The very first time Louis remembers hearing Harry Styles' deep, deep voice, he's just won gold at the World Equestrian Games and he's officially back on Great Britain's Olympic team. He's also three sheets to the wind, drunk on victory and champagne, and there's a gorgeous boy whispering in his ear. Life's grand.
In all fairness, he was sure they'd been introduced before, what with being on the same delegation and all that. It's just, when you'd been through enough competitions, like he had, the other riders' faces started to blur with the sponsors and the patrons and all the other important people he had to meet, and how was he supposed to keep track of anyone other than his own team when there were medals to be won, honestly.
Now though, with the weight of his showjumping medal on his chest and the alcohol sizzling in his veins, virtually nothing could distract him from those dimples.
"Are you alright?" Louis vaguely observed that the boy really was well suited for dressage, if the way he talked slowly, enunciating each word, was anything to go by. The fact that the boy also won gold in his category might've swayed his judgement a little, as well.
"You kinda zoned out for a while." He waved half heartedly in front of his own face, and, big hands, Louis noticed, gaze dropping briefly to where he was cradling his own champagne flute.
"Did I? Must be more tired than I thought." Louis lied. If the boy didn't notice his blatant staring he was not gonna be the one to point it out.
"Oh." The boy fish-mouthed for a second, and Louis thought, pretty lips. "Of course, your final round was today! The stress must be catching up with you, uh? When I finished my last ride I just wanted to come back to the hotel room and sleep for 18 hours straight."
Louis was considering suggesting the boy helped him relieve his pent up stress (he never claimed to be subtle) when Zayn sidled up to them, one of the team veterinarians, a blonde bloke whom Louis had caught singing to the horses on more than one occasion trailing behind him. "Tommo, my lad!" Louis could actually tell Zayn's level of inebriation by the amount of Bradfordness in his accent, thanks to their lifelong friendship and shared wild child phase. It was a talent he'd barely used ever since they made it to the grand prix competitions. "Watcha doen?"
"I'm talking to Harry her-" Harry had turned his attention to the blonde bloke (Neil? No, Niall. Louis must've been drunker than anticipated), so he turned back to Zayn, whose stoic, pouty face was being betrayed by the way he was slighty swaying to the left every few seconds. Expensive champagne always got to him the hardest. "Nevermind."
"Simon was looking for ya. Still got some arse kissing to do." Louis knew it. He'd been avoiding Simon, his manager and owner of his horse Darcy, for the better part of the evening now. The mandatory networking was probably his least favourite part about the job, and you'd think Simon would cut him some slack after he'd won him a gold medal.
A shiver unrelated to the alcohol he'd consumed or the pretty boy he was still keeping track of with his peripheral vision ran up his spine. He won. Darcy was sleeping at her bay in the competition stables and tomorrow they'd return to the UK as victors. Louis knew it was going to be a while before he stopped being amazed by it.
(At some point he lost track of Harry Styles in the midst of hearing old, bald businessmen drone on and on about the finesse of equestrian sports - which, what the fuck, don't even get him started on this shit - but Simon secured them a hefty sponsorship deal, so the night was not a total loss.)
The rush of winning in the WEG had mostly faded by the time he arrived at the equestrian training grounds for his first meeting as a member of the olympic team one week later. Buckinghamshire was not his favourite region but at least he wasn't being shipped off to the west midlands again, thank fuck, that had been a nightmare. The weather was shit and his friends weren't there and Darcy and him hadn't exactly hit it off at first, what with Louis still being so shaken by what had happened to his previous horse Cella, so he had spent his entire training season for the WEG in misery, whining to his mum over skype every chance he got.
It landed him the gold medal for Individual Showjumping, though, and he'd headed for Doncaster almost immediately upon arriving back in the UK, promises of his mum's sunday roast and getting to see his sisters for the first time in months propelling him to skirt the speed limit on the M1 almost the entire ride up north. The weeks prior to a Grand Prix competition were always hectic, and usually his family came to see him compete, but his mum couldn't take the time off of work to go this time, even when he offered to pay for their airfares to France.
His sisters had made him a big banner that said Lou is the number one in big, glittery letters, though, and his mum's cooking was good as ever, so he was mostly appeased. Today he'd woken up early and made the drive down straight to the meeting, getting there with minutes to spare. He already missed his family, but he was also itching to get to Darcy. It was the first time they spent more than three days apart since Louis had started training with her, so he was feeling justified in his separation anxiety.
He had to get through the meeting first, though, and Darcy wasn't arriving until early afternoon. The walk to the Olympic wing felt bittersweet, memories flooding him of the last time he had walked down that corridor two years ago, a sprained ankle weeks before the 2012 London Olympics ruining his chances of competing, the knowledge that his beloved Cella would have to be put down due to her injuries weighing heavily on his heart.
Louis scrubbed a hand down his face, pushing aside the feeling of failure that threatened to overwhelm him every time he thought about the fall. He'd made the team again, hadn't he? During the last two years he'd worked his arse off to turn Darcy into a worthy substitute, and he'd won one of the three qualifying spots for the team offered during the WEG, and this time he was going to compete in the Olympics and he was going to win. His stubbornness had already taken him from stable boy at Malik's stud ranch to where he was today, riding a seven figure horse and having over 50k twitter followers - and Liam could fuck off with his "that's not something to brag about, mate", thank you very much.
