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Been Together Since Way Back When

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Scorching summer heat hangs on Louis’ limbs like a heavy coat, glimmering sweat resting along his exposed skin like a layer of tan lace. Each step is heavy, like moving through clear fog; being outside right now is making Louis hate everyone and everything that has led him to this point.

It’s nighttime. The sun is down. It’s not supposed to be this hot, aren’t there rules about this sort of thing?

But it’s the first Friday before the semester begins, and a well-earned drink or seven before a whole new round of classes and events and parties and work is a time-honored tradition as old as college itself. He’ll persevere, for tradition’s sake.  

That doesn’t mean he’s going to go quietly, though.  

“Tell me again, Liam,” Louis gripes under his breath, pulling his shirt away from his sticky stomach and fanning himself, “why it is that we couldn’t bring your car tonight?”  

Liam, who’s twirling his keyring on his fingers and whistling jauntily, looking daisy fresh and not as though it broke a hundred degrees outside today, grins and throws his arm over Louis’ shoulders. Louis grimaces and wriggles out from under it, the skin-to-skin contact just a little too much right now, what with the oppressive heat of a thousand sultry suns crushing down on him. (It’s nighttime. What the fuck.) Liam doesn't seem to mind.

“Sorry, Lou,” he says cheerfully, continues swinging his keys like he’s doing pageant tricks. Louis frowns at him, pokes him in the ribs, wonders if excessive time at the gym would make him heat resistant as well. “Walking is good for you! And we live so close, might as well.”

“Relax, bro,” Niall says, reaching over and knocking Louis’ arm lightly with his knuckles. He’s bouncy as ever, leading their little pack towards the looming noises and glowing lights of Campus Square. The pounding bass from the dance club is already vibrating the ground under their feet, the cheers of drunken students pouring out of the nearest buildings, each one with its doors flung open to catch any hint of a breeze. “It’s not like any of us will want to drive back tonight anyway.”

He’s got a point there.

They cross one final street and Campus Square unfolds before them, a couple of blocks of nightlife and cheap restaurants within walking distance of the college campus, a haven for its students. Multitudes of undergrads have flooded the area, braving the heat of a summer night to celebrate going back to school after a summer of nothing. Louis, Liam, and Niall call out greetings to friends and familiar faces as they continue along the crowded street, heading for their favorite spot at the end of the row of brightly-lit buildings.

The sidewalks are teeming, crowded with girls in tiny dresses and tall shoes hanging off of each other and laughing loudly, boys in khaki shorts and pastel button-ups with the sleeves pushed to their elbows sloshing beer out of clear plastic cups. Lights flash from within the dance club on the corner, illuminating a gyrating crowd; Louis screws up his face in distaste, the idea of pressing up against other people right now sounding incredibly unappealing. There’s a cloud of smoke billowing out of the New Age cafe, every person visible through the restaurant’s front windows puffing on ridiculously elaborate vape pens. The line for the food trucks stretch around the corner, and the muted strains of karaoke music and the cracks of billiards balls spill from the pub. Louis waves at his friend Jaymi, who’s in line to get into the dance club, and Liam’s friend Sophia gives him a giggly kiss on the cheek as she wobbles by with her gang of friends. They lose Niall for a little while, finding him with his friends Julian and John at the pizza-by-the-slice stand, knee-deep in a conversation about guitar strings that goes right over Louis’ head. They pull Niall away and soldier onward, passing a few more crowded outdoor bars with tacky beach themes and dollar margaritas and then they're at the edge of the Square.

Louis exhales deeply and lets the stress of a new year evaporate from his chest, inhales excitement and happiness, his lungs filling with the warmth of spicy air and the thick scent of old smoke and spilled alcohol.

He’s home, finally home, back where his shoes know the feeling of the pavement under his feet. Back where he found himself a place, a niche, where he learned the rules of the game until he saw an opening, and then he fashioned himself a crown and clambered to the title of king of the campus.  

Blue neon beckons them forward, a single bright light pulling at them like a magnet. It’s the last bar on the street, an old brick exterior covered in faded swirls of discolored graffiti and an ancient Coke ad (Sold everywhere, 5 cents!), the double doors coated in cracked admiral blue paint. The High Dive’s bright sign shines down on them and the empty sidewalk as they reach the door, Niall holding it open for Liam and Louis as they traipse their way inside.

Outside the bar might have been empty, but inside it’s packed, hopping. The bar is surrounded by a crowd four people deep, and Louis can see Jesy’s long hair swinging wildly as she pours drink after drink. Her coworkers duck under her moving arms and spin past each other in practiced movements, calling for beers on tap and to pass the raspberry vodka and someone go get limes from the back, please! It’s a madhouse, controlled chaos, and it’s exactly the way Louis likes it.

They shake hands with Alberto, the usual bouncer who gives their IDs the briefest of glances, and then Louis leads the way to a slightly emptier section around the circular bar. He weaves expertly between people at all points of the drunk spectrum, from those grinning into their first beer of the night to those swaying like they're on the deck of a ship. A girl wearing a football jersey as a dress flings her head back in laughter and splashes half her drink on the floor as they pass; Louis dodges it, but just barely, then laughs at Liam when he steps directly in the sticky alcohol puddle.

It takes a minute to maneuver to a couple of open spots at the bar, but once they do Jesy spots them immediately and heads their way, her smile spreading automatically.

“The boys are back in town,” she laughs, grabbing three shot glasses and pouring a round of tequila.  

“Thanks, Jes,” Louis says over the din. “Busy night?”

“First weekend back is always busy,” Jesy shrugs, adjusting her jean shorts and fanning her tanktop. Cool air is being pumped in but it’s so crowded you can’t tell, every person in the place wearing a layer of sweat like a badge of honor. “Everyone wants to let loose before they have to buckle down. Now, you gonna drink those, or am I gonna have to do it for you?”

Louis chuckles and hands two glasses over his shoulder to Niall and Liam. Jesy salts their hands, they clink the glasses together, grin over the rims of their drinks, and throw the shots back.

“Damn,” Liam hisses, grimacing as the heavy clench of alcohol tugs at his throat. They grab the limes Jesy offers and suck desperately, chasing the burn from their mouths.

“Put those on my tab, as well as the first round,” Niall says, shouldering up next to Louis when the guy beside them gets his drink and leaves.

“Nah, the shots are on me,” Jesy says, waving him off. “It’s good to see you boys.”

They thank Jesy with promises of a tip that'll outweigh what they spend on drinks and she shoos them away with a grin on her face, pointing to their favorite booth in the back corner just as it becomes vacant. Falling onto the warm faux leather seats is like settling into a throne, if Louis’s feeling like extending his king of the campus metaphor, and as he's already tasting the effects of tequila and beer swimming in his veins, metaphorical is just one of a long list of things he's feeling.

“Gentlemen,” Liam says, ceremonious and serious as he juts his chin and lifts his glass. Niall and Louis smirk to each other but copy him, lifting theirs as well. “To us.”

“To doing the minimum amount of homework possible and still passing our classes,” Niall says next.  

“To cheap booze, cheap food, and hopefully cheap textbooks,” Louis says.

“To Friday nights we won't remember and Monday mornings we’ll wish we could forget.”

“To employers who will want to pay us to half-ass jobs we’re far overqualified for.”

“To a hell of a last go round,” Louis finishes simply. Niall and Liam’s smiles don't dim, but they do burn into something softer.

“Hear, hear,” Liam nods.

“Salud, boys,” Niall says, and they tap their glasses together.

Round one fades into another, into another. They hold court in their corner booth as other groups of their friends merge around them; John and Julian find them again after a while, the Dive a pit stop on their way to the dingy place down the street that has live music on weekends. One of the girls from the LGBT club, Jade, finds them, her makeup smudged but her smile bright, tugging a blonde girl along with her and balancing a round of Fireball shots she passes around like candy. They also do a round with Nick, a doctoral student friend of theirs who stops by to chat with Liam about the college radio show and see about Louis’ plans for the club’s philanthropy project this year. Ed finds his way over eventually, his words slow, syllables dragging, holding up his empty pint glass and squinting at the foam left in the bottom, saying, “Someone help me out, w’s tha’ my seventh ‘r ninth drink? Tryin’ to keep track so I don’ get—hic—drunk.”  

Midnight finds Louis fuzzy and pleasantly warm, nursing a Long Island iced tea and arguing about something with Liam, though he can't remember what it is he's meant to be arguing about. Niall is, as per usual, draped across Liam’s lap, Liam stroking his fingers through Niall’s hair as he lays out another point in his probably very well-crafted argument. (Louis thinks he hears the word Gaga, but is it Lady or Radio they're discussing? Or, twist ending, what if it's neither? Either way, he will win the debate.) The massive crowds have filtered out by now, moved on to the next stops on their night out agendas, leaving small groups of the devoted Dive customers behind, those like Louis and Niall and Liam who’re too damn old to go traipsing to six different bars in one night when they like this one best and they don't have to give up their seats.

It's there, in that familiar chipped pleather seat, with Louis sliding a mostly-empty glass across the surface of a carved and graffitied table, hot summer air blanketing his shoulders like a cloak, his best boys laughing and talking around him as P.M. turns to A.M.; it's there that it happens.

It will irk Louis massively later that he doesn't remember what exactly it is: maybe it was a portion of the crowd parting and drawing Louis’ eye. Maybe it was a breeze swirling through the door when it opened and trailing a cool finger down Louis’ neck. Maybe it was Fate looking up from whatever she was doing and realizing oh, it's time. Louis doesn't know what causes it. All he does know is that he's mid-sentence and about to win the argument with Liam about either Lady or Radio Gaga when he stops, the strangest itch between his shoulderblades and in the middle of his palms.

Whatever it is, be it Fate or luck or pixie dust, Louis turns to look at the door.

And, though he may not realize it, that's the instant his life changes.  

Two demigods stand in the doorway and survey the crowd, or, no, they’re two archangels sent to ravage the earth with fiery swords and smoldering glances, or it’s Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley looking out over Netherfield Hall at the commoners gathered to dance for them. Only they're both too carved-from-marble-by-the-hand-of-Jesus-himself beautiful to be cast as cheerful Mr. Bingley, so they'll have to share the Darcy title.

God, what the hell is happening? One look at the two guys in the doorway and Louis’ brain started chattering literature and Bible references. He shakes his head like that'll clear the haze, but to no avail. He blinks and they're still there, still prettier than anyone has a right to be.

Louis thought he knew everyone on campus, or at least a good majority. He's been around long enough that the few thousand faces that attend this college are at least vaguely familiar to him. Clearly not, though, as he'd definitely remember these two. One of them is in leather, a jacket molded to his lithe arms and shoulders like it had been crafted with him in mind. He's onyx-haired and stubble-chinned, his sharp cheekbones carrying the barest hint of a five o’clock shadow. Eyelashes sweep like feathers to rest along his hazelnut skin, and there's a cigarette tucked behind a pierced ear to complement the devil-may-care rips in his Misfits band tee and worn black jeans.

Like a contrast of dark and light, like a spring day following a deep winter evening, the leather-clad one is trailed into the room by a Botticelli cherub grown into a strong-jawed seraph. Tight denim wraps around sweet thighs, hugging him so closely that Louis can see the ripple of individual muscles with each step forward. He's wearing a shirt so sheer it's like he's draped himself in pale smoke patterned with faded roses, unbuttoned to the middle of his chest to display the dip between his pecs and an obscene amount of smooth, creamy skin. Tawny fawn curls tumble around his ears, pushed out of his eyes in a high arching wave. Rose-dusted cheeks show the barest hint of a dimple, and juniper eyes catch the dim light and reflect it back tenfold.

Louis can't breathe, but maybe these are his escorts to heaven. He'd be okay with that.

The bar chatter dims noticeably as more and more people notice the newcomers. The two of them don't act as if anything's amiss; if they've noticed the whispers their presence has spawned, they certainly don't seem bothered. Leather Jacket leads Barely Clothed to the bar, propping their hips against the worn wood like they're doing it a favor and leaning close to murmur orders to Jesy.

Louis knows he's not as drunk as he feels. Still, he can't wrangle enough control to pull his eyes from the curly-headed one’s massive hands wrapped around a glass of something pale orange and fruity, only flickering away briefly to catch the way his strawberry pink lips form around words like he's never used them before.

“I need to know what his voice sounds like when he says my name,” Louis says dazedly. He’s not drunk, he’s not, he’s just been struck by a need so tangible it makes his fingers tingle and he might tip dizzily out of the booth.

“Which one?” Niall and Liam both ask immediately, and that’s enough to rip Louis’ attention away from Angel Face Barely Clothed (his full legal name, surely) and the way his throat moves when he swallows his drink. They’re both staring at the same scene Louis had to tear his eyes from; Niall, who’s had four Jägerbombs and more beer than Louis and Liam combined, has even swayed his way into sitting up and moved himself out of Liam’s lap, it’s that serious. They both look thunderstruck, or maybe lightning-struck would be more apt—jolted with electricity, sizzling with white hot heat.

Louis knows how they feel.

“The one that looks like a Julia Roberts had a baby with a vampire from an 80s movie and then grew up to be a Disney prince who only eats cherries and edible glitter,” Louis answers belatedly, turning back to watch Angel Face Barely Clothed run long fingers through his hair, shaking out the curls and making Louis’ heart flutter.

“Fuck that,” Niall says, his eyes wide. “Who’s his friend?”

“Yeah,” Liam agrees breathily. “I need to know who to blame when I die of a heart attack.”

There’s a hint of a smile tugging at Angel Face’s mouth, and as he finishes his drink he beckons Jesy over and leans close, whispering in her ear. Whatever he says has her laughing, throwing her head back in delight, and then when she leans forward to answer his smile grows wider as well. Louis is so busy watching Angel Face move that he jumps in surprise when Jesy appears next to his elbow, holding a tray of drinks.

“The guys at the bar sent these to you,” she says, grinning wickedly. She sets three bright pink drinks in wide-rimmed glasses in front of them, cherries perched jauntily on the rim. “They also wanted me to tell you that they can hear you.”

“Oh, fuck,” Louis blurts, and he can see Angel Face’s shoulders shake in laughter. Jesy laughs as well and slips back behind the bar, leaving Liam, Louis, and Niall staring at each other in horror.

“What do we do?” Liam whispers, his cheeks flaming red.

“We, uh,” Louis trails off, casting about wildly for something to use as an excuse, someone else to pin his mind’s alcohol-induced blabbering on. There’s no one. He takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders. “We thank them.”

Niall gulps. “After you, then.”

Louis isn’t drunk, he isn’t, it just takes a couple of tries to get to his feet. He grabs his pink drink and makes his way to the bar, determined to not let the toe-curling embarrassment keep him from at least hearing words come out of this guy’s mouth.

Angel Face turns as Louis approaches, the corner of his mouth ticked up in a smirk.

And, fuck, he's even prettier up close.

“Thank you,” Angel Face says, smirk blowing into a full grin, and Louis takes a moment to appreciate the rumble of his deep, deep voice before he realizes he must have said that out loud.

“Oh, God,” Louis says, wincing. “Please take into consideration that I am usually much smoother than this, but a lot of very inconsiderate people kept buying me shots tonight.”

Angel Face laughs, and it's a loud squawk of a heavenly chorus. Louis is half in love with it already, which doesn't bode well for him. “I'll try to remember that.”

“I'm Louis,” he says, deciding to embrace his obvious attraction to this person and wear it proudly, “and you should tell me your name so I can stop calling you Angel Face in my head.”

“It's Harry,” the boy replies, eyes glittering. “How are you, Louis?”

“I'm magnificent,” Louis answers. “And you?”

“I'm fantastic, thanks,” Harry says. He swirls his second pale orange drink, takes a sip, gives Louis a once-over from behind his glass. “So. Does your name sound good in my mouth?”

Louis swallows hard. “Better than I'd even imagined,” he says honestly. When Harry keeps watching him, smiling widely, Louis takes a drink of the pink concoction Harry had ordered just to give his nervous hands something to do. Then, “Can I ask, why did you buy us cosmos?”

“Oh, Jesy recommended it,” Harry says, thumbing over his shoulder to where Jesy is trying to pretend she's innocently wiping down the bar top and not listening in. “She said you guys like to order them and pretend like you're on Sex and the City.”

“That was one time,” Louis yelps, and Jesy and Harry both fall into giggles. “And it was supposed to be a secret.”

“Niall stood on the bar and told everyone he wants to be called Samantha,” Jesy reminds him. “It wasn't that secret.”

“You also tweeted, instagrammed, and snapchatted it,” Liam calls from the booth, and Louis turns to glare at him. The chicken couldn't come over to talk to his leather-clad sex fantasy but he can mock Louis from afar? No, no he can't.

“You changed your Twitter name to Miranda,” Louis shoots back. “You have no room to talk.”

“I'm Carrie,” Harry says firmly, like he’s given it thought before this moment and he’s sure of his answer, “and not just because it rhymes. Though that's nice too.”

“Harry,” Louis says in wonder, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Harry grins brightly and clinks his glass against Louis’ in agreement.

It doesn’t take much coaxing to get Harry and his friend—Zayn, that’s his name, which is somehow both exotic and cool enough to fit him perfectly—to follow Louis over to the booth where Niall and Liam still sit. Niall introduces himself and immediately draws Zayn into a conversation about the Misfits and then the Ramones and then Iggy Pop’s influence on the 90s punk revival without a care in the world. He’s got the embarrassment threshold of a toddler, which Louis envies, and usually by the time he’s confronted about something embarrassing he’s already forgotten what there was to be embarrassed about.

Liam, though. Liam spends the first few minutes staring at Zayn like he’s afraid he’ll disappear, a hallucination that will vanish if he blinks too often. He stutters his way through an introduction and blushes madly when Zayn nods hello. But then—

“Got it after I got into the graphic arts program here,” Zayn says, pushing the sleeve of his jacket up and showing off a massive ZAP! tattoo amongst the other ink on his arm. Niall whistles in appreciation and rolls Zayn’s arm so he can see the full thing. “‘ve always wanted to do comic book illustrations, ever since I bought my first comic.”

“You like comic books?” Liam croaks.

Zayn turns, raises an eyebrow, and smirks. “I do, yeah. And?”

Liam wordlessly pulls his unbuttoned flannel shirt open a little wider, showing the Bat Signal in bold yellow across his chest. Zayn’s smirk grows into a wide, honest grin.

After that, it’s nearly impossible to keep up. Zayn clambers in between Niall and Liam and they fall into rapid circles of conversation, movies and books and music and concerts and food and more, Liam’s cheeks flushed with excitement now and Niall’s voice going scratchy from laughing so often. They pull at Zayn’s attention like kids playing tug-of-war, Zayn looking back and forth between them like watching a tennis match up close.

Louis watches it all unfold and wonders how this could ever end well, with Niall’s arm thrown over the back of the booth and draping across Zayn’s shoulders, and Liam’s knees pressing closer and closer to Zayn’s with each new topic.

Soon, though, Liam, Zayn, and Niall could start a tap dance there on the table in front of Louis and he wouldn’t spare them a glance. He’s completely absorbed in Harry, Harry, Harry, his honey-dipped words, his slow-rolling syllables, the way he bites his lip when he watches Louis speak. Somehow his hand finds its way onto Louis’ knee and it takes a moment for Louis’ lungs to restart, the warmth of his palm like a flare firing through his veins. Louis returns the favor a few minutes later, sliding his palm to rest against Harry’s hip, his nervous fingers playing with the hem of Harry’s delicate shirt. Harry doesn’t let him get away with it uncommented, licking his lips and looking at Louis through his eyelashes, murmuring, “You can touch me, don’t worry,” against Louis’ ear. Louis shivers, his fingers sliding up under the material and brushing Harry’s soft waist, and Harry’s pupils dilate.

Louis loses track of their conversation; Harry could be reading the Dive menu and Louis would still be hooked on his every word. They’re leaning closer, closer, their lips inches away, Harry’s hand moving higher up Louis’ thigh, Louis’ fingers trailing upward, caressing at Harry’s waist. Their other hands find each other under the table, lacing together and making Harry blush faint pink.

Closer, closer, and Louis’ head starts to tilt unconsciously, his whole body shifting to be closer to Harry, the first person under the hot moonlight tonight whose body heat Louis hasn’t shied away from. Closer, and Harry’s hand squeezes Louis’ like a warning. Closer, and Louis finally whispers, “Can I?” and Harry nods like he can’t agree quick enough.

Closer, trading air, their noses brushing, Harry’s cologne enveloping Louis and pulling him in. Closer, Louis’ heart thundering in his chest.

Closer.

“Last call!” Jesy yells from the bar. The dim lights brighten and Closing Time blasts through the speakers, and Louis wonders if maybe Fate isn’t as nice a lady as he was making her out to be.

“C’mon,” Niall says, breaking through the swirl of Louis’ thoughts. He’s still only mere breaths from Harry’s lips, the music and lights startling them apart but not too far. Niall throws a napkin at them and starts to shuffle out of the booth, holding out a hand to help Zayn to his feet. “Jes’ll throw us out herself if we make her stay late.”

Louis sighs, and he sees the corner of Harry’s mouth tic up in a grin. They back away from each other and follow Liam, Niall, and Zayn out into the muggy night. They stand in a warped circle on the pavement outside, Harry and Louis so close their arms are brushing, Niall and Liam flanking Zayn like bodyguards.

“We’re, uh, we’re that way,” Liam says, breaking the quiet, pointing north at the vague direction of their apartment, which right now feels ages away.

“We’re in the dorms,” Zayn replies, pointing the opposite direction.

“Right, well. It was fun, guys,” Niall says, shaking Harry and Zayn’s hands. “Let’s do it again.”

“Definitely,” Harry agrees.

Liam and Niall both look to Louis to lead them off, but Louis just. He can’t. Not this night, not this boy. He can’t let go like this was just going to be a fun fling, not when his skin sparks every time it touches Harry’s. He nods to Liam and Niall and they get it, waving over their shoulders and telling Louis they’ll be having a smoke when he’s ready to go. Zayn pulls out his phone and melts into the shadows next to the bar, giving Harry and Louis some illusion of space.

Louis doesn’t get a moment to prepare when it’s just him and Harry under the star-sprinkled sky. A large, soft hand cups his cheeks, he winds his arms automatically around Harry’s shoulders, and when Harry whispers, “Can I?” just like Louis did a few minutes before, Louis surges onto his toes and kisses Harry breathlessly.

It doesn’t seem to matter that Harry and Louis met each other tonight, mere hours ago: Louis falls into Harry’s lips and he’s home after a long, long time of being away. Harry tastes like chamomile and dark chocolate, like rum and sunshine, like gold dust and honey. His hand fits perfectly in the dip of Louis’ waist, his tongue tracing patterns in Louis’ mouth and making his knees weak, his voice hitching in tiny, helpless noises. They kiss and kiss, kiss until their lips ache, until their breath comes in gasps. They kiss and Louis wonders if he’ll ever get enough; they kiss and Louis knows he never will.

They break apart and Harry leans their foreheads together, both of them short of breath and clutching at each other like they can’t imagine letting go. “Come home with me,” Harry rasps, his voice throaty. Louis wonders what it sounds like when he’s been taken apart, wonders if it gets even rougher after a night spent tangled together.

