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Soft Hands, Fast Feet, Can't Lose

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“Stupid, sloppy handwriting,” Harry muttered. He rubbed his thumb on a blot of ink where a word was supposed to be. “Stupid, correct Louis.”

He reached across the kitchen table and grabbed his dog-eared paperback of Hamlet. He propped the open book on top of his notes and looked back to his laptop, biting his bottom lip. He started to type again.

There was a knock at the front door. Harry didn’t look up from his work, but saw Chase jog through the living room in his peripheral vision. The door creaked open.

“Oh, shit, hi!” Chase practically squealed. “Welcome. Please, come in. It’s an honor, sir. A true honor!”

“Thank you, son. Excellent game, last weekend.”

Harry craned his neck towards the door with furrowed brows. He stood from the kitchen table. The sight of a familiar broad back in a tight grey polo made Harry walk faster. He walked into the foyer full of over-excited frat boys.

“Dad? What are you doing here?”

JD patted Harry on the shoulder and grinned, his face tan and glowing.

“I just finalized my divorce and thought I could come party with y’all.” A horn honked outside. “That’d be the kegs, I reckon.”

“Kegs?” Harry asked amidst loud cheers.

Another horn honked.

“And that’ll be the wings,” JD said on a laugh. He thumbed over his shoulder. “You boys think you can help with the ladies?”

Harry asked, “What ladies, dad? What are you talking about?”

“Don’t ruin this for us, Styles,” Chase whispered beside Harry, his eyes bulging. “Wings and beer and ladies and the Dallas Cowboys should never be questioned!”

“I like how this boy thinks,” JD said, patting Chase’s back. Chase stared at him with his feet practically levitating off the floor. “How about you boys go grab those kegs, hm?”

“Dad,” Harry said firmer. “It’s almost midterm week.”

His father, and the rest of the football team, stared at Harry in confused silence.

“And?” JD asked.

“And I have to study.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m trying to pass my classes.”

“Isn’t that what your tutors are, for?”

Harry flushed and grit his teeth behind his closed lips.

“Because I don’t want to use tutors. I want to get an education. For real.”

JD cackled, “A bit late for that, don’t you think? Dunno why you even stuck around for senior year. You’re here for football, not your smarts, son.”

The crowd of football players and frat boys laughed, causing Harry’s flush to deepen. The mob filed outside towards the beer and wing trucks.

“I stayed because Mama wanted me to get a degree,” Harry said tightly. “You know that.”

JD stepped up to Harry and held both of his shoulders.

“Let’s turn that frown upside down, son. Why don’t you send a tweeter to some of those cheerleader friends of yours. Surely, you’d be willing to share with your old man?” JD pinched Harry’s cheek and grinned slyly, his dimple popping. He patted Harry’s cheek. “C’mon, Hugo. Time to party. Let your old man show you how it’s done.”

. . .

Louis poked his pot of ramen with a wooden fork. Thunder boomed outside, rain pattering against the living room window. He left the fork in the pot and went to the living room to shut the window. His gaze caught on a dark, tall blur coming closer to his building. Louis squinted through the foggy glass. He opened the window and stuck his head out.

“Harry?” he called down.

Harry waved at him, his wet clothes matted to his body.

“Yeah, hi! It’s me. Harry. Hi. Can I come in?”

Louis ran to his door and buzzed Harry in.

“Shit,” he whispered. He went to the stove and poked at his bubbling pile of ramen. He turned off the heat, then said, “Shit,” and lifted the silver packet of seasoning. He ripped it open at the same time as Harry knocking on the door. A cloud of chicken flavored powder shot up his nose. “Oh, shit,” Louis coughed, wiping his face with a dish towel. He dumped the remaining powder into his sad looking ramen.

Harry knocked on the door again.

“Lou? Am I at the right apartment?”

“Yeah,” Louis called out. He jogged to the door and pulled it open. “Hi, sorry, chicken emergency.” He held the door open and stepped back. “Jesus, you’re soaked. What’s going on? What are you doing here?”

Harry ran his hand through his hair, water dripping down the strong line of his nose. He licked his lips.

“My, uh, my dad decided to come by and throw a frat party.”

“Why?”

“Who knows. He just got divorced, so, yeah.”

“From the lady who just lost her mom?”

“Yeah,” Harry said slower.

“Gross and sad.”

“Yeah. I couldn’t concentrate with all the noise and people and shit, so I snuck into my room to get my school stuff and, um, left. My car was blocked in, so I ran. Can I study here? I figured you’d be studying, too. What’s a chicken emergency?”

Louis arched his eyebrows.

“You ran from your place to my place? In the rain? To study?”

“Yeah,” Harry said, shivering. “Wasn’t bad. You’re the cross country guy.” He shook for a moment, his hands over his nipples. “Running in the rain for you is like going to Dunkin Donuts for me.”

Louis held his arm out and stepped backwards.

“Please, come in. You should change. I’ll get you fresh clothes.” Harry stepped inside and Louis closed the door behind him. He heard Harry hum deeply, his tone going up at the end. Louis faced him with his hands on his hips. “What? What are you staring at?”

The right side of Harry’s lips quirked.

“Looks good on you, Lou.”

“What are you talking about?” Louis followed Harry’s stare and looked down at his chest. Shiny red and black material seemed to shimmer extra bright over his chest. “Oh, I—” He crossed his arms and turned away, then turned back to Harry. “I didn’t have any clean, um, shirts.”

Harry murmured, “That so?” and stepped closer. He pointed his pinkie and index finger towards a basket on the living room sofa. “What’s all that?”

“It’s…” Louis glanced at the basket of neatly folded clothes. “Right. That’s clean clothes. But, like...” His wide, panicked eyes landed on Harry’s smirking face. “Your jersey is, like, big on me, so it’s comfortable to sleep in. Not that I sleep in it a lot. I don’t. Hardly ever. I’ll wash it and give it back. I can give it back right now.”

“You don’t have to,” Harry said, amused. He thumbed the seam of Louis’ jersey sleeve. “It looks good on you. Keep it.”

Louis spun away from his touch.

“I’ll give it back the, uh, the next time I do laundry.”

“If you say so.”

The ramen on the stove chose that moment to deflate and let out a farting noise. Harry snorted and Louis laughed softly. He went to the stove and picked up his pot of slimy looking ramen.

“Um.” He poked the pile of noodles with his fork. “This is my last pack. I’m sorry I don’t have a ton of snacks right now. I haven’t had time to go grocery shopping this week.”

“That’s alright. Wanna just order pizza?”

“Uh…”

“My treat.”

Louis ran his tongue over the edge of his top teeth.

“Yeah,” he said slowly, as if he was only half committed to the word. “Okay.”

“Wanna study on the sofa?”

“No soft surfaces. No soft surfaces,” Louis said quickly, incredibly focused. Confusion rumpled Harry’s face. “I mean, no. It’s...It’s hard to study over there. I like table.” Harry’s confusion only grew. Louis flung his hand at the kitchen table. “The table. Studying at the table.”

“Okaaay,” Harry laughed, dropping his backpack. He pulled his soaked shirt over his head. Rain water glistened between his defined pecs and down the lines of his abs. “So, clothes?”

Louis’ gaze snapped to his face.

“Yes. Clothes. Right.”

“Your ass looks great in those sweats.”

“Oh, God, shut up,” Louis groaned, palming his nose. “You’re annoying me already.”

. . .

“So, full honesty: How many times have you made out with Mr. Mannequin?”

Louis snorted and looked at his half dressed mannequin. The beginnings of a shimmery silver cocktail dress hung on its body.

“Um, that would be a zero.”

“Seriously? No lonely nights where you cop a feel?”

“I’m never leaving you alone with my mannequin, you freak. Who even thinks these things?”

“Do you dance with it?”

“No,” Louis laughed, shaking his head. “Get back to work. You keep making random comments about every object in the room like some sort of one-sided game of I Spy. It throws the whole study buzz off.”

They were silent for a few minutes until Louis finally sighed and pushed his eraser to his forehead.

“What,” he droned.

Harry glanced from his notebook to Louis’ profile. “What what?”

“You keep looking at me.”

Harry leaned his head on his palm, grinning.

“You’re cute. Especially in my jersey. The colors suit you.”

“Ha,” Louis said, huffing out a breath. “Very funny.”

“You are.”

“That has nothing to do with your notes.”

“Do you have a boyfriend? A girlfriend?”

“No and no.” Louis highlighted a passage. “Why?”

“Because you’re…” Harry tapped the tip of his pencil against his notebook while studying the curve of Louis’ neck. “Cool.”

“Cool?”

“Yeah. You’re nice and smart and stuff. You smell good. And you’re pretty, in a bird sort of way.”

“A bird sort of way.”

“Yeah, like a pretty bird. You’ve got that whole swan, dancer walk thing going on.”

“Pretty bird? Swan walk? With sweet words like that, it’s no wonder you were flunking Shakespeare.”

“Do you not want one?”

“I don’t have time.”

“Bullshit. We’re seniors. You have tons of time.”

Louis exhaled and dropped his head back.

“If you must know, I saw someone over the summer pretty regularly, but that didn’t work out and we ended it in September. I had a boyfriend for a lot of last year and he’s very nice, but he’s from Missouri. The distance was too much. We broke up last May.”

“Why?”

“Because we both got tired of having to travel so much. It was too expensive and stressful. And, I dunno.” Louis highlighted another couple of lines. “It just seemed like we were both checked out.”

“What was he like?”

Louis raised an eyebrow. “Why? You looking for a date with a Missourian?”

“Nah. Just curious. Was he like you? Like, all school and ballet and running?”

“Eh. Sort of. He’s a runner, too.” Louis turned a page. “We met at a track clinic over Christmas Break.”

“What about before him?”

Louis dropped his highlighter and clasped his hands.

“I’m sorry, are we studying for an exam on me?”

Harry bit the crust of his pizza, chewing while asking, “Why are you so bashful about your exes?”

“Because it doesn’t matter. No one I date or fuck at this point is the person I’m going to end up with.”

“Why? How do you know that?”

“Because this is college. I have zero expectations from anyone I date during this period of time.”

“Lots of people meet their spouse in college.”

“Not me, thank you. Could you imagine the wedding website?” He softened his voice and batted his lashes. “My love and I locked eyes across the frat party and shared the same toilet to ralph up Jagerbombs, then made out in the bathroom and passed out in the tub. I just knew it was meant to be!”

Harry laughed, “That’s a sweet story!”

“Ugh, Harry, honestly.” Louis picked up a piece of cold pizza and bit the tip. “We’re supposed to be studying.”

“How many people have you slept with?”

“Why would you—How can you think that’s a normal follow-up question to asking about my ex-boyfriends?”

Harry gnawed on his crust.

“I lost count years ago.”

“That makes sense.”

“But you haven’t lost count,” Harry said, smiling and leaning closer. He nudged their socked feet together. “I bet you remember each person.”

“So what if I do?”

“Let me guess,” Harry said, relaxing back in his chair. He licked pizza grease off his thumb. “Ten?”

“None of your business,” Louis sang over him with a fluctuating melody. “None of this is your business.”

“Twenty?”

Louis just laughed and shook his head.

“You were closer with ten.”

“Hmm…” Harry squinted. “Twelve?”

“Nope.”

“Nine?”

“No.”

“Ssss...seven?”

“No.”

“Six?”

“No.”

Harry sang, “Five Golden Rings?” in his gentle baritone.

“Four Calling Birds.”

“Four!?” Harry laughed raucously. Louis shut his textbook and went to stand, but Harry held onto his shoulder. “Hey, hey, chill out.” Harry calmed his laughter but giggled every few seconds, his hand searing Louis’ skin through the thin jersey. He squeezed his bicep. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh.”

Louis plopped back down in his seat and shook his hand off.

“You seemed pretty comfortable laughing. Did I judge you for your unknown, incalculable number?”

“You’re right. I shouldn’t have laughed. I’m sorry. Whatever your number is, it’s all good, man.” Harry stroked Louis’ forearm, Louis huffing a breath and opening his textbook. “But, like…” Harry’s fingers tiptoed over the bone of Louis’ wrist. “Does that include oral, too? Or is that full blown anal?”

Louis stood up.

“Again: None of your business.”

Harry propped his hands behind his head.

“Well, I’d assume your Four Calling Birds were all-the-way sex since you consider them your number, you know?”

“Well, you guessed right. Congratulations.” Louis flared jazz hands. “You now know how many people have either penetrated me or had me penetrate them.”

“This clinical talk is hot. Keep going.”

“Absolutely not.”

“We can talk about something else. Something less about penetration.”

Louis sat down and pulled his chair a few inches away from Harry. He opened his books.

“What are we supposed to talk about? My mother’s stuffing recipe?”

“Oh, does she make good stuffing?”

Louis laughed. “Yeah, but that’s not…” He shook his head. “Nevermind. Just study.”

“Do you have to work on Thanksgiving because you’re an assistant manager?”

