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Liam doesn't have to watch Zayn lead most of the audience out the "noes" door to the bar to know he's smashed it. He can't expect his speeches to catch fire every single time, but when the motion is This House Believes That Father Christmas is a Cruel Illusion, he's got passion to spare.

Louis nudges him. "Opposition wins, Li. It's ours."

Liam turns shining eyes to his best mate. "I know. You were marvelous, Louis. You too, George, Niall," he adds, not mentioning the fact that Niall had almost cracked up during Louis's opening argument. They'd won anyway, hadn't they?

Niall is the first to get up and extend a hand to the proposition side. Leigh-Anne and Jade are pretending to weep while Jesy and Perrie pat them consolingly. "Well done!" Niall says enthusiastically. "Very well done!"

Perrie grins back. "We'll have you next time, Horan."

Leigh-Anne makes a sweeping gesture in the general vicinity of the bar. "Shall we, gentlemen?"

"After you, ladies," says Louis, which means they end up going out through the "ayes" door, emerging at the bar to hoots and applause. Liam hears his name being shrieked by some excitable fresher but heads straight over to Ed at the bar. He's got the first round to buy for the losing side.

"Attention!" Ed shouts, in order to make the victory official first. Everyone ignores him. So he bangs on the bar with an intervarsity memorial plaque from 1997, and the room settles. "Ladies and gents, as you know, each Thursday our lovely Debating Soc takes on issues of the foremost significance to the commonwealth!" There are shouts of "get on with it" from the floor, for which Ed has a two-fingered response before soldiering on. "Today's Fight Night, first of the term, took up the not at all frivolous motion to bin Father Christmas. Competition was fierce and the suspense painful."

A chant starts of "Li-am! Li-am! Li-am!" Louis pinches Liam's cheek. Zayn flashes him a thumbs-up from across the room. Ed bangs again for silence.

"After a long and careful enumeration of the votes," Ed went on, "it has been determined that Father Christmas has been saved for one more year. Up the opposition and congratulations to Liam, Louis, George, and Niall!" The room explodes again. Liam knows it's mostly because the audience began drinking before the debate and are now making up for any time lost during, but he can't help beaming anyway. He pushes through to the bar where Niall's getting drinks for Jesy and Jade while Louis orders for the lads. Liam picks up a pint for Leigh-Anne and a spritzer for Perrie. The girls kiss him on the cheek, left and right, when he brings them over.

"Thanks, love," says Leigh-Anne. "It's thirsty work, attacking Father Christmas as a symbol of rampant materialism and everything that's gone wrong with England today."

Liam says, "It's true, we had the easier side of it."

"From your own lips, mate," says Leigh-Anne. "Although it's possible you have a few utterly basic debating skills."

"Do you reckon?" says Liam, grinning.

"Not many," Perrie interjects. "And you ought to watch your back. Got someone I want you to meet."

Liam nods, looks to see where Louis is. He wants his Coke.

"Harry!" calls Perrie, and then she's hauling something up to Liam, a mass of curls with a boy underneath. "This is Harry," she says proudly.

"Yeah?" says Liam politely. "Happy to meet you, Harry, I'm Liam."

The boy tosses back his hair and smiles at Liam. It lights up his whole face. "Hey, Liam. That was brilliant in there. I liked the part about the hopes and dreams of a nation's children."

"Louis thought of that bit," Liam admits. "I don't think I've seen you at a Fight Night before, have I?"

"I'm new," says Harry. "Just transferred, actually. I know your mate Zayn, though, met him at a party my second day here." He jerks his head toward Zayn, who's in the corner with Niall and a rather large group of girls. Harry winks. "Debate's pretty popular here, yeah?"

"Zayn's pretty popular everywhere," says Louis, arriving with Liam's Coke. "Your poison, Li. You want to be careful with that, I had Ed fix it extra strong." He nods at Harry. "New member of the Liam Payne fan club?"

"Definitely," says Harry.

"Harry's actually an amazing debater himself," says Perrie. "He was on the team that won at Sheffield last year. We're lucky he transferred, he could take us all the way to Euros in the spring."

Harry ducks his head. "Stop it, Perrie."

Louis looks from Liam to Harry, frowning. "Liam was already taking us to Euros."

"Oh, I'm sure—" Harry starts.

"But," Louis interrupts, "you should absolutely come along for the ride."

Liam remembers that he's Vice-President of the Debating Society and ought to welcome new members, not feel annoyed at them for no reason. "Welcome to our Soc, Harry. We're glad to have you."

Harry's grin is back. "Cheers, Liam! I'll be at the meeting on Monday."

"Come along then, Harry," says Perrie, "more people I want you to meet."

Liam watches as Harry turns to follow Perrie and Leigh-Anne. Louis tugs at Liam's ear. "We're needed elsewhere, mate, Zayn intervention."

Liam frowned. "What's he doing this time?"

"The usual. Handing out his number to freshers. Breaking hearts right and left."

"Oh god," says Liam. "And Niall's right there."

He and Louis look at each other, deeply concerned, and then turn as one to go haul Zayn away.

 

*

 

They're back at their flat later that night. Liam's doing his press-ups and Louis is standing in the doorway reviewing the entire night, because according to Louis if you can't talk about it in great detail, it must not have happened. Liam is only half-listening.

"So what did you think of him?" Louis asks.

"Who?" says Liam. He thought he'd have their flat to himself right about now; Louis is usually out to all hours on Fight Night which means Thursday's the one night out of the week when Liam can go to bed without discussing the tutor Louis fancies and the tutor Louis accuses Liam of fancying and how to get Zayn to notice that Niall's utterly gone for him and whether Louis ought to have chosen astrophysics over English to begin with.

"Curly," says Louis. "Curly with the dimples."

"Oh god," says Liam. He collapses and rolls over. "Don't start with him if he's going to join the Soc. I don't have the energy."

Louis manages to infuse his four-pints-or-more voice with a remarkable amount of wounded dignity. "I assure you I've only a professional interest in the young gentleman."

"Right."

"Also, it wasn't me he was winking at."

Liam rolls to his feet, ready for a shower. "That was a wink?"

"Or perhaps a neurological condition," Louis says. "Anyway, he was aiming it at you."

It's too late at night to argue. "He was a bit up himself, I thought."

"That was just Perrie being bitter about Father Christmas," Louis says. "Because she doesn't care about the hopes and dreams of children."

"Not like we do," agrees Liam. "Go to bed now, Tommo, you're about to keel over."

 

*

 

It's Monday afternoon, and Liam and Louis walk into the union for the meeting fifteen minutes early. Niall's there already, lounging on a sofa with his phone, so Louis promptly grabs it.

"Texting your true love, I see."

"I don't love anyone," says Niall, but he dives for it back anyway.

"Are you coming to the meeting," Louis reads. "I'll just add in bed, shall I?"

Liam snatches the phone and hands it back to Niall.

"My hero," says Niall, so Liam pushes him off the couch.

"What's this I don’t love anyone rubbish?" Louis wants to know.

"It's my new creed since this morning," says Niall, picking himself up. "I don't need anyone and I don't care about anyone so no one can hurt me."

"You want to stop going to those philosophy lectures, mate," says Louis.

Liam drops to the couch to give Niall a hug. "What happened this morning?"

"Realized he didn't come home last night. Now get off me, Liam, I'm trying to be an island."

"Cuddliest island!" says Louis, and throws himself on top of Niall from behind, which means Niall lands on Liam. All three of them are on the floor by the time Liam feels someone's trainer nudging at his side. He's got his face smushed into Niall's shoulder, though, and can't quite see whose.

"I thought words were our weapons," someone's saying, and that's Zayn's laugh in reply.

"Only on Thursdays," Zayn explains. He's tugging at Liam's arm, and Liam untangles himself enough to see that Zayn's with that boy from the other night, and he's turning a confused smile on Liam. Louis was right, he has dimples. There's no reason for Liam to feel irritated by this, but he does.

"Oi, Harry!" says Louis. "Come sit on Niall with me."

Harry grins. "But I haven't met him yet. Oughtn't I meet him before I squash him?"

"Oughtn't you ask him before you squash him?" croaks Niall.

"Leave my flatmate alone," Zayn tells Louis. "Harassing an oppressed minority like that, it's just sad."

Niall finally scrambles out from under Louis and extends a hand to Harry. "Hallo, I'm Niall, and I'm the only blond of us."

"Although I'm getting a streak next week," says Zayn. "Out of solidarity."

"Sick!" says Harry cheerfully.

Liam watches as Harry shakes Niall's hand and tells him he's Harry and where he's transferred from and he's so happy to meet him and blah blah blah. It's fine, actually, Liam likes friendly people, it's just he was in the middle of his friends and now here's Harry. Like, moving in.

"Joining the soc, are you, Zayn?" asks Louis, the way he does any week that Zayn tags along for no reason.

"Nope, too stressful," says Zayn. "Just don't like missing the weekly trainwreck."

"Zayn's, like, a debate groupie," Niall explains to Harry.

"We have groupies here?" Harry says. "I was at the wrong uni before."

"It's only that I find you lot fascinating psychologically," says Zayn.

More people trickle in: Perrie and her lot, Niall's regular teammate Aiden, George and his friends that Liam always manages to mix up. Before long the Debating Soc has taken over half the union lounge and they're making up motions for Thursday. They begin with a pretense of serious preparation for intervarsity competition, which means suggesting motions like This House Would Withdraw British Troops from International Conflict, but before long they descend into This House Would Name Tom Daley Emergency Prime Minister and so forth. Harry's right in the mix, laughing and suggesting they take on the Windsors now that they've got Father Christmas sorted. If you ask Liam, the idea's not nearly as clever as everyone seems to think, but Cher gets her heart set, and there it is: This House Would Abolish the Monarchy, to be debated Thursday at eight.

Then it's time to discuss their plans for world domination and fundraising, which according to Perrie will require charging for admission on Thursdays and possibly a kissing booth. "It'll raise tons of money," she says. "We'll have shifts, and Zayn will work every other one." Zayn makes air hearts at Perrie. Liam cringes. Niall looks blank.

"Going to the loo," Liam whispers to Louis, and makes his way through sprawled-out feet out of the lounge and down the hall. He's just washing up when the door swings open and he sees Harry in the mirror.

"Liam." For a split second Harry puts a hand on Liam's back in a completely unnecessary way, and then turns to lean back against the sink.

Does he really have to make conversation in the toilets now? Liam says, "Um. So we come up with some pretty silly motions, I guess."

"I like it," says Harry. "At my old uni we were always adopting the Euro or trading liberty for security and no one wanted to do the fun ones."

"Have you paired up with someone?" asks Liam. Then he realizes it sounds like he's asking about, like, dating. "I mean a teammate, if you want to do the intervarsities."

"Nope," says Harry. "All the good ones are taken." He raises an eyebrow at Liam and then turns to look at his hair in the mirror. "Actually, there's an even number of you, so no one's free anyway."

"Hm," says Liam stupidly to Harry's reflection. "Well, you'll able to do Fight Nights regardless."

"I know. No set teams. I'm gonna put my name in for the draw."

"Okay. And sooner or later someone will drop out or join up or—" Liam realizes that he's babbling. "I'll see you back out there, Harry, okay?"

And of course Louis has to be smirking at him when he gets back to his seat. "Meeting in the loo now, really?"

"Project a little more, why don't you," Liam hisses. The hat's going round for Thursday night and Liam scribbles his name down and drops it in. Then he grabs another slip and writes Harry on it, because he's not back from the toilet yet and the VP has got to look after the membership.

"Try not to draw a little heart at the end," Louis whispers, looking over his shoulder.

"Try not to make me kill you before we get to Regionals," Liam mutters.

By the time Harry returns, Perrie's shaking up the hat with presidential dignity, ready to draw eight names for Thursday's debate. Fight Nights aren't like proper competitions where proposition and opposition have each got two teams of two; in a real tournament, if you're proposition, you and your partner have got to beat the other proposition team as well as the two teams on the other side. Fight Nights, on the other hand, are just about aye or no, and everyone on the same side works together. Liam would rather like to follow competition rules for Fight Nights too, actually, but most of the others find it too nerve-wracking and prefer the fun of brand-new teams each time. Who debates depends on who gets picked at random, and then it's Ed, for reasons no one can remember, who sorts them onto sides before the debate.

Perrie starts making mystical passes above the hat. Louis is bouncing up and down and landing sometimes on the sofa and sometimes on Liam's thigh. "Me! Me! Me! Me! Me!" he yelps, just in case anyone doesn't know that Louis is six.

Niall looks up and says, "Please, god of debates, make Perrie not pick Louis."

"You need to sacrifice to the god if you want him to listen," Louis says. "What've you sacrificed lately, Niall?"

Niall thinks about this. "My Roman Stoics seminar."

Zayn, who's had his eyes closed, opens them and says, "Do you need help with it, Niall? I'm very philosophical."

Liam elbows Louis. "Ow!" says Louis, instead of discreetly elbowing back.

"Philosophical does not actually mean the same thing as mostly high," says Niall.

Cher says, "Will you lot shut it?"

"Respect the hat!" calls Perrie. She draws out a slip of paper and starts pulling out slips of paper and calling names. When she says Harry's name, he jumps up and pumps his fist. Cher yanks him down again and hits him. How is it that Cher and Harry are already on hitting terms, Liam wonders. Niall's name gets called too.

"Shame for the stoics, though," Zayn says.

Niall rolls his eyes. "They can do without me for one more week."

Liam watches Zayn put a hand on the back of Niall's neck and tries to figure out if anything's changed. Zayn loves Niall, of that he's sure, but whether it's any different from how Zayn also loves Liam and Louis, he doesn't know. It's rotten luck to fall for a flatmate; good thing, thinks Liam, that with him and Louis it'll never happen. The problem is that Niall's the most easy-going guy in the world but every once in a long while he actually decides on something, and when that happens he's not likely to budge. Even if it's Zayn he's decided on.

When the last of the names is read, it becomes clear that the god of debates has granted Niall's wish. Louis rolls off the couch and beats his fists on the floor in despair. Niall promptly uses him as a footrest.

"Never mind, I don't like debating anyway," says Louis.

Niall reaches over to fist-bump Aiden, who's also been chosen. "We got this," says Aiden.

"Unless we're on opposite sides," says Niall. "In which case no mercy."

Louis says, "Liam, do your growl thing for Niall." So Liam does. Niall starts to mimic him and then collapses into giggles instead.

"You try, Harry," says Louis, and Harry growls, rather loudly. Liam's glad his own name wasn't called, actually. He's not sure what Harry will be like in a debate. The first time, he'd probably rather just watch.

 

*

 

That Thursday, Liam and Louis and Zayn sit in the back row and watch Harry abolish the queen. Ed's put him and Niall both down for proposition—he claims to sort people onto sides according to a complex algorithm, but Liam suspects it's just whatever arrangement he thinks will be most amusing—so in his posh accent Harry is drawling out all the reasons why the house of Windsor is a luxurious cancer on the face of the commonwealth.

He graciously allows a point of information from Jaymi (at least Liam thinks it's Jaymi; he's been wrong before) about Kate and William, smiling gently as if he regrets that anyone could be so tragically misguided. He speaks slowly, but somehow he makes you pay attention anyway. He flips his hair back at least twice in his allotted six minutes. Liam isn't a bit surprised when the crowd claps harder for him than for anyone else so far. Harry beams.

"Really good, yeah?" says Zayn.

Liam nods unenthusiastically and whispers "Loves the spotlight, doesn't he?" to Louis. Liam likes that he can be a bit of a prick when he's talking to Louis and Louis won't mind at all.

"Attention whore, yeah," nods Louis. "But I don't mind attention whores. Live with one, don't I?"

"I am not—" Liam begins, and then Louis hits him in the balls.

"Why do I live with you?" Liam asks plaintively.

"Because I'm pretty," says Louis, putting an arm round Liam's shoulders. "Pay attention, it's Aiden's turn."

Aiden does quite well, in his own weirdly intense way, but when it's proposition's turn again Niall broadens his accent and invokes centuries of brutal treatment of Eire by the British monarchy. That, coupled with Harry's performance, guarantees a proposition victory.

When the applause dies down, Zayn's still sat in his seat watching Niall give Aiden a consolation hug. "Come on, you," says Louis, and tugs him up.

Liam looks back at the speakers' tables where everyone's shaking hands. Harry's eyes meet his. Caught looking, Liam gives Harry a thumbs-up, mostly because he can't think of anything else to do. Then he follows Louis toward the "ayes" door.

Later, Liam finds Niall at the end of the bar. He's looking particularly rosy-cheeked.

"Brilliant speech, mate," says Liam.

Niall leans into him. "Fuck off, English."

Liam asks, "Did you like working with Harry?"

"Course," says Niall. "Harry's great."

"Yeah," says Liam, and reminds himself that Niall loves everyone when he's pissed. Or rather, Niall just loves everyone. "Where's Zayn gotten to?"

Niall sighs. "In the loo. We're about to head out, actually. He says he's exhausted."

"Really?" Liam says. As far as he knows, Zayn at his most energetic still likes to take it easy.

"Probably from all the sex. That he is constantly having with everyone. And her sister. Or brother."

"Oh, that," says Liam. He tries to think how to be encouraging. "Well, I'm sure he'd have sex with you, too." Somehow this suggestion doesn't sound as flattering as he meant it to.

"Not interested," says Niall, gesturing grandly with his pint. "Wouldn't if you paid me."

"But I thought—" Liam starts.

"Nope," says Niall. "Not like that."

Liam grabs Niall's glass away from him before he sends it flying into the wall. He sets it down on the bar instead. "You don't like him anymore?"

"Like him too much," says Niall, suddenly serious.

Liam pats him on the shoulder. "You could tell him how you feel."

Niall goes into a fit of laughter. "Seriously? Yeah, no, I couldn't."

"Why not?" says Liam.

Niall just shakes his head. His cheeks are if possible even redder than before. "It's okay, Liam. I'll get over it."

 

*

 

"Told you Harry was good," Perrie says to Liam before the Monday meeting starts.

"He's fine," Liam says. "Only I thought Niall was the one who really nailed it."

Perrie just laughs. "You and your friends, Liam. There's you four and then there's the rest of the world."

"Well," says Liam, and thinks about this. "Yes?"

"You're one to talk," Niall tells Perrie, gesturing to Jesy and Jade and Leigh-Anne. "But we like Harry. Don't we, Liam?"

"Sure," says Liam, who's not sure at all.