Speaking of Liam, Louis thought as he made his way over to his team veterinary and friend, who was fiddling with the kettle in a corner of the large conference room.
"You better be making enough for the both of us, Leeyum, otherwise you're not getting tea."
A gruff "G'morning" was his only acknowledgement before Liam turned back to the machine, picking another cup and tea bag for Louis from the cabinet. Louis could sympathize, if he hadn't had a cuppa before making the drive from his mum's he would be shooting daggers at anything that moved as well.
Louis observed the room slowly filling in as he sipped his too sweet tea (Liam had the taste buds of an infant). He could see Niall talking to one of the members of the eventing team, Zayn still absent, which, given the early hour (at least early for Zayn-like standarts), was unsurprising. There was a flash of bouncy curls in his peripheral vision, and Louis nearly gave himself whiplash to check that yes, that was Harry Styles talking to Susan, an elderly woman who Louis was fairly sure was the dressage programme manager.
He jabbed a finger in Liam's side to wake him from his sleepy haze. "Leeyum. Lima boy."
"What?" Liam didn't even flinch. He had either grown used to Louis' touchy-feely ways, or had found a way to upgrade his abs of steel into... whatever metal was harder than steel.
"You know Harry Styles? The new guy on the dressage team? Also won gold last week? Give me the scoop."
"What makes you think I have some sort of scoop on him?" Louis levelled him with an unimpressed stare. Liam knew every person that worked with them, from horse groom to financial manager. Louis was constantly baffled by his ability of knowing so much about so many people given that he spent most of his day around horses. "Fine. There's not much, anyway. He trained in Switzerland and since he moved back here the WEG was his first Grand Prix. The higher ups are betting on him to hit it big on the olympics, though. Niall says he's a good lad, a right laugh."
Louis ignored the tiny petty voice at the back of his brain telling him that he was a right laugh that would hit it big in the Olympics and switched to more pressing matters. "Is he gay, though? Bi, at least?"
"Jesus, Tommo. I don't know. But if you're gonna try and drag him to your bed, don't break his heart, or do it now that the training season is just starting. We need him to win some medals." Which was completely unfair, honestly. The fact that Louis was too focused on his career to commit to a relationship didn't make him an arsehole. He'd always made it pretty clear to all of his flings that riding came first.
"Have you quite finished, Liam? How many hearts have I ever broken for you to be spewing this bullshit about me?"
"Well, Grimmy was pret-"
"Grimmy is a narcissistic jerk who was only mad because he didn't get to dump me first, and you know it. Also, my stomach is not strong enough for you to be mentioning him this early in the morning."
Liam only rolled his eyes (rude) and made his way to the nearest seat as the last board member filtered into the room, a sleep mussed Zayn slipping in quietly just as the chatter started to die down. Louis crossed the room to sit by him, handing him the rest of his lukewarm tea as a hello. He was selfless like that, Louis was, how could Liam even accuse him of being a heartbreaker?
By the time Louis was making his way past the rows of horse stalls on the main stables his brain was cooked from hearing about tournament statistics all day long, or how the dutch had a strong team lined up, and he just wanted to take Darcy for a hack, maybe even take her up one of the trails that he knew no one ever went on and ended on a spot with a pretty spectacular view of their surrounding landscape, british meadowlands for as long as the eye could see. He was unlocking her stall when he heard whispering filtering from the stall to his right, which had a beautiful grey gelding in it.
"Hello?" And what a nice surprise it was when none other than Harry Styles himself walked out from behind the horse, grooming brush in hand.
"Hello... Oh, Louis!" The way his eyes widened comically shouldn't have been this endearing, yet Louis' mouth was tugging up at the corners without his permission. "Hey, how are you? Didn't get a chance to say hi today at the meeting."
"I'm fine, thank you. You good?" He entered Darcy's stall carefully, mindful of his lack of riding boots, but it seemed she hadn't made herself at home yet, and the floor was relatively clean and safe for his vans.
"I'm great. This your horse, yeah? Tigre? What's her name?" He was peering into Louis' horse stall, wall coming up to shoulder height. Louis stored that information to process later, he still wasn't sure if he was turned on by Harry's height or bitter that he himself couldn't peer into the stalls without going on his tip toes.
"Yes, this is Darcy. Say hi, girl." He directed the last bit at Darcy, petting her coat affectionately. In the world of equestrian competitions, horses had a registered name which they competed under and a stable name, used by their trainers and riders to address them. He knew Harry's horse competed as Valegro (such a posh name), but didn't mention it. "What's yours, then?"
"This is Bean, he competes as Valegro." Louis slowly turned around to face harry, staring at him through the bars.
"You named your horse Bean? What happened to the other corny horse names like Tinkerbell, or Cowboy? Those were taken?"
Harry barked out a laugh, his horse huffing by his side like it'd taken personal offence to Louis' jab. "Well, I was a teenager when I named him! Bean sounded great back then."
