to, like, embarrass you or something.”

Harry nods, letting that all sink in. Already, he feels like a little of the weight has lifted off his chest. “Okay. Okay, I—thanks. For saying that. And you don’t suck. You’re the best.”

Zayn’s face breaks into the first real smile Harry’s seen him wear this morning. “Well, clearly that’s not true, but thanks. For what it’s worth, I think you’re the best, too.”

“I’m telling Liam you said that,” Harry says with a grin.

Zayn chuckles. “Be my guest. He makes the most adorable pouty face when he gets all righteously indignant.”

“I can imagine.”

Silence settles between them, and much to Harry’s relief, it doesn’t feel strained. As Harry watches Zayn’s fingers drum the side of his mug and Zayn squint against the light pouring through the window behind Harry—which he wouldn’t have to do if they were sitting at the slightly dirtier table to the left—Harry is overcome with a wave of fondness for Zayn. He’s missed this, and the moment softens him toward Zayn.

“I forgive you, by the way,” Harry says, when he’s sure that feels like the truth.

Zayn’s shoulders visibly drop. “Thanks,” he says, tone thick with relief. Zayn blows lightly on his coffee. “You and Louis are cool again, too?”

Harry blushes at his recollection of last night, but he’s uncertain whether that’s due to (a) the memory of his weakness, his neediness, his tears, or (b) the fact that Louis came to take care of Harry, which makes warmth permeate Harry’s core like he’s just taken a sip of hot tea. “Yeah,” Harry says, lowering his eyes to avoid Zayn’s knowing (or amused?) expression, wishing he were wearing a hoodie today instead of this crisp button-up, so that he could pull his sleeves down over his knuckles.

Zayn notices Harry fiddling with the cuffs of his sleeves. “Also, what’re you dressed up for?”

“Nothing,” Harry says, which is only a half-lie. Zayn quirks an eyebrow. Harry looks down at his neatly ironed shirt and khakis. “What? I used to dress like this all the time.”

“‘Used to’ being the operative phrase, there,” Zayn points out.

Harry chews his lip and shrugs. “Well, I’m going home today, right? Gotta look nice.”

“Pro tip, I don't think the other people on the bus care what you look like,” Zayn says. “Last Greyhound I took seated me next to a woman wearing a Scooby-Doo onesie.”

“I don’t own a onesie,” Harry says.

“Pity,” Zayn says. “They’re way more comfortable than business casual.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Do,” Zayn instructs. “Seriously, though, what’s with the stiff attire? Do you really care what the bus people think of you?”

“I care what my step-dad thinks,” Harry says.

Zayn winces and takes a sip of coffee, even though, judging by the steam wafting off it, the drink is still scalding hot. Predictably, Zayn swallows and coughs heavily. “Right,” he says, after thumping himself on the chest with his fist. “Should’ve guessed that. Sorry.”

“’s okay,” Harry says.

That doesn’t seem to satisfy Zayn, who continues to rest his critical gaze on Harry. No matter. Harry casts around for a change of subject. “What’ve you been drawing lately?” he asks.

The question serves its intended purpose of changing the subject and putting Zayn back in a pleasant mood. As Zayn relates the difficult bit of shading he’s been attempting and “re-fucking up” for the last few days, Harry’s stomach settles enough to let him swallow a little more cereal. Still, his anxiety doesn’t totally abate. Harry supposes it probably won’t until he gets back on campus this Sunday. He’s going to be on edge for the next five days. Might as well get used to it.

***

By the time Harry boards the bus later that afternoon, to say that he’s nervous about going home is a colossal understatement; to say he’s fucking petrified would be more accurate. He runs his fingers along the outline of his phone in his pocket, anxiously awaiting the buzz of an incoming text from Louis. Or any other distraction. Harry isn’t feeling too picky at the moment.

Harry finds a seat in an empty row toward the back of the bus and rests his forehead against the glass. Other passengers file on—none of them in onesies—and Harry must be giving off some seriously potent silently freaking out vibes, because no one sits beside him. Fine by Harry. He lifts his backpack and duffle bag onto the seat next to him to form a shield and goes back to staring out the window.

He can do this. It’s less than a week. Harry’s step-dad is the more difficult one to fool, but Harry only has to interact with him during dinner table discussion. It’s usually easier to carry on the charade around his mom, who, unconsciously or not, is sometimes willing to overlook Harry’s effeminate tendencies if they mean he’ll spend time with her—helping her fold laundry while she watches daytime television, for example, or lending a hand in the kitchen.

About a half an hour into the bus ride, Harry feels his phone buzz. He scrambles to pull it out of his pocket, and audibly moans when he finds that it’s a message from his mother rather than Louis.

Mom : Forgot to mention yesterday—Gran joining for Thanksgiving dinner. Mind picking her up on Thursday afternoon? Will be busy in kitchen.

Harry texts back a Sure and drops his phone into his lap. He can’t tell whether this development benefits him or not. On the one hand, having Gran over means that Harry’s parents will be distracted from Harry for a while. On the other hand, it adds another member to the audience Harry is committed to fooling with his heterosexual act this week. Harry wipes a hand down his face and closes his eyes. He’s exhausted and he’s not even home yet.

As if on cue, Harry’s phone lights up with a text from Louis. Harry eagerly swipes to unlock his phone, excited for some friendly company, even if it’s only virtual.

Louis: Campus is so dead. Late holiday departure got me like [image of I Am Legend movie poster]

Harry grins.

Harry: Good thing I left Chester with you. Even Will Smith had at least a dog.

Louis: True. I’m trying to appreciate the peace and quiet while I can, b/c there certainly won’t be any where I’m going tonight

Harry: How many sisters do you have?

Louis: Too many

Louis: Just kidding. I love them. But there are five

Harry: Wow. That’s a lot. Like, a whole flock.

Louis: The word “gaggle” seems more appropriate. Yes. They’re a lot

Harry: I wish I had some siblings.

Louis: Yeah, I remember you telling me that. You wanted brothers, right? All the better for playing soccer with

Harry grimaces. He doesn’t know how or why Louis remembers that.

Harry: That was kind of a lie. Would’ve taken brothers or sisters. Wasn’t much of a sporty kid anyway, if you can believe that.

Louis: I did suspect

Harry scratches his nose. Of course, he’d never managed to fool anyone before. He’s not sure why he ever even tried with Louis. Before Harry has the opportunity to spiral into a vortex of self-loathing, though, Louis comes through with another text and a change of subject.

Louis: Zayn told me you had breakfast this morning. You guys good now?

Harry smirks; he has no doubt that Zayn has already given everyone the low-down on his breakfast with Harry, but to accuse Louis of gossiping with Zayn behind Harry’s back feels like it might be hitting too close to home right now. So instead, he tells Louis about his breakfast with Zayn, which leads Louis to mention that Zayn is visiting Liam’s place over the holiday, and what a big deal that is, Louis’ little boy growing up, et cetera, et cetera. They text intermittently until Harry’s bus pulls up at the station and he’s shunted off into the cold November air with the rest of the passengers. Harry steps out from behind the bus to scan the parking lot for his step-father’s car, and finds it running, lights still on, in the closest space. Harry adjusts the strap of his duffle on his shoulder and jogs over to the car.

“Hi,” Harry huffs out as he opens the back door to shove his bags onto the seat.

“Careful, I’ve got papers back there,” his step-father warns, reaching back to yank some manilla envelopes out from under Harry’s stuff.

“Sorry, sorry,” Harry says, slamming the door and climbing into the passenger seat. “Thanks for picking me up.”

Harry’s step-father grunts in response and shifts gears, swinging out of the parking spot. “Bus was pretty late getting in.”

Harry fiddles with his sleeves. “Yeah, hit some rush hour traffic on the way here. Sorry about that.”

Silence. Harry reaches for his rubber band, itching to snap it. He knows Louis doesn’t like it when he does that, but Louis isn’t here.

Louis. Harry pulls out his phone and opens his conversation with Louis. The last message from Lou came in just a few minutes ago, announcing that his train was about to board.

Harry: Safe and sound on the train?

Kind of lame, but whatever. While he waits for Louis to respond, Harry points at the radio. “Can I turn on some music?”

Harry’s step-dad nods, and Harry flips through a few channels in search of something acceptable to listen to. He passes a Taylor Swift song that he likes, but Harry knows better than to linger on that. Eventually he settles on the station playing Styx’s “Show Me the Way” and leans back in his seat. His phone vibrates.

Louis  Yup yup. Even got a window seat. Score. You home yet?

Harry: Nope. In the car.

Louis: Better than on the bus

Louis: Or maybe not

Harry: Definitely not.

Louis : In that case, please enjoy this photo series of enormous dogs making friends with tiny cats

Harry leans against the window and tilts his phone so that his step-dad can’t look over and glimpse the montage of adorableness Louis’ just sent him.

***

At home, Harry heads straight upstairs to deposit his belongings in his room. His mother hasn’t gotten back from the hairdresser’s yet and damn it if Harry’s going to spend one more moment in the imposing presence of his step-dad. (The air in the car had practically crackled with tension when “Show Me the Way” gave way to “Highway to Hell,” and Harry broke into a nervous sweat swiveling through the stations in search of K-Love.)

Up in his room, Harry locks his door, withdraws Mister Spots out from under his bed, and hugs the ladybug to his chest. He sits down on his bed, back against the wall, and holds out his phone to take a photo of the stuffed animal pressed against his shirt. He sends Louis the picture with the caption Meet Mister Spots. Harry waits a few minutes for a response, and starts to chew his lip when he doesn’t get one. That’s fine. Louis probably just fell asleep or went to the bathroom or something. Harry doesn’t need his constant attention. Or at least, he shouldn’t demand Louis’ constant attention, no matter how much he does or does not need it.

Harry hears his step-dad ascending the staircase, talking on the phone. It sounds like he’s ordering pizza. He never seems to remember that Harry prefers veggie pizza, and Harry briefly entertains the idea of going out onto the landing to remind him, but then decides against it. Harry’s room is home base. He’s safe in here. He can’t do anything to mess up if no one’s around to see it.

Harry stays in his room until the sound of the garage door opening reaches his ears. Mom’s home. He should go say hello. Harry regretfully slips his phone—still devoid of a response from Louis—back in his pocket and traipses downstairs to find his mother in the mud room.

“Harry!” she says warmly, and pulls him into a hug before even removing her coat or putting her purse down.

“Hi, Mom,” he says, wrapping his arms around her. He pulls back to look at her freshly colored hair. “You look nice.” He immediately regrets saying that, wondering if a comment on the niceness of a woman’s hair is too gay. Would a normal boy say that?

Luckily, Harry’s mom is apparently too flattered to scrutinize his comment. She smiles and shrugs modestly. “Thank you. I thought Diana went a little bold with the color today, so I appreciate the reassurance.”

“It looks nice,” Harry reiterates, because she’s his mom and she deserves to feel good about the way she looks, but he wants to keep it as simple as possible.

“Pizza should be here any minute,” Harry’s step-dad says as he moves behind Harry’s mom to help her shrug off her coat.

“Oh, excellent. Wasn’t sure whether we had any leftovers in the fridge to heat up,” she says. Then looks at Harry ruefully. “I would have prepared something for your homecoming, but, you know.” She gestures to her hair.

“No, that’s fine. Pizza is good,” Harry says, and follows her into the kitchen.

“How’s everything at school?” Harry’s mom asks as she fills up a glass of water at the sink. “Finals are just around the corner, aren’t they?”

“A few weeks after we get back, yeah,” Harry says. “Kind of crazy that the semester’s almost over.”

“These four years are going to fly by so quickly,” his mom says with a wistful expression. She shakes her head and takes a sip of water. “It’ll be nice to have a long holiday break after your exams are finished, though. How many weeks do you get off? Three?”

“Two and a half,” Harry corrects, his stomach turning over. He’d forgotten about Christmas break, and how painfully long it’s going to be. He doesn’t give himself the time to dwell on that dreadful prospect, though. “Have to get through finals first,” he says, wrinkling his nose.

“I’m sure you’ll do fine,” his mother assures. “You’re doing well in all your classes.”

Harry picks at his rubber band. “I’ve got a B in stats.”

“A B, huh?” Harry’s step-father leans against the kitchen counter and frowns at Harry.

“I’m doing better,” Harry says quickly. “It was just the first test I didn’t do so great on. But I got an A on the second one. I think I can get an A in the class if I ace the final.”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine,” Harry’s mother repeats. “You’ll study hard for the final, won’t you? And you’ll get the grade you need.”

Harry nods vigorously, but that does nothing to smooth over the hard, judgmental creases in his step-father’s forehead. “Yeah, I will. Louis is helping me. The boy I work with? He’s a math student.”

“That’s nice,” Harry’s mom says, at the same time his step-dad says, “A boy?”

Harry nods. “I did a lot better on the second test after he tutored me, so. I think I can do okay on the final.”

Harry sends up a silent prayer of gratitude when the bell rings to announce the pizza delivery and his step-father strides out of the room. Harry breathes out and slumps into a chair at the kitchen table.

“So, tell me about your other friends,” Harry’s mother instructs, sitting across from him.

Harry rubs the back of his neck. He knows it’s important to her that he has friends, but he still hasn’t quite hashed out which gender or types of friends he’s supposed to have, which attributes he should emphasize. Harry feels like an ant under a microscope, and decides to start with Demi and Selena. Catholic friends are always safe to advertise. “Well, Demi and Selena are good. The girls from CCM? Yeah. I haven’t—I haven’t hung out with either of them recently,” since the whole post-Spectrum ordeal, “but I see them at meetings on Wednesdays, and at Mass. They’re really cool. You would like them.”

Harry’s mother nods, gently prompting him to continue. Harry runs a hand through his hair and snaps his rubber band. “They introduced me to their friend Liam at a party. He’s the head of the swim team.” Harry casts around for other traditionally masculine traits to list about Liam, but all that comes (unhelpfully) to mind is Zayn’s description of his “adorable pouty face” from this morning.

“Parties?” Harry’s step-father probes as he reenters the room, pizza in hand. “With your statistics grade in the state it’s in?”

“That was at the beginning of the semester,” Harry mumbles. “And it’s the only party I’ve been to.” There’s no way he’s bringing up Halloween to either of his parents ever. No way, no how.

“What about your other friends, sweetheart?” his mom asks, ever the peace-keeper.

“Well, Louis and Liam have a roommate, Niall, who’s teaching m—some guitar lessons this semester. He’s really good. His YouTube videos have thousands of views.” Harry reins in his enthusiasm, trying to gauge how much gushing is permissible here. “Niall’s friend Josh is also pretty cool. And Liam’s friend Zayn.”

“Lots of boys,” his mother observes, pulling a piece of pizza from the box.

Harry kind of feels like he might throw up. “Well,” he says, and doesn’t know how to finish, so he just lets the word dangle there.

“I think it’s lovely that you’ve made so many friends,” Harry’s mother says, loading up his plate with pizza (pepperoni, the way Harry’s step-dad likes it). “Are they all freshmen, too?”

“Juniors,” Harry says. “Except…Josh, maybe? I’m not sure what year he is.”

“No friends from your hall, or your classes?” Harry’s mother pries.

Harry shrugs, only just now considering how weird it is that he hasn’t made friends with anyone his own age. Is that weird? Harry doesn’t know if being the youngest of his friends implies something about his sexuality. Is that one more thing he has to worry about? “Not really. Hall’s pretty quiet,” Harry says, even though that’s definitely not the case. He hears his hall mates chatting loudly at all hours of the night up and down the hall, and the common room is almost always populated when he passes through to heat up hot water for tea.

“What about that girl you went out with earlier this semester?”

Harry should have known his mother would cling to the tidbit about his date with Ariana, even though he told her it didn’t go anywhere. “A sophomore, I think?” Harry honestly can’t remember. That feels so long ago and, terrible as it sounds, Ariana really did mean so little to him.

“Any other dates since then?”

“No. Been busy with school stuff,” Harry says, the only acceptable excuse he can contrive for his lack of romantic activity.

To Harry’s great relief, his step-dad nods approvingly.

The rest of the meal passes much in the same way: Harry’s parents asking him questions and him internally panicking over what response is the least suspicious. At one point, Harry feels his phone buzz against his thigh, but knows better than to check it at the dinner table. It’s probably only the knowledge that Louis has at last responded to his text that gives Harry the fortitude to make it through dinner.

After he’s finished washing his dish and throwing away the pizza box, Harry flees to his bedroom and locks the door again, collapsing into bed with Mister Spots and breathing heavily like he’s just finished a long run. Harry pulls out his phone.

Louis: Sorry! Phone died on the train.

Louis: [heart-eye emoji] Adorable. Nice to finally put a face with the name

Louis: He’s faring much better than Chester [picture of Louis dangling a chocolate-smeared Chester by the leg between two fingers]

Harry stifles a giggle with his hand (and is promptly very glad he waited to open this message until he was by himself).

Harry: Brutal.

Louis: Not even been home a half hour yet. Daisy and Fiz were making brownies. Poor guy never stood a chance

Harry can’t suppress the smile that overtakes his face at the thought of Louis spending time with his younger sisters.

Louis: How’s being home?

That erases the smile from Harry’s face.

Harry: Brutal.

Louis: [sad emoji] Anything I can do to help?

Harry: Not really. About to start on IT Crowd, though.

Louis: Yesyesyes I expect regular updates on what episode you’re on

Harry: [thumbs up emoji]

In the time it takes for Harry to change into his pajamas, pull out his computer, and get set up on his bed for a viewing marathon with Mister Spots, Louis sends him two more pictures, the first of two grinning girls (who Harry takes to be Fiz and Daisy) with chocolate smudges all over their cheeks, the second of Louis’ arm, which is covered in a veritable mural of swirls and flowers and smiley faces—drawn in what appears to be ketchup and mustard.

Louis: They broke out the decorative icing and decided to give me a few new tattoos. Thoughts?

Harry is so done for. He feels positively awash in fondness for Louis, so much so that he doesn’t even know what to do with himself. If not for the thought of his parents, Harry’s face might split right in two from the big, stupid grin he’s got on right now.

Harry:  Definitely pulling it off.

Louis: Good to know. I’m their first guinea pig. They tried to do it on Lottie, but she wouldn’t go for it

Harry: They’re lucky to have you

Louis: *shrug* kind of hard to resist these faces [photo of Daisy and Fiz smiling so widely their eyes are crinkled shut]

Harry: You don’t have to keep texting me, you know. Enjoy time with your family.

It’s hard for Harry to send that one. He types it and deletes it twice before finally shooting it off. He knows he’s being stupid and needy again, and Louis should spend time with his sisters without having to worry about Harry, too. So far, Louis’ been what seems to Harry an endless source of reassurance and comfort and affirmation, but. What if Louis ends up resenting Harry for demanding so much and decides Harry isn’t worth it?

Harry’s heart leaps into his throat when he sees the little “…” that means Louis is typing his response.

Louis: I feel like we’ve been over this. Like, just yesterday. One of my best friends…worth time and attention…ringing any bells?

Harry hooks the cusp of his thumbnail behind his top front teeth.

Louis: Plus, without you who am I going to talk to all break? Them? [photo of either Fiz or Daisy now with decorative icing streaked through her hair]

Louis:  Seriously, Haz. You’re not getting rid of me that easily. I’m here whenever, ok?

Harry takes a deep breath. He tucks Mister Spots under his chin and types back Okay, before sending up his usual thank-you prayer for Louis, who is sure to be the only good thing that happens to him this week. 

Chapter Text

Harry can’t recall a period of five days ever passing so slowly. Louis keeps up his steady stream of text messages—mostly consisting of memes, photos of his sisters, and screenshots of messages from Liam freaking out about Zayn’s imminent arrival (My mom wants to make a welcome banner for him Lou my family is so embarrassing help). And even though Louis’ texts unfailingly bring a smile to Harry’s face, those good moods are fleeting. Mostly, Harry feels smothered.

He spends the majority of Wednesday in his room watching IT Crowd, but feels pressured out of the house when his mother pokes her head in the door around two p.m. to ask if he’s “going to do anything today.” Harry volunteers to run some errands for her, which takes him to the dry cleaner’s, the Goodwill donation center, the drug store, and the post office, but even when he’s checked everything off the to-do list, Harry still has some time before dinner. Following some brief internal debate over whether or not the he’s willing to risk running into someone he knows, Harry decides to make a stop at his old parish to sit in the Perpetual Adoration chapel.

Thankfully, no one else is in the chapel when Harry arrives. On the table next to the door sits a basket filled with rosaries, a neat stack of hymnals and Bibles, and two binders, which are filled with empty pages for parishioners to fill up: one with prayers of petition, the other with lists of prayers granted. Harry gathers up both binders and takes a seat in the back row of chairs (even when he’s the only one here, as in Mass, it just feels wrong to sit up front).

Harry opens the Prayers of Petition binder and flips through all the scribbled past prayers of his fellow parishioners to find an empty page. He removes the pen that’s stuck in the front pocket of the binder and pops off the cap. These notes are supposed to be anonymous, but anyone could pick up the binder—Harry’s parents, his youth minister, his priest, anyone—and see what he’s written, so it’s prudent to keep these things as vague as possible. Harry starts out with a simple Dear God, Please help me get through this week.

When Harry was in high school, he used to come to the chapel and write in this binder all the time—after church, after youth group meetings, random afternoons when he was feeling particularly anxious or alone. He knew that the pseudo-anonymity of the binder was dangerous, but sometimes he just needed to get out of his own head. A lot of his notes were the same desperate request, over and over again, like Please help me be the person you want me to be, or something similarly generic. He found it calming, akin to reciting a mantra or a repetitious prayer like the Rosary. Sometimes, if Harry reread his note at the end and feared he’d accidentally given himself away somehow, he’d simply remove his paper from the binder and throw it in the trash on his way out.

Harry squirms in his chair at the thought that the binder he’s writing in now is the same one he once used to pray away his gayness. If only his high school self knew how useless that all was.

Harry tries not to let himself speculate about the futility of his prayers now.

He closes the Prayers of Petition binder and opens up its Prayers Granted counterpart. This one, at least, is easy and painless to fill. Harry could go on for pages. He limits himself to a paragraph and uses fake names for everyone, and a short little blurb on a sheet of loose leaf doesn’t nearly do everyone back at school justice, but God gets the point.

After about twenty minutes, an elderly couple walks in and Harry takes his leave. It’s not that he isn’t glad other people are using the chapel, but silent, small places like this are comforting and peaceful pretty much exclusively when Harry’s alone. When he’s cramped in there with other people, he feels like even the sound of his breathing is a disturbance.

***

On Thursday, Harry wants to lend his mother a hand with all the cooking, but Harry’s step-dad is off work, so he doesn’t dare set foot in the kitchen. Instead, Harry flees the house again, citing some excuse about meeting up with old youth group friends for lunch before he has to go pick up his grandmother. What he really does is drive around for a while, park outside the local library, which is closed for the holiday, and call Louis. Louis, apparently, is trying to wrangle Daisy and Phoebe to help him bake a pumpkin pie. Harry hears a lot of chatter and banging of cookery in the background, and ends the call rather quickly. He knows Louis would continue talking to him for as long as Harry stayed on the line, but if Louis needs to hold the phone between his ear and shoulder to do so, Harry can take a hint.

On the half-hour drive over to his grandma’s place, Harry cranks the Top 40 station and sings along to each song he knows at the top of his lungs, just because he can.

If Harry thought his mom was pleased to see him, his grandmother is downright delighted. He hasn’t even pulled all the way into the driveway before she’s out the front door and hurrying as fast as Harry imagines it’s possible for an eighty-seven-year-old woman to hurry down the front sidewalk to meet him.

Harry doesn’t see Gran very often, mostly just on holidays. He loves his grandmother, sure. Likes her, even, the normal amount he supposes anyone likes their grandmother. But Harry also secretly appreciates how little time they get to spend with one another; this way, the novelty of seeing Harry doesn’t wear off, and his grandmother is not quite as critical of him as Harry’s parents are.

Nevertheless, it’s best not to let his guard down, even for a second.

“Hello, love,” his grandmother says as Harry bends at the waist to give her a hug.

“Hi, Gran,” Harry says, wrapping his arms loosely around her.

“Oh, come on, that’s not a real hug,” she chastises, and Harry smiles over her shoulder as he squeezes a little tighter. “That’s better. Now, let me get a good look at you.”

Harry stands back and holds his arms slightly away from his sides to display himself—in the slacks-and-a-pressed-shirt ensemble that, by now, feels like the uniform for the part he’s playing this week.

“You’re too thin,” is Gran’s verdict, as usual.

“You’re my grandmother. I think you have to say that,” Harry points out.

“Doesn’t make it untrue, does it?” she says. “Too thin.”

“Tell me that in three hours when I’ve eaten my weight in Thanksgiving food,” Harry says.

“You could eat twice your weight in Thanksgiving food and still be too thin,” his grandmother huffs.

Harry just shakes his head. “Come on. Mom’s going to have a conniption if we’re late to dinner.”

“I waited thirteen hours in labor for your mother, she can wait a few extra minutes for me,” Harry’s grandmother grumbles good-naturedly as he opens the car door for her, which makes Harry wrinkle his nose, but is the kind of thing Harry supposes you can get away with saying when you’re eighty-seven years old. “Here, help me get into this monstrosity.”

Harry takes his grandma’s elbow and helps her up into the passenger seat of the SUV before closing the door and rounding the front of the car.

“I can’t believe you’re driving,” Gran says as Harry backs out of the driveway, which is what she’s said every time she’s seen Harry drive in the past two years.

“Yup,” Harry says. “So grown up.”

His grandmother makes a noise of agreement. “And you’re away at school now, too. How is school? What are you studying?”

And so begins the process of fielding all the questions Harry had to answer for his mother on Tuesday night, and then some, because Harry hasn’t seen Gran since last spring and he has a lot to update her on—with the glaring omission of camp, because Harry doesn’t think his parents have told anyone about that, even Gran. Eventually, the conversation shifts away from classes and work and friends to whether or not Harry’s met any nice girls at school, and much as Harry likes his grandmother, by the time he pulls into his garage, he’s more than a little relieved to hand her off to his parents.

Harry’s mom looks a little frazzled when they walk into the kitchen, coming down the final stretch of several hours of dinner preparation. But she abandons her potato mashing momentarily to pull Gran in for a hug and find her a seat at the table so they can chat while Mom works. Harry, feeling satisfied that his job of delivering his grandmother to the house is complete, slinks back up to his room before his step-dad arrives in the kitchen. Harry hides out upstairs with Mister Spots and Black Books until his mother calls up the stairs that dinner is ready.

“There you are,” Gran says as Harry drops into the seat next to her at the table. “Was wondering where you’d disappeared off to.”

“Yeah, I had some, um, work to do,” Harry says, very purposefully not meeting his step-father’s eyes, because it’s rude to hide upstairs in your room when you have guests over, no matter how much you’d like to avoid conversation with your parents.

Harry is quiet during dinner while his parents and grandmother catch up. They primarily discuss topics about which Harry has no opinion—the retirement community Gran has been looking into because she’s tired of living alone in her condo, which various cousins are getting married or having babies, the merits of what was said by various candidates in latest GOP debate—so Harry sticks to quietly eating and listening. A couple of times, Harry’s grandmother attempts to rope him into the conversation, but having three pairs of potentially judgmental eyes on him rather than just two is a lot of pressure, and the most Harry can get out is a few clipped sentences before reverting to silence. Harry’s mother and step-father don’t seem overly concerned with making him talk; they’ve grown accustomed to his post-camp quiet demeanor.