When the meeting starts, Harry's treated like a king. Liam's feeling a bit exasperated in general so when people start suggesting Thursday motions having to do with tattoos and reality television and who knows what, Liam insists if they're to prepare properly for intervarsities they've got to debate something halfway relevant some of the time. Finally they decide on This House Would Legalize Prostitution, which manages to please both the people who like debating about civil liberties and the people who like debating about sex.

Liam is picked this time, but not Louis or Niall. The last name called is Harry's. From the grotty armchair he's sprawled on, Harry gives Liam a lazy smile. "It's on," he says.

In the week that follows, Liam researches brothels in Amsterdam, goes to his politics seminar, helps Louis paint the walls of Zayn and Niall's kitchen bright green ("as a happy surprise," Louis explains), and discovers that Harry attends Dr. Higgins's politics lectures too.

"But that's brilliant, Li!" says Louis when he hears. "You're always moaning about how none of us is on the same course as you."

"None of you," agrees Liam. "I wasn't missing a Harry."

Louis pokes his finger at Liam's forehead. "You just need to beat him once, mate, then you'll feel better."

"But Ed might put us on the same side."

"Liam," says Louis. "I was joking."

As it happens, Ed puts Liam on opposition and Harry on proposition, smiling sweetly at them both. "See, this is how all debates should begin," Harry says, before they all go off for their fifteen minutes of prep. "With the blessing of the bartender."

"My kind of lad," says Ed, and really. It's not actually necessary for Harry to be adored by every single person he meets, is it?

But apparently that's a minority opinion, because once again the audience loves Harry. And it's not that Liam minds losing, exactly. It's just that he'd prefer not to lose to someone so new. Someone who talks so slowly that it sounds like he's saying something serious and important even when it's just bollocks. Someone who keeps looking at Liam while Liam is delivering his opposition summary.

The thing is, losing his cool in a debate is not a thing Liam does. Liam is smooth, everyone always says that. He's fast without sounding rushed, he's got a way of always seeming like he's the reasonable one, he doesn't meander about with "ums" and "uhs," and he does a fair bit of prep so he's always got something to say. There's no reason this night should be any different, but from the beginning he feels the crowd's a bit against him. Maybe because Harry is what some would consider ridiculously charming during his proposition extension. Not that there's anything wrong with being charming; Liam doesn't mind admitting that that there are occasions when Louis, for example, gets by on pure cheek. But it's Harry's first debate here, after all, and surely he should be using hard facts to explain how licensed brothels could increase tax revenue, not drawling something about being sex-positive while running his hand through his hair, smiling lazily as if he's about to offer a personal demonstration.

Eventually it's Liam's turn, and he rises with confidence to summarize all of his side's best points and politely but firmly expose everything that the proposition had to say as rubbish. He's only just started taking Jade's argument apart when Harry rises for a point of information. Surely it's a bit soon for that to be quite sporting? Liam waves him back down with a "no thank you" that has more edge to it than he intended. Harry's eyes widen and he sits down with a bit of a flourish. Making a show of it, thinks Liam, and tries to recapture his train of thought. Not losing his way was the main reason he didn't want to be interrupted, but now he's distracted anyway. He checks his notes and manages to dispense a bit haltingly with Jade, and then it's time to rebut Harry.

"According to the government—" he starts, and then stops. Because he can't remember a single word of what Harry had said. Oh, he can remember very clearly what Harry had looked like standing there with his inappropriately thin t-shirt and his jeans slung low on his hips, but what he had actually said? An utter blank.

"The proposition claims—" Liam begins again, hoping Harry's speech will come flooding back, but it doesn't. He looks down at his notes and oh, look, he apparently stopped taking notes after scribbling ware a belt why dont you which isn't much help at all. It's possible that Harry didn't actually say anything and instead stood there for six minutes silently hypnotizing everyone with his hair, but that doesn't seem likely.

He looks across the table at Jade and Rebecca and JJ's confused faces. They don't expect any stumbles or hesitation from Liam. Harry gives him a little nod and smile, as if he's trying to be encouraging. This makes Liam want to punch him in the face, so he pulls himself together and says "The government claims that legalizing prostitution is a matter of individual freedom," because that was probably what Harry ought to have said, anyway, "but I ask you, how freeing is it to chain countless young women to lives of exploitation?" Liam can tell even as the words are leaving his mouth how pompous and awkward they sound, and now he just wants to get the whole thing over as soon as possible. He takes a point of information from JJ, finishes rebuttals, and then does his best to summarize the opposition. He's probably giving short shrift to Leigh-Anne and Cher and Josh, but he just can't seem to get his flow back. When he rests his argument, the audience applauds politely, but he's not a bit surprised when most of them (except for Louis, bless his loyalty) troop out the "ayes" door.

"I'm sorry," Liam says to the rest of the opposition. It's embarrassing; being on Liam Payne's side is supposed to double your chances at a win. "Lost my concentration or something."

Leigh-Anne shrugs. "Just practice, innit? No worries, Liam."

"Still," mutters Liam. There's the proposition side, coming over to their table to shake hands. He does his best to smile.

"Liam did it on purpose," Cher tells Harry. "Cheap bastard just doesn't want to buy his own drinks."

And it's fine, of course: Ed makes a big show of being shocked when he sees Liam's side hasn't won and everyone treats it like a bizarre and hilarious aberration, so Liam decides it must be. He's still not thrilled to see that it's Harry who's making his way through the crowd with Liam's Coke.

"Congratulations," says Liam, because he tries to be a good sport.

Harry shrugs. "Beginner's luck." He holds up Liam's glass. "They told me you wanted a Coke, but they were just taking the piss, right? I can go back and get you a proper drink."

Liam sighs. "No, it's okay. I don't drink."

"Oh." Harry's eyes get wider. He hands the glass to Liam and their fingers brush for a moment.

"It's a health thing, sort of," starts Liam, and then corrects himself. "I mean it was. Now I guess it's just—habit."

Harry doesn't shriek in disbelief or look at him like he ought to be sectioned, which Liam appreciates. He just nods and says, "Did you know we've a lecture together?"

"No," Liam lies. There are tons of students in Contemporary Political Thought. Liam doesn't particularly feel like admitting that before the last lecture he'd heard Harry's rumbling voice from three rows away and slid a little lower in his seat.

"Yeah!" says Harry, as if he's delivering specially wonderful news. "I saw you there on Tuesday. We could, like, study together sometime. If you wanted."

"Um…okay," says Liam.

Harry flashes him a grin as if they've just made a standing date to collaborate on all their essays until the end of term. "So I'll see you Monday, then, Liam, all right?"

"Right," says Liam, looking down at Harry's hand on his arm and wondering why it's there. Before he can figure it out, Harry's walking away.

 

*

 

Niall and Zayn and Louis and Liam are on the lawn a few days later. They don't like to waste a sunny October day indoors. Well, Zayn probably wouldn't mind, thinks Liam, but that's why it's a good thing he's got Niall to drag him out of the flat. Now Zayn is texting while Louis is pulling up bits of clover and trying to braid them into the new blond streak in his hair. Liam has his politics textbook in his lap and is highlighting things in orange. Niall is doing a dramatic reading of an article in the student newspaper:

NEW STAR RISING IN DEBATE SOC
By Sugar Fields

Euros here we come! Transfer student Harry Styles is shaking things up at Debate Soc with his sly grin and deep-voiced delivery. He's gone two for two at the ever-popular Thursday Fight Nights, delivering two crushing proposition victories in two weeks' time.

"He did have a bit of help with that," says Zayn, without looking up. Niall nudges him appreciatively with his foot and goes on reading.

Approving onlookers are speculating that Styles may just be what our Soc needs to take its game all the way to the national Mace and beyond.

"He's dreamy," commented second-year economics student and debate fan Lizzie Barnes, noting that she had succeeded in bringing three of her friends ("They hate debate usually!") to the most recent Fight Night due to Styles's presence.

"But last term she told me I was dreamy," puts in Louis.

"Whatever," says Niall. "She told me I was dreamiest. Top that."

Zayn looks up from his phone. "Harry's fit. Almost got off with him at that party where we met, but some postgrad got there first."

"Serves you right," says Niall, and goes back to reading.

But to put our Soc on the map, Styles will need a regular competition partner, and no one knows who the lucky lady or gent will be. One thing's sure, erstwhile Debating Soc star Liam Payne won't be available.

"What?" says Liam, forgetting that he's pretending to ignore Niall. "What does 'erstwhile' mean?"

"It means 'talented,'" says Louis. "Shut up and let Niall read."

"Louis [Tomlinson] and I are a team," was all Payne would say when asked whether he'd consider joining forces with his new rival. Tomlinson was more forthcoming, noting "Harry's a lovely lad though," before hurrying after Payne.

There was a pause. "I will kill you, Louis," says Liam. "I will kill you with my mind and my hands and, and, and my teeth."

Louis reaches over and pinches Liam's nipple. Liam is normally a pacifist, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and Louis shouldn't attack him when he's got an orange highlighter to hand. He's got most of "Im a luvly luvly lad" written on Louis's forehead by the time Zayn reaches over and shoves him, waving his phone.

"That's not actually what erstwhile means," says Zayn. "I just looked it up."

"Shut up, Zayn," says Louis. "Not helpful." He begins rubbing at his forehead.

Niall puts down the newspaper. "I don't care, I still like him. You know how Sugar is, you can't blame him for what she writes." He pours some of his water bottle over Louis's head, to help with the graffiti removal.

"Who's blaming him?" asks Liam. "I'm not blaming him! Why would I care!" He can hear his voice getting embarrassingly loud.

"Ssshhh," soothes Louis, looking happier now that he's got most of the orange off his face. "C'mere, Liam, put your head in my lap."

"Why don't you just go molest your lovely lad instead," Liam grumps, but he does anyway.

Louis puts his hands in Liam's hair. "I still love you best," Louis says. Liam tries to pretend like that doesn't make him feel better.

 

*

 

In the back row of his lecture hall on Tuesday, Liam is trying his best to pay attention to Contemporary Political Thought. It's a bit difficult when he can see the top of Harry's head just two rows down. He's pretty sure Harry's spent most of the lecture passing notes to the girls on either side of him. Not that he cares if Harry's trying to get off with one of them. Or both of them, which wouldn't be so terribly unlikely, according to what he's been hearing. For some reason Louis has made it his personal mission to report on any Harry-related gossip, as if Liam actually wants to know. When the fact is, Liam's got a very difficult seminar this term, and all right, debate is important too, as long as it's actually debate and not just hearing about who saw Harry doing what at which party last week. Last term, when Liam was dating Danielle, he'd spent far too much time skiving off. Over the summer, tending his broken heart, he'd decided that this term was going to be different. And when everyone else finally realizes how overrated Harry is, Liam is sure it will be.

Liam goes back to copying down the chart of political theories from the whiteboard. Dr. Higgins is saying something absolutely fascinating about participatory democracy in developing countries. Liam gets as far as writing down partisipate democ- when he hears a stifled giggle from below. He can't help looking over, and there's Harry, whispering something in a girl's ear. Liam grits his teeth and slumps back in his seat. From now on he will look only at the lecturer. Or the clock. Twenty minutes to go. Threat of oligarchy, he writes in his notebook, looking back at the board to make sure he's spelling everything right. It's a long twenty minutes.

Finally it's over, and everyone is streaming out of the lecture hall. Liam's just going when he hears a voice behind him.

"Liam! Wait a tick, will you?"

It's impossible to mistake that gravelly voice. Liam takes a deep breath and turns around. There's Harry hurrying toward him, holding far too many books and papers in his arms instead of carrying a bag like a normal person, and—there's Harry tripping on the edge of the carpet. He goes down hard, landing on his bum, and everything he's holding scatters.

"Oh my god! Are you all right?" Liam snaps into emergency cleanup mode. This is a mode that being best mates with Louis, Niall, and Zayn has helped him perfect.

Harry looks more surprised than hurt, though. "I'm fine. Just clumsy." He clambers to his knees and inspects himself. "Ow, my arse."

Liam rips his eyes away from where Harry seems to be feeling himself up and starts picking up papers. "Oh, let me do that," says Harry, reaching for his politics textbook. Except that Liam's reaching for it at the same time and they collide.

"Okay, this is ridiculous," laughs Harry, looking up at Liam from where he's ended up back on the floor. "Help me up."

"Absolutely not," says Liam, surprising himself. "You stay there till I've got your things sorted. It's not safe for you to move about."

"Yes, Liam," says Harry. He's clowning, obviously, but he doesn't move to get up. He just sort of watches Liam while Liam picks up the rest of his stuff. It makes Liam feel a bit weird. He reminds himself that he's just being a nice guy. It's what he does.

Finally Liam plunks everything down on a desk and puts out his hand to Harry. Harry takes it and lets Liam pull him to his feet. "Thanks for rescuing me," he says. They're standing pretty close together. Harry's eyes are awfully green.

"If you two are quite finished," says Dr. Higgins. Liam realizes that everyone else is gone and they've been blocking their exasperated lecturer from leaving the room. His face goes hot and he stumbles back from Harry.

"See you," he mumbles, and gets away as quickly as possible. He thinks he hears Harry calling something after him, but he doesn't stop to find out.

 

*

 

That night, Liam ends up on Zayn and Niall's sofa drafting an essay, while Zayn sprawls on the rug with his phone in one hand and a worn paperback of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in the other.

Liam says, "Zayn. 'Approaches to Strengthening Democratic Institutions in Developing Countries,' or 'Democratic Institutions: How Ought They Be Strengthened?'"

Zayn says, "'People Who are Doing Important Things: How to Leave Them Alone.'"

Liam looks over at him. "Zayn, you're on your mobile."

Zayn rolls over onto his back. "These are educational texts, mate."

"Right," says Liam. "Like, if there are five first-years who want to shag you next Tuesday, and each requires 37 minutes of your time—"

Zayn throws his book at Liam. "It's not maths, it's psychology. I'm helping someone deal with, like, anxiety. Possibly sexual frustration as well."

Liam takes a deep breath. "Is it Niall?"

Zayn looks at him strangely. "Our Niall? Anxious?"

"Well, actually," says Liam, "I’ve been meaning to—"

"It's Harry," Zayn cuts in before Liam can finish. "Hold it a sec while I text him back. 'Just come over he's here right now.' There, that ought to do it."

"What?" Liam is not sure when all his friends decided to start hating him. "Am I 'he'? Did you just invite Harry Styles to this flat? What is actually wrong with you, Zayn?"

"Nothing!" says Zayn. "He's a perfectly nice person! Why are you being so weird?"

"Why are you texting about me to him?" Liam jumps up and starts getting his stuff together. "I'm getting out of here before he shows up."

Zayn makes a lunge for Liam's ankles. "You are not. You're the reason he's coming over. If you disappear I'll look like a complete twat."

"You're a twat anyway!" Liam howls, and starts hopping for the door with Zayn hanging on to his legs.

"Don't you," gasps Zayn, dodging Liam's kicks, "want to know what he was texting about?"

Liam pauses and thinks about this. Thinks about Harry in the lecture hall, sprawled on the floor and waiting for him. He's just decided that he absolutely, definitely does not want to know when the doorbell rings.

Zayn leaps to his feet. "Excuse me," he says with great dignity, "I believe I have a guest."

"I hate you," says Liam.

Zayn kisses him on the cheek on his way to the door. "Well, I love you."

Then Zayn's ushering Harry in. He's wearing some kind of beanie and jeans that are too tight, probably because of his desperate need for attention.

"Hey," says Harry. "Sorry to barge in on you lads like this."

"Nah, you're not barging!" says Zayn. "Ask Liam."

Liam drops back onto the sofa in defeat. "Hi, Harry. Zayn and Niall's flat is your flat."

"Defo," says Zayn. "I'll make tea." He pats Liam on the head on the way to the kitchen.

"Did you actually want tea?" Liam asks Harry.

"Sure!" says Harry, dropping onto the sofa next to him. "I was actually just down the pub around the corner with some people, but—"

"Might as well stay hydrated!" says Liam. He's trying to be extremely nice so that Zayn has nothing to complain about, but now he's concerned that he actually just sounds like a maniac. He gestures to his laptop. "Well, I was just about to—"

"Stay for a minute," says Harry. "I wanted to talk to you before, but you ran away."

"No, I didn't!" Oh, god. "I mean, I just had something else I had to, well. Anyway."

"Yeah," says Harry. "Um, look. The thing is, there was this rubbish article in the student newspaper that mentioned me, and, like, I don't know if you saw it?"

"Definitely not," says Liam quickly. "Yeah, definitely not."

"Oh," says Harry. "Because I thought Zayn said—fuck, it doesn't matter. So it made me sound like an utter wanker and there was some shite about you, and look. Just—I had nothing to do with it and, like, you just really shouldn't read it."

Liam stares at him. "Okay. I mean, I won't."

"Tea!" yells Zayn, and comes out with actual teacups on an actual tray.

Harry doesn't appear to find this as mad as Liam does. He thanks Zayn enthusiastically. Liam does not.

Zayn plops himself comfortably down on the rug. "You've got Sugar's article sorted then?" He turns to Harry. "Told you he didn't hate you."

"He didn't even read it!" Harry says.

"Really," says Zayn, raising an eyebrow at Liam. "Lucky, that."

Harry says, "I would've hated me."

"Nah," says Zayn. "He says he hates me, actually, but I know it's lies." He leans back against Liam's legs.

Liam manages a weak smile. "Can we just…talk about Chelsea or something?"

"You can talk about Chelsea with Louis, though," objects Zayn. "I want to talk about Niall. Where is he? He's never around anymore." He points accusingly at Niall's guitar, abandoned in a corner.

"Revising?" suggests Liam. "Maybe the library?"

Zayn bonks his head against Liam's knee. "This is Nialler, Li. And the term's just begun. The only one who's started taking it seriously is you."

Liam sighs. "Well, you do tend to be a bit…social. Maybe he assumes you wouldn't mind the flat to yourself of an evening."

"Just because I like to meet new people," says Zayn, sounding a bit injured.

Harry bites his lip and grins. "I do remember you being quite friendly at that party."

Zayn promptly sticks out his tongue at Harry. Harry wiggles his eyebrows. The thing is, when Liam started the evening, watch Harry Styles flirt with Zayn was not on the to-do list. It makes him feel a bit tired.

"Anyway," says Zayn, "that's not the point. The point is I am entitled to see my flatmate every once in a while, and he is ignoring me. The point is do you think he's getting off with someone?"

Liam can't meet Zayn's eyes. Should he say yes in hopes that it makes Zayn jealous, or should he say no because he's a terrible liar? He tries to think what Louis would say. Louis would think of something clever, of course. "I—don't know?" Liam says, falling a bit short. Then he realizes he can be clever too. "Would it bother you if he was?"