Louis exhaled some of the oxygen bursting out of his lungs. He tiredly rubbed the side of his nose.
“No, actually, not this year. A few of the younger kids aren’t going home, so they wanted to take the overtime on Thanksgiving. This is the first Thanksgiving Break I’m going home for the whole time.”

“Oh, nice. So you get some vacation time?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. You deserve it.”

Louis snuffled and pulled off a Post-It.

“What about you? Jetsetting with the Styles Dynasty to eat gold-encrusted turducken in paradise?”

“Nah. With my dad divorcing Gretch, he’s going to Cancun.”

“What old man takes a solo trip to Cancun?”

Harry laughed softly, writing in his notebook.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s just him and a bunch of his football buddies trolling for young pussy. He invited me, but I declined.”

“Such a wonderful family legacy you have to look forward to.”

Harry nudged his elbow into Louis’ side but continued to write, both smiling down at their assignments.

“What about your mom?” Louis asked. “Are you going to see her?”

“She lives in France.”

“France? Why?”

“Eh,” Harry shrugged, turning a page in his textbook. “I think after everything went down with my dad, she was just done. She wanted out of Texas. Out of the country. I don’t blame her. He was a total asshole about it.”

“What happened?”

“Do you know who my mom is?”

Louis sat on his foot to face Harry. He shook his head.

“No. Why? Is she an athlete, too?”

“Nah.” Harry put his pen down. He stretched his clasped fingers in front of himself. “Google ‘Annie Mox.’”

Louis opened a window on his browser and typed in Annie Mox. His mouth fell open an inch as his eyes scanned the screen.

“Oh my God, that’s your mom?”

“Yep.”

“Holy shit,” Louis whispered, scanning through photo after photo. “She was really famous in the eighties! She walked in some major, legit fashion shows.”

Harry laughed and stared at the screen.

“Yeah.”

Long, wavy brown hair parted down the middle, full bee-stung lips, and feline green eyes were all balanced with perfect symmetry on her creamy, olive skin, her cheekbones still rounded and glowing despite their stratospheric height.

“God, she’s gorgeous,” Louis said, scrolling through Google images. “She was in music videos, too, right?”

“Yeah, she was in a few music videos for some hair bands. She had the nicest things to say about Slash. Never rolled on a car hood, though. She makes sure you know that if you ask about her video past.”

Louis clicked on a Revlon advertisement. “Wow, she did big endorsements, too.”

“Yeah.”

“So, what happened? I’m assuming she’s still gorgeous?”

Harry smiled wryly and opened his photos on his phone. He scrolled through a few and tapped the screen, turning the phone towards Louis. Louis tore his eyes away from Harry’s mom closing a Calvin Klein fashion show to look at the snapshot.

“She’s the most beautiful woman on Earth. My dad’s just an idiot. Always into trading up, whether it’s cars or wives, even if my mom is a beauty queen turned supermodel turned music video model turned awesome mom.”

Louis stared at the photo. Harry wore an oversized, loose-knit black sweater and beanie. He stood with his arm around his mom. She looked every bit as effortlessly beautiful as the woman splashed across Google Images. Both held large white mugs and were standing in front of a snowy window, generic looking rainbow Christmas lights strewn over the window valance.

The layer of softness in Harry’s rambling voice seemed to have extended itself to the photo as if it were an Instagram filter. Harry’s dimpled grin and warm eyes were mirrored in his mother’s proud smile.

Harry continued, “I think it was too much for her ego, to be honest. For him to be…” Louis could only see Harry’s face in his peripheral vision, but he noticed his eyes narrowing for a beat. “He was just really dismissive of her, after she stood by him and had his kids and…” Harry licked his lips. “I think it hurt her really badly to be traded in for a Playboy model. Some sort of model hierarchy or something.”

“Well,” Louis said, his voice cracking. He felt Harry’s gaze shift to his face. “Now I see where you got your height.” Louis looked at the photo for one more beat. “And…Your cheekbones.” Louis’ eyes darted to Harry’s softened face. “And that big, fat mouth of yours.”

Harry chuckled and took his phone back. He looked at the photo for one more beat, then locked the screen and tucked the phone in his back pocket. He picked up his pen.

“So, yeah.” He itched the back of his hair with the end of his pen. “She’s in France, my sister is traveling through Brazil, my dad’ll be in Cancun, and all those spots are too far to travel for one meal. My mom said I should come over for the weekend, but I don’t want to spend the entire break flying internationally. I’m prone to colds whenever I’m on an airplane and we’ve got too many big games coming up to risk it.”

“But,” Louis said slowly, watching Harry write something on a study guide, “you’ll be going to another family member’s house, right?”

Harry’s hair swayed as he shook his head.

“Nah. My mom’s family members mostly live in the New England area. I’ll be damned if I spend my Thanksgiving in Patriots territory.” His upper body experienced the tiniest of shivers. “My grandparents on my dad’s side are both gone. I’ve got some aunts and cousins and stuff, but they’re kind of scattered all over. I’m better on my own. A couple other guys in the house might stick around, so we'll probably order Dominos.”

Louis’ voice sped up to ask, “What about a friend? You have millions of friends and teammates.”

Harry thought for a moment, tapping his pen on his chin.

“I went home with Liam last Thanksgiving and it was definitely fun, but his family eats tofu turkey, which eliminates the purpose of Thanksgiving. They didn’t even have cranberry sauce.”

Louis propped his elbow on the table and his cheek on his palm.

“Thanksgiving itself is a problematic holiday, but...” He shrugged, swaying his head side to side, “I don’t think I could stomach tofu turkey either.”

“See?”

“What about the other football guys. Uh, Ryan’s your good friend, right? And he’s from Texas.”

“He’s going to Cancun with his girlfriend’s family. Maybe he can hang with my dad.”

“What about the quarterback? Chase, right?”

“Ugh, no. Chase is…” He trailed off, then turned to face Louis. His jawline straightened, his voice low. “You shouldn’t even talk to Chase. He can throw a pass, but he’s trash. Complete trash. Don’t ever listen to anything he says. He’s not a good guy.”

“Okay, so, why don’t you go to Aspen with your girlfriend?”

There was a beat of silence before Harry laughed, “I don’t have a girlfriend.” Confusion crinkled the skin beside his eyes. “Who said I have a girlfriend?”

“But I thought—” Louis snapped his lips shut. He refocused on his paper, Harry’s stare boring heated spots into his face. “Nevermind.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Why did you think I have a girlfriend?”

“I didn’t.”

“You did,” Harry said amusedly. He poked Louis’ cheek with the end of his pen. “C’mon, spill. Why’d you think I had a girlfriend?”

Louis swatted at his pen.

“It was on Deadspin, alright? I read Deadspin sometimes when I’m bored and they said you were dating a model.”

“First off, while I’ve definitely fucked some models, I can’t remember the last time I went on a date. I don’t date. Second, since when do you read Deadspin?”

“I…” Louis swallowed down a mouthful of saliva. “I read it when I’m bored and have exhausted all other time wasters.”

“You said sports blogs are the internet equivalent of used toilet paper.” A burst of loud, barked laughter escaped Louis’ lips before he muffled himself with his hands, Harry laughing along with him. “What? You said it, not me.”

“I can’t believe you remembered I said that. Do you remember everything I blurt out?”

“Most of it, yeah.” Harry pet his blue notebook. “All your gems are in this baby.”

Louis’ mouth fell open, his eyes widening.

“Oh my God, no. Please tell me you haven’t been recording all the shit I say?”

Harry opened his notebook to a page about a quarter of the way through. He swirled his index finger in the air before letting it land on a sketch of a toilet, his sloppy handwriting commemorating Louis’ quote about sports blogs.

“Oh no,” Louis laughed, hiding his face in his hands. He removed his hands and bounced in his seat. “This whole time, I thought you were studying!”

“I am,” Harry insisted, turning to the next page. He gestured grandly to the page of notes. “See? This is all about tragedies.”

Louis’ laughter softened to gentle giggles, his eyes scanning over the page. He brushed his fingers over the center of the right page.

“I like that you drew a pig and named him Hamlet.”

“It had to be done.”

Louis’ smile grew, his eyes crinkling as he stared at Hamlet, or, ‘Hammy Baby,’ as Harry had dubbed him.

“Were you Googling me?”

Louis’ eyes snapped to Harry’s face.

“No. No way. I wasn’t Googling.”

Harry smirked. “I think you were.”

“I wasn’t,” Louis insisted. His traitorous mouth had started to twitch up at the ends. “God,” he looked to his notes, “your ego is insane.”

“It’s alright if you were.” Harry opened his laptop and tapped the spacebar. His screen came to life. “I totally Googled you.”

Louis finished writing a Post-It before he dragged his eyes from his notes. An unusual mix of sudden embarrassment, panic, and arousal expanded out from his gut to coat his insides in one messy explosion of heat. His mouth fell open and his breath caught in his throat.

Harry’s desktop was an image of Louis in black dance tights, black ballet shoes, and a clingy, white short-sleeved workout shirt. He was staring intently at the ballet class instructor and, though there were other students in the class, the camera’s focus was on him.

One hand was poised on the bar, his other arm extended gracefully above his head with his hand delicately curved. He stood on the ball of foot, the muscles of his legs swollen outwards, his pointed toe and straight leg stretching up until his toes almost passed his face. Sweat shone on his flushed face and the wiry tendons of his neck, the fabric of his shirt darkened under his raised arm and on the center of his lifted chest.

“Oh my God, you freak!” he cried, though laughter made his pitch rise until his voice cracked. Harry laughed loudly, Louis’ face bright red and his eyes rounded wider. “Where did you even get that!?”

“It’s part of the school’s website, doy.”

“But why is it your desktop!?”

“I like having pretty things on my desktop.”

Louis shook his head as he laughed in disbelief, genuine shock brightening his eyes.

“You’re a nut, you know that?”

Harry placed his face next to the photo.

“Wanna take a picture? You can send it to Deadspin.”

“Psh, yeah, right,” Louis laughed on a scoff. He picked up his pen and faced forward. Pale pink glowed on the tips of his ears and cheekbones, his foot bobbing quickly under the table. “You’re ridiculous.”

Harry turned a page of his textbook.

“You are.”

“Shut up.”

“Besides, when would I even have time for a girlfriend when I’m so busy chasing you around?”

Louis said nothing in reply to Harry’s half murmured-half chuckled statement, but his foot bounced faster. A warm hand landed on his knee and he jumped in his seat.

Harry laughing softly and squeezing his thigh. “Y’alright? Jumpy all of a sudden.”

“Yeah, totally.” Louis stood from his seat, knocking Harry’s hand off. “Just...Just need to stretch.”

He went to lift his hands above his head, then paused, Harry’s eyes glued to him. Louis turned away from him and clasped his hands, bringing them to the ceiling. He arched his body side to side and did a lap halfway around the table, but no matter how he moved, the heat of Harry’s stare followed him.

Their phones vibrated at the same time. The heat between Louis’ shoulderblades dissipated.

“Oh, sick! Hey,” Harry stood from his seat and reached across the table, gripping the bottom of Louis’ jersey. “C’mere. Look. I got a B-Plus on my last paper! The one about rainy block parties!”

Louis moved back to his seat and accepted Harry’s phone. He smiled faintly at the familiar email from their blackboard software.

“That’s awesome.” He handed Harry the phone, and both smiled wider when their eyes met. Louis dropped his gaze and huffed a silent laugh. “Congratulations. You worked really hard on it and you totally deserve it.”

“I’m, like, kind of proud? I think that’s what that is? I just feel really happy, kind of like when I score.” Harry breathily giggled, “You make me feel all these wacky feelings,” and flared his hands by his face.

“You should be proud. You did a good job.”

Louis rubbed Harry’s shoulder for one motion up and one motion down. Harry looked from the spot Louis’ hand touched to his face. Louis shifted in his seat and lifted his hand, ignoring that his palm could now carve Harry’s muscled shoulder out of marble, if required.

“Um. I’m glad you feel that way,” Louis said, quick and professional. “That’s how you should feel when you complete an assignment, in my opinion.”

“What’d you get?”

Louis shuffled a pile of papers around and grabbed his phone.

“Yeah. I, um…” He tapped the screen. “I got an A.”

“Nerd,” Harry drawled loudly, prodding Louis’ side. Louis laughed and put his phone on the table, weakly pushing Harry’s fingers away. “That’s sick, though. Congrats.”

“Yeah,” Louis scoffed, smiling but shaking his head. He lifted his body to sit on his foot, reaching across the table for another textbook. “Glad something good could come of it.”

“Of what?”

“Of…” Louis’ eyes did a slow scan left to right, even as his face was angled at the open textbook. “Um. Like, what I wrote about. The tragedy I picked to write about.”

“Let me guess,” Harry said, lifting his hand. He started to tick items off on his fingers. “Starving babies, gender inequality, the state of the track team’s equipment closet, overcooked pasta. Am I getting warm?”