"Oh. So the horse is yours yours?" Proper posh, Harry must be. It was really uncommon for professional riders to own their horses, since they could be impossibly expensive depending on breed and lineage. A gold medal horse could be sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds, millions even. Louis himself had never owned the horses he'd ridden, both Darcy and Marcella having been co-owned by Simon and some distant royal family member that never attended the competitions, therefore Louis could never be arsed to remember their name.
"No, it's my granny's. My family has a stud farm in Cheshire."
"Well, lucky you, then. I'm always worried Darcy here is going to get sold into racing or something equally barbarian." Harry smiled and dimpled. Louis' champagne addled brain hadn't imagine those, then. "How come I never saw you around before the WEG, Harry from Cheshire? The equestrian world is terribly small, I sure would've remembered a pretty face like yours." Louis cocked his hips even though Harry couldn't see, and levelled him with a coy smile. Game on.
Harry blushed. Bingo. "I left the youth league and started training for Grand Prix just before the 2012 season. The WEG was my first big one."
"Oh, we've got ourselves a prodigy, then?" Louis softened his teasing with a smile. Leaving the youth league in 2012 made him 23 this season, which wasn't too far from Louis' 25. He didn't usually go for younger, but Louis was nothing if not versatile.
"Just lucky." Darcy nuzzled into his hand, never one for being ignored, and Louis didn't even realise he had stopped petting her.
"Must be the dimples, then." As if on cue, they appeared again. Louis was stupidly attracted to a genetic deformity. "Well, Harry, I was planning on going for a pint with some mates to celebrate the start of the training season." He wasn't. "Are you in London or local?" The training grounds were fifty miles from London, and Louis was almost sure he was going to end up moving locally once winter came. London was not worth over two hours of daily commute.
"London, for now. I might move into the village once winter comes, though."
"Very wise, young Harold." Harry smiled bashfully and didn't protest the nickname. "Fancy joining us later in the city, then?"
“Sure. Do you mind if I bring Niall?”
“No, that’s fine. I’ll text you the address later?” He slid his phone to Harry, waiting as he typed his contact info and saved it as Harry S. and a banana emoji, which - odd.
“There you go.”
Louis was unlocking the door to Zayn’s flat when he got Liam’s response (“ok see u there”). He pocketed the phone, looking around the dimmed space. He’d never understand why Zayn liked to live like a vampire, but he’d been pretty much living there rent free ever since he moved out of his west midlands flat in june, so he was not about to bitch over drawn curtains. Between travelling to Normandie for the WEG and visiting his mum he hadn't actually been sleeping here, but still. The guest bedroom was filled to the brim with his stuff, most of it still in boxes, and he wasn't even remotely prepared for the nightmare that was flat hunting in London, so he might as well just stay and pitch in the rent until it was time to move closer to the training centre in the winter. Zayn’d understand.
“Zayyniee, honey, I’m home!” He was met with silence at first, but as Louis passed the bathroom door on his way to the guest bedroom, he could hear water running inside. He tapped the door three times to give Zayn a headstart in case he was wanking and barged in.
Zayn was having a bubble bath, candles and all. He cracked one eye open, head turning in Louis’ direction. “Yes, Lou Lou?”
“We are going out for a pint later, so don’t fall asleep and drown.”
“Who’s ‘we’ in this scenario?”
“Worry not, Zaynie love, your crush is going too.”
“Liam is not my crush.” Zayn answered, knee jerk-like. Louis barked out a laugh while Zayn’s frown deepened and he sunk a bit more into his bubbly bath water.
“See, I don’t even have to mention him anymore. This is brilliant.”
“Just shut the door on your way out. You are ruining me time”.
“The Lady” was a quaint little pub in a part of town whose favourite feature, in Louis’ opinion, was the almost non existent possibility of stumbling upon someone who was part of the riding circles and might recognize them. He followed Zayn down the stairs into the basement to find Liam, Harry and Niall already talking loudly over one another in a booth by the corner. He paid for a pint of Carlsberg before sliding in next to Liam and directly across from Harry.
“Evening, lads!” They all chorused their hellos while Zayn slid in next to him, Louis noticing how Liam stared a beat too long at Zayn before looking away. It was probably nothing, just a normal reaction to Zayn’s outrageously pretty face (the fact that Zayn was like a brother to him didn't mean that Louis was oblivious to his good looks, he was just slotted in a part of Louis’ brain that was reserved for non-sexual pretty things, like sunsets or black stallions), and Louis wasn't sure if he even wanted to play matchmaker with his two best friends (not to mention the fact that as far as he knew, Liam was straight), but he decided to investigate later anyway.
Niall immediately launched on a story about his and Liam's adventures in Normandie (the vets were part of the delegation, but unless one of the horses got sick or injured mid-competition it was pretty much a paid vacation for them. Louis was not jealous.) that seemed to involve far too much cider and women to be entirely true. He felt Zayn shift uncomfortably on his other side, so he twisted to lay a brief smooch on his shoulder before turning back to the conversation (crushing on a straight man was hard, Louis'd been there). He briefly caught Harry's inquiring gaze though, so he started to think of a way to work the fact that he and Zayn were just friends into the conversation.