Zayn puts his cup down on the floor. "Why would it?"

"Wow," says Harry, looking from Zayn to Liam. "Everyone here is communicating in the form of questions."

"Yes!" says Zayn. "And you're breaking the rules, aren't you?"

"Am I?" says Harry, and he and Zayn both crack up.

Liam watches Harry and Zayn ask each other increasingly ridiculous questions for a while. He was going to try to outlast Harry so that if Zayn has any plans on pulling tonight, he'll be thwarted. Niall doesn't need to come home to that. But he really is tired, and he's beginning to realize that Harry's not going anywhere. "So," says Liam. "I'm going to head back, it's getting kind of late."

Surprisingly, Harry jumps right up. "I'll walk you."

Liam expects Zayn to object, but he just yawns and starts tidying tea things. "Night, lads. I'll just be here sleeping alone. Because little-known fact, I do that sometimes."

"Your life, so hard," says Harry.

"We can't all be so dreamy," says Zayn. "Oh, I forgot, Liam didn't read that article."

"Okay then!" Liam says. "Night, Zayn! Say hi to Niall for me!"

"You say hi to Niall," says Zayn morosely. "You'll probably see him first."

When Liam steps outside, the breeze feels good on his face and neck. No one's on the street, but he can hear some faint shouts and laughter from the pub around the corner. He's not sure how he came to be walking along with Harry Styles at this hour of the night, but it's not entirely awful.

Harry speaks first. "Um," he says. "I’m really glad we got the chance to talk because—"

"It's no problem," blurts Liam. He has to stop interrupting like this, but Harry talks painfully slowly sometimes, and it makes him nervous, waiting around for him to finish whatever he was planning to say. And also he really doesn't want to start talking about the article and debating and whatever all over again.

But Harry just nods and his hip bumps against Liam's a little. "So, you totally know where Niall is, right? Because Zayn was a little weird about it, and I got the feeling there was a lot you weren't saying."

Damn. Harry's kind of smart, Liam thinks. But this really isn't something that he gets to know about. So he says, "It's really not your—I mean, it's not exactly that I—"

Harry puts up a hand. "Whoa. It's okay. I get it."

He looks so regretful that Liam hears himself saying, "I think he went to a film with Louis, actually." Why is he so incapable of remaining firm when it comes to Harry? It's embarrassing.

Harry's quiet for a minute, and then he says, "You two live together, right?"

"We have a flat on the Memorial Road, past the station," says Liam.

"I can walk you home, then," says Harry. "I'm on Hawthorn Street."

Liam nods. "Okay." They turn a corner.

Harry zips up his hoodie. "You and Louis—" he says. "Okay, I'll just ask. Are you and Louis a couple?"

Liam rolls his eyes. "We get that a lot, but no."

"Right," says Harry. "Are you sure? I mean, it kind of seemed like—"

"I know," says Liam, "but we're just mates." And suddenly Liam thinks, for some reason, of Niall having the bad luck to start fancying Zayn last term, and of Harry and Zayn flirting with each other, and how the worst thing in the world would be Harry pulling Zayn and helping to break Niall's heart. Which is when Liam has an absolutely brilliant thought. The kind of thought that usually leads to a killer opening argument in a debate, except those don't usually give him a pain between the eyes. Liam says it anyway. "And yes, Louis's single. If that's why you were asking."

There's a pause, in which Liam ignores his fresh new headache.

"What?" says Harry. "No!"

"Okay," says Liam. Now he feels nettled on behalf of Louis. Harry doesn't have to act so aghast. "I mean, Louis is pretty amazing, you could do a lot worse." They're only a block away from his flat now, and Liam speeds up.

"Liam," says Harry. "You're missing something here."

Oh, now he's gone and offended Harry. "Well," says Liam. "I mean I saw you with that girl you were sitting next to, but I thought from something Zayn said that you did date blokes also, but I guess not? And I understand why you're feeling a bit prickly, because no one likes being misunderstood, but there's really no call to be insulting."

"Whoa," says Harry. "Okay, slow down."

"No," says Liam, and now he's feeling the rush of words the way he does sometimes when he steps up to the lectern and begins to speak. "I am not going to say this at your sort of pace because this is important. I mean, if you are going to be spending time with me and my friends, we just all feel kind of strongly that it's fine to fancy anyone you like. So I can't have you getting upset just because I mention Louis." Liam looks over to measure the impact he's having on Harry. Harry's just kind of staring at him open-mouthed.

They're at the door to his flat now, and Liam thinks he probably ought to extend an olive branch. "Not that there's anything wrong with being straight, either," he offers. "It's fine! I'm straight too." And then he's hurrying up the steps, calling "Night, Harry!" as he goes. He needs a paracetamol straightaway.

"…night," says Harry softly, behind him.

 

*

 

Liam wanders into Louis's room after he's taken a couple of pills and finds him lying on his bed reading, cozy in pyjamas and reindeer slippers, fringe flopping over his forehead. Liam drops down beside him and puts his head on the Superman-print pillow.

Louis reaches over and pats his cheek, but keeps reading. Liam hands him a bookmark from the bedside table and waits for Louis to finish his paragraph and slip it in. When he's pushed the book away, Louis lets his head drop down on Liam's shoulder. "How was it at Zayn's?"

"We mostly worked. Well, I did. Zayn asked about Niall, said he hadn't been around."

"He noticed! I told Niall he'd notice."

"He wasn't happy about it either, said Niall was ignoring him or something like that. I didn't say you'd stolen Niall for the evening. Where is Niall, anyway?"

"On his way back to Zayn." Louis rolls over on his side to face Liam. "This whole make-Zayn-jealous plan better work, Li. I had to spend the whole evening listening to Niall alternate between talking about Zayn's eyelashes and that one time he walked in on Zayn on his knees giving Aiden head."

"You must have found that revolting," Liam observes.

"Yes," says Louis, "because he doesn't even give details, he just whimpers. I mean, I've asked just so I can properly understand the situation, but he won't even tell me if Aiden had his kit off, it's just all Zayn'll never want meeeeeee like that and so on."

Liam ignores the first part of this complaint, as it deserves. "But Niall will never know for sure if he won't tell Zayn how he feels. You should have heard Zayn tonight, he might mess about a lot but I swear he was upset that Niall was gone again. Even Harry—"

Oops. Liam snaps his mouth shut, but it's too late.

"What," says Louis immediately. "Even Harry what. You've been spending time with Harry Styles?"

"No!" says Liam, but Louis makes a move toward his nipple with thumb and forefinger, so he can tell that outright denial is not going to work. "Not as such. He may possibly have come round to Zayn's while I was there."

Louis's jaw drops. "Oh, poor Niall, but I can't help thinking, Zayn's incredible, isn't he? How does he pull them so fast?"

"Uh-uh," says Liam. "That's not happening."

"Oh, because Harry's your nemesis?" Louis rolls his eyes.

"No, because he's straight," says Liam, trying to sound matter-of-fact. He really doesn't want to get into telling Louis how he knows this.

Louis looks surprised. "So, just a cocktease, then."

"A person is not a cocktease just because he has dimples," Liam explains. Not that he wants to be defending Harry, but still.

"Thank you, Liam," says Louis. "I am so glad I have a heterosexual to clear these things up for me. Would you please ask Harry to wear a paper bag over his head then? I don't ask on behalf of myself, but it would make things easier for my people."

"Is that how it works," says Liam. "So maybe if Zayn just shaves his eyelashes, then Niall—"

"Won't work," interrupts Louis, "because he'd still have the cheekbones. Okay, new idea. We just tell Zayn that he should stop being an idiot and notice what's right there in front of him playing sad love songs on a guitar."

Liam sits bolt upright. "Don't you dare, Louis. You can't say anything. Niall made us promise."

Louis throws up his hands. "Fine! Excuse me for wanting my friends to be happy!"

Liam shrugs. "I just don't want to be murdered in my sleep by a little blond demon. And I wouldn't like it if you were either."

"You do need me for debate," Louis agrees. "Unless you want to dump me for Harry. Since you're such good friends now and all."

Liam answers this properly, with a Superman pillow to the face.

 

*

 

As it turns out, Harry isn't looking for a debate partner anymore anyway. At the next meeting, when Niall ought to be flopping all over him and Louis and complaining about Zayn, he's talking with Harry and Aiden in a corner instead. Then Aiden announces that he's dropping the soc for this term at least, because apparently he'd rather concentrate on his drawing portfolio than argue about things.

"Aiden needs less conflict in his life," Niall explains to the group, looking oddly unbothered by the loss of a partner.

"Which means more conflict for me!" Harry adds, smiling angelically.

"Partners!" agrees Niall, and they high-five.

Liam blinks. When did Niall and Harry start secretly meeting and organizing themselves into a team? Everyone's calling out congratulations, as if Niall and Harry have just gotten engaged or something.

"This is brilliant," hisses Louis into his ear. "Niall will be spending all his time with Harry and Zayn will die."

Liam nods. It's really the only thing that makes Niall joining up with Harry even halfway acceptable. Then he thinks of something. "You mustn't tell Zayn he's actually straight. It would ruin the effect."

"Boys," says Perrie. "We were discussing how you two are booked for the Finchester intervarsity this weekend, but if you'd rather just whisper or whatever it is you call that, me and Leigh-Anne'd love to take your place."

"Sorry, Perrie," says Liam. "We're going, yeah."

Perrie says, "Fine. And Niall, it was to be you and Aiden, so…Harry, you'll be going instead?"

Niall says, "It'll be brilliant, yeah? All of us going together."

"Defo!" Louis agrees, stamping on Liam's toes. Obediently, Liam mumbles agreement.

"Can't wait," says Harry, grinning at them as if he's not cross at Liam at all for the scolding Liam gave him. Not that he has any reason to be, because Liam's pretty sure he was diplomatic. Ish. Well, anyway, it was important, and Liam refuses to feel awkward about it. So he looks up to meet Harry's eyes, and this time it's Harry who looks away first.

 

*

 

Liam would probably be feeling a bit nervous if the effort of getting Louis staggering to the train this early in the morning hadn't demanded all his attention. Still, going away for tournaments has gotten a lot easier now that he and Louis are flatmates. When they were in separate accommodation their first year, getting Louis up and out the door on time was a grueling process of text-messages and phone calls and inevitably having to go bang on his door and wake up half his hall. Now he can personally drag Louis out of bed, plaster a beanie on his head, and drag him out the door without allowing him anywhere near a hair product. Really, it's a far more efficient process.

Liam knows how to cope with Niall on an away weekend too: you show up with extra packets of crisps and Maltesers for the train ride and he's so grateful he practically purrs. Harry, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity. He might be the studious sort who wants to prepare, or he might just want to nap. Not that Liam's going to fret about it. He hopes Harry and Niall do well, for the honor of the uni, but he and Louis most likely won't be in rounds with them anyway.

On the train they sit opposite each other, Liam and Niall facing Louis and Harry, and Liam pulls out copies of the Economist and the Guardian and the Times to trade around. For competitions, you don't know the motions in advance, so you've got to be prepared for anything. Okay, he can't honestly say he's going to read the articles all the way to the end, but the headlines help, and after the motions are announced he and Louis will have a whole fifteen minutes to confer about anything they're a bit shaky on. They sleepily scan the papers. Liam suggests they test each other's knowledge, but Louis says it's a lovely idea and they ought to start with geography challenge so that's the end of that. Really, Liam's never yet had a motion where knowing the location of various South American countries was crucial to his argument.

Through all this Harry is perfectly friendly and not a bit phobic. Liam hadn't known what to expect, and he's been holding a certain amount of withering disapproval in reserve in case he needs to bring it out, but in fact Harry's getting on like a house afire with Louis and Niall both. By the time the train's been rattling on for half an hour, Harry is stealing biscuits from Niall, and Niall is letting him. Which is probably because Niall is sleepy and he's off his game, but still. Then when Harry trips and falls as he shuffles past Louis to get to the aisle, he seems to linger in Louis's lap for longer than is strictly necessary. He even has his eyes on Liam when he does it, as if to show Liam he doesn't mind a bit. And if all this still makes Liam feel a little uneasy, well, it's competition nerves. Everyone's got those.

Liam's just closing his eyes for a bit of a nap when he hears Harry asking why they all debate—"because I'm doing a law course but something tells me you're not all headed for the courts"—and Louis explains that Liam enjoys the sound of his own voice.

Liam says "That's you, mate," and tells Harry he likes being able to see both sides of a question.

"Me too," says Harry, "but in the end I'd rather debate for the side I actually agree with. Like, if I'm putting a proposition and I think it's all bollocks, I never do as well."

"You'd be a rubbish barrister, then," Niall decides.

Harry winces. "It's a problem, yeah. But that's why I'm here, I've got to get better at it."

"Watch me and learn," says Louis. "I love debating for the wrong side."

"Because you love talking nonsense," Liam says fondly.

Louis throws the Economist at him. "Because it's easier keeping a clear head that way."

"Maybe you should be the barrister," suggests Harry to Louis.

Louis snorts. "Not interested in doing anything that useful, I'm afraid. I'll leave that to future MP Liam Payne."

"I don't know about that," says Liam, because yes, he thought so once, but recently he's not been so sure.

Harry leans forward. "You ought to be. You'd be able to push for the things that matter. Maybe make real changes. And people would listen to you."

"Because our Liam's so fiery and all?" Niall sounds dubious.

"Well," says Harry. "I'm sure he's got issues he cares about." He raises his eyebrows at Liam.

Louis looks from Liam to Harry. He's got that thoughtful look on his face, which is always a danger sign. "Of course entrance to Parliament might require a spelling test, in which case Liam's out of luck."

"No way," says Harry. "There's something he's not good at?"

"Liam's spelling is legendary," says Niall.

"I can't believe you don't know this yet," says Louis. "Everyone's got at least three texts from Liam that they're planning to save forever."

"Sentimental value?" asks Harry.

Louis rolls his eyes. "Please. No, for blackmail. Go on, message him, Liam. Lad needs a demonstration."

Liam says, "Um. Haven't got his number."

"Give me your mobile, sunshine," says Louis to Harry. Harry gives Liam an apologetic shrug and hands it over. Louis hunches over it and begins tapping madly. "I'm putting in me and Liam both, you've got Zayn and Niall already obviously—"

Then Liam's mobile is ringing in his pocket. He rolls his eyes and pulls it out. "Hallo Louis, how are you today then."

"This is Harry speaking," says Louis politely. "I know this is crazy, but would you text me maybe?" Niall cracks up. Louis hands Harry his phone back.

Liam tries to pack as much exasperation as possible into his sigh, and then begins typing.

Ummmmm the tommos actualy an idiot for got to tell you before

Across from him Harry looks at his phone and snorts.

"What did I say? What did I say?" Louis crows.

"It's not that bad," says Harry, already tapping away.

Liam's phone vibrates. I think you're both lovely lads .xx

Ridiculously, Liam can actually feel himself blushing. Louis snatches the phone and starts howling. "Sugar's article! Oh Harry, you've no idea how much shit he's given me for telling her that."

"I knew he read it," says Harry, eyeing Liam smugly.

"I was the one read it to him," volunteers Niall. Because apparently he wants to make it worse.

"Is that one x for each of us?" Louis wants to know. "Or are they both for Liam?"

Jumping out the window would likely be dangerous, so instead Liam sinks down in his seat a few more inches instead and puts a magazine in front of his face. "Excuse me while I read the Economist," he says.

"Aw Liam," says Louis. "Don't be mad."

"I'm not," says Liam. "I'm just concerned about the future of the Eurozone."

Liam reads about the bailout for 45 seconds before his phone buzzes again.

sorry I always say the wrong thing…

Liam very carefully does not look up as he types. He can feel Louis and Niall's eyes on him.

sorry I lyed about not reading itt

The response is swift.

I don't care, whatever! Are we ok?

Liam looks up, sees Harry's eyes peeking over the top of the Guardian. He bites his lip and nods. Harry's eyes crinkle and Liam can't see it, but knows he's smiling in that way he has where it lights up his whole face.

"I'm not going to ask," says Louis. "There's a time for prying and there's a time for Angry Birds."

"And a time for tea," says Niall. "No one's been round for ages." Liam hooks his elbow around Niall's neck and yanks him into a hug. Everyone should be lucky enough have friends who know how and when to change the subject.

 

*

 

It's a quick walk from the railway station and they go to drop off their things first. According to reception, accommodation is a unused room in a hall of residence that's under renovation. It's bare and dusty and holds one bed and too many dressers. They try playing rock-paper-scissors for the bed before getting hopelessly confused by having too many players. Then while they're arguing about whether to switch to bracketed coin-flipping or have a headstand competition, Niall makes a dive for the bed and refuses to get up. Following which Louis makes a dive for Niall and refuses to get up, and before long the mattress is on the floor, along with most of Louis's things, and they're in danger of being late for their first rounds.

Liam and Louis come in second in their first round, which is still a lot nicer than being ranked third or fourth, and when they all find each other at lunchtime, it turns out that Harry and Niall have won their round. Liam congratulates Harry with sincere enthusiasm. He and Louis do have respectable scores and it's quite nice when Harry winning means that Niall wins too. They eat awful canteen food, as there isn't time between rounds for a walk anywhere else, and Harry steals chips off other people's plates, which is a stage of intimacy Liam wouldn't have thought they were ready for. Niall turns out to be capable of blocking Harry with one hand and texting with the other. "Zayn says good luck, everyone," Niall reports.

"Awwwww," says Louis, and ruffles Niall's hair.

Liam's already sent his own Miss youuuuuu text to Zayn himself. He does wish Zayn would join the soc, but as long as competitions involve getting up early, it's not going to happen.

On the next round, Liam and Louis are first, and in their own round, Harry and Niall are second. Liam begins to suspect they'll all break into quarterfinals. When Louis and Liam are done with their third round of the day (first again), Harry and Niall are still stuck in their round, and Louis decides they ought to go watch.

The motion seems to be about whether VAT increases constitute class warfare, because when Louis and Liam sneak noiselessly as possible into the back of the room to watch, Niall is plaintively representing the plight of the everyday working man who just wants his pasty. The opposition speaker who goes next is a bit of a bore, but then Harry makes the closing argument. By the end of it, he's a bit breathless but still raspily sincere. Liam hasn't seen enough of the debate to know who's the likely winner, but Harry's good, he really is. It's not that he's especially eloquent, or even particularly articulate. It's the earnestness. He doesn't look like he's trying to score points; he looks like he's honestly perplexed that anyone could possibly disagree with him.

The judges shoo everyone out to the tab room, and a few minutes later results are in: Harry and Niall have placed first, and they've all broken to the next day's quarterfinals.