“No,” Louis said, chuckling. He uncapped his pink highlighter. “Though three of your four items are actually tragic and should be taken seriously. Don’t make jokes about them.”

“So what, then? What’d you write about?”

Louis peeled a Post-It off the cube.

“I wrote about the time in high school when I was still in the closet, but stupidly had sex with a lacrosse player that I thought could keep his mouth shut because he was in the closet, too.” He placed the Post-It as a bookmark in his textbook. “He decided it’d be funny to take photos of me without my consent while my back was to him, while I was getting fucked by him, then texted said photos to all his lacrosse friends. I guess it wasn’t gay to them if he was the one fucking me with his needle-dick, but, I’ve never claimed to understand the mentality of most athletes. ”

Harry’s pen tumbled from his limp fingers, his mouth agape. The pen rattled on the floor.

“What?”

Louis continued writing notes as if he was reading his grocery list aloud.

“The photos, of course, spread like wildfire through the entire school. Spread through the whole town. My dad could barely look at me for years. Still can’t.” Louis laughed with little humor, running the tip of his tongue over his bottom lip. “He still doesn’t talk about the fact that I’m gay. Won’t even acknowledge it. Oh.” He tapped his pen to his notebook. “And my parents practically went bankrupt getting a lawyer to defend me in a defamation of character lawsuit, since the lacrosse player was from a rich family who was angry I, ‘corrupted,’ their boy. Who took and sent the pictures. I’m just glad we were both eighteen at the time. It could have been much worse.”

The new sense of pride that had shocked Harry’s body was replaced with something on the absolute opposite end of the spectrum. Not jealousy. Definitely anger with rage sprinkled in. But the overwhelming emotion that froze his limbs in place was protection. The need to protect. He could practically hear a stadium chanting, ‘De-fense! De-fense! De-fense!’ in his head, his blood boiling as it surged through his veins.

“What?” he rasped, his voice rough.

“You heard me,” Louis said quietly. “I guess I should just be thankful there wasn’t a video on YouTube or something. It was mostly contained to my town and the surrounding towns.”

“That’s…” Harry swallowed, but his throat still felt like sandpaper. “Louis…”

Louis pushed his tongue against the inside of his cheek, ballooning the skin outwards. He huffed and itched the back of his head.

“Funny how it works out, yeah?”

Harry had not moved since he dropped his pen, but his jawline flickered.

“How is any of that funny?”

“You’re from Texas and play football, which is arguably the least accepting combination that would accept you being potentially anything but straight, but you can do whatever the fuck you want, do whomever the fuck you want, and it’s all good because you’re rich. You’re white. You’re you, so it comes off as charming and quirky and progressive.”

“You say it like it’s so easy. My dad isn’t a big fan of me being into guys. He’s a, ‘This is a phase, son,’ type. He just keeps it to himself because the public seems to like it. He’s made it very clear to me that he wants me to marry a woman and would not be okay if I ended up with a guy.”

“True, but what I’m saying is that I’m from California and I’m a dancer, two things that would usually match up just fine with being gay. I’ve been nothing less than a perfect student for my entire academic career, I’m a college athlete, I work multiple jobs, I’m an artist, and I’ve never asked my parents for a dime besides the lawsuit. I’ve tried to do everything right my entire life, yet I’m the disgrace. I’m the black sheep. It’s funny in a sick sort of way, that’s all I’m saying.”

“I don’t think that’s funny at all.”

“You don’t?” Louis laughed, still not looking away from his notes. “Good for you.”

“Why don’t you sound like you believe me? Why would I ever think it’s okay for someone to take a picture of someone else without their consent?”

“Yeah, that Deadspin visit was mostly a waste of my time, but the articles tagged for Hugo Styles were sort of eye opening.”

Harry’s face paled, his head recoiling on his neck.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You and your fellow players must have had a real good laugh about all the women you put up on your private team Snapchat last year. Or was that just a nasty rumor?”

When Harry said nothing, Louis looked to him.

A source had let it slip to someone in the sports world that the mighty Armadillos had a Snapchat to swap sexts they had received, mostly for group mockery. No photos had been leaked from the mysterious Snapchat and no names had been mentioned in the article. It could have been a blow up, a huge disgrace to the school, but donor funding and a strong legal team squashed most talk of the Snapchat account, even after numerous complaints from students.

Harry simply stared at him, his jawline tensing. Louis nodded for a beat, tapping his pen against his notes.

“I haven’t told anyone but Niall and Zayn about what happened at home. I’d appreciate it if you could keep your big mouth shut about it.”

“Why’d you tell me, then?”

“Because maybe the next time you and your football buddies decide to humiliate someone for your own amusement, you’ll think twice. People are people and actions have consequences.”

“I know that people are people.” Harry frowned. “I...I didn’t send anything on the Snapchat.”

“But did you look?” Harry was silent yet again. Louis huffed a soft laugh as he wrote. “Did you laugh with your friends? Have a good old time with your good old football buddies?”

“We were just joking.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not a joke to the person who trusted someone on the team and had their private bits blasted to the universe,” Louis said, snappier, looking at Harry head on. His smile faded a touch and his demeanor remained calm, but his voice whipped wickedly over Harry’s face. “It’s not a joke to someone who now has to worry for the rest of their life that a naked photo of them is going to pop up and make them lose their job or upset their spouse or get their future kids teased at school about it.”

“It’s just naked bodies, Jesus Christ, I don’t know why everyone’s so goddamn prudish about everything in this country.”

“Okay, Mr. Big Dick. I’m so glad that you, a lifelong rich person, aren’t concerned with losing your job. For normal people, it’s a serious concern. Our country is prudish for sure and that’s a valid, obnoxious issue, but how can you not see that the root of the issue is the exploitation of Person A by Person B?”

Harry’s brows furrowed. “Wait, is Person A the naked photo person? Or is that the sender?”

Louis blew out a quick breath.

“Forget it.”

“No, I’m trying to learn here. You think I’m gonna get this kind of conversation at home? In the frat house?”

“I’m not being a good teacher about this topic because I’m emotionally invested in my own shit and...I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to jump all over you. It’s just…” Louis swallowed, itching the side of his neck. “It’s a sensitive subject with me.”

“With good reason,” Harry said softly. He placed his hand on the back of Louis’ neck and squeezed with his thumb and middle finger. Louis’ head fell forward at the barest hint of pressure. “God, you’re all wound up in knots. C’mere, turn a little. Turn your back. My massage therapist showed me this trick for necks.”

Louis shifted in his chair, ending up sitting sidesaddle with his back to Harry. His eyes fluttered shut as relief worked its way through his tense muscles.

“You have a personal—Ah!” Louis jerked his head away but Harry hushed him, using his thumbs to make small, gentle circles on a knot above his left side. “You have a personal massage therapist?”

“The team does.”

Louis softly moaned, “I hate football,” and shut his eyes, his head swaying left as Harry’s thumbs squeezed. Harry laughed but continued the neck rub lower to massage his shoulders. “I’m shocked, legitimately shocked, at how good you are at this.”

“I like to make people feel good.”

“God, listen to you,” Louis said, his smile growing. “You sound so pleased to be getting praised. You’re like a puppy.”

Harry chuckled lowly.

“Praise from you is basically like winning a hundred Heisman’s at once.”

Louis opened his eyes, staring at the floor as Harry thumbed between his shoulder blades.

“Uh...” He guided his shoulders away and sat right in his seat, avoiding Harry’s confused stare. “Sorry, I didn’t even ask if you wanted a drink with dinner. Do you want a drink?”

“We sort of tore dinner apart before drinks were discussed.”

They both looked at the empty Domino’s box. Nothing but a grease stain remained to indicate food was ever in it.

“Yeah, so, do you want water?”

“Yes, please, but we need to take a break.”

“Why?”

“We need to stand up and move around and not do work for a few minutes. We need to relax.” Harry stood up, as if to punctuate his opinion. “C’mon, get up.”

He reached for Louis’ hand. Louis pulled his arm back before his fingers brushed skin.

“What do you want to do to relax?” Louis’ face flushed bright red the minute he asked, Harry’s smirk mischievous. “Forget it.” He reached for the Post-Its. “We have studying to do.”

“No, c’mon,” Harry drawled as he sat down. “Relax with me. We’re having heavy conversation. We need some relief.”

“You have math to study.”

“I’ve been practicing every day for weeks.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“You get ten practice equations correct, I’ll take a ten minute break.”

“Can we make out during the break?”

“Ha. You wish, pizza breath,” Louis laughed, typing something into his laptop. “Sorry, Riggins. I was thinking we could watch TV for a few minutes.”

“Can we,” Harry held out the word, tapping his pen against his notebook, “dance? Oh! Yeah!” He sat up straight. “You can teach me a dance! Like, an iconic movie dance!”

“Absolutely not. There’s more of a chance of us making out than me teaching you to dance.”

“Oh, is there?”

“No, we’re not—” Louis sliced the air with his flattened hand. “There is to be no making out. I don’t want to make out with you. Ridiculous.”

Harry lifted his copy of Othello and held the book horizontal over his mouth, flapping the book open and shut as he said, “Me thinks the lady doth protest too much,” in a stuffy, old British voice.

Louis dropped his head back to laugh.

And that was how they found themselves in the middle of the living room with the coffee table pushed to the wall. Both were in socked feet and sweats, Louis’ black while Harry’s were dark blue and a few inches too short on his ankles. Sweat started to seep into the neckline of Harry’s borrowed grey American Ballet Theatre tee, Louis’ borrowed jersey darkened in the center of his chest.

“C’mon, Lou, say it.”

“No.”

“Say it,” Harry drawled, his dimples deepening.

“No.”

“If you don’t say it, I’m going to start singing songs from the soundtrack.” He wiggled his brows. “Loudly. I know all the words to She’s Like The Wind.”

Louis sighed, quirking his hip to the left. He gripped Harry’s wrists and stood up straighter.

“Spaghetti arms,” Louis chided, sending Harry into hysterical giggles. Harry laughed so much he fell back onto the sofa and hugged himself, his high laughter pulling unwilling, completely unnecessary giggles from Louis. “You’re ridiculous.”

Harry eased himself into a standing position, still tittering giggles.

“Hey, at least I dropped the Mickey and Sylvia role play.” He held his hands out. “Shall we?”

“One more time,” Louis said, getting into position. He held Harry’s outstretched hand and placed his other hand on the small of Harry’s back. Harry straightened his posture like the model dance student he was fast becoming. “We can try the routine one more time. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“And if you laugh again during the arm up part, we’re done.”

“But it tickles!”

“Then you can’t be Baby.”

“I will be totally focused, cross my heart.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes.”

Louis smiled and exhaled out of his nose.

“Alright. Let’s do this.”

. . .

Louis laughed uncontrollably, running around the kitchen table.

“Harry, no! No, Harry, down!” He held his palms out. “We are not doing lifts.”

Harry’s socks skidded closer on the hardwood floor.

“I swear, I could definitely hold you up. Try me! I’m very strong, I promise!”

“I’m not going to have the entire football loving country up my ass because you broke your arm while doing ballet with your tutor.”

“Ooh, that sounds kind of dirty.”

Louis snorted and opened the refrigerator. “Sit. I’m getting us both more water.”

Harry shuffled back into the living room.

“Hey, can I eat these?”

Louis looked around the door of the refrigerator towards his voice. Harry wiggled a half empty bag of Swedish Fish.

“I guess so,” Louis said, taking out a Brita pitcher. He shut the fridge with his butt. “I don’t know where those came from.”

Harry’s weight settled on the sofa. “Liam loves these,” he said while chewing.

Louis placed two glasses of cold water on the coffee table. “Hm. Dunno.” He sat down and picked up the remote. “Maybe they’re Zayn’s. I’ll buy a new bag for him tomorrow. Have to go shopping anyway.”

Harry watched Louis channel surf as he sipped his water. His lips smiled around the rim of his glass.

“What happened to studying after our cardio break, tutor?”

“We’re clearly not studying anymore tonight,” Louis said, tossing the remote on the table. He sat back and bent his leg, tucking his foot under his thigh. “And we can still catch some of Jeopardy.”

Harry poked Louis’ cheek with a Swedish Fish. “Nerd.”

Louis pushed his hand away.

“You recite entire Disney scenes by heart, different character voices and all, and I’m the nerd?”

“Shush. You’re interrupting Alex.”

Louis snorted and propped his foot on the coffee table. He drank half his glass of water. Harry slurped next to him while quietly offering answers to Jeopardy. Louis placed his water on the table and nibbled his bottom lip.

“I’m probably going to regret saying this—”

“What is Achy Breaky Heart?” Harry said.

“What is Achy Breaky Heart?” a contestant said.

Harry pumped his arm. “Yes! Get in there!” He did one more victorious pump before he lowered his arms and looked to Louis. “What’s up?”

