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Wild And Unruly

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There were cattle in the road.

When Louis had arrived at work that morning in his slim tailored suit and too-expensive Tanino Crisci loafers, mocha venti in hand as he pushed through the revolving door of a shiny glass office building in downtown Denver, he hadn’t expected that his day would end in cattle.  But then he’d run into his boss, fresh from a high-level meeting, and the wheels of his destiny had begun to turn.

“You take care of it, Malik,” Zayn had muttered.  “That’s what they said.  As if I can spare a paralegal.”

Louis made sympathetic noises as he finished typing up a contract.  Zayn Malik was both Louis’s boss and his best friend, the most junior associate in Anne Twist’s seemingly endless fleet of unfairly attractive corporate lawyers, and he was also a constant grump.  Not to mention the most beautiful man most people were likely to run into on any given day, all coal-dark eyes and cut cheekbones, which tended to result in Louis feeling a bit invisible whenever they were out together.  He compensated by being loud.

“Send Nick,” Louis shrugged.  “Get him out of my hair for a while.”

Zayn rolled his eyes, letting the corners of his mouth twitch up into a smile.  “Nick’s not so bad, Louis.”

“He started a week before me and thinks that gives him the right to order me around.  Send him away.”  Louis made a shooing motion.  “Let him commune with nature; maybe it’ll change him.”  Louis’s nose wrinkled involuntarily at the word nature.  He was comfortably cosmopolitan by choice and intended to stay that way; no mud and fertilizer for him, thanks.  Nick could go roll in it.

“He’s really not that bad,” Zayn chuckled.  Always the diplomat, Zayn.  But he had assigned the job to Nick in the end, telling him to go home and pack a bag after booking him on a last-minute flight out to Sheridan, Wyoming.

There was oil in the ground, apparently.  National Energy Group -- one of TwistCorp’s largest subsidiaries -- was buying up the mineral rights to parcels of land from several cattle ranches out near the Bighorns, and had run into an unexpected hiccup.  One of the sellers was suddenly getting cold feet, though the transaction had long since been brokered.  National Energy’s CEO was now demanding that TwistCorp send a notary out with documents to witness the sale.

“The largest of the newly discovered reservoirs is on this guy’s land,” Zayn said as he walked Nick to the elevators, hastily getting him caught up on all the particulars.  Louis trailed behind them, absentmindedly typing out a text on his phone.  “Three times the size of what’s under the neighboring ranches, according to seismic surveys.  It’s 2.3 billion dollars and six months of work down the drain if we don’t get a signature.”  Louis’s eyes widened.  He’d worked on big deals before, but none in the ten-figure range.

“Who’s the seller?” Nick asked, just as he rounded a corner and ran straight into Anne Twist herself.  She was the founder and CEO of TwistCorp, and as such had everyone’s balls firmly in hand.  “Oh!" he blinked, gawkishly.  "Excuse me, ma'am."

"My son," she replied.

"Pardon?"

"The seller," she said, reaching up to pat her signature French twist with a brusque, manicured hand, "is my son."  There was a hint of aggravation in her voice, but it was mixed with beleaguered affection.  "He's been avoiding the whole thing for weeks, says he never agreed to the terms of the contract."  She paused, gaze flicking from Nick over to Zayn and then behind Zayn to where Louis had been attempting to discreetly eavesdrop.  He felt his shoulders fold inward involuntarily.

"This is your man," Zayn said, reaching up to clap Nick on the back, "He'll have the deed signed and notarized by tomorrow, or Thursday at the --"

"No."  Anne's eyes narrowed on Louis as though she were working out a complicated chess problem.  "Send the cute one.”

Louis covered up an awkward cough as Nick huffed indignantly beside him.  “Why…” Louis started to ask, but all Anne had to do was raise one devastating eyebrow, and his voice died in his throat.

Right.  She was worth millions, and he existed to do her bidding.  Nine hours, two delays, a missed flight and a crying baby in the stuffy cabin of a small twin jet later, Louis swore he could feel the whole of Big Sky pressing slowly down on his head.

Plus, there were cattle in the road.  Of course, cattle!  About fifteen head standing stock still in the road, blocking his compact rental car.  And a man sitting on a horse in the middle of it all, just sitting and staring thoughtfully at the herd, apparently unconcerned with how it was holding up traffic.  Not that there was much traffic out here.  Only Louis, really.  But he needed to get to Anne’s son’s ranch and get a signature so he could get back to Denver.  Back to civilization.

It should have been Nick, he thought darkly as he rolled down his window.  He's always been a bit of a cow.

"Excuse me," he called, gesturing to the man on the horse.  "Hell-ooo.  Can you move?”

The man turned to him, slightly startled, as if he’d only just realized there was a car.  He blinked, and a part of Louis’s brain registered big green eyes and red, wind-chapped lips.  “Excuse me?”

“Can you move.  Your cows.”  Louis waved his hands about in a slightly hysterical manner that he instantly regretted as he stared into the impassive face of the cowboy.  Cow-man.  He was definitely a man, Louis realized with a delayed lurch in his gut.  His eyes were big, and had probably been boyish once, but there were creases beginning to settle in around them, marks of the sun and the wind and the open expanse of the Great Plains.  His skin was tanned, dark in the oncoming dusk, his jaw strong and set.  His gaze was hard, and he had broad shoulders.

“I need to get through,” Louis explained, when the man didn’t respond.  “You have to move your cattle.”

The man blinked at him again.  He reached up, took off his hat and ran a tough, brown hand through hair that curled at the nape of his neck, faint chuckle escaping him.  As though Louis’s request were patently ridiculous.  “How do you expect me to do that?”

"Well..." Louis pushed air out of his throat in a peeved grunt.  "Can't you just, you know.  Encourage them?”  He demonstrated by giving the driver’s side door a little swat.

The man looked even more unimpressed.  "I don't hit my cows."

Louis sighed.  He flipped up his aviators, squinting into the light of the setting sun.  “Fine,” he said.  “Sorry for suggesting it.”  He could feel a stress headache coming on, the dull pain of it thudding through his thoughts and injecting sarcasm into his voice.  This situation was absurd.  Fucking unbelievable; he’d just spent the whole day traveling and felt disgusting, not to mention that he’d had to pack in such a blind hurry he was pretty sure he’d forgotten both his toothbrush and his razor.  Fuck Wyoming.  Fuck Anne Twist’s son, and fuck cows.  Meanwhile, the man just stared at him.

“What about like, talking to them?” Louis said.  “Telling them to move?  Cattle calls, or whatever.”

“Could…”

The man’s deep voice ebbed away as he continued to stare.  Frustration was building in Louis’s chest.  He let out a strangled laugh, fingers dancing over his aching temple.  “Well why don’t you do it, then?”

It felt like a full minute before the man answered.  When he did, his words were slow.  “Don’t want to pressure them.”

“Oh my God,” Louis groaned, thudding his head back against the seat and closing his eyes as he gathered the last shreds of his patience.  He was supposed to have been at the ranch to meet with Anne’s son at four p.m.  It was now almost 7:30, getting dark, there was no cell coverage, billions of dollars on the line, and he wasn’t even entirely sure that he was driving in the right direction.  He didn't need an infuriatingly stubborn, attractive cow-man.  No he did not.

So he thrust out his arm and punched the horn.  There were a few startled moos, and the cattle began to stamp their hooves in agitation.  Louis honked a few more times, but all it seemed to do was rile them up.  It at least spurred the cowboy into action; he turned his horse around with a swift, easy motion and trotted over to the open window of the car.  Louis tried not to notice how good the man’s worn blue jeans looked around his waist.

“Will you stop that.”  The cowboy’s voice was level, but Louis could sense the restrained anger behind his words.  Displeasure darkened his eyes.

Louis wasn’t intimidated.