 

*

 

By the time they're back from the three different pubs the Finchester soc had insisted on dragging them to, Liam's quite happy to be back at base, even if base is wretched student accommodation with one lonely mattress lying on the floor. He unrolls his sleeping bag next to the mattress, only half-listening to Louis natter on to Harry.

"We haven't slept with you before," Louis is saying, "so naturally we're all a bit nervous and we'll have to be gentle with each other."

"That means no food-stealing," says Niall, because apparently he's run out of patience with Harry's habits at some point over the course of the day.

"Also," says Louis, "in the interests of full disclosure, I should warn you that Liam will likely be sleeping without his shirt. It's disgraceful, but Niall and I are hardened to it. We do try to set a better example."

Liam rolls his eyes and gets up to brush his teeth.

"Oh," says Harry. "I generally just don't wear anything to bed."

"Bad," says Louis. "Very bad. Obviously Niall and I disapprove, but it's probably too late to request alternative accommodation."

"Harry, I hope you didn't actually want to get any sleep tonight," calls Liam from the bathroom. "Because Louis was intending to talk all night long. Me, I don't hear it any longer, but some people do like a bit of quiet after midnight."

"I'll just put my sleeping bag over by you then," Harry calls back.

"In that case you'll have to at least wear pants," says Louis. "Like I said. We try to be gentle."

"Hit him for me, please, Niall," calls Liam through a mouthful of froth. He hears a shout, and some random thumping, and assumes his instructions have been carried out.

When Liam re-enters the room, Niall and Louis are occupying the mattress, which means both of them are more or less half on the floor as well. Liam suspects Niall's going to get maybe an hour of bliss on the mattress tonight before Louis succeeds in pushing him all the way off, but for now they've reached some sort of truce. Niall's got his head curled into Louis's neck and Louis's holding his hand up in the air, tracing his lifelines and telling his fortune. Meanwhile, Harry's got his sleeping bag laid out by Liam's. He's on his stomach hunched over his phone, shirtless. If he really hasn't got anything on at all, Liam doesn't have to know, because Harry's got the sleeping bag zipped up just enough for modesty.

"And that's how oppressive marriage laws will change so Niall can become First Gentleman of the United States," concludes Louis grandly, giving Niall back his hand.

"But Michelle though," objects Liam.

Louis frowns. "You obviously haven't been listening. The new law will allow the president multiple consorts."

Niall smiles dreamily. "Michelle's gonna love me. I'm gonna help her in the vegetable garden." He rolls to his feet and shuffles past Harry to get to the toilet.

"Read Liam's fortune next," Harry tells Louis.

Liam snaps off the light. "Don't encourage him."

"Liam doesn't believe in my powers," explains Louis. "Not like Niall does."

"You should do Harry," calls Niall.

Louis shakes his head. "Don't know him well enough yet for a palm-reading. I could misinterpret his lines."

Harry says, "You'll have to get to know me better."

Niall starts giggling madly and manages to trip on both Harry and Liam on his way back to the mattress.

Liam says, "Quarterfinals start early tomorrow morning." He shifts around in his sleeping bag and tries to find a position that isn't actively painful. There's still some light coming in from the footpath that runs past their window.

"Already asleep, me," says Louis.

"Because you're hogging my bed," says Niall.

"Believe me, if you two don't shut it I will push you both off and take it myself," says Liam.

So of course Louis takes that as his cue to roll off the mattress and drop onto Liam. Unexpectedly, Harry manages to make himself useful and helps Liam bundle him back up and drop him back onto the mattress, or rather Niall. The ensuing scuffle doesn't really last all that long, comparatively speaking, and before long there's silence from the general vicinity of the mattress, punctuated by some wheezy snuffling from Niall now and again.

Liam stares up at the ceiling and starts going over the rounds of the day in his head, thinking back to his shakiest point of information and the extra moments Louis spent on rebuttal when he probably should've been constructing new arguments. Louis always says he oughtn't obsess over their mistakes this much, but it's the only way Liam knows to make sure he won't do the same thing again.

He hears Harry moving around and looks over. Harry's eyes are open. He gives Liam a little half-wave.

"Can't sleep?" Liam whispers. He turns on his side to face Harry.

Harry props himself up on one elbow. "No. I get nervous."

"Really?" Liam's surprised. Harry usually seems pretty relaxed.

"Always before competitions," says Harry. He gestures to Louis and Niall. "They asleep?"

Liam nods. "Niall was born without nerves and he makes Louis calm down too."

"That's cute. I like your friends."

"Yeah?" Liam feels ridiculously pleased by this. "They, um. I mean, obviously they like you, too."

Harry smiles back at him. "Good. How'd you lads all get together anyway?"

Liam thinks back. "Met Louis during Fresher's Week. I started talking to him because I didn't know anyone and he seemed kind of quiet, like me."

Harry raises an eyebrow.

"Yeah, I know," says Liam. "But he started laughing at me soon enough when he saw I wasn't drinking. Then later he got so pissed he couldn't find his way back to his hall of residence so I took him back to mine." He remembers Louis leaning against him as they made their way up the path, chirping away about how Liam was his new best mate. Later it turned out that he actually meant it.

"Cute," says Harry again. "What about Niall and Zayn?"

"You really want to hear about all this?"

Harry nods. "S'like a bedtime story. Gets me out of my own head, anyway." He scoots himself a little closer to Liam.

Liam wonders when he stopped not liking Harry. "Okay. So Louis dated Zayn in our first term. Well, dating, I don't know. They were kind of fooling around, anyway. It didn't last all that long, but when Zayn stopped coming around I got upset."

"You got upset?"

"Yeah. Because he used to be over at Louis's sometimes when I was there and he was just—really great. Like, with Louis he was crazy and they'd run around and do stupid shit but at the same time he was this really awesome listener and someone you just liked having in the same room with you."

"Go on."

"Well, this was back in our first term and I really had no idea how breaking up with people was supposed to work, so when he and Louis stopped dating, I was like, but why aren't we hanging out with Zayn anymore? I started texting Zayn about how much I missed him and stuff."

Harry starts to giggle.

"Yeah. So he was like, look mate, I can't go out with you, I was just dating your best friend. And I was like, no no no! I just like you! I want to see you!"

"Oh Liam," whispers Harry. "So you eventually broke him down, huh?"

"I guess so. I mean, Louis had no problem with it so Zayn agreed to hang out. Once he came over when Louis was there, and pretty soon the two of them were fine again, just as regular friends. Once Zayn was like, oh Liam, I'm so glad you didn't let it be awkward. But I had no idea it was supposed to be awkward! Like, I just didn't notice."

Harry laughs softly. "And then Niall came along?"

"Niall and his guitar. See, I was into this girl, and Louis had this master plan where I was going to serenade her outside her window."

"Oh my god," says Harry.

"Right?" Liam realizes they're getting a bit too loud and pitches his voice back down to a level appropriate for sleeping people. "Louis convinced me that this was the greatest idea ever, but he said I couldn't do it halfway, I'd have to have back-up. So there was this guy in debate soc I didn't really know all that well, but Louis said he could play guitar, and that was Niall. And he was up for it. So we practiced this, like, Frank Sinatra song? And, um, when we did the serenade the actual song went really great, so…" Liam trails off.

"Did she like it?" Harry sounds pretty drowsy.

"What she liked," says Liam, "was Niall. She came running out and to me she was like, thanks, whatever, and then she starts telling Niall how amazing he is and how he should give her guitar lessons."

"Hmmmmm," says Harry.

"It was fine, actually. I mean, I'd made a friend, and I learned not to take dating advice from Louis Tomlinson, so like, it's all good. And that's the story of how I met my best friends, the end."

Harry doesn't say anything. Liam looks over, and sees that his eyes are closed. Asleep, Harry looks very young. Liam realizes it's not a bad feeling, this not not-liking. Although apparently it's going to make him want to do stupid things, like lean over and brush Harry's hair back from his forehead. Liam slides down further into his sleeping bag instead.

 

*

 

Liam sleeps better than a sleeping bag on a threadbare carpet ought to allow, and when he's woken early by morning light and not by the alarm on his phone, he sighs in satisfaction and curls in a little closer to Louis, who must've fallen off the mattress at some point during the night. Every once in a while Louis ends up crashing on his bed after they watch a movie together, so it's not particularly shocking to wake up with a boy tucked under his arm.

Except that something about the proportions seem off, and Liam's arm is resting on bare skin. The thing is, Liam's pretty sure Louis went to sleep wearing his Girls Aloud t-shirt. Tentatively, he opens his eyes. Then he closes them again, just in case this will magically rearrange their bodies so that he is not, in fact, playing big spoon with his forehead against the back of Harry's neck while Harry's ribcage rises and falls under his arm. It doesn't.

Being best mates with Louis has taught Liam to like cuddling. He doesn't trust people very easily or quickly, but personal space isn't a meaningful concept to Louis, and Louis's influence tends to be catching. So when Zayn and Niall came along, Liam was ready to let down his guard with them as well. Now he doesn't mind falling asleep with or waking up next to any of them, but this is different. Harry's different. Liam's not sure why, but he is.

Slowly and cautiously, Liam lifts his arm and inches back from Harry's sleeping body. Thank goodness for the two layers of sleeping bag between them. Or between their lower halves, at least, because somehow they've both got them twisted down somewhere around their waists. It's bad enough Liam is practically drooling on Harry's back without traumatizing him with morning wood as well. At this appalling thought, Liam rolls onto his back, or tries to, because there's something bumpy in the way.

When the bumpy thing says "Hey!" it becomes clear that it's Niall's head. He's slumped mostly off the mattress, while Louis has unsurprisingly ended up curled comfortably in the middle.

Liam peers into a pair of bleary blue eyes. "Hey. You're on my pillow."

"You weren't using it," Niall whispers, voice scratchy. "You like Harry's better, yeah?"

"Oh fuck," says Liam, realizing he's been seen.

Niall smirks. "So, you and Harry?"

"No," says Liam. "No, no, no, no, no. And keep your voice down."

"I would say that the amount of cuddling I saw a minute ago requires only one firm no," says Niall. "More than that is suspicious."

Liam glares. "I cuddle you all the time too. Not that you deserve it."

"All I'm going to say," says Niall, "is that I approve. Also, at the pub he asked me if you have a girlfriend."

"Because he's nosy. He spent last night asking me about you and Zayn and Louis, do you think he wants to sleep with you lot as well?"

Niall squinches up his eyebrows in thought. "Possibly. He seems open-minded."

Liam pulls the pillow from under Niall's head and uses it for proper smothering purposes. "Not fair!" yelps Niall. "I've got a headache, play nice!" Liam rolls his eyes and turns off the alarm on his phone. It's due to go off in five minutes but you don't really need an alarm in the morning when you've got a Niall. Then Liam pads off past Harry's prone body to take the first shower. When he gets out of the shower, he expects to find Niall scampering around hiding Louis's clothes and singing something obnoxious at the top of his longs, but he's still lying there staring into space.

"You all right there?" says Liam.

"The only problem is I tried to sit up," says Niall. "I guess one too many last night. But I'll be fine."

"Quarterfinals!" says Liam.

"No shit. I hope Harry feels better than I do. Ought to, with all the TLC he was getting."

"Feel free to shut up about that any time," says Liam, and starts pinching Louis's toes.

Niall crawls dutifully over to Harry and starts singing, "You know you love me, I know you care. Just shout wheneva! and I'll be there!" until Harry bats out feebly with his hands and tries to put Niall on snooze.

Before long they're all up and heading out for breakfast. Liam shoots a few nervous glances at Harry, but Harry just smiles sunnily as if he's got no notion at all that Liam was creepily spooning him overnight. In fact, Harry seems to be in a particularly good mood, and Liam can add to the growing list of things he appreciates about Harry that evidently he's a heavy sleeper.

Still, while they drink their coffee and make short work of a plate of buns, Liam tries to look at Harry as little as possible. The problem is that looking reminds Liam how Harry's body was warm and sturdy against his, and it's—well, it's irrelevant, isn't it? Only once he thinks what it would have been like if Harry'd rolled on to his back and opened his eyes with Liam still draped across him, and then Louis waves a hand in front of his face and snaps him out of it.

"We're going, Liam. First round?"

"Right!" says Liam, and leaps up from his seat. Louis is still looking at him strangely. "Between you and Niall, honestly. I'm not sure either of you ever woke up this morning."

"It's the early rising," nods Harry. "It's probably bad for the health."

"We can't all sleep as well as you two did," says Niall. "There's Louis hogging the mattress and you with—" Liam makes a horrible face at him in time and Niall snaps his mouth shut.

"With?" prompts Harry, shooting a look at Liam, and Liam knows he's turning bright red even though Harry was asleep the whole time.

"With, um, your really thick sleeping bag," says Niall nonsensically. "We better hurry."

In their next two rounds, Liam and Louis rank second and then first, breaking to semis, where they drop to third after fumbling a motion on the Eurozone (proving that Liam ought to have been left alone to finish that Economist article), and they're out. Harry and Niall don't make it past quarters, but they don't seem to mind too much. Niall looks tired, but he's happy just to have made it to out-rounds. "Which for a new team is brilliant," Harry says when they all run into each other in the tab room, and Liam agrees.

"You're just happy we got further than Harry," Louis whispers to Liam while Harry and Niall are checking their speaker points.

"I’m happy when any of our teams does well," says Liam, not trying very hard to sound convincing. "Also, I've decided to give Harry another chance."

"Uh-huh," says Louis.

"Because he's Niall's partner," Liam explains. He looks over at Harry, who's got his chin hooked over Niall's shoulder while they look at something on Niall's phone.

"Because you like him," says Louis.

"Because my friends like him." Liam blinks his eyes as if that'll remove the sense memory of Harry's skin an inch away from his mouth.

"I'll be sure to tell Sugar that when she asks for a comment," says Louis. "I can see the headline now. Erstwhile star Liam Payne tolerates new sensation Harry Styles for friends' sake."

"Excuse you, we broke to semis and he didn't."

"Ha! I knew it!" says Louis. "I'll report your satisfaction about that to Sugar as well, shall I?"

"Oh god," says Liam. "Couldn't you try interesting her in a chess club or something instead?"

Louis puts an arm around Liam's shoulder. "Fame is hard, innit?"

 

*

 

On the ride back, Niall naps on Liam's shoulder. Louis and Harry are busy with Harry's laptop, one earbud each, and a backlog of Corrie episodes. They look cozy. Liam texts Zayn their results and tells him they'll be round to his place first to deliver Niall.

Niall who?

So apparently Zayn is still offended that Niall occasionally manages to spend the odd evening away from him.

Ur flatmate who is droooling on meeeee.

Ahaha take a picture for me. x

Niall sighs and shifts on Liam's shoulder, coughing a little in his sleep. Liam slouches over a bit to adjust and remembers when Niall first decided on Zayn. The two of them had already been living together for months and any of the rocky bits involving conflict between Niall's guitar and Zayn's sleeping schedule had been long since resolved. Then there came the day when Niall showed up at Louis and Liam's place with a bottle of Jameson's and explained that he was there to drown his sorrows. Liam had never been able to figure out what it was exactly that tipped Niall off that particular cliff. At first he and Louis both thought it was ridiculous. "But he's always looked like that," was Louis's way of trying to argue him out of it.

"I know," Niall would say, "but I didn't know it like this." Which, like, what did that even mean? Perrie had explained it to Liam once: everyone knew you didn't fall in love with Zayn. You could quite likely get his attention, and he'd be pleased and responsive and oh so lovely. Sweet enough that it was hard to hold it against him when he didn't call you again. He was beautiful and temporary, and that was enough. Unless you were Niall. "Because I actually know him," Niall had explained. "So it's different." Liam thinks he knows Zayn too, but sometimes he doesn't understand Niall at all.

Everyone's wiped by the time they get to Zayn's doorstep. Liam is thinking dreamily of Zayn's really comfy sofa and the curry takeaway down the street, but when Zayn comes to the door he's not exactly welcoming. Well, not to him or Louis or Harry. Zayn takes one look at Niall and then glares at the rest of them. "What've you done to him, then?" He pulls Niall into a protective hug and Niall curls happily into his side.

Liam and Louis look at each other. "What do you mean, what've we done?"

Zayn waves a hand at Niall. "He's obviously fallen ill, are you blind?" He tugs Niall into the flat. Judging by the look Zayn throws them over his shoulder, they aren't exactly welcome to follow, but Louis does anyway, and obviously Liam is sticking with Louis and right, there's Harry coming in too.

"I'm okay!" says Niall. Liam looks him over. He's a bit pale and droopy, maybe.

"You are not, you look actually dead." Zayn pushes him down on the sofa and feels his forehead.

Louis leans against the wall. "It's true, he didn't eat very much at lunch," he reminds Liam. "It was odd."

"You're just standing there, Lou?" says Zayn. "Put the kettle on, Niall needs tea."

Louis throws up his hands and goes off to the kitchen. Liam follows and starts rummaging in the cupboards for PG Tips. It's possible that Niall's sick and it's also possible that Zayn's gone a bit mad in their absence, but he's willing to play along if it means Zayn won't glare at him again. Also, he's happy to see that the kitchen walls are still green.

"Harry and I broke to quarters," Niall is saying drowsily from the depth of the sofa when they return to the living room.

"Hush, I know that already," Zayn tells him. He perches on the arm of the sofa and starts stroking Niall's hair.

Harry, who seems to be taking Zayn seriously, says, "Has he got a fever? Do you want a blanket for him?"

"I can speak for myself!" says Niall, but he ends in a cough.

"Get the one from my bed," Zayn tells Harry.

"Has it been laundered recently," Niall mutters.

Zayn yanks at a handful of hair. "I heard that. Just because you're deathly ill doesn't mean you get to be a twat."

Harry comes back with a heap of duvet and plonks it down on Niall.

Louis says, "Liam, I can't believe you didn't notice the state of Niall. Do you not even care?" Liam is about to protest, but Louis shakes his head minutely, and then Liam gets it. The kettle whistles and Louis goes to pour the tea. "Zayn, you should get Niall into his jimjams," he calls from the kitchen. "He can't be comfortable like that, he's been on the train for bloody hours."

"Nooo, don't wanna move," whines Niall. He somehow manages to look both miserable and happy at the same time.

"I'll help you," Zayn tells him. "When they go."

Louis emerges from the kitchen with the tea. Liam shoots him a discreet thumbs-up. Louis tiptoes over to the sofa, hands Niall's tea to Zayn, and leans over to whisper something in Niall's ear. Niall giggles until the giggle turns into a coughing fit.