“Nothing. Just…” Louis pulled at the knee of his sweats. Softly, he said, “If you wanted to, you could come home with me for Thanksgiving, so you wouldn’t be stuck here eating pizza like you do every other night of the week.” His eyes flew to Harry’s face. “I mean, if you, like, wanted to—But, shit. Nevermind.” He waved his hand. “You’ve got a game Wednesday and—”

“No, no, I’d love to,” Harry said over him, breathless. “Yes, please. And thank you. Thank you for offering. I’ll be there.”

“I didn’t mean come home with me, I meant you are invited to Thanksgiving in my home. You’re not”—Louis’ eyes narrowed—“coming home with me. Got it?”

“Got it,” Harry grinned.

“I’m flying home late Tuesday night, though, so with the game on Wednesday—”

“I’ll be there Thursday. For sure. I’ll find a way.”

“It’s a random town in Southern California.”

“I’ll be there.”

“You have to take an airplane, then a shuttle, then a bus.”

“Done. What’s your favorite pie? I’ll bring a dozen.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Louis said, his air sputtering unevenly out of his mouth to laugh. “One pie will do.”

“I’ll bring two. Maybe three. Just incase.”

Louis rolled his head along the back of the sofa. “A pie emergency.”

“I like to eat.”

Harry’s drawled phrase hung in the air between them. Louis watched Harry wet his bottom lip with his tongue before his mouth moved.

“Lou?”

Louis’ brows arched. “Huh?”

The corner of Harry’s mouth quirked. “I asked what your favorite pie was.”

The depth and slowness of his voice was, in Louis’ opinion, completely inappropriate for such talk of dessert. His arm fitting across the back of the sofa, and his long fingers draping to innocently brush Louis’ shoulder, also fell into the innappropriate category. Louis thought about moving, but he only seemed able to stare at Harry’s open mouth, his lips rosy and bitten.

“Pecan,” Louis said, swallowing. Warmth from Harry’s body seeped over his side. “Pecan is my favorite fall pie.”

“Pecan it is.” He smiled, tracing over Louis’ collarbone. “Quirky until the end. I figured you’d say pumpkin.”

“I hate pumpkin.”

Harry gasped. “I’m shocked.” His soft, sugar-sweet breaths tingled on Louis’ lips. “Pumpkin’s my favorite.”

“Yeah?”

Harry’s head tilted ever so slightly, his eyes never leaving Louis’ face. “Mmhmm.”

Louis opened his mouth to reply, but no words came out. The warmth of Harry’s body seemed to explode against his side. He could smell his own laundry detergent mixed with something masculine and sharp. His gaze landed on the slightly darkened material that ran around the neckline of his grey tee, tiny speckles of darkened fabric just starting to show through under Harry’s extended arm.

The front door unlocked. Louis sucked in a breath and looked towards the footsteps.

“Oh, hey,” he said on an exhale, shifting away from Harry’s body. He felt the weight of Harry’s arm slip off the back of the sofa. “How was work?”

Zayn dropped his keys on the table. “Fine.” He rested his hand on top of a kitchen chair and tapped the top of the chair once with his thumb. “You should head home.”

Louis’ gaze slid from Zayn to Harry, who was the center of Zayn’s focus.

Harry merely smiled and nodded, then stood. “Yeah, you’re right. It’s getting late and I think the rain stopped.”

Without breaking his stare, Zayn turned the front doorknob and pushed the door open.

“It has.”

Harry bit the left corner of his mouth as he smiled down at Louis. “Right, so, I’ll see you at the library tomorrow? Regular time?”

“Yeah,” Louis said, standing and brushing his hands together. “I’ll give back your jersey tomorrow, too.”

“Nah, keep it.” Harry looped his index finger in the vee of his jersey. He pulled the material away from Louis’ chest and grinned crookedly. “You could even, um...” His eyes darted to where Zayn remained in the kitchen, making tea with one ear facing the living room. “You could, um,” he lowered his voice to a whisper, “wear it? At the game on Friday, you know? I could give you my player’s box tickets. Enough for you and whoever else you want to bring. They’re awesome seats.”

Louis’ throat bobbed and his eyes widened.

“Oh! That’s, uh, very nice of you to offer and yeah, I would—” Light flooded Harry’s face. “I mean, I would consider the game, but I can’t come on Friday. I’ve got a show. Ballet.”

“Oh, right,” Harry said, deflating a bit. “Right.”

“It’s, um, nice of you to offer, though.”

“Yeah. Cool. Cool. I just said that, but okay. Cool.”

“You two about done?” Zayn’s voice popped in. “Door’s open.”

Louis and Harry stepped back from each other.

“Yeah, we’re good. C’mon,” Louis said, tilting his head to the kitchen. “I’ll walk you out.”

. . .

Louis ran his fingers over a skirt’s seam.

“Lovely.” He smiled up at Miranda from his knees. He sat back on his feet. “Works for you?”

“Of course!” She did a quick pirouette, flowy blue chiffon swirling around her like frosting on a fresh cupcake. “I love what you’ve done with the length! I don’t know how you managed to do that so quickly between shows, but it fits perfectly. Much better than the dress rehearsal.”

“Awesome.”

The stage manager said, “Five minutes to curtain. Five minutes to curtain,” through the intercom.

“Thank you, five minutes,” Louis, and the nearby crowd of performers, said in unison.

It was the tail-end of Intermission and Louis was happy. His stitching held up and his dancers were comfortable. Now, he just needed to buckle down to tackle the breakdown and storage of costumes.

He stood up and observed his final alteration. He took his needle and thread out of his mouth.

“You good, gorgeous?”

“Perfect,” the dancer chirped before pecking his cheek and darting away. “Thanks, Lou!”

Louis rubbed lipstick off his cheek as he turned towards his work station, but ran straight into a wall of muscle.

“There you are!” Harry laughed. He held Louis’ shoulders and steadied him. “I’ve been looking all over for you. It’s crazy back here tonight.”

Breathless, Louis asked, “What—What are you doing here?”

Harry gathered his hair on top of his head.

“I ran here straight from the game. We won.” He snapped a hair tie around his tiny bun and grinned. “I showered before I came, I promise. Changed into all black, too.”

“But—You—” Louis was distracted by both Harry’s biceps in his black t-shirt and the flurry of dancers running between them. “Why are you here?”

“You said the breakdown is the hardest part, yeah?”

“Well, yes, but—”

“I thought I could help you and we could hang out after.”

“You,” Louis said slowly, laughing through the single word. “You did?”

“Yeah.” Harry gripped the rail of a clothing rack and started to walk. “These have to go Stage Left, yeah?”

“Yeah. And then we need to—”

“Pack the trunks, yup. Got it.” Harry winked over his shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”

Louis watched Harry hustle the clothing rack towards backstage, slapping hands with dancers as he ran past. Miranda sidled up beside him and rested her cheekbone on his shoulder. She whispered, “What was that you said about not fucking him?”

The remainder of the show went off without a hitch. The breakdown flew by thanks to Harry’s attentive help.

“We good?” Harry asked.

Louis closed his last plastic bin. “Yeah. We’re good.” He put his hands on his hips, surveying the rows of stored costumes and accessories. “We’re really good. Thank you for all your help. It really made the time fly.”

Niall, one of the principal dancers in the company, popped his head through a rack of tutus.

“You guys are coming over tonight, right?”

Louis opened his mouth and glanced at Harry, who said, “Yeah, for sure,” before Louis could speak. Harry raised his eyebrows at Louis. “We’re gonna go to game night, yeah?”

“You know about game night?”

“Yeah.” Harry ruffled Niall’s hair and Niall just about levitated off the floor. “Nialler filled me in backstage.”

Louis chuckled. “You call him Nialler?”

“Don’t ruin this moment for me, Louis,” Niall said sharply. He resumed smiling at Harry without missing a beat, his eyes round and sparkling. He whispered, “Harry Styles.”

Harry laughed and pulled Niall into a side hug.

“I can’t believe Lou was keeping you from me all this time.”

“Enough.” Louis cut between them with his palm. “I don’t need Niall to jizz all over my costumes. It’s a pain to get out of velvet.”

. . .

They left the theatre and took the student shuttle to Niall’s row house. Harry hopped out of the back of the shuttle and slapped its front door.

“This shuttle really runs all the time? All over campus? For free?”

Louis stepped out of the van, three dancers tumbling out behind him. He and Harry walked side by side up the leaf covered path.

“Yes, pumpkin. I know it’s not your usual tickertape parade of Escalades and Range Rovers, but, yes. It’s here all the time. You see, there are things called routes—”

“I know what a route is,” Harry scoffed.

“And some students like to take the shuttle to class or work or—Oh.” Louis winced and snapped his fingers. “You don’t know what those things are, either. Hm. Let’s see if I can explain in football terms.”

Harry came up behind Louis and wrapped his arms around him, lifting him off the ground. Louis giggled and bicycled his legs as he tried to sway out of his bear hug, Harry’s fingers digging into his stomach through the barrier of his coat and sweater.

“My hat!” Louis laughed.

Louis’ gray beanie fell off his head. Harry released him from his crushing hold and swiped the hat. He also grabbed a handful of fresh, crunchy leaves and placed them in the hat before he stuck it on top of Louis’ head.

“We’re taking too long on our route to Nialler’s,” Harry said, walking backwards in front of Louis. Louis pulled his leaf filled hat off and tried to frown at Harry, but Harry’s silly grin made that physically impossible. “Show some class, Lou, Jesus. You should really work on that.”

Louis plucked a leaf out of the back of his hair.

“Just because you’re emphasizing the words I said, that doesn’t mean you’re using them correctly.”

“What is Context Clues, Alex?”

Louis laughed and hid his face in his hands for the walk up the steps. Niall waited for them in the open doorway. He held his arms out in welcome.

“Cool! You two are finally entering the party. I was about to start blasting Barry White out the windows and throw you a couple of condoms for good luck.”

Louis snorted, “In his dreams,” and walked past.

Harry asked, “Wanna get Domino’s? Games make me hungry.”

Niall clutched his chest with one hand while removing his black baseball cap with his other hand.

“How are we just now becoming friends? Hell yeah, pizza for sure. Normally, we’d all sob and say no to pizza, but tonight was the last show before the holiday break, so we’re all probably down to cheat.”

Harry reached for his wallet.

“I can pay for it with my—”

Niall handed a dancer his hat and called out, “Pizza, pizza, pizza!” Harry watched the hat float from party guest to party guest as Niall directed him. “Right, so, our living room is small, and we were going to try to mimic this thing we saw on an episode of Property Brothers, but we ended up blowing most of our decorating money on this and got derailed.” He pointed to a red race car bed sitting beside an armchair. “It was a great deal at a garage sale, so I’m not complaining.”

The baseball hat returned to them, full of cash, within seconds.

“Sweet, we can get a bunch,” Niall said as he rustled his hand through the bills. “I’m starving.”

“You don’t want me to pay?” Harry asked.

Niall snorted, “Why would you pay for our pizza?”

“Right,” Harry said slowly, laughing it off. Niall smiled at him, slightly confused but still overjoyed. “Um, yeah. Cool. So.” Harry slung his arm around Niall’s shoulders. “Drinks?”

They walked further into the party. The living room was full of people and various boxed board games. There was even a Twister mat open. Harry’s gaze caught on Louis hugging someone in the kitchen. He recognized him as his dance partner from the rehearsal Harry had crashed. Louis moved on to hug another dancer, people milling around him with red Solo cups.

“So, this is my humble abode,” Niall said, guiding Harry to the middle of the living room. “Where the magic happens.” Harry blinked at him and Niall hurried to add, “Like, Magic the Gathering. We legitimately play Magic the Gathering here sometimes, but that’s”—he laughed brashly and swayed his hand in front of himself—“nevermind. Not important.”

Harry picked up a blue gingerbread man from Candy Land. “Wow, you guys really do game night,” he said, impressed. He replaced the man on Candy Land’s board. “Where’d Lou go? We should get to Twister stat.”

Louis appeared beside him and handed him a red Solo cup.

“We usually wait until we’ve had a few drinks until we move on to Twister.”

Harry sniffed his cup.

“Mmm. Apple?”

“Warm apple cider with whiskey.”

“You artsy kids. So fancy.” He sipped, his eyes widening. He licked his lips. “Shit, this is fucking delicious.” He rubbed his stomach. “And cozy.”

“Also, you’d most definitely lose at Twister. You’re playing with a bunch of dancers. It’s our job to be bendy.”

“I honestly just want you on top of me. I’m not fussy about how we get from A to Z.”

Louis laughed into his cup of cider. Niall held out a board game, wiggling the box at Harry.

“What do you think, H? You up for it?”

“Nialler, that’s sort of a random history game,” Louis said, waving his hand in front of the box. He glanced at Harry. “You’ve probably never heard of it. We could start with Scrabble or—”

“Excuse me, Louis,” Harry said, outraged but smiling. He flattened his palm on his chest. “I happen to be exceptional at Settlers of Catan.” He looked to Niall. “Have you got Risk around here, too?”

Niall’s eyes filled with such joy his lower eyelids shimmered. “You—You like Risk?” His breathing sped up. “You? Harry Styles?”