“Look, darling,” he said, tossing his head back in a defiantly flamboyant gesture, “I’m about three hours late to an important business meeting, so if you could take a moment clear a path for me on the public road you are blocking, I'd appreciate it."  He fluttered his eyelashes.  It was a calculated risk -- straight guys, in Louis's experience, tended to be overly sensitive, especially the masculine ones.  They'd usually back off rather than stay to be flirted with.  Louis was pretty sure that's what this one would do...

Unless he was the violent type.  He said he wouldn't hit his cattle, Louis reasoned.  Well, if worst came to worst, he could jam his car into reverse and make a quick u-turn.

"Please," he added, with another flutter.

But the man did not back off.  He just sat there on his horse, staring down into Louis’s little red compact with a look of faint, almost confused disapproval on his face.  “You’re upsetting the cows,” he said.

“Oh,” Louis threw his hands up, “I’m upsetting the cows, am I?  Not as much as they’re upsetting me!”

“I like them to have a sense of autonomy,” the man said.  “They’ll move when they move.”

“A bovine psychologist.  I’m talking to a fucking bovine psychologist.”  Louis muttered it under his breath, gripping the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white.

“What?” asked the man, and Louis rolled his eyes.

“Just a couple of big words,” he said.  “Reserved for those of us who actually went to college.”  He knew he was being unnecessarily nasty, but he really needed to get a move on, and this man was the most aggravating...

“Can I suggest a compromise?”  The cowboy seemed to take the insult in stride.  Or maybe he hadn’t even perceived it as one; some people were disturbingly proud of being uneducated, backwards and… rural.  Louis just shrugged, and made a sweeping gesture with his arm.

“Suggest away, rancher man.”

“Well,” he said, still taking his sweet time as his horse shifted its weight, tail lazily swishing, “the ground’s pretty flat and even on this side of the road.  I’ll lead you, and you can drive around.”

“This is a rental,” Louis sighed.  “I didn’t get insurance on it.  One rock kicks up in the wrong place, and I'm paying for it to be repaired.”

The cowboy shrugged.  “Then I guess you’ll just have to wait until the herd decides to move along.”

“I’m not waiting,” Louis scoffed.  His headache was becoming excruciating and he could feel his voice rising, something childish in his tone that he couldn’t control.  “Just get your cows off the fucking road!”

Louis stared up at the cowboy.  The cowboy stared back down at Louis.  Neither of them blinked.

The cows moved.

“See?” the man’s face brightened, and he broke out into a friendly grin.  “They made the choice themselves.  ‘S much more empowering for them that way.”

Louis snorted and rolled up his window, not even saying goodbye as he maneuvered his car around a few stubborn strays and sped off down the otherwise deserted county highway.

“Of all the idiotic...”  He took two deep breaths, trying to consciously relax his shoulders.  He felt calmer in a couple of minutes, but the underlying tension didn’t bleed away.  His head was pounding; it was becoming a searing pain, and he just hoped he had read Google Maps right before his signal had cut out completely.

At least the country was beautiful.  That, he could allow.  The drive west out of Sheridan toward the Bighorns was huge and gorgeous, indigo sky sweeping down to the mountains that were limned with the last of the sunset, casting shadows out across the calm, flat prairie.  Louis lived in Denver, in full view of the Rockies, but there was something about the Bighorns that seemed wilder and sweeter.  Older.

He turned left down an unmarked gravel road, figuring he was either in the right spot or hopelessly lost.  A couple miles of waving grasses led him to a ranch, dotted here and there with clumps of thimbleweed and purple loosestrife.  Louis let out a sigh of relief when he saw a wooden crossbeam over the road with the words “Lonely Rose” above it in black iron.  He’d finally made it.

There were lights up ahead, little pinpoints of brightness like stars nestled in the prairie.  As Louis got closer, he started to make out the shadowy forms of buildings -- barns opening on dusty corrals, storage sheds, circular grain feeders and a show pavilion.  In the center of it all was a large, handsome house with a wrap-around porch, gray clapboard siding and cheery red shutters, a split-rail fence separating its manicured front yard from the rest of the ranch.  Two battered-looking Ford F150s were parked outside.  Louis pulled his car up alongside, choosing not to notice how silly his brand-new rental looked next to the big, mud-splattered fenders of the ranch trucks.

He got out, briefcase in hand, slamming the car door.  The unmistakable farm smells of fertilizer and unwashed animals pervaded the air; Louis wrinkled up his nose in disgust.  Get the signature, go book a hotel room, fly back tomorrow, he told himself.  There was dust on his shoes.  Water pooled in deep, muddy tire tracks around the circular drive, and Louis stooped to fastidiously roll up the pantlegs of his suit before picking his way toward the front door of the ranch house.

“Hey!”

Louis had just passed the fence when he heard a voice shouting from the direction of the nearest barn.  A large shape bounded out of the open barn doors, backlit by warm yellow light, and came barrelling toward him.  Louis froze.

“Hey!  Bon!  Bonnie, git… stay, girl!”

Louis let out a little shriek when the animal -- whatever it was; it was dark and Louis couldn’t see, his whole body tense as he waited for whatever was going to happen to happen -- pressed its long, scratchy face into his crotch and sniffed, circling him, wiggling with excitement and wagging its tail, jumping and bucking and making strange pleasure noises.  A man came running up, swearing a blue streak.

“Bonnie, you bastard.  Git down!  Git down.”

The man was short and slim, but had wiry muscles and an aura of whip-strength about him, like a tensile cord.  His dark hair was cropped short, wide gray eyes open and friendly.  There was a smattering of brown freckles across his cheeks, the kind pale people get when they’re out in the sun all summer long with no sunscreen.

“Sorry,” he said, grinning confidently as he pulled the big animal away from Louis, holding its head to his chest for a moment and whispering “be polite” into its ear before letting it go again.

“What is that?” Louis asked.  He realized he’d been unconsciously holding a hand up to his throat to help regulate his breathing, like a startled lady.  It only took another moment for his walls to go up, his wrist to straighten and his hand to drop to his side, fist clenched tightly.  Probably best to be the least obvious version of himself around the ranch hands.  He could do it.  He still remembered high school.

“That right there is a jackass that thinks she’s a dog.  Name’s Bonnie.”

“Oh.  She’s… cute…”  Louis tried to conjure up some enthusiasm, not sure what to say and feeling vaguely disoriented.

“Nah, she’s a fuckin’ terror,” the man chuckled.  He patted the donkey on the rump fondly.  Her tail was still wagging, her breath coming in short, excited pants.  “She basically grew up with a litter of puppies, ‘n now they’re all gone, but she still acts like one of ‘em.  Asks for head scratches and everything.”  He shrugged, and stuck out his hand.  “I’m Niall, lead wrangler.”

“Um.  Louis Tomlinson.”  Louis shook the man’s hand.  It felt tough, like he’d been touching ropes all day.  Which he probably had.  “I’m the notary public.  I had an appointment with Harry Styles this afternoon?  TwistCorp set it up…  I know I’m terribly late, but we just have to sign some documents.  Should only take about twenty minutes.”

Niall burst out into a laugh.  “Oh,” he said.  “This is great.”  He regarded Louis, weight shifted to one hip, lazily petting Bonnie behind the ears.

“Great,” Louis echoed.  He was confused; Niall just kept staring at him expectantly, as though he were about to provide some sort of entertainment.  Meanwhile, Louis’s headache was still bothering him, and he just wanted to get this over with.  He held up his briefcase and raised his eyebrows.  “So…?”

“Right, right,” Niall said, walking up the front path and waving for him to follow.  “Come on in, we’ll getcha set up.”