Zayn is not amused by this. "Right, you lot, time to clear out."

Liam clears his throat. "You're sure you don't want us to get you guys anything? Um, you have, like, food and stuff?"

Zayn barely looks up from where he's arranging the duvet over Niall. "We'll be fine, thanks."

"Understood!" chirps Louis. "Take good care of him!" Harry and Liam echo good-byes and feel-better-soons, and then the three of them are outside on the pavement grinning at each other.

"Did you see that?" says Louis proudly. "Did you see that."

"Aha!" says Harry. He points a finger at Liam. "I knew there was something going on. But I've been trying to get it out of Niall all week and he won't say a thing."

"I don't know," says Liam. "They're best mates, of course Zayn's going to look after him when he's ill. What were you whispering to him, Louis?"

"Told him this was his chance. Told him to work it."

"Yeah," says Harry. "I'm pretty sure he already was."

 

*

 

Niall doesn't turn up for the meeting on Monday, which is a shame because everyone gives them lots of congratulations for their showing at Finchester and Niall deserves to bask. There's a temporary flutter of concern when Harry explains that Niall is ill.

"Ill means eloping," whispers Louis to Liam.

"Like he's never skived off a meeting before," says Liam. He's worried about getting his hopes up.

Then the meeting's all about whether Fight Night should debate higher education, arranged marriages, or who'd win if the X-Men and the Avengers went head to head. Liam and Harry agree that they should all take a week off, but Louis says an intervarsity is nothing like a Fight Night, and he hasn't done a Fight Night in forever, and if he's putting his name in, Liam has to, and if Niall's not here, Harry has to take his place, as a tribute. Liam's not exactly following Louis's logic, but he puts his name in anyway, because Louis says to, and so does Harry, holding his paper against Liam's back as he scribbles his name. Liam feels Harry's fingers on his back and tries not to squirm. He's not sure exactly what he said to Harry over the weekend that seems to have convinced Harry it's okay to use his body for a desk and his lap as a footrest, but Harry seems to be taking a higher level of physical contact for granted now. As if he's one of them, thinks Liam. Louis, stroking through Harry's hair, certainly seems to think so. When Leigh-Anne draws all three of their names out of the hat, one after the other, it doesn't seem coincidental so much as inevitable.

 

*

 

"I like the motion," Liam tells Louis on their way to the union on Thursday night. "I want the proposition side, but I feel like it's winnable either way."

The motion is This House Believes that Higher Education is Practically Useless, and the term has worn on just long enough for it to resonate.

"I want to oppose it," says Louis. "Because it's so obviously correct."

"Weirdo."

But when they get to the union and join Harry and the others where they're slouched against the bar, neither of them get the sides they want: Ed puts Louis on the proposition side and Liam on opposition and just smiles sweetly and shakes his head when Liam begs him to put them on the same side. "Can't mess with the algorithm, lads," he says. "You, George. Proposition. Harry. Opposition." George and Louis grin at each other. Harry grabs Liam into a hug. Liam's not expecting it, anymore than he's expecting the flash of heat that goes through him at the feeling of Harry's long body pressed against his. He squeezes back awkwardly and Harry says, "Been waiting for us to work together."

"Yeah," says Liam, who hasn't. He sees Louis watching them and takes a step back. At any other time, he might give some thought to the question of why Harry makes him feel so bloody strange, but Ed's assigning everyone else to a side and they've got only fifteen minutes for prep. Jesy is pulling them all into the debating chamber. Seated around the opposition table, they sketch out a quick plan. Liam's to speak first—"because with this sort of motion you're best at keeping a straight face," Perrie says—and he'll set out their main points. Liam likes opening a debate, making the issue sound simple, obvious, and irresistible. Harry'll go last—"because if we've all been rubbish you can just buy back the votes by taking your shirt off," explains Jesy.

"You know, it is actually possible that there are people in the world who don't fancy Harry," Perrie says.

"Sure," says Jesy. "They won't be the ones sitting in the front row, though."

"Make them shut up, Liam," says Harry, putting a hand on Liam's thigh. Liam jumps, surprised, and looks up at Harry's laughing face.

Liam clears his throat. "Don't objectify Harry," he says to Perrie and Jesy.

"Easy for you to say," Jesy shoots back.

Harry grins and leans back against Liam. "Yeah, Liam's immune to my charms."

Liam swallows, not sure how to behave with Harry practically in his lap. If it were Louis he'd haul him in and cuddle, but Harry's warm weight against him isn't the same somehow. "Bulletproof," he agrees, and slings a carefully friendly arm around Harry's shoulder. "Let's plan out the speeches."

After a bit the audience begins to troop in. Lizzie Barnes comes in with three of her friends. Usually they run up to Liam and tell him they're rooting for him. This time they wave enthusiastically to Harry. Harry straightens up to blow them kisses and they coo.

"What did I tell you?" Jesy says.

"Oh please," grumbles Liam. He shifts his chair a bit further from Harry's. He'd forgotten how obnoxious Harry can be when people are paying attention to him.

Perrie nudges him. "You should've brought Zayn to distract them."

"Niall's still ill," explains Liam for what feels like the seventeenth time.

"And Zayn is...what, exactly?" Perrie wants to know.

"Looking after him," says Liam.

"Fucking him," mutters Harry in Liam's ear, because he's been spending too much time with Louis. Liam winces and waves to Louis and Cher, who are sauntering over to Liam's table for the customary moment of pregame trash talk.

Harry grins at him and squeezes Liam's shoulder. "Best of luck, Louis, but I've got your secret weapon."

Cher says, "Be embarrassing for you when we win, then."

Leigh-Anne, who is officiating, calls time. The audience settles into their seats and Louis rises to explain that universities exist mainly to breed up another generation of wankers, are a cesspool of sex and alcohol, and then nobody can get a job afterwards anyway. Getting into the spirit of it, half the audience applauds and half hisses.

Harry touches Liam's hand and whispers something about how to deal with the sex and alcohol claim, something about the social benefits of uni that Liam can't quite hear. Harry's breath in his ear is a little distracting.

Louis takes points of information regarding hypocrisy from Perrie and Jesy and replies with colorful descriptions of a university graduate with a first being laughed at by cruel human resources professionals. Then he winks at Liam and sits down.

"Go get 'em," Harry whispers. Liam nods and rises. He begins with a counter-anecdote of a poor fellow who thought he didn't need a degree to find fame and fortune, only to become an anti-social menace when his dreams were ground into the dirt. Then he moves into the main body of his speech. Career-building. Preparation for a wider world. Harry's making a note on his pad, he notices when he glances over. Um. The ability to think critically. Learning to get along in a diverse community. Practicing those social skills which the proposition so shortsightedly refers to as experimenting with sex and alcohol. The audience applauds. Louis's laughing at the proposition table. Liam looks proudly over at Harry, and sees that Harry is sucking on the end of his pen. Liam feels that stupid heat in his gut again, and then Harry meets his eyes, smiling as if they're having a private conversation. He pulls the pen out of his mouth, nods, and licks his lips.

Fuck, thinks Liam, and figures something out.

"On a point of information," says Cher, rising, and Liam nods, mainly so that he doesn't have to use his voice. "Can you not learn those things just as well somewhere else."

"Not at all," says Liam, and tries to think about the joys of uni instead of the horrible truth. There's got to be something to say other than I fancy Harry Styles, oh god, oh god. He mumbles something about the unique benefits of a community of scholars and waits for that moment when the words begin to flow, but it doesn't arrive. He looks down at his notes and then over to Louis, who makes a face at him, which snaps him out of it. Experience takes over as Liam speeds glibly through the rest of his points, carefully looking only at the audience for fear of looking somewhere more dangerous. When he sits back down again, he hears the kind of applause that means, "your arguments are decent, mate, but you haven't been very entertaining about it."

Harry puts a hand on Liam's lower back as he sits down again. "Nice," he says, but Liam shakes his head. If Harry's touch was distracting before, now it's like some kind of deadly heat weapon. He probably doesn't even know he's touching me, thinks Liam. Cher's speaking now but Liam doesn't hear a word. Harry's straight, so what's it to him to be handsy with Liam? Zayn and Niall and Louis touch Liam all the time and it only means they're friends. And now Harry's becoming part of the group and he can't expect him to stay hands-off. Not that it matters, because Liam's not going to keep fancying him. It's probably a one-time aberration, some kind of hormonal flare that will pass off in the morning. After all, he's never been attracted to a bloke before. But Harry's fingertips are resting casually in the gap between his henley and his jeans, confusing the issue, and Liam remembers that dream he had the one time. And the other time. And that teacher in sixth form, but that was only some kind of nonsexual hero-worship thing. And the time he made out with Zayn, but it hardly counted, because it was one of the nights when Louis had talked him into having a pint and it was sort of an accident. Anyway, Zayn makes out with everyone. Girls have always been what Liam really wants.

The audience is clapping and Liam looks up to see Cher going back to her seat. The rest of the debate passes in a blur. Liam thinks Perrie does rather well, and so does Lucy on the other side, but he wouldn't really know, and then while Jesy's up and speaking, Harry starts writing him questions about how to summarize. Liam watches his hand moving across the pad and forgets to actually read anything until Harry nudges him and shrugs. Then Liam reaches for the pen and his hand knocks against Harry's. He takes a breath and writes like we planned it but don't focus on the carears thing its boring. Harry nods and mutters "Car. Ears." Which means Liam probably spelt careers wrong, but whatever. When you're having a sexual identity crisis, your spelling should get a free pass.

It's George's turn for the proposition, and Liam makes himself listen. He wonders which side's going to win. If opposition does, it certainly won't be thanks to Liam. George sits down to plenty of applause, and then Harry's rising and it's okay for Liam to look at him now, because it's only polite. He doesn't hear a terrible lot of what Harry is saying—something about meeting new people who share your intellectual interests (Harry carefully stresses the word intellectual and the audience laughs)—but his voice rumbles out slow and confident and the girls in the front row are eating it up. Now everyone's clapping for Harry. Liam has no idea of anything he's said.

Harry slumps back down in his seat, bumping fists with Perrie and Jesy, and they wait to see whether the audience will leave by the "ayes" door or the "noes" door. Liam catches Louis's eye and Louis shrugs.

It must be near a draw, because the audience is streaming towards both doors, but Perrie's been counting and towards the end she starts looking happy. Finally she yells, "OPPOSITIONNNNNNNN!" and jumps up on the table.

Harry hooks his arm around Liam's waist, because apparently he's decided that torture is an appropriate way to celebrate their shared victory. "We did it!"

Louis runs over to Harry and Liam and hugs them both. "Congratulations, you were obnoxiously good."

Liam disentangles himself and shrugs. He doesn't really want to take praise for being rubbish. At least he didn't wreck it for the rest of his side.

Harry says, "Nice speech yourself, Louis. I liked the part about uni's corrupting influence."

"No more than the truth," says Louis. "Unless you're Liam, of course." He messes Liam's hair, and Liam feels unaccountably annoyed.

"I could be corrupted," Liam says. "Selling me short just because I don't drink."

"Just because of a lot of things, love," says Louis, and makes his special love-bite dive at him, but Liam puts his hands to his neck to block Louis's mouth and Harry steps forward to shield him.

"Weren't we going to be buying your lot drinks?"

"Right," says Louis, looking from Liam to Harry, and yanks them both toward the door.

When they enter the bar, everyone starts chanting "Har-ry! Har-ry!" Harry makes air hearts at the crowd, and Liam thinks, good, let him be an arse about it, anything to stop me feeling this way. He pushes ahead up to the bar, orders lagers for Louis and Cher.

Perrie slides up next to him and orders for George and Lucy. "You and Harry work well together," she tells him. Liam cringes before he realizes there's no way she could mean anything by it. "Better with Niall," he manages. "You should've seen them last weekend."

Perrie nods and swoops up the pints for George and Lucy. Then Harry's next to Liam, saying, "I'll help with that." Liam slides him Cher's pint and they start maneuvering through the crush to the corner where Louis and Cher are happily bickering.

Harry gives Cher hers and touches Liam's shoulder. "I'll get ours, Liam. Coke, right?"

Liam wonders how he's going to get rid of Harry so he can work his way through his inappropriate feelings in peace, but all he says is "Yeah, cheers," because what else is he supposed to say? And then Harry's off back to the bar, and Liam refuses to let his eyes follow after him.

Cher calls to someone across the room and Louis turns to Liam. "Cripes, Li, you look like a rainy day."

Liam grimaces. "Just didn't do so well, is all."

Louis raises his eyebrow. "Sore winner, yeah?"

"Sorry," says Liam. "No, look. Let me ask you. Have you ever, like, thought you were a certain kind of person and then realized you might be a different kind of person?"

"Yeah, mate," says Louis. "Like every day."

"Okay, never mind that," says Liam. "Bad example. Okay, what if you thought someone else was a certain kind of person but they might not be that kind of person or wait, no, what if they actually are a certain kind of person but you want them to be a different kind of person because then they might feel differently about the kind of person you are, or maybe you're getting confused about who they are but it's only because you're a different person than you thought but maybe—"

"Liam," Louis cuts in. "What the actual fuck are we talking about."

"I don't know," Liam says. He feels a hand on his back, and it's Harry, handing him his Coke, because he cannot actually leave him to suffer in peace. Liam looks at the glass with dislike.

"Harry!" someone shrieks, and then Lizzie and her gang descend. "You were amazing tonight."

"You better talk to your fans, Harry," says Louis. Harry shoots Liam a quick apologetic glance and says, "See you in a bit?"

Liam nods half-heartedly, and Louis pulls him away, into a corner. "First of all, Li, wanna trade drinks? Anyone who can spit out a pile of rubbish like that needs a pint."

Liam opens his mouth to protest, then nods. "Enjoy your Coke, then."

Louis takes it. "So what's this about?"

Liam looks over at the pocket of adoring first-years surrounding Harry and takes a drink. "It's, um. It's him."

"Him?" Louis follows his gaze. "Oh, Liam, I thought you'd gotten over that."

"What," says Liam. How could Louis possibly know? He hadn't known.

"Your little—jealousy thing. I thought you came round, decided you liked him after all?"

Liam drinks. "Sort of?"

Louis frowns. "Then I don't get it."

Liam stares into his glass. He's kind of glad Louis is the one with the Coke right now. "I'll tell you later, all right, Lou?"

"Just don't be mean to him," says Louis. "He doesn't deserve it."

"Oh my god, never mind," says Liam, nettled. "I'm not going to hurt your precious Harry."

"Good," says Lou, nodding sharply, and then he's digging in his pocket for his phone. "It's Zayn," he tells Liam. "Gonna take this outside a sec."

"Fine," says Liam, and realizes that somehow his pint is already half gone.

A few minutes later he gets a text from Louis:

Zayn says sorry he and Niall needed a quiet nite in

Liam rouses himself out of his funk and sends back !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!????????? which Louis understands perfectly:

Idk that's all he said

Liam texts Im going ovr there 2moro, because if he can't sort his own life, he might as well see if his mates have got theirs sorted. Then he goes over to the bar for another drink. Ed looks at him kind of funny. "Seriously, Liam? Midlife crisis? You want a red sports car to go with that pint?"

"I can drink!" Liam says. "I've drunk before!" He sees Louis making his way back through the crowd.

Ed hands him the pint. "Just tell her how you feel, mate."

"What?" says Liam. "That's completely—no."

Ed shrugs. "Just guessing, Liam. You sure you're okay?"

"Fine," Liam mutters, and looks for Louis. He seems to have got held up talking to George. George is running his hand through his hair and Louis is nodding like everything he's saying is incredibly charming and insightful. Liam rolls his eyes and looks for Harry instead, but Harry's across the room with Cher, whispering something in her ear while she giggles. "Fuck everything," says Liam to no one in particular.

Liam leans against the wall for awhile and wonders why he's there with Zayn and Niall all shacked up with their flu tablets and Louis preoccupied by George and Harry holding court with half the women present. He's not going to stand there all night in a fit of temporary insanity moping after a boy who's got no interest in him, is he? It's embarrassing enough muffing his speech just because Harry happened to look at him. Harry probably did it on purpose, Liam thinks. He looks at his glass and sees it's three-quarters gone, so apparently he's a paranoid drunk after less than two pints.

He threads his way through the bar to Louis and tells him he's heading out. Louis looks at him a little worriedly and says, "I could come with?" but this makes George look so stricken that Liam just shakes his head and drains his pint.

The cool night air is a relief after the crush at the bar. Liam rubs his face, realizing how light-headed he feels. He turns to cut across campus to the footpath leading home, glad he's gotten out before doing something silly. If he's gone suddenly stupid for Harry, there's no reason to go making it worse, is there? He heads off into the damp grass.

A stick snaps behind him. "Liam!" There's no mistaking Harry's raspy voice. Liam closes his eyes for a second and wills the fog in his head to clear. It's probably not going to work to pretend he doesn't hear. "Oi, wait up!"

Liam turns around. "Hey, Harry."

"You disappeared! Lou said you were going home, so."

"Yep," says Liam unhelpfully.

"Well, I didn't get to say good-bye."

"Um," says Liam. "Good-bye?"

Harry looks at him, hugging his bare arms to his chest. "I'll walk with you, okay?"

Liam shrugs, knowing he's behaving badly, but not quite sure how to get things on a different footing. Louis had once told him that everyone's got to fall in love with a straight boy once, just to get it out of their system, but Liam had obviously never considered that this could one day apply to him. He probably shouldn't ask Louis whether straight boys tended to automatically know how you felt and then follow you everywhere until you collapsed. He's not sure if he can take the hysterical pointing and laughing that would most likely be Louis's reaction. Meanwhile, they're almost to the science building, just by the grove of trees around the side, and the noise from the bar is no longer audible.

"I feel like you're mad at me," says Harry. He's shivering a little, and Liam kind of wants to offer him his hoodie, but he doesn't.

Liam says, "Of course not," but it doesn't sound convincing, even to him. "I just don't like messing up, Harry, is all. Look, can you just go back?"

"But," says Harry. "It's just Fight Night, it's just—"

"It's just you, Harry, all right?" Liam stops, stricken, at the side of the science building. This is one reason he doesn't drink normally, because when you drink you never know when you're going to say something hilariously, tragically awful that you'll regret for the rest of your life. "Oh fuck, I told you to go away."

Harry, of course, ignores him. "What. Liam, what do you mean it's me?"

Liam looks at his frowning, baffled face, and wants to scream. "The way you—" He swallows. He doesn't do this, he doesn't do scenes. Louis does scenes, and then Liam pats him and makes him tea when it's over. "You keep, um, showing up everywhere and doing stuff and I don't understand why." Oh, so apparently he does do scenes. He leans his head back against the bricks and briefly considers banging it there a few times.