"... and by the time I got back to my hotel room I was completely knackered, I swear to ya, those french women are something else. I got her number, though. Pretty fantastic bird, I might call her. We're only one English Channel away, eh? Could be worse."
"Well, I for one went straight to me mum's house, and now I'm bunking in Zayn's guest room until I can be arsed to find a flat around here."
"Aw, aren't you such a mama's boy, Tommo?"
"I sure am, Lionel, you're just bitter cos yours doesn't love you as much."
"Actually, I'm pretty sure your mum likes me more than she likes you, Lou." Which, no, Zayn, not helping.
"She just gives you that impression cos you're my childhood friend and she's a classy lady, but she can't stand you, actually, says you stink up the house with your smoking every time you come by."
"Don't be such a liar, I don't even smoke inside. I bet you chain smoke every time you're away from Darcy and then blame the smell on me."
"Well, being away from your horse can be pretty stressful." Harry quipped from the other side of the table, fiddling with the straw of his drink. "Your families live near each other, then?"
"Thank you, Harold, finally someone who gets me! Zayn here, which, yes, grew up across the street from me, doesn't even miss his horse when he's on hols, the heartless bastard."
"Wait, I thought you were from Bradford." Niall said, pointing his pint first at Zayn, then at Louis, beer sloshing dangerously. "And you sound definitely Yorkshire, Louis."
"Bradford is in Yorkshire too, Niall, you need to brush up on your geography." Zayn quipped calmly, too used to Louis' teasing to be ruffled anymore. "But yes, I was born in Bradford but moved to Doncaster with my mum and sisters when my parents divorced. Dad stayed behind to keep running the stud yard."
"British regions don't make any sense, mate. Things are simpler in Ireland." A collective groan went around the rest of the lads, who, apparently, were sick of hearing about Ireland. Louis might have underestimated the amount of time Zayn and Liam spent hanging out with Niall, then, and both seemed to at least be familiar with Harry too, and Louis wondered why that was. He was pretty social, wasn't he? He could get a bit intense before competitions, admittedly, but he'd always thought of himself as friendly.
Louis got distracted from his musings by something nudging his feet. He looked down to find a pair of silver and blue space cowboy boots nudging his vans and followed the long line of skinny jean-clad legs to find Harry (of course) cocking his head in the direction of the bar and then to Louis' empty pint. He nodded and squeezed his way out over Zayn, who slid to his previous spot and continued to pay attention to whatever Liam was saying (something about a part time pool cleaner job he had in uni? God, Liam said the most random shit) without so much as a glance in Louis' direction. Cool as a cucumber, Zayn was, or at least appeared to be to anyone who didn't have Louis' extensive insight into his dorky personality.
"Nice boots, Styles." He said it sarcastically, but Harry preened like it was the highest compliment he could've been paid and crossed his feet at the ankles, leaning against the bar. His broad shoulders contrasted nicely with his slim hips and long legs, a flash of tattooed chest visible through his shirt that was open one too many buttons (not that Louis was complaining) and everything about him was enticing, really.
"Thanks, Tommo." And everyone and their granny called Louis 'Tommo', but the way Harry said it - it did things to Louis' insides. "Here." He handed Louis a pint of the same beer he was drinking earlier and sipped from his own brand new colourful drink, cheeks hollowing obscenely. Louis considered protesting, but if Harry was in the mood for buying him drinks, he'd accept it. In the name of team bonding and all that. It's not like Louis was imagining Harry sucking on something else at all. "How'd you even find this place, anyway? It's brilliant."
It really was. There were pool tables and dart boards, the music was good and the beer was cheap and it was never too crowded or too empty. Louis didn't fancy himself a pub connoisseur, but he thought it didn't get much better than that one. "Years ago Zayn used to live nearby, and I used to crash on his sofa a lot. One thing led to another."
"You still live together, yeah?"
"Well, not for a couple of years, we haven't. I've been using his spare room as storage space for the past summer, though, and I might just stay there. Never really liked the feeling of an empty home, meself. Four sisters growing up."
Harry licked his lips and adjusted himself, like the thought of Louis enjoying a full house was arousing or something (what even was this kid). "I had only one sister, but plenty of horses in granny's horse yard to keep me company. My sister doesn't like to ride, unfortunately, but I've always loved it. How'd you get into riding?"
Louis could picture it, actually, cute little Harry Styles growing up in a stud yard on the countryside, surrounded by horses.
"Well, it's a bit of a long story." But Harry only looked at him expectantly, prompting him to go on. "Zayn's father owns a stud ranch, yeah? In Bradford? One summer I go up there to visit Zayn, I was about thirteen. Fell in love with the horses, didn't want to come back. We ended up staying until the weekend before school started, Mum was almost losing it. From then on, I always worked in the ranch as a summer job, and got to ride the horses as much as I wanted. Years later, my parents are divorcing, I'm failing my A levels, the only thing that keeps me happy is Cella, the best horse we had there, went away for competitions a lot. One week we hear that Cella's owner had died, his son sold her to someone who was coming to get her and take her away." He paused, the familiar bittersweet feeling he got when talking about Cella swelling in his throat, but Harry was listening with such rapt attention that Louis took a deep breath and soldiered on. "I take her for a last clandestine set of jumps, thinking I'll never see her again, and when I finish there's this man watching me from the edge of the paddock. He asks me who my trainer was, and I'm drawing a blank there, so he introduces himself as Simon Cowell, Cella's new owner, so I start to think I'm in deep shit, eh? But instead he tells me I'm a natural, I just need some polishing, and he's never seen a horse as comfortable as Cella seems to be with me, which apparently is crucial for showjumping, so how about he pays for my training lessons and in exchange, when the time comes, I ride Cella for him in a few competitions?"