Louis followed him up to the door, admiring his ability to wear actual cowboy boots without it seeming ridiculous.  Well, of course it wasn’t ridiculous; the man was a cattle wrangler.  That’s what they wore: cowboy boots, cowboy hats, and big, decorative belt buckles.  Bonnie trotted alongside them up the porch steps, old wood groaning under her weight.  When Niall opened the door, she tried to shove her fuzzy head around his hip to get inside.

“Is she -- ”

"Don’t worry, the Bonster’s gonna stay out here.  No.  No, Bonnie.  Harry says you're not allowed in the house anymore, not after last time."

Niall maneuvered around her, holding her body back so that Louis could slip past them.  When he finally managed to shut the door, Louis heard a long, disappointed huff from just outside and the heavy pawing of a hoofed foot.

The inside of the house was decorated in grand western style, with a big stone fireplace dominating the living room and vintage hand tools hung on the walls, old braided rugs and masculine, wood-framed furniture.  Dusty boots were lined up next to the door, and Niall slipped off his mud and manure-crusted pair before waving Louis through.  (He was wearing cozy-looking, pink-toed wool socks, Louis noted with amusement.)  The floorplan was open -- Louis could see a big dining room attached to a kitchen, with two long benches pulled up under a wooden table that looked as though it could seat twenty people comfortably.

“Harry’s not back yet,” Niall explained.  “After you didn’t show, he went out to move some cattle.  Should be here soon enough.”

Louis nodded, gazing up at what appeared to be a stuffed coyote over the mantlepiece.  He suppressed a shudder.  Get in, get out, he told himself.

“Want a beer?” Niall asked, heading toward the dark kitchen.  “I’m havin’ one.”

“No thanks,” Louis answered.  He didn’t want to find out what sort of weird, home-brewed ranch beer they had out here, with their donkey-dogs and taxidermied decor.

Niall shrugged.  “Suit yourself.”  He disappeared around the corner and Louis was left alone in the dimly-lit living room.  The shade of a lamp cast lonely red shadows over the furniture, and Louis clutched his briefcase like a lifeline.  Get in, get out.

Just as he heard the opening of a fridge door and the clinking of bottles, another figure emerged from a hallway to his left.  It was a tall man, broad-shouldered, unbuttoning his dirty flannel shirt with lazy hands.

“‘M back, Ni,” the man called.

Louis took in a silent breath, and held it.  It was the cowboy from the road.  He was frowning down at his shirt, now half-open, revealing an expanse of tanned chest and two dark, pebbled nipples… Louis raised his eyes to the ceiling.  Fuck.

“Hey, Harry,” Niall said, striding back into the living room with a couple of beers in hand.  He gestured to Louis.  “The notary republic’s here to see you!  Finally made it.”  He chuckled.  “Bonnie gave him a little scare.”

Louis pursed his lips and frowned, avoiding meeting Harry's eyes.  "Notary public," he said.  "Not republic."  And being startled is not the same as being scared.  "I'm Louis Tomlinson, Mr. Styles.  Your... er, mother sent me."

He finally raised his head to find the cowboy -- Harry -- gazing at him with an unreadable expression.  They stared at each other for a few moments, and Louis felt heat flush his cheeks.  He was experiencing a complicated mix of emotions: embarrassment at how he’d acted when they had met on the road, a heightened sense of awkwardness now that he’d found himself unexpectedly intruding on the cowboy’s evening, impatience, and a prickling irritation at himself for feeling so self-conscious.  His headache exacerbated everything, and he just wanted to go home.

Harry broke the eye contact first, turning to Niall to accept a beer from him.  He twisted off the top and took a long swig, licking his lips before wrapping them around the bottle.  Louis tried not to notice how the muscles in his neck moved as he swallowed it down, dark pooling in his collarbones and in the soft folds of his half-open shirt.  Harry’s chest was heaving; he was still breathing hard from whatever he’d been doing outside.  Then he sighed, satisfied, half the bottle done.  He moved his beer-drinking hand across his face to wipe his mouth on the sleeve of his flannel, and Louis’s eyes fluttered to the ground.

“In my office,” he said.

Louis felt his heart stop for a moment, then burst back to life again.  “Right,” he murmured.  “Office.”

Harry was so solid, his words so low and unhurried, and he had a look about him as though he were constantly working things out, slowly, thoughtfully.  Patiently.  Louis sighed as he followed him down the hallway, the man’s strong, slightly hunched shoulders swaying as he walked.  To Louis, problems always seemed like the worst, the most unsolvable.  He was a panicker, a grouser, an overreactor, couldn't be patient to save his life.  One thing went wrong, and the whole world was ending.  Louis supposed that to men like Harry Styles, he must seem like a helpless ninny.

Idiot, he thought, it doesn’t matter what he thinks of you.  Just get his fucking signature so you can leave.

Harry showed him into a tiny office full of papers.  He took a seat behind a cramped desk and gestured for Louis to sit as well.  Louis folded himself into a worn leather chair decorated with hand-tacked studs, slightly uneven, sliding a file out of his briefcase as he did so.

“I believe you’ve already been sent multiple copies,” he said.  “Nothing’s changed as far as I know, but feel free to look it over before you sign.”  There were no windows in the little room, and the scent of something lingered… pipe tobacco, Louis thought.  Very faint, as though the office had once been saturated with it, and then shut up for a long time.

“And this is…?”  Harry spread out his hands, shoving piles of raggedly-opened, hastily re-stuffed envelopes aside to make room for Louis to plunk the deed down in front of him.

Louis sighed.  “You know what it is, Mr. Styles.  Anne’s filled me in on the whole situation.  Specifically how you’ve been avoiding it, which is why I’m here.”

“Call me Harry.”

Louis just rolled his eyes as he watched Harry pick up the first page of the deed and read through it soberly before crumpling it in his big fist.

“You know I have that on a flash drive.  You can’t just get rid of it by -- ”

Harry stared at him as he crumpled up the second page.  Louis grabbed the remainder of the stack and pulled it into his belly, making a sour face.  “Oh, give me that, if you’re just going to…  You’re wasting trees.”  He straightened out the pile on the tops of his knees and shoved it back into his briefcase.  “And making my headache worse,” he added under his breath.

“I’m not signing the deed,” Harry said.  He nodded once, his face simple and open.  Then he tipped his head up to toss back the rest of his beer, long curls falling behind his ears.  He licked his wet lips and sighed, and set the empty bottle down on his desk with a clink.  “I told my mother that.”

“Look,” said Louis.  “Mr. Styles.”  He took a deep breath; he’d been briefed on what to say next.  “The land isn’t even being used --”

“I’m aware of what land I use,” Harry said, with a wry smile.  “This ranch was willed to me by my grandfather.  He brought me up on it, and I won’t sell any part of it.”

“But,” Louis huffed, feeling himself beginning to spiral.  "The deal's made.  TwistCorp has months of man-hours invested in this."  His voice was becoming strident again; something about butting up against Harry’s calm, solid demeanor was only making him more agitated.

“That’s not my fault.  Mom arranged the survey and brokered the entire sale without consulting me," Harry said, "but I’m the sole property owner.  Legally, I don’t have to sign anything.”  He smiled across his desk at Louis, friendly but firm.  Resolute.  “And I’m afraid I’m not very inclined to.”

“Harry, the long term gains from this deal are going to be considerable for both your ranch and your mother’s company.  It benefits everyone.  The amount of money from the sale alone, I mean, my god…”

Harry held up a hand, cutting him off.  “Not everyone is motivated by money, Mr. Tomlinson.”

“There’s not being motivated by money, and then there’s oil money.  This is oil money.”  Louis was practically sputtering in disbelief.  He’d looked over the contract -- he knew the exact amount Harry would be giving up by not signing, and it was obscene.

“I will not sell that land.  For oil money or anything else.”

The cowboy’s voice was quiet.  There was something in his eyes as he looked at Louis that made the words go straight to his heart.