Which would be all fine and good, except when Harry’s mom stands up to start clearing off the dinner plates to make room for dessert, Harry’s grandmother puts a hand on his wrist and says, “You’ve been so quiet, love.” She says it with a smile, but Harry can see the tightness at the corners of her eyes.

Harry shrugs. “Not much to say, I suppose,” he says, although even he can tell he’s not fooling anyone.

“You weren’t this quiet in the car earlier,” Gran points out, and Harry would like very much to dash back upstairs to his room and hide right about now.

There’s an uncomfortable silence, but then Harry’s step-dad surprisingly comes to the rescue by asking, “So, Mom, have they found a new pastor for St. Gertrude’s yet?” which prompts Gran to dish on all the latest updates in her parish’s search for a replacement pastor. The conversation carries them through dessert, and Harry has never been so grateful to his step-dad before.

After dinner, Harry agrees to drive his grandmother home again. Fortunately, she falls asleep about ten minutes into the ride, and Harry considers turning on the Top 40 station at low volume, but decides against it. Just in case. He nudges Gran awake when they arrive back at her condo, and he leads her to the door for their goodbye hug.

“I love you,” she tells him with an expression that can only be described as fervent, despite the air of drowsiness about her. “Take care of yourself. And you tell me if you ever need anything, understand?” She squeezes his hand.

“I will, Gran,” Harry says, trying for a smile, but feeling leaden with the suspicion that perhaps she wouldn’t love him quite as much if she knew the reason for his quietness today. “Love you, too.”

***

Harry’s mom is reading a book in the living room, apparently waiting up for him, when he returns from his grandmother’s. “You have been especially quiet this week,” she says before Harry even opens his mouth to say hello. “Are you feeling okay?”

“Yeah, of course,” he says, slouching against the door frame in what he hopes could be construed as a casual stance. He hides his twitching fingers in his jacket pockets.

His mother chews her lip.

“Seriously, Mom, I’m fine,” Harry says, and when she still doesn’t look convinced, he casts around in his mind for some idea of what a normal boy might do to get his mother off his back. Probably just stoically ignore the problem, or insist that he doesn’t need his mother’s help. He’s not a child; he’s a man who can handle his own problems. Right. Harry straightens up and crosses his arms, trying to look firm. He’s got this. “If you really need to know, I’m just stressed about some school stuff. I’m handling it, though. It’s fine.”

Harry’s mother, looking taken aback by his change of attitude, lets out a soft, “Oh.” She clears her throat. “Well, you could have said. And please don’t get yourself too worked up over that statistics class, okay? Do your best. That’s all we can ask of you.”

Harry’s stout posture deflates in the face of her moral support. “Okay. Thanks, Mom.” Harry considers leaning down to kiss her on the forehead, decides against it, and turns heel to make straight for his bedroom again.

Friday passes much in the same way as Wednesday. Except, Harry does spend an awkward morning with his mother in the living room, unable to contrive a believable excuse to leave the house. She sips tea while Harry nurses a cup of coffee (he would have preferred tea, but he thinks tea might be considered a girly beverage, so he sticks with a bitter cup of dark roast). Harry’s mom reads while he works on the computer—or at least, pretends to, while he texts Louis from behind his laptop screen.

Louis’ responses are few and far between, because Louis is currently at the mall suffering through Black Friday shopping with Lottie, who insisted she needed someone to tag team the brutal holiday sale rush with (If there is a hell, it looks a lot like the inside of this Macy’s right now, Louis writes at eleven a.m., with an attached photo of three middle-aged women engaged in combat over a handbag).

In his peripheral vision, Harry can see how his mother keeps glancing up at him before returning to her book, but he pretends not to notice. At one point, he considers meeting her eyes, because playing the quiet game kind of feels like holding his breath. But Harry reminds himself that given the choice between interaction with his parents and lack thereof, no interaction is always safer.

***

Harry’s parents decide to attend five o’clock Mass on Saturday evening because Harry’s bus back to school departs at noon on Sunday, and Harry’s mom says he needn’t wake up early for Mass before he leaves. “I know how you college boys love to sleep in,” she says, even though Harry’s sure she’s heard him up bright and early for his shower routine every day this week (one of the many things about Harry that the Styles family seems to have just collectively decided not to acknowledge).

So, five o’clock Mass. Harry hasn’t prayed so vigorously not to see someone since he made amends with Louis and Niall, but on the way to church, Harry fingers his prayer beads and asks God to please, please not let his old youth minister, Conor, or old youth group friends be at this Mass. Please.

Harry hasn’t seen Conor since he went away to camp—afterward, he found himself unable face the youth minister who had betrayed him, revealed Harry’s dirty secret to his parents and indirectly sent him packing for three weeks.

As for Harry’s youth group friends, he wasn’t sure who among them knew or strongly suspected why Harry was gone for most of June. He saw Amy and Eric a couple times over the course of July and August, but he felt almost light-headed with fear when he was in their presence, fraught with worry over how much they knew. He found he preferred Max’s company to theirs, anyway. Harry even took up attending the seven a.m. Sunday Mass for the rest of the summer, which was by and large attended by senior citizens, to avoid encountering anyone he knew (anyone who could do a mental before-and-after comparison of Harry pre- and post-camp, or would feel comfortable enough asking him probing questions).

Harry’s feelings of consternation peak as his step-dad pulls into a parking space outside the church. He follows his parents inside on stiff legs, hoping his face isn’t really as pale as his mother’s worried glances make him suspect that it is. Predictably, Harry’s step-dad leads them to a seat right in the front pew. He and Harry’s mother both lower themselves onto the kneeler and Harry follows suit, even though he can’t focus his attention enough to string together real prayer. Harry feels like he’s withering under the glare of the overhead lighting. There are so many people behind him, who can see him. Potentially people who know him. Harry snaps his rubber band. Snap. Snap. Snap.

“Harry,” his mother whispers sharply, turning to him and putting a finger over her lips before inclining her head again and closing her eyes.

Harry bites his lip and laces his fingers together. He wishes Louis were here. Not that Louis would ever voluntarily step foot in a Catholic church, probably, but still.

Harry almost cries with relief when they start the Introductory Rites. He sinks into the tide of the Mass’s repetitive motions and he doesn’t feel like he’s going to break under the weight of a congregation’s collective silence. Harry still feels itchy with the thought of eyes on him, but at least when people are singing or listening to a reading, he can tell himself that their attention is supposed to be directed elsewhere. At the Sign of Peace, as Harry hugs his mother and shakes hands with his step-father and the strangers in their immediate vicinity, Harry scopes out the rest of the nearby crowd for people he knows. He breathes a little more easily when he doesn’t spot any familiar faces. It’s a pretty big parish, he reasons. He was probably being paranoid.

Or not. Harry is so sure he’s in the clear when the closing hymn ends and he gets subsumed by the crowd flowing out of the main sanctuary and into the atrium. Harry is just dipping his fingers into the pool of holy water to cross himself with relief, when a hand closes over his shoulder. 
“Harry!”

Harry wheels around to find himself face-to-face with Conor, who looks just pleased as all get out to see Harry.

“Hi,” Harry says, breathily, as if the word’s been punched out of him. “I—hi.” He takes the hand Conor is holding out and tries to give it a firm handshake, even though his wrist feels about as firm as dead fish.

“How are you? It’s been ages.”

“Well, yeah. It’s. School, I mean.” Harry says, the communicative part of his brain apparently having been scrambled by anxiety. He clears his throat and snaps his rubber band. “Been away at school.”

“Right, right, but I didn’t see you at summer youth group, either,” Conor says, smile now uncomfortably wide.

“Yeah. I was gone, because of…” Harry makes a flimsy gesture with one hand. “And busy, when I got back.”

Conor has just opened his mouth to reply when Harry’s mother appears at his side. “Conor,” she greets, all smiles. “So good to see you.”

“Hi, Anne. Robin.” Conor nods to each of Harry’s parents. “Don’t normally run into you at the five o’clock.”

“We’re Sunday morning people, usually,” Harry’s mom says, “but Harry leaves tomorrow and we wanted to come as a family.”

Conor turns back to Harry, disappointment puckering his brow. “So soon? That’s too bad; it would have been nice to grab coffee and catch up.”

“Maybe when he’s in town for Christmas,” Harry’s mom suggests before Harry has a chance to stammer out a response. “He’s only got a few more weeks of school before he’s back home.”

Harry bites down on his lower lip hard to keep it from quivering.

“Awesome,” Conor enthuses. “Let’s plan for that then. I’ll email you, ‘kay, Harry?”

“Sure,” Harry says hoarsely, shaking Conor’s hand again, palm slick with sweat.

Harry shuffles out of the church with his mother and step-father, head down because the last time his parents spoke to Conor is assuredly fresh their minds now. Sure enough, as soon as they’re seated in the car with the doors shut and the heat blasting, Harry’s mom twists around in the passenger seat to say, “Oh, which reminds me, I need to give you your mail before you leave for campus again.”

Snap. “Okay,” Harry mumbles. With any luck, she’ll forget by the time they get home.

Harry’s never been particularly lucky, when it comes to his parents. He hasn’t even toed off his shoes in the mud room before his mother is off to the dining room to retrieve his mail. Harry’s step-father, fortunately, heads straight upstairs, presumably to change out of his church-wear, which leaves Harry alone to accept the small stack of letters his mother delivers to him. “Thanks,” he says, and waits for his mother to go away, but of course she just continues to hover. Harry knows what she’s waiting for. It’s either open the letter now, in front of her, or have her ask him about it later, possibly in front of his step-father.

Harry sighs and tears open the envelope with the cross-emblazoned stamp in the corner. He unfolds the letter, which turns out to be two pieces of paper: one identical copy of the correspondence he tore up a few days ago, and another handwritten note, which is not addressed to “Mr. Harry Styles,” but rather “Harry.” Just “Harry.” It’s also extremely brief. Harry’s mother leans over his shoulder to read.

Dear Harry,

Hope all is well with you during your first semester of college. I’m writing to follow-up on the camp director’s letter to you earlier this fall (additional copy enclosed here, in case there was a typo in the new mailing address we received from your parents). Kindly respond regarding this matter as soon as you can. We would value any insight or perspective a camp alum such as yourself could provide. And, of course, if you ever need anything, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.

Sincerely,

Fr. Robert

Harry is so distracted by sucking in ragged breaths that he hardly notices his mother sliding the copy of the director’s letter from between his fingers. Barely hears her say, “Oh, how nice” when she’s finished reading it.

Nice. Nice.

“You really should have replied,” Harry’s mother chides. “It’s rude not to give a prompt response to these sorts of requests.”

Harry nods numbly.

“Well, I think it’s just lovely that they’ve asked you to do this,” she continues. “They must really think the camp had a significant impact, if they’ve invited you to contribute to the website.” They must really think you’re fixed.

“Yeah,” Harry says, looking down at Father Robert’s small, neat script. The confirmation that no, this isn’t going to go away if Harry simply ignores it.

“You can write it on your bus ride back to school tomorrow,” his mother is saying now, apparently oblivious to the fact that Harry feels like he’s about to crumble into a billion tiny pieces. He needs to get upstairs, alone, now.

“Yeah,” he repeats, clumsily kicking off his shoes and removing the paper from his mother’s grasp. “I will.”

Harry just barely restrains himself from sprinting up to his room, where he closes and locks the door behind him. With trembling fingers, Harry reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone. He’s on the verge of calling Louis when it occurs to Harry that both of his parents are within earshot, should they decide to wander down the hall toward his room. Harry casts a desperate look around, and his eyes land on the stereo on his desk. He turns it on, sets it to K-Love, and dials the volume up as loud as he can go without the risk of rousing suspicion (or irritation) from his parents. Then Harry gathers up Mister Spots, opens his closet door, and folds himself up in the corner, tugging old shoes out from under his butt and shoving a hanging pair of pants out of his face. It’s small and pretty uncomfortable, but it’s safe and crudely soundproof.

Harry unlocks his phone, relieved that the muscles in his hands have mostly ceased their nervous spasms, and texts Louis.

Harry: Are you busy right now?

Mid-nervous-breakdown as he is, Harry doesn’t want to call if Louis is in the middle of something or around other people.

Louis’ reply is almost instantaneous.

Louis: What’s up?

Harry yanks his hair. Weirdly touching as it is that Louis seems to know something urgent is up, simply from that one text, his reply doesn’t really answer Harry’s question. Is it safe to call Louis, or not? Should Harry take the risk and call anyway? Maybe Harry should just try to ride this one out by himself. His heart rate has already slowed (incrementally) since he closed himself in here. Besides, if Harry calls, that’ll make two times in the past week that Harry has summoned Louis to see him through a minor panic attack. Harry would really not like to make this a thing, become that friend who’s so emotionally needy—

Dear God Louis is calling him. Harry has to answer, of course he does; Louis knows Harry has his phone within reach.

Harry can’t say he’s not relieved to have this decision made for him. He presses answer and lifts the phone to his ear. “Hi, Lou.” He cringes at how shakily the words come out.


“Hey. What’s up?”

It’s a loaded question that Harry doesn’t know how to answer, even though he’s the one who initiated this conversation. What’s more, Harry is momentarily distracted by something: it’s the first time he’s heard Louis’ voice this week without the background clamor of family members. “It’s so quiet,” Harry says. “On your end. Where is everyone?”

Louis chuckles. “I know, right? The girls are out at a movie with Mom and Mark, so I’ve got the house all to myself.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. So, you needed to talk?”

Harry doesn’t recall explicitly stating that, but, “Yeah—I.” God, and now Harry is thinking about the letter again and the pain and the shame all comes back in a torrent. Harry jerks his fistful of hair so violently that he actually whimpers into the phone.

“Haz?” Louis says urgently. “Harry, what’s wrong?”

“Sorry,” Harry says miserably, without a clue as to what he’s apologizing for.

“What? No,” Louis says, just as confused. “You don’t have anything to be sorry for.”

Harry doesn’t know when this lump in his throat got here, but it’s making it damn near impossible to respond to Louis. He sniffles.

“Haz,” Louis says again, levelly this time. “It’s okay, take your time.”

Harry swallows. “I’m sorry,” he says again, “I don’t mean to be so—I’m sorry I’m like this. I don’t—I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Harry,” Louis says, sounding wrecked, “shh, ba—Haz, don’t be sorry. You don’t have to be sorry for this. I’m right here, and I’m not going anywhere.”

God, how Harry wishes Louis were actually right here. “Thank you.”

“Of course. I mean, this week has probably been all kinds of stressful, right?”

Harry fails to suppress a sob and nods even though Louis can’t see him. He gets out a watery, “Yeah,” and sniffs again. “I just want to go home.” It’s not until the words are out of his mouth that Harry realizes how true they are; school is home, now. School means Louis and Zayn and Liam and Niall. School means safety.

“Yeah,” Louis echoes. “I know. But I’m gonna stay on the phone with you for as long as you want. All right?”

“’kay,” Harry agrees, wiping his nose on his sleeve.

“And we’ll see each other tomorrow,” Louis continues. “My train gets in at eleven. When you’re back, I’ll bring you over to my place and we can watch TV and order food and veg out. Sound good?”

“Mmm-hmm,” Harry says. “Please.” 


“Excellent.”

In the several moments that follow, during which neither of them says anything, Harry focuses on the faint sounds of Louis breathing into the phone speaker. He knows that Louis is waiting for him to bring up whatever he wanted to talk about, but isn’t going to press.

Harry sighs. “D’you remember,” he starts, even though he knows Louis does, “that night you came over to my dorm to get me, because we were gonna watch Halloweentown?”

Louis makes an affirmative noise.

“I was—I was upset because of this letter. That the camp sent to me.” When Louis doesn’t say anything, Harry forges ahead, “They want me to write a…a thing for their website. About my, um, experience? Or something. And I don’t. Louis, I can’t write that.” Harry feels stupid dissolving into tears again but it happens anyway.

“No, no of course you can’t,” Louis says, in the gentlest, most soothing voice Harry has ever heard him use. “What a horrible thing to ask you to do. Those bastards,” Louis spits, all semblance of gentleness gone.

Harry would not have expected foul language to make him feel better…but it kind of does. A tiny bit. At least, to have someone so angry on his behalf. Someone who implicitly gets why this isn’t okay—why he isn’t okay. That’s nice. “Yeah,” Harry manages, “and when I didn’t respond to that letter they sent another one to my house, so now my mom knows, and if I don’t write one then my parents will be mad at me because they’ll know I’m not fixed—”

“Hey,” Louis cuts in sharply. “You weren’t broken.”

Harry’s so caught off guard by the forcefulness of this statement that he stops crying.

“We’ll figure something out about this letter business. You’re not going to write anything for their fucking website,” Louis continues with just as much certainty.

“But Mom saw Father Robert’s note—”

“I don’t care,” Louis says brashly. “We’ll figure this out, Harry. Okay?”

“Okay,” Harry mumbles, because what else can he say?

There’s a pause. Then, “Who’s Father Robert?” Louis wants to know.

“Oh. Um, he’s the one who sent the…the follow-up letter. To my house. At camp, he was my counselor. Like, I had one-on-one sessions with him where I’d have to talk about my, um. Urges. And he would help me figure out ways not to…feel like that, anymore. It was like this cross between Confession and therapy, I guess.”

“That’s…” Louis begins, but apparently cannot contrive the proper word to express what, exactly, he feels about that. It does sound rather weird, now that Harry’s heard himself say it out loud, doesn’t it? When Harry was going through it, all he could focus on was his own hurt and humiliation. When it was over, all Harry wanted was to put the whole business behind him, so he never quite took stock of the strangeness of it all.

“I felt so dirty,” Harry discloses in barely more than a whisper.

“You are not, and have never been ‘dirty,’” Louis bites out.

“I know,” Harry murmurs, because he does, now, but that doesn’t change the way he felt.

A few moments of silence pass. “I feel so fucking useless every time I say this,” Louis says, sounding weary, “but I’m sorry, Harry. I’m so, so sorry.”

Harry tips his head so that his temple rests against the wall and gathers Mister Spots up closer under his chin. “Thanks. For that, and for…everything.”

“For you, Haz? Any time. Literally, any time.”

***

Harry hides out in his room, pretending to still be asleep, until nearly eleven-thirty on Sunday morning, so as to minimize the stretch of time he has to spend around his parents. By the time he arrives in the kitchen with a packed bag (where Mister Spots is hidden under several layers of folded clothes), Harry’s mother says they need to get a move on or he’ll miss his bus. From there, it’s a flurry of yanking on coats and calling goodbye to Harry’s step-father and pulling out of the driveway (with Harry already turning on the radio so his mother won’t feel obliged to fill the silence between them). Maybe she chalks it up to the fact that he just recently awoke, or maybe she takes a hint from the rest of the week, but Harry’s mother just lets him be subdued for the entire car ride.

Harry’s never been so relieved to get on a bus before. About halfway into the trip, Louis texts Harry a picture that shows his socked feet propped up on the coffee table in front of a TV playing what looks like Loony Tunes.

Louis: Good to be back. When does your bus get in??

Harry: About an hour.

Louis: [confetti emoji] Nice. Niall’s already back [picture of Niall slouched in Liam’s armchair, cradling a family-size bag of Doritos on his lap] Liam and Zayn should be home round 4.

Harry: So excited to see everyone [smiley-face emoji]

Louis: But mostly me, right? [winking emoji]

Harry can’t help but blush, even though he knows Louis is teasing in a platonic way, because Louis has no idea how right he is.

Harry: Mostly Chester, actually.

Louis: Outranked by a stuffed bear. Ouch

Harry giggles, and then casts a paranoid look around at his neighboring passengers to see if anyone heard that, but no one is paying him the slightest bit of attention.

Louis: Chester is indeed the bomb, but trust me, you’re more excited to see me

Harry: Why?

Louis: I have a surprise for you

Harry frowns.

Harry: What is it?

Louis: …do you not know how surprises work?

Harry: All right, all right. It better be good.

Louis: Who are you talking to? Of course it’s fucking good. O ye of little faith, Harold. *shakes head*

Harry: I’m kidding.

Louis: I know [smiley-face emoji] Text me when you’re back at your place/unpacked/etc and I’ll swing by to get you

Harry: Ok.

Harry pockets his phone and tips his head against the window, once again unable to stop smiling because of Louis Tomlinson.

As soon as Harry’s home, he shoots Louis a message and begins to unpack to the soundtrack of Frozen. He’s giddy with relief to be back in his dorm room, alone, imminently heading over to Louis’. Harry still hasn’t figured out what the hell he’s going to do about the whole letters-from-camp business, but he trusts Louis. If Louis says they’ll find a way out of this, then they will. It’s all going to be okay. In the meantime, Harry is out of the house and away from his parents. He’s going to let himself enjoy this afternoon, at least.

Harry practically flies down the stairs to open the door for Louis when he texts to announce his arrival.

“Hel—oomph,” Louis says as soon as he steps inside, greeting cut off by the force of Harry smothering him with a hug. “Hello,” Louis tries again when he’s steadied himself and his arms are wrapped around Harry’s shoulders. Harry can hear the smile in his voice.

“Hi,” Harry says into Louis’ shoulder.

“Knew you’d be most excited to see me,” Louis says smugly, reaching up with one hand to cup the back of Harry’s head.

“I am,” Harry says as he regretfully releases Louis and takes a step back. His eyes catch on a paper shopping bag discarded at Louis’ feet. “Is that the surprise?” He tries to peer inside, but the bag’s contents are obscured by tissue paper.

“Yes. I’ll show it to you upstairs.”

“Okay,” Harry agrees happily, leading Louis up to his room. “How was the rest of your break? Besides, y’know.” Harry gesticulates vaguely to indicate last night and refuses to meet Louis’ eyes.

“Pretty good,” Louis says. “Not too eventful. Saw some relatives on Thanksgiving, hung out with the sisters, nearly got stampeded by rampant holiday shoppers. You saw the texts.”

“No high school friends you wanted to see?” Harry asks. “Or…Matt?” He thinks that was the friend’s name, right?

“Nah,” Louis says, removing his shoes as soon as he’s inside Harry’s room. “There are still a few theater people I keep in touch with, but if Facebook is any indication, I probably wouldn’t enjoy getting together with most of the people I hung around in high school. As for Matt, we had a falling-out a while ago, so.”

“Oh, sorry,” Harry says, wincing. “I didn’t mean to—”

“Haz,” Louis says, in what Harry is coming to recognize as Louis’ Reassuring Harry Voice, “that was, like, seven years ago. Swear I’m not torn up about it anymore.”

Harry is curious about what could possibly have happened between Louis and Matt that would have ruined a friendship that withstood the pizza puking incident, but he doesn’t ask. “My surprise?” he prompts.

“Impatient,” Louis observes with a smirk, but hands over the bag anyway. “I saw these when I was out shopping with Lottie and thought of you.”

Harry’s mouth opens in a silent “o” as he withdraws the bunch of brightly colored folded fabric from the bag, which turns out to be two paisley t-shirts. What even...

“That one’s for you,” Louis says, indicating the shirt with the blue-green color scheme. “I know it’s not a Hawaiian shirt, but I saw it and was like, Harry could definitely pull this off, no question. And I got one too, so we could match.” Louis takes the orange and red shirt, which is almost loud in its vibrancy, and holds it up to his chest. “What d’you think?”

What does Harry think? He doesn’t even—how—this is the best, most wonderful—Louis is the best, most wonderful—“It’s perfect,” Harry breathes, running his fingers over the soft fabric of his shirt reverently. “Thank you.”

“No problem,” Louis says blithely, but his smile is a dead-giveaway for how thrilled he is that Harry likes the gift.

Harry doesn’t know whether it’s the fact that he hasn’t been able to properly hug anyone besides his grandmother in almost a week and is therefore feeling especially touchy-feely, or because he’s almost bursting with affection for Louis right now, but Harry wraps Louis up in his second hug in as many minutes. “Thank you,” he says again. “Lemme go put it on.”

“Right now?” Louis says, looking pleased.

Harry nods. “Was gonna get out of these clothes anyway,” he says, plucking at his button-up.

Harry turns away briefly to rummage around in his dresser drawer for a pair of jeans, and when he looks back up, he nearly chokes on his own tongue at the sight of a shirtless Louis. Lucky for Harry, Louis is distracted with pulling his own paisley shirt over his head, and so does not see Harry’s bug-eyed expression, or the way his gaze lingers on Louis’ torso-full of tattoos. When Louis yanks the shirt over his head and glances expectantly over at Harry, Harry squeaks out a “bathroom” and hurries off to change (and collect himself).

Harry emerges a few minutes later, donning his new shirt, to find Louis sitting on his bed. Louis’ easily the brightest, most beautiful thing in Harry’s white-walled, spick-and-span room, and when he says, “Ready to go?” his smile makes Harry’s stomach turn over.

“Yeah,” Harry says, following Louis out of the room.

Louis waits patiently while Harry goes through his locking procedure, and as soon as they’re settled in Niall’s car, Louis says, “I have it on good authority that you’re a fan of Grease?”

“Yeah. I downloaded the sheet music for ‘Summer Nights’ right before break,” Harry says.

Louis turns to give Harry a look that is so endeared that Harry’s heart is liable to beat right out of his chest. “Of course you did,” Louis says after a few seconds, almost to himself. He shakes his head and turns on the radio, plugging the auxiliary cord into his phone. “So you won’t mind, then, if we blast the soundtrack on the way back to my place.”

“Not even a little,” Harry says as “You’re the One That I Want” comes over the speakers. Louis is not kidding about blasting it, either, and it’s not long before they’re both belting out the lyrics with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. If it weren’t twenty degrees outside, Harry would roll down his window.

As soon as the song ends, Louis hands his phone over to Harry and says, a little breathlessly, “You pick next.”

“Okay,” Harry says, and scrolls down to “Rock N’ Roll Is Here To Stay.”

Yes,” Louis enthuses when he hears the beginning of the song, and reaches over to take the phone back from Harry and crank the volume up even further. Their fingers brush fleetingly in the hand off, and suddenly Harry’s body feels hot all over. He glances at Louis, who’s smiling so wide his cheeks must hurt, hands drumming on the steering wheel to the beat of the song, and it hits Harry, like really hits him for the first time, how gone he is for this boy. And not just in the “oh, I’m attracted to you, and maybe in a perfect world that would lead to something, but if I just ignore those feelings everything will be okay” way he has been since they first started hanging out. More like “oh, I’m attracted to you, and if that doesn’t lead to something, things won’t be okay.” It’s a weird tipping point that Harry’s never experienced before, and it’s perturbing, to say the least.

Even worse is the fact that this sort of uncharted territory is normally the kind of thing that would send him running to Louis for help, but obviously that’s hardly an option. So...that leaves Zayn. Yeah, Zayn will know what to do.

Chapter Text

Harry Styles is a total cuddle-bug.

Of course, Louis had some sense of this before today, on account of the whole Harry-cuddling-Chester business that still makes Louis’ heart squeeze every time he thinks about it. And, more notably, Harry’s blatant desire for physical contact on the night he came out to Louis, as well as last Monday. So, yeah, Louis knows that Harry likes to be close to people—or at least, close to Louis (Louis’ heart needs to chill the fuck out with the palpitations, please). But that desire has hitherto seemed like something Harry tries to suppress, for obvious reasons, except in situations of emotional distress.