"He offered to pay for your training, just like that? From seeing you do one set of jumps?"
"Yeah, I'm telling you, the man's crazy. So I say I'm in, obviously, and he hooks me up with the same trainer as Zayn's, this stuck up old man that we absolutely hated, but got the job done. Zayn moved south to train for eventing after a while and I went to work for Simon full time and got another trainer as well, same one till this day, Paul Higgins. Soon me and Cella were winning shit left and right, so I tell Simon, 'you've got to pay me more, look how much money I'm making you' and he starts to look for sponsors for me, he's brilliant at selling shit, Simon is, got a silver tongue or whatever, and those sponsors want to launch me into Grand Prix competitions. And the rest, as they say, is history."
Louis downed more of his beer, Harry grinning smugly at him before saying, "Well, looks like we've got ourselves a prodigy, here."
Louis laughed, mumbling his "Just lucky." and staring into green pools framed by lovely lashes.
He hadn't managed to talk about Cella in so long, the memories were so painful, but something about Harry made it bearable. That was, until - "Is Cella, as in Marcella? Your horse that..." He interrupted himself as Louis' face fell. "I'm sorry, that was so rude. You don't have to talk about it, I'm sorry."
"No, it's fine. Yeah, her registered name was Marcella. I loved her a lot." Harry grabbed his hand and squeezed. Louis squeezed back. "Don't ask me anything more, though, I'm not sure I can answer." Louis wasn't surprised Harry knew about Cella. A nasty rotational fall that ended with a disqualified, injured rider and a dead horse just weeks before they were set to compete at the London Olympics was big enough news at the time to reach people who weren't even interested in equestrian sports, let alone fellow riders. Everyone in his circle knew not to mention it, though, so Harry's question had caught him off guard.
"Of course! Of course, I'm sorry for bringing it up, I'm such a tit." He looked so much like a kicked puppy Louis had the sudden urge to smile despite the bad memories. He also still hadn't let go of Louis' hand.
"Yes, you are." Louis said, mock stern. "But you're lucky you're cute."
Harry affected an over the top gasp, wrenching his hand back and puffing his chest theatrically. "How dare you? I'm not just cute, I'm cute, manly and handsome."
Louis threw his head back and laughed, eyes crinkling. "Of course, Harold. That too."
Ever since they 'met' at the British delegation's victory after party on the last day of competition in France, Harry'd been skirting the flirting line but never quite crossing it, and Louis is still not sure if he just likes to be a tease or if there's intent in the way his hand rests against the small of Louis' back as they leave the bar. Louis doesn't really like to be led as a general rule, but the way Harry's hand is large and sure against his back, pinky pressing into his skin where his shirt's ridden up, is entirely too pleasant, and they've arrived back at their booth before it even occurs him to pull back.
In a previously unseen event, Louis woke up before his alarm on the first day of training for the new competition year, too pumped to stay asleep. Zayn was already gone when he padded down the hall on his way to the kettle, a schedule more packed than Louis', given his choice of sport (Hunter Jumping, Dressage and Cross Country? Eventing people were the epitome of indecision. And craziness). As he sipped his tea and nibbled on toast (Louis could never eat a lot in the mornings), he contemplated what the day had in store for him. Monday was a jumping day according to his schedule (Louis had prohibited himself of trying to find out Harry's schedule before he and Paul had worked on his own. Not that he would ever actually work his schedule around Harry's, but as the saying goes: out of sight, out of mind. Later he was pleased to discover, through strenuous bribing of one Liam Payne - who as a vet knew every horse's schedule -, that even though none of their trail days matched, both had their off day on sunday, which was just wonderful), and Darcy hadn't got any serious exercise in almost two weeks, so they'd probably not put in the high bars today.
Last friday night all his hopes of getting lucky had been squashed by having to load a too drunk Niall into a cab and preventing Liam from getting into a fist fight with a rude patron. They hadn't seen each other over the weekend (Louis had considered texting, but flirting and then playing hard to get was a strategy that'd always turned out in his favour before, so he stayed mum) but today was a new day and Louis needed to look his best if he was to lure one Harry Styles into his bed (or be lured into the man's bed, he wasn't picky as long as the end result were orgasms).
"Desperate times call for desperate measures" he muttered to himself as he opened one of the boxes labeled 'sponsor stuff'. As professional equestrian athletes, a lot of them were sponsored by luxury brands that tried to take advantage of the fact that riding was considered an 'elite sport' (cue eye roll) to sell their product. Together they paid the obscene amount of money that was needed to maintain a latest technology, no expenses spared training centre for the british team running (Louis' salary included) and in exchange, Louis sometime starred in their ads and had to use their products on competitions, charity galas and other official appearances. Anytime there was a camera around, really. But since 99% of their training wasn't open to the public (god forbid the dutch learn their secrets before game time) Louis always used his own clothes and left the sponsored outfits for when he absolutely had to wear them.