But— “No,” Louis whispers against his lips.

Harry’s brow furrows. “No?”

“No,” Louis repeats. “This can’t be one night. I need more than one night with you.”

Harry’s shoulders loosen, his fingers caressing Louis’ cheek. “How many more?”

“A fucking lifetime,” Louis breathes, and they’re kissing again.

When they break apart it’s only to fall back together again, again, again, and the summer night air wraps around them like a safety blanket.

When they go their separate ways it’s with Harry’s phone number in Louis’ contacts and Louis’ in Harry’s too, and only a few dozen more kisses to tide them over until the next time they meet.

When Louis gets back to the apartment, having spent the whole meandering walk ignoring Liam and Niall’s teasing, he gets a single text from Harry wishing him sweet dreams and he falls asleep with a smile.

When Louis walks into the campus Starbucks on Monday morning, he shouldn’t be surprised to bump into someone who smells like sunlight and fresh-cut grass and honey, a familiar wide smile appearing on a familiar dimpled, rose-brushed face.

When Louis Tomlinson met Harry Styles in a dingy campus bar after far too many drinks, he shouldn’t have expected his life to change.

But it did.

Chapter Text

Louis has glitter on his hands.

Not just, like, slight shimmer from a sparkle-infused lotion like those ones Lottie wears, or a couple of tiny glitter pieces that flaked off of a shirt. His hands are coated, a trail of obnoxiously hot pink following him wherever he goes. His palms look like a Barbie war zone. There’s so much glitter it looks like he jacked off a unicorn.

That’s a good one; he should text it to Harry.

The damnable glitter gets all in the cracks of his phone when he pulls it out of his pocket, falling into the edges of the plastic case and generally ruining Louis’ life. He fumbles with the posterboard and his sunglasses and his wallet that won’t fit in the pocket of his jeans because they’re too tight, and all that fumbling attracts attention from passers-by. Which is fine; if Louis didn’t want attention then he wouldn’t get any, he’s perfectly able to blend in when it’s someone else’s turn in the spotlight. In a moment like this, though, he’s cool with being noticed. Sort of the point, actually.

Glitter is basically bottled unicorn come he sends to Harry, the latest in a long line of unanswered blue bubbles, a little Delivered underneath his texts that’ll haunt him until it switches over to Read.

Message sent, he keeps his phone out just to fuck around on Twitter and Instagram and pass some time. He double taps a picture of Lottie and her latest shade of hair color (it’s now pale pink, an interesting choice but hey, she’s a Tomlinson, she can pull anything off), replies to Niall’s think i’m bout ready fr school to start, so bored tweet with boo hoo, someone is tired of sleeping in til noon everyday, cry me a river. He replies to Zayn’s Snapchat of his latest half-finished painting with a patented Tommo cross-eyed selfie, then sends another snap of his hand with the unicorn, eggplant, and water droplet emojis, knowing Zayn’ll get the joke. He’s just about to answer Liam’s text asking if they’ll be back by dinnertime when he gets the feeling he should check his message string to Harry instead.

He does, and his heart flips. There, under his last text about unicorn ejaculation, are the little gray words Read 3:42 PM and three dots telling him Harry’s plane has landed and he’s finally able to text Louis back.

Louis gathers his things and makes for the baggage claim entrance, knowing that if he can spot Harry’s luggage before he even gets here it’ll save them a lot of trouble and Harry tripping over himself trying to grab his things from the conveyer belt. He’s precious and wonderful, Harry is, but he’s also got the coordination of a newborn horse and the shaky knees to match, and Louis will do a lot of things to keep Harry from cracking that pretty skull of his.

Louis’ palms are sweating as he scrambles after Harry’s (white faux leather, naturally) luggage,  though he knows it’s an incredibly ridiculous reaction to Harry’s proximity. It’s Harry, the boy who’s seen him at day three of sleeplessness while cramming for exams, who’s witnessed multiple mornings where Louis woke hugging a toilet, who once spent a whole week in a tent with a Louis who bathed in river water and had no access to a razor or real soap; he’s seen Louis’ best and worst, and is definitely not one to judge for Louis’ less than shining moments.

It’s ridiculous to be all jumpy and fidgety just because Harry’s in the vicinity. Louis is just excited, that’s the thing, excited and so, so ready to see Harry after a long three months apart.

I'm home, Harry's message says when it comes through, and Louis’ heart flips.

Home. Harry's home.

Harry couldn’t just spend his last summer as a college student lounging on a beach and slumming it on cheap beer and fast food, or lazing around their shitty apartment complex’s pool and pretending their Big Gulps from 7-11 aren’t half vodka, no, definitely not. He had to go somewhere that needed his help building a church or a school or a playground or something, somewhere with little hope and no help, Cambodia or Nicaragua or Detroit or something.

(Louis knows it was Haiti, and that it was a school, and that it was actually amazing that Harry wanted to help and if Louis hadn’t had to work all summer, he’d have been right there next to Harry hammering walls together or however the fuck you build a school. Still, wonderful deed that it was aside, Louis is going to need some time before he forgives Haiti for stealing Harry for so long and leaving Louis with only all of the rest of their friends to hang out with for the whole summer.)

People start spilling out of the doorway from the gate, tired people who smell collectively like stale air and exhaustion, but Louis pays them no mind. He’s got a boy to find amongst the unfamiliar faces.

And then there he is.

Harry looks as tired as his fellow passengers, though his type of tired is more content than drained, like the looseness that comes from a good workout. But he’s golden-brown and bright, bright teeth bright eyes bright hair pulled up in a messy half-bun, and when he spots Louis waiting for him he goes brighter, sunlight slipping out from behind a cloud.

Louis beams back, then lifts his pink-glittered neon green sign over his head so Harry can see.

WELCOME HOME NERD, the sign proclaims.

The sound of Harry’s loud cackle over the subtle airport din is worth all the glitter that is forever embedded in Louis’ palm lines.

His mission accomplished, Louis tosses the sign down on a nearby bench and wades against the blank-eyed crowd, slipping between lumbering shoulders and stepping over rolling suitcases until he’s so close to Harry that it’s breath-stealing, heart-lurching. Louis is a proud romantic cliché so he jumps, jumps right into Harry’s arms and doesn’t care that he stumbles, only cares about the way his hands wrap around Louis’ thighs and that the way they fold together makes him unable to think anything but he’s home, he’s home, he’s finally home.

They don’t waste time with pleasantries—Harry’s mouth is on Louis’ the second they’re in the same space, biting sharp kisses that Louis knows mean things like I love you and I missed you and I’m not the nerd, you are. Louis hums into the kiss, his lips tasting Harry’s and relearning them after time spent apart, though that familiarity never really faded. He curls his hand around Harry’s strong jaw and when he pulls away there’s glitter there, a pink palm-shaped print that somehow doesn’t look as ridiculous on Harry’s face as it would on literally anyone else.

Harry opens his mouth and Louis grins preemptively, ready to hear his favorite voice in person again, tired of having that beautiful rumble altered by the airwaves of international phone calls or Skype dates over shitty internet connections.

“Glitter is not unicorn come, Louis,” is the first thing Harry says, and Louis is stunned for the slightest of moments. And then Harry continues, straight-faced, “Glitter is clearly fairy come. What sort of education are you getting at that law school, anyway?”

Louis throws his head back, laughing so hard his ribs ache pleasantly, and then kisses Harry again. “God, I missed you.”

Harry smiles widely against Louis’ mouth. “Missed you too. So much, you have no idea.” He sets Louis gently on the ground but keeps him close, the two of them like stones parting a stream, waves of people moving around them and leaving their little happy bubble uninterrupted. They stand there for a long moment, grinning at each other like utter idiots, and take in all the changes from their weeks apart. Harry’s hair is longer, the longest curls dripping below his collarbones now, and his skin’s golden brown and criss-crossed with various tanlines. He’s broad as ever, his strong shoulders pulling against his faded Rolling Stones shirt, his long, lithe thighs encased in a pair of yoga pants. His eyes are etched with lines from lack of sleep, his cheeks lightly stubbled with days’ worth of not shaving, and he’s so beautiful it sort of makes Louis want to cry.

He tugs at the hem of Harry’s t-shirt and bites his lip, grinning, overwhelmingly happy to have his boy back with him once more. “So what does unicorn come look like? Since you’re the expert, apparently.”

Harry, after a snorted laugh, answers, “Unicorns ejaculate rainbows, Louis, honestly.” He shakes his head sadly, though his lips are pursed to keep from laughing. He tugs Louis close and throws his arm over his shoulders, picking up his bag with his other hand. “Any self-respecting gay man knows that.”

Louis laughs, his heart and his feet light, and tucks his hand into Harry’s back pocket. They’re almost at the door when Louis stops, squirming out from under Harry’s arm and running back to the bench and his abandoned glittery poster.

“For our bedroom,” he explains brightly, tucking himself back against Harry’s side and clutching his poster close. “I think it’ll really match the decor.”

“Oh, absolutely,” Harry giggles, pressing a kiss to Louis’ hair. “Navy, white, and neon green with pink sparkles. A perfect fit.”

“Just like us,” Louis beams, and Harry’s laugh follows them to the parking lot.

It’s quiet back at the apartment, which isn’t much of a surprise. It’s Wednesday, which means Niall has faculty meetings and Liam’s got studio appointments, and Zayn’s probably tucked quietly away in his room. Harry was gushing stories about Haiti that Louis has already heard the whole drive back from the airport, but jetlag and three months of manual labor have caught up to him and he’s dead on his feet, dropping his bags just inside the door and face-planting on the couch.

“Haz,” Louis says, stifling a laugh. “No, babe, not there. C’mon, to bed.”

Harry mumbles something into the couch cushions that Louis doesn’t catch, so he rolls Harry’s head sideways and prods at his cheek to get him to repeat himself. “Said, y‘re gonn’ take me to bed?” he murmurs blearily, trying to waggle his eyebrows suggestively but mostly just frowning. Louis shakes his head fondly and hauls Harry to his feet, keeping him upright with steady hands on his hips until they reach their bedroom.

Harry collapses across their bed, spreading his legs and groaning, and if it were literally any other time than when Harry’s just gotten in from an international flight Louis would be all over that, but, alas, Harry’s already mostly asleep, his back shifting with each deep inhale. Louis sits on the edge of the bed and cards his hand through Harry’s hair, working the hair tie from his tangled curls and combing out the knots, and Harry leans into the touch like a cat.

“Missed this,” Harry mumbles, sleep slurring his words. “M’ bed there didn’t smell like you.”

Louis’ heart does a flip in his chest, an Olympic-worthy dismount and sticks the landing, perfect score. Harry knows, too, knows that as much as Louis scoffs and teases Harry’s inability to be anything but the sappiest kid on the planet, he knows that every time he says something sweet Louis gets more than a little weak in the knees. He falls asleep grinning like Louis’ pink cheeks are his prize, only barely fluttering his eyelashes and letting out a soft snore as Louis presses a light kiss to his forehead. He spends a minute tracing the curve of Harry’s cheekbone, just letting himself soak it in.

Harry’s home, and all is right in the world.

Louis stands carefully, because they bought their bedframe at a flea market and it has a tendency to rattle if you don’t roll off of the mattress in the exact right way, and he pulls Harry’s sneakers off and tosses them gently aside. He switches off the overhead light and sneaks out quietly, slipping into Zayn’s room right next to theirs and pulling the door closed behind him.

Zayn’s at his easel, a smear of blue and purple paints dabbed across a palette in his left hand, the canvas alive with colors that instantly make Louis think of evening starlight, when night isn’t yet black but somewhere near navy. His dad’s old record player spins soft tunes in the corner, something with gentle guitar that Harry could probably name but that Louis doesn’t think he’s heard before.

Zayn doesn’t react to Louis appearing and it’ll be a while before he surfaces from his art-induced haze, so Louis sprawls across his bed and takes to Twitter, tweeting a few strings of emojis about Harry being home and replying to people who’d asked if he’d made it back okay. They’ve got the tiniest bit of a following, he and Harry do; a small college campus combined with the two of them being very involved in a lot of groups and organizations means they know a whole lot of people, and those people tend to be incredibly interested in their relationship, have been since before there was even a relationship to be invested in.

(When their relationship had been… announced, so to speak and for lack of a better description, the campus gossip mill had nearly burned to the ground. Louis is only a little proud.)

Liam says it’s sweet that they have so much support. Niall says it’s because literally no one can hate Harry and almost no one can hate Louis (unless he really, really hates them first) and that combines into the perfect storm of people not being able to hate them together. Zayn thinks they’re just a bunch of voyeurs who like seeing Harry and Louis make out.

Louis can’t blame them, really. Harry’s the most attractive person in the world, Louis has an ass fit for a Kardashian and collarbones that could kill a man, and they’re super hot when they’re together. It is what it is. He gives their fans ample opportunities to perv out every time he drinks vodka crans and loses that little bit of inhibition that keeps him from being in Harry’s lap twenty-four hours a day, the least everyone else could do is like their selfies in appreciation.

Late afternoon sunlight falling through Zayn’s open curtains throws orange-red stripes across his bed, the burning heat of a late summer day not ebbing as it falls gracefully into the evening. Luckily, if there’s one good thing about their shitty apartment it’s that it has a hell of an air conditioner, sometimes pumping out air so icy that Louis has to sleep in sweats and fuzzy socks in the dead of July. So, while the weather’s hot enough to melt anyone who stands outside for more than five minutes, inside their place it’s cool and cozy.

Louis rolls onto his stomach, burying a yawn into the crook of his elbow. He’d been too excited for Harry’s return to sleep well last night, and exhaustion pulls heavily at his limbs and his eyelids.

“Hazza home?” Zayn asks, his words slow and measured. Louis doesn’t answer; if he looked up now, he knows he’d find Zayn’s eyes still stuck to the canvas, unable to process anything but the paint on his palette and the vision in his head. He wouldn’t hear any reply Louis gave him anyway, probably only realized Louis was there because he made a noise, so Louis goes back to his phone, flicking through all his friends’ end-of-summer posts and reading variations of the nights we’ll never remember with friends we’ll never forget over and over again. He double taps a picture of Jade and Perrie on a beach, their arms wound around each other’s waists, scrolls past an artsy black and white photo Harry’d posted from the airport that he’d liked hours ago.

A half hour passes like that, Louis calm and settled with the smell of paint fumes filtering through the air and the knowledge that his boy is right next door and sleeping soundly. He hears the sound of the front door opening, can tell from the footsteps that it’s Liam back from work, and a few seconds later his crinkly-eyed smile is visible when he cracks open Zayn’s door and peers inside.

“Hey,” he greets Louis, and he sounds surprised. “Harry here?”

“Mmhm,” Louis says, rolling onto his back and stretching. “Asleep.”

“Everything good?”

“Yeah,” Louis answers, squinting up at him. Liam’s look of confusion only deepens as he steps fully into the room and closes the door, settling on the bed next to Louis. “You’re being weird.”

“Well, to be honest,” Liam says, “I didn’t expect to see you for at least a few hours after Harry got home.”

Louis doesn’t attempt to stop the smirk curling across his face. “Oh yeah?” he asks guilelessly, eyes innocent even though his smile isn’t. “What did you think we’d be doing for hours?”

Liam’s cheeks go red. “You know what.”

“I mean,” Louis shrugs. “I guess we could be doing his laundry, or cooking. Maybe repainting the walls.”

“That’s a little more PG than what I would guess,” Liam says dryly, and Louis chuckles, knocking their shoulders together. They fall into comfortable silence after that, Louis flicking through Twitter, Liam watching Zayn paint with the kind of intensity he usually reserves for the fourth quarter of close football games or when it’s his turn to roll the dice on Board Game Night.

It’s weird, the way Liam watches Zayn, but they’re all used to it. The same way Liam, Niall, and Zayn are used to pulling out the noise-cancelling headphones on nights when Louis wears his red jeans and Harry, you know, sees him, or how nobody mentions that Niall suddenly became supremely interested in Bollywood movies when Zayn and Harry moved in. It’s weird, it’s all weird, this strange tension between best friends and an oblivious boy caught in the middle, and it’s a delicate balance that’ll someday come crashing down that, inevitably, Louis will have to fix, but for now he lets it be. No good causing trouble when the trouble’s headed their way anyway.

“Hey,” comes Zayn’s voice suddenly, and they both look up to see him blinking and clear-eyed and aware of his surroundings, dropping his brush on the easel’s tray. His gaze narrows in on Louis. “Isn’t Harry here? Why aren't you with him?”

“Fuck’s sake,” Louis laughs. “It’s like the Spanish Inquisition in here. Maybe I wore him out already,” he says, shimmying suggestively.

Zayn snorts, says, “Your dick’s not that good,” and only shrieks a little when Louis steals his paintbrush and tries to swipe a purple streak in his hair for his wiseass remarks. When Louis gets bored and stops his attack by art supplies, Zayn falls onto the bed between him and Liam, flexing his cramped, paint-splattered fingers. Liam grabs his hand and rubs, pushing his fingers into the pads of Zayn’s thumbs. Zayn’s eyes flutter closed.

“Thought we might take H out tonight, a welcome back bar crawl or something,” Liam says, switching and massaging Zayn’s other hand.

Harry chooses that moment to let out an almighty snore in the next room, and they all three giggle like little boys. “I say that’s a no,” Louis says, grinning. “He’ll most likely sleep through the night.”

“Probably for the best, anyway,” Zayn mumbles, his hand lax in Liam’s grip. “Niall’s got meetings again tomorrow morning and he’s bitchy when he has to stay sober when we go out.”

Liam’s expression clouds the slightest bit, but it clears into a gentle smile, his Zayn Smile, by the time Zayn blinks his eyes open and looks to him for his answer. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “You’re right, yeah.”

There’s another great snort from Harry and Louis’ room, the sound of sheets rustling, and Harry’s sleepy voice calling out a confused, “Lou?”

Louis is off the bed before he even realizes it, though he does toss a belated, “That’s my cue,” at Liam and Zayn, who both just grin and wave him off, long used to Louis abandoning whatever he’s doing when Harry is asking for him.

Evening sun through the netted curtains they’d borrowed from Harry’s grandma dapples Harry’s skin in soft light, his muscles shifting as he rolls his shoulders, peeking one eye open as Louis enters the room. “‘re’d you go?” he mumbles, making grabby hands at Louis until he joins him under the covers.

“Making sure Zayn didn’t kill off the last of his brain cells with paint fumes,” Louis says, the words soft against the back of Harry’s neck. Harry relaxes in his hold almost immediately, his body malleable and warm against Louis’ front.

They’re both asleep before they take another few breaths, a sunset painting them like a still life as the world spins on outside the window.

In a corner of the student union is a small room called the Gender and Equality Center, a designated safe space for any and all students seeking one and the home of the campus LGBT club.

There were grand ideas for it, back in the beginning. Plans for counselors on-call twenty-four hours a day, changes of clothes and basic necessities for students who needed them, a safe haven for people dealing with trauma. That was fifteen years ago, though, some money allocated to the college off the back of a push in sexual assault awareness. It’s been a long fifteen years since then, a decade and a half of budget cuts and reallocation that have changed the grand ideas of a Gender and Equality Center into this , which most students on campus know as The Pit.

The Pit, in all its glory, is a reality a little less shiny than projected. It’s got hand-me-down furniture from other departments, broken-down couches and a loveseat with suspicious stains on the arms, a couple of beanbag chairs from approximately 1995. They have a TV in the corner that is older than most of the students on campus, and probably older than a few of the professors too. The Pit is even located in the student union’s basement, poetically enough, right next door to the Korean Student Association and the freshman student government offices , the place adorned with water spots, mildewed carpets, and a little bit of black mold on the ceiling like a sprinkle of glitter on top.  

It’s ugly, yeah, but it’s home. The LGBT club meets here once a week, and even when they aren’t officially meeting there’s usually anywhere from two to a dozen students hanging out. They’ve decorated as best they can—Zayn and Perrie spent a summer painting a colorful abstract mural on one wall, and two of the other walls are adorned in Pride flags, posters and pictures from club events, and other weird little bits and pieces: magazine article clippings and stickers and knickknacks, keychains and polaroids and notes on faded paper, things the club members find and leave on their magpie mural of a wall. The worn out furnishings are unattractive but perfectly usable; Nick’s friend Aimee found some ridiculously plush pillows in all colors of the rainbow that somehow complement the worn brown of the furniture and Jesy dug up some old crates at a flea market that she and Leigh-Anne refurbished into clever end tables. Even the boxy TV isn’t so bad—the occasional green wave rolls over the screen and the picture’s a little fuzzy and discolored, but it’s got the nostalgia factor, and Ed always claimed it made him feel like he was back in middle school and the teacher just popped in the Bill Nye the Science Guy VHS tape.

But the focal point of the room isn’t the rainbow flags flying everywhere you look, the thrift-store-with-a-dash-of-eccentric-gay-aunt decor, or even Zayn and Perrie’s beautifully intricate artwork. It’s the western wall, the one directly across from the door, and there’s a reason it’s so eye-catching. The entire wall is filled with ink: hundreds of names, scrawled signatures from every LGBT club senior added to the wall before they graduate.

It’s a rite of passage, one Louis, Liam, and Niall all went through when they graduated a year ago, one that Harry, Zayn, Jade, Perrie, and all the other seniors will go through before the year is up. Louis can still see his name, scribbled in metallic gold Sharpie up near the ceiling, the L a little wobbly because he’d been perched on Harry’s shoulders at the time. For some their signing of the wall isn’t so public, more a quiet moment of reflection; just themselves and their pens. Either way, it binds them all together—a community of lovers and fighters, activists and pacifists, queer and here and ready to be loved and accepted.

Louis pulls his eyes from the name wall—he gets philosophical and emotional about the overlapping signatures when he thinks about it for too long—and stretches his bare toes, wiggles them. His leg’s half asleep, his back aching, but he’s got another two chapters to read before he’s done for the night and only about an hour left to do it before Zayn and Niall said they’d be home bearing dinner. Louis didn’t have to work this morning and he didn’t have a class either, so he’s in athletic shorts and a tank top, the weather outside too warm for his usual comfy sweats.

The Pit’s door springs open and in twirls Jade, her bouncing curls shiny from the light streaming in through the windows.

“Hello!” she trills, lovingly arranging a pile of flyers on the table by the door, between a stack of brochures labeled BOYS CAN LIKE BOYS TOO and a small jumble of cheap rainbow flags. Once the flyers are perfectly straight, she tosses her backpack on the nearest beanbag and falls onto the couch next to Louis, laying her head on his shoulder and stealing the book from his hands.

“Menace,” he mutters, stealing the book back and handing her a different one to keep her occupied. It goes quiet again, the only sounds their mingled breathing and the turning of their pages. Every once in a while Jade prods Louis and asks him what a certain word means, usually some obscure Latin or some law term rarely used in day to day conversation. She absorbs his answers with wide eyes, and Louis can see her adding the information to her “to be used later” pile in her mind; she’s still an undergraduate, but she’s already been accepted to the law school and has taken to badgering Louis about what he learns in his classes so she’ll already be ahead when she starts next year.

It’d be irritating if it wasn’t so damn adorable.

The sun is just visible at the top of the window when the Pit’s door opens again, and in step Harry and Liam, bickering over something probably ridiculous.