"Liam. I don't know what you're on about, I promise you."

Harry's got a hand on his wrist and Liam jerks it away. "Look, I was doing perfectly fine with my opening and you're sat there doing that thing and I can't, I can't concentrate that way, I—" Harry's staring at him like he's a lunatic raving away in the corner of a Tube platform.

"What thing?" says Harry, very gently. Maybe he thinks if he makes any sudden movements the lunatic will bite. But apparently he's got an instinct for soothing disturbed individuals, because Liam, horrified, finds himself answering him.

"You, um, the way you looked at me. And you licked your lips." Liam hears how mental it sounds and he wants to crumple right then. He's only been half-gay for two hours and he's already making a mess of it.

Harry frowns. There's a pause. It's nice sometimes, Harry's typical reaction time. It gives Liam time to say, very clearly, "I'm a bit pissed. And so nothing I've said in the last twenty minutes counts. All right?"

Harry says, "It distracts you when I lick my lips?"

"Did I say that?" Liam tries his best to look blankly surprised, as if alcohol blackouts do the most alarming things, oh dear.

"Yeah. You did."

Harry's really close to him, Liam notices. He can't really think of anything to say.

"I thought, um," says Harry. "I thought I wasn't really your area of interest. I thought you kind of made that clear."

Liam closes his eyes because he thinks that this would be an excellent time for the earth to open and swallow him up. He gives maybe the slightest possible shrug. Then he feels Harry's curls brush against his ear, and Harry whispering against his jaw. "Are you shutting your eyes because you want me to kiss you?"

Liam's eyes fly open at that. "Fuck you, Harry. You don't have to be an arse about it, you don't have to mock me."

"Jesus, Liam," says Harry, finally sounding angry. "I'm not fucking mocking you, I'm—" He grabs at Liam's arms and Liam's hands fly up to Harry's chest and don't seem to know what to do there, so he pushes Harry back and Harry stumbles, goes to his knees on the grass.

"God, sorry!" is Liam's first reaction, and he reaches down to him, but Harry bats him away and reaches for his hips instead, pushes him against the wall.

"Shut up for once, Liam, just shut up." Harry's not getting up and Liam doesn't understand. Not until Harry leans forward and starts fumbling at the button of Liam's jeans.

"Harry. I didn't mean, I shouldn't have—"

"Shut up, okay?" Harry has the button open and he's jerking at the zipper and Liam's head is buzzing and he's half-hard already from the pressure of Harry's hands. He should apologize a million times and push Harry away and go home and sleep it off, but instead he looks from side to side into the darkness to make sure no one's around, no one's here to see him leaning up against the side of the science building with his jeans slipping down his hips and Harry's hand in his pants.

He gasps when Harry makes contact, cold hand wrapping around his cock. Harry says "yeah," and dips his mouth to the head, licks. Liam bangs his fists against rough brick, swears, and Harry pulls away. Liam can't actually believe this is happening, because Harry can't possibly want to be doing this, can't really want to be kneeling there, carefully peeling Liam's boxer-briefs down far enough for him to suck Liam in.

When Harry pulls off again, he says "I'm a bit pissed too, but this can count if you want it to."

Barely coherent, Liam says, "Why, why are you—" and shakes his head, words gone.

"Because I'm kind of mad at you, too, actually," says Harry, "because you keep bringing your fucking arms to Fight Night, I mean, what is that? So I'm not sure I need to say sorry for licking my lips, but if that's what you want to hear." He's holding Liam's cock loosely, stroking a bit with his thumb. "I'm sorry I keep making you angry," Harry continues, his tone ridiculously conversational and only the slightest catch in it to hint that there's anything out of the ordinary going on. His free hand, the one that's not on Liam's cock, oh god, is on Liam's hip, gripping him hard. Harry says, "Look at me, Liam," and when Liam obeys, Harry very deliberately licks his lips and takes him back in, sucking hard this time. Harry's mouth is so hot after the cold night air, Liam can't help the noise he makes, but it's not long before Harry just pulls off again, leaving Liam's cock slick with his spit and so hard it aches. "I'm sorry I never corrected you when you got the wrong idea," Harry goes on.

"The wrong idea," Liam repeats. He's pretty sure he could understand what Harry's going on about if there were more blood in his brain right now. But it's a good thing Harry keeps pulling off, because he's way too close to coming and he's pretty sure you're not supposed to come with someone before you've even kissed them. So now he's thinking, oh, kissing Harry, I wonder if that's a thing that could happen, and the possibility sends terror flooding through him. For some reason it's a kind of terror that makes him put his hands into Harry's hair. Harry smiles at him then, like it's the best possible thing Liam could have done.

"One thing I'm not sorry about, though," Harry goes on, leaning into Liam's hands, "is what I'm going to do to you right now." Liam's pretty sure that hearing those words in Harry's slow, raspy voice is probably the hottest thing that's ever happened to him, except for the way Harry's showing him exactly what he means, moaning a little as he sucks him back in.

"God, Harry," says Liam helplessly, and Harry only mm-mms in reply, his eyes fluttering shut, like he's having this perfect, peaceful experience, and Liam doesn't know how again he's in this position where he's all worked up and Harry hasn't missed a beat. He'd like to mess up that serenity a little bit, which is kind of an awful thought, but his hips jerk forward anyway, as if they've bypassed the part of his brain that tells Liam when he's being a terrible person. Harry makes a little surprised gurgle before taking him deeper, both hands on Liam's hips now, not directing him, just—letting him. Letting him thrust if he wants to, and oh god, he wants to, sharp shallow jerks with his hands on Harry's head. He doesn't know why it makes him even a little bit angry, the way Harry's just taking it, and it's almost a relief when Harry pulls off again, replacing his mouth with his hand. Relief that there's a limit. Except seeing him like that, breathing hard, lips red and swollen, is exactly the mess Liam wanted to see, so when Harry jerks him a few more times, staring up at Liam, and then ducks his head again, Liam comes before he can warn him properly, and Harry's face is spattered, his cheek and mouth striped with it. The first thing Liam feels when Harry rocks back on his heels and turns his messy face up to Liam is satisfaction. That comes before the next thing, which is shame.

Liam drops to his knees facing Harry. "Are you okay? I'm—"

But Harry's covering his mouth. "You idiot, don't say you're sorry because I'm pretty sure you're going to say it for the wrong thing."

Liam starts digging in his pockets for something to clean Harry up. "I, um, I know I was too rough and I didn't warn you before—well. I mean, I wasn't a gentleman." He starts dabbing at Harry's cheek with a crumpled tissue when he hears a noise from Harry and oh god, is he crying? Has he actually made Harry cry? But when Harry bats his hand away Liam sees that what Harry is doing is laughing.

Liam folds his arms. "I knew we'd get around to the laugh-at-Liam portion of the evening eventually."

"It's just—you're worried about being a gentleman? I was sucking you off, Liam, we're not having high tea here." Harry scrambles to his feet.

"You don't understand," says Liam, thinking of how he'd been angry and how his anger had gotten mixed up with everything else that was happening, and how he's probably not as nice a person as he thought he was. He gets to his feet. The grass was damp and his knees are wet. Harry must have been horribly uncomfortable.

Harry looks at him speculatively. "Are you having a whatsit, a gay panic? Because that would be funny after how you freaked out when I wouldn't let you set me up with Louis."

"It's not that," says Liam. "It's just I thought I knew who I was and now I don't."

Harry reaches out and puts a hand on Liam's cheek. "Oh, Liam. I know exactly who you are."

"You do?"

"Yeah. You're the wanker who came on my face and then didn't even offer to get me off in return."

"Oh," says Liam, and then "Oh! Sorry! Um, do you want me to, like—" He waves a hand in the general direction of Harry's crotch and tries not to die of embarrassment.

There's a pause as Harry thinks about this. "No, I don't think so."

"Oh," says Liam again. "But you said—"

"I think a rain check, Liam," says Harry, gently. "So you can figure things out."

Liam bites his lip so that he won't protest any further. It's silly to feel hurt, but he'd had a brief flash of wondering if he could make Harry feel the way Harry'd made him feel. To see if there was a chance Harry could want him that much.

But there's Harry getting to his feet, and the moment is gone. He holds out a hand to Liam. "Am I still allowed to walk you home?"

 

*

 

Liam wakes up hours later than usual and spends a blissful half-minute wallowing in the satisfaction of not having to get up for anything in particular before the events of the previous night come flooding back. He winces and decides that today's strategy for dealing with Harry Styles will be to pretend he doesn't exist. Immediately, the memory of Harry on his knees becomes twice as vivid, which means postponing denial for the seven minutes it takes to wank. Getting it out of his system was all that was, Liam tells himself, and now his day will be all cold showers and revising and being helpful to his friends. His friends who are not Harry Styles. So he does fifty crunches just to remind himself that he's capable of being disciplined and goes off to take a shower.

Once he's dressed, he lets himself sit down and check his phone. There's nothing from Harry. Which, of course there's nothing from Harry. He wasn't even looking for messages from Harry! Idiot, Liam mumbles to himself, and reads the six texts from Zayn.

According to Zayn, Niall's still so ill he will most likely die and then Zayn will catch flu and follow him to the grave and they’ll have to have a double funeral. (The next two texts involve the playlist they want at the memorial service.) On the other hand, there's a slim chance that they'll both pull through if Liam comes round with extra tissue and Flake bars and lager and double orders of takeaway chicken vindaloo.

Liam's really not sure Niall should be drinking if he's got the flu or whatever, but Louis's still asleep so he can't consult with him. Anyway, if his friends want to be self-destructive, that's their lookout, so Liam texts Zayn an okay and shops for everything on Zayn's list, plus some trail mix and fruit and green vegetables just in case, and shows up on Zayn and Niall's doorstep around lunchtime.

Zayn snatches the groceries and the takeaway and gives Liam a hug. Inside the flat, Niall's enthroned on the sofa with a giant mound of pillows. The bin is overflowing with tissues, there are four empty mugs on the coffee table, a schoolbook is hooked over the back of the sofa face down, and Niall's nose is red. It's not exactly a honeymoon suite, and Liam makes a mental note to give Louis a smack for getting his hopes up.

"I'm better!" Niall yelps immediately. "Only Zayn won't let me leave the flat."

"The ingratitude," Zayn complains. "Here I am ordering in food for you and all you can do is complain."

"I'm not that hungry," says Niall.

"See?" says Zayn to Liam. "Death's door." He starts unpacking the takeaway bag.

"Wait," says Niall. "Is that vindaloo?"

Zayn rolls his eyes and takes everything into the kitchen.

"How are you actually?" asks Liam, pushing aside Niall's pillows to make room on the sofa.

"Fine," says Niall. "What'd I miss?"

Liam thinks. "Aside from a week of work?"

Zayn calls, "I've been reading his stoics to him so he won't fall further behind, but he's not been concentrating very well."

"You've been what?"

"Zayn's wicked at tutoring," Niall says. "He's been explaining all about Seneca's views on suffering. How was the debate?"

Liam clears his throat. "It was fine. Louis and I were on different sides. He was quite funny."

"How about you?"

"I was off my game," says Liam reluctantly. "But we won anyway."

"And Harry?" asks Zayn, handing Liam and Niall their plates and going back to the kitchen.

"Um," says Liam. "He was on my side. He was quite good."

Niall narrows his eyes. "Why are you blushing?"

"What?" says Liam, putting a hand to his hot cheek. "I am not blushing!"

"Zayn!" calls Niall. "Come in here and tell me if Liam's blushing!"

Zayn comes in with his plate and inspects Liam briefly. "He's blushing."

"Ha!" says Niall.

"Fever hallucinations, both of you," mumbles Liam, and starts shoveling rice into his mouth.

"How did you make him blush, then?" Zayn asks Niall. He sits down on the floor, putting his plate on the coffee table.

"It's easy. You just ask him about Harry."

Liam's fork clatters on his plate. "Niall!"

"No, it's true," Niall tells Zayn. "Watch this. Liam, did Harry sit next to you at the debate? Did you try to molest him again?"

Liam glares. Zayn looks delighted. "Wait," says Zayn. "What's going on between you and Harry?"

"Nothing," Liam says, and then, because it's not easy to lie to people who know him as well as Zayn and Niall do, "I don't know."

"Oh ho!" Niall chortles.

"Tell me absolutely everything right this second," says Zayn.

"I'm eating!" Liam protests. "And anyway, I don't like guys like that."

"Try past tense on that one, mate," says Niall. "What does Louis think?"

"Dunno yet."

"You're kidding," says Niall. "Since when do you withhold information from Louis?"

Liam feels a wave of guilt. "I just want to get it sorted first, okay?"

Zayn looks at Liam curiously. "Look, Liam, I know you like to have everything in your life organized and you decided, like, a year and a half ago that you were our supportive straight best friend."

Liam shrugs and nods. That sounds about right.

"But maybe it's not that simple."

Liam doesn't answer. He's thinking, pointlessly, about Harry's hands. Zayn sighs. "Look, don't you remember that one night last fall when we made out for like three minutes? You didn't hate it, Li."

"What?" says Niall. "You never told me that."

"It was nothing," Liam mutters.

"It was very nice actually," says Zayn stiffly. "And you thought so too."

"I was a bit pissed," says Liam, "because I've got no kind of tolerance and Louis…never mind. And you're pretty, so. Like a girl."

"Oh my god," says Zayn, "if anyone else was spouting that rubbish you'd slap them. Don't even pretend that makes it less queer."

"I don't even really remember it, okay?"

Zayn flutters his eyelashes and leans in. "Should I remind you?"

"No!" says Niall. "Don't you dare, Zayn!"

There's an odd edge to his voice. Liam puts a reassuring arm around his shoulders. "I'm not going to snog Zayn, Nialler."

"Whatever," says Niall. He bites his lip.

"Wait," says Zayn. "What's wrong, Niall? I was just messing around."

"Like always," says Niall.

Zayn frowns. "What do you care?"

"I don't," says Niall. "Do what you want, I don't care if my best mate's a, a—"

"—slag?" supplies Zayn, his voice dangerously sweet.

"I didn't say that. It just gets a bit old, you know. Watching you pull everything with a pulse."

"I can't believe this," says Zayn. "You've never mentioned—look, is that really how you feel?"

"No," says Niall. He looks at his hands. "Sorry, I'm just a bit stir-crazy, cooped up in here like this."

But Zayn's still shaking his head. "Because you know me, Niall, you know me. I like having fun, what of it? I don't make promises, nobody gets hurt."

"I know that!" yells Niall.

"Then what?"

"Hey, I think I should go," says Liam. Zayn and Niall both ignore him.

Niall says, "I just. What if you ever do meet anyone you really like? I mean what if you ever want to be a proper boyfriend? How would you even know the difference?"

"I'd know," says Zayn. He looks at Niall evenly. Niall carefully folds a tissue and tosses it in the general direction of the bin.

Zayn closes his eyes for a moment. Then he turns away and says to Liam, "You should tell Harry how you feel, Li."

"Uh," says Liam, not sure what he just watched. "I'm not—sure how I feel? But I think he might, like, guess."

"Don't trust in that," says Zayn. "Boys are stupid." He shoots a look at Niall, and Liam sees the flash of exasperation that crosses his face. "You have to spell it out for them sometimes."

"I agree," says Niall, sniffing. "How's he going to know if you like him if you only communicate your feelings when he's asleep?"

"I don't!" says Liam. "I told him! I think. I mean, I was kind of yelling at him at the time."

"Smooth," says Zayn.

Niall turns on Zayn. "And what does smooth matter? Smooth isn't the point if you care about someone."

"Obviously," Zayn grits out, "I was just—forget it. Look. If you care about someone, you're careful with them. You don't yell at them out of the blue, you show them that they mean something to you."

"Like you would even know!" yells Niall. "And stop waving my tissue box around, I need to blow my nose!"

"Oh my god," says Liam, who is quite sure now that he understands everything, and as a result wants to strangle them both. "Both of you shut up. You, Niall. You're a fucking hypocrite. Tell him how I feel? Are you listening to yourself? You too, Zayn. 'Boys are stupid and you have to spell it out?' Do you think chicken vindaloo spells something? It spells lunch, Zayn. You're as bad as he is."

Niall and Zayn are staring at him, frozen.

"So you need to fucking listen to each other," says Liam, "because I'm apparently the only one around here with ears to hear you both and I have problems of my own!"

There's another pause and then both Niall and Zayn yelp at Liam at once.

"But he—"

"But he—"

They stop, and look at each other.

"Fuck this," says Niall, and shoves the coffee table away from the sofa with his feet. Zayn's sitting there on the floor, knees pulled up to his chest. Niall grabs him by the ankles, yanks his feet down, crawls up Zayn's legs and straddles his lap. Plenty of times Liam's seen how Zayn looks when he's about to kiss someone, but he's never before seen the look on Zayn's face right now, like the person in front of him is infinitely precious, almost too precious to touch.

"Zayn," says Niall, and stops. Liam can see him swallowing, visibly nerving himself. "I'm gonna…yeah. Like a…proper boyfriend, though. So if it's no, just tell me, tell me before I kiss you, tell me now."

Gently, tentatively, Zayn puts his finger to Niall's lips. "Niall, you idiot. It's yes. Yes. Yes."

Niall heaves a sigh, shaky, and lets his forehead fall against Zayn's. Zayn makes a soft noise and gathers him in.

Liam tries to get up as quietly as possible. Eyes averted, he's congratulating himself on a mission accomplished when he circles around the back of the sofa and knocks Niall's Roman stoics book off the edge.

"Don't mind me!" he calls. "Just leaving!"

There's a rumble of laughter from somewhere in the vicinity of the floor and something that sounds like it started out as "cheers, Liam" but got muffled somewhere along the way. Liam grins and lets himself out.

 

*

 

When Louis hears the news that night, he's so thrilled that he promises to one day forgive Liam for getting Zayn and Niall together without him there as a witness.

"I just don't understand what Zayn was doing all this time," says Liam. "When he hasn't the least problem asking someone he's just met if they fancy a shag."

"That's just it," says Louis. "That would make Niall just like the others, and he's not. So he must've had no idea how to go about it."

Liam starts to laugh. "He would've just…kept making him tea."

"Forever," agrees Louis. "Until Niall made a move. Morons. Good work, Payne."

"Same to you, Tommo."

"Harry'll be pleased too."

"Yeah," says Liam, as neutrally as he can. He leans back on the sofa and flips channels. He still hasn't heard from Harry. He hopes Harry's not mad. He hadn't seemed mad, on the walk home. "Lou? Have you ever messed about with someone just because they were a bit pathetic and you felt sorry for them?"