“Okay,” Louis said.  He felt utterly defeated, rubbing at his temples.  “Can I use your phone?”  He gestured to Harry’s landline.  “Spotty cell reception for me out here.  I have to call my boss.”

“Be my guest,” said Harry.  He rose and strode out of the office, shutting the door quietly behind him.  Louis took out his cell to find the number, fingers shaking as he dialed it on Harry’s old-fashioned beige box of a telephone.

Zayn picked up on the third ring.

“He won’t sign,” Louis said.  “He won’t.”

He could hear Zayn’s unimpressed facial expression through the phone.  Finally the man spoke, his voice oddly muffled, as though the connection were about to fade out.  “Ms. Twist says you have to stay there until he does sign.  She won’t take no for an answer, Louis.  This deal’s too big to fail.”

“Well, how am I supposed to -- ?”  Louis cut himself off and bit his lip indignantly.

“Do whatever it takes.  Wear him down.  Be a pest.  I know you know how to do that…”

“Shut up, asshole.”

Zayn chuckled.  “Exactly.”

Louis threw his hands up and groaned.  “But it could be days!”

“Take a deep, cleansing breath and think of the overtime pay.  Love you.  Believe in you.  Bye.”

There was a click, and the line went dead.  “Fuck off,” Louis muttered as he gently replaced the receiver in the cradle, wondering why it had to be his life that was getting derailed.  He made a small, unattractively whiny noise just as the door opened again and Harry reappeared, folded towel in hand.

“How’d it go?” he asked.

Louis frowned, holding himself stiffly as he stood up.  “My boss says I have to stay here until you sign.”

“Better make yourself comfortable, then!”  Harry held out the towel.  There was a small smile playing across his face, as though he were unsure whether Louis would appreciate the offer.  Another wave of awkward, guilty annoyance washed through Louis’s tired body.

“I have a hotel booked,” he lied.

“Oh, it’s too late to drive all the way back to Sheridan.”  Harry plopped the towel into Louis’s hands.  “Come on, guest room’s down the hall.  Take a shower if you’d like.  You might be here for another day or so.”  He chuckled low in his throat.  “Mom and I can both be pretty stubborn.”

Louis followed him, too exhausted to protest.  The last thing that caught his eye before he left the office was a framed piece of paper hanging just above the desk.  It was a master’s degree in English Literature from Princeton University.  The name on it was Harry Styles.

God.  Louis closed his eyes and gritted his teeth at himself.  He walked down the darkened hallway after Harry, feeling incredibly uncomfortable in his skin.  Part of his brain was reminding his hips not to sway as he walked, his arms unnaturally rigid at his sides.  He felt like he was in a straightjacket.

“Hey,” he said, just as Harry was showing him the bathroom.  “I’m sorry about… before…”  He shrugged, not knowing what else to add.  “Like.  With the road.  And the honking.”

Harry just laughed.  “Give me your keys, I’ll get your suitcase out of your car.”

“You don’t have to,” Louis said, but he dug his keys out of his pocket anyway.

“It’ll be in the spare room for you.  Sweet dreams.”

Harry shut the door, leaving Louis in the bright bathroom.  It was cheery, all white and yellow tiles freshly scrubbed with something that smelled of lemon.  Louis undressed slowly, folding his suit on the carpeted toilet seat cover before he turned on the shower.  He experienced a moment of disorientation as he stepped under the warm spray.

How did I get here?

There was something about it that felt weirdly inevitable.  Louis let the hot, pounding water shut off his brain by degrees as he soaped himself.  His cock filled a little when he washed it, on the edge of something just like the rest of him.  He ignored its flush, ignored the pooling arousal in his belly as he thought of Harry.  How he’d handled that horse so smoothly.  His chest, left on display during the whole course of their conversation in the office.  The dimple in his cheek.

Louis had experienced odd, fleeting attractions like this before and never felt guilty jerking himself to them.  But I definitely don’t need to be fantasizing about a straight guy, he thought, and let his hand drop from where it had been idly stroking.  Especially an annoyingly salt-of-the-earth one who won’t listen to reason.  And who psychoanalyzes cows.

He turned the water off and worked the towel over himself, preferring not to think.  He slung it half-damp around his waist when he was finished, grabbed his folded suit and his shoes and stuck his head out of the bathroom, bracing himself against the relatively cool air as he let steam escape into the hallway.  There was no one about.  The whole house was quiet.

Louis padded to the guest room Harry had pointed out.  A lamp had been turned on, his suitcase standing by the bed.  Louis didn’t bother digging inside it for pajamas; he hadn’t remembered to pack any.  He slipped between the sheets naked, sighing at the feel of fresh cotton on clean skin.  There was a glass of water on the nightstand, and a tablet of ibuprofen.

For your headache.  - H.

Louis swallowed it dry and turned out the light.

*

When Louis woke up the following morning, it took him about half a minute before he remembered where he was.  It was the feel of the crisp, clean sheets against his skin that finally tipped him off.  Something wasn’t right.  These sheets were too nice.  And he was naked…  Why was he naked?

Wyoming.  You’re in fucking Wyoming.

Louis sat bolt upright in bed.  He was still tired enough that it hurt when he tried to open his eyes, but he sat there breathing heavily as distant, dreamlike images from the previous night came drifting back.  The cows in the middle of the road and the donkey-dog, Zayn on the phone telling him he had to stay, how he’d had a shower and then slipped into bed without any clothes on.  Harry Styles’s oddly heartfelt hospitality given the situation.

I won’t sell any part of it.

The situation in general.

How the fuck am I going to handle this? Louis thought, wincing and rubbing a frustrated hand over his face.  Why did it have to be me, anyway?  I should never have become a notary.  Of all the stupid ideas.  Thanks Zayn.  Thanks a lot.   

He was trying to keep from being completely overwhelmed by self-pity, but then a quick glance at his phone showed that its battery was dead.  He’d left both his phone charger and laptop in the rental car the night before, having assumed he’d be driving straight back to Sheridan.  There was an old clock-radio on the bedside table, but it was blinking 12:00 a.m.  So now Louis was in a strange house, in a strange place, and he didn’t even know what time it was.  At that moment, it felt like a grave injustice rather than a simple inconvenience.

He made a disgruntled noise and threw back the covers, wobbling to his feet and lurching over to his roller suitcase to find some clothes.  He needed to badger Harry Styles into signing the land transfer as quickly as possible so he could just get the hell out of here already.  Judging by the light streaming in through the oddly dainty curtains, his best guess was that it was already distressingly late in the morning.

“He’s probably already off branding baby cows or like, clomping around, lassoing things,” Louis grumbled as he tugged on a clean pair of slacks, the only other pants he’d brought with him.  They were his favorites actually -- soft slate gray, perfect fit, and Louis usually felt his best when he wore them.  Thinking back to the classic, faded denim Harry Styles had been sporting the night before made him feel a little embarrassed about it though, as if all the trappings of having an office job were inauthentic and silly.

You have your work uniform, he has his, Louis reassured himself as he shrugged a slightly rumpled white button-down on over his undershirt.  That’s all it is.

But he couldn’t keep himself from thinking about the way Styles had looked in the saddle.  So comfortable and controlled.  Capable.  

Rugged.  That’s what it was.  Harry Styles was rugged.  Just saying the word in his head sent a hot little zip of uneasy arousal into Louis’s belly.  Louis was a lot of things, but rugged had never been one of them.

It’s like he’s straight out of some kind of idiotic romance novel, Louis told himself, rolling his eyes while he sat on the edge of the bed to pull on his dress socks.  Even the way he talks.

“Quit being a dickhead and go do your stupid job,” he muttered to himself, jamming his feet into his shoes.  He snatched his briefcase off the floor with an irritated huff, taking a deep breath and straightening his shoulders before he yanked the door open and stepped out into the hall.