“Hello, dear,” Louis says, and Harry snaps his head up, abandoning a long, winding sentence somewhere in the middle to trot over to Louis and Jade. He smacks a kiss to Jade’s forehead and then kisses Louis too, though it’s a little different than the kiss he gave Jade: he licks into Louis’ mouth like it’s been years, long slides of tongues and slow flickering heat at the base of Louis’ spine.

“Hi,” Harry rasps when they break apart, which Louis only realizes they have to do because Jade was poking insistently at Harry’s cheek with her finger.

“Yes, ew, that’s enough,” she’s saying, poking Harry’s cheek again. “Stop it.”

“Alright, alright,” Harry laughs, shuffling some books out of the way and curling into Louis’ other side, so that he and Jade each get a shoulder. Liam falls heavily into the loveseat next to them, a sunshine yellow pillow under his head as he sprawls out, pulling a textbook from his bag that’s so new it cracks when he opens the cover.

“How was class?” Louis asks, trying to turn to the next page in his book but unable to with Harry’s finger lodged near the spine. His eyes are flickering quickly across the page; between Harry and Jade, Louis has learned more in his law school career by explaining his coursework to the two of them than from the actual professors.

Niall was the same way at first, at least until he learned most law students don’t have experiences like the ones in How to Get Away With Murder, then he lost interest.

“Fine,” Harry murmurs after a moment, moving his finger so Louis can turn the page.

Jade’s pulled out a notebook and is scribbling out a passage from the book Louis gave her. Liam is flipping to a new page in his textbook. Louis is aiming for nonchalant: “Just fine?”

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, just fine,” Harry says, pulling his eyes away from the page and smiling sunnily up at Louis. “Kind of boring, but whatever.”

“What class was it?”

“Um,” Harry says, then taps his lip with his finger. “I actually don’t remember. Liam, what class were we in?”

“Managerial Accounting,” Liam answers distractedly, turning another page.

“Right, that,” Harry says, going back to reading.

“Right,” Louis echoes, and it takes him a moment to blink and shake himself back into full awareness, to pull his head out of the circling worry in his head.

The sun creeps lower, and the Pit is quiet.

“Your choices of entertainment for this evening,” Niall says, waving his arms like the world’s worst magician’s assistant who didn’t even bother to don a sparkly dress. He steps back to show three DVD case-shaped squares under three hand towels procured from the kitchen, as though the four people in the room with him don’t know that it’s movie night and, ergo, those must be movies under there. “Your first choice is a family film that’ll warm the cockles of your heart-”

“The what of my heart?”

“-a happily ever after Christmas story that brings everyone closer together.”

“It’s August,” Zayn says, waving his hand. “Next.”

“Okay… your second choice is a classic love story across race and class, a heart-wrenching example that love is more than skin deep.”

“Boo,” Liam calls, shaking a downward thumb in Niall’s direction. “Next.”

“Choice number three is what might be considered a cult classic. A gay couple obsessed with a piece of jewelry sets out to right some wrongs, along with their wacky band of friends.”

“For God’s sake, Niall, we do this every week,” Louis says, burying his face in his hands. “Just reveal the movies, please.”

“No,” Niall says, crossing his arms. “Choose an option first.”

“I vote the second option,” Harry says.

“Shocking that the romantic picks the romance,” Zayn rolls his eyes, throwing a piece of popcorn that sticks in Harry’s curls. Louis pulls it out and pops it in his mouth. “I choose the cult classic, option three.”

“Option one, the Christmas one, even though it’s still ninety-five degrees outside,” Liam says, popping open a fresh bottle of beer with a soft hiss.

“That’s one each,” Niall says. “Louis, you’re the tiebreaker.”

Zayn scoffs, throws another popcorn kernel, this time at Louis. “Just put Harry's choice in, then. We know who he’ll side with.”

“Hey,” Louis says, affronted. Then. “Yeah, you're right.”

“So,” Niall says, rubbing his hands together. “Tonight you've chosen not to watch option one,” he pulls the towel covering the DVD with a flourish, “ Die Hard .”

“What?” Liam says, sitting up like he’s been mortally offended. “That's not a Christmas movie, what the hell-”

“It's set at a Christmas party , Liam, ” Niall says. “You also chose not to watch option three, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.”

“That's not a ‘cult classic!’” Zayn all but shrieks. “It won, like, twelve Oscars!”

“Being a Lord of the Rings fan is a cult, and I won't hear another word about it!” Niall says, voice rising slowly in volume to cover up Zayn's offended spluttering. “Tonight, with a majority-winning two votes, we have choice number two.” He reaches for the towel covering the last hidden DVD case. “Shrek.”

“Oh,” says Louis, surprised. With the way the other choices had gone, he thought they might have inadvertently picked something awful like a slasher film or something foreign where’d he'd have to read the subtitles for two hours. He looks over, meets Harry's eyes, and when he looks just as pleasantly off-kilter as Louis feels, he shrugs. “Alright then.”

Liam, whose arms are crossed over his chest like he's seconds away from pouting, says, “Okay, fine.” He keeps up the irritated act for all of a few seconds after Niall slides the movie into the DVD player, then he sings happily along with Smash Mouth through the opening scene like this was his choice all along.

Before long the popcorn’s half-eaten and the other half is lodged between the couch cushions. Liam and Louis are on their third beers while Niall downs his fourth and Harry belches along with Shrek on screen as he crumples his second can. They're only sort of watching the movie; it's so familiar they could probably reenact it (and, in fact, they have before—the scene with Fiona beating up the Merry Men is one of their favorites), and so they don't bother whispering when they speak, totally fine with missing a scene or two in the midst of a flow of conversation.

“Niall,” says Louis lazily, waving one hand in the air as the other gently detangles one of Harry's curls. “How's that student of yours? You know, the. The biter.”

“Oh, fuckin’ Tommy,” Niall groans, dropping his head dramatically. “That little shit. He shows up for music class today smiling like an angel and I think, ‘Okay, this is it. Maybe he's learned.’ But then, not even ten minutes in, he's clamped his teeth onto my hand like a fuckin’ snapping turtle, like I'm gonna have to wait for his jaw to get tired before I can get free.”

“He bit you?” Liam gasps, reaching across and grabbing Niall's hand to inspect it. Louis cranes his head to see as well and, sure enough, there's an angry red ring between Niall’s thumb and pointer finger. “Oh my god, what did you do?”

Niall shrugs. “Kicked him out of class, took him to the principal. I've tried, but nothing fuckin’ works. I'm supposed to be teaching music, not babysitting tiny cannibals.” He takes a swig of his Guinness and looks strangely reminiscent of every grizzled fisherman talking about the One Who Will Haunt Him Forever, only Niall's One is a tiny child with discipline problems rather than a big fish. “Though, you know what calms the kid right down? That demo you and me made in your studio the other night, Li. I played it for them and it shut ‘em right up, even fuckin’ Tommy.”

“Wasn't that a song about a one night stand?” Harry asks slowly, grinning. “You can call me, when you're lonely, when you can't sleep-”

Niall shrugs again. “Eh, who cares. They don't know what that means, they're only six.”

“The future of our country depends on children who were educated through the use of songs about one night stands,” Zayn says sadly, eyes fixed on the screen. “I weep for humanity.”

“Hey,” Niall says, frowning. “It's not some sleazy shit, yeah? Me and Li, we made it classy.”

Liam gulps the last of his beer and belches. “Classy as shit.”

He and Niall fist bump, giggling like children, and Zayn rolls his eyes but tucks his smile away as, on screen, Donkey escapes the clutches of the dragon and the music builds to an exciting crescendo.

“Hey,” Harry says like he's coming out of a trance, words heavy and slow. “How do you think they made babies?”

Niall cackles, Zayn sighs like it actually hurts him to deal with this, but Liam leans closer, looking confused. “Who, Haz?

Harry points a finger at the screen and then lets his hand drop to the floor. “Them. The. The donkey and the dragon. What’re their names?”

Louis huffs a laugh into Harry's hair. “Donkey and Dragon, I believe.”

“Oh,” Harry says, thinks about it, grins. “Funny. Anyway, so Donkey is the dad, right? How does that happen? How does he… reach?”

“Doggy style?” Niall suggests, his cheeks red and giggles still barely contained.

“Or the dragon on her back,” Liam adds thoughtfully. “Depending on where, you know, it's located, that should work.”

"It," Louis repeats, grinning. “By it, you mean…”

“Her…” Liam says, cupping his hands and showing it to Louis like he doesn't understand. “Her, you know.” He outlines an oval shape in the air with his hands. “You know.”

“I'd like to hear you say it, though,” Louis laughs, draining the last of his beer. “Go on, say it. Three syllables, that's it.”

“I am not talking about a dragon’s… parts,” Liam hisses, as though there might be a dragon nearby to get offended.

“Jesus,” Louis laughs loudly, Harry giggling against his thigh. “Alright, so Niall’s music class has been infiltrated by a tiny vampire, and Liam is still afraid to say the word vagina-”

“I am not afraid to say vagina,” Liam says, drawing the word out. “It’s just- it’s weird, you know?”

Niall is shaking with giggles. “You’re bi, Liam. Half the people you’re potentially attracted to have one, maybe you should learn to embrace it.”

“Well I’m hardly going to walk up to someone and ask about their vagina!” Liam exclaims.

“Why not?” Harry asks reasonably. “People like to pretend vaginas don’t exist or they’re some kind of social taboo to talk about, maybe if someone found out you weren’t one of those people they’d be more open to being with you.”

“I’m not... not dating anyone because I can’t talk about their vagina to them,” Liam says, cheeks going red.

“Why aren’t you, then?” Zayn asks. “I know Sophia asked you out again the other day.”

“Sophia did what now?” Niall cuts in before Liam can answer. “And why wasn’t I informed?"

“Liam,” Harry says, leaning across Louis’ lap and taking both of Liam’s shoulders in his hands, his face serious. “Is it because of her vagina?”

Liam groans, drops his face into his hands. Niall and Zayn splutter with laughter, and Harry’s grin is wide and mischievous. Louis claps his hands over his ears dramatically.

“As someone who has no interest in vaginas,” Louis says, his own voice muffled through his hand earmuffs, “can we potentially move to a new topic?”

Harry, still grinning, moves his head back into Louis’ lap. “So, Liam, how’s work?”

Liam peeks out from behind his fingers as though he’ll be able to see if it’s a trap. When none seems to spring and catch him unawares, he lowers his hands and smiles. “It’s good,” he says, and he might have connections across the continent but he’s still bashful when talking about his own accomplishments. “I’ve been writing with Julian for one of his new artists, and Ed’s booked studio time this week so we can keep going on his album.”

When Liam had graduated with his degree in sound engineering, he’d been scooped up immediately by the local independent record company to scout for new talent. Liam had agreed to the job (turning down about six other offers from New York to Los Angeles), but only if he got to bring in his first client when he started; Liam got to start moving toward his big record producer dreams, and he got to bring one of their closest friends, Ed, along for the ride.

Now, a year later, Liam has worked with writers who’ve got platinum singles hung on their walls and artists who are someday going to be great and when they are, they’ll know Liam was the one who got them there. He’s expanded from talent scout to music management, a junior producer position, songwriting, vocal coaching, and still somehow has time to work at the college radio station when they need extra hands and has started on a graduate degree in business management.

Sometimes, Louis remembers that it’s pretty likely that he’ll badger Liam into taking him to the Grammys someday (maybe his fifth or sixth go-round, when the novelty’s worn off) and Louis is suddenly glad for that time he sat next to Liam in a freshman history class, found out that he was planning on going back to his dorm to study for the rest of the afternoon, and saved him from a sad, productive college life.  

“Well, if we’re doing Sharing Time about our weeks,” Zayn says lazily, tossing a popcorn kernel into his mouth and snuggling back against Liam’s side with his feet thrown over the armrest of their chair and into Harry’s lap, “My digital art professor may have found me some work with an ad agency, they need a new logo and are willing to pay a lot for a good one.”

“Zee!” Harry says, flicking Zayn’s ankle. “That’s awesome! When did you hear about this?”

Zayn shrugs; they all know him well enough to see the bravado is fake, but also know him well enough to leave it alone. Louis gets paid decently well at the law firm, Niall’s got his full-time job as a music teacher, and Liam’s rather measly paychecks are supplemented with tons of perks and bonuses from his record label bosses. Zayn, though, works on commission most of the time and doesn’t always get paid on time, so a reliable paycheck from an actual business would go a long way towards easing the strain that the student loans can’t quite cover.

“S’alright,” he says nonchalantly. “Feels a bit like selling out, but whatever.”

“Sometimes you have to work for The Man to make ends meet,” Niall says sagely, as though his early dreams of rockstardom are still lingering in his mind. And, honestly, they probably are; maybe someday he will be Mr. Horan, elementary music teacher wielding maracas and cymbals and a colorful xylophone by day, and Niall the Gun (his self-appointed nickname) by night, armed with his guitar and a charming but careless smile to make the masses swoon at his feet.

“Alright, Lou,” Liam says, “what’s going on with you?”

Well, Louis thinks, what an excellent question. Because there isn’t really anything going on with Louis, nothing unexpected or new, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He’s working at Corden & Associates around the hours that he spends in classes like Criminal Procedure and Pre-Trial Litigation that sound like a snore and a half, but that are deeply intellectual enough to make Louis work for his understanding and enthralling enough to keep him on the edge of his seat. He’s the graduate adviser for the LGBT club and has a standing lunch date with Jade and their mutual friend Leigh-Anne once a week and he’s so deeply, madly in love with Harry that sometimes he spends his free time just staring out a window and naming their future children (he likes Finn James for a boy and Calliope Anne for a girl, but he’s open to Harry’s suggestions).

But Liam and Zayn and Niall and even Harry know all that, so it’s not like any of it will be groundbreaking or even worth a passing “Huh, that’s interesting,” so Louis casts his mind around for something else.

“Oh!” he says, remembering this morning’s class.“Yeah, there is something.” He wiggles his way into sitting up straighter, feels his brow furrowing. Liam taps the volume down on the remote and even Zayn looks away from the screen, looking concerned on Louis’ behalf.

“What’s up, Lou?” Niall says, frowning.

“Well,” Louis says, glad someone is ready to pay attention to the injustice he has suffered. “Someone in my Conflicts of Law class took my seat today.”

For a second, the only sound is Shrek on the TV screen talking to Donkey about constellations.

“Someone took your seat,” Niall says.

“Yes,” Louis answers, nodding. “Like, there I was, making my merry way to my classroom, and when I go to sit down there’s someone already there! I was like, no, honey, not in my lecture class, but she didn’t get what I was saying and then the professor came in so I had to sit somewhere else can you believe it?”

Harry pats his knee. “It sounds awful, Lou. So sad you had to go through that.”

“It is sad, thank you Harold,” Louis says, then sees the way Harry’s mouth twitches when he looks at Niall. “This is not a laughing matter, Styles! This is war.”

Liam snorts. “Well. If you ever need help with that...”

“Oh, Liam,” Louis says, fluttering his lashes, “are you going to fight for my honor against entitled law students? My hero.”

Liam tries to be stern but he’s grinning too widely to pull it off. “If you need me, Tommo, I’m there.”

Ahem,” Harry says, sitting up out of Louis’ lap. “Excuse you Liam. If anyone’s defending Louis’ honor, it’s me.”

“I took a year of karate when I was seven,” Niall says, slugging the last of his fifth beer. “I could do it.”

Everyone turns to Zayn, who doesn’t look away from the TV screen when he rolls his eyes. “I’m not jumping into this pissing contest. Louis has enough backup if he decides to fight a snotty fellow student.”

Louis throws an empty beer can at him, and when Zayn turns and scowls Louis gives him his best pouty lip. “But Zayn.”

Zayn holds his unimpressed raised eyebrow for all of five seconds before he sighs. “Fine. I’ll join the Louis Tomlinson Defense Squad.”

“Excellent,” Louis says brightly, rubbing his hands together.  “Now that you’ve all pledged your undying loyalty to me-”

“What,” says Zayn.

“-who should I send my minions to terrorize after you finish with the chick who stole my seat?”

The dogpile of heavy, alcohol-scented boys crushes the air out of Louis’ lungs, but he still can’t stop laughing.

Louis wakes to the smell of sizzling bacon the next morning, and while his stomach’s still iffy from the six pack of Corona he'd polished off the night before it still grumbles at being empty, and Louis still gravitates helplessly to the kitchen.

Harry's at the stove wearing low-slung boxers and his Trophy Husband apron, humming quietly along with the radio as the bacon grease pops in harmony. Their apartment kitchen isn't all that big but it is bright and airy, the shiny appliances catching morning light and reflecting it against Harry's skin. Louis slides his hands around Harry's sides to lay over the laurels tattooed on his hips, resting his chin on Harry's shoulder.

“Morning,” he yawns, nosing behind Harry's ear before pressing a kiss there. “What a way to wake up.”

“Coffee’s fresh in the pot, bacon and eggs have about three minutes left,” Harry says, his voice gravelly with sleep. He lays one hand over Louis’ before Louis can turn away in search of caffeine, and tilts Louis’ chin up for a sweet kiss. “Morning, beautiful.”

Louis hums and kisses Harry back until the bacon grease starts popping more angrily and Harry has to break away to rescue their breakfast.

“And that was Years & Years with their new single Eyes Shut, doing well in the charts so far, what a chill tune,” comes Liam’s voice from the radio. “Next up,” he continues, “we've got Barcelona by George Ezra,” and his voice is smooth, clear, only a hint of throatiness giving away the fact that he and Louis sang the entirety of the Shrek soundtrack to each other a mere few hours ago.

Louis grins as George Ezra’s voice fades in over Liam's; he's usually in such a rush to get to work or his classes that he doesn't get a leisurely morning tune-in to the campus radio station, which means he almost never hears Liam's show. Zayn records it most days so he can listen to it as he paints or sketches or does things with Photoshop but doesn't have to wake up any earlier to do so, and sometimes Louis listens with him then, but it's nice to catch Liam actually on the air for once.

Harry kisses the side of Louis’ head as he reaches up past him for two slices of bread that he pops into the toaster. Louis smiles and pulls his phone out of the pocket of his sweatpants; maybe he can wring some perks out of being awake early enough to catch Liam’s show. His grin only grows as he shoots Liam a quick text, knowing he'll have his phone close at hand in the DJ booth, and gets an affirmative thumbs up emoji and heart-eyes emoji in answer.

The song fades out as Louis grabs plates from the cabinet, and Liam’s voice makes a reappearance as he reaches around Harry for a couple of forks. “That was Barcelona here on 102.7 The Vibe. I've just had a special request for our next song texted in, along with a message.”

“Oh, I love these,” Harry says, using the corner of the spatula to tap the volume button up. “They're always so sweet.”

Louis’ cheeks hurt from repressing his grin, but Harry's concentrating on getting the bacon out of the pan and hasn't seen it yet.

“Thank you, Styles,” Liam reads, the smile in his voice clear, “for making egg on toast this morning. Love you so much, Boo.”

Harry turns, mouth agape, to find Louis in the middle of their tiny kitchen, hand outstretched. Somewhere in the background, Liam is saying, “I don't know who Boo is or why they're getting a nice breakfast when their lovely roommates are out and can't have any, but I hope they and Styles have a good morning. Here, as requested, is your song.”

The piano is soft and Norah’s voice is softer; just as soft as Harry’s footsteps across the floor, as Harry’s hand as he slips it into Louis’. They dance, because it’s morning and it’s warm in the strip of sunlight across the tile and it’s Norah Jones singing for them and it’s Harry and it’s Louis and it’s them, together, as it should be. They dance, because they're in love and people in love have always made the best dancers, if only because separating for more than a single breath seems impossible.

Harry is sleep-soft and sweet in Louis’ arms, delicate hips and strong shoulders, and as they spin Louis wonders if the world outside has stopped for them, to let them have a moment to breathe.

“Come away with me,” Louis murmur-sings into the flushed skin of Harry’s shoulder, pressing a kiss to the dip above his collarbone, “in the night.”

The gentle percussion and lilting melody follow them across the floor like a shadow. Louis leads and Harry follows; Harry should be leading, the taller person usually does, but it's always felt more comfortable falling into it like this. Louis leads, Harry follows; there's a compass Louis tattooed on his arm a few years ago and a ship on Harry's bicep to match, and maybe they didn't realize how reminiscent of real life it actually was back then but they're sure aware now. Louis leads, Harry follows, and they're the sun and the moon, chasing each other eternally across the sky.

“Come away with me, and I will write you a song,” Harry sings, an answer, both of them urging the other to leave everything behind and disappear. To face the world holding only each other's hands.

Louis would drop it all in a heartbeat, all Harry would have to do is ask.

“Already have, haven't you?” he teases softly, winding a curl from the nape of Harry's neck around a finger. “Written a couple for me, actually.”

And he has: Niall and Liam are the musicians of the group by trade but Harry's always dabbled. Like his photography, like his baking, music has always been a passion of Harry's, and his muse has always been Louis.

I’d give up everything, just ask me to, he wrote, he wrote just for Louis, and Louis knows how that feels because he feels it too.

“I want to walk with you on a cloudy day,” Louis sings. The morning, already quiet and calm, has softened around them: birdsong sounds sweeter, sunlight feels warmer, even the bacon grease in the pan pops less aggressively. The day is ready to begin but it's giving Harry and Louis a chance to be with each other first, before life has to intrude and pry them out of this happy bubble.

Louis tightens his arms around Harry and the space between them disappears. The morning light is a good look on Harry, highlighting the bits of burgundy amongst his curls and the flecks of gold in his eyes. His summer tan glows under the ray of light that falls through the window, and Louis leans close.

“Come away with me,” he murmurs against Harry's lips.

Harry kisses him before he can finish the line, and doesn't stop kissing him for a long, long time.

Breakfast is cold by the time they stumble their way to the table, drunk on each other and a warm August morning. Their feet tangle under the table and they have the same exact meal in front of them but Harry still picks from Louis’ plate, and Liam’s introduced another half dozen love songs that had to have been written about Harry and Louis and this morning, right here, because nothing else makes sense.

Harry's putting away leftovers (three separate Tupperware containers, each labeled either Li, Z, or Ni) when Louis catches him around the waist and kisses him fiercely. Harry looks dazed when they break apart.

“What was that for?” he asks, his smile a little dopey but still the most beautiful thing on God's green earth.

“For egg on toast,” Louis grins, and they aren't even bothered when Liam walks in on Harry laying Louis out across the table, kissing bruises across Louis’ chest.

“That’s where we eat,” Liam groans, his hand clapped over his eyes.

Louis laughs, his heart thumping wildly as Harry swirls patterns with his tongue along his ribs. “Sorry, Li.” He laughs again. “Though th-this is—ah—sort of your fault.”

There’s a knock at the door.

“Harry, are you coming?” calls Zayn, impatience clear through the barrier between them.

Harry gasps a laugh, the sweat at his temples catching the light as he tosses his head. When Louis tries to slow the movement of his hips Harry grunts and shakes his head, urges Louis back to full speed with a hand squeezing his wrist.

“Not yet!” he answers, a joke made ragged, voice breaking as Louis relaxes his spine a little and changes the angle.