“Yeah! Love Risk. We should play some time. Takes forever, but so worth it.”

Niall lifted the board game above his head and did a rapid series of pirouettes while droning a high, pleased sound.

Harry cackled. “Oh man, can you teach me to do that!?” He tossed his arms up and spun in place beside Niall. “Lou said I have a natural inclination towards dance.” He grinned at Louis and spun around. “Ain’t that right, Lou?”

“I literally never said that.”

He watched Harry and Niall spin around each other, laughing as happily as two ducklings splashing in a puddle. No other guests seemed to notice or care.

. . .

“You like him, Lou Lou.”

Louis snuffled a laugh and shook his head. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” He ladled more hot cider into his cup. “Shut up.”

“You do, I can tell,” Gregory said, smirking. He leaned his hip on the counter beside Louis. “C’mon, man. He’s hot and seems into you. Do it. Do it for the good of every art kid in high school that crushed on the star quarterback.”

“I don’t know. And he’s a wide receiver, not a quarterback”

“What don’t you know?”

Louis leaned his ass against the counter.

“I don’t know what I don’t know. I need more alcohol.” He held his cup up. “That I do know.”

“You like him.”

Louis licked his lips, tilting his head side to side. “Yeah, maybe,” he said slowly, his smile growing. He pinched the air. “Just a little bit.”

Gregory’s face lit up.

“Oh, shit! You’re gonna bang a baller!”

“Shh, shh! I dunno about that,” Louis laughed, shoving Gregory’s hands away from his hair. He ran his fingers through his bangs. “I do like him, though.” He took a long swig of cider. “Don’t know what I’m thinking.”

“I’m shocked. Legitimately shocked.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re so picky. You wouldn’t even fuck me,” he said as he gestured to himself, “and I’m stunning.”

“You’re straight, ass.”

“I could have been swayed by your ass. Why else would I have asked you to do my senior duet with me?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Louis giggled. He took a quick sip of cider. “A likely story.”

“What do you like about him? C’mon. Let’s hear it.” Gregory nodded, his wavy blond hair swaying over his shoulders. “What does Harry Styles have that every other male on campus does not?”

Louis narrowed his eyes. “He’s…” His smile slowly widened. “He’s a lot brighter than I originally thought. He’s clever. Surprising. Warm. Very warm. And he…” He chuckled and looked down, spinning his cup in his hands. Softer, he said, “He makes me laugh. A lot.”

“Who does?”

Louis looked up at the sound of Harry’s voice. His mouth flopped open.

“Hi there,” Gregory said with a grin. Harry smiled from the doorway, glancing from Louis to Gregory. Gregory held his arm towards the stove. “Want some more cider?”

Harry took two steps into the kitchen. “Yeah, thanks. I came by to get some more and to see what you guys were up to.”

“Right, of course,” Gregory said as he backed towards the doorway. When he got behind Harry, he gave Louis a dramatic wink and pumped his hips forward. “I’ll leave you two alone.”

“Bye, Greg,” Louis said, smirking despite his best effort to sound annoyed.

Harry stood in front of Louis. He held out his cup and gave him a big smile.

“More, please.”

Louis sighed but lifted the ladle.

“Spoiled brat.”

“So,” Harry drawled, watching Louis ladle cider into his cup. Louis’ eyes flickered to his face. “Who makes you laugh a lot?”

Louis sweetly batted his lashes and dropped the ladle in the cider pot.

“Stephen Colbert.”

“Oh, really? You were talking about Stephen Colbert with that guy?”

“Maybe,” Louis said, a giggle breaking through his voice. Harry laughed delightedly. “You’ll never know, now, will you?”

Harry stepped close enough to feel Louis’ warm, apple scented breaths on his lips.

“You weren’t, perhaps, talking about me making you laugh, were you?”

Louis laughed and ducked his face down, Harry grinning at the high, bubbly sound. Harry lowered his head to nuzzle his nose against the crown of Louis’ head. Soft, gentle breaths fluttered against Louis’ skin until Harry reached his temple. Harry’s warm hands curved around his hips.

“What are you doing, Styles?”

“Your hair smells so good,” Harry whispered.

Louis chuckled quietly, but didn’t move right away. His head swayed to the left as Harry ran his nose along his jawline.

“You have a thing for smells.” Harry’s nose brushed beneath his jaw and his eyes fluttered shut, his breath stuttering. “Yeah?”

“Yeah, maybe,” Harry murmured. He bracketed Louis against the counter with his thighs, his hands flat on the sides of Louis’ ass. “Mostly how you smell, though. You always smell so good to me.”

“Might as well put that big old nose to—” Harry hummed lowly and pressed his whole face into the crook of Louis’ neck, stepping close enough to bring their bodies flush. Louis weakly moaned, “Oh,” before he could control it. He flattened his hands on the small of Harry’s back, Harry humming and nuzzling his neck. “Fuck,” Louis breathed, his head falling straight back. Harry’s lips dragged over the bulge of his throat. “You’re so warm.”

“I want to make you feel so good,” Harry whispered, his right hand sliding lower to grip Louis’ ass. Louis made a soft, high sound and ground against him. Harry squeezed him again, exhaling audibly with his nose crunched to Louis’ neck. “I promise, Lou. Let me. I promise I’ll—”

“Come dance, guys!”

Harry froze in place, the pads of Louis’ fingers digging into his lower back. They both craned their necks to look at the doorway. A dancer named Michael grinned at them.

A beat passed before Michael’s smile faded, his springy red hair seeming to wilt on top of his head.

“Oh, am I—” He pointed from Harry to Louis. “Am I interrupting something?”

“Nope, you’re cool,” Harry said, stepping back. He smiled easily and took his cider cup off the counter. “No interruption. I’ll have to pass on dancing, though. We’re about to start Scrabble.”

“I’ll come dance, Mikey.” Louis grabbed his own cider cup and breezed past Harry, able to feel Harry’s gaze burning below his waistline. He swiped the back of his hand over his forehead. “Need to blow off some steam.”

. . .

“Fuck me, you’re good, Styles!”

Harry grinned and reorganized his Scrabble tiles. He looked across the game board at Niall, but his eyes swerved over Niall’s shoulder. Harry quickly refocused on the game while the player to his left laid down his letters. They played in silence for a few moments until Harry gently cleared his throat.

“Can I ask y’all a question?” Harry asked.

The trio of male dancers playing Scrabble—including Niall, a muscled blond named Lance, and a Japanese student with swoopy black bangs named Cy—smiled at him.

“What’s up?” Niall asked.

Harry tossed a Q tile from palm to palm. “So, y’all get pretty, like, handsy with the other dancers. ‘Cause you’re lifting them and touching them and all that stuff, right?”

“Yeah,” Lance said.

“Is it weird?” Harry asked, squinting at something in the distance. “Like, does it ever get sexual? You’re both sweaty and wearing next to no clothes and touching everyone’s business.”

“If both parties are into it, it happens,” Cy said with a shrug. He brought his beer to his lips, swaying his head side to side. “You’re feeling inspired and connected to your dance partner and you spend hours with them every day. We’re all really hot. It happens.”

“Ah.” Harry placed his Q tile on his wooden holder. “Cool. Good to know.”

They refocused on their Scrabble game. Niall did a casual stretch of his head to the left and looked over his shoulder.

Track: The 1975 - Love Me

Amidst the group of people bopping to the beat, Louis and another dancer named Nick were grinding face to face, both laughing through their fast chatter. Niall snorted and turned back to the Scrabble game.

“Pause. I need a beer.” Lance waved his hands over the board. “No peeksies.”

Cy stood and stretched his arms above his head. “Me too. No peeksies.”

“No peeksies,” Harry and Niall said together.

Cy and Lance shuffled away from the coffee table. Harry sat back on the sofa and ran his fingers through his hair. His eyes rose for a split second, then dropped back to the floor. He ruffled the front of his hair with more gusto.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Niall said, amused.

Harry blinked at him. “What?”

Niall tilted his head backwards.

“They’re just dancing. Promise.”

Harry snorted and sipped his drink. He could feel his face warming as he gulped another mouthful of apple cider, his shoulders involuntarily rising towards his ears.

“According to y’all, it’s normal to be sexual with other dancers,” Harry grumbled.

“Sometimes. But I wouldn’t worry.”

“Why would I worry?”

“You keep looking at them.”

“I’m…” Harry’s brows furrowed. He laughed for a moment, rearranging his tiles. Quietly, he admitted, “I’m not used to not being the person someone wants.”

Niall laughed. “Lou’s not doing anything with Nick tonight. Believe me.”

Harry peered through the party to the impromptu dance floor. Louis was still dancing, but now had his back to Nick’s front. His face was flushed, his lips wet and his feathery hair falling down to tangle in his long eyelashes. Their eyes locked.

Louis smiled with his lips shut, his hips continuing to grind backwards against Nick’s taller frame. He lifted his arm to place his hand behind Nick’s head. Nick’s palm slid up the front of his shirt and Louis giggled, letting his head fall to the side, his eyes still on Harry’s face.

Harry looked away. “And how do you know that, hm? They look pretty cozy.”

Niall chewed a pizza crust with his mouth open.

“Lou is the Grinding King, and occasionally a Prince of Making Out, but not so much into anything more. He doesn’t like to mix sex with people he works with or are in his program. Nick’s in the dance program, too. They’ll dance together, yeah, but that’s it.”

Harry’s eyes widened.

“Really? A Prince of Making Out?”

“Mmhmm.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I know thangs,” Niall said with a southern drawl.

Harry quirked a brow. “Have you ever made out with Louis?”

Niall sat back in his seat and crossed his leg.

“Why? You liiiike him or something?”

Harry smiled along with Niall and shook his head.

“Doesn't really matter. I’ve offered to make out a number of times and he’s always said no.” He studied the bottom of his empty cup. “I guess I don’t meet his royal standards.”

Niall continued to laugh at him.

“Man, are you kidding me? You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t meet his standards. I wouldn’t stress. You’re within inches of the end zone.” He shoved the rest of his crust in his mouth. “That’s all I’ll say.”

“Inches,” Harry scoffed. “Yeah, right.”

“Go dance with him.”

“We’re playing Scrabble. I can’t leave. That’d be shameful.”

“Go dance with him,” Niall said as he giggled. He jutted his chin up. “C’mon. Move that sweet little ass to the beat. The guys are probably making out in the kitchen right now, anyway.”

Harry blinked faster.

“Wait, are they involved, too?”

Niall laughed and walloped his face with a throw pillow.

“Go dance!”

Harry placed his empty cup on the coffee table and stood, brushing his palms over his thighs. He pushed his hair back off his face. The music changed from bouncy electro rock to a groovier sounding R&B song.

Track: Daft Punk - Lose Yourself To Dance

As Harry approached the group of grinding dancers, Louis stared at him the entire time. Every step Harry took, Louis’ smile grew wider by a fraction of an inch, their eyes remaining locked. Harry stood still in front of Louis as people swirled around him, heat from other dancers already seeping into his skin. The whiskey in his belly seemed to heat along with his skin, numbing some of the nerves he would normally feel dancing in public amidst a crowd of professionals.

Louis bit his bottom lip, his bicep clenching as his fingers gripped Nick’s hair tighter.

“Hi,” he said, voice barely carrying over the music.

Harry arched his eyebrows.

“May I cut in?”

Louis’ grin went lopsided. He tilted his head back as Nick whispered something in his ear. Louis laughed, his eyes snapping to Harry and his sweat-curled hair flopping over his forehead. Nick peered at Harry with the bottom half of his face hidden behind Louis. He planted a wet kiss on Louis’ dewy cheekbone and winked, then turned away to join in with two female dancers.

Louis gripped the center of Harry’s black tee.

“C’mere, cowboy.”

Harry gulped, his hands fumbling on Louis’ hips. Louis smiled, sweat darkening his hairline and his eyes sparkling.

“Relax,” he murmured. He smoothed his palms around Harry’s sides and up his back. Each press of his hands made Harry’s skin tingle, his touch firm and confident. “C’mon, then.” He lined up their middles as he straddled Harry’s thigh. “Let’s go. Put your hands on me.”

Harry’s hands slid lower to cradle Louis’ ass and Louis hummed, his muscles starting to move beneath Harry’s palms.

“Shocked you’re not slapping me right now.”

“We’re just dancing and you have a nice body,” Louis giggled out on one breath, Harry grinning wider. He looped his arms around Harry’s neck. “What’s wrong? You’re not moving.” He twirled one of Harry’s curls between his fingers. “You want to do the Dirty Dancing choreography we worked on?”

“Why are you always wearing so many layers?” Harry asked as he slipped his hand under the shirt beneath Louis’ cardigan. Miles and miles of refined muscles twitched under his palm. “It’s a hundred degrees in here and, fuck me.” He watched Louis’ ass gyrate, his hand clenching on his lower back. “You’re so fucking hot.”