The house was very quiet.  So quiet that it startled all the bluster he’d just worked up right out of him.  He felt out of place as he stood outside the guest room, his underlying sense that he didn’t really belong there resurfacing and making him want to be as inconspicuous as possible.  Blend in.  He started slinking down the hall, tiptoeing carefully along the wall so as not to disturb the silence.

He came to an abrupt halt when he reached the edge of the living area.  A huge bay window behind the dining room table revealed a gorgeous view of the mountains that hadn’t been visible the night before.  Louis had known this was an incredibly nice place, but he’d been so distracted (by the task at hand and an almost half-naked cow-man) that he hadn’t been able to appreciate the true extent of it.

Not only was the scenery unbelievable, but Harry Styles’s ranch house was also absolutely gorgeous and so impeccably decorated for its western setting that it reminded Louis of an aspirational spread in a Better Homes and Gardens.  The worst part was that it was still so clearly a home -- Louis couldn’t even feel irritated about how nice it was without feeling guilty.  There were framed family photographs and childhood artwork on display all over the place.  Someone had draped several holey afghans over the back of one of the sofas, and Louis could see some kind of pet hair on most of the visible upholstery.  The easy chair that faced the large flat screen television had patches of worn fabric on the armrests from long-term use.  Everything was lovely and lived in, and it made Louis feel even more dissatisfied than usual about the pathetic state of his own apartment in Denver, with its continually blank walls.

Louis moved into the space that made up the dining room, drawn there by the pictures on the wall.  His brow furrowed as looked at a photo of a much younger Anne Twist standing next to an older couple.  They were beaming down at a small boy who was grinning proudly next to a calf and holding up a bright blue ribbon, tiny Stetson sitting on his head at a jaunty angle.

“Lookin’ for Harry?”

Louis jumped at the sound of a voice from the kitchen, his cheeks heating a little at having been caught snooping.  Niall, the ranch hand from the night before, was standing next to one of the counters with an amused expression on his face.  Judging by the large amount of fresh dirt on his jeans and the flush on his face, he’d already been hard at work that morning.  Currently he had a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and half a bagel coated with far too much cream cheese in the other.

Louis cleared his throat. “Uh yeah… Is he --?”

Niall shook his head, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.  He took his time before he spoke again.  “He’s out mending some fences.  I can take you to him, if you want.  I gotta go past there anyway, check on the heifers.”

“Oh,” Louis said, shifting his briefcase from hand to hand, “yeah, that would be... that would be great. Thank you.”  

Niall took another huge bite of his bagel and glanced down at Louis’s wingtipped feet, snorting as he chewed.  “Should probably at least getcha some boots before we go…”

“No,” Louis said, peeking down at his shoes.  “No.  I think I’ll be all right.”

Niall kept chewing his bagel slowly and looking at Louis like he thought that was definitely the wrong decision, but all he said was “Suit yourself.”

Twenty minutes later, Louis had eaten a bagel of his own and been given a surprisingly delicious cup of coffee in a travel mug.  He followed Niall out to one of the F150s he’d seen in the driveway the night before.

“Harry’s in the near east pasture.  We had a section of fence get pretty mangled in a storm ‘bout a week back,” Niall said as he pulled the truck out onto an uneven dirt road.  He laughed.  “Sure you’ve heard that before, huh?  How all ya do workin’ on a farm is fix the fences?”

“Oh, uh,” Louis blinked more sleep out of his eyes.  He’d been staring at the digital display on the radio.  It was 10:00 a.m. -- Louis hadn’t slept in past eight in years.  Wyoming was starting to feel like a different dimension.  “No.  No, I hadn’t heard that one.”

Niall heaved a long-suffering sigh.  “Well, it’s true.”  Then he laughed, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel and glancing over at Louis.  "Feels like that Greek dude sometimes, you know the one?  With the rock and the hill and eternity and stuff?”

Louis huffed out a laugh.  “Yeah, I know the one.”

“Anyway, we gotta get it fixed before the Llewellyns move their herd over to this side of their property in a couple days,” Niall continued conversationally, as if Louis had any idea at all about managing a ranch.  He seemed like the kind of person who was in continually good spirits.  “Can’t have ‘em wandering into our pasture!”

A few minutes later he stopped the truck on the side of the road, throwing it into park and hopping out.  He left his door hanging open, and Louis sat in the cab listening to the ding-ding-ding of the alert that the keys were still in the ignition, unsure of what to do until he saw that Niall had opened a large gate and was hurrying back to the truck.

“Harry’s way down at the other end,” Niall explained, gesturing loosely with one hand as he took a swinging left into the field.  The force of the turn pressed Louis up against the door, and he grabbed for the handle on the ceiling to steady himself as they trundled along the bumpy ground.

Niall brought the truck to an abrupt stop when they’d almost reached Harry, jumping out of the vehicle just like he had before, the ding-ding-ding sound starting up again.  Louis heard Harry greet him happily, and he eased himself down out of the Ford after a moment’s hesitation, reluctant to approach.  He suddenly felt much more aware that he had no actual plan for how he was going to go about convincing Harry Styles to sign on the dotted line, other than standing next to him awkwardly, in inappropriate farm clothing, and simply asking.

So, what?  I’ll do polite asking and then impolite asking and then whining and begging?  This is the fucking worst.

Harry Styles was kneeling by the fence, repairing a line of barbed wire that had snapped in the storm.  He was using some kind of tool that Louis had never seen before, one that racheted up the tension on the newly re-strung wire until it was tight.  Louis took a careful step toward where Niall was standing a few feet back from Harry and his shoes squelched in the mud beneath the long grass.  Everything smelled sharply of damp vegetation.

“You gonna check on the heifers or what?” Harry asked Niall over his shoulder, not pausing his work.  

Louis drew even with Niall just in time to see the affectionate smirk on his face when he replied.

“Yeah, yeah.  Don’t worry, I’m on my way to your beloved.”   He thumbed toward Louis.  “Thought I’d drop this guy off first, though; he wanted to see ya.”  

“This is a big deal, Ni,”  Harry said.  He didn’t acknowledge Louis’s presence.

“I’m aware,” Niall said, his smile growing.  He leaned down without being prompted and grabbed the pair of pliers that were lying in the grass next to Harry, handing them to him at what was apparently just the right moment in the repair process.  “Don’t worry.  I’ll give her your love and extra belly scratches, sir.  Maybe even sing to her a little bit.”

Harry huffed out a laugh and shook his head.  He was still facing away from them, but Louis thought he had probably rolled his eyes.  Louis shifted his weight and pretended he was interested in staring off at the mountains.  He felt like a third wheel.   

“You been sticking to Dolly?” Niall asked, grinning now, hands on his hips.

“Nah, branched out to the Spice Girls last week.  Think they liked it,” Harry said as he inspected his work.

Niall snorted in approval and then started retreating toward the truck.

“See you at dinner?” Harry asked, glancing back at him.

“‘Course,” Niall hollered as he hopped up into the cab. “Have fun!”  He gave Louis a little wave out the window and then turned the engine over, executing a tidy Y turn and zipping back out of the field as quickly as he’d come.

Louis felt even more awkward in Niall’s absence.  Harry Styles still hadn’t even indicated that he was aware that Louis was standing there.   

What the fuck do I even say?  How long will I be in this god damn field?  All day.  Forever, actually.  That is the answer.  I’ll be here forever.  I am never leaving Wyoming and I’ll never see Denver again.

“Do you sing to all the cows?” he asked after a minute of increasingly tense silence, his curiosity about Harry and Niall’s conversation getting the better of him.

Harry Styles laughed softly, standing up and turning to face Louis at last.  “Why?  You looking for tips on how to take care of your own?”  He shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun with one of his work-gloved hands so he could get a look at Louis.