It takes Zayn a minute, but when he gets it they can both hear him say, “Ugh, ugh, no,” like he’s trying to wipe it from his head. Harry tips his head back, his eyes lidded, and laughs again breathily, his overwhelmed, slack grin like a shot of adrenaline to Louis’ veins.

He reaches up to grab the headboard and leverage his thrusts even harder, his orgasm twirling at the base of his spine with every ah, ah, God, yeah his hips drive out of Harry.

“I’m leaving!” Zayn shouts. “Find your own ride to campus! I’m not gonna be late because of morning sex I don’t even get to have.”

Louis thrusts hard, and Harry cries out, “Oh, fuck, Lou!”

The slam of the front door echoes, as does Zayn’s mutinous muttering. It’s a minor disturbance in the back of Louis’ mind, his attention caught entirely in Harry, the gleam of sweat in the dip of his throat, the stinging scratches he’s leaving across Louis’ shoulders.

The thudding in his stomach is spreading, his blood sparking with need, need, need to hike Harry’s knees over his shoulder for one final change of angle, a shift that has Harry moaning unabashedly, wantonly. Louis’ hands grip Harry’s hips as he thrusts, thrusts, one two three and there, Harry comes with a wail and a clench so tight Louis sees stars. Four five six and Louis’ insides stutter and pulse, a wave of fuck fuck yes and tingles and spots in his vision, and he buries his face into Harry’s collarbones as they both come down, panting desperately.

Louis pulls out and sprawls across the cool sheets, his chest still heaving a little. Harry’s got an arm thrown over his eyes, his thighs shaking. It’s not the most athletic sex they’ve had, not by a long shot, but this summer was a long few months apart and on-the-same-continent-again sex turns out to be a little exhausting too, even a few days after the plane has landed.

“Why did Zayn think you needed to go to campus?” Louis asks after a quiet moment, his voice raspy.

Harry shrugs. “Dunno. I don’t think I have class today.”

“You don’t think,” Louis echoes.

Harry shrugs again, flings his arm out to pat around his bedside table. His hand connects with his phone and he unplugs it, opening one bleary eye to navigate to a screenshot of his weekly schedule. “Oh,” he says, doesn’t bother opening his other eye. “I do have class. Principles of Microeconomics, 9:30 to 10:15. Huh.”

“Huh,” Louis repeats again, feeling like an idiot parrot. His own thoughts tumble around in his head, and he doesn’t think that Harry’d react well to any of them at the moment, his stomach bubbling a little like it always does when Harry gets flippant about not-so-flippant things. “Harry-”

“It’s fine, Lou,” Harry cuts him off, smiling a little. “It’s just the first day, they’ll be going over the syllabus and I’ve been reading those correctly for years. Besides,” he grins, rolling over and pressing his nose to Louis’ shoulder, “I’d rather be here anyway.”

An answering smile fights its way onto Louis’ face, though he knows he shouldn’t let it go so easily. Missing the first day of class might not mean much in the long run, sure, but missing one makes it easy to miss a second, then a third. Then it’ll be October and Harry’ll be panicking because he hasn’t even bought the textbook yet and the midterm’s in a week.

Just like he did last year.

It’s not your choice, sings a voice in his head that sounds an awful lot like Liam. Louis pushes away the weird feeling in his gut and cuddles Harry close until his alarm signals that it’s time to get up if he doesn’t want to be late for work.

“Lou?” Harry says, still messing around on his phone as Louis gathers up some mostly unwrinkled pants and a somewhat matching pair of socks. “You okay? You’re quiet.”

“Hmm? Oh, yeah,” Louis answers, smiling at Harry over his shoulder. He doesn’t want to have the fight again, and it’s not like either of them have changed their minds, so he’ll leave it alone. He leans over and kisses Harry’s forehead, disappearing into the bathroom before Harry starts pressing for a real answer.

It bugs him, though, this long-lingering piece of the puzzle that hasn't yet snapped into place, this aching tooth that Louis can’t stop prodding with his tongue. Harry is the most passionate person Louis has ever met; to see him so lackadaisical in the face of his future is a longstanding problem, and it bothers Louis all through his shower (until Harry slips in behind him, his big hands soft on Louis’ wet hips), through a late breakfast (until Harry pops a slice of strawberry into his mouth and leans over to kiss Louis with juice still on his tongue), all through gathering his things for work (until Harry stops him to straighten his tie and then uses it to keep him close so he can kiss a new bruise high on his neck under his hairline). It bugs Louis, sticks like gum to his thoughts, a niggling irritation that sits insistently at the front of his mind as he navigates the familiar drive to Corden & Associates Law Office, finds a parking spot, and slips in past the front desk. 

Until-

Louis-”

“Oh, God, I’m so sorry, Leigh-”

Louis grabs a sheet of paper from the scattered pile of copies Leigh-Anne had been carrying and dabs at the coffee stain on her dress, the damp brown splotch standing out against the bright pink fabric across her chest. The paper, of course, is useless against the spreading stain, and Leigh bats his hand away.

“Stop, stop,” Leigh says as she rolls her eyes (Louis thinks it’s done fondly, at least), and blots at the stain with a tissue. She bends to pick up some of her dropped papers, and Louis immediately stoops to help. “You're a menace, but I already knew that. Luckily, I’ve worked here long enough to know to keep a spare outfit.” She tosses the tissue in a nearby trash can. “C’mon, we’ve got work to do.”

Her heels thump on the thick carpet like a staccato drumbeat, an even pace Louis follows out of habit. Leigh leads him to their tiny shared office, barely more than a coat closet with two auspiciously oversized mahogany desks crammed inside. Louis tosses his bag and jacket over his desk and Leigh slides a folder out of a pile on hers and hands it to Louis, which he flips open and starts to peruse.

“Got a new client in this morning,” she says, shutting the door to the office and taking a garment bag off the hook on the back of the door. She unzips it to reveal another dress, slightly more formal than the hot pink number she’s got on right now, but definitely not out of place in their office. “Young guy, a student, says his ex-boyfriend’s been harassing him and sending his nude pics to other people, wants him slapped with a sex offender charge.”

Louis grimaces and pages through Leigh’s notes. “Ex-boyfriend on the football team?” he asks when he sees a little asterisk by a bolded line, shooting Leigh a worried look. “Tricky.”

Leigh turns her back to Louis and motions to the top of her dress and he reaches out to undo her zipper for her, pushing her hair aside so it doesn’t get caught in metal teeth. It’s an automatic reaction after years of living in a female-dominated household (he can braid hair with his eyes closed, too, and his bow-tying skills are legendary), and he immediately goes back to his notes when the dress parts down the middle. “He’s still meeting with James,” she says, stepping out of her dress and reaching for the clean one. “I think there’s more to it than the kid is saying, but it’ll all come out eventually.”

Louis hums, flips to the last page. “What are we doing, then?”

“I figure you can contact the school admissions office, get what we can about the ex from them. I can do the athletic department, they’ll spill more if they think I don’t know what I’m talking about,” she answers brusquely, a hint of that familiar steel under her words. Leigh’s greatest weapon has always been a lightning-quick mind under a pretty face, and she wields it well. After a moment spent smoothing out her new dress and putting the old one in the garment bag to take home and wash, she says, smoothly and easily, her back still to Louis, “Want to talk about it?”

Louis doesn’t bother playing dumb, just turns away from Leigh as well and slides his laptop out of his bag. “No. I’m good. Fine.”

“Yeah,” Leigh agrees, though her deeply-buried sarcasm is audible. “Sounds like it.”

Louis smiles weakly, shrugs, wonders if 10:30 in the morning is too early to add rum to his second mug of coffee.

Leigh’s eyebrows don’t get any lower at Louis’ horrible deflecting, but she takes a seat at her desk and doesn’t push. “Let’s get started, then,” she says, and Louis loves her, bless her soul.

The office is quiet around them. James’ door is shut, any sound from within muffled by the thick wood, and the other interns aren’t in yet. The only sound is the subtle whoosh of the air conditioner, the occasional sounds of traffic out on the empty street. Their chairs creak as they settle in, laptops opened to databases that, as mere law students, they aren’t really supposed to have access to, and Leigh sends him one more worried glance. “You sure you’re okay, Lou?”

Louis hums noncommittally,  flexes his fingers, and types a name into the search bar.

Eleven o’clock, noon, one-thirty, two.

Time passes slowly, as it always does on days Leigh and Louis are saddled with research. They make phone calls, scribble every detail onto legal pads and share points that might be important, might not be, might be tips of icebergs and might just be floating garbage. Louis gets next to nowhere with the college admissions offices, and Leigh gets even less from the athletic office, and so they’ve both resorted to other, less official routes; friends of friends who work on campus and have certain accesses, trawling through Twitter and Facebook mentions, connecting into the college gossip mill. They’re always careful who they talk to; they won’t dig a person for information unless they know that person won’t go spreading the word that a law office is looking into anything.

It’s hours of this, but they’re used to it. They’re pre-lawyers, still without the degree and the certifications that mean they can legally dispense advice to people, so they get a lot of the grunt work. It’s better than it was before they were law students, at least; Leigh and Louis both worked for C&A as undergrads, too, filing paperwork and eavesdropping on meetings, pretending they hadn’t heard as much as they did when, inevitably, they were caught. Then, when James’ old law students graduated and got hired on at other firms, Leigh, Louis, and a few others moved in to take their places.

Louis leans back sometime in that murky middle between lunch and dinner, rubbing at his eyes. He’s been staring at a screen for too long, his coffee’s all gone, and his measly PB&J lunch didn’t cut it, no matter how cute the little note Harry included was . He checks his phone and finds some messages, Zayn texting the apartment group chat to say he’ll be home late after a meeting with his professor, a message from Nick asking for the date of the next LGBT mixer, a reminder from Jesy about Trivia Night at the Dive this week. And there’s one from Harry, a single picture, a white sheet draped artfully over a raised knee, a sun-tanned thigh. Slanting sunlight and Harry’s ridiculous toe tattoo peeking out of the end of the blanket, the TV in the background showing a rerun of Gilmore Girls ; a lazy afternoon in bed captured in an instant.

Louis snaps a picture of his mismatched socks peeking out from under his tailored pant legs, his laptop open and a scrawled page of notes beside it. Sends it to Harry with a lucky, lucky boy.

And then he pushes his phone aside, rubs his temples, and wonders if Leigh would notice if he crawled under the desk to take a nap. Probably not.

The office door opens, and James’ face appears.

“Leigh, Louis,” he says, nodding, and is about to continue when he does a double take back at Louis. “What’s going on with you?”

“He won’t talk,” Leigh says distractedly, leaning far too close to her laptop screen. “He’s been like that all day.”

“Like what?” Louis asks, affronted. “I haven’t been ‘like’ anything.”

“It’s your pouty-angry face,” James says. “The one- yeah, you’re doing it now.”

“He’s been off in his own little world,” Leigh continues. “Walked right into me this morning, spilled coffee all over my dress.”

“That was an accident,” Louis says.

“Oh no, the pink one?” James asks.

“Yeah. And after that he did the pouty face for so long I thought it’d get stuck that way.”

“Look, I do not have a pouty face-”

“I think he’s fighting with Harry,” Leigh interrupts smoothly.

“We aren’t fighting, it’s.” And when Leigh finally looks up from her laptop and smirks, when James narrows his eyes, steps fully into the office and closes the door, Louis knows they’ve got him. It’s hard work, trying to keep his guard up around a really good lawyer and a really sharp law student who both know him really, really well. He sighs. “It’s not a fight. We’re fine.”

“But…?” James asks. It’s late afternoon now, and they aren’t alone anymore, the sounds of the other interns in their offices muted when the door clicks shut.

Louis’ phone buzzes with a new text from Liam. Just got home. did Harry not go to class today? Is he sick should I make soup?  I think I know how

“Harry skipped his first day of class this morning,” Louis says, shrugging a little and sending an answer to Liam (he’s not sick, DO NOT make soup, smoke detector still doesn’t have batteries).

“Ah,” James says, and Leigh purses her lips in understanding.

Louis has worked with James and Leigh for over two years now. All of the interns get along really well, George and Aiden and Cher, and they all have a minor hero-worship situation going on with James, but Leigh and Louis have always been the closest, and they’re the ones James assigns his best cases. They have a group text together, James invites them to barbecues and dinner parties, they know each other’s little habits and routines. Besides the boys in the apartment and the LGBT club kids, James and Leigh are Louis’ closest friends.

And, through all those dinner parties and barbeques and group texting adventures, James and Leigh also know Harry very well by now too. So they know, when Louis says he’s skipped class, that it’s more than just a bit of laziness. It’s always run deeper than that.

Leigh is there in an instant, her hand light on Louis’ shoulder. “He’ll figure it out, Lou. He’ll get there.”

“I know,” Louis says, and he means that, he does, he knows Harry has a brilliant future ahead of him and it’s only a matter of time before he figures out what that path will take.

Still. Until then, it’s like looking at a canvas before Zayn gets his hands on it and wondering how he could ever fix it into a work of art.

Not your choice, the Liam-sounding voice in his head sings.  

James taps the toe of his shoe against the sole of Louis’. “Have you gotten him to talk to you?”

Louis shakes his head, and James taps his foot again. He and Leigh both know Harry well, both love him like they love Louis, but James can see what Louis is pretending he can’t: Harry’s floundering, drowning while pretending all is well. He’s knocking away any attempts at help thrown his way, and grinning like it isn’t that big of a deal.

Like many things in Louis’ life at the moment, Harry’s future choices are like a shaky table he’s laid his full weight across—it’ll hold, maybe even seem stable for a while, but it’s going to crumble, they’re going to fall, and Louis will have to deal with the aftermath.

Not your choice.

Right.

The clock ticks to 11:00, the old bell in the center of campus starts to chime faintly through the brick walls of the law building, and Louis slams his laptop closed.  

“See you next Monday!” his Pre-Trial Litigation professor calls. Louis waves as he leaves the room, pulling his phone from his pocket.

Hey, says a message from Jade, I hate to ask for a favor, but are you busy?

Not busy, just got out of class he sends back.

Good. Got a friend you need to talk to.

Ten minutes later, Louis is at a table at the campus Starbucks, an iced coffee and a willowy brunette in front of him.

“So, Kendall,” Louis says, taking a sip of his drink. Kendall is a familiar face, though they’ve never met. She’s perfect as a porcelain doll, designer clothing unruffled, her makeup immaculate. “Jade says you need to talk.”

Immediately, her eyes fill with tears. “Sorry, I’m- sorry,” she whispers. Her dark hair falls in sheets around her face as she looks down at her hands, folded together and shaking on the tabletop.

“Hey, no, it’s no big deal,” Louis says, but Kendall’s already sniffling. “What’s going on, hon?”

“Um, I just. I,” she says, touches delicately at the corner of her eye so her makeup stays pristine. She glances around at the crowded coffeeshop, her red eyes wary, her lip trembling. But she straightens her shoulders and takes a breath. “I’m just- I just need to talk. I’m feeling a little, or I guess really, overwhelmed, and scared, and I just-”

“We can definitely talk,” Louis reassures her, reaching across the table and taking her hand. “Have you ever been to the Pit? The couches there are amazing.”

Leigh has music playing in the background as they work, some early 2000s playlist that has just enough Missy Elliot for Leigh to be happy and just enough Green Day to keep Louis from complaining, and one line from one song keeps sticking in Louis’ mind.

It’s all in my head, I think about it over and over again

I think about it over and over again

I think about it over and over again

They’ve searched the databases, they’ve searched social media, they’ve talked to the football team representatives, they keep finding doorways they think might lead to an answer but instead take them straight to dead ends.

Their client, Ben, is accusing his ex-boyfriend of harassment; that’s easy enough to sort out, they just need some kind of proof and they’re set. The issue is that Ben’s ex, a guy named Amal, seems to be clean as a whistle. His Twitter is full of well-wishers and fans of the football team who seem to love him, his professors love him, his old roommates love him, hell, even people who play other sports and whose funding gets funneled directly to the football team can’t seem to hate him.

“Perrie says everyone in the athletic dorms adores him,” Louis says, replying back to Perrie’s text with a thumbs up emoji. “She said she’ll check around, though. See if anyone’s heard anything about him passing around nude pics.”

“This guy is either one of the most likeable humans on Earth, or he’s overcompensating for something awful,” Leigh says, rubbing at her temples. The notebook page in front of her is full of notes and possibilities, all of them scratched off as the ideas are checked and discarded.

“Who is?” says a voice in the doorway, and Louis is already smiling before he even looks up. Harry is leaned against the door frame, three white and green cups held in his hands.

“Niall,” Louis answers with a grin, spinning around in his chair to face Harry fully. “Have you seen that guy? He’s trouble.”

Harry laughs and saunters over, handing Leigh a cup of coffee before settling into Louis’ lap and giving him one of the other two.

“Bless you, Harry Styles,” Leigh says gratefully, checking the label to make sure Harry got her order right—she shouldn’t have bothered, he always does.

“Amen,” Louis echoes, kissing Harry on the cheek and sipping at his frapuccino. “But, honestly, Niall isn’t the troublemaker this time. We’ve got a new client, and his claims aren’t checking out at the moment.”

Harry’s brow furrows. “That’s no good.”

“Nah, we’ll figure it out,” Louis says, playing with the ends of Harry’s hair. His phone buzzes with another text from Perrie, and when he checks it he realizes what time it is. “Hey, don’t you have class?”

“I dunno,” Harry says, sipping at his tea. “Do I?”

Louis reaches over and snags the little printout of Harry’s schedule he keeps on his desk. “Let’s see. Oh, yeah, right here, Financial Accounting, it started thirty minutes ago.”

Harry makes a face. “Ugh, accounting. Gross.” Before Louis can say anything, Harry bounces and pats his knee. “Tell me about your case! I’ll go find us pink outfits and we can be Elle Woods. I can finally teach you the bend and snap.”

Louis’ legs ache from a day on his feet, the hours spent at Corden & Associates wreaking havoc on his lower back and ankles. He loosens his tie as he makes his slow way down the creaky stairs at the student union to the Pit, the evening sunlight outside not able to light the dim corners of the basement hallway.

“Hazza, babe, I’m wiped out,” he says as he lets himself into the Pit, shedding his heavy backpack. “Let’s just order a pizza and-” Louis turns to find Harry sitting on one of the couches, a petite brunette wrapped in his arms. Louis pauses, confusion swamping through him for a moment, at least until he hears the soft sound of sobbing. Harry meets Louis’ eyes over the top of the girl’s head and gives him a small, sad smile. Louis immediately drops his voice to a whisper, “Oh, shit, sorry love.”

“No worries,” Harry says quietly, rubbing his hand over the girl’s back. “She was looking for you anyway.”

Louis creeps closer, takes a seat on the chair nearest the couch so as not to crowd the girl. She pulls back from Harry and sniffs, wiping carelessly at her face. She pushes her long, dark hair back and Louis’ heart drops.

“Oh, Kendall, honey,” he says, taking her hand. “What happened?”

“It’s- it’s,” she hiccups. There’s almost no makeup left on her face, her eyeliner smudged and her mascara tacky, and her oversized t-shirt and worn athletic leggings are a far cry from her usual dolled-up perfection. “It’s m-my mom,” she says, but Louis doesn’t get to hear what else her mother said, because Kendall gives another great, shuddering sob and buries her face back in Harry’s chest.

“It’s okay,” Harry murmurs, stroking her hair. “We can help.”

He meets Louis’ eye again and reaches out with his other hand. Louis holds Kendall’s small, slim hand in one of his and Harry’s large, broad hand in his other, and the Pit is quiet except for Kendall’s soft sniffles.

“We want to help,” Harry says again, and Louis squeezes his hand.

“Hey, Ken,” Louis says. “How do you feel about pizza?"

Kendall turns her face, her cheek against the wet patch on Harry’s shirt, and smiles tremulously. “Pizza’s good.”

“Good,” Louis says. “We’ll sort this out, sweetheart. Don’t worry.”

Within an hour Kendall’s had two slices of pepperoni pizza, three sobbing breakdowns, and is asleep against Harry’s shoulder. Louis is on Harry’s other side, his eyelids heavy but his heart lighter. He can’t fix Kendall’s problems because there is no fix, not unless he stumbles across a time machine and finds a way to go back in time and keep homophobia from being a thing, but they’ve solved a few immediate extenuating problems and Kendall can be safe and continue her classes while she sorts out her next steps.

Harry presses a kiss to Louis’ forehead and Louis leans into it. It’s moments like these that sneak up on them and prove just how lucky they are: they’ve got supportive parents and best friends, a loyal network of people who’d drop anything to help them, and they have each other.

In the grand scheme of things, how could anything be more important than that?

Louis loves the law building; it’s one of the older buildings on campus, all sun-faded brick and trying-to-be-Gothic exteriors, but there are cozy nooks around every corner and a gorgeous library and a garden out back with benches and a gazebo that Louis passes every time he’s walking from his car to the building, and Louis sort of loves the faux-pretentiousness of it all.

It’s mid-September, still irritatingly warm and humid, but autumn is on the way and it’s visible in the garden: dahlias and camellias are just beginning to bloom as the summer lilies and daisies begin to wilt. Dahlias are curling around the fence next to the sidewalk, and the inky purple flowers catch Louis’ eye, making him stop in his tracks.

He’s pretty sure this garden has an actual use; the botany department takes care of it, or maybe the Environmental Studies classes work here, he’s not really sure. All he knows is that those dahlias are the same color as the vintage purple-swirled shirt Harry bought when he and Louis went thrifting last week.

Surely the botany people won’t mind.

Louis looks left and right, sees no one hanging about, and hops the chain-link fence in one bound. He twists three different blooms off their vine and bundles them together, and arranges them delicately in the cupholder of his car for the short drive home.

Harry’s sprawled across the couch with Niall when Louis opens the door to the apartment, and his eyes light up when he sees Louis.

“Lou!” he says, like they didn’t wake up tangled around each other this morning, like it’s not only lunchtime and they’d had breakfast together. “You’re home!”

“Wh’t’re th’se,” Niall says through a mouthful of chips, pointing at the dahlias in Louis’ hand. Harry looks down and jumps up, his mouth dropping open.

“Uh,” Louis says, because it’s hard to turn on the romance when Niall’s watching, his fingers covered in crumbs. “Happy Wednesday, babe.”

“Lou,” Harry says, sweetly shocked, his eyes wide. “It looks just like-”

“Your new shirt, yeah,” Louis says, and it’s worth Niall pretending to gag in the background or getting arrested by the botany police to see the way a smile spreads across Harry’s face.

The dahlias go in a vase, Harry and Louis go to their room, tripping and giggling and touching, and Niall goes anywhere that isn’t the apartment, because Harry’s gratitude is real and sincere and causing Louis to be very, very loud.

Louis is sitting in a perfectly normal Conflicts of Law class when a word on the overhead screen catches his eye and his heart starts thumping wildly. So wildly, in fact, that his hand spasms and he drops his water bottle to the floor like he's been electrocuted, the hard plastic thumping against the carpet and catching the whole group’s attention. He scoops his bottle up off the floor, his cheeks warm, and tries to get back to his notes in peace, shooing his own loud thoughts out of his mind.