It’s this thought, more than anything else, that makes Louis realize just how much the trip home wore on Harry.

The thing is, Harry has been plastered to Louis’ side practically since they stepped into his apartment. By the time they arrived, Niall had spirited himself away to god knows where—although if Louis had to guess, he’d say Josh had probably returned to campus. Louis took one look at the place and could have smacked himself on the forehead for forgetting to straighten up before going to collect Harry (it’s got to be some sort of superpower, this ability he and Niall have to ravage the place in the short time they’re left without Liam’s supervision).

“You don’t have to,” Harry said, lingering by the door while Louis clipped Niall’s discarded Doritos bag and put it back in the pantry.

“It’s no problem,” Louis said, clearing his own dirty dishes from breakfast off the coffee table. “Liam’ll lecture us when he gets home anyway, if we leave it in this state.”

“Oh, okay then,” Harry said, and Louis returned from the kitchen to find Harry folding up a blanket and laying it over the back of the couch.

“No, I didn’t mean ‘we’ as in you and me, I meant me and Nialler,” Louis clarified, feeling like an asshole. “Sorry. You don’t have to pick up after us, Haz.”

“It’s no problem,” Harry said, smiling at the opportunity to use Louis’ own words against him. “I don’t want to sit through a Liam lecture, either.”

“Okay, okay,” Louis relented, figuring that Harry would have, like, a black belt in cleaning, if such things existed, so the tidying up might go faster if he helped. (It did.) By the time Louis sat down on the couch to survey their work with satisfaction, Harry was right back at his side—not that there’s ever much space to put between them on the two-cushion couch, anyway, but Harry flopped down so that his left arm is pressed flush up against Louis’ right.

Man, and Louis thought he was getting spoiled with those two hugs earlier.

“What do you wanna watch?” Harry asked, turning to look at Louis with his eyebrows pinched in a hesitant expression, which Louis thought might be code for Is this okay?

“Whatever you want,” Louis said, patting Harry on his rubber-banded wrist.

Louis felt Harry relax marginally as he suggested, “Black Books?” and Louis gave a nod of approval.

Harry hasn’t so much as budged since. Louis is definitely not complaining, but Harry’s need for closeness is a bit concerning, given that all past experience seems to indicate a positive correlation between Harry’s sadness and his snuggliness. Louis doesn’t know how to address that concern, though. He certainly isn’t going to mention this past week to Harry, because Louis is not stupid enough to spoil a perfectly lovely afternoon with that conversation. Plus, if Harry wants to talk about it, he will. For now, Louis can just be here, if that’s what Harry wants (and that seems to be what Harry wants). Louis is just glad the university is still technically closed for break today, which means no late-night shift at the front desk, which means Harry can get some much-needed R&R.

Liam and Zayn roll in a few minutes to four, because even when it comes to holiday road trips, Liam is his usual punctual self. When they burst in the front door, all winter coats and roller suitcases and energy released from the confines of a minivan for the first time in three hours, Harry starts to peel himself away from Louis’ side, like he’s not sure if he’s allowed to be there anymore. Louis is having none of that. “Welcome back, gentlemen,” Louis says as he drapes an arm over Harry’s shoulder to pull him back in. To Louis’ relief, Harry comes willingly. Louis does not withdraw his arm.

“Hey,” Liam says, relieving Zayn of his bag and going to deposit their luggage in the bedroom. Zayn takes a seat on the edge of Liam’s armchair, looks back and forth between Louis and Harry, and smirks. Louis wishes he wouldn’t; he’s going to make Harry uncomfortable.

Fortunately, Harry doesn’t seem too bothered to go anywhere, now that he’s bracketed in by Louis’ arm. Louis is also pleasantly surprised when Liam returns from the bedroom to lean against the arm of his chair, resting his hand across the back of Zayn’s neck, and gives Harry a warm smile—a smile that Harry returns readily enough, without so much as stiffening. Louis tentatively takes this to mean Harry has forgiven Liam for being an accomplice in the camp email conspiracy.

Louis is back on guard, though, the second he catches sight of Liam squinting at their shirts, and Liam says, “Wow, those are—”

“Awesome? Yeah, we know,” Louis says, sweeping his hair out of his eyes. “Try to contain your jealousy.”

“I like them,” Zayn says, which makes Louis forgive him a bit for the playful smile he’s still wearing.

Liam, Apartment Mom that he is, promptly snaps a picture of Louis and Harry in their matching tops with his phone. “Nice,” he says, inspecting the photo before turning to the TV. “What are we watching?”

Black Books,” Harry says, just as the credits start to roll. “Or, we were. We could watch something else, if…?”

“No, this is good,” Liam says, settling on the floor next to Zayn’s feet. He looks up at Zayn. “Have you seen this?” Zayn shakes his head, and Liam turns to Harry. “Can we go back to the first one?”

“Sure,” Harry says, looking to Louis for confirmation.

“Sure,” Louis echoes, giving Harry’s shoulder a light squeeze and scrolling back through the episodes.

They don’t make it very far into the pilot; Manny’s just swallowed The Little Book of Calm when Niall and Josh traipse in with big smiles and flushed cheeks. “It’s snowing out there!” Niall announces, exuding the unbridled joy with which someone else their age might announce that finals have been cancelled. Louis watches with fond amusement as Liam scrambles over to the window and rips back the curtains to see that there is indeed snow coming down outside. Zayn follows Liam over to press his nose against the window. Harry cranes his neck to peer out at the flurry too, but seems to have no interest in removing himself from Louis’ embrace.

“Cool shirts,” Josh says, nodding at Harry and Louis as he unwraps a scarf from around his neck.

“Thanks,” Louis says, eyeing Niall suspiciously as his roommate gives Harry and Louis an assessing look. Louis swears to god, if Niall says one thing to make Harry feel—

“Harry wore it better,” is what Niall finally says. Shouldn’t have doubted Niall.

Louis flips him off but doesn’t deny it. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Harry inclining his head in an unsuccessful attempt to conceal the fact that he’s beaming.

***

By the time midnight rolls around, Harry is in no mood to go home, but he thinks he might have overstayed his welcome—this based on the fact that Louis is currently asleep next to him, head on Harry’s shoulder, as he has been for the entire last episode of Psych.

Harry should not be freaking out, because he knows for a fact that Louis has absolutely no qualms about friends falling asleep on one another, but—but this isn’t the middle of the afternoon. Harry cannot necessarily expect Louis to wake up after a brief power nap. Should Harry wake him? Would that be rude? He’s getting rather sleepy himself, but he also can’t deny the pleasure that fizzles in his gut at the feeling of Louis pressed against him. Is that creepy? Is Harry being a creep, indulging his crush on Louis while Louis is unconscious, unsuspecting?

It would be super convenient if someone else would swoop in to provide counsel on how to proceed—hint hint, God—but Liam and Zayn, Niall and Josh retreated into their respective rooms about an hour ago.

Around twelve-fifteen, Louis snuffles in his sleep and turns to nuzzle his face deeper into Harry’s shoulder, and if Harry doesn’t do something now, he’ll surely be here until morning.

“Lou,” Harry whispers, poking Louis in the shoulder. “Louis.”

A soft “mmmph,” is all the response Harry gets.

“Louis,” Harry repeats, a little louder now, and gives a small shrug to jostle Louis’ head.

Fortunately—or unfortunately, Harry can’t decide—that wakes Louis up. Louis blinks sleepily before he glances up at Harry, cheek still pillowed on Harry’s shoulder. “Sorry for falling asleep,” Louis says, the end of his sentence distorted by a yawn. “Time s’it?”

“Almost twelve-twenty,” Harry says.

“Oh, shit. You need to get home?” Louis sits up and Harry feels a little empty at the loss of contact.

“Probably,” he says, heart already sinking at the thought of going home to his empty dorm room.

Louis, seeming to sense his reluctance, gives Harry’s hand a squeeze. “You could crash here,” he offers, gesturing to the couch. “You’re going to breakfast with Zayn in the morning anyway, right?”

“Yeah,” Harry says, considering it for a moment, “but, showering. And my backpack and stuff.”

“Logistics,” Louis agrees sullenly. “Okay. Lemme go swipe Niall’s keys and I’ll take you back to yours.”

“’kay.”

***

Outside, snow is still falling. It’s quiet in the parking lot, save for the sound of the snowplow trundling down Louis’ street.

“Love the snow,” Louis says, tipping his head and sticking his tongue out.

“What are you doing?” Harry says, trying not to chuckle at Louis’ expense but unable to resist.

“Trying to catch the snow in my mouth,” Louis says, turning to face Harry incredulously. “You’ve never tried to eat the snow before?”

“No,” Harry says. “Why don’t you just get some off the ground?” He waves his arms to indicate the thin mantle of snow now covering the apartment building’s small lawn.

“Where’s the fun in that?” Louis demands.

“Where’s the fun in straining your neck to catch maybe one snowflake?” Harry counters.

“You’re absurd, and I’m far too sleepy to be having this argument right now,” Louis says, tilting his head back again and opening his mouth like a baby bird.

“Not exactly what you want to hear from the person about to drive you somewhere,” Harry says as he makes his way to the passenger side of the car.

“Don’t worry, Curly, I’ll be perfectly safe,” Louis says, unlocking the car doors and grinning at Harry across the hood. “Precious cargo.”

That does… something weird to Harry’s heart, and Harry climbs into the passenger seat before Louis can catch sight of the bemused-slash-delighted expression Harry’s sure just took over his face.

***

At home, Harry strips off his jeans and pulls on a pair of pajama pants, but decides to keep on the paisley shirt, for reasons he cannot quite articulate even to himself. He’s just retrieved Mister Spots from his suitcase and climbed into bed when he finds something soft strewn across his pillow. Oh. That’s Louis’ shirt from earlier. Harry should text Louis to remind him that he left it here.

He will. But Louis is probably most of the way home by now. No use in calling him back to get it tonight. In the meantime…Harry bunches up the shirt and presses his nose against the fabric, inhaling Louis’ now-familiar scent.

As he falls asleep, Harry wonders fleetingly whether he’s being a creep again, and comes to the half-conscious conclusion that yes, probably, but at least he’s being a creep in the privacy of his own home.

Breakfast with Zayn cannot come soon enough.

***

“What’s up with you this morning?” Zayn says the moment he’s set his plate of toast down on the table.

Harry startles and looks up from the bowl of cereal that he realizes he’s been staring at rather intently for the last two minutes, trying to contrive a strategy to steer the conversation toward Louis so that Harry can bring up his, er, quandary.

“What? Nothing.”

This, apparently, was the wrong thing to say, because Zayn’s eyes narrow as he drops into his seat.

Harry sighs and sets down his spoon. “Can I ask you about something?”

“Obviously,” Zayn says, buttering his toast without taking his eyes off Harry. It’s a little disconcerting.

Harry averts his own eyes to his lap. How to even begin? “I have a…” Is it a problem? Harry considers. It’s definitely a problem in the sense that Louis keeps doing things to make Harry feel like all his innards have transformed into melted chocolate, or something, because that’s a rather distracting way to feel. And that even though Harry has free reign to hug Louis and sit next to him and even fall asleep on him, Harry still selfishly wants more, all the time. And that Harry would like to be around Louis all the time, just in general. And that he still thinks about going to the movies with Ariana, sometimes, and wonders what it would have been like to go with Louis instead. And that cuddling with Louis’ shirts like some sort of pathetic perv hardly seems like the healthiest outlet for his…crush.

It’s also a problem in the sense that Louis is still Louis, with all his carefree confidence and all-around wonderfulness and attractiveness and, yes, romantic and sexual experience. None of which Harry can match by a long shot. So, morale is not high when Harry contemplates the likelihood that his feelings—even if he divulged them to Louis—would ever be reciprocated.

Also, there remains the not insubstantial obstacle of Harry being, as far as anyone outside his immediate friend group is concerned, heterosexual. Harry doesn’t know whether he’d even have the guts to pursue a relationship with a guy, for fear that it might somehow get back to his parents.

Harry is so far out of his depth it’s almost funny—in a if-I-don’t-laugh-I’ll-cry sort of way.

All the while Harry steadily drives himself mad with angst, Zayn continues to watch him expectantly. Harry decides to ease into it all by saying, “It’s about liking…someone. Like, like liking someone.” Harry cringes at his terminology; what is he, in middle school?

“Okay,” Zayn says, unfazed.

Harry finds himself stalled out, unable to just come out with it, so he grasps for another point of entry to the conversation. “So…you really like Liam, right?”

Zayn looks momently caught off guard, but composes himself quickly and nods. “Yeah, I do.” He lets out a short chuckle. “More than I’ve ever liked anyone, I think.”

“Is that, um, scary?” It’s just…Harry needs to know if he’s the only one who’s felt like this.

Zayn purses his lips in contemplation. “Yes and no,” he decides. “When I’m inside my own head, by myself thinking about it? Sometimes. When I’m around Liam? Not even a little bit.”

Harry wonders how that feels. Liking people, for Harry, has never been anything but scary. At least, though, Zayn is scared sometimes, so he’ll have some idea of where Harry is coming from. He’ll understand why Harry’s having trouble. Maybe.

“So, I like someone,” Harry continues, steadfastly ignoring the fact that his face feels so hot he wouldn’t be surprised if he spontaneously combusted any moment, “and I’m…scared. And not sure how to…deal with it.”

“What, like how to tell the person?” Zayn asks, head tilted slightly to the side.

“No,” Harry says quickly. “I don’t—I don’t necessarily—um.” Harry exhales heavily in frustration. “You can’t tell anyone. Please.”

“I won’t,” Zayn says immediately.

Harry hesitates.

“Harry.” Zayn fixes Harry with a solemn expression. “I won’t tell anyone. You—you can tear up all the sketches in my studio, if I do.” Harry is slightly bowled over by how serious he sounds.

Harry scrutinizes Zayn for another moment before murmuring, “Okay. It’s, um. It’s Louis. I like Louis.”

“I know.”

Harry leans back in his chair, away from Zayn. He blinks, opens his mouth, closes it, and opens it again to croak out, “You know? How?”

“Because I’m not stupid,” Zayn deadpans.

Harry slumps in his chair. Is he that obvious? Of course he is. Every personal, embarrassing thing about Harry is so obvious to everyone, always—

“Harry,” Zayn says, leaning across the table to reclaim Harry’s attention, “relax.”

Harry draws in a breath and pushes it out. “Does…do you think Louis knows?”

Zayn shrugs and goes back to slathering his toast with butter. “I dunno. Does it matter? You’re trying to figure out how tell him, right? That’s why we’re having this conversation.”

“Uh,” Harry hedges, “I’m not sure…I don’t necessarily know if I want to tell him?”

Zayn stops mid-buttering and puts down his knife. “What?”

Harry shrugs, feeling small under Zayn’s harsh gaze.

“Then what did you mean, about how to ‘deal with it?’”

“Well,” Harry says, still eyeing Zayn warily, “like…I’ve never let myself like someone long enough for it to get this bad, I guess.” ‘Bad’ was evidently the wrong word to use, because Zayn’s frown deepens. “So I don’t know whether I could—or get myself to—”

“I’m sorry,” Zayn interrupts, sounding not at all sorry, “were you about to ask me for advice on how to get yourself not to feel a certain way?” Zayn lifts his hands, palms up, and raises his eyebrows. “Dude. Seriously?”

Harry buries his face in his hands. “Okay,” he concedes, “but then, how else do I deal? I can’t just tell him.”

“Why not?”

Harry lifts his head to fix Zayn with an incredulous look. Zayn, for his part, looks honestly confused as to why this is a problem. Bless him. “Because…because that would ruin everything,” Harry says.

“How?”

Harry does not kick Zayn under the table, but it takes just about all his self restraint not to do so. “Because,” Harry explains, “if he doesn’t like me back, that will make everything, you know. Weird. What if he doesn’t want to be around me anymore?” The thought of losing Louis is unbearable.

“Moot point,” Zayn declares, resuming the buttering of his toast, “because he does like you back.”

Harry can’t tell whether Zayn is messing with him, because what. “What?”

“Yeah,” Zayn says with resolute certainty.

“How do you know?” Harry demands, still unable to believe it.

“Because I’m not stupid,” Zayn says again, flashing Harry a smile that Harry has no hope of returning.

Harry shakes his head. “That’s…I don’t think Louis likes me.”

“Why not?”

Why would he? Harry thinks miserably, but because he doesn’t want to start a pity party for himself at the breakfast table, he says, “I feel like, if Louis liked me—if he liked me,” Harry feels it bears repeating, “he isn’t the kind of person to keep it to himself.” Harry’s mind drifts to Louis and Callum, and his heart feels even heavier than before.

“Dude, you just came out to him, like, two weeks ago,” Zayn points out. “He could hardly tell you before that. And then for a week after you guys weren’t on speaking terms, and then everyone went home for break.” Zayn shrugs. “Not a lot of time to pencil in grand romantic declarations.”

“Don’t say that,” Harry mumbles, balling up his hands and shoving them into his lap, shoulders hunched. He doesn’t want to get his hopes up, and with every word Zayn says, he’s getting dangerously closer to doing just that. Already, some small fledgling hope is burgeoning inside him: Wasn’t this part of the whole reason he came out to Louis in the first place, to open the door for their friendship potentially becoming more, someday?

Yes, but that was all hypotheticals and daydreams. This is today and terrifying.

“I think you should tell him,” Zayn says, and before Harry can protest, continues, “because whether you choose to believe me about this or not, you won’t really know until you talk to Louis. And I don’t think he’s going to be the one to bring it up, if only because he doesn’t want to scare you off.”

“Scare me off?” Harry says, because for a split second, the possibility that Louis might be concerned about losing Harry seems utterly ridiculous, because Louis is—Louis is everything. And then, of course, Harry recalls that he’s the one who was spitting homophobic slurs at Niall in August, who only recently went to his first Spectrum meeting, who called Louis crying over break because he was so paranoid about his parents re-discovering his, ah, preferences. “Oh. Right.”

“Yeah,” Zayn says. “So, you want to know how to deal? That’s my advice. Just talk to Louis. What’s the worst that could happen? Even if I’m completely wrong—which I’m not, but just hypothetically—does Louis seem like the kind of person who’d stop hanging out with you because of an unreciprocated crush?”

Harry picks at his cereal. Zayn kind of has a point. Not about Louis liking him. That’s absurd, and Harry will reserve those heart-fluttering speculations for the moments when he’s bored in math class, or before he falls asleep. But not right now, when he’s trying to be practical about this and hammer out a plan of action. The fact remains, Harry’s revealed so many more painfully personal and categorically mortifying things about himself to Louis, and Louis hasn’t left him yet. If Harry confesses his crush for Louis, and his feelings are not reciprocated—and Harry strongly suspects they will not be—then the worst thing Harry will have to deal with is some (not so) minor heartbreak. Harry’s had worse.

“Let’s say, for argument’s sake,” Harry says, “that I tell Louis I like him, he likes me back, and then we run off into the sunset, et cetera.” Harry gives a flippant little wave with his hand because if he dwells too much on that fictional scenario, it might actually cleave his heart in two. “How would I even…I mean. My parents.” Harry scratches his arm agitatedly. “Do your parents…sorry, that’s nosy. Sorry.”

“No, it’s fine,” Zayn says. “Are you asking if they know that I swing both ways?”

Harry nods, even though as far as he knew up until this moment, Zayn swung one specific way (toward Liam). Does that mean Zayn is bi…or pan…or….whatever. Harry will tease that out later, because Zayn is still talking.

“Like, my whole extended family is pretty conservative,” Zayn says. “My parents, too, but not quite as much—like, I’m sure they’d be uncomfortable at first, if I came out to them, but I don’t think they’d be angry. They love me and they want me to be happy.” Harry ignores the sting of jealousy. “But I’ve never officially come out, because I haven’t dated a guy seriously enough to warrant introducing him as my boyfriend. Up until now, the idea of telling them that I’m into dudes has just felt like that would cause a lot of unnecessary family drama, since there aren’t really secrets between my mom and her sisters.” Zayn rolls his eyes. “I’m sure my parents have their suspicions, though.”

“And you visited Liam over break,” Harry says.

“Told them I was visiting a friend,” Zayn says. “They didn’t nose too much into it. My parents and I have got kind of a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy.”

“Do you think you’ll tell them, eventually?” Harry says. “What with you and Liam being…” Harry gesticulates vaguely with his hands.

“Probably,” Zayn says. “Liam would be worth coming out for.”

***

When they’ve finished their breakfast, Zayn and Harry exit the dining hall, Harry headed for class, Zayn off to the arts building.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Zayn says, taking off his backpack and crouching down to rummage through it. “Remembered that I was carrying this when you were freaking out about liking Louis.”

Harry snaps his rubber band and looks on uncomfortably as Zayn rifles through his things. “Ah, here it is.” Zayn extracts a piece of paper from a folder and holds it out for Harry to take. Harry’s lips part in surprise as he turns the picture right-side-up to see a sketch of himself. Well, him and Niall sitting on the couch with their guitars, with Louis lounging in Liam’s armchair. Zayn must have been sitting near the window to achieve this vantage point, a position Harry has often seen him assume to sketch while he and Niall have their afternoon guitar lessons.

The scene itself is almost routine; Harry wouldn’t even be able to say which afternoon Zayn drew this. What’s particularly striking about the image is Louis: the way he’s angled in the chair to face Harry (even though Harry is paying attention to Niall, not Louis), the affectionate expression Zayn’s rendered on his face, the slight upturn of his lips. He’s looking at Harry the way Louis often makes Harry feel when they’re talking, like Harry is the only person in the world who matters. It makes Harry feel a little dizzy, the knowledge that someone—that Louis looked at him like this.

“Told you,” Zayn says smugly.

“When was this?” Harry asks in a hushed, almost reverent tone, eyes still locked on Louis’ graphite face.

Zayn shrugs. “Couple weeks ago, maybe? Difficult to tell. Not really an isolated incident.”

Harry chooses not to respond.

“You can keep that one,” Zayn is saying now as he slings his backpack over one shoulder.

“Really?” Harry feels a little silly clutching the picture to his chest possessively, but he does anyway.

“Yeah, if you promise to talk to Louis,” Zayn says. “When you’re ready.”

Harry wavers, but this might be his favorite picture ever, so, “Okay.”

Chapter Text

“It’s like herding cats, honestly,” Liam laments to Harry as the two of them stand by the front door, waiting for Niall, Josh, Louis, and Zayn to get their shit together so that they can leave for Spectrum. Harry grins, because even though Liam shakes his head and rolls his eyes, his whole aura is so paternal that it’s hard to believe he’s genuinely irritated.

“Where is my laptop?” Louis asks the room at large as he yanks on a pair of shoes and casts a searching look around.

“On the kitchen counter, next to the toaster,” Liam says as he checks the time on his phone. “We’re going to be late.”

“No, we’re not,” Louis says confidently, breezing past them and into the kitchen to collect his computer. “We’re driving, right?”

“Yeah, but snow,” Liam points out, pulling Zayn’s coat off the rack and handing it to his boyfriend. “And Josh is presenting, so we should be there a few minutes early to get his stuff set up.”

“Right, right,” Louis says distractedly as he yanks on his backpack. To Harry, “How was guitar?”

“We’re working on ‘Stairway to Heaven,’” Niall answers for Harry as he pulls a hat down over Josh’s ears. “Fastest student I’ve ever had.”

Harry feels himself going red and flips his scarf over his mouth. Well, Louis’ scarf, actually. Louis was appalled to learn that Harry did not own a scarf and dug this one out of his closet last night to lend him.

“I’m telling you,” Niall says to Harry as Liam shepherds them all out the door, “music major. Consider it.”

“Okay,” Harry says, because even though he knows that’s not a realistic ambition, he delights in the idea that Niall seems to think he’d be cut out for it.

“That’s what I said,” Zayn agrees, elbowing Harry in the ribs—though Harry can hardly feel the jab through his layers of winter clothing.

They all pile into Myrtle (Niall and Josh griping loudly about their assigned seats in the way back) and trundle off to McDuke, Louis complaining the whole way that Liam is going to make them late if he keeps driving like a little old lady, and Liam repeating his rebuttal like a mantra: “Black ice, Louis, black ice.”

Harry gives Louis a covert smile, trying not to let Liam see in the rearview mirror how amused he is by Louis’ teasing, and Louis winks at him, laying his arm across the back of the bench seat where he and Harry are smushed comfortably together. Harry has to lean his temple against the cold window because all of a sudden it feels very, very warm in here.

When they arrive in McDuke 206, most of the club has already convened and Perrie is less than impressed with their last-minute entrance. “How nice of you to join us,” she deadpans to Louis, who unzips his jacket and slings off his backpack as he crosses the room to the podium.

“Liam’s fault,” Louis says.

“Hey, I was the one waiting on—”

“Shh, babe,” Zayn says in a placating tone, very obviously fighting to keep a straight face, “let’s grab a seat.” He takes Liam by the elbow and turns to Harry. “Over here?”

Harry nods and follows Liam and Zayn over to a cluster of desks in the corner. Harry doesn’t know why Zayn came with them tonight, since Spectrum isn’t usually his scene. He wonders whether, like last time, Zayn is here for him. The way Zayn glances over at Harry when they’ve all sat down and gives him a smile makes Harry think that might be the case. And even though Harry’s sure that he would have been fine tagging along with just the other guys (especially now that it’s all in the open, them knowing about Harry, and Harry knowing that they know), Zayn’s show of support is still nice. Still nicer is the fact that once Perrie has finished helping Josh get set up with his presentation, she and Danielle file into the seats right next to Harry, Dani combing her fingers through Harry’s hair and giving him a sweet, “Hey, Curly” in greeting as she goes.

The room quiets as Louis gets up to welcome everybody, and they run through the routine introductions for all the newbies—a population that no longer includes Harry! He wouldn’t have thought that simply knowing what to expect when his turn came around (“Hi, my name is Harry, he-him pronouns, and my favorite color is blue”) could make him feel so at home, but it does. He recognizes Andy, and when Harry’s eyes meet Nick’s across the circle, Nick gives a short upward jerk of his head, which Harry interprets as a nonverbal “yo.” By the time Josh and a girl who introduced herself as Leigh-Anne get up to say their piece, Harry is feeling right back at home again.

As Josh and Leigh-Anne take them through the specifics of asexuality—which, apparently, is a lack of sexual attraction to anyone—Harry is once again reminded of all the things he doesn’t know, the vast gray areas (particularly when Josh starts delineating what he means by “gray-sexual”) Harry never knew existed. Just as there’s a difference between sex and gender, there’s a difference between romantic and sexual attraction—who knew? Not Harry, and the more he considers the difference between the two types of attraction, the more he questions whether he actually feels both.

Harry’s eyes drift over to Louis. He watches Louis scratch his jaw and cross his legs to rest one foot over the opposite knee, admires the way Louis tilts his head and scrunches up his nose a bit when he sniffs. Harry finds Louis attractive; that much is certain. His eyes come to rest on Louis’ stag tattoo, and Harry recalls the heart-lurching fear he felt on that first day, when he caught sight of Louis on the bus, when he met Louis’ blue blue eyes in the white-lit Target aisle—how petrified he was because Louis was so, so pretty that Harry didn’t know what to do besides snap his wrist.

Harry’s attraction to Louis is well established.