Louis felt his chest go tight as they regarded each other, any sort of retort he might have made dying on his lips as he took the rancher fully in.  Styles had pulled his hair up into a tiny bun at the back of his head and it emphasized the strength of his brow and the cut of his jaw.  He was in another pair of faded, well-fitting blue jeans and a red flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow.  The gaps between his gloves and shirt sleeves revealed the sort of perfectly lean and sinewy forearms that in Louis’s mind were synonymous with toughness and hard work.

What the fuck is wrong with you?  

Louis was floored, and annoyed, really, by how attractive he found it all.  He’d previously been under the impression that he was naturally drawn to more urbane, sophisticated displays of masculinity, but Harry Styles had him suddenly wanting to set aside time for daydreaming about being bedded by a rough-hewn manly-man on a prairie under a blanket of gorgeous stars.  It was sort of infuriating.  

I’m the one from the idiotic romance novel, he thought, distressed.  God.  Put it away.  This is Wyoming, for crying out loud!   

“To answer your question, yes, we do tend to sing to our cattle here at the Lonely Rose.  But Jolene gets extra-special treatment, because she is a heifer who is pregnant with twins.”

Louis nodded, even though he didn’t have a full understanding of what that even meant.  Isn’t a heifer just a cow?

Harry’s lips curled into a smirk and he nodded toward Louis’s briefcase.  “Might not be a bad idea, though, setting yourself up with a little cow-calf operation.  I’m not signing that stupid contract, so you could be here awhile.”

Louis exhaled in annoyance, irritation crawling up his back.  “You aren’t even using that part of your property, Mr. Styles.”  He gestured at their surroundings with the sweep of an arm.  “I looked at the maps before I left Denver.  That area can’t even be used for like, a cow food field or whatever.”

Styles snorted, and he was smiling and shaking his head, dimples deep, as he leaned down to pick up a roll of barbed wire.  He tucked the unusual racheting tool and the pliers under his other arm.  “Please call me Harry, Louis.  And I think you know it’s called a pasture, not a cow food field.”

There was something about the amused little twinkle in Harry’s eye when he said it that made Louis almost chuckle in spite of himself, but he just smiled slightly around another huff of frustration and pressed on.  “Okay fine, pasture, whatever.  It can’t be used as a pasture.  Either way, it’s just sitting there!”

On top of an unbelievable fucking fortune in oil! Louis thought, choosing not to say that out loud, given Harry’s terse response to the mention of money last night.  It pained Louis though, trying to conceive of turning down such a huge sum.  Made him oddly nervous, like he was watching a character in a movie who couldn’t stop gambling and would certainly go broke.  Is he concerned about the environmental impact or something?  Why wouldn’t he just say that?  And still… the money…  

Harry walked down the fence, to another section with broken cables.  Louis followed after him, struggling to keep up with with Harry’s long strides in his slippery dress shoes.

“We went over this last night, Louis.  I’m fully aware of what I’m using my land for, and I still haven’t changed my mind.  You won’t change my mind.  I am not signing,” Harry stated calmly, kneeling down to get back to work.  He adjusted his gloves at the wrist and then grabbed the broken piece of wire that was still attached to the closest fencepost, wrenching the loose end of it around with his hands to twist it into a small loop.

“Okay,” Louis said, slowly and measured to convey the extent of his frustration.  He frowned and fiddled with the silver buckle on his case.

Harry paused and blinked up at Louis, a thoughtful expression on his face.  “You won’t be in trouble at work, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Louis just shrugged and shook his head.  He was at a loss for what to do, and as he looked out at the surrounding landscape, at a small stand of trees along the edge of the pasture and then farther, to the mountains beyond, he felt increasingly baffled by how this was even happening to him.  Harry Styles’s complete calm over his refusal to sign the document, despite the fact that it was an incredibly sound business decision, made everything feel so surreal.  As if some other Louis, in a universe where things made sense, was already on an airplane heading back home to Denver and this version of Louis, the one that was standing in a cow pasture, had actually fallen down some strange ranchland rabbit hole where absolutely nothing went as one would hope or expect.    

“I’ll tell you what,” Harry said slowly, rubbing at his jawline like he was working something out before pointing toward the fence.  “I have to get this work done now.  Today.  And I don’t get the greatest cell coverage out here, but I promise I’ll call my mother tonight and get things straightened out so you can go home tomorrow.  All right?”

Louis nodded, letting out a sigh of relief that seemed to relax Harry as well.  He’d continued to stare up at Louis with wide eyes from his crouched position by the broken fence, and Louis squirmed a bit under the attention when he noticed, reminded again of how out of place his clothes were for the setting.  

“I like your briefcase,” Harry said, finally looking away when he reached for the loose end of his coil of barbed wire, unfurling it to the length he needed.

If Louis had been in Harry’s position, he’d have been teasing if he made a comment like that.  Maybe Harry was to a certain extent, but he’d also meant it sincerely, and that caught Louis off guard.

“Oh,” he said, pleased.  He looked down at the soft brown leather, tracing the fine stitching along one of the seams with his fingers.  “Um.  Thank you.”

Harry hummed in response and turned toward the fence again, running the new strand of wire through the loop he’d created in the broken cable and bending it over with efficient turns of his wrist to make an interlocking loop.

“My parents gave it to me, when I got into law school.”

Louis wasn’t sure why he felt compelled to explain.  It had felt good when they’d given it to him, though, like a confirmation that he was finally figuring things out after years of indecision.  An official stamp of approval of sorts.

“Was a good choice,” Harry said, reaching for the tightening tool and cinching wire into it.  “Are you in law school now?”  He sounded concerned.  “They wouldn’t send you out here then, would they?”

“No.  No, in the fall,” Louis murmured, shaking his head.  “I start in the fall.  At Boulder.”  

“Oh.  Good for you.”

“Yeah, thanks.”  Louis couldn’t help feeling a twinge of inadequacy when he thought about the master’s degree he’d seen in Harry’s office, from fucking Princeton of all places.  CU-Boulder was an entirely acceptable place to go to law school, but Louis was suddenly squirming a bit, wishing he could somehow drop his LSAT score into the conversation so Harry would know he’d had other, more distinguished options available.  Pathetic.  “I was in the Peace Corps,” he said instead, his pride forcing him into it.  “I mean, that’s why -- that’s why I waited so long…”  

Harry made a small humming noise of polite interest and continued about his work.  Louis cringed internally over his insecurity, his naked need to try to justify his choices.  As if Harry Styles cared (or had any sense at all) that Louis had spent most of his twenties jumping into the next available thing without much forethought, always on the go so that he wouldn’t have to confront any big questions about what he might actually want to do with the rest of his life.  It was just -- here Louis was, finally entering law school at the ripe old age of thirty-two, and Styles had probably been running this whole ranch since his mysterious stint at Princeton.  Despite having full-time jobs and apartments and bills they took care of on their own, Louis and Zayn still made fairly frequent jokes about how disoriented they felt whenever either of them was mistaken for an actual adult.  Harry Styles, as stubbornly irrational as his behavior around this oil deal seemed to be, really was one.

Louis’s brow creased.  He peered down past his briefcase to where his wingtips were sunk into a particularly muddy patch of grass and the cuffs of his favorite pants were already wet with dew.  He looked back over his shoulder to see if the house was in view, his facial expression shifting into a grimace when he saw that it wasn’t.  

Shit.

He should have taken Niall up on his offer of those boots.  He really hadn’t thought this through.

“Are you all right?” Harry asked, glancing up at Louis with a mixture of amusement and concern in his eyes.

“Well,” Louis said, unable to stop his voice from coming out in a whine.  He squirmed and hugged his briefcase closer, wincing as he looked out at the horizon.  “I mean, how far away is the house?”