Not today, though. No, today wasn't a day for beanies, sweatpants over his battered old riding boots or oversized tshirts and hoodies. Today Louis was going to dress to impress, he giggled alone as he squeezed into the cream coloured riding trousers that he knew made his arse look amazing. He briefly considered a riding jacket, but the late august heat had been unforgiving the past few days and he was only training after all, no need for the full riding attire, so he put the jacket back and grabbed a lilac polo shirt of a brand whose logo was a man on a horse. If only the man were jumping, the inception plot would've been complete, he thought.
After minimal styling of his hair (he quite liked the quiffed hairstyle that Zayn had taught him, but no use in wasting his time when he was going to wear a helmet for most of the day) and gathering the rest of his riding equipment, Louis was on the road.
Darcy was already fed, saddled and waiting when he let himself into the paddock for his first hour of jumping. Louis wasn't going to lie, being spared of the busy work was one of his favourite things about being a professional.
"Good morning, my beautiful Darcy baby! Don't you look dashing in your new saddle?" Top of the notch equipment, he liked that too. "Are you ready to fly high today? Uh?" He petted her shiny black coat, inspecting her from head to horseshoe.
Louis noticed a familiar tall figure approaching the paddock in his peripheral vision, so naturally he led Darcy around until her left side was facing the newcomer and mounted her with as much flourish as he could get away with, arse sticking up in the air until it settled on top of his horse. He wriggled his hips back and forth for a few seconds for good measure, only marginally guilty of involving poor Darcy in his seduction shenanigans.
"Louis, hey!" He turned at the voice as if just noticing Harry (west end theatre is missing out on him, really), who was leaning on the fence in black skinny jeans and a short sleeved blouse with palm tree prints. Louis honestly couldn't tell if that was his casual clothing or riding outfit. "Looking good this morning."
"Why, Harold, thank you." He went to fix his fringe as a reflex but his riding helmet was already on. "Not looking too shabby yourself. Hope there are no dads around missing out on their barbecue outfits because you hogged all the shirts, though." He grinned impishly as Harry's dimples made their first appearance and counted it as a victory. "Where's Bean, then?"
"Oh, he's indoors. Long and low day for us, maybe throw in some stretching. The new routine is pretty complex."
"I'm sure you'll ace it, Harry." He grinned at the floor, bashful, and the way he flushed dark red at the cheekbones everytime Louis payed him a compliment, not embarrassed or shy but simply please as punch, was... interesting. Something to be explored.
"Thanks. Anyway, I'm going to head inside. I just wanted to wish you good luck on your new training."
"Well, then flash me the lucky dimples, stud."
Harry's subsequent smile had him in a giddy mood for the rest of the day.
"I'm telling you, Z, he is positively trying to pull me." Zayn blew smoke out into the open space behind the physiotherapy facilities, where they usually hid to take their lunch breaks in peace.
"You're right, Louis, that completely average gesture of professional courtesy must mean he wants the D." And where was Zayn even getting his slangs from, mtv?
"He came by to talk to you at all today? Wish you luck on your new training?" He smugly took another bite of his sandwich - well, Liam's sandwich. But Louis was sure he'd packed an extra one, Liam was such a mother hen.
"You know he didn't. Still doesn't mean he's trying to pull."
"You're just biased by your strictly laddy bro interactions with Liam." Which Louis knew wasn't even true. Once he walked in the stables to find Zayn 'jokingly' using a riding crop on Liam. This was not a bdsm dungeon, folks. "He even flashed me the dimples on demand. That's a done deal, I'm telling ya."
The next weeks showed Louis that it wasn't a done deal, unfortunately. If anything, they showed him Harry was even better than Louis at his game of hot and cold, showing up every morning with an extra tea for Louis and then being awfully vague when asked about his plans for the weekend, flirting right back but never taking the final leap into an actual proposition. As August gave way to September, Louis had somehow been roped into a tentative friendship with him, their interactions increased by the fact that Zayn and Niall were now joined at the hip, and while Louis had come home on more than one occasion to find Niall raiding his fridge, or sprawled on his sofa, or even coming out of his shower, he hadn't actually seen Harry outside of work since the pub.
He locked Darcy's stall for the evening with a deep sigh. Today had been an endurance day, with the both of them jumping the same high fence over and over at a lateral angle while Paul was long-leashing and being his usual infuriating self. Louis would probably never fully recover from the emotional trauma of what happened to Cella, and Darcy could surely sense his tiny bit of fear when they went over the particularly dangerous jumps, but maybe that was a good thing. Maybe a little bit of fear prevented them from trying to jump higher and faster than possible. Maybe a little bit of fear would be the difference between gold and the rest, but it could also be the difference between dead and alive.