Is it sexual attraction, though? Harry tries to imagine engaging in anything sexual with Louis, anything beyond kissing (an image that, admittedly, still gets Harry’s heart pounding out of fear as much as excitement). He can’t tell whether he recoils from the idea of a sexual encounter because he’s legitimately not interested, or because he’s been so conditioned to find the idea of sex with another boy repulsive. Heck, Harry’s just getting used to the idea that it’s okay for him to want to sit close to Louis and hug him and hold him and go on movie dates with him and maybe kiss him. So, sex…does he find Louis sexually appealing? Even just considering the question in the privacy of his own mind puts Harry’s stomach in knots.

Harry always figured that since he developed crushes on other boys, it must then follow that he was sexually attracted to them, but if that doesn’t necessarily hold true for everyone, then Harry is confused and concerned. It occurs to him that this is probably the kind of thing other people figure out by indulging in sexual fantasies or pornography—the latter of which Harry’s always been taught is wrongwrongwrong and he’s been too terrified to try. And sure, it’s not like he’s never thought about sex before, or daydreamed. He’s a teenaged guy. He’s had his moments of weakness. But whenever his daydreams automatically cast male characters (which was always), Harry promptly shut them down.

Harry knows he hasn’t ever felt sexual attraction toward a girl (as evidenced by the last couple years of high school, during which Harry wished vehemently that he could find a girl, any girl to whom he was attracted). And he spent so long trying to strip himself of the remote possibility of being sexually attracted to a guy that Harry doesn’t even know what his natural state of being is anymore. What if he’s stunted his own sexual maturity so severely that he never wants to have sex at all? What if he never wanted to have sex in the first place?

This is the most Harry’s let himself think about having sex, rather than not having it, ever.

Maybe surrounded by a couple dozen other people isn’t the best place to try and think too hard about this (Harry winces at his own unintended pun), so he tables the mental debate for later. What Harry does know is that he wouldn’t be able to have sex with Louis for a very long time. And how could Louis possibly be okay with that?

Josh, though—Josh is dating Niall and evidently doesn’t feel sexual attraction to anyone. Harry turns his attention away from the inexplicably captivating sight of Louis scratching his elbow back to Josh, who seems to be wrapping up the presentation, asking Leigh-Anne whether she thinks they’ve skipped over anything important. Harry claps along with everyone else while Josh and Leigh-Anne take their seats and the meeting adjourns, still caught up in his own thoughts about whether or not Niall and Josh have sex, and if not, why not, and would Louis be willing to—

“Haz, you with us?”

Louis’ voice slices through Harry’s reverie, and Harry looks up to see Louis standing in front of his desk, watching him.

“Oh, yeah, sorry,” Harry says. “Sorry.”

Louis shrugs. “Don’t be. Just wanted to make sure you were okay. You looked…concerned about something.”

“No,” Harry says quickly, and Louis arches an eyebrow. Harry stands up and hitches on what he hopes is a convincing smile for Louis. “I’m fine. Good—good meeting.”

“Yeah, Josh and Leigh-Anne killed it,” Louis says, his gaze still too evaluative for Harry’s comfort.

“You’re a fan of any meeting where someone else is running the show,” Liam says as he takes down the names and emails of a couple first-timers.

“That is also true,” Louis admits, “but they did kill it.”

“They did,” Liam agrees, packing up his stuff. “You guys ready to go?”

“Sure,” Louis says, eyes back on Harry. “Haz?”

Harry, who’s been peering over Louis’ shoulder, trying to catch sight of Niall or Josh, snaps back to attention. “Sure,” he parrots. There are too many people here to try and talk to Niall or Josh about sex, anyway. Harry plucks at his rubber band unconsciously—doesn’t even notice the action until Louis’ hand closes around his wrist.

“You sure you’re okay?” Louis says, quieter now, angling himself to shut Liam and Zayn out of their conversation.

Harry nods, grounding himself in the warmth of Louis’ fingers. “Yeah,” he says, because he is. Or, he will be. He just has to find a way to get Niall or Josh—preferably Niall, because he still hardly knows Josh—alone so that he can ask some awkward questions.

***

Harry gets his opportunity on Wednesday night, when Louis heads off to study with Nick in the math building. Liam is at the pool, Zayn is busy in the studio, and Josh is in a group meeting, so it’s just Harry and Niall in the living room. Perfect. If not for the fact that Louis is hovering by the door, clearly waiting for Harry to follow him out.

“Need a ride home?” Louis asks Harry as he yanks on his coat.

Harry, who’s been practicing “Stairway to Heaven” (with Niall’s intermittent guidance during commercial breaks in South Park), shakes his head. “I’m gonna stay here for a bit, if that’s okay?” He flicks his eyes over to Niall, who can hardly be bothered to shrug.

Louis cocks his head to the side and opens his mouth, but then closes it. “All right,” he says. “Later, then.”

“Bye,” Harry and Niall call in unison.

Once Louis shuts the door, Harry puts down the guitar, realizes he has no idea how to go about interrogating someone about his sex life, and bites his lip. After about ten seconds’ mental scrambling, he’s still got nothing.

“What’s up?” Niall says without so much as looking away from the TV.

Is it weird how intuitive all Harry’s friends seem to be, or is he just that transparent? When Harry doesn’t immediately respond, Niall glances over at him, does a literal double take when he catches sight of Harry’s undoubtedly distressed expression, and mutes the television. He reorients himself on the couch so that he’s better facing Harry. “Dude, everything okay?”

“Yes,” Harry says, wishing his voice didn’t sound so brittle, so that he might be the slightest bit convincing. Actually, why bother lying? “Er, no.”

Niall nods. “’kay.”

Niall is not as easy to talk to as Louis—but then, who is?—and Harry feels a striking sense of déjà vu, reminiscent of his breakfast conversation with Zayn. How to enter into the conversation…

“You can just say it,” Niall tells him, “no judgment.”

Harry wonders how much Niall will stand by that sentiment once he finds out how invasive Harry’s intended line of questioning is. Maybe he should bail on this whole thing, this was a horrible idea, but Harry needs to know

“I mean, I’m guessing if it’s something you didn’t want to bring up with even Louis around,” Niall barrels right along, filling the awkward silence until Harry’s ready to do it himself, “it must be kind of a touchy topic. So, whatever it is.” Niall opens his arms like he’s ready to receive a hug, which must translate to something like I’m all ears.

Really, Harry rationalizes, if there’s anyone in the world Harry could ask about his sex life without him being wildly offended or embarrassed, it would be Niall. He decides to take the plunge.

“I was thinking, at Spectrum last night,” Harry begins slowly, carefully, “when Josh was talking about being ace… You’re not ace?” Niall shakes his head, but his expression doesn’t change. Harry can’t decide whether that’s a good or a bad thing. “Right. So, how…I mean. As far as dating goes.” Harry yanks his hair. If he thought asking Zayn about his family was awkward, that was nothing compared to this. “How…”

Niall, thank God, seems to know where Harry’s trying to go with this. “Yeah, Josh is asexual, and I’m not,” he confirms. “It’s definitely something we’ve had to work through, you know, as a couple, but it’s not an enormous issue. If Josh doesn’t want to have sex, we’re not going to have sex. Pretty simple, actually.”

Harry blinks. “Just like that?” he blurts before he can censor himself.

Niall chuckles. “I mean, we’ve had to talk it out, establish boundaries and shit, but like. I love Josh. Could never force him to do anything he’s uncomfortable with.” Niall pulls a face like he’s repulsed by the very idea.

Harry chews his lower lip and turns that over in his head. He wonders if Louis shares Niall’s perspective. He can’t imagine Louis forcing himself on anyone, obviously, but he doesn’t know if Louis would be willing to make that kind of sacrifice in a romantic relationship.

“If you’re thinking that you might be on the asexuality spectrum, Josh might be a better person to talk to,” Niall notes, rolling the lobe of one ear between his thumb and forefinger thoughtfully.

Harry shakes his head. “I don’t think—or, maybe. Well.” Harry takes a deep breath. “I just don’t know whether I am…the way I am, because of, um. Asexuality, I guess? Or because of…camp.” Even though he knows Niall has known about camp for a while, it still feels absolutely bizarre to breach the topic aloud with him. Niall, for his part, doesn’t so much as blink.

“That’s okay. You don’t have to have it all figured out right now,” Niall says. He flaps one hand back and forth. “If you don’t want to have sex, because you’re ace, or you’re not ready, or literally any other reason, then you shouldn’t. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is an asshat.”

“But if I wanted to date someone,” Harry ventures to say, “and he wanted to have sex…”

“Ah,” Niall says, giving a comprehending little nod. He considers. “Well, obviously, compromises are possible. Exhibit A.” He gestures to himself. “For other people, sexual intimacy is a really crucial aspect of their relationships, and that’s okay, too. But you won’t really know where someone stands on that sorta thing, how compatible you’ll be, until you talk to them.” Niall says this last part just pointedly enough that Harry wonders whether or not he’s been talking to Zayn.

Harry groans and wipes a hand down his face. “What do I even say, like, ‘I’m not interested in having sex now, or probably for a while, or maybe even ever, so are you good with that?’”

“Yeah, if that’s how you feel,” Niall says, apparently having missed the memo that Harry was being sarcastic. Harry gives him a disbelieving look. “I’m serious. Look, if there’s anything I’ve learned from being with Josh, it’s that love is messy, sexuality is messy, it’s all messy. Everyone’s a mess. Life’s a mess.”

Niall might be losing Harry, here. It must show on his face, because Niall refocuses himself.

And, the only way to deal with the cluster-fuck that is interaction with other human beings, especially ones you care about, is communication.” Niall raises his eyebrows significantly. “It’s okay to want sex, or to not want sex, or to be unsure whether you want sex or will ever want sex.” This is the most times Harry has ever heard the word “sex” repeated in a single conversation. “Just, if you want to pursue a relationship with someone, be honest with them about it.” Niall lifts his hands, palms up, as if to say it’s just that easy. “If they’re someone really worth being in a relationship with, they’ll understand. You’ll work through it together. Just like Josh and I do.”

Harry looks down at his hands folded in his lap, unsure what to say.

Niall, who seems to view each awkward silence as something of a personal challenge, continues, “And again, if you want to talk about any of this shit with Josh, I’m sure he’d be up for it. Constantly counseling confused newbies on AVEN message boards, that one.”

“AVEN?”

“I’ll send you a link,” Niall assures him. When Harry does nothing but nod in response, Niall gives him one long, last look, apparently waiting to see if he has anything else to say, before turning back to the TV and un-muting it. Just like that, as if a fog has lifted or Harry’s awoken from a strange dream, the atmosphere of the room reverts from serious back to casual. Harry hoists the guitar back under his arm and practices “Stairway to Heaven” until the pads of his fingers are numb.

***

There’s something Harry isn’t telling Louis. Louis knows it, and he doesn’t like it. Not one bit.

He’s been gathering evidence all week. Here’s what he’s got so far:

1)             No matter how vehemently Harry denied it, something was definitely bothering him at the Spectrum meeting on Tuesday. Harry is not a good actor, and Louis is not an idiot, and that smile was as fake as a three-dollar bill. Louis hasn’t brought it up again, but he can’t dislodge the image of Harry’s frowning face from his mind.

2)             Harry’s been hanging around their apartment most afternoons and nights, as per usual, but when he and Louis are alone, Harry keeps doing this thing where he’ll open his mouth to speak, pause, apparently think better of whatever he was going to say, then close his mouth again. On Thursday, this happened four times. Louis knows, because he stuck a post-it to the bottom left corner of his laptop keyboard and made a tally.

3)             Harry’s been snapping his rubber band more frequently these days. Louis knows because he’s keeping another tally of those instances, on a post-it in the bottom right corner of his laptop keyboard. Louis is on the verge of yanking the damn thing off Harry once and for all, but Louis has no idea what the psychological repercussions of that might be. Also, it’s totally within Harry’s power to just replace the rubber band. So Louis still settles for holding onto Harry’s wrist to stop him, or, if Harry’s out of arm’s reach (an increasingly unlikely scenario, as Harry’s cuddliness has increased), saying something to distract him with conversation.

4)             Harry skipped CCM on Wednesday night, which is weird. Harry doesn’t skip CCM, as far as Louis can tell, ever. So, it wasn’t just to hang around the apartment and watch Niall steadily gorge himself on pita chips and Comedy Central. But for the life of him, Louis can’t figure out what Harry would have needed to talk to Niall about that he couldn’t have said in front of Louis. The only remaining possibility is that Harry simply didn’t want to leave the comfort of their apartment, even for CCM. Which seems worthy of concern.

5)             There’s been no mention of Harry’s parents, camp, or the letter since they got back to school on Sunday. It’s now Friday. That alone is suspicious. Have Harry’s parents or counselors contacted him again? If they have, why wouldn’t Harry have told Louis? Louis thought he made it clear that Harry isn’t alone in this anymore, but Harry’s suspiciously secretive behavior indicates otherwise.

All of this has been rattling around in Louis’ mind all week, and pouring over the mental pile of evidence that something is wrong and Harry is not telling Louis is incredibly distracting, in and out of class, when Harry’s around and when he’s gone.

To reiterate: Louis does not like it one bit.

The real clincher comes on Friday, when Harry invites Louis over to his place to eat takeout Chinese food and watch a show. Louis got a couple texts from Nick gushing about how awesome this rager in Forest Point is bound to be tonight, but Louis will never, ever pass Harry up on an invitation to his place (as far as Louis can tell, he’s the only one of their friends ever to have hung out in Harry’s room). On Friday afternoon, when he receives Harry’s tentative text invitation, Louis breathes a little more easily, taking consolation in the fact that Harry is still willing to welcome Louis into this most intimate of spaces.

…Which is why Louis has to suppress a niggling sense of guilt when he’s sitting on Harry’s bed later that night while Harry uses the bathroom, and Louis reaches under the pillow to find out what’s making that crinkling noise every time he moves. And why that niggling guilt swells to a serious sense of wrongdoing when he withdraws a piece of paper and, overwhelmed with curiosity, unfolds it.

It’s the letter that Louis sent along with Chester a few weeks ago, when Harry and Louis’ friendship was on the fritz due to, well. Due to Louis having his nose in something that Harry meant to keep private. Oops. Which makes that sense of wrongdoing escalate into actual warning bells going off in Louis’ mind when he lifts the pillow to see what else Harry is hiding under there, and finds…huh. A small collection of items that includes, in addition to Louis’ note, a shirt Louis recognizes as his own—how did that get here?—and a pencil sketch. Upon closer inspection, Louis sees that it’s an image of him, Niall, and Harry hanging out in the apartment. Zayn probably drew it. Why would Harry keep that under his pillow, as opposed to hanging it up on his wall?

Louis flinches when the toilet flushes and freezes in position for a few moments before he hears the faucet turn on. Harry can wash his hands for upwards of a minute. Louis looks back down at the drawing.

Probably, Louis surmises, it’s a symbol of Harry’s friendship with them all. Louis knows that he takes it for granted, sometimes, how much it must mean to Harry to have people know about a big part of what makes Harry Harry and still accept him for it. People who support his musical proclivities, people who give him a safe space to hang out. It warms Louis to know that a picture of three of them together means so much to Harry that he keeps it stashed away like this.

Still, though, in conjunction with the shirt, which Louis now recalls leaving behind on Sunday, and Louis’ note… What does it say about Harry’s trust in Louis, that Harry feels the need to hoard these little scraps of their friendship? Is this like the snuggling, another way Harry tries to seek comfort when he’s not in the immediate vicinity of someone who offers a shoulder for him to hide in?

Louis’ chest physically aches at the thought.

How can Louis reassure Harry that he doesn’t need these things, that Harry has Louis, his roommates, their boyfriends, the Spectrum kids, the CCM kids—literally everyone who’s met Harry and thus knows what a wonderful fucking cupcake of a human being he is—whenever he needs them? Harry could announce tomorrow that he’s moving into their apartment and Liam and Niall would show up on his threshold with moving boxes within the hour.

And yet. Harry, it seems, still doesn’t quite get it. Hell, despite the comfortable atmosphere, Louis can tell that Harry’s been a little on edge tonight, too. Louis decides the time might be ripe to reassure Harry of their support. Of Louis’ support. Louis is willing to remind Harry as many more times as it takes to convince him of the truth. Solidified in that plan of action, Louis crams everything back under the pillow and readjusts himself on the bed before the door clicks to announce Harry’s re-entry into the room.

***

Harry’s going to do it. He’s going to tell Louis. He is. Really.

Harry might have a little more faith in his own conviction if he hadn’t been repeating this same thing to himself all week. He’s been trying, since his conversation with Niall on Wednesday, to be honest with Louis. Every time he psyches himself up to say it, though, Harry’s nerve abandons him. Damn Louis for being so intimidatingly attractive.

Same story tonight. Harry thought he might be able to summon a little more bravery if he were able to confess his secret in the privacy and comfort of his own room. The last hour and a half have conclusively disproved that hypothesis, unfortunately, as Harry has hardly been able to tear his eyes away from the computer screen to look at Louis, let alone admit his feelings.

His nerves are frayed, to say the least. At this point, Harry is kind of looking forward to Louis going home, so that Harry can finally relax and bemoan this latest failure in peace.

Harry feels his freshly washed hands start to sweat again as he crawls back under the covers next to Louis and moves to un-pause their movie.

“Haz, wait,” Louis says, closing his hand over Harry’s on the keypad and pulling it back. He sounds serious. Harry’s heart rate picks up as he turns to face Louis, who looks as serious as he sounded.

“What’s up?” Harry says, and has to clear his throat because his voice comes out all raspy.

Louis looks hesitant—an expression so foreign to Louis’ normal blasé demeanor that it serves to heighten Harry’s apprehension.

“I just wanted to let you know,” Louis says, “that you can tell me anything. Any time. You know that, right?”

Anxiety floods Harry’s stomach, ice cold and almost paralyzing, because there’s no way Louis is casually bringing this up out of the blue. Does he know? Is that why he’s talking like this? Louis has always waited for Harry to come to him, allowed Harry divulge things in his own sweet time—well, except when it came to the topic of camp. “I know,” Harry says woodenly, eyes on Louis’ chin.

“Do you, really?” Louis presses, and okay, now Harry’s suspicion is piqued, because Louis can be brash, nosey, and sometimes aggressively protective, but he’s never used such an uncharacteristically cajoling tone to actually pressure Harry into telling him something.

“Yes,” Harry says, unable to keep the panicked irritation out of his voice. “Why are we even talking about this? There’s nothing I need to tell you.” Lie, Harry’s conscience nags. Harry stamps down the guilt.

Louis fixes Harry with such a sincerely pitying expression that it makes Harry want to shed his own skin or crumble into dust. “Haz,” Louis says gently, still prodding. “C’mon, I’m not stupid.”

With a sudden burst of horrific, gut-clenching clarity, Harry sees what’s going on here. He understands how it is, why Louis is being this way, why there was such a striking similarity between Zayn and Niall’s advice.

Nausea crawls up his throat, and Harry stands up to regain his composure, crosses his arms to steady himself. It’s like finding out that Louis knew about camp all over again. Louis knows. Harry knows he knows. Louis doesn’t have to say it. The still-sympathetic look on his face says enough. Oh God, the terrible pity on his face. Harry can’t stand it.

Oh God, this means Louis has probably known all week, has watched Harry build up his nerve and then watched it crumble over and over again. Louis probably knew every time Harry pressed himself up against Louis on the couch or hugged him goodbye or even just looked at Louis. He’s known, and he hasn’t said anything until now. Why? To do it while he and Harry are alone, to spare Harry the humiliation of being rejected in front of other people? Probably ideal that they’re at Harry’s place, too, so that he and Louis can part ways without the horrible awkward aftermath of Louis having to drive Harry home.

Harry might actually be sick. He trusted Zayn. Trusted him, naively—no, stupidly, after everything. He can’t even believe Zayn would betray him again like this.

Harry’s never even remotely entertained the idea of arson before, but the vision of setting every sketch in Zayn’s studio ablaze is certainly an attractive one at the moment.

“Haz?” Louis’ cautious voice cuts into Harry’s hysterical thought process and makes him falter in his pacing—Harry can’t recall starting to pace, but he is—and Harry rounds on him, a mess of anger and hurt and betrayal because seriously? Louis screwed him over again by keeping Zayn’s betrayal a secret from Harry?

“I can’t believe he told you,” Harry says, hoping his tone conveys just how disgusted he is with both of them—with all of them. God, Niall knows, too, which probably means Liam knows, and Josh, and who knows who else. This is so mortifying. Harry can’t believe they’ve done this to him again. Again, for God’s sake.

“What?” Louis says, a confused pucker forming between his eyebrows. He’s still sitting on Harry’s bed with the closed laptop resting on his knees, looking up at Harry with an almost convincing air of sheer bafflement. Harry might have bought it, too, if he didn’t know better.

“Don’t do that,” Harry says, voice turning desperate against his will, because he just wants Louis to drop this charade so they can get the whole thing over with. “That’s not fair.”

What’s not fair?” Louis says, exasperated now.

“You sitting there, acting like you have no idea what we’re talking about, trying to convince me that it’s my choice to tell you something, when you already know. Like I’m stupid enough to fall for that again.” But he was stupid enough. So, so stupid…

“I don’t think you’re stupid,” Louis says, standing up now and, despite his slighter stature, making Harry feel utterly puny. “What the hell’s gotten into you? I didn’t bring on the fucking Inquisition. I was just trying to be a good friend, that’s all.”

Harry can tell that the conversation is kindling the fire of Louis’ argumentative side, can see the blaze in Louis’ eyes that might have sent Harry running with his tail tucked between his legs at the beginning of the semester—or even a few minutes ago—but the word “friend” almost knocks the wind out of Harry. All of the emotion that might have funneled into devastation, Harry redirects toward anger instead.

“Is that how ‘friends’ act?” Harry sneers. “Talking about people behind their backs?” Harry runs a hand through his hair. “That’s—that’s messed up, Louis. Zayn telling you, and you not telling me that you knew. Doing this weird dance around the subject, trying to get me to say it so you don’t have to.” He refuses to meet Louis’ eyes as he makes himself say, “The worst thing of it is—I could have handled you rejecting me. It would have been weird, but like, I thought, you know. I’d get over it. Just a stupid crush.” Fat chance, but temporarily glossing over that lie, “If you guys had just given me the chance to tell you, on my own…And Zayn telling Niall, what the hell? That’s just one more thing. Like, why, even—”

Harry is distracted from his tirade when Louis’ hands close over his, which have, at some point, gotten lodged in his hair, and suddenly Louis is right there in Harry’s face, but he’s not—Harry’s so worked up that he struggles to bring Louis’ expression into focus at first, but when he manages it, he sees that Louis doesn’t look mad anymore. The burning intensity in Louis’ eyes is still there, but it’s not angry, just intent.

“Harry,” Louis says lowly, before Harry can start up again, “I don’t know where you got the idea that Zayn and I have been gossiping about you behind your back, but we haven’t. We wouldn’t do that to you, not after,” Louis swallows, “after everything.”

Harry blinks, confused now, still reeling from the abrupt change in tone of their conversation. Louis and Zayn haven’t been talking about him? Harry tries to process that. He wants to believe Louis, of course he does, but, “Then why were you saying all that stuff, before?” Harry says, vaguely registering the fact that Louis has eased his hands out of his hair and is now holding their clasped hands between them, almost restrictively, like he’s braced for Harry to make another attack on himself. “With the…you wanting me to tell you stuff?”

Louis rubs his thumbs over the ridges of Harry’s knuckles. Back and forth, back and forth. It’s irritatingly soothing. Harry doesn’t want to be soothed. He wants to understand.

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Louis says, once again using that low, steady voice. “This week you seemed stressed, and I guess this was me trying to get you to open up and tell me shit.” Louis cringes. “Ah. I guess I did mean something by it.”

Harry watches Louis’ thumbs. Back and forth, back and forth. “Zayn really didn’t—you didn’t—”

“Course not,” Louis says, sounding a little wounded at Harry’s lack of faith, even though they both know it’s warranted.

“But then,” Harry says, heart beating a tattoo against his sternum as his mental picture of what’s just happened gets steadily clearer, “then you didn’t know about—about…”

“Your crush,” Louis finishes for him when three full seconds go by without Harry being able to force so much as another syllable out of his mouth. “Yeah, no. Not until about two minutes ago.”

If Louis didn’t have such a death grip on Harry’s hands right now, Harry would absolutely be hiding his face in them. As it is, all he can do is scrunch his eyes shut and bite down on his lower lip because nope, Harry thought he could handle Louis knowing, but he really, really can’t. Please help, he prays desperately.

“Hey,” Louis says, voice now devoid of the determined edge it’s had since they both stood up. “You’re shaking, Haz. C’mere. Sit down.”

Harry opens his eyes to only watch where he plants his feet as Louis steers him over to the edge of the bed and sits him down. Louis reaches behind himself to drag Harry’s desk chair over, so that he can sit facing Harry at about equal height. Harry keeps his eyes locked on Louis’ left knee. Louis doesn’t take up Harry’s hands again, and even though Harry can now feel how badly they’re trembling and is embarrassed by it, he wishes Louis would hold onto him anyway.

As is, Harry balls up his hands and tucks them into his lap, fighting with all his might not to snap his rubber band. He’s about to close his eyes again when he catches sight of Louis reaching for him, carefully this time, letting Harry track the motion. Louis’ palms come to rest on Harry’s cheeks, framing his face, and Harry is so shocked that his eyes flick up to Louis’ against his will. Louis gives him a soft smile and swipes his thumb across Harry’s left cheekbone. “Better?” he asks quietly, and Harry can’t do anything but nod dumbly.

***

Louis is pretty fucking proud of how well he’s keeping his cool right now.

Not that Louis has much of a choice. Harry is freaking out enough for two people, at least, and Louis is thus forced to assume the role of Levelheaded One. Which is bullshit, because Louis should be entitled to a few moments to engage in his own internal freak out, because Harry has a crush on him. On Louis.

This means that Louis’ less-than-platonic feelings toward Harry are acceptable. More than acceptable—welcome, even. Louis isn’t some creep, taking advantage of the freshly-outed baby freshman, and Harry hasn’t latched onto Louis like a baby koala, as Liam so aptly put it, just because Louis offers him the comfort and acceptance of friendship. Louis suspected Harry might like him—has, actually, ever since that night at work when he caught Harry staring at his midriff—but it’s always been so difficult to tell with Harry. Difficult to discern whether Harry’s desire for Louis’ affection stemmed solely from the fact that Harry was denied affection for so long, or because he was romantically interested.

This solves everything. Except, it makes everything infinitely more complicated, too, because Louis can’t just fall into bed with Harry like he would with Callum or another random hookup (nor would he want to). After everything that’s happened to Harry, this is big. It’s a major milestone on Harry’s road to self-acceptance, that he even admitted to himself (and to Zayn?) that he liked Louis, and was apparently on the verge of telling Louis himself. Scratch “big.” This is huge. Louis must temper his reaction very, very carefully.

Hence: Louis takes on the burden of Levelheaded One. For an absurd moment, Louis is reminded of how he used to talk Liam down from his fits of Zayn-induced angst, and feels fortified. Louis is an expert in dealing with crises of the hopelessly romantic variety.