Harry let out an apologetic rumble of a laugh as he turned back to his work.  Louis tried not to get too caught up in measuring the breadth of his back with his eyes.  “Probably too far to walk in those shoes.”

Louis heaved a long, peevish sigh and closed his eyes in annoyance, the intensity of which was exacerbated by the fact that while being in stuck in Wyoming on a fool’s errand hadn’t been his choice, his ill-advised cow pasture footwear certainly was.  He didn’t want to take any of the blame.  He wasn’t ready for that.  “What am I supposed to do now?” he asked, after a minute.

“I’d let you take the four wheeler,” Harry said, motioning in the general direction of the gate, “but I have to hit a couple more pastures by the end of the day.”  He started knee-walking toward the other fencepost, smiling at Louis and waving the strange racheting tool at him.  “You could make yourself useful, if you want.”

Louis let out a scoff of a laugh to dismiss the suggestion.  What he’d wanted was for Harry to offer to take a break and drop him off at the house, but that clearly wouldn’t be happening.   

It’s the least he could do, since he’s trapped me here for the time being, he thought darkly, carefully picking his way closer to Harry through the long grass.

“First of all,” he said snootily, peering down at Harry when he about a foot away, “I’d ruin my pants…”

“And?” Harry prompted, laughing a little and fumbling around with more barbed wire, the muscles in his forearms flexing.  

Louis blinked at him.

“You said ‘first of all,’” Harry pointed out, cinching a wire into one end of his tightening tool.

“What?  Oh.  Um.  Okay, yeah, that’s everything.  I’d ruin my pants.”

Harry snorted, wiping sweat off his brow.  “Suit yourself,” he said, echoing Niall’s refrain from earlier.  He turned back to the broken fence and began to hum contentedly as he continued his task.

Louis shifted his weight and rubbed at his brow.  He was so frustrated by the situation that he felt almost sick, heat from it flaring up under his breastbone like heartburn.  What was he going to do for the next seven hours?  Just stand there and glare at the back of Harry Styles’s stubborn, stupidly attractive, entirely unhelpful head?  There wasn’t even a place to sit down!

“What is that thing?” he demanded after about five minutes of Harry’s industrious and tuneless humming, bored out of his mind.

Harry stopped humming abruptly, looking up and over his shoulder at Louis.  “The fence stretcher?” he asked, gesturing to the tool in front of him, which now had barbed wired clamped into it on both ends.    

“Well,” Louis said with a bit of sass, as he drifted closer, “you tell me.”   

“Yeah, it’s called a fence stretcher,” Harry said, as he began to use it.  There was a hint of a smile on his face, like he found Louis’s slight attitude to be entertaining for some reason.  “It pulls the wire taut, see?”

Louis nodded.

“The wire snapped in a bad storm, but both pieces are still attached to the posts,” Harry explained.  He pointed toward the fencepost to their left.  “So, first you make some loops, like I did down there, and sort of splice in a new piece of wire from your roll.”

Louis moved to the side to get a look at where Harry had fastened the new wire together with the old, the repair piece still attached to the coil of barbed wire.  

“Then, you make a little loop at the end of the wire from the other post,” Harry said, pointing down at the separate piece of wire that was attached to the post to their right.  He picked up the coil and moved it around a little for Louis’s benefit.  “And you unspool some, you know, a little more than enough to bridge the gap, and put both sections into the stretcher.”  He pointed down to where he had cinched the two unconnected sections of wire into the tool.  He smiled at Louis, picking it up and using the racheting mechanism.  “Then you increase the tension ‘til it’s taut, like I said.”

“So you twist them together, after?” Louis asked, squinting sharply as he poked at the wire in between the stretcher.  “Like secure them together?”

Harry nodded, picking up the wire cutters and snipping the new wire off the coil before connecting it to the piece that was attached to the fencepost.  “Yep, not much to it.  Then you take off the stretcher, and... done!”

He set the tool down at his knees and leaned back onto his heels, nimbly unbuttoning his flannel shirt.

Louis swallowed.  “Um…” he said, unsure what was happening and feeling flustered by how well-worn Harry’s thin, white undershirt was.  It left just the right amount to the imagination, especially given the cool spring air.  “What -- why --?”

Harry grinned, spreading the flannel out on the ground next to him with a flourish. He nodded, indicating that Louis should join him.  “So you don’t ruin your nice fancy pants.  Come on, there are two more wires to fix between these posts.  I’ll let you be pliers man.”

Louis hesitated for a second, but then Harry produced another pair of work gloves out of his back pocket, and it was either this or staring into space for the rest of the day.    

“What, I’m not good enough for the fence stretcher or something?” he asked indignantly as he dropped to his knees next to Harry.

Harry laughed, handing Louis the gloves. “We’ll get you there.”

Louis nodded decisively, as if to say damn straight we will, and he had to bite his lip over a smile when it drew another laugh and a shake of the head from Harry.  

“You do seem to be a natural at creating tension,” he said, chuckling and handing over the pliers once Louis had rolled up his sleeves and tugged on the gloves.  

Louis let out a short squawk of protest.  “I didn’t ask to be sent here!” he pointed out.  (And for a crazy split second, with Harry’s warm body so close to his, he wondered what kind of tension Harry was really referring to.)

Harry smirked, picking up the roll of barbed wire again.  “I am aware.”  

Three pastures and many, many sections of damaged fencing later, Louis was indeed using the fence stretcher.  He’d gotten more efficient at it as the day went on, quickly racheting up the tension, satisfied by the way the cable went tight under his control.  Harry was kneeling next to him.  He plucked the wire like a string on an instrument to check to make sure it was properly taut before finishing up and removing the tool from the wire.  

“Well done,” he said, climbing to his feet and pulling off his work gloves before taking a big swig from his water bottle.  

“Thanks.”  Louis hopped up and dusted himself off.  

Harry held out the water wordlessly and Louis pulled off his gloves, blinking down at his hands for a second.  Harry’s gloves had been almost comically large on him, an extra half-inch of fabric sticking off the ends of each of his fingers.  He had this strange urge to place his hand directly over Harry’s on the bottle when he moved to take it from him, suddenly itching to get an exact visual on their difference in size.  Being around capable, sturdy Harry all day had made Louis feel almost dainty, aware of his smaller stature in a way he actually liked.  As he took a gulp of the water, it dawned on him that he’d been gesturing and speaking with his hands more freely than he normally would in a situation like this, with someone he barely knew.  He’d wanted to draw Harry’s attention to his smaller size, too.

I’ve been showing off, Louis realized, his face going a little hot as he remembered the theatrical way he’d told Harry a story when they’d split the sandwich Harry had packed for lunch, some stupid little anecdote about a particularly disastrous tuna salad.  I’ve practically been fucking flirting with him this whole time!  Has he -- has he been flirting back?  No...

He tried to shake off his embarrassment, coughing into a fist.  “Where to next?” he asked.

Harry smiled, his dimple deep.  “Home, actually,” he said, wiping his hands on his shirt.  “It’s quitting time.”   

Louis was surprised, and it must have shown on his face because Harry made a small noise of delight.  “It’s nearly six o’clock, Louis.”  He stood with his hands on his hips and nodded toward the sun, as if to point out how far it had sunk in the sky.  “Time flies when you’re having fun, huh?”   

Louis rolled his eyes, but he truly had lost track of time.  It felt like that tunafish sandwich had been just an hour ago.   

“I suppose,” he whispered, suddenly wondering how much he’d impeded Harry’s progress earlier in the day when he hadn’t known what he was doing.  Someone else might have just told Louis to go sit on the ATV and fucking wait.  Louis felt disoriented for a moment, thinking back to how irritated he’d been that morning, just at being forced out into the field.  He certainly didn’t feel that way now, even though (despite Harry’s chivalrous offer of the flannel shirt) his pants were filthy and his beloved wingtips were caked with mud.  