The searing burn of Louis’ skin caused even more throbbing, pulsing heat to rush to Harry’s most sensitive parts. Other dancers crowded around them, ignoring Harry and Louis’ movements, but their bodies coming closer and closer. Combined body heat and the sharp smell of Louis’ skin made Harry feel lightheaded.

The confidence of Louis’ every move and touch made it feel as if Louis was the taller, broader one. Louis moved as if he was aware of how he looked from all angles. He moved with perfect ease and comfort and confidence, one of the benefits of being a lifelong dancer.

When Louis touched him, his body moved how Louis wanted him to. He was upright, but he was putty in Louis’ hands. When Louis breathed in against his skin, Harry’s lungs sucked a breath in, as if he was waiting on Louis for cues.

Each time there were claps on the song, the dancers clapped in unison, all swirling around them as if they were privy to choreography Harry hadn’t learned. Harry shut his eyes and rested his forehead on Louis’ shoulder, his nose under Louis’ jawline.

“You’re a really good dancer.”

“Thanks, Riggs.”

“And I feel like we’re in A Knight’s Tale.”

Louis’ throat jumped with a low laugh. “Or She’s All That.”

Harry’s posture stiffened, his shoulder blades twitching together. He stood up straight.

“What?”

“Because of the iconic dance scene.” Louis widened his eyes, his smirk sly. “Doy.”

Harry breathed for a shaky moment, then said, “Right,” and settled back into position. He nuzzled his face to Louis’ slightly sweaty neck with his eyes shut. “Right.”

Louis guided him closer with his hand on his lower back then ground against him.

“Relax your hips. Pretend they’re not part of your body anymore.”

Harry hummed, his hands sinking lower to squeeze Louis’ ass. He watched the muscles framing Louis’ spine flutter and stretch beneath his palm each time he ground against him, their movement rhythmic yet so fluid and natural.

“Now I want you to imagine circles, circles, circles,” Louis continued to whisper, placing each incarnation of circles on every other beat. “Pretend we’re in a hula hoop together.”

“I’m good at hula hooping.”

“I’ll bet you are. Ungh, yes. That’s it.” As their hips synced together with perfect, tear-inducing friction, Louis tilted his head to the side, breathing a touch faster. He gripped the back of Harry’s hair, tightening his grip as Harry took a deep breath. Louis’ eyes crinkled at the ceiling. “Can you smell him on me?”

“Fuck you,” Harry growled.

Louis’ next laugh was louder. Harry’s teeth nipped the bottom of his neck and Louis moaned softly, tilting his head the other way. He pulled out of Harry’s embrace but stayed within inches of him, reaching out and gripping Harry’s hips. He spun Harry in one practiced, easy motion and pulled him against his body.

Harry’s hazy eyes widened—he’d never been the little spoon while dancing before—but he just kept making hip circles. He felt a definite hardness pressing against his ass and held his breath as they danced, until Louis pinched a tiny bite of skin just above his collar. Harry gasped and sucked a breath in, his heart pounding in his ears. Louis’ body melded against his back, his small hands sliding over the fronts of his hips. He felt Louis’ lips brush his neck.

“I saw you watching us, cowboy,” he whispered.

Harry tilted his head sideways.

“I saw you putting on a show.”

“Got you over here, didn’t it?”

Harry leaned back into Louis’ weight, one of Louis’ hands sliding up under his shirt to rest on his stomach.

“Is that what you wanted?”

“Hmm, maybe,” Louis hummed lowly. He thumbed Harry’s navel, Harry’s strong abs ballooning under his palm. “Do you like this song?”

“I like what we’re doing to this song.”

Louis whispered, “You know,” and let his lips brush the shell of Harry’s ear. “I bet this song would make a great track for a lap dance.”

Harry clenched his eyes shut.

“You’re torturing me.”

“Nah,” Louis said, his voice a low rasp. He smoothed his palm down Harry’s belt buckle, but slid his hand to the right just before he touched Harry’s bulge. He gripped his upper inner thigh and pulled him closer. “You’d know if I was torturing you.” Harry whimpered as Louis’ nose pressed against the sweaty curls sticking to the side of his neck. Quietly, Louis murmured, “You smell good, too.”

Harry lifted his arm and laced his fingers in Louis’ hair, their hips grinding slow, deep circles to the beat.

“Lou.”

“What?”

“Can we please go have sex already? At this point, I’d even be down to use the race car bed in front of all your friends.”

Louis laughed loudly, Harry turning in his arms. They ended up with Louis’ hands cradling Harry’s neck, Harry’s arms wrapped low around his waist. For whatever reason, they did not immediately go back to grinding. Instead, they smiled at each other, sweat glistening on both of their faces, and swayed to the beat as the song switched.

Track: One Direction - What A Feeling

Louis linked their pinky fingers. “Thanks for the dance, cowboy.”

“Why haven’t you been playing board games with me all night? Do you suck at Scrabble or something?”

Louis tugged on Harry’s pinky finger and walked them back towards the living room, both men weaving through groups of dancers. Some of the surrounding body heat dissipated, Harry inching closer to Louis’ side as they walked.

“I’m sort of a throw you in the deep end to see if you sink or swim type.” Louis’ eyes crinkled up at him. “You get it?”

Harry thought for a moment. “Like…You’re seeing if I sink or swim with your friends?”

“Maybe.”

“How am I doing?”

Louis rubbed his thumb over Harry’s knuckle. “Um,” he laughed, nibbling his bottom lip. He looked at their shoes. “I’d say you’re basically Ariel at this point.”

Harry’s entire face brightened. “Oh! So, that’s good, right? Because she can swim and walk on land?”

“Haz! Yes! Thank God you’re back.” Niall wrestled Harry away from Louis and threw him on the sofa. Harry looked at Louis’ smiling face as Niall plopped down beside him. “Cal’s being an ass about Green Bay’s chances this year and I need your professional assistance to defend the honor of my fantasy team.”

“I got you two more cider,” Michael said, handing Harry and Louis fresh Solo cups. “I’m sure you need a drink after all that…” His lips quirked. “Activity.”

“Yeah, Styles,” Cy said, throwing a thumbs up his way. “Nice ass. Team squats totally paying off.”

“Here ya go,” a female dancer said, handing over shot glasses of something amber colored.

Harry took the shot of whiskey. He could see Louis toss back a shot in his peripheral vision. He felt breathless and tingly and surrounded by warmth, new faces and new voices enveloping him from all sides. That feeling only multiplied when Louis squeezed next to him on the sofa and slid his arm around the small of his back.

“I’m gonna be on Harry’s team for the rest of the game,” Louis said, his thumb sneaking under Harry’s shirt to rub his hip.

“You can’t do that, it’s cheating.” Harry’s hot, whiskey-tinged words broke into giggles. “What?” Louis fingers dug into his lowest rib and Harry’s laughter multiplied, his eyes widening. “It is!”

“Lou sucks at Scrabble,” Niall said as he placed tiles on the board. “You’re probably weaker as a team with him. I’m cool with it.”

“Hey,” Louis warned, giggling. “I’m not that bad!”

Niall fluttered his fingers above his most current word. “You’re a terrible speller. Accept it. Understand it. Move on.”

Louis brought his lips to Harry’s ear. “Your next word should be,” his voice dropped to an even more secretive whisper, “F-A-R-T.”

Harry laughed so hard he fell sideways and bumped his head against Louis’ chest, Louis laughing with his face in Harry’s frizzing curls.

. . .

Many hours, games, and cups of warm, boozy cider later, Harry and Louis walked by themselves to Louis’ apartment building. They bundled up in their beanies and scarves, both hugging themselves in their jackets. Crisp fall air added to the rosiness of their cheeks.

“I can’t believe you kept this secret from me for this long, Styles.”

“That you pop boners during Twister? I found that out the same time as you, little darlin’.”

“No,” Louis laughed, his giggles high and uncontrollable. He swayed into Harry, who giggled and nudged him back with his shoulder. Their breaths puffed fog as they laughed. “I didn’t pop a boner, Jesus Christ.”

“Felt pretty boner-y to me.”

“If you thought I got a boner from your puny ass barely resting on my thighs, I feel sorry for whatever dick you’ve gotten in the past.”

Harry cackled and poked his tongue out.

“God, you’re sort of dirty when you’re drunk! I love it! But, alright.” He straightened himself up. “You have my full attention. What’s the big Styles Secret? Do tell.”

They stopped walking and faced each other in the middle of the empty street. Louis prodded Harry’s chest.

“You...are a secret nerd.”

“A secret nerd?”

“Mmhmm. You read fantasy novels and love Disney movies and kick absolute ass at every board game ever invented, even the obscure hard ones, and you’re…” Louis smiled up at him, his fingers curled in the fuzzy collar of Harry’s coat. “You’re actually not dumb. Not at all. You just pretend to be dumb to fit the football player narrative.”

Harry giggled softly. “Well…” He scuffed his shoe against the ground. “Maybe a little, yeah.”

“Why?”

“Why, what?”

Louis released his jacket and they started to walk. “Why do you play dumb? Why do you pretend you don’t like to read?”

“It’s...It’s just sort of the way I’ve always thought I should be. And it worked. People liked it, they liked me, so I guess I just kept it up and….Fuck.” Harry exhaled, his breath puffing into the air. He laughed lowly. “That sounds pathetic.”

“At least you understand it. That’s leagues beyond most of your colleagues. And it’s not pathetic if you’re learning from it. That’s...”

Harry tilted his head towards Louis. “That’s, what?”

“That’s, um, one of...one of my favorite things about you.”

“Y-You have favorite things about me?” Harry laughed, giddy and loud. He slapped his hand over his mouth, earning a sly smirk from Louis. “I mean, you do?”

“Yeah. I like that you’re open to learning. And you try to learn. It’s…” He licked his lips and looked at the ground. “Nice. I like it.”

“I’m...shocked. And honored. And”—he made a creepy little smile with crinkled eyes, elbowing Louis’ side—“a little frisky.”

Harry’s extra schmoozy voice and funny face made both laugh while they strolled. Their shoes crunched on the concrete as they turned a corner.

Track: Carly Rae Jepsen - Gimme Love

Louis shoved his hands in his coat pockets and glanced at Harry. “Thanks again for walking me home. You really didn’t have to.”

“Nah, it’s fine. Was my pleasure.” Harry took a deep, audible breath in through his nose. “S’nice night for a walk. Do you smell that?”

Louis slowly sucked air in. His eyes fluttered shut.

“Fireplace wood.”

“Mmhmm.”

“You like it?”

Harry walked with his eyes shut, his hands tucked into his jacket pockets. “Mmm. I love that smell when it’s a little chilly out. The burning wood smell when it’s cold. Make me want to stay in bed all day covered in blankets.”

Louis chuckled. “Yeah, me too. Um…”

Harry turned towards him, his face still softened.

“What?”

“You…” Louis adjusted his beanie, his eyes peering up at Harry. “It was really fun with you tonight.”

Harry’s tongue darted out over his bottom lip.

“Um, yeah, it…It was so fun,” he said, his voice breathy. “Your friends are really nice. Really welcoming and, uh, normal. And generous with snacks and fun drinks and stuff. It was awesome.”

Louis smiled at Harry for a split second, then looked at the ground.

“I’m sorry it wasn’t, like, you know. A wild kegger.”

“Why would I want that?”

“Because you won a game. That’s what you usually do to celebrate.”

“Aw, that’s alright. This was so fun. Really.” He tilted his head, his eyes sparkling and his wet lips pursed. “We can save the kegger to celebrate after you get your ass to a game in my jersey.”

Harry laughed, as did Louis, but Louis’ laugh was softer.

“Yeah, about that,” Louis said, stepping on the toe of his shoe. “Um…”

“I didn’t mean to make you, like, uncomfortable,” Harry said quickly, palms outstretched. “I’m just kidding. You don’t have to come to a game or wear my jersey. It was a stupid joke.”

Louis unbuttoned his jean jacket and pushed his knitted scarf over his shoulder. The dip of his throat still glimmered with a hint of sweat from the crowded coziness of Niall’s house. Harry watched the tips of Louis’ fingers pull at the buttons of his black cardigan. Halfway down the row of buttons, his sweater wilted open. A flash of bright red was revealed.

Harry’s mouth slackened. His cheeks ached and his eyes stung, the wild, rapid-fire fluttering in his stomach pounding in his eardrums.

“Lou, you…You...”

Louis held his hands away from his body. His full red and black #14 STYLES jersey was revealed beneath his unbuttoned cardigan. He looked at Harry’s face, stunned and slack-jawed, and let out a small laugh.

“Yeah, um, I wore it all night. I’m sorry I couldn’t come to your game, but maybe some time it’ll work out schedule-wise. Uh.” He gulped and tucked a longish wave of hair behind his ear. “Yeah. So.” He walked sideways up the first two steps of his building. “I’ve actually never attended a football game before, can you believe it? Barely even seen one on TV. Anyway, thanks for walking me home and—”

“Louis.”

Louis stopped walking when a warm hand wrapped over his wrist. He looked over his shoulder. Light glittered on the tips of his long eyelashes.