It doesn't work; he shakes his head like trying to get rid of a stubborn insect buzzing in his ear, and all the while the word on the screen seems to grow until it's squeezed out all the air in the room, a giant word typed in Arial, font size set at 1,435,278. It expands like a balloon until Louis feels like he’s been trapped in his chair by it.

Matrimony.

He shouldn't feel so blindsided—there are thousands of cases every year that deal with marriage rights and legalities, pre-nup agreements and divorces and more, and surely when he’s a lawyer he’ll need to know how to deal with them. Still, it feels like the future is whacking him across the back of the head, telling him, pay attention to me! Focus on me! Plan for me!

And- and that’s not even an issue . Louis’ life is chaotic and spontaneous and wild but it’s that way only because he wants it to be; when he started law school it was with a neatly written five-year plan in one hand, his ten-year plan in the other, and a clear path from point A to point B. He’s a planner, he’s always been a planner, and he could map out his future with his eyes closed. The future doesn't have to yell to get his attention: he's always been focused on it, always planning, always moving forward, always taking steps to get where he needs to go.

There’s just one thing holding him back and making his plans maybes instead of definitelys: one tall, broad-shouldered, curly-headed, vanilla-and-mahogany scented thing, who tends to answer to the name Harry.

Louis has grand ideas for the rest of their lives, great romantic things he’s been planning since before he and Harry were even officially an item, a twenty-year checklist that sees them comfortably settled with kids and a house and a dog and a couple of cats at the end of it, happy and healthy and still so in love it hurts a little.

All he needs now is for Harry to sort out his own future so they can move ahead and put that plan in motion. Of course, if it was Louis facing an uncertain future instead of Harry, he’d be viewing the next year and the looming presence of graduation with severe trepidation but—

Not your choice sings the little Liam-voice in the back of Louis’ mind.

Yeah, yeah, he knows.

Harry will figure it out, Louis is confident in that. Harry’s got an incredibly bright future ahead of him, and it really doesn’t matter what he chooses to do with his career, because Louis knows he’ll excel.

It’s just.

Harry does, eventually, have to choose. College only lasts so long—at some point, he’ll finally have to answer the question of what he wants to do with his life, and somehow Louis doesn’t think potential employers will accept a shrug and an dimpled smile for an answer. The planner in Louis, the part of him that knew from the age of twelve that he’d be a lawyer no matter how long it took, the one who squirreled away college brochures so his mom wouldn’t see and fret about how they’d afford it and who worked triple shifts at his shitty high school job to sequester away little bits of cash, that part of him is panicking on Harry’s behalf. But when Harry is asked he just shrugs, smiles beatifically, makes some comment about living and learning and finding his path when the time is right, jokingly telling everyone he’s planning on being Louis’ kept man, a househusband.

Matrimony still stares at Louis from the front of the room; it’s not like that’s the only word on the screen, it’s even in the middle of a sentence (...updates on laws regarding matrimony and civil union benefits…) , but it’s the only word Louis can see. His professor’s still talking, the students around him are typing frantic notes, he knows he should zone back in and get back to the whole education thing, but.

Matrimony. It’s the next step in Louis’ five-year plan. It’s bullet point number three, after finish law school and find a job in a law office.

Bullet point number three: buy a ring.

Louis’ heart pounds. Matrimony.

His fingers move of their own accord on the the trackpad of his laptop, navigating to the top of the screen, clicking to open a new tab. The Google search pops up a suggestion for him halfway through the phrase; men’s wed auto-completes into men’s wedding rings and the first few links are purple rather than unclicked blue.

So he’s looked this up before, a couple of times. So what?  

It’s never really been an if with him and Harry; they’ve always known, it always seemed impossible for their relationship to go any other way than down the aisle. It’s one of Harry’s favorite subjects: talking about his professional future makes him clam up or laugh it away, but talking babies and weddings is one of his favorite pastimes. He and Louis have discussed colors (navy and white, because the tattoos on their bodies are just not quite enough nautical symbolism for them) and who gets whom for groomsmen (Liam and Niall with Harry while Louis gets Zayn and his best friend from back home, Stan) and when (early summer, before it gets too hot). All they really need is an engagement ring on Harry's finger to put the whole thing in motion, and Louis hovers his mouse over the Add To Cart button underneath a gorgeous shiny silver one. There's a clanging in Louis’ head that could be an alarm or could be wedding bells, but either way the noise makes it hard to think. His finger, a little sweaty, shakes instead of pressing down and actually adding the ring to his cart.

“Don’t you dare,” Leigh hisses next to him, and Louis jumps.

Oh, right, he’s still in class.

“What?” he whispers back, glancing to the side. Leigh looks furious. “What?” he tries again.

She opens up Whatsapp on her laptop and types wildly for a second, then Louis gets a message notification on his own screen.  

leigh-anne pinnock
don’t you DARE buy harry’s wedding ring off of amazon while bored in class
i will EVISCERATE YOU
you are the ACTUAL worst
don’t even answer me, i’m so mad at you
do you even know his size?

Louis, now incredibly confused, gingerly sets his fingers to his keyboard to start typing some sort of answer, when—

leigh-anne pinnock
i said don’t answer me!!!

Louis flicks his bewildered gaze to the side. “Sorry?” he whispers. Leigh is still glaring, and now neither of them are going to know what’s going on when it comes to marital laws. If they someday start their own practice, they’ll have to hire at least one other person to fill that gap, and that’s going to bother Louis. What if they end up hating that person? That would be awkward. All because Louis couldn’t keep his mind out of marital bliss while in class.  

Leigh, still scowling, leans forward and starts typing again.

leigh-anne pinnock
for the most romantic person i’ve ever met, that was the least romantic thing i’ve ever seen you try to pull

louis
what am i supposed to do, then? since you’re the expert

leigh-anne pinnock
you have to talk to his mom and stepdad, and you have to talk to him to figure out what he likes and check out your options, and you have to NOT BUY THE FIRST RING YOU SEE

louis
what’s wrong w/ this one???
and i know what harry likes
i bought him that turquoise ring and he wears it everyday!!

leigh-anne pinnock
he picked out that turquoise ring, louis. i saw him point at a picture of it and say “louis, i like this ring. my birthday is coming up.”
you were the only one who thought he was going to be surprised
also
that ring you were going to buy is only $30

louis
so??

leigh-anne pinnock
soooo if it’s that cheap it probably isn’t real silver, and it’ll probably turn his finger green

Oh.

Okay, so, Louis won’t buy that one. And, okay, so maybe buying something huge like an engagement ring shouldn’t be done while he’s supposed to be listening to his professor, who has now moved on to the topic of child custody laws.

When he looks up at Leigh, who is watching him absently chew at his thumbnail while he thinks through what she said, she raises an eyebrow as if to say, figured it out, genius?

Louis sighs, shoots her a look that is a combination of a whole lot of things but basically boils down to fine, you win, and exits out of the online shopping tab.

Leigh sighs in relief, and Louis switches back over to his word document to continue typing notes like he had been before all the wedding talk assaulted him.

She won this round, but it’s still gonna happen. And he’s going to pick out the perfect ring for Harry all on his own, she’ll see.

Or, okay. Maybe he’ll ask her help.

Louis and Harry are in Louis’ car, bickering over their grocery list and listening to Harry’s music, because he swiped the aux cord out from under Louis’ nose and they have a rule about stealing it back and forth from each other, because that never ends up well.

“We’re going to the Stop N’ Shop on Main Street, right?” Harry is asking, sticking his tongue out a little as he tries to add items to their list without ripping a hole in the notepad with his pen.

“Is that the one that smells like hot fish?” Louis asks.

“No, that’s the one on Carter. The one on Main is the one with the automatic doors you have to kick to open.”

“Oh, right. The one where that drunk lady plowed her car through the front of the store and it was closed for, like, six months.”

“Yeah, that one,” Harry says, bracing his knees against the dashboard and trying to write legibly. “Is that where we’re headed?”

“Uh,” says Louis, then makes a sharp right turn. “Sure.”

Harry snorts but keeps writing; Louis can see him add bacon and eggs (the brown package, not the blue) and Lou’s cereal. “Good. It has the peanut butter I like, the Stop N’ Shop on Carter doesn’t.”

“I don’t understand why we can’t just get normal peanut butter,” Louis says, feeling his face scrunch up in confusion. “What’s wrong with Peter Pan? Or Jif? My mom buys Jif.”

Harry sighs, biting on the end of his pen. “They’re fine, but they’re full of fat and sugar and terrible things like corn syrup. If we go with the organic brand, it’s more expensive but we won’t die of heart attacks at age forty.”

“How much more expensive?” Louis asks, suspicious.

“Erm,” Harry demurs. “It doesn’t matter, we can afford it. I checked our account earlier.”

Louis, ignoring the happy butterflies that swirl around in his chest at the thought of their shared bank account (the opening of which was one of the most adult experiences of his life so far), and says, “You have to choose.”

“Choose what?”

“Organic peanut butter or the fancy bread you like. We can’t do both.”

Harry gasps. “But they go together!”

“Haz, we just can’t. I don’t get paid until next week and rent is due Friday.”

“Lou-”

“That was Barcelona here on 102.7 The Vibe,” comes Liam’s voice through the sound system, startling Louis and Harry into silence. “I've just had a special request for our next song texted in, along with a message.”

“Did you switch it to radio?” Louis asks, frowning down at the audio display on the console.

“Uh, no,” Harry says sheepishly. “This is from the other day.”

“Thank you, Styles, for making egg on toast this morning,” Liam’s voice continues, and Louis can still hear the smile he’d been trying to repress as he said it. “Love you so much, Boo.”

The piano intro of Come Away With Me starts, and Louis looks over at Harry, who’s biting his lip and pink-cheeked.

“I got Zayn’s recording of Liam’s show from that morning and cut that piece out,” Harry admits, still blushing. “I wanted to keep the message that went with the song.”

Louis feels the slow smile spread across his face, and he reaches out and takes Harry’s hand. “Okay,” he says, still smiling.

“Okay?”

“Okay, we’ll figure out money later, you can get your fancy bread and peanut butter.”

Harry makes a happy noise and leans over the center console, smacking a kiss to Louis’ cheek. “You’re the best.”

“And don’t forget it,” Louis says, and grins the rest of the way to Stop N’ Shop (the drunk lady one, not the hot fish one. Naturally).

“Alright, you heathens,” Niall calls, clapping his hands together. The Pit, crowded and packed in a way that can only mean it’s LGBT club meeting time, quiets to a dull roar. “Time to get started.”

Louis clambers to his feet, realizes he can’t see everyone, and so jumps up onto the arm of the nearest chair. (Jesy, who is currently sitting in the chair, huffs like she’s not happy about it.) A steadying pair of hands grip his waist, and he leans back so that Harry’s chest supports some of his weight. The Pit’s couches and chairs and window sills and floor are all covered with people, all blinking up at Louis and waiting for him to speak.

“Welcome!” he says brightly, flinging his arms out wide and wobbling a little. Harry’s hands keep him from toppling off the chair and Nick’s snort is the only laughter he hears at his near-fall, so he continues. “If you’re confused about what this colorful group of people is and what we’re doing here, this is the LGBT club, and this is our first meeting of the semester.”

“Yeah!” Jade cheers loudly, and the rest of the upperclassmen join in. A few of the younger students laugh shyly at the exuberance, while some of them look terrified.

“We meet once a week to talk about things going on in our lives and the LGBT community,” Louis says. “Sometimes we have food, depending on if our resident chef is feeling up to it, sometimes we have music, sometimes we don’t do any of that. We use this time to plan out our spring charity event and fundraisers, but mostly we’re here to help each other out.” The room’s happy atmosphere softens a little, and Louis pushes on. “It’s not always easy, being part of this community, and we have to lift each other up. This club can act as your support system, if you let it. We can help each other with problems and situations and needed resources. We’re a family here, and family takes care of each other.”

He sees a lot of students nodding along, and he clears his throat. He loves this group with his whole heart, and he loves the fresh feeling of a new beginning. For a moment he just looks out at them all, like a proud mom watching all of her children look back at her like she’s lost her marbles.

“Explain the ribbons,” Harry murmurs from next to his hip, and Louis jolts a little.

“That’s right!” he says, patting Harry’s hand in thanks. “As my lovely assistant pointed out, you might’ve noticed some of the older students wearing ribbon pins.”

He gestures to the rainbow-colored pin on his chest, right over his heart. He sees the younger faces in the small crowd glancing around as though to confirm he isn’t crazy, their eyes landing on the pink-purple-blue ribbon stuck to Liam’s shirt, the rainbows on Nick and Harry’s, the pan flag on Niall, the multitudes of other small but colorful additions to people’s outfits around the room.

“We have extras over on the table by the door,” Louis continues, gesturing to said table. “They were made so that we can show our identities more accurately among friends. For example, I’m dating Harry,” he says, patting Harry’s hand again, and he doesn’t even have to look to know Harry’s doing his scrunchy-nose fond face. “But that could mean I identify as gay, or bi, or pan, or maybe none of those, or maybe Harry identifies as a female and I consider myself straight, there are lots of options. But with this,” he points to the rainbow pin, “you know that I am a gay man, and there isn’t any confusion. It also helps to learn the symbols and colors associated with our community, which is really important.”

A small, dark-haired girl wearing an oversized t-shirt and a look of determined terror on her face raises a shaky hand. When Louis nods at her (gently and comfortingly, or so he hopes), she asks, “What if we don’t know our identity yet?”

“That’s okay!” Louis reassures her. “Lots of us here don’t. And even some people who are secure in themselves don’t necessarily want to talk about that. The ribbons are for people who are comfortable with their identities, and are also comfortable with answering questions about it. So this is really a win-win system—if you’re unsure about your sexuality and you’re wanting to find out if a certain label fits you, I highly suggest finding one of these lovely people with the pins and talking to them about their experiences.” The group of people closest to the chair arm he’s claimed, Niall and Zayn and Liam and Perrie and Jesy and Jade and Nick, all nod in agreement. “Right, so, everyone good with the ribbons?” More nodding, this time from the younger students. “Great. Let’s open the floor for club business before we move on.”

Louis hops off the chair (with Harry’s hands around his waist cushioning his landing) and settles on Jesy’s lap as Jade leaps to her feet like she’s been waiting for this moment all summer. Harry takes a seat on the same arm of the chair where Louis had just been standing, his chest warm through his thin shirt where he’s pressed against Louis’ shoulder. Jesy winds her arms around Louis’ waist and they watch, grinning, as Jade brushes off her skirt and gives the room a beatific smile.

“Hello, everyone,” she says, and from the looks on the faces of about half the people in the room, she’s won them over to whatever she’s proposing without ever making an argument. “I make a motion to change the club’s name.”

“Okay,” Louis says, interest piqued. “To what?”

“I think we should be called the Gay-Listers,” she suggests brightly. “Like the A-listers, but, you know. Gayer.”

Louis snorts before he can think better of it, and among the rest of the group’s giggles he can hear Harry trying to muffle his squawky laugh behind him. “Somehow,” Louis says, “I don’t think that’s going to fly with the administration.” Jade’s smile drops immediately into a dramatic pout. “But... I’ll ask.” Jade brightens again, sending Louis a wink. “Motion tabled, for now. Anything else?”

A few more students stand and bring up topics like changing the meeting time and location and filling the club positions of Secretary (“What do you mean my handwriting isn’t good enough to keep meeting notes?!” an outraged Niall squawks at Liam, who holds his hands up like Niall might start swinging) and Treasurer (“Nick?” Liam howls at a still-stung Niall a few minutes later, “you want to put Nick in charge of the money? I’m studying business management. I’m studying money!” “Well,” answers a blithe Niall, “Nick’s getting his PhD, he’ll be here for ages.” “Thanks, Niall,” Nick pipes in, sardonic as ever). When all is debated and settled (with Liam and Niall looking in opposite directions, their cheeks pink, even though their knees are still nudging against each other every time one of them moves), Louis stands again.

“We’ll postpone talk about the spring charity event for our next meeting, so that’s all we have for business today,” he says, flinging his arms out again and almost whacking Harry in the nose. “Feel free to hang out and chat!”

The noise level rises as everyone gets to their feet to mingle and meet the newbies. Most of the freshman stay clumped together in the middle of the Pit, looking around nervously like they might be picked off one by one if they aren’t touching at least three other people. One boy, a sophomore who came to a couple of meetings last year, if Louis remembers correctly, draws Jesy into a conversation about the gray, purple, and white asexuality ribbon pinned to her shirt. Niall and Liam are looking at each other again, but only because now they’re arguing about where they should go for dinner (“We had KFC yesterday, Niall, that’s a no.” “KFC is more than chicken! Branch out! Try something new! It’s not my fault you get bored with the same thing every other day.”), while Zayn fields questions from two girls and a guy who look frankly stunned to be talking to someone with a face that pretty.

“Oh, erm,” Louis hears as he walks by, Zayn’s voice filled with something like slightly-concealed panic at having to be articulate without any preparation, “pink, yellow, and blue are the pansexual flag colors?” He sounds like he doesn’t know whether that’s true, even though he’s been wearing that same ribbon for two years of meetings and, yes, he does know that those are the colors of the pan flag. “So that’s. Yeah. That’s why I wear this pin.”

“That’s so cool,” the boy breathes, and Louis stifles his giggles and neatly avoids the help me talk to people signal Zayn is sending out in waves. Louis edges around another group already planning for the spring charity event and trails a hand down Harry’s back when he passes him, mid-conversation with Leigh.

“Is Kendall settling in okay?” he’s asking, and Louis pauses for a minute to hear Leigh’s answer. Harry brushes his knuckles up Louis’ arm, a silent greeting, but doesn’t look away from Leigh as she mulls over an answer.

“I think so,” Leigh answers after a moment. “She’s quiet, but that’s understandable. I tried to get her to come to the meeting tonight, but she wasn’t having it.”

“She didn’t seem ready for anything to be public,” Louis says in agreement, biting at his lower lip. She’s been on his mind all week, ever since he and Harry and Jade helped pack her things and move into Leigh-Anne and Jesy’s empty third bedroom.

“I’m just glad we found her a place to stay,” Harry says earnestly, and Louis hums in agreement. “A homophobic roommate, plus her mom causing all sorts of problems? That’s not a healthy environment at all.”

“I’m glad too,” Leigh nods. “No one deserves that.”

Louis pats Harry’s hip and smiles at Leigh, moving on towards his final destination. It’s not hard to pick out the new kids who are dying to talk to someone, but in a whole crowd of people who all seem to know each other really well, Louis knows it can be intimidating to actually find that someone. When he was a freshman, tiny and terrified and twinky in his striped shirts and tight khakis, Nick was that someone for him. Now it’s Louis’ turn.

“Hi,” he says, and the girl who had raised her hand in the middle of the meeting earlier jumps, looking away from Perrie and Jade, who are talking with another group of new students nearby.

“Hi,” she says back. She’s got wide, dark eyes and thick, dark hair and skin the color of burnished copper. Her Mary is My Homegirl t-shirt is faded and threadbare, an actual vintage shirt rather than a cheap department store version trying to look old, and it falls down to her thighs to meet the bottom of her denim cutoffs. There’s a small cross tattooed on the inside of her wrist, and it looks so much like the one on Harry’s hand that, for a moment, Louis feels an even greater rush of warmth for this girl. They stare at each other for a moment, and it would feel like they were sizing each other up if it wasn’t for the open curiosity in her eyes and the please let me mother you vibes Louis is sure he’s putting off.

She opens her mouth.

“You know that moment, like, when you see a hot person across a room and they’re, like, so radiant, you know? Like if you look at them too long it’ll burn your eyes out? That’s what my teachers always said happened if you look at the sun for too long, like, it’ll burn your eyes just, like, right out of your head. Anyway you know when you see, like, a beautiful person and it’s like, mierda, they’re just, like, too much. You know? Like, you almost want them to go away, because it’s so hard to, like, look at them, but if they do go away then your life is, like, ruined forever? And the only thing you can think is, like, damn, like, I’m so gay. You know what I mean?”

She says this all very fast, her syllables chopped and thrown together with a sprinkle of rolled rs and curving ñs, and Louis feels the smile tucked in the corner of his mouth pull into the full thing.

“What’s your name?”

“Olivia.”

“Hi, Olivia,” he says, smile growing wider. She gives him an appraising look, then smiles disarmingly back at him. “I think you’re going to fit in here just fine.”

Perrie meets them at the door holding approximately thirteen jello shots in her hands.

“It’s like a toll!” she yells, even though they aren’t standing very far away from her. “Except I’m giving you alcohol instead of you giving me money.”

“So, not like a toll,” Niall points out. Perrie hands him a red jello shot in answer.

“Alright, boys,” Liam says, swiping a green one and passing an assortment of colors around to the other four guys. “Bottoms up.”

Behind Perrie, the party is edging into full swing. She and Jade have a tiny studio apartment two blocks from campus, a neat and eccentrically-decorated mix of Perrie’s sports medals and workout equipment and those wedge heeled shoes she loves and Jade’s stacks of books and journals and glittered, well, everything. It’s packed with people at the moment, the tiny breakfast bar next to the half-sized fridge almost overflowing with a range of alcohol. It’s loud and chaotic and too many people in one room, but Perrie and Jade’s parties have always been that way and it's a comfortingly familiar sight.

Louis swipes his finger around the inside of the jello shot, loosening the gelatin from the plastic, and taps the little cup against Zayn’s in a mock toast. He slurps back the first one, wipes the back of his hand across his mouth, and slides the empty cup under the second shot so he has a free hand. This time, he makes eye contact with Harry and uses his tongue to loosen the jello and flick it into his mouth. Harry’s eyes go dark.

Louis - 1, Harry - 0.

“Hey!” yells someone from deeper within the party. “You made it!”

And so the night commences.

Harry and Louis have long perfected the art of working a room together as a couple, after two years of Louis’ networking luncheons and family weddings and Christmases on both sides and those fancy parties Anne always drags them to when Louis goes back to Chicago with Harry, the ones that mothers throw for the purpose of bragging about their kids’ accomplishments and to have an excuse to drink wine before dinner. By the time Louis and Harry have circled the room with their flattery and witticisms and subtle-but-meaningful intimate touches, Anne’s friends are falling all over themselves to declare they're the cutest couple to have ever lived and Anne lives to subtly brag on her son and (future) son-in-law another day.  

This isn't like those parties, though. This is a house party on speed, fifty-ish people crammed into a studio too small for all the personality and alcohol crammed into it; even if Louis and Harry wanted to do a real working of the room, there's no room in which they could work in the first place.

Plus, they (probably) already know everyone here and everyone here (probably) already loves them. Their job is done; time to drink.

Louis makes a beeline for the makeshift bar as well as he can through the crowd and starts pouring drinks, wanting to get them sorted before the good stuff runs out and they're left with a bottle of absinthe some moronic hipster brought and that cake flavored vodka shit that always seems to turn up at parties like this. He makes a double Jack and Coke for Liam, a whiskey sour for Niall, a vodka lemonade for Zayn, and pours two shots of Fireball for himself and Harry. They'd pregamed back at the apartment so the room is already pleasantly spinny, but it's Saturday night and they're among friends and Louis wants to get trashed.