“Come on,” Harry said.  He stuffed the dirtied flannel into his bag along with the pliers and the water bottle and shouldered it with ease, leaning down to pick up the depleted coil of barbed wire.  “Grab the fence stretcher?”

Louis complied, swinging it up onto his shoulder, and they traipsed across the field together toward the four wheeler, the long grass swishing against their calves as they went.    

The ride back from the pasture was fairly short, but Louis managed to get lost in thought anyway.  Pressed up against Harry Styles’s strong back, he watched the ground roll by under the wheels of the ATV, the occasional pebble kicking up.  He felt satisfaction from hard work, the sort that he hadn’t felt for a long time.  His whole body was tired, but in a way that promised a lovely, achy soreness the next morning, and Louis was looking forward to a hot shower and a cold beer and melting into some kind of soft surface for the rest of the night.

There was something bittersweet about it all that he couldn’t quite get a handle on, and thinking about his life back in Denver somehow made his heart twist a little -- so he tried not to.  

He couldn’t avoid thinking about Denver when they got back to the house, though.  Harry hustled Louis into his office right away, determined to call his mother and get things straightened out, just like he’d said he would.  It didn’t go as either of them had planned.

“Hello?”  Harry had his cell on speakerphone, and Louis smiled slightly at the sound of Anne Twist’s voice as it came through, scratchy from the connection but also noticeably softer than when she answered a normal business call.  “Harry?”

“Yeah.  Hi, Mom,” Harry replied, leaning back in his creaky old desk chair with his right foot resting on his left knee.  He looked antsy to Louis, like he wanted to get down to business but couldn’t help checking in with her first.  “How are you?”

“I’m fine, sweetie.  How are you?”

Harry sighed and tugged his hair out of its bun.  He let it fall to his shoulders before tangling a hand in it.  “I’m all right.”

“Did you sign the paper for that nice young man I sent?” she asked.  Louis thought he could hear in her voice that she knew Harry hadn’t.   

Harry gave a humorless laugh and rolled his eyes.  “You mean, did I sign that paper for you?”

Anne chuckled right back.  “I take that as a no, then.”

“Listen, Mom,” Harry said, almost cutting her off.  He leaned toward the phone where he’d set it on the desk, nearly folding himself in half, so his face was inches from it.  “I’ve got Louis here, we’re, um, we’re on speakerphone, and I told him -- last night and today -- what I’m going to tell you now, which you already know…  I’m not going to sign.  And he won’t be changing my mind.  So, you should let him come back to Denver because there’s nothing for him to do here.”

There was a long pause.  Louis fidgeted on his leather seat, feeling increasingly awkward as the seconds ticked by.  Harry was the first to speak again.

“Are you still there?” he asked, his voice pinched with annoyance.  Louis felt his lips quirk almost into a smirk -- leave it to one’s mother to cause a relapse into childish petulance.

“Yes, dear,” Anne said, calm and cool.  “Yes, I am.”

“Well…”

“I think it’s for the best if Mr. Tomlinson stays out there until a decision is made.”

“A decision has been --”

“Until a different decision has been made.”

“Mom,” Harry huffed in frustration, a flush spreading across his cheeks.  Louis started staring pointedly out the window at the mountains, so as not to intrude more than he already was.  He knew his discomfort must be visible on his face, but he couldn’t get his eyebrows to relax.  Everything was too strained.

“Harry, we both know you are being entirely unreasonable about this.”

“I’m not being unreasonable at all!” Harry practically shouted, and Louis’s attention snapped back to him immediately, the emotion in Harry’s voice catching him by surprise.  Louis blinked.  Harry’s hands were trembling slightly where they rested on his thighs, and he took what looked like a deep, calming breath before he went on, his voice measured but tense.  “You are making this incredibly awkward.”

“Well, think about the awkward position you’ve put me in, dear.”

“What? You are unb--” Harry cut himself off when his voice started to rise again, his fists clenching.  He took another deep breath.  “Okay.  Fine.  But this is my property, a fact you seem hellbent on ignoring.  If Louis stays here against my wishes he’ll be trespassing, and I can have him removed.”

Louis felt a little flare of disappointment dart up his spine at the idea of Harry kicking him out.  What did you think, you were best fence mending buddies or something because of one afternoon?

“Yes, you could do that,” Anne said, and Louis could tell from the complete calm in her voice that she knew Harry never would.  Judging by Harry’s darkened expression, she was right.  

It struck Louis again, how powerfully attractive Harry was, even in anger.  Straight brows, slanting cheekbones, and soft, curving lips -- he’d never seen someone so handsome in real life, and he knew Zayn!  

How do people just go through the world like that?  What’s it like? he wondered.  Louis knew he was far from unattractive himself, but he couldn't help falling into idle, slightly envious thoughts of Harry in high school -- popular and sought after, turning things in his favor with a simple smile -- until he was brought back by the sound of his own name.

“Put Louis on, please,” Anne said, sighing.  “Not on speaker.”

Harry rolled his eyes but obliged, switching the phone off speaker and handing it to Louis rather forcefully.  Louis swallowed hard.  He felt self-conscious and also a bit helpless, like a pawn in a game where the parameters weren’t clear, one that he hadn’t even agreed to play in the first place.

“Hello,” he managed tentatively, pressing the phone to his ear.

“Louis, hi,” Anne said gently, clearly tired.  “I’m very sorry about the situation.”

“Uh -- that’s.  That’s all right...”

“I’m going to have to ask that you stay out there until this matter is settled,” she went on.  “I know you have things you were working on here at the office, but I’m assuming most of it can be done over remote connection?  You must have your laptop there,” she didn’t wait for a confirmation, “and I’ll have Zayn reassign anything that needs to be done in person.  I’m sure Nick can handle it.”

“Okay…”

“Otherwise, I want you to shadow Harry whenever you can.  As long as it takes.  Getting him to sign is your biggest focus from here on out, all right?”

Louis swallowed again, overwhelmed.  How was he supposed to complete his regular assignments while following someone around a giant fucking ranch?  “Yes, but --”

“I know it might take some time.  Don’t worry, you aren’t going to be evaluated based on that.”  Anne paused again, and Louis thought he could hear her shaking her head.  “It’s a complicated situation, but I need a physical presence there, reminding him that this isn’t just going to go away.  Understand?”

“Um, yes,” Louis said, despite the fact that now it felt like the situation was slipping completely out of his grasp and he was powerless to stop it.  He wiped his right palm on his thigh.  It had gone clammy with anxious sweat.   

“Thank you very much.  Believe me, your dedication is not going unnoticed.”

Louis bristled at that, his heart rate spiking.  It just so happened that he had no family in Denver, no significant other, no pressing social engagements.  Not even a bar league kickball team or some kind of weekly volunteering stint at the local humane society, but what if he had?  What then?

“I don’t have --”

“We’ll pay you double time while you’re out there, Louis, and anything you purchase in terms of clothing or food, anything like that at all, it will be reimbursed.”

“Okay…” Louis said reluctantly, his eyes wide.    

“Now, could you give the phone back to my son, please?” Anne asked.  “I need to tell him I love him before I hang up.”   

Louis handed it over without a word, too dazed to pay attention to the rest of their exchange.  I’ve just been -- I’ve been fucking force-moved to Wyoming for the foreseeable future, he realized, his eyebrows knitting together, a flicker of impotent rage lighting in his belly.  All of his frustration from that morning came roaring back.  How the hell…

When Louis finally turned his attention back to Harry, he was sitting calmly with steepled hands.

“Well, welcome to the Lonely Rose Ranch, Louis,” he said.  His deep, rumbling voice was cut with only a hint of sarcasm.  “We should probably get you settled in.”