He made his way slowly to the indoor training hangars, breathing in the crisp air and admiring a flock of geese flying over his head in the pinkening sky. Dusk was probably his favourite hour of the day, those moments right before someone turned on the lamps when it was not quite dark, gave him a peace of mind that just wasn't there at any other hour. The lights in the dressage hangar were already on, though, Louis slowly making his way over to see if he could find Zayn. On the days that their hours were more or less the same, they drove in and out on the same car. Helping the environment and all that. Plus, Louis always made Zayn drive regardless of whose car they were in, so he could squeeze in another hour of sleep before work. But mostly because of the environment, of course.
Zayn was, as predicted, still hard at work. While Louis preferred to plow through the training day to build his and Darcy's endurance, Zayn took longer breaks between exercises and, consequently, finished later. His horse, black like Louis', complimented his "dark and dangerous" aura to cut an impressive figure. It was easy to see why he was the favourite poster boy for their sponsors' ads. Louis would be jealous if he didn't actually hate to be used as merchandise for luxury brands.
He caught sight of a grey horse trotting around on another paddock on the far end of the pavilion, Harry sitting atop with his back straight as a rod and his hair in a bun. Louis' feet started to take him there without his permission, leaning on the edge of the space as Harry executed what appeared to be one of his new routines (Louis hadn't internet stalked him and watched all of his competition videos, nope, no one can prove it). It was an upbeat remix of 'Land of Hope and Glory' and 'I vow to thee, my country' and smart, Harry, going patriotic. Clever boy, that was sure to be a hit with the judges. He and Bean finished their routine and Caroline Watson, their trainer, started to applaud, so Louis joined in (Paul never applauded him, Louis thought sullenly, he was lucky to get a pat in the back once in a while.)
Harry's face lit up when he saw Louis. He dismounted Bean and handed his leash to a groom, pausing to whisper something to his horse and lay a kiss near his eye before jogging over to Louis (and how Harry could appear so sophisticated when doing his routine but run like an over excited puppy was beyond him). He miscalculated his break and almost collided into him, Louis extending his arms to steady him - and he was so warm and sweaty and masculine. It had been too long since Louis had got laid.
"Hey, Haz!" He used his grip on Harry's forearms to pull him into a hug, going on his tiptoes to wrap his arms around the man's shoulders. Harry pulled him in tight, almost lifting him off the floor as he nosed behind Louis ear. It was the most affectionate they've ever been but it ended too soon for Louis' liking, Harry stepping back with a brilliant grin.
"Hey, Lou." His bun only accentuated how symmetrical Harry's features were, how harmonious and appealing. Louis wanted to do many, many things with that plump mouth. "You liked it?"
"I loved it! The choreography is perfect and the songs are going to win the judges over, Harry, it's brilliant!"
"Thanks. I like the tracks too." He smiled, green eyes impossibly bright. "What are you doing here? You don't usually train indoors."
"Yeah, no, I'm finished. I just came to wait for Zayn, he's going to give me a lift home."
"Oh. Ok. Well, I'm finished too, I mean. If you wanted to ride to London with me, I'd drop you off." The beginnings of a blush started to creep up Harry's neck, and Louis had to press his lips together to contain the fond. "It's just, Zayn looks like he's still going to be a while." They looked over to the paddock Zayn was using and, yeah, he didn't seem about to finish.
"Okay." He grinned, Harry grinning back at him for a moment before he seemed to snap out of his haze and start walking in the direction of the locker room.
Louis followed him, both entering the empty room and going for their respective lockers. Louis would usually sit on the benches to pull off his riding boots, but, never one to waste an opportunity, he bent down at the waist to lower the zipper of one boot, then another. He heard a gulping sound in the otherwise silent room, the reflective surface of the lockers was clear enough to tell him that Harry was facing Louis' arse instead of his own locker, but as he straightened to step out of his boots and risked a glance over his shoulder, Harry was turned away and apparently really engrossed in remembering his combination. Right.
They changed clothes in silence and Louis didn't dare turn in Harry's direction when he heard fabric rustling, afraid of staring too blatantly and coming off as creepy. He shouldered his bag and went to wait for Harry by the entrance, shooting Zayn a text to let him know he'd found a lift and that when he finally decided to come home he'd better be bearing take out or Louis would not let him in.
The dark road only added to the intimate atmosphere that surrounded Louis inside Harry's car. It was one of those SUV monstrosities that were made for giants instead of normal people. Harry helping him up by the elbow had felt both pleasant and undignified, but Louis didn't linger on it, not when he could smell Harry everywhere, some hoarse voiced hipster with a banjo playing softly from the car stereo, Harry telling him about a time he'd gone stand up paddle surfing on Lake Lucerne and had capsized so often he had ended up on the emergency room with mild hypothermia. His voice was deep and smooth like velvet, and he spoke so slowly and deliberately Louis couldn't help but imagine what it'd be like to have that voice whispering obscenities in his ear. He shook himself slightly and changed the subject lest he ended up with a hard on.
"Do you miss living in Switzerland?"
"Sometimes, yeah. It was hard at first. My time in the youth league was wonderful, of course, but I moved there at only 16 and even though my family used to visit all the time, it just wasn't the same, you know. I ended up losing touch with most of my mates from school, too, but I made a lot of new friends there, we were our own little family. In the end, moving back here was even harder."
"Your friends understood, though, didn't they? You couldn't compete professionally for the Swiss team if you're British."