"No," says Louis. "But I'm not a very nice person. Who are you feeling sorry for?"

"No one," says Liam. "Never mind." Thinking back on it, he's pretty sure that what happened was the equivalent of a pity fuck. Poor drunken Liam, stumbling about in the woods after making an arse of himself. Harry was, in fact, an awfully nice person. He probably just wanted to make Liam feel better. He hadn't even wanted Liam to return the favor.

"Hmmm," says Louis. "I can see you're going through a hypothetical question phase right now, but if you ever want to name names or body parts, I'm here for you."

Liam considers. He's not ready for the kind of conversation talking about Harry might be. So for now he just says, "You know you're wrong about not being a nice person, right, Lou?"

Louis shrugs and flexes his fingers.

"Aside from torturing me every minute of my life, I mean," clarifies Liam.

"I think seeing Zayn and Niall snog has got you all sentimental, mate," says Louis. But when he reaches out, he doesn't pinch or poke. He just squeezes Liam's hand.

 

*

 

Niall and Zayn attend the next soc meeting, but they don't say much. They're a bit too busy looking at each other.

"Aren't they cute? They're so cute!" says Louis, beaming as if he's personally responsible.

"Please," says Cher. "We all heard you the first ten times."

"I'm sorry you hate happiness," says Louis.

Harry pats Louis's knee reassuringly. "I think they're cute, Lou!"

"See?" says Louis.

"Can we have our meeting now?" asks Perrie.

"Go ahead, babe," says Louis. "I just wanted to take a moment to celebrate true love."

They agree to debate whether the world needs a benevolent dictator, but Liam sees Harry putting his name in for the draw, so he doesn't do the same. Louis looks at him curiously when he just passes the hat on, but Liam thinks he needs a week off. When Jade draws the names, Louis and Harry both end up on the list for Thursday, so Liam's all the more relieved that he'll only be watching.

Still, right now Harry's acting like everything's normal. Liam thinks he'll probably chat with him for a moment after the meeting, totally cool, friendly, whatever. Then he'll say good-bye and leave with his friends and Harry will go wherever Harry goes and they'll see each other in Contemporary Political Thought, maybe, and that will be that. He's gathering his stuff up from the sofa when someone touches his shoulder.

"Hey," says Liam.

"Hey," says Harry. "I heard you personally ordered Niall and Zayn to snog."

"Sort of?" says Liam. "It's a long story."

"Liam Payne," says Harry. He says the name slowly, like he's tasting it in his mouth. "You're pretty good at talking other people into things."

"Um," says Liam. He's pretty sure his face is going red.

"You want to come back to mine?" Harry asks.

"Sshh!" Liam looks around, but Louis is talking to Niall and Zayn, and no one's paying any attention.

"Are you kidding?" says Harry. "That was a completely G-rated sentence!"

"But you said it in your sex voice," hisses Liam. "Jesus, Harry, take it down a notch."

Harry rolls his eyes and pulls Liam around the corner into the hallway. "You want to do this in a sneaky way? Because that's not really my thing."

"What," says Liam. "What is 'this?' Because I mean, you haven't texted or anything and I thought—"

"I haven't texted?" Harry whispers furiously. "You haven't texted! I was giving you time for your gay panic!"

"Oh for—I haven't got—look, what about your gay panic? Why is this all about me?"

"Liam," says Harry. "Have you got concussion? I was never straight. That was all your idea."

"Oh," says Liam, and thinks a minute. Now he can't remember why he was so particularly sure. "Then why didn't you say so?"

"Because you seemed to really want me to be straight? Also," and Harry leans in like he's about to tell Liam a secret, "you're cute when you're bossy."

"Liam! Harry!" It's Louis. Liam jerks away from Harry and sees his friends waving at him from down the hall.

Zayn calls, "We're off out, hurry up!"

"Uh," says Liam. He tries to breathe normally. Politely, he says to Harry, "We're probably going down the pub. Would you like to come?"

Harry drops his voice. "Will you be letting me anywhere near you? Can I talk to you? Touch you? Will you give me a handjob in the loo?"

"Oh god," says Liam. "I can't—I don't—Harry." He breaks off, helpless.

"I thought so," says Harry. "Too frustrating. I'm just gonna go home and wank."

"Come on," yells Louis.

"He's coming!" Harry calls back. "Later, Lou!" Then he's walking away in the other direction, and Liam's just stood there, covering his useless hard-on with his bag like he hasn't had to do since he was thirteen years old.

 

*

 

Liam doesn't see Harry for days. Well, except for Dr. Higgins's lecture, but Harry just waves and smiles and doesn't try to get any closer than that.

Louis says, "Haven't run into young Harold this week."

Liam's wonders if Harry's given up on him because he's not the sort of person who can give a handjob in a loo. One more time he's fallen short, the way he always does whenever Harry's around. He wonders if Harry wants anything other than a handjob in a loo. He thinks about the word boyfriend, then tries to unthink it.

On Thursday afternoon, Liam's phone buzzes, and it's Harry's name on the screen. You'll be watching, right? I'll be at the union early...x

Liam wonders what dot dot dot is supposed to mean. Probably nothing. Ill see you there, he types. He adds an x. Then he erases it and puts in a :) instead.

 

*

 

Liam assumes he and Louis will walk over to the union together, but Zayn texts Liam that he and Niall have taken Louis captive and the three of them will meet Liam there.

Me and Niall are rooting for you!! : ) x

Liam rolls his eyes and types Im nott in the debate

Ahaha not what I meant!

Your both annoyinggg, answers Liam, and turns off his phone.

Liam shows up way too early and finds Harry in the corner of the bar with an hour to go. "All right?" he says.

"Hey," says Harry. "Sit?"

His smile's so wide that Liam knows he's got to rethink the speech he tried to prepare. The thing is that when he planned it out, he was forgetting about Harry's face. "I've got my seminar reading with me," is what comes out instead. Which just sounds rude, really. He pulls out a chair. "I mean, I didn't really think you'd be here already."

Harry shrugs. There's a pause. "So how's Lou? I miss him when I'm giving you space."

"You don't have to stay away from my friends just because you're avoiding me," says Liam.

"I don't know how to talk to them if I don't know what's going on with us. You tell them anything?"

"Niall and Zayn sort of. A little bit."

"Right," says Harry. "I think Niall guessed how I—well. I don't really do subtle."

Liam nods. "That morning at Finchester, Niall saw, um. Something. It doesn't matter, you were asleep."

Harry smiles a little. "I was trying to be."

"Oh no," says Liam. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—I was asleep, I didn't know what I was doing."

Harry shakes his head. "What I mean is, I was breathing really deep and slow because I thought if I moved a millimeter you'd wake up or move away and I just, I wanted you to stay."

Liam stares, speechless.

Harry puts his hand out so that the tips of his fingers are against Liam's wrist. "That was when I started thinking again that maybe I still had the tiniest chance? I had this stupid idea, I don't know, like even if it was only in your sleep it meant some part of you wanted me near you, so I, I, I tried to show you I wanted to be near you too."

"Harry," whispers Liam. He can feel each spot on his wrist where Harry's touching him.

Harry says, "Can we take a walk? Before everyone else gets here?"

Liam swallows. He looks around and sees that the bar's starting to fill up. "Yeah," he says, "downstairs."

They go down the back stairway. When they're alone, Harry puts one hand lightly to the small of Liam's back. He says, "I was just a bit worked up after the meeting, you know. I wouldn't be all over you in public. Or, like, make demands."

They're in the basement hallway now, with its storage rooms and cleaners' closets. "Like for example," says Liam, "asking for a handjob in the loo?"

"It sounds nice, though, doesn't it?" says Harry a little dreamily. He starts trying doors.

"What," says Liam, "what are you—"

"Trying to be discreet," says Harry. "I just want a moment, just a moment, Liam, all right?" He gets a door open: one of the practice rooms, empty but for a pile of metal chairs and a couple of broken music stands.

"But the debate," Liam says.

"I can blag it," says Harry, and pulls him inside.

The problem with Harry is that he's got such complete conviction, he behaves as if the things he does are not only perfectly natural and appropriate but the only possible course of action. Like, of course he's got Liam in the basement for a "moment" a half hour before a debate, because how else could he possibly spend that time? So it takes Liam a moment to process that instead of letting Harry feel him up, he should probably be trying to communicate or something. He loses track of this objective, though, until Harry's lips brush his ear. Then he takes in a short surprised breath and jerks his head back. "Harry. Harry, we can't just—"

"Why not," says Harry. His hands are roaming up and down Liam's body, slipping under his shirt. "Please, Liam."

Liam says, "We could—after?"

"But you want me now," says Harry, with simple logic. He's made his way to Liam's arse and Liam can't argue with the basic premise here; he's hardening already and Harry's hands are this close to experiencing that personally.

Liam remembers last time when he pushed Harry to his knees in cold wet grass, remembers being a right arsehole, basically, and says desperately, "But Harry, you don't know how I—look, I don't know how this goes, I won't be good for you—"

Harry looks at him uncomprehendingly. "But I'll show you." And then Harry's personal uninvited tour of Liam's body reaches his dick. Hearing the little sound Harry makes when he feels how hard Liam is for him is when Liam forgets why he was protesting in the first place. Harry's swaying a little, eyes dark and hazy, and Liam wants to pick him up, put him on a bed, but they're in the wrong place with no time because Liam is stupid, so instead he takes Harry by the shoulders, walks him back against the wall. Harry goes, stumbling, lets Liam put him there.

"Come on," Harry says, "come on." But he's not pulling at Liam anymore; instead he waits, like he wants Liam to actually make the decision, carry it through. Liam pauses to look at him leaning there. Harry's breathing hard, the bulge of his cock visible through his stupidly tight jeans as he starts unbuttoning his shirt. Watching Harry's skin appear, bit by bit, doesn't create an atmosphere conducive to rational decision making. "Liam," says Harry. "It's okay. Help me."

"Oh god," says Liam, and covers Harry's hands where they're busy with his shirt. Then he puts Harry's hands away, and undoes the next button. He works carefully, not looking at Harry's face, and when he's got Harry's shirt all undone he spreads it apart neatly and puts his hands on Harry's chest. He can feel him breathing.

"We don't have much time," whispers Harry. He nods when Liam's hand drops to the button of Harry's jeans, bites his lip when Liam unzips him, presses his hand there. "Yeah," says Harry, and pushes his hips forward a little.

Liam bites his lip and tugs Harry's jeans a few inches further down his hips. With one hand on Harry's chest, pressing him against the wall, Liam uses the other to reach into his boxer-briefs and get Harry's cock into his hand. The heat of it makes him a little insane. He doesn't know what the fuck he's doing but it can't be all that different, can it, and he starts stroking upward. It's an angle he's not used to, but if it's a little awkward, Harry doesn't seem to mind.

"Liam," says Harry, and he laughs quietly, a little jaggedly, and Liam feels embarrassed at how urgently he's doing this, how he's turning all his own words into lies, at how there's wetness welling from the tip of Harry's cock and all Liam wants is to put his mouth there and taste. Next time, thinks Liam, and then wait, fuck, because he's not sure when he decided he was doing this again, but Harry's grabbing at his hand to lick his palm and then thrusting it down again, and yeah, now he can slide his grip up and down on Harry like he wants to, like Harry wants him to, and he can tell because of the noises Harry's making.

Liam drops his head onto Harry's shoulder, his lips at the point where neck meets shoulder. He thinks of nothing except the taste of Harry's skin and the feel of his cock, speeds up, says "Harry, you, I," and Harry gasps and his whole body stiffens and Liam's hand is wet.

"Fuck," says Liam, "oh god," and then Harry's busy at Liam's trousers, unzipping and pushing them down just far enough to pull out his dick.

"Here, quick," says Harry, grabbing Liam's messy hand, and Liam's confused until Harry guides it to Liam's cock and covers it with his own. It's a little weird, maybe, but if Harry's under the impression that his come is miracle lube Liam's willing to go along with it. Especially when he needs to get a hand on himself this badly, especially when Harry's looking at him like that. Harry's got his big hand twined into Liam's, guiding him up and down, and Liam wants to say, I know how to wank myself off, thank you very much, but instead he just falls back against the wall, staring at the red marks he'd somehow left on Harry's chest, and lets Harry set the pace. "Told you," murmurs Harry, "told you so," and Liam would probably hit him for being so smug if he wasn't so close to coming, but then Harry leans in and Liam realizes Harry's going to kiss him. A jolt of panic and desperate want goes through him at the last moment and he turns his head, offering his neck instead. Harry goes for it, sucking him there so hard and sharp Liam cries out and comes in slow spurts into their tangled hands.

"That was really," says Liam after a moment, and doesn't know how to go on.

"Obviously," says Harry, and looks ruefully at their hands. "Now we're both messy."

"I've got tissue—" Liam starts. Harry's still so close to him and it's kind of overwhelming. "We have to get upstairs, you don't even know what side Ed's put you on."

"Wait," says Harry. "Why won't you let me kiss you?"

The question hangs in the air. Liam stares at Harry's lips. "I guess it's quite—intimate?"

"Intimate," Harry repeats. Liam nods weakly.

Harry takes his hand from Liam's, holds it up to show him its mess of come from them both. Liam says, "If you'll hold on a sec, I'll get the-"

"That's okay," says Harry. Slowly and deliberately, he brings his hand to his mouth and puts out his tongue. Liam watches in reluctant fascination as Harry licks his hand until it's shining clean.

"Intimate," says Harry. He shrugs, but his voice is wavering enough for Liam to know he's said something wrong. "You've had your fucking cock in my mouth, Liam."

"That wasn't my idea," Liam starts, before he realizes he sounds like a complete wanker. Unfortunately Harry seems to realize it too. He starts buttoning himself up, tense and quick.

"So I should've apologized for that too, then. Sorry I crossed your boundaries, Liam. Sorry you loved it."

"Wait," says Liam.

Harry just shakes his head. "Get the fuck over yourself, Liam. I'm done."

He doesn't even slam the door when he leaves, just closes it gently behind him. Liam lets himself slide down the wall until he's sitting on the floor. It's only then that he realizes his trousers are still gaping open.

 

*

 

For a while Liam just sits there, head against the wall. He reruns the conversation in his head, trying to find the place where Harry was wrong, where he didn't give Liam a chance, where if he thinks about what just happened he feels anything other than disgusted by himself.

He doesn't find it.

He sits there for long enough that he knows he's missed the start of the debate, and Liam doesn't miss debates, whether he's in them or not. When he's gotten himself back together and he turns on his phone, he's got texts from Louis, Zayn, and Niall, all demanding to know where the hell he is. Harry must've had all of five minutes for prep, so Liam can add that to the list of things he feels guilty about.

The thing is, Liam's always thought of himself as a pretty decent person. Not perfect, but decent. Then Harry showed up and now Liam's a resentful, touchy, emotionally withholding sex maniac. Having a new sexual identity really pales in comparison. Liam takes a deep breath and starts down the hall to the stairway. It would be nice, he thinks, if any of this were even partly Harry's fault.

The bar's half-empty, of course, because the debate's begun. Ed's wiping down the counter. He nods when he sees Liam come in. "Since when are you late for a Fight Night?"

"I was actually early," Liam begins, and then shakes his head. "I screwed up, Ed."

"Not you," says Ed, who's kind enough to mime amazement. "Well, go on, then. Harry's arguing that the world needs a dictator, you won't want to miss that."

"He's good, yeah," says Liam.

Ed shrugs. "You too, I hear."

Liam bites his lip and continues on. He stands outside the debating chamber for a moment, tempted to just turn around again and go home. Then he hears a familiar rasp from inside the room, and without thinking about it any further, he opens the door.

Harry's stood there at the lectern saying something about ruling the world. Liam only has time to notice that he's speaking a little more quickly than usual before Harry turns his head and sees him across the room.

That's when Harry stops dead.

To the audience it probably just seems like another pause, because goodness knows Harry likes a dramatic pause even on a normal day. But Liam's been there, and Liam knows better. He sees how Harry's shoulders tighten up, how he looks down at his pad and lets his hair fall across his face. It's a relief when Harry shakes his hair back and starts speaking again. But he's close to inaudible now, breathless, and when he raises his arm to punctuate a point, Liam can see that his hand is shaking.

Harry's general ease is something Liam can find a bit obnoxious. His serenity, his willingness to go along, be pleased, accept what comes his way. It's why Liam's spent too much time wanting to knock him back a bit, push him off-balance. But now Liam's watching Harry fall apart in front of him, and it's awful. It's the worst thing Liam's ever seen, and Liam never, ever wants to see it again.

Harry grinds to another halt and shakes his head, darting a frantic look over at the proposition table where Louis is sitting. In a flash, Louis is up and at Harry's side. He squeezes Harry's shoulder briefly, whispers in his ear, and Harry nods. For a split second, Louis's eyes follow Harry's gaze out into the room and, incredulous, find Liam at the back of the room. Then Harry's sitting down again and Louis's saying breezily, "Right, our Harry's feeling just a bit indisposed, and who can blame him when opposition's arguments are just so utterly sickening? So I'll be taking over for a bit, and let me say first of all that—"

It's too late to slip into a back row seat. It's probably too late for anything. Liam stumbles backward out the door. It's time to go home.

 

*

 

Liam takes a shower. He watches the clock. The debate's definitely over. He turns on the telly and sees almost nothing until the phone buzzes twenty minutes later and it's Zayn.

Why's Harry crying on Lou's shoulder?

Liam doesn't feel like he has it in him to compose an answer. It's not long before Zayn texts him again.

Wtf I said talk to him not break him

In a few minutes he hears from Niall:

Must you stomp all over my partners heart for fucks sake I need him for intervarsity

Liam would be texting back if he had anything to say. He knows what's coming but when Louis's name pops up on the screen ten minutes later he winces anyway.

Are you at home? You better be there bc we are going to have a talk

Which means Louis is going to yell at him. Yesss, texts Liam, and considers for a moment the late train to London.

And by talk I mean pull out your fingernails

In fifteen more minutes Louis is coming through the front door.

"Okay," says Louis, "where should we begin? Should we start with you fucking Harry Styles or with you not telling me you're fucking Harry Styles or with Harry Styles spending the last half hour crying his eyes out to your friends?"

"Oh," says Liam. He turns off the telly. He thinks of Harry crying and feels sick.

"Liam?"

Liam says, "We weren't actually fucking. Or I mean. What would you say counts as fucking?"

Louis glares. "What would you say counts as murder, Liam? Because you're about to experience it personally."

"Um," says Liam. "I fucked up?"