“Yeah?”

Harry walked up one step. He slid his hands inside Louis’ open jacket and cradled the dips above his hips, his long fingers wrapping around far enough to touch the small of his back.

Louis’ nose scrunched, but he smiled. The crinkles beside his eyes reflected even more tiny beams of moonlight. He curled his hands around the fuzzy collar of Harry’s jacket and pulled him closer, his sweet breaths puffing against Harry’s lips.

They walked down the steps together, Louis forward and Harry backwards. The space between them never grew, their steps moving in natural dance with Louis leading and Harry dancing blind.

Once both reached on the ground, Harry smoothly turned Louis with their eyes locked. Their hands never left each other’s body, breaths traded between them. They swapped their positions, Louis moving backwards while Harry led.

Harry walked them to a broad tree with branches weighed down by golden yellow leaves, the leaves appearing silver under the full moon. Louis’ back bumped against the tree trunk. Harry swayed closer, illuminated from behind by moonlight. Half of Louis’ face was shielded by Harry’s shadow, but he tilted his head. The sliver of pure white light that spread across his cerulean eyes lit his face like a superhero’s mask.

“Come on,” Louis whispered. Harry puffed sweet, spicy breaths close enough for him to feel them. Louis softly chanted, “Don’t be L-A—”

Harry tilted his head forward at just the right moment to catch Louis’ open mouth with his lips, his strong jaw guiding their kiss. The letter Z was weakly moaned into Harry’s mouth, Louis’ hands tightening on Harry’s collar. Wind whipped through the trees around them, leaves whispering with the same tingling, delicateness that blanketed both as they kissed.

They inhaled through their noses at the same time with their lips joined, Harry’s arms tightening around Louis’ narrow waist and pulling them flush. He pressed Louis up against the tree, Louis’ shoes lifting against the base of the tree trunk with his heels pushing into the bark. Louis’ hands slid to the back of his neck to tangle his fingers in his hair, their heads tilting and their tongues sliding together.

The firm, tall pressure of Harry’s body up against him as they kissed caused Louis’ fingers to clench in his hair. The relentless, but still gentle, push of Harry’s lips against his own made the dull bite of tree bark into his scalp more than worth it. Every small squirm he made was met by Harry adjusting his position to kiss him with even more perfect pressure, with even slower teases of his tongue.

Harry couldn’t stop blindly pursing his lips whenever Louis thumbed his cheekbones, his eyes too heavy to open as he was kissed so softly. The tiny, tender, almost innocent pecks exchanged between brain-melting kisses matched up with the tiny, tender, almost innocent touch of Louis’ small hands against his face, Harry leaning more and more weight against Louis’ lean body.

The wind whipped around them and through the trees. Swirls of gold and red leaves fell in waves, trickling down their backs to pool at their feet. The branches above them swayed with a low, calming, “Shhh,” as their lips sucked.

Finally, they separated to breathe, though neither opened their eyes. Harry felt Louis exhale hotly against his lips. He could see the fog forming between them, even with his eyes shut, the warm nip of whiskey cider buzzing in his belly.

Louis rasped, “Do you want to come up?” while Harry asked, “Can I come up?”

They opened their eyes, both smirking. Harry slipped his right hand up the back of Louis’ jersey.

“God, I’ve been dying to hear you say that for so long,” he murmured. He firmly pressed their lips together, his nails teasing up the strong line of Louis’ spine. His voice was even deeper to admit, “Been dying to kiss you for so long.”

Louis laughed and rolled his head to the side. He gently pulled Harry’s hair.

“Was that kiss autumnal enough for you?”

“Full moon, chilly night that smells like a bonfire, leaves falling around us, knit scarves and jackets, and we taste like warm apple cider?” He smiled brightly. “Yeah, I’d say so. Too bad I forgot my pumpkin lube at home. We’d turn into a Thanksgiving candle display.”

Louis’ chest bumped with soft laughs.

“Actually, uh…” He shook his head. “I can’t.”

“Right, you hate pumpkin.”

“No—Well, yes. I do hate pumpkin flavoring. But I meant no, like, no sex. Not tonight.”

Harry’s bottom lip trembled.

“Why?”

“I don’t have sex before meets or big exams. It messes with my focus. We still have midterms on Monday.”

“Ohh, okay,” Harry drawled. “You’re one of those types of athletes?”

“Yeah. I’m gathering you’re not?”

“I am now.”

“Ha.”

“So, Monday, then?”

“Yeah,” Louis said slowly, his smile widening. “If you’re up for it. I’m usually pretty ready to go once either my meet or exam is done.”

Harry hummed, “Mmm, hot,” and lowered his face, pressing his lips to the front of Louis’ throat. “I’ve never been so excited to take a midterm.”

Louis let his head loll and his eyes close. Sensitive, shivery bolts of pleasure exploded on his skin with each suck of Harry’s lips. The fruity smell of his shampoo was softened by the lingering sweetness of sweat from the crowded party, plus the mossy, fresh gushes of air each time the wind blew through the trees around them. Harry slid both hands up the back of his jersey.

“Did you, uh, did you feel good about how Shakespeare went?” Louis bit his bottom lip as Harry’s teeth nipped below his ear. “When I saw the exam’s essay question, I knew you would nail it.”

Harry stood up straight and stared at Louis with his head tilted. Louis’ lips were swollen and his stare held plenty of fire, but something about his smile cut through the heat. His voice was breathier than usual, but he still spoke with the same sureness as when he was encouraging Harry to complete an assignment.

“You knew I’d nail it?” Harry asked.

Louis’ eyes crinkled as he chuckled.

“Yeah, of course. That sort of thematic comparison drawing from current events is right up your alley. I knew you’d do great.”

Harry stroked Louis’ cheekbone with the backs of his fingers. His confused puppy expression had only grown more confused.

“Why do you have such faith in me?”

Louis held his stare.

“Should I not have faith in you?”

“No, I...I’m not…” Harry laughed, his body unable to push out any other words at that moment. “I’m just...I’m not used to it.”

Louis snorted. “Harry. You have people mentally sucking your dick every time you walk into any room.”

“That’s different, though. They like my playing or my personality. I don’t”—his lips tightened and he shook his head—“I don’t usually have people think I can do anything other than football. That’s why I’m...I’m…” He held Louis’ face and joined their lips, but kept his tongue to himself, his eyes falling shut at the gentle purse of Louis’ mouth. Louis hummed quietly and tilted his head, guiding their lips open. Harry breathed, “Thank you. It’s all because of you.”

“I dunno about that.”

“No, it is,” Harry said seriously. “Take the credit.”

“I’ll have to add, ‘Tutor to Harry Styles,’ to my official job history. Maybe I’ll get a discount on a Jeep one day.”

“You should actually add, um...” Harry bit his bottom lip, his face wrinkled as he thought. He snapped and his face brightened. “Builder! Builder.”

“Builder?” Louis said, amused.

“Yeah, like...You helped me build up a part of me I forgot about.” Louis pulled Harry closer by his collar and opened his mouth on the arch of his neck. “The talking part. And the thinking part. And the—Fuck,” he groaned, clenching his eyes. “Neck shit gets me so hard.”

Louis laughed and lifted his lips, then pecked the light pink bite mark he left above Harry’s collar.

“You’re certainly making up for lost talking time, though I’m still not sure what I built.”

Harry held Louis by the shoulders. “You gave me the instructions, but let me learn to use my own blocks to build me.”

“Blocks?”

“Yeah. Legos that I already had inside of me. I love Legos. But you didn’t do the building for me. You showed me how I could do it myself. And—And—”

Harry wrapped Louis in a sudden bear hug so tight Louis’ breath got stuck in his compressed chest. Louis’ eyes widened with his chin on top of Harry’s shoulder.

“Thank you,” Harry whispered. Louis stroked the back of his hair, Harry nuzzling his face into the curve of his neck. “Just thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Louis said softly. Harry squeezed him. “I’m glad it worked out for you.”

“I’m so glad this all happened.”

Louis squinted at the moon and giggled, “What?”

Harry stiffened in their embrace.

He often forgot about why he started talking to Louis in the first place. Being with Louis was so different than being with anyone else on the Earth. There was no disconnect between what was currently happening in reality and what he hoped would happen in the public eye. Everything was fresh and real and unpredictable in the best way. Remembering a bet made with a football friend felt like old news from a million years ago. Unimportant and inconsequential.

Monday, though. Monday they could go out. They could be together. He could explain himself. He and Louis could spend the night together and no one would even notice. Everyone would surely be wasted to celebrate the end of midterms and the start of break. And then, who knew what would happen between them? Unpredictable was okay because it would be with Louis. He would be with Louis.

Harry shut his eyes and pushed his face tighter to Louis’ neck, breathing in the warm, lingering body wash scent on his fuzzy scarf. Some of the prickles of anxiety that lined his stomach smoothed.

“Kissing you. And hugging you. I’m glad hugging you happened,” he said. Louis arms tightened around him and Harry sighed. “I feel like not enough people like hugging these days.”

“Hugo Styles likes hugs? Get me Deadspin’s number—I’ve got a scoop for them.”

Harry pulled his head out of Louis neck.

“Don’t you worry your pretty little swan head. I have full confidence that we are going to destroy each other on Monday.”

“Destroy?” Louis laughed.

“I want us to have absolutely insane, Olympic Village sex on Monday, but I also...Uh...” His dimples popped. “Can I take you out on Monday?”

“Take me out?”

“Yeah, on a date.”

Louis giggled, “A date, hmm?”

“A date.” Harry cradled his face. “Dinner?” He pressed another hot kiss to Louis’ lips, Louis sliding his hands underneath the bottom of his shirt. “Yes, please?”

Louis dragged his fingernails down Harry’s back.

“Maybe,” he whispered.

Harry laughed lowly and sealed their lips together. Louis smiled into the kiss, lifting his arms to loop around Harry’s neck. Their kisses became wetter and more open-mouthed, the puffs of fog happening at a more frantic pace.

“Please?” Harry exhaled.

“Fuck, you get me hot,” Louis panted. He tipped his head as Harry mouthed along the front of his throat. Harry grumbled low nonsense that buzzed through his skin. Louis’ toes curled in his shoes, Harry’s fingers digging in on his ass right at the center seam of his jeans. “Ugh,” he moaned, shutting his eyes. “I usually hate that.”

Harry hitched him up with a hand on each ass cheek. Their lips joined with a low hiss, Louis’ hands clasping behind Harry’s neck.

“Dinner?”

Louis tilted his head and softly pecked Harry’s swollen, puffy lips.

“Yeah, of course.”

Harry firmly sealed their lips together, then broke apart to breathe, “Fuck, yes. Awesome. For now, how about I blow you against this tree?”

“No. I’m not going to jail tonight or failing my midterms so you can slobber all over my dick.”

“Slobber all over your dick? How do you know how I suck dick?” Harry teased, amused. That sweet, crisp, autumn scent swirled around them as they kissed. Harry lowly murmured, “We haven’t even done it yet.”

“You sound ridiculous.”

Harry blinked with wide eyes.

“Louis, will you do the sex with me on Monday?”

Louis laughed, “Shut up,” against his lips.

Their kisses kept getting interrupted by smiles. After a few tries, Louis had Harry grinding against him as their tongues tangled.

“You moan as pretty as you look,” Harry whispered, which only prompted Louis to moan softer into their next kiss.

The sound of someone clearing their throat broke through their autumnal makeout marathon. Louis opened his eyes with their lips still sucking. His mouth angled away from Harry, Harry kissing along his jawline.

“Oh! Uh, hi.” Louis turned his head. “Hi. Zayn. Hi.”

Harry’s lips popped off. He looked over his shoulder. “Hi,” he said, his breaths puffing in the air. “Hi, Zayn.”

Zayn stared at them for a moment.

“About time for you two to say goodnight, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, of course,” Harry chuckled. He faced Louis and Louis gave him a small smile, his blue eyes glimmering. “It’s late. We should get some sleep.”

Louis said, “Yeah. Definitely.”

“Seperately,” Harry said sternly, nodding with even more firmness. His eyes slid towards Zayn. “Of course.’’

Louis felt Harry’s hands gently squeeze his ass and stifled a grin. “Of course.” He pushed off the tree and walked to Zayn. He looked over his shoulder and waved. “Night, Harry.”

Harry gave him a dimpled grin. “Goodnight, gorgeous.”

“Oh, good God,” Zayn muttered under his breath. He pushed the door open. “Please tell me you’re not falling for his yeehaw, aw shucks, y’all bullshit?”

Louis peeked back at Harry. He was in the same place Louis had left him, staring with the same goofy, alcohol-softened smile and moon eyes. Louis faced forward.

“I kind of am,” he whispered through his teeth. “Is that bad?”

Zayn snorted and stepped inside. “Not...bad. I dunno.” They started up the stairs. “I just get a weird vibe from him.”

Louis gently gripped Zayn’s forearm. They stopped walking with Zayn one step higher than him.