But that wasn’t his drama, wasn’t his helpless romantic entanglement. And this, right here, right now, is intimately Louis’ drama. Consequently, as much as Louis wants to focus and talk Harry down from what looks like the beginnings of a nervous breakdown, he’s simultaneously dealing with his stomach doing cartwheels and the impulsive part of his brain yelling “Kiss him!” on repeat.

“I’m sorry,” Harry is saying now, which certainly serves to dial down Louis’ internal hype.

Louis very deliberately does not let his grip on Harry’s face tighten and keeps his expression as neutral as possible. “You don’t have anything to be sorry for,” Louis says—something he feels like he’s saying more and more often, these days, where Harry is concerned. But he’ll worry about that later. “I’m not sorry. One of us had to do the whole confession-of-feelings thing first. So, really, I should be thanking you for taking the pressure off.” Louis tries for a smirk, but it feels wobbly on his face, and Louis drops the expression almost immediately.

Harry, for his part, looks nothing but baffled. “What?” he says, and Louis genuinely does smile now, because the way Harry wrinkles his nose in puzzlement is unfairly, unreasonably adorable.

“Exactly. Clearly, I suck at this sort of thing,” Louis says. He inhales, then exhales, then inclines his head slightly, so that Harry appreciates the full weight of Louis’ sincerity. “I like you too, Haz.”

Louis doesn’t know what he expected Harry’s reaction to be, but the expression on Harry’s face doesn’t change. If anything, he looks even more confused. “What?” he says again, like he honest-to-god can’t believe those words came out of Louis’ mouth.

“I like you,” Louis says, enunciating each word, letting his grip on Harry’s cheeks tighten, like Louis can force the truth to sink in if he just presses his fingertips a little deeper into Harry’s skin.

“Oh.” Harry’s voice is faint. Then, his eyes widen. “Oh.”

To Louis’ horror, Harry’s expression starts to morph into one of raw distress once again.  

“That’s a good thing, right? People mutually liking each other.” Louis tries to keep his tone out of the “hysterical” range, because his panic will only feed into Harry’s panic, and why is Harry panicking?

Harry nods, but the pained expression doesn’t leave his face.

“Okay,” Louis says. At least they’re on the same page there. “Mind telling me why you look like you’ve just been punched in the balls, then?”

“I—” Harry breaks off and shakes his head, dislodging Louis’ hands. Louis sees Harry wringing his own hands in his lap and promptly takes hold of them. Fortunately, Harry doesn’t shake him off; rather, he grips Louis’ hands with the tenacity of a drowning man grasping at a life preserver. “I guess I didn’t think about what would happen after,” Harry says in a thin voice, “because I didn’t think you would…you know. But now what? Like, what do we even—how do we—because you’re, um—and I’m…and my parents—”

Even as he leans forward, Louis has his doubts about whether or not this is a responsible thing to do, because Harry is very clearly distraught and, yes, for good reason. Harry is new to this, new to letting himself like a boy and brand new to accepting that a boy likes him back, and Harry’s concerns about how their romantic relationship would work, especially in light of Harry’s family life, are certainly valid. But dammit, Harry likes Louis, and Louis likes Harry. And the fragile, wonderful, baby-bird beauty of Harry’s acceptance of these facts is not something that Louis will let Harry’s wretched parents ruin. They’ve tarnished so many experiences for Harry in the past, but they don’t get this.

So when Harry says the word “parents,” it’s almost like Louis has been yanked forward by an invisible chain, the way he automatically, unthinkingly closes the distance between himself and Harry and presses his lips against Harry’s. He doesn’t move to deepen the kiss at all, keeps it brief and chaste because Harry is a veritable statue against Louis, and when Louis draws back to scrutinize Harry’s reaction, Harry does appear slightly dazed. But (much to Louis’ relief) pleasantly so. Harry extracts one of his hands from Louis’ grip and runs the pads of his fingers lightly over his lips with a far-off look in his eyes.

“Was that…?” Louis says, surprised by the hoarseness of his own voice and the pit of apprehension in his stomach. Shit, Louis hasn’t been this nervous about the reaction to a kiss since…certainly not since leaving grade school.

When Harry’s lips slowly spread into a bashful smile, though, Louis could simply keel over from his overwhelming endearment, self-consciousness be damned. And when Harry asks in a hushed but delighted voice, “Can you do that again?” Well. It’s not like Louis is going to refuse.

Chapter Text

Louis kissed Harry.

Louis kissed Harry.

Louis kissed Harry. Twice.

There aren’t really words to describe what Harry is feeling right now. Everything in the world that isn’t Louis’ face seems to have fallen away. Harry’s mind is decidedly blank, save its current tunnel-vision focus on Louis’ eyes, crinkled a bit by Louis’ tentative smile as he watches Harry. Harry doesn’t even know whether he’s breathing, can’t really seem to feel his appendages. Harry’s only ever lost such bodily sensation and motor control in the moments before an impending panic attack, but that was nothing like this. He feels…he feels like he’s standing under a warm shower, or wrapped up like a burrito in a fuzzy blanket. Or something. Those are stupid metaphors, but they’re the closest he can come to pinning down the sensation that pervades his entire being right now.

Louis Tomlinson likes him. Harry can honestly say that for all his tentative, desperate hope, for all Zayn’s reassurances, for all the times Harry withdrew Zayn’s sketch from under his pillow to prove to himself that he hadn’t imagined that look on Louis’ face—for all of that, Harry never believed, in his core, that Louis would like him back. Would like Harry enough to kiss him, even after Harry yelled in his face. Would like Harry enough to stay here, patiently waiting for Harry to unscramble his brain, holding Harry’s probably sweat-damp hands.

Harry doesn’t know what he did to deserve Louis, but Thank you, Harry prays as he continues to stare at Louis in somewhat stunned silence, wanting to laugh and cry and launch himself forward to hug Louis all at once. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Louis withdraws one of his hands from Harry’s and brushes back a curl from Harry’s forehead. “If I’d known it was so effective at warding off anxiety attacks,” Louis says, smoothing back the hair at Harry’s temple with his thumb, “I would’ve started kissing you weeks ago, Curly.”

Harry tries to expel a laugh from his lungs, but every part of his body feels too heavy with happiness and relief at the moment, so all he manages is tugging up the corners of his lips. Louis’ words call back to mind all the reasons Harry was panicking a minute ago, but they don’t seem quite so overwhelming in the wake of the kiss. Louis kissed him. Louis says he would have started kissing Harry weeks ago. Harry just can’t get over it.

Still, there’s much that needs to be addressed, and Pragmatic Harry (whom Love-struck Harry has been successfully smothering for the last few seconds) is not easy to silence. Pragmatic Harry has a list of questions and concerns eight miles long and is persistently clearing his throat and toe tapping inside Harry’s head.

Louis must see something of this in Harry’s eyes, because he hooks a lock of hair behind Harry’s ear and goes back to holding Harry’s hands in both of his. “Here’s what I think we should do,” Louis says evenly. “Get back in bed, because this desk chair is uncomfortable and my toes are cold and I’d really like to hold you right about now.” Harry just barely swallows down some pathetic, strangled noise that’s risen up his throat and grips Louis’ hands tighter. “And we’ll talk about this…” Louis pauses, then moves his forefinger back and forth between their chests. “…us. ‘kay?”

Louis’ proposal is sort of businesslike in a way that Harry thinks might be totally unromantic to someone else, but Harry likes structure. He likes that Louis isn’t just going to sweep Harry’s consternation from a few minutes ago under the rug. He likes that Louis always wants to talk things out, so Harry isn’t left to guess how he should act. He likes that this hasn’t changed, even with the sharp left turn their relationship has just taken. He likes Louis. And Louis likes him. Harry knows he keeps repeating it, but he really can’t help himself.

“Good plan,” is all Harry can get out, and reluctantly releases Louis’ hands so that Lou can clamber back into bed.

***

Louis positions himself with his back against the headboard so that he can pull Harry against his chest, between his legs, and digs his toes under the bunched blankets. Harry curls up with his knees up against his own chest, only settling against Louis after a few moments of awkward maneuvering. Louis chuckles at the gangly adorableness of this boy, and Harry looks up at him with what Louis can only describe as a pout. Louis reaches his arms around Harry to lace his fingers together against Harry’s hip and leans forward to kiss Harry’s temple. Harry promptly turns pink and oh, Louis likes that. He likes that a lot.

“Your legs are ridiculous,” Louis says, feeling fondness practically seeping out of his pores. “Before I knew your name, I used to call you Bambi Legs, in my head.”

Harry mashes his lips together to suppress a laugh and ends up letting out an undignified snort instead. “Bambi Legs?”

“Don’t judge me,” Louis says, grinning despite himself. If nothing else, he seems to have finally broken the ice, snapped Harry out of his post-kiss stupefaction, and that alone is worth smiling about. “And if you think about it, that was my first nickname for you, which I adopted on the first day we met, so like. It’s sentimental as fuck and deserves your respect.”

Harry snorts again and rests his forehead against Louis’s collarbone. “Do we really need to memorialize the day I was a jerk to you in a Target, though?”

“Well, if it’s any consolation,” Louis says, tightening his arms around Harry marginally, “we only met in the first place because I was following you through Target like a total perv.”

“What?” Harry says, sounding, in equal parts, scandalized and intrigued.

“I dunno, you were hot,” Louis says, feeling Harry turn his face into Louis’ chest a little more. “I thought I might seduce you, or something.” Even though Louis can’t see Harry’s face, he can both hear and feel Harry’s laughter.

“What, in the cleaning supplies aisle of Target?” Harry says indignantly, sitting up to fix Louis with an amused look, like he really wants to know how Louis envisioned this going down. Louis is honestly just relieved Harry isn’t creeped out.

“It’s not like I had this elaborate plan worked out,” Louis says, rolling his eyes. “I saw you on the bus, and thought you were hot—” Louis is going to repeat it until Harry doesn’t look like he wants to squirm out of his own skin at the compliment “—and followed you. That’s it. That was the plan.”

Harry shakes his head, a reluctant smile pulling at his mouth. “A horrible plan,” he critiques lightly. Louis is just about to jump in with a comeback, but it looks like Harry wants to say something else. The silence stretches just long enough that it’s a noticeable hiccup in the conversation, and then Harry says, “I saw you on the bus, too.”

Louis raises an eyebrow. That was unexpected.

“Yeah,” Harry continues, now looking at Louis’ chest rather than his face, “I thought you were…hot. Too. That’s why I was so mean to you, in the store. Because I was scared of you. Or, you know.” Harry gives a stiff little shrug. Louis immediately lowers his eyes to Harry’s right hand, but it’s not anywhere near his left wrist. Harry just hooks his fingers into the fabric of Louis’ shirt.

Louis doesn’t quite know what to say, and the “Oh, baby” that slips out of his mouth is somewhat involuntary. Harry’s eyes snap up to Louis’ at the term of endearment and he looks genuinely startled. Louis’ heart stutters.

“That’s a new one,” Harry says breathily, a hint of a smile in his face.

Louis shrugs, like he totally wasn’t concerned about Harry’s reaction to that slip of the tongue. Not even a little. “Well, I’ve given you approximately eight thousand nicknames, at this point.”

“Approximately,” Harry echoes back happily.

“Approximately,” Louis confirms. “Might as well add a few others to the list.”

“Others, plural?” Harry says, looking positively charmed.

“Obviously,” Louis says, pulling Harry closer still and bringing one hand up from Harry’s hip to his cheek. His smile widens when he feels Harry lean into the contact. “You think I’m trigger-happy with the nicknames, you have no idea how long I’ve been holding back on the pet names, love.”

There Harry goes, blushing again, and Louis leans forward and press his lips against Harry’s for another kiss, just because he can (how spec-fucking-tacular is that?). This time, the soft movement of Louis’ lips against Harry’s is enough to coax Harry into reciprocating, just a little. Tentatively, like he’s still not quite convinced he’s allowed to be doing this, or maybe he’s afraid he’ll make a wrong move and do something Louis doesn’t like. Or maybe he’s just nervous. Louis shifts his hand from cradling the side of Harry’s face to trace down along his jaw and eventually come to rest lightly on the side of Harry’s neck to feel his pulse—still racing. Which could be read as a very good or very bad thing. Louis draws back to see for himself which it is, and reads no fear in Harry’s expression. Good thing, evidently. Good.

Harry clears his throat and says, once again addressing Louis’ chest, “Just so you know, I’m still not completely over, like, hugging you. So this—” Harry’s tongue darts out to lick along the crease of his lips, and it’s a good thing that he’s looking down, so he can’t see Louis’ eyes attentively tracking the motion “—might, ah, take a while. To get used to.”

Louis should not take this much pleasure in the knowledge that he can make Harry metaphorically swoon so easily. Louis’ effect on Harry is probably largely due to Harry’s lack of experience, which is due to horrible, horrible things in Harry’s past. Much as Louis wants to simply bask in the wonderful glow that seems to fill the room whenever Harry breaks away from a kiss looking…well, kind of dazzled, if Louis does say so himself…even that simple reminder that this is all so new to Harry is sobering.

Louis doesn’t know what to do about this complicated dichotomy of emotions, other than say with a playful smile, “I’m taking that to mean you want this whole kissing thing to continue, then?” And when Harry nods vigorously, “Awesome. We’re on the same page there, then.” Harry gives a shy smile, and Louis loops his arms back around Harry’s waist. “But you had some specific things you wanted to talk about?” Louis tilts his voice up at the end in question, because even though he thinks he can pretty well predict Harry’s concerns—and Harry even started listing said concerns a few minutes ago—Louis already feels dangerously out of his depth, navigating this romantic situation where everything needs to be handled with such care. He’s never been with someone who had such a disparate level of experience in practically every facet of a relationship. In a sense, Louis is treading on just as unfamiliar ground as Harry is, here.

Shut up, Louis tells the part of his brain that’s gearing up to psych him out. He can do this. They can do this. Louis just needs to deal with stuff as it comes.

“Right,” Harry says, running his fingers through his hair before latching onto Louis’ shirt again. For a moment he pauses and then, very quickly, ducks his head against Louis’ shoulder. This doesn’t seem like it’s off to a good start. Louis, taken aback, lifts one hand up to lay flat between Harry’s shoulder blades. Well. At least Harry is hiding against Louis, instead of from him.

“I have to tell you something,” Harry says very quickly, his words muffled by the fabric such that Louis can hardly distinguish what he’s saying before Harry is barreling on, “and I need to say it all right now, otherwise I’m going to chicken out so I need you to not say anything till I’m done.”

“Okay.” The automatic reassurance slips out before it registers that Louis has already broken Harry’s one rule. “Sorry.” He winces. “Sorry, go ahead. I’ll shut up now.”

Harry is silent for a moment. “Here’s the thing,” he starts, and then stops, evidently unable to get himself to say the thing. Louis rubs his back slowly, to soothe his own nerves as much as Harry’s. The anticipation is kind of killing him. Harry’s already mentioned his parents. Here’s the thing, Louis can imagine Harry saying, even though we like each other, it could never work because my parents might find out. Or maybe, even though we like each other, I’m not ready for a relationship. Both of which would be perfectly valid. Heartbreaking, sure, but also valid. Heartbreakingly valid, and Louis doesn’t know what he’d do if something along those lines were the next thing out of Harry’s mouth.

“Here’s the thing,” Harry says again, working himself up to it, and then catches Louis completely off guard by saying, “Idon’twanttohavesexwithyou.”

Louis blinks and takes a moment to untangle that in his head. “Wait, what?” he says, genuinely confused. But Harry must interpret his tone to be something closer to “incredulous,” because all the sudden Harry is out of Louis’ shoulder—would be out of Louis’ lap, with the force he’s used to thrust himself backwards, if not for Louis’ arms still locked around his ribcage.

“I’m sorry,” is the first thing out of Harry’s mouth, and Harry’s chin and forehead are all crinkled with distress and things need to please slow down for one goddamn second so Louis can process what the fuck is going on.

“No, Haz—” Louis says, scrambling to figure out the right thing to say. “I’m not mad” seems like a good place to start, since Harry looks like Louis looks like he’s mad. “I’m…confused.”

Harry nods sadly, as if he were expecting that. “Sorry,” he says again, and continues on before Louis can explain he doesn’t have to be, “I’m confused too, is the thing. It’s like…it’s like this.” Harry cards his fingers through his hair again. “I like you. A lot. Obviously.”

Louis literally bits his lip to prevent himself from inserting the me too! that’s on the tip of his tongue.

“And this,” Harry gestures at their current position, “is good. The best, actually. I most definitely want this whole kissing thing to continue.” That gets Harry to smile, the way Harry always does when he gets to bounce Louis’ words back at him. Then he licks his lips again, nervously. “When Josh was talking on Tuesday, though, I was thinking. I don’t really want to have sex. With you. Or with anyone else—like, it’s not something I have against you. I just can’t see myself having sex with anyone for a while? Or maybe ever? And I don’t know whether I feel like that because of camp or because of how I am, but that’s how I feel. Sorry.”

Louis is getting some serious poker face practice right now, because he gets the sense that one wrong twitch of the lip or pinch of the brow could ruin everything. This is definitely…not what Louis was expecting to discuss. Honestly, Louis thought the first round of post-kiss concerns they would have to deal with would be like—would Harry even want to kiss Louis again after tonight, or go on a date with Louis, or be seen holding Louis’ hand in public. That sort of stuff. Baby steps. Louis feels like Harry’s taken his hand and launched them both straight into the deep end. So there’s that.

Also, how does Louis begin responding to this load of information that’s just been dumped on his lap? Harry doesn’t want to have sex with him right away. Fine. Louis would have expected that. But the fact that Harry apparently didn’t expect Louis to expect that…does Louis come across as some sort of sex maniac? Has he ever pressured Harry? Louis takes quick stock of their friendship, as well as the five minutes they’ve spent in this weird no-man’s-land between friendship and romance, and decides that no, Louis would absolutely know if he’d done anything to make Harry feel like they were going to hop into bed together any time soon. Sure, Louis invited Harry to get in bed with him a few minutes ago, but that was very obviously different. At least, it was obvious to Louis.

Shit. This is already so fucking complicated and it’s been all of five minutes.

“First of all,” Louis says, trying to sort everything he needs to say into a mental list, “I feel like we’ve had this conversation before, about you not having to apologize for the way you feel. Right?”

Harry opens his mouth—with the intent to apologize, Louis would bet everything he owns—and then closes it again.

“Good. Seriously,” Louis goes back to brushing the hair off Harry’s forehead, “you don’t ever have to be sorry for feeling a certain way. And second, I hope I didn’t give the impression that we have to, like, do it immediately.” Louis chuckles uncomfortably. “This is new for both of us. We don’t have to rush into anything.”

Harry bites his lip, looking less than reassured. “And if I never want to…‘do it?’” he says, almost a whisper.

Louis chews the inside of his cheek. He wasn’t lying when he said that he didn’t want to rush into anything with Harry. Louis can wait for however long it takes for Harry to get to a place where he’s ready to take that step in the relationship. But to commit to not having sex forever and ever, for the foreseeable future? Louis admires Niall for making that commitment to Josh, obviously, but sometimes Louis doesn’t know how he does it. Could Louis make that kind of commitment?

On the other hand, how could Louis not, with Harry looking like he does right now—that is to say, like Harry’s ready to jump ship on this whole thing if Louis says no. Louis doesn’t want Harry to jump ship. Fuck, Louis has wanted this for so long, and he wants to see where this thing between them might go. Louis really, really likes Harry, and fuck if Louis is going to give up on their relationship before it even starts. Louis just needs some time to think. And maybe consult Niall.

Unfortunately, Harry pretty blatantly expects an answer right now. Louis says, “I want to be with you, even if that means we don’t have sex,” which Louis thinks does a good job of riding the fine line between honesty and careful avoidance of absolutes like “never.” It’s the best he can give right now. A slight pucker forms between Harry’s eyebrows, perhaps indicating that Harry has picked up on the fact that Louis didn’t really answer his question. But a fraction of a second later, his brow smoothens, so he must take Louis’ answer as good enough. For now.

“Okay, concern one, handled,” Louis says, checking an imaginary box in the air with his pointer finger. “What else you got?”

Harry’s lips quirk up in a reluctant smile and he says, “Okay. I guess—oh, also.” Harry looks at Louis earnestly. “I never thought—you never pressured me, or anything. Sorry. I should have said that before. Really.” Harry’s hands grasp more tightly at the fabric of Louis’ shirt, which is now certainly going to be stretched. Good thing Louis doesn’t care.

“All right, good,” Louis says. He adds on, for peace of mind, “You have to promise to tell me if that ever changes, though, right? If I ever say or do something that makes you feel at all—”

“I know,” Harry says. “You haven’t, and you wouldn’t. But I would tell you if you did.”

Louis scrutinizes Harry’s face, and it looks like he means that, sincerely. “Okay.”

“But you also have to promise to trust me enough to actually tell you,” Harry says pointedly, arching one eyebrow, and okay, that’s fair.

“Promise,” Louis says, dragging one finger across his heart in a cross shape.

“Okay,” Harry says. “So, concern two.”

“Concern two,” Louis agrees.

“Parents,” Harry says simply, expression somber now.

“Right,” Louis says, and for the first time ever feels relieved that they’re talking about Harry’s parents, because at least this concern was expected.

“If we—if there’s an us sort of situation,” Harry says, “as in, if you were to be my…boyfriend?” Harry says the word slowly and nervously, eyes like lasers on Louis’ face to examine his reaction. Louis gives an encouraging nod, prompting Harry to say, “Then we wouldn’t be able to…I dunno. Do couple-y type things that other people do? Post pictures of us online, or have you visit me ever, obviously.”

Louis expected all this, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. Louis knows that it’s not Harry. He knows Harry wouldn’t have it this way if it were up to him. But it hurts to see Harry talk about those “couple-y type things” that he so obviously wants to take part in, but knows he can’t.

“What about being together in public?” Louis wants to know, bringing his hands to rub his thumbs over the backs of Harry’s knuckles, which are standing out white against his skin. “If we wanted to go on a dinner date, or I were to, say,” Louis uncurls one of Harry’s hands and laces their fingers together, “hold your hand when we’re walking somewhere.”

Harry looks down at their interlocked hands with his lower lip between his teeth, and his longing is practically palpable in the air between them. “I want that,” he finally says softly. “And…and my parents won’t be on campus to see us. Right?” Harry seems mostly to be reasoning with himself, so Louis waits. “If or when they come to visit, I wouldn’t introduce them to you guys.” Harry cringes apologetically. “My parents would only meet Demi and Selena, probably, and they could keep it—us—a secret. But if other CCM kids had seen us around…”

The question seems to be only upsetting Harry, so Louis pulls an unresisting Harry against his chest and rubs bracingly up and down his back with open palms.

“It’s okay,” Louis says. “You don’t have to have a hard-and-fast answer right now. We can talk about it later, or see if you feel comfortable with stuff on a case-by-case basis.”

Harry exhales shakily against Louis’ neck, and Louis has to suppress a shiver. “I’m sorry I’m making this so complicated.”

You’re not the one making anything complicated,” Louis says forcefully. “You don’t need to be sorry.”

“’kay,” Harry says, clearly unconvinced.

Louis hugs him tighter. “And you know what else?”

“What?”

“Even if it is complicated, I think it’ll be okay. I think we’re worth ‘complicated.’”

Harry tucks his face under Louis’ chin. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Louis says. “Plus, you know what’s totally not complicated at all? This.” Louis drops a kiss into Harry’s hair.

In lieu of answering, Harry presses a kiss into the junction between Louis’ neck and shoulder, and Louis does shiver this time. He smiles into the crown of Harry’s head.

A few seconds of silence pass. “I can’t believe you like me,” Harry says, tone laced with absolute incredulity. “I mean, Zayn told me that you would—that you did, but…” Harry trails off in apparent wonder over, what seems to Louis, a perfectly conceivable, ordinary fact. Of course Louis likes Harry; how could he not?

“I can’t believe you don’t know how—” Sweet? Kind? Adorable? Wonderful? Sexy? “—lovely you are,” Louis says.

Harry curls one hand around Louis’ waist and says, “I think you’re pretty lovely, too. So you know.”

For once, Louis doesn’t have the knee-jerk reaction to do something like swipe his hair out of his eyes and reply that he does know, because he’s too busy marveling out how Harry can just say stuff like that, now. Louis considers for a moment whether it’s worth potentially ruining the mood to ask if Harry has anything else pressing on his mind, but decides against it. Right now, Harry seems content to enjoy their not-complicated moment in peace, which suits Louis just fine.

Chapter Text

“What the hell are you so chipper about?” Niall demands when Louis walks into the kitchen on Saturday morning, whistling.

“What, a guy can’t be in a good mood?” Louis says, trying to scowl but failing, on account of his good mood.

“Not you before nine a.m.,” Niall says, not unreasonably. He takes a sip of his coffee without tearing his eyes away from Louis. “What are you doing up, anyway?”

“What are you doing up?” Louis shoots back, because the only person liable to occupy their communal spaces before nine a.m. on any given Saturday is Liam, and only because he has to be at the pool so early.

“Josh and I are Christmas shopping today,” Niall says. “Wanted to get an early start. Figured it might be a little easier to get in the holiday spirit if there weren’t quite so many other shoppers to knock elbows with.”

“Domestic,” Louis comments, helping himself to the last bit of coffee in the pot, belatedly hoping that Niall wasn’t saving it for Josh. Louis takes the half and half out of the fridge, gives it a sniff, and pours some into the mug. Oh well. Louis’ coffee now.

“The question still stands, what are you doing, so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at this hour?” Niall says. Like a dog with a bone, that one.

Louis swallows down the Haz and I kissed! that’s bubbled to his lips with a mouthful of painfully hot coffee. Not that Louis wouldn’t like to share his excitement over last night’s events with Niall or Liam or literally anyone else who would listen (Louis has never fully understood the desire to “shout it from the rooftops” until now). However, he did sort of make a promise to Harry, regarding how and when they would reveal their new state of togetherness to the others. It was Louis’ idea too, which probably makes it doubly bad if he breaks his promise.

“So, how do we…when do we…” Harry had eventually asked, still twisting the fabric of Louis’ shirt between his fingers as they sat cuddled up on Harry’s bed last night. “Liam and Niall and Zayn and Josh, I mean. Telling them.”

Louis hooked his chin over Harry’s head and considered. “I think you should be the one to tell,” Louis said, because for one thing, Louis himself had no qualms about anybody else knowing his relationship status, ever. For another, Harry clearly still harbored some paranoia about Louis discussing Harry behind his back, and handing Harry the reins on this one seemed like a good way to assuage those concerns.

“Really?” Harry said. “Are you sure? Even Niall and Liam?”

If Louis hadn’t been sure before, the hopeful note in Harry’s voice would have convinced him. “Even Niall and Liam,” he said. Besides, how difficult could it be for Louis to keep a secret from his roommates?

Very difficult, apparently, not only because Niall still looks the picture of suspicion, watching Louis over the rim of his mug, but also because come on , this is really exciting news and Louis is entitled to some shouting from the rooftops. (Not literally. Not if Louis doesn’t want Harry to drop out of school and never speak to him again. But still.) Stupid Last Night Louis, making restrictive promises that prevent This Morning Louis from flaunting his new relationship. That idiot. 

“Harry and I are going to get breakfast,” is what Louis eventually settles on telling Niall as explanation for his good spirits.