"You think so?"

Liam looks down and says in a very small voice, "I didn't really think he liked me like that."

"You're a prat," says Louis, but he drops his jacket on the floor and moves away from the doorway at last. "The least you can do is make me some tea."

Liam jumps up to put the kettle on, glad to be given something to do. Louis stands there watching with crossed arms as if Liam can't be trusted not to murder a kitten in the process. "So," says Liam, "what exactly did Harry tell you?" He's not actually sure he wants to hear the answer.

"I couldn't make much out in between all the whimpering. He may possibly have mentioned that you won't kiss him." Louis pulls out one of the kitchen chairs and sits on it backwards.

"Oh," says Liam softly.

"I don't understand any of this," says Louis. "If you wanted to experiment you could have just asked Zayn last year. You don't go using people like this, we deal with enough shit as it is. I just—this isn't you, Liam."

"I know," says Liam. "God, I know. It's why I didn't talk to you before, I thought it would seem like this, like some stupid experiment."

"And it's not? Or is this, oh no. You asked me about messing around with someone because you feel sorry for them, are you pity-fucking Harry, because that's beyond—"

"I thought it was the other way around!" yells Liam. "I wanted to kiss him. I want everything, it's too much, that's the problem."

There's a pause. Liam gets out a mug and puts in a teabag and sets the mug down in front of Louis very carefully.

"Liam," says Louis. "Are you saying you're in love with him?"

The kettle makes a gasping sound, because the whistle's broken, and Liam pours tea. "I don't know," he says finally. "It feels—out of control. Like when I'm with him, I don't know what I'm going to do or feel. And then I usually end up acting like a jerk."

"Go on," says Louis.

Liam sits down across from him. "Well, you know I didn't think much of him to start with. And then it seemed like he was being homophobic once—"

Louis starts to giggle.

"Yeah, haha," says Liam morosely, "so I yelled at him. But then I started liking him and instead of telling him that I got mad at him for distracting me. So it's just—gone wrong every step of the way and then tonight I said something just, just bad. But it's maybe for the best anyway. Because he should be with someone who treats him better than I do."

Louis looks at him for a long moment. "You might be right, mate, but I'm not sure Harry sees it that way."

"Well," says Liam, "well. I've fucked it up good and proper now. I wish I hadn't, but that's that."

"Maybe," says Louis. "You don't think Harry might like to know some of this?"

"I don't know," mumbles Liam. "Probably not."

"Look," says Louis. "I don't know exactly what went down tonight, although whatever it was I'm pretty sure that stopping by the debate afterwards to destroy whatever was left of Harry's psyche was the worst possible follow-up move—why the hell did you do that, anyway?"

"I heard his voice through the door," says Liam faintly.

"Jesus, Liam," says Louis. "Okay, moving on. So you obviously have no idea of how to behave in polite society, which I don't really understand as you have my example before you at all times—don't interrupt me—but the thing about you is that even when you have no idea what the fuck you're doing, you're willing to work really hard to figure it out. Are you following me?"

Liam frowns. "Not really."

"What I'm saying is that maybe you can learn how to do this thing with Harry better. If he'll let you. If you're willing to actually try."

Liam says, "I don't think he'll ever want to talk to me again."

Louis says, "If you keep being a giant whiner I don't think I'll ever want to talk to you again either."

Liam thinks about this. Probably Louis is being a ridiculous romantic and far too optimistic, but on the other hand, Harry. "What should I do?"

"Grovelling's good," says Louis. "Also, blowjobs."

"Louis!"

"Or," says Louis, "you could just ask Harry for ideas. I'm tired." He picks up his tea and carries it back over to the sofa. Before sitting down he hands Liam his phone.

Liam stares at it for a while and then texts Im sorry. That doesn't quite seem to cover it though, so he thinks again and follows up with im really really sorry.

"Ooh, bringing out the big guns," says Louis, watching him type.

The problem is, there is very little chance of Liam living through an entire night of wondering whether Harry will text him back. "Louis, do you think I should give him space or would it be okay to try to talk to him tonight?"

"I don't even know why you're still here," says Louis.

Liam texts I didnt mean it the way it soundedd

Liam texts can I talk to u

Liam texts please harry

Louis is following along over his shoulder. "For what it's worth," says Louis, "Zayn and Niall were walking him home."

"I know he's on Hawthorn Street," says Liam. "I don't know where, though."

"You don't know his address? You're running around having a secret affair and you don't even know where he lives?"

Liam remembers that time after the meeting. "He asked me over to his once but I didn't go."

"Unbelievable," mutters Louis.

Liam texts i know your mad but can I come see u ?

"That's my Liam," says Louis. "Get an idea in your thick skull at last and you won't give up."

Liam rolls his eyes and starts typing again. Or if u want to come here Ill make lou clere out

Louis smacks Liam, so Liam knows he's been forgiven. Then Liam's phone buzzes. Liam closes his eyes for a moment before looking.

Why? Do you even like me?

"Don't fuck this up, Liam," hisses Louis.

God yes

When the phone buzzes again, it's an address. Liam grabs a hoodie and shoves on his trainers.

"Did I mention you shouldn't fuck this up?" Louis says.

"Thanks, Louis," says Liam. He means it.

"He's a lovely lad!" hollers Louis after him.

"Fuck off!" Liam calls back.

 

*

 

Liam can see Harry waiting on his steps when he turns the corner. Harry jumps up when he sees Liam, then seems to catch himself and sits back down again. Liam walks up to him, looks at his pale face, oversized jumper, nervous hands. It doesn't seem like Harry's going to ask him in, so Liam sits next to him on the cold stone steps and looks at the lamppost. Harry doesn't say anything, but he moves over a little to make room.

"The truth is," says Liam slowly, "the truth is that when I first met you I actually didn't like you. I didn't like everyone thinking you were wonderful."

Harry snorts. "It's rude how I was good at something you're also good at."

"Yeah," agrees Liam, "it was dumb. But it wasn't just that. You made me feel—look, I was confused. I thought I was feeling weird around you because I didn’t like you but, um, I guess it was also because I did."

"No," says Harry. "You wanted to fuck me. That's different." His voice is bitter.

Liam swallows. "Okay," he says, "I guess I did want that, but I didn't know it till later on. I also started liking you though, for real. And it made me angry, because I didn't want to feel like that. I didn't want to feel all mixed up when you weren't. My life was turning upside down and you just seemed totally unbothered by anything."

Harry kicks at the pavement. "I wasn't unbothered, Liam. "

"I didn't know," says Liam.

"You weren't paying attention."

Liam opens his mouth to argue and then nods. "Not enough. So. I'm sorry for that. And sorry for being jealous of you and for acting like you going down on me wasn't the most amazing thing that ever happened to me. Although I still feel bad about, you know. On your face."

"Yeah, you're going to have to get over that," says Harry. "I just thought that was hot."

Liam can feel where his shoulder is touching Harry's. It's not enough.

"The thing is," says Harry, moving further away, "I kind of realized I want more than hot from you. So if that's what this is, I can't do it. I can't make you feel things you don't feel but I can stop waiting for something that's never going to happen."

"Harry," says Liam, "no."

"It's fine," says Harry, and he pushes Liam's hand away. "I mean, it's not fine right this exact second, but if you don't feel it it's not your fault."

"Let me finish," says Liam. "And I don't mean to argue with you again, because that's what got me into trouble in the first place, but you're, you're not right about how I feel. Like, I didn't not kiss you because I didn't want to kiss you."

"There's no logic there," says Harry. "Negative speaker points."

"I mean I wanted to," says Liam. "I wanted to kiss you so badly I was crazy with it."

Harry stares at him. "Then excuse me," he says, "I don't understand."

"Because it meant so much," says Liam. "Because I didn't know what you wanted, but if I kissed you I'd give away everything and I'd never want to stop."

"Liam," whispers Harry.

"Anyway," says Liam. "That's pretty much what I wanted to tell you." He clears his throat.

"Ask me," says Harry quietly.

"What?"

"Ask me for what you want."

Liam turns for the first time to look Harry in the eye. Harry looks scared, determined. Also, a little bit cold. Liam says, "Can I?"

"More conviction," says Harry. "More eloquence."

Liam says, "Please Harry, can I kiss you?" and when Harry just keeps staring at him, he adds, very quickly, "because I'm pretty far gone for you and if you give me a chance I can be less rubbish at it so let me kiss you, let me try?"

"Sometimes I can't believe you win medals for talking," says Harry, but he tilts his head sideways, just a little.

"Thank you," says Liam earnestly, and takes Harry's head in both hands and kisses him. Liam expects reluctance, he expects something small, because that's all he's earned. But there's only a moment of dry closed lips before Harry makes a noise like a sob and opens his mouth to Liam. It feels like drowning.

They kiss hungrily, inelegantly, Liam's tongue in Harry's mouth. Then Harry's pulling gently away. "Liam. Liam." With Harry's mouth gone, Liam just moves to his jawline, his ear, until Harry puts his hand against his lips. "Liam, stop. Is it what you thought it would be?"

Liam takes Harry's hand from his mouth, kisses his palm. "It's more than that."

"Yeah, okay," says Harry. "You should come inside."

"Right," says Liam hoarsely, a wild relief flooding through him. He lets Harry pull him up and lead him in and up the stairs.

After the evening chill, being in Harry's flat is like walking into a wall of warm air. It's just one room, with the bed in a corner and clutter on the floor that Harry kicks aside. Liam looks about for somewhere to sit, since the one chair is piled high with clothes and books. Meanwhile, Harry pulls his jumper over his head and follows it with his shirt. He's quick and business-like, and his jeans and pants go next. "Liam?" Harry's standing by the bed, waiting for him.

"What do I—" Liam starts. He takes off his hoodie, but more than that still feels presumptuous. He'd thought they would just talk some more. Or make out for a while. But he'll take this though. God, he will. "Harry, tell me what I should do."

"You should kiss me," says Harry, and he sits down on the edge of the bed. Liam kicks off his trainers and goes to him. He stands between Harry's legs and leans down. They kiss a little awkwardly until Harry lies back and brings Liam with him, over him. "You should get rid of this," says Harry, reaching up to tug at Liam's shirt.

"Just a minute," says Liam, "just a minute, I have to—" and then he's leaning down to Harry again, bracing himself on a forearm. He tastes the wet heat of Harry's mouth and then moves downward to suck at his throat. He licks at Harry's collarbones and down to his nipples, kissing everywhere he can.

Harry groans, squirms on the bed, yanks again at Liam's clothes. "Off, Liam, get them off." Liam does his best to strip off and kiss at the same time, a process which Harry apparently has no patience for, because after a minute of fumbling he shoves Liam over and gets his shirt the rest of the way off, then goes for the trousers, pulling them down to Liam's thighs. "Fuck, your body, Liam," breathes Harry, smoothing his hands across Liam's chest, his stomach. He's about to slide a knee over Liam's hips to straddle him when he jerks back suddenly. "Wait, is this okay, I keep forgetting you've not been to bed with a boy before, you can tell me if it's, if it's—"

Liam says, "It's fine, Harry, come on." He wriggles out of his trousers and boxers completely, to prove it.

"Well, I just realized," says Harry, grinning. "I'm, like, deflowering you."

"That was last week," says Liam. "Now you're just making me wait." He pulls Harry down against him, and Harry's body slides against his. It feels so right Liam can't believe it, can't believe his luck and his own stupidity. He kisses Harry again with a hand on the back of his neck, pushes his hips up against him for more friction until Harry gets a hand in between them and takes both their dicks in hand. "Wait," says Liam after a minute, because it's too much, he's too close, and he rolls them over till they're lying on their sides. He kisses Harry on the eyelids, left and then right, and then scoots his way down the bed until Harry's cock is bumping at his lips. Liam puts out his tongue experimentally and Harry giggles.

"That's kind of gay, Liam, are you sure?" In answer Liam dips his head and kisses the insides of Harry's thighs, licking upwards until Harry's quivering under his hands and tongue. Then he opens his mouth and takes his cock in. "Do you like it?" asks Harry, and Liam looks up to see Harry propped up on his elbows, staring down at him with friendly curiosity.

"I think so," says Liam. He likes the feeling, the taste of Harry's skin, the fullness on his tongue. He pushes his tongue experimentally against the underside of the head and then sucks. Harry grabs at his shoulders and swears, so Liam finds a rhythm and does it some more. "Yes," Liam adds when he pulls off again. It's an understatement. He's so hard from having Harry's cock in his mouth he could probably rub off against the mattress.

"Good," says Harry, and Liam goes back to work, trying to make this right for Harry, trying to make it something Harry will want him to do again. "God, Liam," says Harry, and his hips buck up. "You—you don't have to take me that deep." Gasping a little around Harry's cock, Liam darts a glance up at him, feeling proud.

"Being competitive again, aren't you," says Harry unsteadily, and puts a hand in Liam's hair. Liam leans into Harry's hand and sucks and doesn't argue at all. If Harry wants to thrust up, he thinks, he'll take it, but Harry's being quite obviously careful with him now, keeping his hips mostly still under Liam's hands. But he can feel Harry's stomach tensing and hear Harry groaning, his hand on Liam's jaw. "Liam, you want me to, uh, be a gentleman?"

Liam tries to shake his head and hopes Harry gets the message. He tightens his lips around Harry's cock and closes his eyes, and when Harry comes, he takes in the back of his throat and swallows it down. When he opens his eyes, Harry's looking down at him a little worriedly. "You're okay?"

"No, Harry," says Liam, "your prick has killed me dead." Harry hits him on the shoulder and Liam clambers back up the bed next to him. "I liked it," he adds. "I mean, I really liked it."

"Yeah, you did," Harry agrees, looking down the length of Liam's body, and Liam realizes he's pressing his hard-on into Harry's side in a clumsy, hopeful kind of way. "C'mere," says Harry, and moves to kiss him.

"Wait," says Liam, thinking he should rinse his mouth out or something for Harry's sake, but Harry just rolls his eyes.

"Not this again."

"I just mean so that you don't have to—to—"

This time Harry just grabs him and takes his mouth, licking in deep until Liam moans, rolls on top of Harry, kisses him back. Harry's arms go around him immediately, stroking down his back, and Liam grinds against him. "You want to come like that?" says Harry.

"Yeah," Liam chokes out, and moves himself up to thrust against Harry some more, sliding a little in sweat and his own precome. Harry's whispering something, his hands on Liam's arse. Liam trembles, focuses just long enough to hear Harry say, "I can't wait to teach you how to fuck me," and promptly comes so hard he sees sparks.

He collapses on Harry, gasping, and Harry lets him lie there, holding him close. Finally Liam rolls off and Harry slides an arm under him and brings Liam's head to his shoulder.

Harry murmurs, "So I guess I'll add that to the list, then."

Liam thinks being naked in bed with Harry after a truly mind-blowing orgasm is probably the point at which Harry should stop being able to make him blush. He reaches up to tug at one of Harry's curls. "You talk a lot during, don't you?"

Harry just sticks out his tongue at him and says, "Hey, I like your face."

"Let's not talk about how I feel about yours," says Liam. "I'm really glad you let me come over."

"I wasn't going to," says Harry.

"I know," says Liam, and he props himself up on his elbow. "Can we be—like, dating now? Officially?"

Harry giggles. "Can you write that in a little note and pass it to me in lecture? Just in case you could possibly be cuter?"

"I just like to have everything organized in my mind," explains Liam. "So?"

"Well," says Harry slowly. "I mean, now that Zayn's not available. It's a shame about Niall, though, with us being partners and all. Of course there's Louis. And Louis's amazing, you said so yourself, have you actually seen his—mmf!" Because Liam's shutting him up with his mouth.

"Anyway," says Harry, when Liam lets him go, "I suppose I can't have you mucking up another debate fretting about this. Like, 'is he my boyfriend? Or does he just keep sucking my dick to throw me off my game?'"

"'Keep?'" asks Liam happily.

"Yes," says Harry.

"To which question?"

"Both," says Harry. "All of them."

 

*

 

LADIES RULE AT INTERVARSITY DEBATE
By Sugar Fields

Niall reads off the headline with gusto and crams an enormous bite into his mouth. It's two weeks later, and the five of them are having a pub lunch. Niall, for some reason, is insisting on inflicting the student newspaper on everyone else.

"We could always just eat," Harry suggests. Niall ignores him.

Perrie Edwards and partner Leigh-Anne Pinnock took first place at the Hollick IV last weekend, with Jade Thirlwall and Jesy Nelson breaking to finals and finishing in the top ten.

"Don't read with your mouth full, Niall," says Louis, and snatches the paper away. Niall throws a chip at him, but Louis shields himself with the paper and continues reading to the rest of them.

Their showing at this highly competitive tournament surpasses that of Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Harry Styles, and Niall Horan at Finchester earlier in the term.

"That was unnecessary," says Zayn, putting an arm around Niall. "You lot did very well."

Asked their secret, Edwards stated that it was 'concentration and discipline.'

"We've got that too, though," Liam says, and then looks at where Harry's got hold of his hand. "Well, I used to."

'I love their hair!' said longtime debate fan Lizzie Barnes of Edwards, Pinnock, Thirlwall, and Nelson.

"Here," says Louis, and hands the paper to Zayn. "You can read the rest."

"I'm so tired of debate drama," complains Zayn. "I'm going to make new friends who hike or something." But he puts on his glasses anyway and reads.

Meanwhile, Payne and Styles's disappearance from Fight Night following a spate of lackluster performances has debate fans scratching their heads. Sources close to the two suggest they will be back on top of their game this Thursday, but that Horan and Tomlinson are truly the ones to watch.

"Unfair to you, really," says Louis. "Taking one week off because you're too busy shagging shouldn't count as a disappearance."

"Lackluster," Harry repeats.

"Just pretend you didn't read it," advises Zayn. "Works for Liam."

"I'm one to watch!" carols Niall happily.

"Niall," says Liam. "You know 'sources close to the two' are actually Louis, right?"

"I have a duty to keep our fans informed," says Louis solemnly. Simultaneously, Liam and Harry throw chips at him.

"Two against one," complains Louis. "I can't believe what I put up with from you people."

Zayn leans over and kisses Louis on the cheek. "I've got your back, love."

"Metaphorically, he means," Niall explains. Zayn turns around and nips his earlobe reassuringly.

"Aww, sweet," says Harry, and wriggles into Liam's lap.

Liam buries his face in Harry's hair for a moment. "You are," he whispers.

Louis watches, looking a little exasperated. "Possibly Cher was right," he says. "It is a bit sickening."

"Don't lie," says Zayn, "you love us."

"Yeah," says Louis. His gaze, speculative, takes each of them in. "I do."