“Did Liam say something?”

Zayn stared at him for a long moment, then shook his head. He continued up the steps.

“No.”

“No?”

“He said that the only time Harry mentions you is when he’s rambling about books or your tutoring sessions or running or how smart you are or Daredevil, which”--Zayn glared over his shoulder--“thanks a lot for moving on without me.”

“Okay,” Louis exhaled, leaning on the wall beside their apartment door. “So...He’s okay, then, right? It’s okay for me to hook up with him? No cause for alarm?”

“I...guess.”

“I mean, he puts up with you being my personal cockblocker. That’s got to win him some points, right?”

“He is polite, I’ll give him that.”

Once Louis and Zayn got into their apartment, Louis washed his face and went straight to his bedroom. His morning shift at Starbucks would come soon enough. He had just shrugged on a loose white tank top when something tapped on his bedroom window.

He looked at the window as he tugged royal blue sweats up his thighs. Another tiny tapping sound itched at the window’s glass. Louis padded to the window in slouching white gym socks pulled over his sweats. He pushed the black curtains aside.

Track: ELO - Strange Magic

He sputtered a sudden, uncontrollable bark of laughter with his brows skyhigh. He unlocked the window, then pushed it up and stuck his upper body out.

“What are you doing?” he whispered, still laughing softly. Chilly air prickled the bare skin of his arms. He hugged himself. “It’s cold and late.”

Harry grinned up at him from a few inches below.

“Ooh, is that what you sleep in? Hot little gun show for bedtime.”

Louis fought another laugh and asked, “How did you get up here?”

“Fire escape.”

Louis peered down at the rickety iron bars that Harry stood on. The landing of his fire escape was below his apartment window, making Harry’s face only a few inches higher than the ledge of his windowsill.

“But there’s no ladder leading to our level without unlocking it. How did you get up to my window?”

Harry ticked items off on his fingers. “I climbed up the fire escape for the building next door, then shimmied on a drain pipe to get to your building, then walked on a windowsill, then swung over from the fire escape next to yours. It was fun—like monkey bars!”

Louis’ eyes bulged as he laughed. He cradled Harry’s face without thinking.

“Are you nuts? Your coach would kill me if he knew you were drunkenly swinging around fire escapes! Who do you think you are, Matt Murdock?”

Harry’s grin went crooked. “Well, you do have a thing for both of our voices, so it makes sense.”

“Shut up,” Louis laughed, visibly shivering. “You don’t know that. What are you doing up here, anyway?”

Harry held Louis’ biceps, rubbing heat over his goosebumped skin.

“I wanted to kiss you again before we go to sleep.”

Louis stared out his open window, his limbs unmoving save for the tiny sways caused by Harry’s warm hands as they stroked from wrist to shoulder.

“Oh,” he said softly.

“That okay?”

“Yeah,” he said, his voice breaking into a high giggle. “Um.” He reached for a gray Brooklyn Circus sweatshirt on the floor. “Lemme just put this—”

“Nah, don’t.” Harry wrapped his hands over Louis’ forearms. The sweatshirt fell soundlessly to the floor. Harry’s palms traveled higher to rub his biceps. “You don’t have to put that on.”

Louis leaned out the window. He tilted his head, his eyes darting down to Harry’s lips. A gentle peck was shared between them, both smiling shyly before opening their lips together.

Their tongues teased into each other’s mouth and their wet, cider-sweet lips fell into sync, Harry rocking up on the balls of his feet for leverage. The wind whipped around Harry and gushed into Louis’ bedroom. Louis’ lips kept shivering slightly as they kissed, which only made Harry hold him closer and keep kissing him.

Harry could sense that Louis wore invisible armor every single day. It was impossible not to feel or see it in the way Louis carried himself. That armor seemed to be melting off piece by piece and kiss by kiss. Armor fell with each half-second of softness Louis revealed of himself, like a sweet dessert with hidden pockets of saltiness, or a sweet entree with an undercurrent of heat.

“Mmm, you still taste of apples,” Harry murmured, sliding his hands up the back of Louis’ tank. Louis shivered against him and Harry kissed his sharp collarbone, nosing his neck. “Will keep you warm.”

Louis let Harry’s low drawl wash over him. He let his warm touches soothe his skin and his sweet words tease the neglected, romantic corners of his brain. He ignored the tiny voice that reminded him that this would not last, no matter how good it felt.

A quick read of an article on some sports blog or another led to him stumbling onto a story about Harry’s bedroom reputation. The running theme of all of his sex rumors was the comfortable, mind-meltingly hot, completely addicting feeling of confidence that came from being with Harry, along with the crushing aftershock once that feeling was gone.

As Louis happily sucked on Harry’s tongue, he could definitely vouch that Harry had the gift of making you feel like you were the only person on Earth. Even being the only person on Earth, you were the most important person to ever walk the Earth, because Harry was looking at you. Harry wanted you.

“You’re coming inside to leave out the door,” Louis said between kisses, his breaths puffing tiny clouds of fog. “Safer that way.”

“Ooh, you’ll let me in your bedroom?”

“To walk to the door.” Louis nipped his bottom lip, pulling Harry up by his coat collar. “That’s it.”

Harry squinted one eye open as they kissed, peering around the dark room. “Do you have a twin sized bed?” Their lips clicked wetly. “Is this really your room and not a closet?”

“Be quiet, brat,” Louis whispered, chuckling. He stepped back. “C’mon. Come in. Time for bed.”

Harry swung one leg up onto the window ledge and pushed himself up.

“On our second date, can we watch West Side Story?”

Louis offered his arm. “Who said you’re getting a second date?”

Harry took his arm with a wink. His sly smile negated what would be a cheesy move for anyone else.

“Monday,” Harry said simply.

“We can totally watch it,” Louis said as he pulled Harry to his feet. “I can’t say that’s what I thought you’d want to do on a date, but I’m game. I’ll never turn down that choreography and music. Why do you want to watch it?”

“This made me kind of think of it. You know.” Harry stood up straight with his arms wrapped around Louis. “Balcony stuff.” He walked Louis towards his bed. “I’ve never seen it, and you’re a sick ass dancer, so I thought maybe you’d be into it.”

Louis spun Harry away from his bed, walking them to his bedroom door.

“You’ve never seen West Side Story?”

“Nope. I know some of the songs, though. Watched them on YouTube. Do you think Zayn will hear us if we start singing Tonight?”

Harry widened his eyes and started to take a big breath, but Louis held his hand over his mouth, giggling and pressing him against the wall. He replaced his hand with his lips, Harry humming and hugging him as they kissed.

. . .

The frat house was bumping when Harry got home. He saw Liam walking up the path to their house with his head down, blue light from his phone illuminating his face.

“Liam! Hey!” he called out.

Liam turned. “Hey, man. What’s up?”

“Not much.” Harry jogged up to meet him. “Just getting home from this dance party I went to with Louis.”

Liam laughed with arched brows. “Yeah? Dance party?”

“Yeah, it was awesome. We had a lot of fun. It was great. You should come to the next one, I think you’d get along really well with Louis’ friends. What’d you do tonight?”

“Oh, I, uh...” Liam shoved his phone into his back pocket. “I was at Starbucks. Studying. All night.”

“Oh. Cool.” Harry looked at Liam. No backpack. He scanned his put together, all-black outfit, his hair gelled but messy on the back of his head. “Where’s your bag? And books?”

“Right! I...I read on my phone,” Liam said quickly, patting his phone in his pocket. “I downloaded some reading materials on there.”

“What were you studying? I thought you just had your last midterm on Friday?”

“Right, this was, uh....” Liam cleared his throat. “Just reading. Reading for fun.”

“Oh, cool! What are you reading?”

“Nothing big.”

“You okay, man? Your eyes are a little....” Harry squinted at him for a moment, Liam itching the reddened left side of his neck. “Woozy or something.”

“Is this Louis’ influence coming out?” Liam asked on a breathy laugh. Harry blinked with scrunched brows. “You’re so innquizitive.” Harry blinked again. “You ask questions.”

“Ohh, yeah.” A slow smile warmed Harry’s face. “Yeah, that’s probably him popping out.”

Liam squeezed Harry’s shoulder, then thumbed sideways. “Let’s get a beer on the deck before we brave the masses inside.”

“Cool. Hey, so, remember when you found that Pakistani restaurant?”

Liam’s hand softened on Harry’s shoulder, but he did not drop his arm.

“Yeah. What about it?”

“Do you think you could help me pick a nice restaurant for Monday? Louis and I are gonna go out on a date. Like, a real date.” Harry said softer, his eyes bright. “I wanna take him someplace really nice and cool and him. All I know are the closest places that deliver pizza and wings twenty-four-seven.”

“O-Oh!” Liam exhaled on a laugh. “Yeah, sure. Of course. I’d be happy to help.”

They stepped onto the deck and moved around the perimeter, avoiding the main crowd and instead sneaking to a cooler by the bar-b-que. Liam bent over to dig through the ice, Harry leaning on the banister of the deck. A group of players ambled up to them.

“Hey, y’all,” Harry said with a friendly smile, bumping fists with Ryan and Eric. He winked at Chase and lifted his fist. “QB.”

“Hugo. Payner,” Chase said as he bumped their fists. He raised his eyebrows. “Good night?”

“Yeah, great,” Harry said with a giggle, unable to hide the bubbly, excited energy bursting from his body. “Great night.”

Ryan blew on his cupped hands. “I’m freezing and going inside. Fuck fall.”

“You bite your tongue,” Harry gasped, pinching Ryan’s closest earlobe.

“Me, too." Eric followed Ryan. “You coming, QB? Thought we were gonna play pong?”

“Yeah, coming,” Chase said with his eyes still on Harry. He smiled, sweet and calm. “Hope your great night continues, Hughie.”

Harry said, “Thanks, man,” as Liam stood from the cooler.

“So, a date, hm?” Liam handed Harry a beer. Harry placed the bottle cap just above the line of the deck railing. “A date, date?”

“Uh huh,” Harry slapped the top of the bottle cap, which flew off the top of the bottle and soared towards the deck’s screen door, where Chase stood inside with his back to Harry and Liam. “A real date. I’m so fucking pumped. I can’t believe he likes me back.”

They clinked bottles.

“I’m happy for you, man,” Liam said, giggling through his words.

“What? What’s so funny?”

“Nothing. I just think it’s cool. That’s all.” Liam sipped his beer, humming and widening his eyes. His lips popped off the bottle. “Oh, but did you tell him?”

Harry blinked owlishly.

“Tell him about what? That I like him?” He grinned, slow and hazy-eyed. “Yeah, I think he’s got it. He’s real smart, you know?”

“No, not that. The bet.”

Harry’s smile faded. “Ohh. Right,” he said, quieter. He scratched the back of his neck. “Jesus.” He clenched his teeth and squinted at Liam. “I kind of forgot about it, to be honest.”

“I figured.”

“No, not yet. I haven’t told him.”

Liam tilted his head. “Harry. You should tell him.”

Harry held his hands out. “I will, I will, I swear. I should have told him tonight, but it just...It was all so nice and...” Harry thought for a moment, his eyes rolling up to the starry night sky. “Real? Normal? But still awesome?” He looked back to Liam, then looked down. He picked at the label of his beer. Quietly, he said, “I know I should have said something sooner, but I guess I, um...I guess I was selfish tonight.”

“So? No big. Tell him tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to stress him out for his exams on Monday, though. He takes all that really seriously and, if he gets really mad at me, I don’t want to mess up his exams. That would only make him madder, I think.”

“True. You could tell him at dinner on Monday?”

“I could. Well,” he said slowly, then licked his lips, “maybe dessert. I don’t want to ruin dinner. It’s not polite.”

“You’re such a weirdo,” Liam laughed, slinging his arm around him. “C’mon, let’s go in. I’m cold.”

“I’m all warm.”

Liam opened the screen door.

“Because of Louis?”

Harry pinched the bridge of his nose.

“He is so smokin’ hot that it brings tears to my eyes.”

Liam laughed loudly. He and Harry melted into the crowd of frat boys and their admirers, though neither stayed long.

When Harry got up to his bedroom, he rid himself of all his clothes and crawled into bed. He picked his phone up from his discarded jeans and plugged it in to charge. His phone screen lit up.

“Oh,” he whispered, pushing himself higher on his pillows. He unlocked the screen and tapped on Louis’ new text.

home safe?

Harry typed his reply.

yyyeeeessss!

The little gray dots indicating Louis was typing appeared. Harry waited a beat, then smiled and typed an immediate follow up.

ur so hot.. . i like the taste of your mouth

*you’re* drunk

r u tutoring me via text ?
hot
can you do a tutor lapdance via text 2??

#monday

Harry’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open. Before he could reply, another text came through.

goodnight H

Harry giggled at the shooting star Emoji.

night qt

No. Just no.

night ...gorgeous?

better. goodnite.

He put his phone on his bedside table and curled on his side, running his fingers over his bottom lip until he closed his eyes.