“Oh,” Niall says, suspicion clearing from his expression at once, like it’s totally plausible that eating food in Harry’s company is all it would take to inject so much cheer into Louis’ morning. “Josh and I are taking his car to the mall, if you and Harry wanna use mine to go off campus.”

“Thanks,” Louis says, tempted to tease Niall about how accommodating he and Liam are these days about lending Louis their cars for Harry’s sake, but decides against it. He doesn’t want to risk having those vehicular privileges rescinded. And anyway, Louis appreciates these subtle gestures that his roommates want to do everything in their power to make Harry happy—more specifically, happy with Louis.

***

Louis doesn’t even have to text Harry to announce his arrival at Harper, because Harry is already standing out on the sidewalk when Louis pulls up out front. He’s bouncing on his heels in the cold, and a wide smile spreads over his face when he recognizes Niall’s car. Louis grins back through the driver’s side window and unlocks the doors, glad he’s clearly not the only one inordinately excited about a simple trip to get food.

“Morning,” Harry chirps as soon as he slides in next to Louis, still smiling like Louis is about to take him to Disneyland, rather than IHOP.

“Morning,” Louis says. He glances around the parking lot to make sure it’s completely devoid of other students (it is, given that almost everyone else on campus is still asleep) and then leans over to kiss Harry. “Good god,” Louis says when he pulls back and shifts gears to peel away from the curb. “Your lips are freezing .”

“Well, it’s literally freezing outside,” Harry reasons as he buckles himself in. “Feel how cold.”

Louis yelps when Harry lays a palm flat across Louis’ cheek. “Hey!”

Harry giggles and tries to retract his hand, but Louis is having none of that.

“Give me that,” Louis says. He reaches out to take the offending frigid hand in his own to warm it up. “Since you can’t be trusted not to startle me into driving us off the road.”

“You wouldn’t,” Harry says.

“I wouldn’t,” Louis admits. “Precious cargo, and all that.”

In lieu of responding, Harry jams his free hand between the seat and his thigh and turns to look out the window. God, Louis missed him. Which is stupid because they were only apart for all of ten hours. But dragging himself out of Harry’s bed last night was extremely difficult. They’d settled into a comfortable silence after a while, and eventually Louis had felt drowsiness settle over him like a fuzzy blanket. Louis was tempted to fall asleep right there with Harry in his arms, but he wasn’t certain how that would make Harry feel—he might not be comfortable sharing a bed, even if they were only sleeping together in the most literal sense. It still took every ounce of self control Louis could muster to utter the words, “I should probably go,” and Louis was only able to actually get himself out of Harry’s bed by promising them both that they’d meet for breakfast in the morning.

“I was thinking IHOP,” Louis says now, turning onto the road that leads into the heart of town. “The one around here mostly caters to students, meaning that their rush hour is between one and three a.m. We could do Cracker Barrel, but at this hour I’d still expect it to be packed with families and elderly couples.”

“IHOP,” says Harry, almost before Louis has even finished talking. “IHOP sounds good.”

Louis nods, and Harry goes quiet after that, hand still firmly clasping Louis’ across the console.

***

The restaurant is, as Louis promised, relatively empty when they arrive. Harry breathes a sigh of relief and manages to smile at the hostess as Louis requests a table for two. To say that he was pleased to see Louis this morning would be quite the understatement (Harry found himself still grinning into his pillow at three in the morning last night, and he was only able to settle his giddy mind enough to sleep with the thought that he’d see Louis again in less than seven hours). So between Louis leaving last night and seeing him again this morning, Harry hadn’t thought of much else besides, well, seeing Louis again.

And now that he has… well. It wasn’t really until Louis settled the matter of where they were going to eat that it occurred to Harry that they were going to be out in public. Together. As they drove in silence, it struck Harry: Was this a date? Harry realized, too late, that he didn’t know. Even if it wasn’t , Harry thought, things were definitively different between him and Louis now, as evidenced by their current handholding.

They pulled into the restaurant lot and Louis released Harry’s hand to put the car in park and unbuckle. Was Harry supposed to reclaim Louis’ hand when they were both out on the sidewalk? Last night they had resolved to table such discussions for a later time, and then, when Louis was leaving for the night, Harry had just thoughtlessly agreed to have breakfast with Louis this morning, like it was any other normal weekend. Had Louis been intentionally inviting Harry on a date, to test out this whole “case-by-case basis” he had suggested for gauging Harry’s comfort with PDA? If so, Harry had been too stupid to pick up on it, and he’s not sure he would have agreed to it.

And so it was that Harry found himself mentally floundering as he got out of Louis’ car, wishing they’d hammered out date protocol a little more specifically last night. (He did not reach out to hold Louis’ hand on the way into the restaurant.) It was way too early in the morning to be this stressed.

Now, as Harry slides into the booth across from Louis, he feels positively itchy with the need to ask what he cannot ask in front of the waitress—who thankfully departs as soon as she’s got their drink orders.

“Have you had their Nutella crepes before?” Louis says idly as he unfolds a menu to browse. “They’re—”

“Is this a date?” Harry interrupts, leaning over the table slightly, even though they’re seated several booths away from any fellow customers who might overhear their conversation.

Louis blinks up from his menu and then frowns. “Do you want it to be?” he asks slowly, which, as far as unhelpful responses go, is probably the most unhelpful Harry can imagine.

“I don’t—I don’t know,” Harry says, feeling quite hot all of a sudden. He wishes fervently that he’d asked this last night, or at least in the car. Stupid. He looks desperately at Louis.

“Haz,” Louis begins, and reaches across the table to take Harry’s hand.

Harry flinches and pulls his hand away, casting an automatic cursory glance around the restaurant to make absolutely certain no one saw that before looking back at Louis. Harry’s heart sinks when he registers Louis’ raised eyebrows and slightly parted lips. Louis quickly schools his features to mask the hurt, but not quick enough.

God, it’s been less than two minutes and Harry is already making everything awful. “I’m sorry,” he says, wishing that he had the courage to reach out and take Louis’ hand in apology, but instead wrapping his arms around his own waist and digging his nails into his palms like a total coward. “Sorry.”

“No, that’s…” Louis’ sigh cuts Harry like an icy wind. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

Before Harry can reassure Louis or apologize again, the waitress returns with their coffee and the question of whether or not they’re ready to order. “A few more minutes, I think,” Louis tells her politely, despite the fact that Harry’s surely wrung the good mood right out of Louis with every word he’s said and gesture he’s made since sitting down.

When they’re alone again, Louis folds his hands on the table between them and says, “I’m sorry if I freaked you out. I was assuming this wasn’t a date—I guess I didn’t really think about it. I’d like to think our first date would be a bit more romantic.” Louis gestures to the fluorescent overhead lighting, the vinyl booths, the rack of unnaturally flavored syrups, tilting his head to indicate the soft Muzak playing over the speakers.

Harry’s face feels even hotter. Of course this wasn’t a date. Idiot—

“But I should have checked with you,” Louis says. “I’m sorry.”

Harry nods. “Okay. Yeah, I didn’t think—but then, you know, I just wanted to make sure.” His eyes drop to Louis’ interlocked fingers and he bites his lip. “Sorry,” he says again, knowing that Louis will understand what he’s apologizing for.

“Don’t be,” Louis says way too airily for the level of offense Harry read in his expression after Harry pulled away. “Another thing I should have checked on.”

Harry wants to say that Louis shouldn’t have to check on stuff like that, let alone feel guilty when such small things slip his mind. Any normal boy would be fine with some simple handholding across the table without succumbing to minor panic. It’s not Louis’ fault that Harry is like this. Harry tries to work himself up to reaching out for Louis’ hand over the table, both to apologize for flinching away in the first place and also because he really, honestly wants to. But when the waitress makes her third appearance, Harry loses his nerve.

“Ready?” Louis asks, and Harry nods even though he’s not, because he wants the waitress to leave them alone. After Louis orders his pancakes, Harry rattles off the name of the first menu item his eyes fall on. They hand over their menus and they’re alone again.

“Josh and Niall are shopping for Christmas gifts today,” Louis says in a deliberately casual tone, unwrapping his silverware and fiddling with the napkin.

“That’s brave of them,” Harry says, looking out the window at the Saturday traffic.

Louis chuckles. “Yeah. They think they’ve got an early start, but I don’t envy them.”

“Says the guy who went out on Black Friday,” Harry says, unable to suppress a teasing smile.

“Only because I love my sister very, very much,” Louis says. “And I guess maybe to satisfy whatever brute human instinct once drove Roman spectators to watch gladiator battles. I think I’ll do the rest of my shopping from the comfort of my own couch. Thank you, internet.”

Harry hums in agreement. “Much better.”

“We could today, if you want,” Louis says, pausing in the act of ripping up his napkin. “When we get back home I mean. I’d rather get it out of the way before I forget, anyway.”

“I like that idea,” Harry says, excited about the prospect of not having to face the holiday crowd to get his shopping done. And just like that, Harry realizes that it no longer feels like his heart is beating up in his throat, or that he wants to shrivel up and disappear. This—being with Louis, engaging in this comfortable, familiar back and forth—has calmed Harry enough that he slides his hand tentatively across the table and pulls one of Louis’ away from the napkin to hold it. Louis lifts his gaze to Harry’s, searching for a long moment, before he lets himself smile and squeeze Harry’s hand lightly.

As soon as the waitress comes back with their food, Harry regretfully draws his hand away from Louis’ again to rest in his lap. But under the table, Louis’ foot comes to rest steadily against Harry’s ankle, and Louis doesn’t look upset, so Harry thinks they must be okay.

***

They make a quick pit stop at Harper so that Harry can grab his laptop before returning to Louis’. Upon arriving at the apartment, Louis heads off to the kitchen to make hot chocolate, in spite of the fact that they both just ate themselves sleepy with pancakes, because according to Louis, it’s “hot chocolate weather.” Whatever. Harry is not complaining. Harry settles himself in his usual spot on the couch and folds his feet under him.

Louis and Harry pass the morning scrolling through potential gifts and sort-of watching a series of Friends episodes. Louis occasionally asks Harry what he thinks about some-such gift for this sister or that sister, no matter how many times Harry repeats that he knows nothing about what girls of any age want. It gets to the point that Harry—who’s really only shopping for his parents and Gran, and therefore finishes picking out his gifts relatively quickly—curls up under Louis’ arm to watch Louis search for gifts and offer his (totally unqualified) opinion whenever Louis solicits it. Harry would rather spend time dwelling on Louis’ family than his own, anyway.

Harry has tried not to think too much about his parents since coming back to school. Most of his thoughts last week were consumed by Louis, anyway, so it wasn’t too difficult. But now that he’s coming up on a week of being back at school, Harry is braced for a phone call or text from his mother any day now, asking whether or not he’s written his testimonial for the camp website. Harry still hasn’t decided what he’s going to do about that. Louis said that they would figure it out together, but Harry is loath to decimate the happy atmosphere of the morning with talk of camp and his parents. He knows that these topics are ticking time bombs, but Harry would just like to enjoy the peace while it lasts. He thinks he deserves this much. Right? Right.

***

Louis doesn’t know how long Harry’s been asleep when he glances over, mouth open to ask what Harry thinks about a set of loose tea samples as a gift for his mother, to find Harry dozing on his shoulder. Louis smiles to himself and mutes the TV. He doesn’t want to risk waking Harry, and also…ugh, it sounds too clingy for comfort, even in Louis’ head. But he kind of likes being able to hear the soft puffs of breath Harry releases while he sleeps. It’s just enough white noise to help Louis focus on reading an unnecessarily long email from his academic advisor about registering for spring semester classes. And it’s an ongoing reassurance of Harry’s presence, like the warmth of Harry’s cheek on Louis’ shoulder or the tickle of his hair against Louis’ neck. It’s just nice, all right?

Liam returns from the pool in the early afternoon. Louis glances up from the online course catalogue to make some gesture about keeping quiet, but Liam’s eyes are already fixed on Harry’s sleeping form as he closes the door with a soft click behind him. Liam glances at Louis and just gives an upward jerk of the head in greeting before pointing to the bathroom, presumably indicating his intent to shower. Louis nods and mouths thanks before Liam heads off to scrub himself clean of chlorine. After he’s gone, Louis wonders if permitting Liam to see Harry slumbering on his shoulder counts as Louis breaking his promise to Harry, but Liam appeared to think nothing of it. Perks of having a reputation for being rather touchy-feely (especially when it comes to Harry), Louis supposes.

Niall could learn a thing or two from Liam about making courteous entrances. About an hour later, when Liam has showered, made himself tea, and joined Louis to work in the living room, Niall and Josh waltz in, arms laden with shopping bags, Niall laughing uproariously at some joke Josh must have cracked out in the hall. Harry flinches against Louis and then blinks drowsily up at him, looking indignant about being awoken from his nap. But this slight vexation is such a far cry from the sheer panic that overtook Harry the first time he fell asleep against Louis on this couch that Louis is more endeared than anything else. Honestly, Harry looks so adorably disgruntled that it takes everything in Louis not to kiss him. No , he reminds himself. No kissing in front of the others. Must resist.

“Oh, whoops,” Niall says when his eyes fall on Harry, who sits up and yawns and smacks his lips and seriously , it’s like the universe wants Louis to break his promise. Jesus.

“Sorry, dude,” Josh says with a wince and a lowered voice, as if that will do any good now.

“’s okay,” Harry says, rubbing his eyes. Louis can’t help but feel warm with pride at how not-panicked Harry is right now, after awaking to find that three of his (male) friends just saw him asleep against his other (male) friend. Even a couple weeks ago, Louis can’t imagine such a thing occurring without at least some discomfort on Harry’s part. It’s kind of amazing how deeply Harry has become embedded in their little family, and it delights Louis to no end.

“How was shopping?” Harry asks as Niall and Josh deposit their haul of purchases on the kitchen table.

Niall returns to the living room with a box of crackers in hand. “Pretty good,” he says, handing a Ritz to Josh and munching on his own cracker thoughtfully. “Only disappointment was that a mall Santa had set up shop by the food court and Josh refused to let us get in line. Killjoy.”

Josh rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “Forgive me for not encouraging my boyfriend to go sit on another man’s lap.”

“First off, gross. He was like, sixty,” Niall says. “Second, he was giving out candy canes. Candy canes , babe. That’s all I really wanted.”

“Oh, well, if that’s all,” Josh says sarcastically, and before Niall can jump in again, “ Anyway . What’s up with everyone else?”

“Swimming,” Liam says without looking up from his computer. “Essays. End of semester stress.”

“So, the usual,” Niall summarizes, looking unimpressed. He turns to Harry and Louis. “And you guys? Anything new and exciting to report?” he asks, surveying their slouched positions on the couch. His tone implies that he thinks the answer is probably no.

Louis just shrugs because he has to keep a lid on everything new and exciting in his life for Harry’s sake, and he already used up all his energies for sneaking around Niall earlier this morning.

Louis doesn’t even have the opportunity to properly feel bitter about this, though, because Harry says, “Well, Louis and I are together now,” and Louis feels his jaw drop of its own volition. He actually cracks his neck turning to look incredulously at Harry, who has the nerve to look pleased with himself, biting his lip against a smile as he flicks his eyes from Niall over to Louis. Harry raises his eyebrows slightly as if to say ta-da .

All right, well then. It seems Louis is officially relieved of all future sneaking duties. He looks back at Liam and Niall and Josh to gauge their responses to this information. In his peripheral vision, he sees Harry turn back to the others as well, apparently satisfied with Louis’ reaction.

The expression on Niall and Josh’s faces indicates that this is nowhere near the answer they were expecting to their casual what’s up inquiry. Liam has torn his eyes away from his computer screen—which, in itself, is a testament to the weight of this news. Louis watches three pairs of eyes shift from Harry’s face to his, as if they’re all waiting for Louis to confirm. “Surprise?” Louis says, unsure what else he can say.

There’s a split second of silence before Liam says, “No, it’s really not,” and looks back down at his computer.

Niall, on the other hand, is now wearing a smile bright enough to blind. “That’s excellent ,” he says, and Niall’s smile must be contagious because Harry is full on beaming now. Louis curls an arm around Harry’s waist to pull Harry to him.

“Yeah, congrats, guys,” Josh says through a mouthful of chewed cracker.

“When did this happen?” Niall demands.

“Like, last night,” Louis says.

“You didn’t say anything this morning!” Niall says, shocked and appalled.

Harry is quick to Louis’ defense with the explanation, “Louis promised that I could be the one tell people.” Louis pecks Harry on the cheek in thanks.

“So I shouldn’t mention this to Zayn?” Liam asks from behind his laptop screen, where Louis wouldn’t be surprised if he were messaging Zayn as they speak.

“Um,” Harry says, sounding uncertain.

“No,” Louis says flatly, lest Harry feel pressured into agreeing. If Louis can keep his trap shut, so can Liam.

“Okay, okay,” Liam says. “Just asking.”

“Well, I wholeheartedly approve of this,” Niall says, waving his hand in Louis and Harry’s general direction, like they’ve been waiting for him to bestow his blessing.

“Thanks,” Louis says dryly, but doesn’t sass Niall because he can tell that Niall’s explicit approval (however unnecessary) pleases Harry. Louis feels Harry relax against him and then slip his hand into Louis’.

“You’re the only one who looked surprised,” Harry says to Louis as Niall and Josh retreat into the kitchen to retrieve their Christmas gifts and more snack food, and Liam starts typing away at his essay again.

“I didn’t think you were going to tell them so soon,” Louis admits.

Harry shrugs, looking down at his lap bashfully. “I didn’t either. But I realized it would have felt weirder to have them not know, you know?”

Louis doesn’t know why hearing Harry say that lodges a lump in his throat, but it does, so he’s left nodding dumbly in response. Harry adjusts his folded legs on the couch so that he can rest his weight more fully against Louis’ chest, and Louis wraps his arms around Harry, settling for a tame kiss on the temple because Liam is still in the room.

This has shaped up to be a rather strange, turbulent first day as a couple, Louis thinks, with Harry and Louis doing lots of awkward dancing around one another, trying to figure out what the other wants and expects. But then, this is kind of what they signed up for: complicated. Harry turns to rest his forehead against Louis’, all red cheeks and smiles, and Louis doesn’t believe he’ll ever get used to the heady rush that hijacks his brain whenever Harry is close like this, warm and solid and exuding contentment.

Complicated, yes. But so, so worth it.

***

Harry is two steps into church on Sunday morning when he gets a sharp smack on his left shoulder, courtesy of Demi. Where did she even come from? Regardless, here she is right under Harry’s nose with fire in her eyes and Selena by her side, who looks equally unimpressed.

“Ouch?” Harry says, bringing a hand up to rub his shoulder.

“Where the hell have you been?” Demi demands. Harry raises his eyebrows. Demi’s not usually one to swear, let alone inside a church. “Don’t look at me like that, all big-eyed-innocent. We haven’t seen you since before break.”

Harry does a quick mental scan of the last couple weeks and realizes that, oh, Harry hasn’t so much as spoken to either of them since before his first Spectrum meeting. Oh dear.

“Yeah,” Demi says, probably in response to the new expression dawning on his face: big-eyed-horrified. “We were trying to let you have your space and not bother you with texts because we knew you were…you know.” Harry appreciates Demi’s discretion in church. “And then there was break and everything, but then you didn’t show up to CCM on Wednesday, and you never miss CCM, so we were getting worried—”

“I’m sorry,” Harry cuts in, both to spare himself the full lecture and to give Demi a chance to inhale. She does, heavily, and then blows it all out in a frustrated sigh. This is the most displeased Harry has ever seen her. “I’m sorry,” he says again. After a couple seconds’ mental debate, he reaches out and pulls her in for an awkward hug, because Demi seems to be the kind of person whose anger could be mitigated with hugs. It seems to work well enough, because when Harry releases her, Demi folds her arms and says, “So? What gives?”

Um. Where to start explaining the last two weeks? The last two days alone…

“After Mass?” Harry pleas, checking his watch. “We’re about to miss the opening hymn.”

Demi scrutinizes him, but it’s Selena who says, “Don’t think we don’t know you’re stalling. But okay. After Mass.”

Harry has no plans to slip out right after the service—he really hasn’t been trying to avoid them, honestly—but Selena and Demi flank him into the main sanctuary like he’s liable to turn heel and run at any moment. Harry supposes that he might find it irritating, if it weren’t so nice to be missed. They take their seats in an open pew, Selena on Harry’s right, Demi on his left, and for once Harry doesn’t mind that he’s not sitting in the very back row. Harry makes the sign of the cross and lowers himself onto the kneeler to give a quick prayer of thanks before the organ music starts up and they’ve all got to stand. Harry’s got a lot to express gratitude for this week.

When he sits back, Harry jumps a bit at the feeling of Demi’s hand closing over his own. He turns to look at her, and finds a small smile playing at her lips. “Good to have you back.” Harry returns her smile and squeezes her hand.

***

Mass passes relatively quickly—as quickly as a Catholic Mass ever passes—and soon the three of them are filing out of the church’s front doors with the rest of the brunch-bound congregation. “Want to grab food?” Selena asks Harry, like it’s his choice whether or not he wants to spend any more time in their company.

“Sure,” Harry says. At least she’s granting him the illusion of personal agency.

As they make their way to the student center, Demi fills Harry in on everything he missed at CCM this week. Apparently, Demi is really eager to help at the pregnancy care center again. “Maybe not this semester, with finals coming up and everything,” she says. “A bit late to organize anything. People are ten times flakier in December than in September. But in January, once everyone gets back. We’d love to partner with Spectrum again, if they’re up for it.”

She says this as if Harry is now the official Spectrum diplomat for CCM or something, which is not a reputation Harry would like to cultivate among the Catholic students, if he can help it. “I’ll give you Louis’ number so you can coordinate,” Harry says.

“Speaking of Spectrum,” Demi says casually, like the whole conversation up until this point hasn’t been building toward that strategic segue, “how was the meeting? That’s the last we heard from you.” Laying on the guilt extra heavy, she is.

“It was—” Intimidating. Welcoming. Confusing. Stressful. Relieving. “—really good,” Harry finishes lamely. “I met some people.” He lowers his voice. “And…and I came out to Louis—”

Demi interrupts Harry by practically clotheslining him with a hug. He stumbles backwards and wraps his arms around her, more to catch her from falling than anything else. “Oh, Harry,” she says. “I’m so proud of you.”

“Thanks,” Harry mumbles. “I mean, I came out to some other Spectrum people, as well. Like Liam.” Demi hugs him tighter and Harry looks helplessly over her shoulder at Selena, whose fond expression implies that she has no intention of prying her best friend off Harry any time soon. Useless. “And Louis and I are sort of, you know, together now,” Harry concludes, figuring he might as well get that announcement over with, because at this rate they’re never going to make it to lunch.

That gets Demi to release him, only so that she can take a step back and stare at him with wide eyes. Her countenance is mirrored (almost eerily closely) on Selena’s face. And then Harry is being hugged by two people at once, so tightly that he can’t even extricate his arms from their hold to return the embrace.

“Oh, Harry!” Demi says again, louder and with higher pitch this time, and Harry wishes fervently that she would stop attracting so much attention. “That’s amazing. We’re so happy for you.”

“Yes, thank you,” Harry says anxiously, “but can we please not? Not out here.”

Demi and Selena release him—or rather, Selena retreats and then pulls Demi off Harry. Demi continues to beam up at him. “I’m just so happy for you,” Demi reiterates, with the smile to prove it. “I want to know everything. How did you get together? And when?” She swats him good-naturedly on the shoulder. “Details, details!”

“When you’re ready,” Selena says pointedly, more to Demi than to Harry.

“Of course,” Demi says, visibly disappointed. But she quickly perks back up again and takes hold of Harry’s hand to swing it between them, like she has to physically shake the elated energy from her body. Harry tries his best to bear it with grace. “But this is so exciting! I’m so proud of you.”

“Yeah, man,” Selena says. “Really proud.”

Harry thinks they might not be so proud if they knew a week ago found Harry curled up in his bedroom closet, phoning Louis for comfort. God, Harry hates the person he becomes when he’s in his parents’ company. He hates how small and pathetic and dirtybadwrong they make him feel. Harry might be slightly bowled-over by Demi’s enthusiasm, but he’d take her exhaustingly potent love and support any day over the reaction Harry would surely receive if he told his parents about Louis. He wishes everyone were like Demi. He wishes he weren’t the type to literally lock himself in a closet and cry about his pathetic life.

As they stroll across the sunlit quad to the student center, Demi positively radiates pride. Selena, through a side-eye smile and a congratulatory thump to Harry’s back, conveys her support more subtly. Objectively, Harry can see how being with Louis must, to them, constitute tangible evidence of significant personal growth. They see a guy who has boldly shed his family’s outdated values in order to be with the person he loves (or at least really, really likes), backlash be damned. Harry won’t deny that he’s changed over the past semester, but he knows who he really is: a guy who’s petrified of getting coffee with his old youth minister, who dissolves into tears at the thought of writing a few paragraphs about last summer, who can’t even muster the courage to hold his new boyfriend’s hand in front of the waitress at a nearly empty IHOP. That’s the reality. Harry desperately wants to be this brave, transformed person that Demi keeps saying she’s so, so proud of. For himself, and for Louis. Harry just doesn’t know how.

***

Harry is happy and surprised in equal measure to find Louis already sitting behind the desk when he arrives at work (Harry will never not be surprised when Louis shows up on time).

“Hi,” Harry says, rounding the desk to assume his usual spot behind the computer. He wants to lean down to kiss Louis hello, but there’s too high a risk of someone seeing them.

Luckily, Louis doesn’t seem to mind. “Hi,” he says, grinning as he swivels back and forth on his chair with his palms slid under his thighs. Louis is positively buzzing with energy. Harry is immediately suspicious.

“What?” Harry says.

“I had a brain blast,” Louis says.

“A what?”

Louis is incredulous. “Didn’t you ever watch Jimmy Neutron ?”

Harry shakes his head.

Louis opens his mouth, pauses, then shakes his head. “We’ll come back to that. What I’m trying to say is that an excellent idea struck me this afternoon.”

“Really,” Harry says, wondering why Louis didn’t just text it to him, as Louis seemed to live-text Harry everything else he did while they were apart today (right down to ordering the mid-afternoon cappuccino he needed to power through comp sci homework, which is probably to blame for Louis’ current excess energy).

“Yes,” Louis says. “I figured out where I’m going to take you.” Louis leans closer and drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “On our first date.”

Harry blinks, then feels a blush pervade his cheeks. “Really?” he says. “When?”

“Friday?” Louis suggests.

“It’s a date,” Harry says, feeling faintly overwhelmed because this is the first time he’s ever been excited for a date. Now he, too, is buzzing with excitement. “Where are we going?” he breathes.

“It’s a surprise,” Louis says.

Harry hums. “I usually like your surprises,” he says, recalling the paisley shirt that may or may not have become his regular nightwear this past week.

“Indeed,” Louis says. “I think you’ll like this one, too.”

Harry takes Louis’ hand under the desk and gives it a quick squeeze, since kissing is out of the question. Harry has a date with Louis . He’s just so excited. Louis encloses Harry’s hand between his own and holds it in his lap.

“I also had a...brain blast this afternoon,” Harry says, and when Louis perks up, he warns, “which was distinctly less fun than yours.”