“To your liver, may it survive tonight,” Harry says with a grin and a clink of their shot glasses (Harry's glass is authentic The Walking Dead memorabilia, Louis’ is sparkly pink and says Queen Bitch). They down their shots and when Louis gasps at the heat of the whiskey as it slides down his throat, Harry leans in to take his mind off the pain. With his tongue. Louis has to steady himself against the bar when Harry pulls back with a final nip to Louis’ bottom lip, leaving his head swirling dazedly.

Right.

Louis - 1, Harry - 1.

Perrie pushes her way to them and grins, her unfocused gaze catching on Louis’ sparkly shot glass. “Shots shots shots shots,” she sings off-beat, and she's missing a couple of shots in there if she's wanting to quote the song correctly, but Louis has the strong suspicion she doesn't care. Louis pours another round.

“To Friday night with—hic—my favorite people,” Perrie toasts.

Harry bites his lip to hide a smile behind his shot glass. “It's Saturday, Perr.”

“Oh, fuck.”

Louis laughs, Perrie laughs, Harry laughs; they take the shot, slam their glasses down. The liquid sloshes in Louis’ stomach, but he’s basically a professional at holding his drinks by now and he’s not going to let a little thing like alcohol poisoning ruin a good time.  

“Hey,” Perrie says. The song changes to something new, a familiar pulsing beat Louis recognizes in the back of his mind but can't name.

Harry does know it, apparently; he perks up, says, “This is my jam,” as calmly as one might announce that they have to use the restroom, and disappears among the crush of people in Jade and Perrie’s kitchen-slash-living area. From somewhere among that crush of people, Louis hears Niall's distinctive cackle and he assumes Harry’s found his people.

“Hey,” Perrie says again, swaying slightly. “Y’know how you were asking about Amal th’other day?”

Louis puts the bottle of Fireball back, grabs a half-empty carton of cranberry juice and a bottle of Svedka. “Yeah?”

“I know, like,” Perrie says, “when you're asking around about people it's usually because of law”—she waggles her hands vaguely in the air—”things, and you can't tell us what's going on ‘til it's over.”

Louis waits a moment for her to continue, mixing himself a vodka cran, heavy on the vodka. When Perrie doesn't ask anything else, he prods her with another, “Yeah?”

“Oh,” Perrie giggles, swaying a little. “Right. Th’rest of my question. Um.” She tucks a long strand of blonde hair behind her ear, fiddling with the ends. “He's- he's’not in trouble, is’e? ‘Cause, like, I don' think he's done a single bad thing ever in his life ever.”

“Can't say, Perr, you know that,” Louis says, sipping on his drink. “We're still sorting through what did and didn't actually happen, and his ex is the one who's our client.”

“Mandy?” Perrie asks, her nose wrinkled. “They haven't dated in years.”

“No,” Louis shakes his head. “Uh, his name’s Ben?”

His name?”

“Yeah?”

“Huh,” Perrie says, blinking owlishly. “That's new information.”

Louis, because he's not a lawyer yet but he's gonna be someday, immediately sorts through the dozen questions that flood his mind at Perrie's honest admission and tries to figure out what will get him the most info. Before he can ask, though, a voice floats above the crowd like a tipsy message from an angel.

“Louis,” it shrieks, and what a heavenly chorus it is. “Come dance with me!”

“Yes, alright,” laughs Louis, draining his drink and kissing a delightedly wobbly Perrie on the cheek. He weaves and shoves his way through the crushing masses to find Harry in the center of the makeshift dancefloor, arms raised above his head, hips rolling to the beat; Niall and Zayn and Liam are next to him as he moves, the four of them drawing hungry looks from boys and girls alike nearby. Louis doesn’t bother chasing them off, and he lets the onlookers watch as he slides his way in front of Harry, the two of them connecting out of instinct: hips to hips, arms around necks, hands tangled in hair, scrabbling at shoulders, slipping beneath the collars of shirts, grins in place. The onlookers seem disappointed, but unsurprised at his intrusion; the whole school knows that where there's a Harry, a Louis will soon follow.

Harry runs soft lips up the curve of Louis’ throat, and Louis’ hands tighten in his curls; the beat pulses into something smoother, slower but heavier, and their bodies follow. Harry kisses lightly under Louis’ ear, and he feels his knees go wobbly with want.

Louis - 1, Harry - 2.

Liam, Niall, and Zayn don't react at all to Louis joining them—they're far too used to their roommates’ night out routines, the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer flirting that inevitably leads to noisy nights and headboards slamming against walls when they get back to the apartment. Besides, they've got their own alcohol-fueled shenanigans unfolding: Niall plus alcohol is touchy and warm and bright like fire embers, Liam plus alcohol is flirty and smiley and the type to press his hands to people's hipbones because he’s fascinated with the way they fit against his palm, Zayn plus alcohol is giggly and radiant and needy in ways he won't let himself be when he's sober. Together they're a dangerous mix of touches and smiles and liquor promises that they'll sort out this thing between them; together they dance like the sun won't come up tomorrow, and that they only have to worry about tonight.

Louis presses himself to Harry's front and their hips find a dirty rhythm; next to them, Zayn has his back to Niall’s chest and his arms around Liam’s neck and they're all laughing and singing along to Drake: higher powers taking a hold on me, I need one dance. This isn't new but it isn't old, either; the five of them have always been like this, too close and too familiar and too open and, according to others, riveting to watch from the outside. A circle unbroken: they dance.

Time blurs; one song two songs three drinks four kisses five cheers from the onlookers as Louis turns in Harry's arms and grinds, grinds, grinds.

Louis - 2 (maybe? the room is spinning, the floor is unsteady), Harry … 4?

Harry bites Louis’ ear, kisses a trail along his jaw to his lips. The room wavers; the Earth tilts on its axis.  

Louis - 2, Harry - 5. Definitely.

“Baby,” whispers Harry against his neck, or maybe he shouts, Louis couldn't say. He reaches back and tangles his fingers in Harry's hair, he loses his breath when Harry kisses the join of his neck and his shoulder. They're pulling each other towards the edge of some unknown cliff, riling each other up and reveling in the audience to their game. Harry licks a stripe up Louis’ throat; Louis pushes Harry's hand that's resting over his stomach and pushes it lower, ghosting over the waistband of his jeans.

Louis - ???, Harry - damn, who knows? 1000??

Everything's mostly hazy, but Louis can see Niall, who's switched places with Zayn and is now sandwiched between him and Liam, looking more like the cat who got the canary than ever before. He's grinning over at Louis and Harry as he catches Louis’ eye.

“Unless you two’re planning on putting on a free show,” he calls over the music, and Liam and Zayn grin over their shoulders at Louis too, like they've been discussing it amongst themselves as they keep up their three-way dance of light hands and rough hips, “you should prob’ly get some water.”

Harry chuckles against the side of Louis’ head and flashes them a thumbs up, and the song switches to a slower Sia jam Louis never really liked that much anyway, so he and Harry escape the tight heat of the makeshift dance floor. Louis finds them some cups and they guzzle lukewarm water from the tap, grinning at each other over the rims of their plastic cups. The heat is still there in their looks and touches but it isn't immediate; it's one of those Louis and Harry things, that they can go from zero to sixty and back again in seconds, from calm to pushing each other against walls and scrambling for zippers to laughing into each other’s mouths over something ridiculous, their hands still down each other's pants.

(“It's like the Hulk,” Niall said once, his hands clasped together under his chin like a daydreaming maiden from a storybook. “That's your secret, Cap—you're always turned on.”)

Once Louis’ had enough water to calm his stomach and racing blood, he steps back into Harry’s space like he never left.

“Take me home, Mr. Styles,” he murmurs into Harry’s ear.

Harry’s eyes darken; they can’t get out of the apartment fast enough.

Louis is perched on the tiny bit of kitchen counter next to the stove, his legs swinging, his heels bouncing rhythmically off the old wooden doors of the lower cabinets. Harry’s baking tarts, or something. Pie, maybe? Apple dumplings? Whatever it is, it's apple-y and cinnamon-y and light and warm that makes the house smell like summertime. Louis is Harry’s Official Taste Tester, has had that title locked down since the week after they met, actually, and, of course, that includes sampling the edible raw ingredients as well: Harry absently hands him a slice of green apple, tart and tangy, and he bites into it happily as Harry squints at his mom’s hand-me-down cookbook.

“What do you think this says?” Harry asks, holding the book up for Louis to read. He leans over to see the spot Harry’s pointing to: so many thumbs have flipped through the pages of the cookbook, so much food debris from so many meals left on the thin paper, that the baking temperature is all but smudged off. Louis thinks he sees a seven, but he’s nowhere near proficient in a kitchen and even he knows that’s probably not right.

“Uh,” he hedges. “Dunno, babe.”

Harry frowns, bites his lip. “Gonna call Mom, see if she knows.” He grabs his phone and makes to leave, turning back and smacking Louis’ hand as he reaches for another apple slice. “No,” he says sternly, “or there won't be enough for the apple crisp.”

Right, apple crisp. Louis knew it was something like that.

“Fine, I'll be good,” he promises; Harry makes an I'm watching you gesture and retreats to stare out the window over their tiny dining table; it's late September and the blistering heat has fled, making way for the warm early autumn days that tempt them into turning off the AC and flinging open the windows to catch a breeze. There's a little window flower box that Zayn tends to, and the flowers and herbs and single marijuana plant he grows there are a floral border to the view out the window.

“Hey, mom,” Harry says brightly, and Louis grins and kisses Harry's cheek, calling a “Hey, Anne!” in the direction of Harry's phone before leaving Harry to it; he might've called his mom for recipe help, but it'll be a good half hour at least before they're able to hang up, and Louis doesn't want to stay in the kitchen or he’ll eat all of Harry's apples.

He retreats to the living room instead. Liam and Niall are there already, sharing the biggest, squishiest couch; there's baseball on TV, the Royals versus the Yankees, and Louis decides he’ll cheer for the Yankees just to piss Liam off. Normally Liam would be in Game Watching Mode (“The playoffs might be in October but every game counts, Louis. Are you listening? Every game counts.”), his elbows braced on his knees, his hair wild from the number of times he'd pulled his cap off his head and ruffled his hair in frustration, a beer switching back and forth between his hands.

He's not like that now, though; he's reclined back against the arm of the couch, the TV volume so low that Louis thinks it's muted at first, and Niall in sitting between his legs, his head resting on Liam's chest as he scribbles notes in his weekly planning notebook, the fancy leather one the boys all chipped in to buy him when he got hired at Hamilton Elementary.

“Harry done with the apple crumble?” Liam asks absently.

“Apple crisp,” Louis corrects, feeling self-satisfied for a moment. “And no, he had to call Anne for something.”

Niall makes a soft noise that says he's only half paying attention. “I thought he had the magical cookbook though, the one with all the knowledge he'd ever need.”

“The page is smudged.” Louis yawns, wriggled down to get comfortable in the chair, watching Niall write some more in his planner. Niall's always been a little old-fashioned when it comes to work: he likes keeping his weekly schedule on paper, not online, can’t stand e-readers when he can have a real book in his hands, and he doesn't trust his phone alarm so he still has an actual clock radio to wake him up in the mornings. “What's your week looking like, Ni?”

Niall scratched under his chin with his pen. “Pretty light, actually. My first graders are moving into Halloween songs, and fourth grade is learning their scales. And Leemo here is coming in to help with my third graders on Friday.” He pats Liam’s leg and Liam looks away from the TV for a moment to grin at the back of Niall’s head.

“That's right. Gonna rock Hamilton Elementary to its foundations,” Liam says.

“Gonna pull a Jack Black, School of Rock-type thing,” Niall agrees. “Telling the kiddos how to stick it to the man.”

“Stickittotheman-eosis,” Liam recites from memory.

“You're not hardcore unless you live hardcore,” Niall answers in song.

“And the legeeend of the rent was way hardcore!”

Louis rolls his eyes; they'll be at it for a while. Back when Niall and Liam first met, wide-eyed freshmen in their first ever collegiate music class, they'd been assigned as partners to perform a simple duet at the end of the semester. Instead of choosing something easy like an AC/DC song or Wonderwall or something, they learned the entirety of the School of Rock soundtrack. Their performance took thirty minutes and had choreography while everyone else struggled through two to three minutes of off-key guitar twanging, and they've been inseparable since then.

(Luckily, Louis came along soon after to save them from themselves, setting them on the path of least guitar-playing-in-public-spaces douchebaggery. He also convinced Liam to try on his first pair of skinny jeans and convinced Niall to cool it with the bro tanks after the temperature dropped below 70 degrees. In return, Niall and Liam didn't allow themselves to be scared away by eighteen-year-old Louis’ highly... energetic personality.

He brought excitement into their lives, they mellowed him out; in the end, Louis thinks it all worked out.)

Niall sighs and closes his planner, tossing it on the floor and leaning his head back against Liam’s collarbones, his eyes falling closed. Niall is cuddly but he's always been the most cuddly with Liam; he’ll curl up against Zayn or Harry or Louis or Jesy or Nick or anyone who sits still long enough and lets him, basically, but Liam has always been first choice.

It's nice to see that's still true, even with the weird Zayn thing hanging in the middle of them.

And, speaking of-

The apartment door opens and in comes Zayn, looking tired but content after a morning spent meeting with the ad agency he's doing a commissioned piece for. The second Niall and Liam register who's home, they both lose any sense of chill that had permeated the room just moments before.

“Zayn!” Niall cheers, like the guy doesn't fucking live here. “You're back!”

“Hey,” Liam says, smiling his Zayn Smile. “How was work?”

“Harry's making apple pie-”

“Apple crisp.”

“-and it smells delicious. Do you want to sit down? We can make room.”

“Yeah, totally, here, sit between us. Are you good with baseball? I can change it, if you want.”

Louis sighs and retreats back to the kitchen, where Harry's just getting off the phone with his mom. “Everything okay?” he asks as Louis hops back onto the counter.

“Hmm, yeah,” Louis says, then, “Zayn's home.”

“Oh, that was all the noise,” Harry says. He looks a little sad.

“Yeah.” Louis rubs his thumb over Harry's knuckles, but doesn't add anything else. What's there to say, at the end of it all? Our best friends are fighting over the attentions of our other best friend, and they aren't even kind enough to actually acknowledge that anything is happening and get it out in the open? No, no that's too much for a bright Saturday afternoon; too many storm clouds for a sunny day.

Harry returns to his apple tart—crumble, no, crisp—and Louis flickers through his social media; Twitter, Snapchat, then:

He opens Instagram and Niall's account has the first post on his feed: it's a shot taken about level with his chest, his planner splayed over his thighs, his feet sandwiched between Liam's at the end of the couch, an indistinct Harry and Louis visible in the background through the kitchen window. It's captioned saturday with the best. and it makes Louis’ heart happy and sad at the same time.

He locks his phone and distracts himself by distracting Harry, because if he thinks too much about what happens to the third person left behind when a relationship emerges out of a love triangle, he might lose his appetite.

The only thing more prevalent in law school than anxiety-induced breakdowns are-

“Mixers,” Louis grumbles under his breath as he adjusts his tie. “Seriously. There was a mixer just last Thursday. It’s all the same people here today that were here on Thursday. We’re drinking the same things as we did on Thursday. Sarah’s even wearing the same dress.”

Harry, who perfected the Anne Cox smile-against-a-glass-of-wine move to hide his actual thoughts from people who don’t know him well, ducks his head a little and answers, “And yet.”

“And yet,” Louis agrees with a sigh. And yet, here they are, because missing one mixer might be the difference between Louis getting a job offer at the end of the year or graduating without an employer or a steady salary in sight. Louis is in his best blazer and crisp slacks, Harry in a subtly expensive shirt and his best Gucci boots. Much as Harry loves the jokes about being arm candy and a trophy husband, it’s nights like tonight where that’s actually what he’s here for: anyone who potentially hires Louis would be hiring Harry as well. They’re partners in all things, not just some, and Louis wants Harry’s opinion on anyone he’s thinking of working with long-term.

So they’re here, and Harry might have his shirt unbuttoned to the dip between his pecs but his gaze is calculating, and Louis might be aching to leave and stuffy in his tie but they’ll be here until it’s done, just like all the mixers before. Harry drinks a little more wine and Louis shakes a couple more hands and inside he’s dying to just get Harry home and in bed so they can fuck and then sleep for the next two days, or maybe the other way around, he isn't picky.

“Hey,” says Leigh, sidling up to the two of them after a few moments. She’s with Aiden, who works with them at C&A, who’s holding hands with his boyfriend, Matt, and all three of them have the same professionally-hiding-a-grimace look on their faces that Louis knows he’s sporting as well. “Have you found a reason worth being here yet?”

“Nope,” Louis says, and takes a drink of his scotch. He holds the glass out to survey the amber under the dim lighting of the law building’s conference room. “Well. Free liquor.”

“They switched caterers since last week,” Harry offers cheerfully. “This one doesn’t do that gross quiche, and there’s a good fruit tray this time.”

“Always a silver lining for Harry Styles, isn’t there?” Aiden teases.

Harry shrugs, grins genially. “Why not? If it’s gonna rain, why not enjoy the precipitation?”

“Ooh, look,” Leigh says, lowering her voice. “There’s Professor Levy by the door.”

Louis, who long ago decided subtlety wasn’t for him, raises onto his tiptoes so he can see as well. “Oh my God, did he actually bring his mistress to a law mixer?”

“Is that his mistress or his wife?” Matt asks.

“His wife’s young, but not that young,” Harry joins in. He frowns like he’s remembering something. “We’ve met her, haven’t we, Lou? At one of these mixers last year.” His frown deepens. “She was nice.”

“She’s sleeping with one of the school board members, the young one with the good teeth. I think she’s fine,” Leigh shrugs. They all turn to look at her, eyebrows raised. She raises her own eyebrow in return. “What? Jesy says they come into the Dive sometimes during happy hour.”

“He deserves to be cheated on,” Aiden declares sullenly. “Have you guys taken his Civil Procedures class yet?”

Leigh and Louis shake their heads. “We’re in Crim Proc this semester, we’ll do his class in the spring.”

“Good luck,” Aiden says fervently. “It’s terrible. It’s so boring I think I got more sleep in that classroom than I did in my own apartment.”

“Oh, come on,” Harry grins. “Can’t be that bad. You should see some of the classes I’m in this semester.”

“Yeah?” Aiden challenges, grinning back. “Wait ‘til Lou does TORTS, he’ll be complaining so much you’ll change your tune.”

“What classes are you in, H?” Matt asks. “I know doctorate-level professors don’t usually teach undergrad classes, but we’re both in the business school, at least, I might remember some of it.”

“I’m in two accounting classes,” Harry lists off, counting off on his fingers. “An HR class, one on marketing, and one on non-profits. And yes, Aid, they’re all terrible.”

“How would you know?” Louis asks before he can stop himself.

Harry turns away from where he and Leigh had been elbowing each other playfully over the last slice of strawberry on the fruit tray. “What, Lou?”

Shut up shut up SHUT UP, Louis’ mind screams. His mouth says, “How would you know? You never go to class.”

Harry, still grinning, knocks his shoulder into Louis’ easily. To the other three, it’ll look just as light-hearted as before; Louis, though, can see the way Harry’s eyebrows tighten infinitesimally. “I go just enough to get by,” he says easily. Leigh, Aiden, and Matt are quiet, like they’re pretending not to listen. “Besides, I don’t need to go to a non-profit management course to know it’s boring. How hard could it be to run a place with no money?”

Louis opens his mouth to shoot off an answer, sees Leigh wince in anticipation, and closes his mouth again. He smiles at Harry without showing his teeth. “You’re right, of course. They’re your classes, after all.” Harry’s smile falls, just a little. “If you’ll excuse me.”

Louis steps away from their little group and ducks his head as he weaves his way to the bathroom; on the way, his Crim Proc professor stops him to officially introduce him to Professor Levy.

“One of the best in my class, Howard,” Professor Tammin says conspiratorially, as though Louis isn’t right there to hear every word.

“I look forward to seeing you in the spring, then,” Professor Levy says heartily, shaking Louis’ hand. Beside him, his mistress drinks deeply from her glass of wine.

“I look forward to it as well,” Louis says. “Excuse me.”

He can’t hide in the bathroom forever; for one thing, the building closes at eleven, and for another, he and Harry rode here together. Plus, he doesn't want to: passive aggressive tactics have never been his style. If he and Harry hadn't already had this same fight a dozen times before, he'd be out there right now and they'd be having it out just to get it all out of the way. He splashes water on his face and breathes deeply and tries to remind himself that everything is fine.

has h been going to that accounting class you have together? he texts Liam.

no, Liam sends back. There’s no accompanying explanation, no excuses on his behalf.

It’s not that big of a deal, Louis reminds himself. Lord knows he skipped class more often than he went, back when he was an undergrad just trying to get through his bachelor’s degree so he could finally get to law school like he’d always planned. It’s only the fourth week of class; if Harry’s missed anything, it won’t be much.

Still, Louis can’t help but worry. It’s what he does, he worries; he frets and frets and lets it build until it bursts out of him in a frustrated tidal wave at a law mixer. He’s going to keep on worrying, because Harry and his parents are paying thousands of dollars for him to be in school and every time he skips class, every time he shrugs when someone asks what he wants to do after graduation and he wastes another five months on classes he doesn't even enjoy, it’s like setting a pile of cash on fire.

But Harry’s family is not Louis’ family, Harry’s fears are not Louis’ fears, and Harry’s ambitions and wants and needs are not Louis’ ambitions and wants and needs. They’re different people on the same path, and Louis knows that. Just like he knows that this is Harry's battle, and until he asks for Louis’ input, he's there for moral support only.

He takes another deep breath and heads back out to the quiet sort-of party, meeting Harry’s cautious smile with one of his own. Aiden and Matt have moved on but Leigh is still there, her worried eyes softening a little as Louis slips his hand into Harry’s.

“Aid and Matt coming back?” Louis asks.

“No, don’t think so.”

“Good,” Louis says, leaning closer to Leigh. Harry steps closer as well; he loves law talk, and it’s not like Louis would ever keep the important details of a case from him anyway. “Perrie said something the other day that I don’t think we’ve thought about yet, regarding our case.”

Leigh tilts her head, interested. “And what’s that?”

“Ben says he’s Amal’s ex-boyfriend, right, and that they dated for months,” Louis says. Leigh and Harry both nod for him to go on. “But how do we know that?”

“That’s what he told us,” Leigh answers automatically, but Louis can see her coming to the same conclusion he found.

“But that’s it, right?” Louis prods. “There’s nothing on any social media, and when I said something about Amal’s ex, Perrie assumed it was his old girlfriend.”

“So, what?” Harry asks, looking puzzled. “They weren’t out?”

“Maybe not,” Leigh says slowly. “It might have been a stipulation by the football team, something in his image contract.”

“Right, that’s possible,” Louis agrees. “So, if Amal and Ben were still in the closet, how did no one find it suspicious that Amal was passing around a guy’s nudes?”

When Leigh doesn’t have an answer for him and realization dawns on Harry’s face as well, Louis thinks that, just maybe, they’ve finally struck gold.

It's a typical Thursday night, because Liam likes routine and Harry likes tradition and Zayn craves familiarity and Niall and Louis need attention and interaction to keep their extrovert hearts happy. The five of them are sprawled across the living room and it's nice; it's raining outside, Harry's lit a couple of candles, there's a lasagna in the oven, and it's all just nice.