"They were really cool about it. I'm seeing them next month, actually, during the Swiss nationals." Harry was going out of the country next month? What?
"I didn't know you could still participate now that you're on the British team." Louis concentrated on keeping his voice even.
"I'm not competing. I'm going to present at the opening ceremony, as a special guest."
"Fancy. But doesn't it feel like a bit of wasted time? I mean, it's totally okay if you just want to go, but you'll be losing a week of training at least, exposing your repertory and losing vacation days just to present." Louis knew he was being prickly, and he didn't even understand why he had the urge to make Harry stay. It was none of his business, Harry wasn't even on the showjumping team, for fucks sake.
"I'm not going just because I want to, Lou. I'm looking forward to seeing my old friends, yeah, but I'm also contractually obligated to go."
"Oh." Well, that changed things. "Sponsorship deals suck, I'm sorry. Which brand is it?"
Harry looked a bit sheepish as he murmured "Rolex." and, wow. Louis thought they only sponsored olympic champions or big events.
"You're sponsored by Rolex? Fuck, where are all your twenty thousand quid watches, then, champion?"
"It's not a sponsorship per se, it's a deal from an old contract, way back in the youth league, and not even a great one, actually. I have to attend at least one of the competitions they sponsor in Europe per year even if I'm not competing, and I have to return the watches after, but the money they pay me per appearance is good and according to my manager being associated with them is 'good publicity for my personal brand', so I stick to it. The Swiss nationals are the earliest in the season, I'm going now so I don't have to go to another in, say, spring, when I'm close to actually competing."
"Wise, yeah. Most of my publicity stunts are, like, 'wear this on event x', 'give an interview to magazine y'. Traveling abroad must be way more exhausting."
"But it's also more fun, I think. Zayn was on the cover of Horse & Hound last month, wasn't he? I see him on sponsors ads all the time. Now that sounds like something I wouldn't wanna do."
"They exploit his model looks, poor pretty boy." Louis laughed.
"You let him know you were coming with me? He might be waiting for you."
"Yeah, I texted him." He checked his phone for Zayn's response. "He's still gonna be a while, apparently, and put me on dinner duty 'cos he's 'too tired'. Lazy wanker, like picking up take out is such a burden."
"Actually, I was thinking we could stop at this great Italian place I know that's right on our way home. We could grab something for Zayn too then, what do you think?"
"Italian, you say? I like the way you think, Harold."
"Oh my god. Harry. Oh my god."
"I know, right?" Harry grinned at him while Louis moaned some more, slowly chewing the delicious carbonara Harry had picked for him. The place was still fairly empty, the dinner crowd just starting to trickle in. They'd ordered carbonara for Zayn as well, choosing to sit out in the patio, since the September chill was still pleasant enough.
"This place is a hidden treasure. That is the most delicious carbonara I've ever eaten."
"It's good for dates, too, if you wanna, like, bring someone else here."
"Who would I even bring?" Louis says distractedly, shoving more heavenly carbonara into his mouth.
"I don't know. A girlfriend or boyfriend." He immediately took a swig of his wine, but Louis could see he was blushing. Was Harry fishing for information or he actually thought Louis was taken?
Is that why he still hadn't surrendered to Louis' charms?
"I'm a single pringle." Louis was always one for straightforwardness, especially if it got Harry giggling. "No boyfriend. You?"
"No boyfriend either. I'd like to, but it's hard to find time for a relationship with our packed schedules."
"My thoughts exactly, Harold!" He waved his hand around wildly, bits of egg flying from the chunk of pasta in his fork. "Liam is always on my hair about this. 'You're gonna die alone, Lewis'. Who would even wanna date someone who trains 10 hours a day, six days a week, moves to a village in the buttcrack of England for the whole winter and spends the better part of spring and summer away in competitions? No one!"
"Wait, I said it's hard, not impossible, Lewis. You just have to work on it. Liam also has to move and travel a lot."
"Yeah, and look where it's got him! He hasn't had a girlfriend since Danielle, and that was almost a year ago. They split because of the distance, you know. I mean, having a bit of fun is fine, we're all only human after all, but it's best not to get in too deep. Spares everyone involved of the heartbreak."
Harry looked at him for a long moment before murmuring, "We'll have to agree to disagree on that one, then." and the way he looked at Louis - it was almost like Louis was losing something he didn't even knew he'd won. Like Harry was retracting an offer he hadn't even made.
They chatted inconsequentially during the remainder of their meal, Louis making a fuss about paying for everything ("You're not paying for Zayn's dinner too, Harold, are you mental?") before grabbing the card machine out of their waiter's hands before Harry could squeeze in another complaint.
He twirled the handle of the bag with Zayn's carbonara around his fingers as they sped into central London, a silence in the car that didn't seem quite as easy as before dinner. He didn't know if Harry had intended it to be a date, but Louis wasn't going to make promises he didn't intend on keeping even if that would be the quickest way into Harry's pants, that's just not who Louis was.
He knew his no strings attached policy wasn't what most guys wanted to hear, it certainly hadn't seemed like it was what Harry wanted to hear, but, alas, it is what it is. They could still be friends, right?