Louis’ eyebrows draw together in concern and his hands tighten around Harry’s. “You okay?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Harry says. He is. Really. He’s given this a lot of thought since his conversation with Demi and Selena earlier, and he’s ninety-nine percent sure Louis will say yes. It’s just a matter of confirming that Harry’s committed to this plan. His only trepidation about revealing his plan to Louis is that if Harry wants to back out later, then he’ll have to explain his cowardice to someone other than himself. But this is the only way Harry could contrive to convince himself that he’s not some pathetic, sniveling baby. That he’s actually someone worth Demi and Selena’s admiration and Louis’ affection.

“You know that testimonial I’m supposed to write,” Harry begins. Louis visibly tenses and gives a curt nod, eyes boring into Harry’s. “I was—I was thinking that I’d write a note to Father Robert, saying that I don’t want to do it. That I’m not going to do it. But,” Harry says quickly, because Louis looks like he’s on the verge of word-vomiting his fervid support, “I’m not...would you help me? I’m afraid I’ll chicken out, or that I won’t know what to say, or, I dunno—”

“Haz, love,” Louis says, and Harry is so relieved to be cut off that he doesn’t even mind Louis using that term of endearment in public. “Of course I’ll help you write it. Or just be there while you write it. Or write it for you. Whenever you want.”

“Okay,” Harry says, clenching one of Louis’ hands. “Okay, I—thanks. I should do it soon. Right? I’d rather send it before my mom or someone else asks me about it again.” Harry suppresses a shudder. “I just want to stop thinking about it, y’know?”

“Absolutely,” Louis says. “I, for one, like this brain blast. It’s almost as good as mine.”

Harry chuckles, rolling some of the tension out of his shoulders and focusing on the warmth of Louis’ palms. “You’re very confident in this idea of yours.”

“It’s a very good idea,” Louis says. “Hint—we’re not going to a pancake house.”

Chapter Text

Harry feels somewhat justified in being distracted from his studies lately. Not that he’s gotten severely behind on schoolwork or anything—in fact, thanks to Louis’ assistance, Harry has a firmer grasp on statistics than he would have thought possible back in September. But when Harry meets with his academic advisor on Monday morning to talk about scheduling for spring classes, Professor Morrison asks how Harry’s semester is wrapping up, and Harry realizes that finals are starting next Thursday . Holy crap. When did that happen? Who knew falling hard and fast for your best friend could be so attention consuming?

Afflicted with this new sense of end-of-semester panic, Harry heads straight for Zayn’s studio when he arrives in the fine arts building that night, rather than his usual practice room. Harry doesn’t have much regular homework to complete, but he feels too anxious about the necessity of exam preparation to comfortably play piano for a couple of hours. And the prospect of starting stats review doesn’t seem so horrifyingly dull if he’s got Zayn for company.

Zayn, it turns out, is similarly suffering the pressures of December crunch time. Harry can tell because Zayn doesn’t so much as glance up from his sketch until Harry actually drops into the seat beside him. He blinks owlishly at Harry a few times and sticks a finger under the rim of his glasses to rub one of his eyes. Harry wonders just how long Zayn’s eyes have been fixed on the piece of paper beneath his fingers.

“Hey,” Zayn says, sitting up a little straighter and tipping his head back and forth to unknot the muscles of his neck. “You’re early.”

Harry shrugs and passes over Zayn’s to-go cup of tea, as per their tradition. Zayn pops off the plastic lid and inhales the minty steam, fogging over his glasses. “Lots of work to do,” Harry says, pulling his laptop from his backpack as Zayn pulls his sleeve over his thumb to wipe the coat of condensation from his lenses.

“I feel that,” Zayn says wearily. “This week, dude. Brutal. And next week. Basically until the twenty-second, everything is terrible.”

“Well, with that attitude,” Harry teases, trying to dredge Zayn out of his dour mood. Harry figures Zayn’s outlook is shared by most students at the university: resigned to hunkering down for the next two weeks against all the stress and schoolwork, just waiting for it all to be over and hoping for the best. Harry is plenty stressed, too, of course. But wrapping up finals on the twenty-second also means going home on the twenty-second. So Harry can’t quite wish the next two weeks away with the same fervor that, say, Zayn can. Plus, it’s very difficult to be grim when Harry’s wave of new-relationship-happiness hasn’t yet crested.

Zayn blows gently on his tea and shrugs noncommittally. “It can’t be helped,” he says. “Finals week is where good moods go to die.”

Enough of this. Harry will perhaps regret choosing this moment to drop the news, as it will undoubtedly spawn a whole other conversation, and Harry really should start to make his study sheet for stats. But Harry thinks he knows how to put Zayn in a better mood—or at least, an unbearably smug one.

“Well, I actually have some happy news,” Harry says, and Zayn lifts an eyebrow, implying that he doesn’t quite believe such a thing is even possible under present academic circumstances.

“Okay, before you say ‘I told you so,’” Harry says, and before he can even finish his disclaimer, Zayn is already wearing a shit-eating grin. Harry sighs.

“Yes?” Zayn prompts.

“There’s no point in even saying it, if you already know what I’m going to say,” Harry huffs.

“Just say it,” Zayn says, probably impatient to get to the part where he basks in the accuracy of his foresight.

“Louis likes me and we’re together now,” Harry rattles off, practically with an eye roll. “Go ahead. Say it.”

Zayn does not verbally rub it in, but continues to wear that I-told-you-so smile while he says, “Proud of you, dude.”

It is perhaps more telling of Zayn’s busyness than anything else that Zayn doesn’t even badger Harry with questions before returning to his sketch and leaving Harry to his statistics review.

***

Much as Harry is dreading the composition of this note to Father Robert, he thinks it’s probably best to get it over with as soon as possible—not only for his own sake, but also for Louis’. Louis already agreed to help Harry conquer this particular White Whale, of course. But Harry can tell that Zayn isn’t the only one of their group who is battening down the hatches for a rough end of the semester. After Harry finishes up his desk shift on Tuesday, he meets Louis at the math building, where Lou has just emerged from Probability Theory. “Caffeine,” Louis says before Harry can so much as open his mouth. “I swear I’ll be a real person and talk to you in five minutes when I’m armed with coffee, but until then…” Louis doesn’t finish his thought. Harry gets the idea. Harry has a feeling that Louis will only become more high-strung over the days to come, and Harry doesn’t want to be the one yanking him away from schoolwork for the trivial task of letter writing.

Harry hasn’t completely worked out how he’s going to explain to his parents that he explicitly declined the camp director’s invitation to contribute to the website. But he has decided to cross that bridge when he comes to it. First, there’s the matter of actually responding to Father Robert’s note, a task that will be emotionally taxing enough as is. One thing at a time.

Harry tries to bite the bullet by asking Louis (once Louis is sufficiently caffeinated to tolerate human interaction) whether he’s free after Spectrum that night. Unfortunately, Louis already has plans to study with Nick.

“I could ditch him at eleven,” Louis says, tone betraying just enough reluctance that Harry would feel guilty for taking up him on the offer.

“No, no, do what you need to do,” Harry says, forcing nonchalance. He even kicks a stone as they stroll down the sidewalk to top off the effect. “Tomorrow? After CCM?”

“Sure,” Louis agrees. “Just text me when that wraps up. We should probably go to yours, right? We could do it at my place, but I dunno who else might be home.”

Harry nods. For some reason, he pictured them working on the letter at Louis’ apartment, which has somehow come to feel more homey than Harry’s own dorm room, but Louis is right. He doesn’t want an audience for this.  “My place is fine.”

“Awesome.” Louis downs the last of his coffee and chucks his cardboard cup as they pass a trash bin. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to tear my hair out over Linear Algebra with a few classmates in—” Louis shudders. “—the library.”

“Liam would be so proud,” Harry says, and Louis smirks. “Good luck.”

“Thanks, babe.”

Harry’s breath hitches. He tries not to let himself dwell on the presence of other people in their vicinity, because Harry wants to just enjoy being the one that Louis Tomlinson calls “babe” without being hyperaware of who might be eavesdropping. Lucky for him, there’s no one within earshot. As far as Harry can tell, no one is paying them the slightest attention, which is good. Harry considers seizing the opportunity to try out this whole pet name game that seems to come so naturally to Louis. No problem, darling , he could say. Or, Any time, love .

Somehow it doesn’t sound quite right, even in Harry’s mind, to call Louis anything but “Louis” or “Lou.” Or maybe Harry’s just not on Louis’ level, yet, still too stuck inside his emotional straitjacket to use terms of endearment. Harry will just have to figure out some other way to express his affection for Louis—especially since, barring moments when he’s totally alone with Louis in private residences, the most physical intimacy Harry can comfortably bear is a hug or briefly held hand.

In this particular instance of farewell, Harry decides to go the hug route, because it looks like Louis could really use a hug anyway, before he heads off to the library like he’s facing the gallows. Harry snaps a picture of Louis’ retreating form and texts it to Liam, who responds that this is a sign of the apocalypse if he’s ever seen one.

Harry passes the evening at the guys’ place with Niall, who spends some time teaching Harry guitar, some time plodding through school work alongside him. Josh inevitably shows up a short time before Spectrum and accompanies them over to McDuke. This week’s meeting is about how to be a good ally to various LGBTQIA identities, with just group discussion, no presentation that makes Harry feel like he’s gone zero-to-sixty in five seconds flat. All in all, a nice change of pace. Harry doesn’t open his mouth once during the conversation, but he does get to hold Louis’ hand for the duration of the meeting while they’re sitting in side-by-side desks. (Perrie and Danielle’s reaction to this is not quite as exuberant as Demi and Selena’s was, but it’s a close second.)

“Sorry again about tonight,” Louis says as Harry follows him and Nick out into the cold after the meeting concludes. “Sure you don’t mind waiting until tomorrow?”

Harry knows Louis honestly would drop everything if Harry changed his mind right now, but that knowledge alone fortifies Harry enough to say, “No, really, it’s okay. Tomorrow is good.” Louis nods and puffs out a big cloud of breath. Harry can see in the light of the street lamps that his cheeks are already vividly pink from the crisp night air, and Harry wishes that he’d remembered to kiss Louis goodbye before they exited McDuke, because Harry surely won’t have the guts to do it now, out in the open. No matter, Harry thinks as he hugs Louis and watches him trudge off to the math building with Nick. There will be other opportunities. In the meantime, Harry thinks he’s at least found some small way to reciprocate the affection Louis is constantly bestowing upon him.

***

Louis arrives home after a grueling study session with Nick to find Niall and Josh conked out on the couch and Liam and Zayn working at the kitchen table. Louis gives his two conscious friends a tired wave as he strolls past, straight into his bedroom, ready for sleep at an uncharacteristically early hour.

He lets his backpack slide off his shoulders to fall with a dull thud on the floor next to his bedside table and moves to wrench back his bed sheets when the sight of Chester propped up against his pillow gives him pause. It’s then that Louis notices the little notecard wedged between the bear’s stuffed arms—probably one from the massive stack Louis is currently stashing on the living room coffee table, waiting to be filled with Java commands and other terminology for exam prep.

Louis plucks the paper from Chester’s grasp to see, on the blank side, his name written in neat, all-caps handwriting, followed by an equally neat smiley face. Bemused, Louis turns the card over to read on the lined side: Lou— Hope your study session with Nick went well. Don’t stress too much! That’s rich, coming from me, right? Ha-ha. But you’re crazy smart and you work so hard and I know you’ll do brilliantly on all your exams. I believe in you. —Harry

Like the front of the note, the back is punctuated by a little drawing, this time of a painstakingly symmetrical little heart.

Louis feels like someone removed his own heart, zapped it in the microwave for a minute, and stuck it back in his chest. He sits down on his bed and rereads the note, letting a big, dopey smile spread across his face. He pulls out his phone.

Louis : Just got your note. Thanks, love

Louis settles himself in bed with his laptop, determined to get at least a little more work done before he falls asleep. His phone buzzes.

Harry : [smiley face emoji] Figured I could trust Chester with it. He’s proved a pretty reliable messenger in the past.

Well, when Harry puts it that way, it seems only fitting that Louis should stash the note for safe keeping under his pillow.

***

Wednesday night finds Louis standing outside Harper, waiting for Harry to return from CCM. Or at least, waiting for someone else who lives in this building to pass through the door so that Louis can sneak into the warm atrium and wait for Harry there. For the umpteenth time today, Louis runs through the list of things he has to do before he falls asleep tonight and tries not to think about how late he might be awake, depending on how long it takes to write this letter. On the night Harry came out to Louis, Louis told him that he was more important than any exam—and Louis stands by that. It just takes a little more effort for Louis to keep his big-picture priorities straight when finals are staring him in the face.

That is, until Harry finally appears, bundled up in Louis’ scarf, hair swept back by the winter air. Utterly kissable and obviously nervous. Suddenly, Louis can’t recall what the fuck he thought was so important a moment ago, that he could possibly prioritize anything over the care and comfort of the boy in front of him.

“How was CCM?” Louis asks as Harry steps forward to swipe them into the dorm.

“All right,” Harry says. “Demi was talking about volunteering again at the pregnancy care center—did I tell you about that? They want to partner with Spectrum again, if you’re up for it.”

“Really?” Louis says, pleasantly surprised by this news. “That’s awesome.”

Harry nods, leading the way upstairs to his room. “I gave Demi your number so that you guys could figure out the details.”

“I’ll put Pez on it after break,” Louis says. “Scheduling and coordinating are her bread and butter.”

Harry chuckles a little forcedly as he lets them into his room. Louis kicks off his sneakers, heedful to arrange them just as Harry does, neatly in the line of shoes by the door. Then Louis heads for the bed and makes himself comfortable against the headboard, scooting all the way over to the wall so that Harry has space to join.

Meanwhile, Harry goes to the bathroom and washes his hands for what seems like much longer than his usual minute-long scrub. When he returns to the main room, he dawdles by his desk for a while, unpacking books from his bag and meticulously arranging them in a stack.

Louis thinks he knows what’s up, and he can understand why Harry might be nervous about the task at hand. He wants to give Harry time to work himself up to it, if he needs. But Louis also knows that Harry could spend literally an hour arranging shit on his desk if Louis permits him.

“Do you want to write this thing, or shall I write while you dictate to me?” Louis says, a gentle nudge. “Fair warning, my handwriting is awful.”

Harry looks up from the perfectly arranged stack of books and says, “Oh, uh. I figured I would email him, actually. So I know he’s gotten it. He gave me his card before I left, um, camp. That has his address on it.”

“Priests have emails?” Louis says, before the absurdity of that question catches up to him. For some reason, Louis imagined this Father Robert person writing his letter to Harry by oil lamp light with a quill and parchment.

Harry smiles wryly, like he knows precisely what Louis was thinking. “Priests aren’t just perpetually stuck in the Dark Ages, Louis.”

“Aren’t they, though?” Louis says, again without thinking.

Harry bites his lip. Right. Probably not the best time to fluster Harry with that debate. “So, email,” Louis says. He pats the spot beside him. “Want to bring your computer over here?”

Harry nods (although his expression says that he’d really rather not) and drags himself over to the bed with his laptop. He presses his side right up against Louis’, who cranes his neck to peck Harry on the cheek. Harry’s lips twitch like he’s about to smile, but can’t quite get there. He opens his laptop, pulls up a blank document, and writes “Dear Father Robert” at the top before stalling out.

They sit there in silence while Harry picks at his cuticles and the tremors in his hands become increasingly noticeable. It occurs to Louis for the first time that perhaps Harry is actually afraid of this man that they’re writing to. Louis asks Harry whether that’s the case in as low and gentle a voice as he can manage.

“No,” Harry says, after too long a pause for Louis’ comfort. “Not him exactly. It’s just.” Harry heaves a frustrated breath. “I’ve been trying to figure out a way to phrase ‘No, I don’t want to write the testimonial’ without making him suspicious that I can’t write it because I’m…because I’m still gay. Because if he suspects that, then he might talk to my parents or something, and…” Harry shakes his head. Louis is about to jump in when he continues, “And so in trying to figure all that out, I’ve been thinking about, y’know, being there last summer. Like, in a way that I’ve been trying really hard not to think about it since I got home, and I just.” Harry’s voice cracks on the last word and he mashes his lips together while he collects himself. “I didn’t realize how much thinking about it would hurt, is all.”

Louis is rendered speechless as he tries to figure out some way to comfort Harry. Because this is a brand of Sad Harry that Louis does not have much experience dealing with. Louis is well practiced at consoling Self-Hating, Self-Doubting Harry. Louis practically has the speeches down pat for reassuring Harry that his identity and his feelings are valid. But right now, Harry isn’t upset because of something he thinks he’s done wrong, or not done right. He’s not upset over the fact that camp didn’t work on him, or that he’s disappointing his parents, or that he’s damned to hell. Right now, Harry is upset because…because he knows that the people at camp hurt him, needlessly, senselessly, wrongly, and he’s letting himself really feel that hurt full-force for the first time.

Which is great, in the sense that Harry’s new conceptualization of the camp experience seems more grounded in reality and less in self-hatred than it used to be. But it also makes Louis feel utterly useless, because it’s not really Louis’ place to try to stop Harry from feeling miserable about this. It was an awful thing that happened, and Louis can’t change the past, and aren’t there stages of grief people are supposed to go through? Feeling Miserable is surely one of them.

Has Louis mentioned he feels totally out of his depth, here?

The thought crosses Louis’ mind that perhaps Harry should seek some sort of professional help. Louis remembers visiting the university counselor as a freshman, when the stress of school and being away from his family got a little overwhelming—although, Harry’s dealing with issues on a whole other plane than too weighty a workload and homesickness, so maybe the school counselors wouldn’t even be that much help…Still, maybe Louis could recommend—No, not now. Louis decides not to bring this up, lest Harry feel ambushed. Instead, Louis pockets the idea for later contemplation.

In the meantime, this whole wretched discussion has actually given Louis an idea. Harry doesn’t want to write the testimonial, because he doesn’t like the feelings that memories of that place dredge up. A seed of truth that Louis thinks he could twist into something believable to Father Robert.

Louis lifts the computer from Harry’s knees and settles it on his own lap. “How’s this,” Louis says, beginning to type as he reads aloud to Harry:

“Dear Father Robert. Thanks very much for your inquiries into my first semester at college. Exams are coming up, but otherwise things have been going very well. Regarding the director’s request that I contribute to the website, I’m afraid I must decline. As I said, I’ve been doing very well since coming home last summer, and I’m afraid that dwelling too much on the circumstances that led to my participation in your program might lead to some degree of…” Louis tries to think of the right word here. “regression. I’m so sorry that I couldn’t be more help, but I hope you can understand and respect my reasons for declining to write a testimonial.”

Louis punches the period key with his thumb and looks up at Harry, who is looking back at Louis with a slightly awestruck expression. “That’s…yes,” Harry says, nodding. “That’s good. I think—I think that could actually work. Maybe something more, though, like—like a Bible verse? Or something. I don’t know. Something that will really convince him to leave me alone.”

Louis backs up to the part about declining the director’s request and adds in a sentence about having spent “a lot of time praying” about this matter. “How’s that?”

“Perfect,” Harry breathes, eyes scanning over the letter. “Yeah, so now, if he does talk to my parents, it’s like—it’s like I said no, because camp worked too well.” Harry looks back up at Louis with wide eyes. “You’re a genius.”

“Hardly,” Louis says, feeling warm all over from the relief of being able to help Harry with this after all. He feels a little less useless now. “I’m just really good at generating religious rhetorical bullshit.” He taps his finger to his chin. “I should add that to my resume. Would you endorse me for ‘religious rhetorical bullshit’ on LinkedIn?”

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re awful at taking compliments?” Harry says.

Louis simply rolls his eyes. Harry is starting to sound like Liam.

Harry watches him for a long moment, then throws Louis for a loop when he asks, “Do you believe in God?”

The sound of screeching tires fills Louis’ mind. “No,” he says warily, “and let me just be upfront about this. If you’re about to try to convince me otherwise—”

“No, no! I—I wasn’t,” Harry says, ducking his head guiltily. “Sorry. I wasn’t going to. Honest. You just know all these Bible verses, and…and…” Harry waves his hand at the computer screen. “You once told me that you only study religious stuff to throw it back at people who disagree with you, but you’re really good at faking being religious, so I wondered…” Harry trails off and shrugs, looking for all the world like a kicked puppy. Damn it.

Okay, Louis might have jumped the gun with his defensiveness here. But Louis still remembers how adamant Harry was about evangelism when he first arrived at school. Harry might not espouse the same values regarding homosexuality anymore, but Harry is still obviously very, very Catholic, and Louis is very, very aware of the rift that could easily cause between them if they’re not careful.

Nonetheless, Louis can’t simply sit here and let Harry look so ashamed of himself. “I’m sorry,” he says, tipping Harry’s chin up so that Harry will meet his eyes. “I didn’t mean to jump down your throat like that.”

“I get why you would, though,” Harry says, voice laced with regret.

“Still wasn’t very fair of me,” Louis says, determined to erase the anxious pucker that has formed on Harry’s forehead. “I guess I just spend so little time around genuinely religious people that I don’t really know how to navigate it, when I don’t have to constantly be on guard.”

Harry nods. “Yeah, I get that.”

“Can I be real with you for a second?” Louis says, while they’re on the topic, because Louis is hoping that it doesn’t come up again any time soon, “I’m honestly kind of amazed sometimes that you’re still part of that church. Not that I expect you to, like, drop all your religious values over the course of a single semester, obviously. But like—after everything ?” Louis nods at the computer screen, never tearing his eyes off Harry. “After the way these supposedly ‘pious’ people treated you?” Harry flinches. “I’m sorry. I’m just…confused, that’s all.”

Harry takes a while to formulate his answer. “When Demi first talked to me about her sister,” he says, slow and deliberate, “she said something like, ‘sometimes people get confused and hurt each other.’ Because we’re human. But that’s not a reflection on God or His realness or His perfection.”

“But it was people acting in his name that hurt you, supposedly under his authority,” Louis argues, failing to understand how Harry is failing to make this very simple connection.

Harry shrugs, as if Louis’ point is moot. “Yeah, people hurt me. And people are flawed.”

Louis opens his mouth and then closes it, figuring that they probably aren’t going to reach any sort of understanding tonight, or perhaps ever, on this matter. What really matters is whether or not they can deal with that fact. “So you’re not going to try to convert me,” Louis says, hoping to establish an impasse, unable to help the image of Harry yelling at Niall in the quad passing before his mind’s eye.

Harry shakes his head solemnly. “I’ve been thinking about this a little, since I started to think maybe God didn’t actually hate me for being gay,” Harry says. “If someone isn’t hurting anyone else, by being the way they are, if they’re trying to love everyone the best they can, then I don’t know why God would want me to try and force them to change.” Harry actually does genuinely smile now, for the first time all night. “And I’ve never seen anyone love other people with quite the same…um, enthusiasm that you do. So. Not really my job to tell you what or what not to think.”

Louis can’t quite settle on a suitable response to that. He feels so awash in pride and relief and adoration that all he can do is kiss Harry, who makes a surprised little noise when Louis’ lips crash into his own. Louis grins against Harry’s mouth and curls his fingers into the hair at the nape of Harry’s neck. He feels one of Harry’s hands fist the t-shirt fabric across Louis’ chest.

Harry’s lips are a bit chapped and move tentatively, always tentatively against Louis’. And when Louis licks along the crease between Harry’s lips to coax Harry’s mouth open, Harry emits a low moan that makes Louis’ stomach swoop like he just tipped over the peak of a roller coaster hill. Harry doesn’t smell like the thick, sweet cologne that has clung to some guys Louis has hooked up with; he smells like his shampoo, and maybe a little bit like bar soap—clean smells, very Harry smells that Louis never would have thought he could find hot , yet here he is.

When Louis pulls back, Harry’s slightly glazed eyes and swollen lips make it extremely tempting to push the laptop off his lap, straddle Harry, and keep right on kissing him. But if Louis allows himself to keep kissing Harry, he’s not sure he’ll have the self-restraint to stop himself from actually straddling Harry, and that might be too much. Instead, Louis tries to satiate himself by pressing a butterfly kiss into the corner of Harry’s mouth. And his cheek. And his nose. And soon enough Harry all smiley and hiding his face in Louis’ shoulder and if there were any one pinpoint of time in Louis’ life that he wished could stretch into infinity, this would be it.

At the inevitable passing of their golden moment, Harry lifts his head, looking both curious and braced for rebuke. “It’s okay if you don’t want to tell me,” Harry says, which does not bode well, “but why are you so…You really don’t like religion.”

There’s not really a question in there anywhere, but Louis can easily guess what Harry is getting at. Louis considers. There are a lot of answers to Harry’s unspoken inquiry. “I think that religious organizations can do a lot of good,” Louis admits, “but I also think they can do a lot of harm. Especially to people who don’t deserve it.” He looks significantly at Harry. “And I feel like the good that’s accomplished by organized religion could just as easily be done without the whole ‘God and His Church’ thing. If people really care about each other, they can do good without God having to tell them to.”

Harry appears to mull that over for a few minutes, looking decidedly unconvinced. “Okay,” he finally says.

“I know that you don’t agree,” Louis says, trying to tamp down his defensive instincts, “but that doesn’t mean—”

“No, I know,” Harry says. “That’s totally valid. I’m not—I won’t argue with you on that.”

Louis raises an eyebrow. “So?”

“So,” Harry says, shrugging. “That’s just a really…philosophical reason for being against organized religion. But you, I don’t know. It just feels like it’s more personal than that, for you.”

Remind Louis never to underestimate Harry’s powers of perception. Harry is one astute motherfucker (when it comes to things that aren’t like, his own self-worth and validity, that is). “Fair enough,” Louis says, slumping back against the headboard and looking up at Harry’s ceiling. “Honesty hour? You remember my friend, Matt? Puking Matt.”

“Not sure how I could possibly forget,” Harry says, and Louis feels the corners of his mouth twitch up against his will.

“Yeah, well. The short of it is, summer after our freshman year of high school, I came out to him. He was the first person I told besides my parents, who were both surprisingly cool with it. I figured he’d probably be the same, right? If my parents could accept that sort of news, then certainly someone my own age could.” Stupid, naïve high-school-Louis. “What I did not take into account was Matt’s Protestant upbringing, and the fact that what he’d been taught about faggots might make him want to give me a good sock in the nose, which he did.” Louis shrugs, like it doesn’t feel as though someone is sheathing a dagger between his ribs every time he thinks about the pain and humiliation of that day, even now, seven goddamn years later. “Spouting some pretty fucking offensive shit was just the cherry on top, I guess. There was a good number of Bible verses in there, if I remember correctly. ”

Harry is silent for a long time. “Did you tell your parents?”

Louis shakes his head. “Nah. I’d only ever been in a fight once before—using the term ‘in a fight’ loosely, here, to mean ‘punched in the face.’ God, Mark was so mad. Like, scary mad.”

“At you?” Harry breathes.

“What? No. Jesus.” Louis is about to ask how Harry could possibly think that, but everything he knows about Harry’s step-dad already answers that question. “No, he was pissed at the other kid. So, like, when the whole thing with Matt went down, I was so embarrassed that I just didn’t want to deal with the drama of Mark going and kicking the shit out of my former best friend to avenge me, or something.”

Harry lets out a low whistle. “I’m so sorry,” he says, tucking his face back into Louis’ shoulder and wrapping his arm around Louis’ stomach. “And don’t say it’s fine,” he adds before Louis can say precisely that. “It’s not. It sucks, and I’m sorry that happened to you.”