Harry and Louis are curled together on the armchair. There's a book in Louis’ lap that he should be reading, and if he's not going to do that, his mind tries to reason with him, he should have his laptop out so he can work on his and Leigh’s case, the football player one. But the book is still sitting there unread in his lap and Harry's giggling every word from the Spongebob episode on screen into his ear, complete with voices, and Louis has had a glass of wine and about eight of Harry’s peanut butter cookies and is too content to move.

Liam and Niall, however, do not have that same problem. Niall has dragged not one, not two, but three of his guitars to the living room, tuning the strings and buffing the surfaces until they shine. Or, that's what he had been doing, but his instruments must be spotless and perfectly in tune because now he's playing something, the same few lines of a song over and over again as he fumbles with the tempo. It's vaguely familiar, and also vaguely Bollywood, that small twang and quick chord changes pinging something in Louis’ mind that makes him think he's heard this song on one of Zayn's playlists before. Niall is murmuring chord and note names to himself as he plays, “A, D, G, A.” Another strum, another Bollywood-esque twang. “A, Bb, A.”

Liam, to Louis’ bewilderment, is doing sit-ups. “Just my nightly usual, boys, no big deal,” he'd said as he walked into the living room and whipped his shirt off, but he usually does his nightly sit-ups (and push-ups and crunches and Lord knows what else) in his own room. Tonight, not wanting to miss out on any group bonding, he’s pushed the coffee table out of the way and he’s claimed the floor for himself, counting out reps as he passes multiples of five.

“A, Bb, A, A-”

“Thirty-five… forty… forty-five-”

Louis’ tongue is aching, he’s biting it so hard. Liam and Niall have never been particularly subtle, with their dropping things when Zayn walks around in a towel after he showers and their game of one-up that only seems to continue when Zayn is around to hear. Still, this is a new low for both of them.

“I think it’s called ‘peacocking,’” Harry whispers gleefully in Louis’ ear as Niall’s attempt at Hindi music gets louder and so does Liam’s counting and grunting. They’re pretending they don’t see each other, or something, like if they don’t make eye contact they don’t have to admit how ridiculous they’re being, but even so they’ve unconsciously synched up their weird mating rituals, Liam’s counting falling into a rhythm with Niall’s fingers plucking his guitar strings.

“A, D, G, A-”

“Sixty-five, uhn, seventy, whew, seventyyy... five-”

“I don’t care what it’s called,” Louis whispers back to Harry, “it’s a fucking disgrace.”

The best part (or maybe the worst part, Louis really can’t tell) is that Zayn is not paying a bit of attention. He’s got deadlines looming for his commission work and senior projects so he’s buried in his art; when he takes a break from his Studio Paint work, he moves to his Traditional Media homework. When he hits a stopping place for that, he opens his laptop and continues with his digital art. He’s currently taken over the dining table, papers strewn about in messy piles that probably mean something to him, Starbucks cups and energy drink cans peppered throughout the mess. The light from his laptop screen illuminates the circles under his eyes as he leans close to work on a tiny detail that probably no one else will ever notice, but will kill him to leave unfixed.

Basically, Liam and Niall could break into a choreographed dance routine to Good Vibrations by good old Marky Mark and his Funky Bunch—which, honestly, wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility in their apartment—and Zayn probably wouldn’t even blink.

No, but really. Louis is pretty sure Zayn hasn’t blinked in ten minutes. He’s neglecting basic human behavior, he's definitely not worried about Liam’s core strength or Niall expanding his musical talent.

Harry snorts and pats Louis’ knee. “I need a break from the gay American version of Bridget Jones’s Diary unfolding in our living room. Want anything to drink?”

Louis shakes his head no and tries to go back to pretending two of his best friends aren’t being ridiculous over a boy (even if he also loves the boy in question quite a lot). He hears the tell-tale sound of water hitting the bottom of the vintage tea kettle Harry bought a few months back, claiming he was ready to start trying real tea, not that McDonalds swill. (Louis, born and raised in Georgia, knows real tea, and it’s got ice and lemons and pure cane sugar in it and it isn’t warm unless a glass of it’s been sitting in the sun all day. He doesn’t know what Harry’s trying to insinuate with his real tea comment, but he does know Harry knows better than to go spouting off his wrong opinions in front of Jay Deakin unless he wants a sore ear.) There’s the familiar sound of Harry clicking the old stovetop to life and, a few minutes later, the quiet slosh of liquid into Harry’s mug.

He reappears in the doorway a few moments later, his rainbow mug steaming between his hands, his smile as soft as the kitchen light silhouetting him. Louis beckons him back to his side and Harry complies, his smile warm.

Harry's stepping carefully around where Liam is sprawled in the middle of the floor when Niall’s meticulous “A, D, G, A,” muttering hits a snag. With a horrible thwannnn he plucks a wrong note and it reverberates through the air like a lingering audible stain. Liam jerks up, startled, which makes his shoulders bash into Harry's shins. Harry's legs buckle and he, Louis, Liam, and Niall watch in horror as Harry's mug of tea arcs through the air and lands, with a sickening crack, directly in the middle of Zayn's piles of papers and sketchbooks.

The silence that follows Niall’s off note is shocked, crackly like the electricity in the room has suddenly been doubled. Zayn stares down at the brown seep of liquid as it slowly coats all of his work, his reddened eyes never leaving the papers that took the brunt of the damage as he mechanically moves his laptop out of the spill zone.

“Zayn, oh my god,” Harry babbles, stumbling over his feet as he breaks out of his horrified stupor and rushes to help. “I'm so sorry, oh my god, oh my god.”

Louis leaps up to help as well, just as Niall and Liam do the same. Louis stops them both with a furious look, pointing at the couch, a clear order: sit down and let us fix this. The two of them sit, looking cowed and a little terrified.

Harry's still apologizing, I’m sorrys and Zayn oh god I can fix thises bubbling and spilling miserably. Louis snags a couple of towels from the kitchen and they contain the spread of liquid as best they can, rescuing the books and papers that have gone unscathed and doing their best to dry the rest.

“It's fine, Harry,” Zayn finally answers, the words clipped. Harry's hands are shaking so Louis sends him to the kitchen to get rid of the tea-soaked Starbucks cups and the unsalvageable paper. Zayn and Harry have been best friends for years, and Louis’ never seen Zayn this angry; it's a quiet rage, which is somehow so much scarier than yelling and screaming.

“How can I help?” Harry asks when he reappears, wringing his hands. “I can fix this, Z, just tell me what to do.”

Zayn holds up a hand, stopping another river of words and says, “I'm gonna go.”

“Zayn-”

“No, Harry. I've got to go to campus, I've got backups of some of my stuff at the art building.” He shoves the mostly-dry papers and his laptop into his bag, slinging it over his shoulder.

“Zayn, wait,” Liam says, and Zayn holds up his hand again.

“I need to not be here right now,” Zayn says shortly. “I'll be back later. Don't wait up.”

When he slams the front door closed behind him, thunder rumbles like it had been waiting its turn to speak. Harry sniffs, his lip wobbling, and spins on his heel without a word, running to his and Louis’ bedroom and throwing the door closed, but not before the other three hear him give a loud sob.

Louis feels his fists clench and unclench rhythmically. It's one thing for Liam and Niall's antics to make themselves look like fools, but now their shit has inadvertently ruined the night as well as probably half of Zayn’s senior projects.

It's been two fucking years of this. Enough is enough.

“No,” Louis says as Niall and Liam both try to stand. “You fucking sit until I tell you to get up.”

“It’s not my fault!” Liam cries.

Niall turns to him, outraged. “You made Haz spill, it is your fault!”

“That only happened because of you-”

“Fuck you, don't blame me because you had to take over the whole middle of the living room to show off your ab sweat-”

“Like you're any better with your guitars all over the place-”

“Both of you shut the fuck up,” Louis interrupts, his voice little more than a growl. Niall and Liam go quiet immediately, eyes wide. “I let you two act like idiots because I didn't want to solve your problems for you, but I'm done. You will fix this and you will fix it now.”

“How?” Liam asks. “How do we fix it?”

“You figure it the fuck out. I'm done.”

And that's how Louis leaves them, uncomfortable silence in his wake as he heads to his and Harry's bedroom, finding Harry curled up under the covers and crying into his pillow.

Louis’ fists clench, unclench, and he goes to comfort his boy.

At around three in the morning, there's a knock on Harry and Louis’ bedroom door. Louis pads to the door to answer, Harry watching blearily from the bed.

It's Zayn, holding a sketchbook in his hand and looking absolutely worn down.

“Haz,” he says, and that's a good start. “It's not your fault.”

Harry sniffs quietly, shifting up into a sitting position, his knees curled up to his chest. “I know. I still feel awful.”

Zayn takes a breath. “Maybe you shouldn't.” He steps further into the room and opens his sketchbook, pulling out a loose piece of paper. It's light brown and curling on the edges, clearly a victim of the earlier tea attack. He hands it to Harry, and Louis peers at the page over his shoulder.

On the page, Zayn has drawn the outline of a mug in bold navy pen, the edges seeping on the wet paper like the mug is behind a pane of waved glass. The inside of the mug outline is a mess of watercolors, all looking like they've been dripped onto the page. There's blurry painted steam hovering over the painted mug, and the parts of the page where the tea drips are darker look like they were put there on purpose.

“You did this tonight?” Harry asks tremulously. “Zayn, this is amazing.”

“What can I say,” Zayn answers, deadpan or exhausted, Louis can't tell. “I got inspired.”

Before he leaves he tells them that his professors granted him emergency extensions but he thinks he's salvaged enough of his work to turn it in on time, and that when he got back to the apartment Liam and Niall had apologized profusely and promised they'd do whatever they need to in order to make it up to Zayn.

“Make them do your laundry for the next decade,” Louis offers darkly. “It's no less than they deserve.”

Zayn hums tiredly, and his smile is faint but still there. “Maybe. Bed first, though.”

“Love you, Zee,” Harry murmurs as Zayn leaves.  

“Love you too, H.”

“Okay, everyone, I've stalled as long as possible, but I think it's time.”

Louis clasps his hands, looks around at the crowd of students crammed into the Pit. It's the fifth meeting for the LGBT club—“The Gay-listers!” Jade insists cheerily every time he tries to say the acronym, despite Louis’ protests that the administration hasn't agreed to the name change yet—and every time they meet there are more and more new faces. Louis’ new friend Olivia is on a one-woman mission to recruit every member of the freshman class, either as someone falling under one of the LGBT letters or as an ally.

Right now she’s picking at her nails, surrounded by a somewhat nervous-looking group of newbies, all of them watching avidly as Louis swings his arms out wide again.

“It's time to talk about the spring charity event.”

The whispers roll through the room like wind on water, and Louis moves his outstretched hands into a placating gesture. “Okay, alright, settle down. Now. Does anyone have any ideas for anything new? The karaoke thing is getting a bit stale.”

It's quiet for almost a whole thirty seconds before Niall breaks. Just one little noise, not even a full chuckle, and suddenly the whole room is filled wall-to-wall with laughter. Nick is guffawing loudly, slamming his palm against the arm of his chair; Harry is holding his stomach like it hurts to breathe from laughing so hard; Liam and Zayn have collapsed together like a fallen house of cards; Niall is absolutely howling. Even the youngest students are giggling, caught up in the fun of it all: Louis might not remember much about his freshman year but he remembers hearing about the LGBT charity event before he ever set foot on campus. It’s a little bit legendary.

Louis wipes tears of laughter from under his eyes and grins out at the club. “Right, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk theme. Divas? Ballads? Hawaiian Odes to Gay Love? What do we think?”

Nick raises his hand. “I think we should talk about behavior guidelines first.”

Harry groans and drops his head into his hands. “Nick, no-”

“I just think they’re important!” Nick insists, smiling widely. “For instance, what are the group’s feelings about… feather boas? Tacky, or festive? A safety hazard, perhaps?”

“Nick, I swear-” Harry says, but Liam, giggling madly, has his arm wound around Harry’s chest to keep him from going anywhere.

“I have heard they cause choking,” Zayn says solemnly, and Niall shoves his fist against his mouth to keep from laughing.

“How about tequila, yes or no? We’ll have to start crafting a drinks budget soon,” Nick continues blithely. Louis is pretty sure his face is warm enough to set off the smoke detector. “And, lastly, are stripteases allowed? Or is that against policy at an official college event?”

The giggles from the older students are nearly overwhelming now; Louis rubs his thumb against his temple and sighs. When he looks up, he meets Harry’s eye: he looks exasperated, but also a little bit happy. Like he’s reluctantly accepted that it was brought up, but now that it was he gets to talk about it.

“Nick,” Louis says. “Shut up.”

But he winks at Harry, who blows him a kiss right back, and then they completely ignore all of Nick’s probing questions about charity events long past and dive back into the topic at hand.

“Nothing,” Leigh says, closing her laptop and crossing out the last item on her list with a vicious swipe of pen. “Not a hint of anything on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Vine, the school paper, the school gossip site, or anywhere else that might possibly have information about Amal and Ben actually dating. There’s a total of one picture of the two of them together, and it’s a group picture from a party with at least fifteen other people.”

“So it’s Ben’s word against Amal’s regarding the two of them dating.” Louis flips his pen, staring up at the ceiling of their office at C&A. “And, if he’s lying about the two of them dating, what else is he lying about?”

“Okay,” Olivia says one day when she and Louis are the only two in the Pit. She’s painted her nails dandelion yellow and now he’s helping polka dot them with gold glitter, his tongue stuck between his teeth in concentration. “So tell me about, like, those guys you live with.”

“Why?” Louis asks, squinting a little to make sure his dots are perfect.

“Because they’re interesting and I wanna know, stupid,” Olivia says.

Louis laughs, and his hand almost slips and paints a stripe up her arm. “Alright, alright. Who do you want to hear about first?”

“Do the pretty one, and then the two that’re in love with him,” she says, then makes a face. “Please.”

“The pretty one is Zayn,” Louis chuckles. “He’s from Detroit, grew up spraypainting all over trains and bridges with his friends because his mom wouldn’t let him do it in the house. When he was old enough, he started saving money to buy canvases and acrylics and nice pencils, and he had an art teacher in high school who helped him set up a website so he could put his art on display. He got a scholarship here and he’s getting a dual degree in Traditional Art and Graphic Design, and he’s already had a few of his paintings sold at the art museum and has a pretty decent online following.” He holds Olivia’s hand closer to his face, fixing a dot that went a little wild. “By the two in love with him, I’m assuming you mean Niall and Liam.”

“Obviously,” she says, one eyebrow raised high. “Don’t tell me you’re falling for that ‘we’re friends and there’s nothing weird going on here’ crap they’re trying to pull.”

Louis laughs. “No, I don’t think anyone’s falling for that. Let’s see. Liam is Kansas City born and bred, the kind that went to Royals games every Thursday and Chiefs games every Monday and played every single sport that his high school offered. And then he got hurt, his junior year, maybe? Just far enough away from when he would have to choose a college that he didn’t panic about it, he just threw himself into every extracurricular that wouldn’t damage his knee. He ended up in his school’s choir, and when he started looking into degree options he found sound engineering, and it was perfect for him, because he can be bossy and meticulous but it’s also fun and unstructured, plus he gets to sing all day. He worked at the campus radio station when he was an undergrad and still does from time to time, but now that he’s getting his second degree he’s working full time at the little recording studio over on Main Street.

“Niall,” he continues, “grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, which is the funniest thing I’d ever heard when I met him but also explains why he’s uncomfortable with technology and loves meeting new people and also why he owned a pair of overalls. His dad started teaching him guitar when he was, like, four years old, and when he was seven he was already teaching his cousins what his dad taught him. He went back and forth during his first year here on whether he wanted to do a music degree and try to live out the dream of being a recording artist, or doing a degree in Music Education. Liam tried hard to convince him to do an album, but Niall went and volunteered at an after-school music program once and immediately decided he wanted to be a music teacher. He teaches at Hamilton Elementary now, just a couple of blocks from here.”

“How’d you meet them?” Olivia asks.

“Liam and Niall had music classes together as freshmen, so that’s how they met, and then I met Liam in a freshman history class, because we both knew Nick. And then Zayn was Harry’s freshman roommate, so we met them both at the same time.”

“Okay, now tell me about your boy,” she says, poking Louis with her foot. “But no drooling, okay? And I don’t need to know, like, that many sex life details.”

“Hush, you,” Louis says, jostling her with his elbow. “I met Harry at the Dive , actually, back at the beginning of my senior year and his sophomore year. We started dating almost immediately, but sort of kept it quiet until, well, until the spring after we met, then it sort of… got out.”

Olivia snorts. “Yeah, that’s one way of putting it.”

Louis grins at her. “Anyway. He’s from Chicago, and he spent most of his life just doing whatever he wanted when the mood struck. He took art classes and cooking classes and learned to play the guitar and bought a camera so he could learn photography and taught himself a couple of languages. He always knew he was gonna go to college, his mom and dad and stepdad and sister all have degrees and it was just sort of assumed Harry would get one too. But, since he knew he was going to college anyway, he didn’t have to panic and scramble to find a place that he could afford and that had a degree plan he wanted, and he didn’t even really know what he was interested in when he got here. It’s like, he’s got all these passions and things he loves to do, but none of them are what he wants to do for the rest of his life. I’m pretty sure he only ended up choosing to major in Business because that’s a vague enough concept that it didn’t mean he was stuck on one concrete path.” Louis sighs, capping Olivia’s nail polish and holding her hands up for her approval. “He still doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but, you know. He’ll get there.”

“Mmhm,” Olivia hums noncommittally. She picks at her cuticles, then looks up at Louis through her lashes. He thinks she’s going to ask something probing about their sex life or Liam’s six pack or Zayn’s hair or something, but instead she asks, quietly, “I’ll find that, right?”

Louis, recognizing the please validate my choices desperation in her voice, turns to face her fully. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’m gonna find my best friends here, and, like, a girlfriend,” she says rapidly. “I want all the stuff you have.”

Louis, biting back a small, sad smile, says, “Of course you’re going to find all of that. You’ll have everything you ever wanted.”

Olivia bites her lip like she’s considering the truth of his words and, after a moment, smiles like the sun. “Good. I think so too.” A pause, then. “So, like, when’s the first time you had sex with Harry?”

Louis throws pillows at her until she’s running from the room, cackling, and he thinks she’ll be okay after all.

The Dive is hopping when Louis pushes his way inside, a sleepy-eyed Zayn tripping tiredly on his heels. The guy’s earned a night out, even if he falls asleep at their booth: within two weeks he restarted and finished all the class projects destroyed by the Great Tea Debacle, and even finished his commission with the ad agency in record time. The agency is now in talks with Zayn to hire him on as an official company artist, doing more regular commissions rather than the sporadic work he'd gotten before.

Basically, Zayn is a rockstar and so Louis and then other boys are going to ply him with alcohol until he sleeps right on through ‘til lunch tomorrow.

“Hey,” Alberto greets them at the door, giving their IDs a cursory check. “Your boys came in about half an hour ago, they’re at your booth.”

“Thanks, Berto,” Louis says, dragging Zayn along to the bar. Jesy grins and starts pouring their drinks before they even make it to the bar, sliding them two double whiskey sours (Louis’ with extra cherries, Zayn’s with a lemon wedge) and two bottles of beer with a wink before spinning away to fill someone else’s order.

“Louis!” Liam shouts as he and Zayn make their way over. “You brought Zayn!”

“Did you leave any alcohol in the building for us?” Louis laughs as Zayn slides in on Harry’s side of the booth. “Yes, Li, I brought Zayn. Just like I said I would.”

“Hi,” says Harry across the table when Louis sits next to Niall. His cheeks are flushed pink, his eyes bright.

“Hey, babe,” Louis grins. Their feet tangle under the table, and Zayn rolls his eyes when he feels Louis’ shoe brush his ankle, but he still smiles into his whiskey when he thinks Louis isn't looking.

The bar is loud enough that when the silence settles between them, it isn’t awkward. Slowly, Niall draws Zayn into a conversation about his next Studio Paint project, and Liam and Harry start discussing weekend plans. Louis soaks it in, his weary bones quiet now that he has a drink and his best boys with him.

“Hello, lovely lads,” comes Nick’s voice. He appears at the end of their table, palm splayed across the wood to keep himself from wobbling, his other hand wrapped around a bottle of Stella. “What’re we up to this evening?”

“Celebratin’ Zayn being a fuckin’ artist,” Niall says, lifting his glass in cheers.

Nick snorts. “That’s not as much of a compliment when he’s an actual artist, Horan.”

“Fine,” Niall says, brow furrowed, his movements whiskey-slow. “He’s a. A. A da Vinci. A gen-genius… guy.”

“There we go.”

“Nick,” Harry says, eyes still sparkling like he stole them from the sky, “I talked to my mom earlier and she said hi.”

“Oh!” Nick says, his face softening into something sweet for a second. He folds himself into the booth next to Zayn, swigging from his bottle. “Tell her I said hi back, and that I miss her. Also that she’s welcome to come mother me anytime, because I haven’t cooked anything in three weeks and this is the fourth time I've worn this shirt since I washed it.” He says this all very quickly, like it’s less embarrassing for an almost-thirty year old almost-Doctor of Media Studies to not do their laundry.

“What… the fuck,” Harry says, the alcohol making him syrup slow. “Forget my mom, I'll mother you. What's in your fridge right now?”

“Uh,” Nick says. “An old apple and a six pack of Diet Coke.”

Harry shakes his head, curls swaying. “We're going grocery shopping. Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow's Friday, Harold,” Nick says. “I have a class to teach.”

“Well I don't have any classes,” Harry stops for a minute. “Wait. Lou, do I have a class?”

“No, Harry.”

“Right. So we’ll go when you're done, and there will be no argument.” When Nick protests, Harry puts his whole massive hand over Nick’s face and murmurs, “No.”

Liam, who has been watching this conversation with excitement akin to a spectator at a tennis match, finally bursts out with, “Oh my god Harry can your mom send cookies?”

Harry, his hand still resting on Nick’s face, purses his lips like he's unhappy. “Liam, I make cookies all the time. There's a batch at home right now.”

“But not the special cookies,” Liam says earnestly.

Which is true, because there's a certain type of cookie Anne Cox bakes that make the whole world of desserts seem dull by comparison. Louis doesn't even know what they are —peanut butter? fudge? pecan praline? snickerdoodle? It's a mystery—but he does know that they're single-handedly the best things he's ever put in his mouth.

(He doesn't say this in front of Harry. He's tried recreating the recipe to no avail so many times that Louis has lost count, and Anne doesn't keep the ingredient list on anything as plebeian as paper, so Harry can't sneak a peek. Anne told Harry she'd give him the recipe when he graduated college: the first time she’d said this, Harry immediately left the room and barricaded himself in his stepdad’s study with five different textbooks. The promise of finally having Anne’s secret recipe is sometimes the last-resort threat Louis uses when Harry won't study for his midterms or finals.)

“Yes, Li, I will have her send the special cookies,” Harry says, his voice longsuffering.