It’s not like Louis has been waiting for seven years for someone to commiserate over this with him (because Louis tells Liam and Niall many things, but he’s never told them this). Honestly, he is over it, most of the time. It’s not like Louis has been wandering around in desolation, waiting to come clean to someone. But let’s just say it doesn’t hurt to have someone else commiserate over how much that thing sucked, even if it happened a long time ago. “Thanks, baby,” Louis says, resting his cheek against Harry’s head. “Do you want to send this now?” he asks, swirling his finger on the keypad to circle the word doc with the cursor.

Harry shakes his head. “I’ll do it tomorrow morning, so it seems more business-y. Less like I’ve been staying up late stressing over it.”

“Okay,” Louis says, making a mental note to ask Harry tomorrow, just to make sure he has in fact sent it. “Also, I know you don’t want to dwell on the camp stuff right now, and that’s fine. But if you ever do want to talk about it with someone…I feel like that could be good. Mental health-wise. Like, letting the air out of a balloon slowly, instead of just waiting around for something to come along and pop it. You know?”

“Probably doesn’t say much for my mental health that I get exactly what you mean by that,” Harry says, smiling rather grimly. “Thanks, though. I’ll—I’ll think about it. For sure.”

It’s not Louis’ ideal answer, but one he supposes he’ll have to be satisfied with, for the time being.  

Chapter Text

Harry’s hands freeze over the piano keys when he hears the click of someone opening the door to his practice room. He pivots to see Louis pushing open the door with his elbow, hands preoccupied with holding cups of tea. “Hey,” Harry says, scooting over on the piano bench to make room for Louis, who gives him a peck on the lips and one of the teas. Definitely Harry’s new favorite form of greeting.

Louis nods at the two empty cups of tea perched atop the piano. “Didn’t know I was enabling something of a minor addiction, here,” he teases.

“Oh, yeah.” Harry stacks the empty cups and tosses them in the trash bin. “One was supposed to be for Zayn, but he’s not in the studio tonight.”

“I think he and Liam are chilling at home,” Louis says. “They were in our room when I left. ‘Working’ is the official word, but…” Louis shakes his head dubiously.

“I’m starting to see a pattern, where your visits to my practice room are concerned,” Harry says, stroking an imaginary beard. “Is that the only reason you’re here? To distract yourself from the knowledge that Liam and Zayn are getting it on in your room?”

“And to spend time with my lovely boyfriend,” Louis says sweetly, planting an emphatic kiss on Harry’s lips (he tastes like tea). Then Louis turns to inspect the sheet music that Harry has been working on. “‘Summer Nights’!” he says, nothing short of thrilled. Directing his attention back to Harry, “Can I hear?”

Harry rubs the back of his neck. “I’m not very good yet,” he admits. “Been busy with school and stuff.” Harry was actually planning to wait until he had the whole thing down pat before he performed it for Louis. As a surprise, or something. But he doesn’t want to make Louis feel bad by telling him that now.

“Just the bit you’ve practiced?” Louis wheedles, batting his eyelashes. “For me? I’ve never even heard you play.”

Harry chews the inside of his cheek. It’s not like he’s never played in front of anyone. Harry used to play in front of whole congregations. On a weekly basis. That’s just it, though—when Harry played at Mass, he was executing a detached performance for strangers (with a choir that could largely cover up his mistake, if Harry ever really screwed up a chord). To play a song that Harry knows Louis loves, just for Louis, when Harry hasn’t even practiced it enough to feel comfortable playing it by himself yet…that seems so much more intimate. And therefore intimidating.

“You don’t have to, if you don’t want,” Louis says, picking up on Harry’s hesitation. He sounds regretful. “Seriously, no pressure.”

Harry can feel Louis’ bouncy happiness from a few moments ago slipping away like an ebbing tide, and he would do anything to get it back. “No, no, I can play it for you,” he finds himself saying. Harry arranges his hands on the keys, and the damp tips of his fingers slip on the plastic. He rubs his hands over the thighs of his jeans and repositions himself to start. “It’s not going to be very good,” he warns Louis, who winds his arm around Harry’s waist.

“No pressure,” Louis repeats, softer now.

Trying to believe that is like trying to swallow a pill dry, but Harry nods anyway and forces himself to start playing. The song is choppy in some places and limps unevenly in others, but all in all, it’s not as horrible as Harry thought it would be.

When Harry reaches the stanza about love at first sight and putting up a fight, Louis starts singing along quietly. The song almost falls apart under Harry’s fingers. He keeps it together just long enough for Louis to start crooning about making love under a dock, but then Harry loses his cool (and his place in the music) and has to backtrack a couple measures. While Louis waits for Harry to pick up the tune again, his thumb starts to swipe back and forth across Harry’s hip. Harry would have expected to find this distracting, but it’s oddly grounding. He doesn’t even care that he botches the ending, fumbling to find and then pounding out the final chord with stick-the-landing enthusiasm.

Once the note dies, there is only silence.

“Like I said, I haven’t had much time to prac—” Harry begins, but Louis’ hand turns his face, and Louis’ lips cut him off before he can finish his apology. Definitely Harry’s new favorite way to be interrupted.

“You. Are. Amazing,” Louis says, punctuating each word with a kiss. Harry scrunches up his nose, which Louis takes as invitation to kiss that, as well.

“You have incredibly low standards for piano performance, then,” Harry says.

“That’s not what I meant,” Louis says. “Don’t get me wrong—I’m pretty sure having a boyfriend who plays Grease songs while I sing along is an actual fantasy I had in middle school.”

Harry snorts. Louis bumps Harry’s shoulder lightly with his own.

“I just meant, like, in general,” Louis concludes. “You’re amazing.”

“Oh,” Harry says, face warm. “Well, you too. You’re amazing, too. If Middle School Me was allowed fantasies about having boyfriends, they’d probably have been something like this.”

Louis’ smile doesn’t waver, but his hold on Harry’s waist noticeably tightens. “Oh, I’m sure,” Louis says, his teasing voice steering them away from the dangerous conversational waters of Middle School Harry’s mental restrictions. “I am the stuff of adolescent fantasies. Dashing good looks, voice of an angel…”

“Brings me tea,” Harry says.

“And my undying devotion and affection,” Louis says with affected indignation, placing a hand over his heart.

“Only after you’ve been driven out of your own home by the undying devotion and affection between Liam and Zayn,” Harry ribs.

Louis shrugs. “I would have come anyway,” he says with casual certainty that makes Harry’s face bloom pink anew. “I was due for a study break, and it feels like I haven’t seen you in ages.”

“What?” Harry laughs. “We see each other all the time. We saw each other last night.”

“Yeah, but we’re always studying these days,” Louis says, making a face like he smells something foul. “That doesn’t count as proper hanging out. And stressful letter writing definitely doesn’t count as proper hanging out. Which reminds me.” Louis pokes Harry gently in the arm, face serious now. “Did you send that email today?”

Harry nods. “This morning. When I got to class.” Harry licks his lips, which suddenly feel uncomfortably dry. “He hasn’t—I haven’t gotten a response yet.”

Louis nods pensively. “Okay, yeah. Sorry, just wanted to make sure.”

Harry shrugs. He doesn’t blame Louis for suspecting that Harry might wimp out. “No problem. Thanks for checking and, y’know, actually writing the thing.”

“Of course, baby." After a moment’s pause, Louis says, bracingly, “We still on for tomorrow night?”

“Yeah, for sure. You gonna tell me what we’re doing yet?”

“Not a chance,” is Louis’ decisive response. “It won’t involve any stressful exam prep or letter writing, I’ll give you that.”

“Or pancakes,” Harry adds.

Louis huffs out a short laugh through his nose. “Right.”

“Well, that narrows it down nicely, doesn’t it?” Harry teases.

Louis gives him a wet smack on the cheek in response. “Patience is a virtue,” he singsongs. Which is rich, Harry thinks, coming from Louis. But Harry is so endeared by his obvious glee at withholding their date plans that Harry thinks it imprudent to point that out.

“All right,” Harry says, holding his hands up, palms out.

Louis pats his head. “Now, let’s take it from the top,” he says, gesticulating grandly at Harry’s sheet music. This time, Harry doesn’t hesitate to begin playing.

***

“Hear you’ve got a date tonight,” Zayn says at breakfast on Friday. He looks as smug as he always does, nowadays, when Louis comes up in conversation with Harry. Which he does. With frequent regularity.

Harry nods and swallows a mouthful of toast that sticks in his throat. He woke up this morning almost as nervous as he was excited, because this will be his first date date with Louis, and Harry (desperately) wants it to go well. Harry doesn’t mention his nerves to Zayn, though, because he knows Zayn would just shower him with banal reassurances that wouldn’t actually make Harry feel any better. “What do you think I should wear?” Harry says instead, since that’s an issue that can feasibly be addressed.

Zayn scratches his jaw in contemplation. “Dress shirt, slacks…?” Zayn  makes a cyclical you get the idea gesture with his hand.

Normally, that’d be Harry’s go-to outfit as well. But that’s what Harry used to wear all the time, and Louis very obviously prefers Harry’s looser, more casual attire. He’s never said as much to Harry’s face, but he can tell. Plus, it would feel weird to wear the same clothes to impress Louis as Harry uses to impress his parents. Harry doesn’t feel up to explaining all of this to Zayn, so he just nods like he’s taking Zayn’s suggestion under advisement. He’ll figure it out later. Louis texted late last night to say that he’s got a group study session until four, and after that he’ll pick Harry up for…whatever it is they’re doing. So Harry has the whole afternoon to himself to obsess over attire. Great.

This would all weigh slightly less heavily on Harry’s mind if he knew the type of situation he was supposed to be dressing for. Maybe he can press Zayn—who suspiciously did not ask Harry where he and Louis would be going this evening—for information.

“Did Louis mention where he’s taking me?” Harry says, giving his voice a faux-casual lilt.

“I know where you’re going,” Zayn says, face frustratingly neutral. Harry waits. “I also know it’s supposed to be a surprise, so. Nice try.”

Harry’s shoulders slump. He considers pulling the Zayn-and-Louis-talking-behind-Harry’s-back guilt trip card, but decides not to rehash such unpleasantness for the sake of something so minor. “Okay,” Harry says in defeat.

“Sorry, man, I promised Louis I wouldn’t tell,” Zayn says. “What, you don’t like surprises?”

Harry sighs. “No, it’s not that. Not knowing is just…compounding my first date nerves, I guess.”

Predictably, Zayn is quick to dish up the unhelpful platitude, “You’ll be fine.”

Harry fixes Zayn with a flat expression. Zayn of all people should know how horribly awkward and awful Harry can make social situations, and Harry tells him as much.

“Dude, have a little more faith in how much people enjoy your company,” Zayn says, pointing his fork at Harry’s face solemnly. “Look at us. How often do we eat breakfast together?”

“Like, almost every day,” Harry says, unsure where this is going.

“Almost every day,” Zayn echoes. “I’ll have you know that I haven’t woken up this early since I had eight a.m. classes freshman year. You’ve turned me into a fucking morning person.” Zayn shakes his head and waves his hand dismissively. “You can do anything.”

Harry doesn’t know about that. Nonetheless, the bottom line of it all seems to be that Zayn isn’t gonna spill details about Harry’s date. It’s fine, he tells himself. Harry can wait nine hours.

***

Nine hours later finds Harry standing on the sidewalk outside Harper Hall, awaiting Louis’ imminent arrival. (He did decide to dress up a bit by putting on a pair of slacks, but put on his paisley shirt instead of a button-up; it felt like good luck, somehow.)

Jeez, it’s cold. The sun is just starting to set, but the wind chill has Harry uncomfortably frigid. He tugs Louis’ scarf higher up over his nose and pulls out his phone for a distraction. Harry has already checked his email upwards of two dozen times since he sent the message to Father Robert yesterday morning, only to be disappointed and relieved in equal measure whenever he saw his inbox still empty. That doesn’t stop him from checking again now, though.

Still nothing.  

Luckily, Harry doesn’t have much time to stew on that, because Louis rolls up in Myrtle at four-thirty on the dot. Harry’s grin is obscured behind layers of plaid fabric, so he waves jovially at Louis and jogs over to the passenger side.

“Sorry, I would’ve gotten out to open the door like a proper gentleman, but it’s cold as balls out there,” Louis says as Harry hops in beside him. “And also, you were already running.”

“That’s okay,” Harry says once he’s unwrapped the scarf from around his face. “Somehow I think I’ll get over it.”

“How gracious of you,” Louis says, pulling away from the curb. “Wouldn’t want my faux pas to sour the rest of our evening.”

Harry giggles and buckles himself in, surprised when Louis takes a right instead of a left out of a parking lot. Odd. This direction will take them deeper into the middle of campus, rather than out of it. “Do I get to know where we’re going yet?” he says curiously, watching a cluster of dorms pass by his window.

“You’ll see,” Louis promises, turning up a drive that Harry usually walks to reach the fine arts building. Harry opens his mouth to ask if that’s where they’re headed, but decides against it, on account of that being an absurd idea. And also because he doesn’t want to badger Louis with too many questions. So Harry resigns himself to feeling tingly with anticipation and confusion during the brief stretch of time before they are indeed parking in front of the fine arts building. Maybe Louis is running an errand for Niall really quick?

But Louis doesn’t tell Harry to stay in the car when he gets out, so Harry takes that as his cue to follow. Myrtle is the only vehicle in the parking lot, which is no small relief. It means that Harry can confidently take Louis’ hand while they approach the main entrance. Louis pulls one of the doors open and steps back with a ridiculously formal little bow to let Harry pass over the threshold first. Amid his nerves and confusion, Harry cracks a smile. He reclaims Louis’ hand as soon as they start down Harry’s well-worn path through the atrium, under the softly glowing chandelier and past the theater entrances…and down a hallway that has grown so familiar to Harry over the past three months—a corridor that leads to the studio where Zayn is always working.

Sure enough, outside the open doors to Zayn’s usual studio, Louis stops up short and gestures to indicate that Harry should enter the room first. Harry keeps his face as neutral as possible, despite the questions streaming through his mind like headlines across a news ticker.

Immediately upon entering, Harry can see that the classroom’s setup has been shifted. The easels and tables that are usually scattered around the room have been set in a semicircle around a messy arrangement of foliage, which is at least a couple yards in diameter—potted flowers, a few ficus, elephant ear plants, what Harry thinks might be bamboo palms, and a variety of other flora for which Harry has no names. Interspersed with the vegetation are seemingly random (perhaps to a more cultured eye, Harry supposes, “artsy”) items—a wooden wagon wheel here, a couple of blown-glass vases there. A few of the plants are strung with dimly lit paper lanterns; the shoulder-high pine is wrapped in a string of white lights. It’s all very pretty, Harry thinks, eyes stuck on the weird, artificial garden. But what is it?

Before Harry has a chance to ask, Louis explains, “Word from Zayn is that one of the painting classes is working on still lifes this week, and this is their model.”

Harry nods like that demystifies everything. His eyes flick from a ficus to Louis, who smirks and takes Harry’s hand. “C’mon.” He leads Harry around the greenery to see a circular table and two chairs set up right next to the huge glass window that overlooks the pond. The table is shrouded in a white cloth, set for two—in surprisingly fancy fashion, right down to the artfully folded cloth napkins.

If not for the fact that Harry recognizes the dishes and cutlery from Louis’ apartment, he’d swear the seating arrangement was plucked straight out of a high-end restaurant and…and dropped here in the middle of an empty academic building?

“I’m a huge fan of the picnic-style date,” Louis is saying now, while he crouches down to retrieve a basket from under the table.

Of course he is, Harry thinks, the secret sap.

“But December is hardly the season for al fresco dining,” Louis continues. “I figured this was the next best thing for creating that outdoor ambiance.” He sweeps his arms grandly at the tranquil dusk scenery beyond the window. “ That —” Louis jabs a thumb at the decorative greenery that mostly obscures their view of the rest of the classroom now “—was a weirdly lucky coincidence.

“I also figured,” Louis goes on, lacing his fingers through Harry’s and resting his cheek on Harry’s shoulder, “here we don’t have to worry about anyone else seeing us all gooey and romantic and shit.”

Harry’s lips part but no sound comes out because he is simply bowled over with how…how Louis…how Harry didn’t even know this was what he wanted until Louis gave it to him. How Louis said “we don’t have to worry,” like it’s not just Harry’s weird paranoid problem that he has to shoulder alone. How Louis lifts his head off Harry’s shoulder to give him a questioning sidelong glance when Harry’s silence stretches on too long, as if to ask, How’d I do? As if he doesn’t know that this is the sweetest thing anyone’s done for Harry in his whole life.

“This is so…the most perfect…” Harry tries to articulate his feelings and fails, eventually resorting to a simple, “Thank you.”

As it turns out, the most perfect thing is the way Louis’ eyes sparkle in the orange light of sunset when he grins with satisfaction.

Okay, so Louis isn’t the only one who’s a total sap.

***

“When did you find the time to set all this up?” Harry asks, helping himself to another finger sandwich while Louis sets about lighting a couple of ivory tealight candles (with a pocket lighter emblazoned with the Tasmanian Devil). “I thought you had a bunch of group work this afternoon.”

“I enlisted Liam and Zayn to set up most of it last night,” Louis says. “Very fortunate there aren’t any Friday classes booked in this room. And I had Niall drop off the food just before I picked you up today.”

“Last night? But I thought—” Oh.

“Yeah,” Louis says. “I did come to the practice room to give you my undying affection. And tea. But also to make sure you didn’t duck down to Zayn’s studio and interrupt them.”

“Sneaky,” Harry comments.

“They were the sneaky ones,” Louis says. “This table? Not ours. I have no idea where they got it. Potentially stolen off a frat house porch?” He shrugs. “I’m sure they’ll return it tomorrow.” He takes a bite of custard tart and hums happily. “Have you tried these? Perrie made them. They’re amazing.”

“This whole thing was very much a team effort, then,” Harry says with amusement, helping himself to a tart out of the basket. It is amazing. He’ll have to remember to tell Perrie so at the next Spectrum meeting.

“I did make most of the food,” Louis says. “Most productive procrastination technique ever. Though I guess my mom should get a consulting credit for most of the menu. And I’ve never succeeded in making a tart that tastes more like custard than concrete—trust me, Perrie has tried to teach me. By now she assumes it’s less trouble to just make them herself.”

“That seems reminiscent of your experience with Niall and guitar,” Harry teases.

“Pretty much,” Louis says. “My friendships are better served when no one tries to make me their student.”

“Well, you seem to do pretty well on the teaching side of things,” Harry says. “My stats grade thanks you.”

Louis shrugs and pours himself more lemonade from the thermos, but Harry can tell he’s flattered.

“I’m serious,” Harry says. “Have you ever thought about being a professor or something?”

“A little,” Louis admits. “Teaching’s always seemed like a bit of a performance to me, and you know how I’m given to theatrics.” Harry snorts. “But grade school kids can be little shits, so I think I’d rather teach college students, if I were going to teach anyone. Meaning I’d have to get my Master’s, at least. Maybe a PhD. Meaning I’d be spending a lot more time in school, for something that I don’t even know I’d be that good at…” Louis trails off and pulls an apologetic face. “Sorry, that was a long and rambling answer to your question.”

“No,” Harry says quickly, reaching across the table to rest his hand over Louis’ in earnest. “I—I want to know. About what you want to do with your life. For what it’s worth, I think you’d make a great professor, and not just because you tutored me. It’s like, you’re so—” Harry shakes his head to un-jumble the words that are fighting to get out. “Math is boring to a lot of people, right? Sorry, but it is.” Now Harry is the one wearing the apologetic face.

Louis shrugs: no offense taken.

“But you’re so…enthusiastic. I think you could get students excited about—or at least not totally indifferent to—math better than a lot of professors.”

The corner of Louis’ mouth pulls up in a smile. “Thanks, love,” he says, in a quiet way that tells Harry that Louis has taken his compliments to heart.

Harry, swept up in the affection conveyed in Louis’ pet name, is overcome with the desire to respond in kind, but with what name? They all sound equally awkward in his head. Baby? Honey? Sugar? Harry’s brain takes that last one and runs with it without his permission, and before Harry can bite his tongue, the next thing out of his mouth is, “No problem, sugarplum.”

Louis very nearly chokes on custard tart. Harry grips his hand and leans over the table while Louis hunches over a fistful of napkin, hacking.

“Oh, God, Lou, are you okay?” Harry says, free hand hovering in the air like he’s ready to jump into action of necessary—although what that action would be, Harry has no idea. When Louis straightens up, Harry can see tears streaming from the crinkled corners of his eyes, but he’s smiling.

“That’s worse than Boo Bear,” Louis laughs through his tears. Harry passes over his own napkin so that Louis doesn’t have to wipe his eyes with his own custard-covered one.

“Hey, don’t knock Boo Bear,” Harry says, feigning indignation to cover up his mortification. “Or sugarplum. Just for that, I think I’ll keep them both. Forever. Remember, you have no vetoing power on nicknames.”

“But sugarplum? Really?” Louis is positively alight with amusement.

“Not any worse than Bambi Legs,” Harry says, grinning despite the vestiges of embarrassment still sizzling in his gut.

“Touché,” says Louis. “Sugarplum it is. Guess I can make my peace with that.”

***

They linger in the studio long after the sun has set and can only see each other’s faces in the flickering light of mostly melted candles and the muted luminescence of paper lanterns. It’s easily the most fun Harry has ever had on a date, and by the time Louis suggests they head out, Harry honestly can’t recall what the heck he was so nervous about earlier. Conversation with Louis seems to have that effect on him. As they push in their chairs and collect the remains of their meal in the picnic basket, Harry feels nearly tipsy with happiness.

“Don’t worry about the rest,” Louis says, pointing (as far as Harry can tell, in the dark) to the furniture. “Liam and I will come back in Myrtle tomorrow to put it back wherever it goes.”

It’s kind of killing Harry to not be able to see whether the table is genuinely clean (he volunteers to take the tablecloth back to his place for washing, but Louis is having none of that). He reluctantly follows Louis out of the studio and into the hallway, where he zips up his coat and rewraps himself in Louis’ scarf (Louis had grinned when Harry shed his winter wear earlier to reveal his paisley shirt).

“So, in the grand scheme of all your experience on first dates, how did this measure up?” Louis says, shifting the picnic basket from one hand to the other so that he can wrap an arm around Harry’s waist as they walk.

In the (admittedly tiny) “grand scheme” of Harry’s first date experience, he can honestly say, “No comparison.” He curls his arm around Louis’ back. “You’ve set the bar high. I’m going to have to come up with something pretty awesome for our next date to top this.” Harry is mostly joking. Louis laughs.

“I look forward to this to-be-determined awesomeness,” Louis says. “After finals, preferably. When do yours end, by the way?”

“Last day—the twenty-second,” Harry says.

“Ugh, that’s the worst.”

“Yeah. What about yours?”

“Just Thursday and Friday for me,” says Louis. “So next week is gonna be shit, but at least it’ll be over soon.”

Harry’s stomach twists. “So you’re heading home in a week, then?”

“Nah, I’ll probably stick around until Tuesday anyway,” Louis says, pulling Harry closer. “People tend call off their desk shifts during finals, which means lots of hours available to earn back all the money I dropped on Christmas gifts.”

Harry exhales. Well, that’s a little bit longer, at least. It’s unpleasant, the knowledge that Harry’s days with Louis—with all his friends—are numbered before he has to go home for two and a half weeks. That reminds Harry…

It’s super rude to pull out his phone while still technically on a date, and it’s not like there’s a high probability that Father Robert has responded to his email in the last two hours. However, now that the thought has lodged itself in Harry’s head, there’s just no ignoring it.

Once they’ve climbed into Myrtle, Harry withdraws his phone from his pocket. He’ll just do it really quickly.

“Checking your email?” Louis guesses, turning on the car so that the vents start blasting air.

“Yeah,” Harry says, “sorry, I just—”

“No worries,” Louis says. “Do what you gotta do.”

Harry’s university email seems to take ages to load, but when it does—oh. Oh crap. Harry has an unread message from Father Robert.

The look on his face must reveal as much to Louis, who asks, “What did he say?”

He almost can’t get himself to open the message, but berates himself for being a coward so vigorously that after almost five seconds’ hesitation, he taps his thumb to the screen and starts to read aloud. “‘Dear Harry, Thank you very much for your response to my note. If the Holy Spirit is not moving you to write a testimonial, and you think that contributing to the website would be detrimental to your spiritual growth, then of course you should not do so. I have informed Director Father Howard of your decision.’”

“That’s good, right?” Louis says breathily.

Harry wants to think yes, but there’s a whole other paragraph still to be read. “‘However, I am concerned by your concern about what you called ‘regression,’’” Harry continues, voice turning tremulous against his will. “‘If you feel Satan t-tempting you, I strongly encourage you to seek counsel with clergy either at home or at school. Remember…remember Matthew 26:41: ‘Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ Seek solidarity in your brothers and sisters in Christ if Satan tempts you with wicked thoughts again. And please do not hesitate to reach out to us in the future, if necessary.’”

Harry is so angry so fast that he doesn’t even know what he’s angry about at first. By all accounts, Harry should feel relieved. Essentially, the email says that Father Robert and the camp director are letting Harry off the hook. Harry one; camp zero.

That second paragraph, though, hurts like a sucker punch. Because even though he’s letting Harry have this one, Father Howard still gets the last word that Harry is inherently a screw up, a problem that can’t be ignored forever, a faulty model expected to break down and require fixing again, it’s just a matter of time. Something wicked.

Not just Harry, either. If Father Robert or Father Howard or anyone who shared their perspective ever met Louis, they would label him exactly the same way. Louis, with his strategically orchestrated dates and soft hands and comforting messages and carefully concealed marshmallow of a heart: wicked.

That thought breaks Harry’s own heart so suddenly and so severely that his only options are to break down crying or spit out a forceful, choked, “Fuck.” Harry’s expletive punctures the silence of the car like a bullet. In his peripheral vision, Harry sees Louis jerk back. He turns on Louis, feeling hot all over, even though the vents are still blasting tepid air.

”What?” Harry demands exasperatedly, because Louis’ mouth is hanging open. He looks utterly stupefied, like Harry’s just announced that his whole identity is a sham, and he’s actually a belly dancer named Jolanda from Dubai, or something.

“I’ve…never heard you cuss before,” Louis admits, sounding somewhat dazed by the experience.

“Yeah, well. I’m angry. I’m really fucking angry, Lou!” Harry bursts out, throwing his hands up in the air like he figures you’re supposed to do when you’re really fucking angry, but it works out to be some sort of helpless flail instead. Harry accidentally bangs his wrist on the dashboard. “Okay? So—fuck! Fuck fuckety fucking fuck—“

Harry gets cut off when Louis suddenly lunges forward to ravish his mouth in a rather commanding kiss. It doesn’t help that the force of Louis yanking him over the console by his coat collar knocks the wind out of him.

“Wha—” Harry tries to ask, as soon as Louis pulls away slightly to inhale, but breaks off in a whimper when Louis takes Harry’s lower lip between his teeth.

“That,” Louis pants, pushing a kiss to the corner of Harry’s mouth, “was so hot. You’re so hot. You’re amazing.”

Harry’s also extremely taken aback. But Louis kind of surprised the anger out of him. At least, for the moment. He settles for kissing Louis back, deciding to let this absurdity take its course.