“Harry,” Nick says, words muffled against Harry's palm. “R’mber the first time I met your mom?” Louis, sensing danger, tries to scoot his way out of the booth to get a fresh drink, but Harry's feet still tangled with his under the table have him trapped. After a long beat of silence, Nick turns to Louis, his eyes gleaming even with his face half-hidden by Harry's hand. “Your mom was there too, Louis. What a marvelous day.”

Well, shit.

“Wait,” Niall says muzzily. “I don’ remember this."

Nick’s smile widens, and he pushes Harry’s hand away from his face so that every word is crystal clear.

“Oh, my young friend, it's a wonderful story. Full of intrigue and passion and humor-”

“What the fuck, Nick.”

“-or, okay, mostly just humor, and not really for anyone but me. But, let me tell you, the laughter I caused myself was well worth it.”

“I need a stronger drink,” Louis sighs, gulping the last of his whiskey.

“You need to sit right there and let me tell this story,” Nick says, patting his hand. “Now. It was a lovely spring day two years ago, and Louis and Harold were doing that thing.”

“What thing?”

“You know, that thing,” Nick answers, widening his eyes meaningfully. “Where they spent all year pretending they weren’t dating and everyone let them even though it was the most obvious thing in the world.”

Oh,” Liam says, “yeah, that thing.”

“So this was pre-karaoke,” Niall asks.

“Pre-karaoke,” Nick confirms.

“We didn’t do a thing,” Louis says indignantly.

“Louis,” Zayn says lazily, his eyes half-closed. “You totally did the thing.”

“It was Parents’ Weekend, and I was out on the lawn DJing for the info fair,” Nick says. “And here comes young Harry, bright-eyed as a bunny rabbit. We talked for a little while, I let him choose a couple of songs, everything was normal. Then we see Louis, and I, being the good friend that I am, call him over to say hello.”

“You mean you yelled ‘Hey shortstack!’ into the microphone and everyone turned to laugh,” Louis interjects.

Nick waves a lazy hand. “Semantics. So Louis comes a-trotting over, sees that I have Harry with me, and does that smile. His Harry one.”

“Oh, you mean the sickeningly sweet one,” Liam says, nodding.

“The seconds-from-swooning-maiden one,” Niall adds.

“You people have got to get some hobbies,” Louis says weakly.

“Now, I'm a good friend,” Nick says, nearly a lament, his words loaded with martyrdom. “So when the two of them start staring into each other’s eyes like they're seconds from spouting poetry, I have to intervene.”

Harry, frowning, says, “You didn't intervene, you kissed us. Both of us.”

“On the mouth,” Louis groans. Liam, Niall, and Zayn giggle.

“It got you to stop, didn't it?” Nick asks. “And stop villainizing casual intimacy, Lewis, it’s rude. But,” he grins, leaning towards Liam like he’s sharing a secret, “that's not the fun part, oh no. See, the fun part is that as I was gracing these two with the gift of my lips to avert any attempts at speaking, their mothers walk up."

“They didn't,” Liam snickers. “What did they say?”

“Nothing, actually,” Nick answers cheerfully. “I think they were just going to pretend they hadn't seen anything. Very polite women, your mothers. I acted like my usual charming self and they were completely won over within minutes, naturally, and I thought that was that. But then,” he says, like he's a narrator painting a thousand-year tale instead of a drunk guy taking too long to tell one story, “Anne asks me, ‘So, Nick, how did you meet our boys?’”

The three person audience bursts into laughter, and Nick looks immensely pleased with himself. Harry drops his head to the table. Louis waves at Jesy, pleading silently for more alcohol.

Because, see, Louis met Nick when he was a freshman, and he'd joined the LGBT club to be a part of a community and to learn his history... but also a little to meet guys. And, well, Nick is a guy. It was easy friendship and biting energy between them, fun and secretive and no-strings attached; they fought and fucked with the same intensity, pushing each other into closets and empty offices and bathroom stalls at bars, and while that didn't last forever, it was good enough to keep them both close. They hooked up sporadically through Louis’ freshman year, until Nick met a guy named Riccardo in the foreign language department and Louis met other boys he wanted to spend his nights with and they parted ways. They stayed friends, even after Riccardo went back to Spain and Louis started looking for guys he wanted around for more than one night.

So, there was that.

And then there was Harry, who, with Zayn, spent the first few months of his freshman year sneaking into the bar near campus where local bands played live music and meeting people unlike any he'd ever met before. He met Ed there, who performed twice a week and who was going to be the biggest rockstar in the world once he got tired of playing dingy college bars. He met Leigh, who was taking extra credits every semester so she could get into law school because she was told girls shouldn't do things like become lawyers. He met Leigh’s roommate and platonic soulmate Jesy, who worked at the Dive full-time while earning a degree in management, and who planned on buying the bar from its owners as soon as she saved enough funds. And he met Nick, the doctoral student who let him have a hit of his joint and told him through a slow curling smile that college is all fun and games on Friday nights, but if he didn't do his homework on Monday morning he'd have to leave this magical land of semi-adulthood behind and get a real job. And Louis knows how Nick works, how he's good at rolling joints but even better rolling other things, got a tongue sharper than the edge of a knife and hands just big enough to make a boy’s knees weak. And Louis knows, because Harry told him, that when Harry pulled Nick into a bathroom it was quick and fun and over fast, and when Nick was leaving Harry asked if he should call him later Nick just laughed and said “No thanks, Harold, not looking for anything to last longer than about an hour. Friends?” and Harry answered yes.

And there was that.

So, when Anne asked Nick how he'd met her son and her son’s boyfriend, Nick had grinned until it looked like his cheeks were going to cramp.

“I said, ‘Ah, Ms. Cox, the three of us have a very unique connection,’” Nick says, like remembering a fond dream. “I didn't tell her the exact nature of our first meetings, but I did divulge a few details.”

“He said, ‘Harry and I both patronized the same bathroom stall, and Louis and I met while covered in rainbows and glitter,’” Harry says dully. “I'm pretty sure my mom thought he was our pimp.”

“And I think my mom thought he was mine and Harry's secret third boyfriend,” Louis adds over Liam and Niall’s shouts of laughter.

“Well, any description I wanted to use couldn't adequately describe the bond we share,” Nick says through his own giggles.

“My mother does not need to know about the connection between her son, his boyfriend, and the guy they both slept with at one point,” Louis cries. “She doesn't need to know you're the only person who can ever actually compare the two of us in bed.”

“Yes but now she does, and aren’t we all better for it?”

Louis says, incredulously, “No? No we are not. My mother thought I was a deviant.”

“Ah, but you aren’t,” Nick says. “And that’s what matters.”

“What matters is that I’m going to murder you,” Louis says.

“Alright,” Liam interjects. “This was fun when it was about embarrassing Louis but now he’s threatening murder. Niall, how do you feel about darts?”

“Are they far from this booth?”

“Why yes, yes they are.”

“Then I accept.”

They scramble out of the booth and head to the empty dartboard about ten feet away. As they leave, Zayn lets out an almighty snore, his head tipped back against the back of his seat. Nick spots some other friends nearby and leaves Harry and Louis with a wink and a laugh.

“Boy, don’t we know how to clear a table,” Louis says.

“Well, you know how to clear one,” Harry laughs. “I didn’t do anything.”

Louis pokes Harry’s ribs in retaliation, and then they’re giggling and poking and tickling and not really worried about anything at all. Harry calls a cease-fire and Louis buys another round for the two of them and Harry switches to his side of the booth, curling into Louis’ side and sighing contentedly. It’s a nice night, even if the person they’re celebrating is drooling onto his own t-shirt, and Louis is glad they decided to have a night out.

Until.

“Uh, no,” he hears Niall say. “That was not a bullseye.”

Liam, just as loudly, replies, “Yes, it was.”

“Then why’d you pull it off the board so fast, huh? You didn’t want me to see!”

“You don’t have to see anything, it was a bullseye, I get the points!”

“Fuck off, you do not!”

Louis jumps out of the booth and rushes over, Harry right behind him. They step between Niall and Liam and push them apart, and it’s like the two of them don’t even notice.

“Dude, what is up with you lately?” Liam asks.

“Me? You’re the one acting like an asshole,” Niall shoots back.

“Both of you, shut the fuck up,” Louis hisses, his hands pushing against Niall’s chest. “It’s a game of darts, why does it matter?”

“It just does,” Niall says. “You don’t understand.”

“I think I do,” Louis mutters.

“What the hell?” asks a sleepy voice, edges of his words hardened with worry. The four of them look up to see Zayn watching them, his eyes dull and narrowed. “What’s going on?”

“We-” Liam starts, but he must realize how stupid he would sound if he said we were fighting over a game of darts so he clicks his mouth shut.

“It’s nothing,” Niall mumbles angrily.

“Doesn’t look like nothing.”

“Niall just doesn’t like losing,” Liam says, and it starts all over again.

“Fuck off, bro! I didn’t lose!”

“Well you sure as hell weren’t winning!”

“Because you cheated!”

Enough! ” Zayn growls. “I’m going home. Thanks for ruining the night, assholes.”

Harry and Louis follow quietly behind him as he goes, leaving behind Niall and Liam, who both look deflated and disgruntled and just a little lost.

On a crisp, cool morning Louis wakes to a frost-covered world, the summer heat outside finally melted into chilly autumn. Harry adores the cool weather and he must have sensed it coming; their bedroom window is flung wide open to catch a hint of brisk air, the sky gray-blue behind their fluttering curtains. Harry's snuggled into Louis’ chest, his cheek a warm weight over Louis’ heartbeat, and he blinks sleepily as Louis shifts and stretches underneath him.

“Morning,” Louis murmurs.

Harry makes a contented noise in answer, his slow smile breathtaking in the morning light. He tilts his head and freezes, his eyes widening, then scrambles out of bed.

“Hazza,” Louis says, bemused. He sits up a little, leaning back on his elbows. “What're you doing?”

“Just stay there,” Harry instructs, his bare ass sticking up in the air as he rifles through his bag for… his camera?

“Haz,” Louis laughs, feeling his cheeks go pink. “C’mon, you've got enough pictures of me naked.”

“Not in this light, I don't,” Harry murmurs, clambering back onto the bed and straddling Louis’ thighs, resting back against Louis’ knees. “Could never have enough of you in this light.”

“Flatterer,” Louis shoots at him, but he can feel a lazy grin curl his own mouth as Harry snaps picture after picture, getting close-ups of the light playing in Louis’ hair, the fall of shadows across his collarbones, the pebbled skin of his chest as a breeze sweeps in the open window.

“If I had a gallery, and I filled it with pictures of you wearing nothing but an autumn morning and our sheets, it would never be empty,” Harry says, and it's almost solemn, like he can't believe the gift he's depriving the world by keeping these pictures to himself.

Louis smiles wider, stretches again; the camera captures his arms raised above his head, insistent clicking following his movements. It's no good trying to argue with Harry on points like this: he’s stubborn as hell when he sets his mind to it, and he has no end to the list of adjectives he's willing to apply to Louis’ body. Louis isn't self-conscious by any stretch of the imagination (in fact, Niall has called him “ruthlessly shameless” on more than one occasion), but when a boy who looks like Harry Styles whispers words like masterpiece and gorgeous and an angel, Lou, you’re an angel against the skin of your throat, you'd take a nude stroll down a busy street just to let people see what it was that made Harry so happy.

So if Harry wants to take pictures, Louis will let him take pictures.

“Lou,” Harry says, the soft playfulness in his voice caught in the slow syllables of a drawl, “quit acting bashful.”

Louis, who was doing no such thing, flips the camera off and grins. Harry clicks the button, catches that moment forever, warm laughter echoing back to Louis from behind the lens. He reaches out with one hand and runs a ticklish finger along the edge of the blanket where it’s still pooled over Louis’ torso. Louis squirms away, giggling, and the blanket pushes lower, exposing the tops of his hipbones and the band of his underwear. Another few clicks of the camera, and Harry's smile goes a little sharp.

“Lou,” he says again, pulling the camera away from his face and letting Louis see the way his eyes rake down his chest and stomach. Then he looks back up, meets Louis’ eyes, and smirks. “Give us a show, then.”

Louis laughs again, but Harry only raises a single eyebrow. It’s a challenge, and it’s a little hot, and it’s not like Louis is going to have a hard time finding something to think about: Harry sleeps naked, after all, and he’s a warm, lovely weight in Louis’ lap counteracting the chilly air. His tattoos are sharp bursts of black against his skin, his broad shoulders blocking out a little of the morning sunlight behind him.

Louis takes in a breath, lets it out slowly, and runs a hand down the middle of Harry’s sternum.  

“Alright then,” he says, and winks, because this is a little ridiculous but he and Harry have always been a little ridiculous, so it’s not really like it’s out of their comfort zone. He puts his hands on Harry’s thighs and pushes, and Harry gets the hint and sits back, settling in the open V between Louis’ knees, his camera cupped loosely in his hands as he watches.

Louis grins to himself and pushes the blankets down teasingly to the tops of his thighs, revealing the seafoam green briefs he’d slept in and the way they’re not doing much to hide the way his dick throbs with every beat of his pulse. The cool air prickles at his skin and he’d never thought of wind as an aphrodisiac, but here he is, being proven wrong. He slides his thumbs along the cut of his hipbones and under his briefs, waiting for Harry’s impatience to win out. He doesn’t have to wait long.

Lou.”

Then the briefs are off, and for a moment Louis just lays there, one hand resting under his navel, the other tracing absent patterns on his own chest. Harry’s smile has burned into something less light, something more hungry, and he bites his lip as he brings the camera to his eye again.

Click.

Louis is feeling less light too, like the air in the room is thicker, like his hands move in slow motion as they reach down, down, there. His hips jump as he closes a hand around himself and, just barely, he can hear a quick intake of breath behind the barrier of Harry’s camera.

Click.

“Louis,” Harry says, and Louis shivers at the timber of his voice. “Baby,” he says, and it’s deep with need.  

Louis’ back arches, and his breath catches in his throat. His skin is warm, now, his hand pumping slowly, his thighs shaking every time his fingers catch on the head of his cock. His vision is shaky so he closes his eyes, his voice is scratchy with arousal so he bites his lip.

Click. Click. Click.

Won’t be long now, heat gathering in Louis’ fingers and toes and racing along his veins towards his heart, like he took a hit of adrenaline mixed with passion and dusted with overwhelming adoration for the boy in between his legs, leaning forward like he can’t help it, his camera catching the way Louis’ left hand grips the sheets and the way his chest flushes and the way his mouth falls open as his hips hitch. Louis’ feet are sliding because he can’t keep them still, the blankets kicked down to his ankles and pushed in a small mound around Harry that he can’t seem to be bothered with. He’s too busy with his finger on the shutter release button, too busy drawing in deep breaths like he’s drowning in the best way.

Click.

And then Louis can’t hear the shutter anymore over the roar of his blood in his ears but he knows it’s still going, that if he opened his eyes he’d see Harry leaning close, so close, to capture the bead of sweat that trickles to rest in the hollow of his throat. His hand speeds up, and he can’t think beyond Harry Harry Harry-

“Harry!” he cries, his head flung back, his orgasm ripping through him, a riptide, a tidal wave, a hurricane. He’s crashing under the weight of the pleasure thudding through his body, and he doesn’t really want to resurface.

And then he does, accompanied by a chorus: click, click, click.

Louis’ eyes flicker open and he’s sated and warm but the sight of Harry makes his heart beat fast again, the way his achingly hard cock bobs between his legs, the way his own chest is shiny with sweat when he hasn’t really moved at all. His hair is a wild mess of curls, clear furrows where he’d run his fingers over and over in frustration, and his bottom lip has an indent from his teeth.

Louis tilts his head, looking at Harry through half-lidded eyes, and smiles. “C’mon, love,” he says, and his voice is throaty enough to make Harry moan. “Your turn.”

Harry lays his camera aside and crawls up over Louis, his hand reaching frantically for his own cock as he leans down for a deep, needy kiss. Louis lets him take what he needs, providing only a willing recipient to his outpouring lust and two hands, running all over Harry’s broad back, palming at his ass, tugging on his hair. Harry whines against Louis’ teeth and shudders, then breaks off the kiss with a gasp.

“Say m’name,” he pleads.

“Come for me, Harry,” Louis murmurs right against his ear, and Harry comes with a choked moan and a bite to Louis’ throat. The mess drips onto Louis’ stomach, mixing with his own come already cooling against his skin. Harry rolls off to the side, still panting.

“Wow,” he says. Louis laughs, and, after a moment, Harry giggles along.

The last picture taken that morning is of Harry’s hand, the cross tattoo between his finger and thumb a stark difference on his otherwise clear skin, dragging a single finger through his and Louis’ come on Louis’ stomach, the very edge of Louis’ chest tattoo catching the morning light.

hey haz just a reminder you’ve got a meeting with your adviser at 2 to enroll in classes for next semester
i’ll be at the apartment when you’re done :)

It’s been a long day at work, the potential lawsuit between Ben and Amal passed entirely to Louis and Leigh, James trusting them when they say they need a little more time to make sure their suspicions about Ben's stories are correct as James moves his attention to more pressing cases. The ever-present case file is in Louis’ bag, wedged between a stack of reading material he has to get through for his Crim Proc class tomorrow and a pile of paperwork he has to fill out for the LGBT spring charity event, and his head is starting to pound from his caffeine-only diet today.

But at least he’s home, and as he rounds up the last set of stairs toward the apartment he feels a little better just having the front door in sight. He’ll have a little while to relax, to shower off and change from his work suit into comfy clothes, and he can get all cozy on the recliner in front of the TV until Harry comes home from his meeting.

Maybe I can convince him to make that chicken thing I like for dinner, Louis is thinking wistfully as he slides his key in the battered lock, his thoughts slow. Or we could get pizza. Or, ooh, Chinese.

Louis’ longing thoughts of food are cut short when he opens the door and finds Harry there on the couch, not at his meeting like he’s supposed to be, an Xbox controller in his hand and Liam beside him.

“Hey, Lou!” he says brightly, but distractedly, his eyes glued to the screen. Louis doesn’t answer, the words blocked behind a sudden wall of anger. He knows that this isn’t that big of a deal, that this thudding ball of disappointment in his stomach is most likely being fed by the stress and lack of sleep rattling at his bones, but thinking rationally doesn’t make it go away, it just makes him feel worse for feeling it. He dumps his bag on the dining table, his heart pounding in his ears.

“Why are you here?” he asks, and he knows his voice is barely louder than the game on the screen, so he isn't surprised when the game gets paused. He stares down at his phone, the screen still showing the messages he sent to Harry; yep, just like he thought, they were sent and delivered and read and yet here Harry is, and not at his meeting.

“Huh?” Harry asks.

“Why didn't you go to the meeting with your adviser?” Louis asks. He hears Liam shift awkwardly on the couch. “I sent you a text about it.”

He looks up just in time to see Harry clap his hand dramatically to his forehead, and he knows in a split second that Harry didn't forget the meeting, he just didn't go. The anger compounds; it had been a sick weight in his stomach before, now it feels heavy enough to drag him through the floor, heavy enough to pull him downward until his feet touch magma.

“Oh no!” Harry cries, and he's trying to be funny but the sick feeling in Louis’ stomach isn't letting him laugh. Harry does, though, a little self-conscious chuckle when Louis just watches him, silent. “It's fine, Lou. I’ll reschedule.”

“You’ll reschedule,” Louis repeats. He sees Liam get up and exit the room quietly, and suddenly, like that was a signal Louis had been waiting for, he knows that this is it. It’s a normal Thursday in October and the weather outside is Harry’s favorite kind, a little chilly and crisp, and the apartment smells like cinnamon apple candles and all Louis wanted was a night in with his favorite person but no. This is it: this is the fight they’ve been building towards for months, no, years, every time Louis prodded and pleaded for Harry to sit and think and make a decision about his future and Harry laughed it off, this is it.

Louis takes off his jacket, brushing off the front of his shirt though there’s not a speck of lint there. He unbuttons the cuffs of his shirt and rolls the sleeves deftly to his elbows, once, twice, three times, the folds sharp. He walks slowly around the edge of the table, putting it between him and Harry. It’s not that he thinks they’ll get violent, of course not, but Harry hates confrontation and this is the best way to keep him from starting on the defensive, because if they're going to do this, they're going to do it right. No emotional manipulation or fear tactics, just good old fashioned screaming and misuse of logic to suit their arguments. Louis puts his fists against the cool surface of the wooden table, resting his full weight on his knuckles, and breathes, his shoulders tight.

Is this what it feels like for a boxer before the bell rings? The tension in the room is like a fine-cut diamond, sharp and bright and pressured into a single compact shape that threatens to burst at the slightest movement. The video game is still paused on the screen, the Super Smash Bros. music looping endlessly in the background like some sort of hysterically cheerful accompaniment to their eventual shouting. It’s not too loud, though, so Liam must have turned the volume down a little when he left the room—Louis will have to thank him later.

Louis looks up from his fists against the table and meets Harry’s eye; Harry stands slowly, adjusts his t-shirt and swallows like he knows this is it as well. Like they’d sat down with their schedules and put this fight on the docket, fitting it in between work and school and club meetings and nights out with their friends.

This is it.

“What the fuck were you thinking?” Louis asks, voice low.

The combatants enter the ring.

“I was thinking that it doesn’t do any good to see my adviser when I still don’t know if this degree is what I want to do,” Harry answers, and his voice is tight.

The bell dings.

“That’s just stupid,” Louis scoffs.

The fight begins.

It’s ugly. It’s been building for so long, it was always going to be ugly. Louis fights dirty and so does Harry, and they know each other in and out, backwards and forwards, know the buttons to push to get responses they want and the buttons to never, ever push if they actually value the relationship. Louis cries a little, so does Harry, but they’re angry tears, and they’re accompanied by cracked voices and furious gestures and sleeves wiped across eyes to clear the evidence.  

There are dodges and ducks and some hasty footwork to avoid saying the wrong thing, there are harsh laughs and frustrated unintelligible noises, and the sunlight creeps across the room as evening arrives and their throats go sore, time trying to intervene by marching on.  

“I am not being obstinate,” Harry growls, his face flushed angry red. “This is my future, Louis, not just some easy decision I can immediately change my mind on."

“Exactly!” Louis cries. “It’s your future, and you’ve put it off and put it off and now we’re here. It’s time. You can’t keep pretending things are going to stay the same just because you don’t want them to change.”

“Of course they will!” Harry yells wildly, a little hysterically. He makes his way to the kitchen as he continues, swiping two water bottles from the fridge. He cracks one open and swigs thirstily, his throat jumping with each swallow. “I’m at a crossroads, here, and if I don’t choose any path then I stay right where I am.” He grabs a glass from the cabinet, throws three ice cubes into it, and pours the second bottle of water into it. He slides the glass of water in front of Louis, his hands soft but his eyes hard. “I’m at a standstill—if I don’t move, nothing else does either.”

“That’s not how it works,” Louis says after a gulp of water. “This little bubble you’ve found yourself in, where all of your friends are around you everyday and your mom’s just a few hours away from you and you don’t have to make decisions because decisions are scary, that’s not real life. And it’s not going to last.”

“Yes it is,” Harry says stubbornly. “It is and it will.”

“No,” Louis says simply. “No it won’t. Liam wants to move away, did you know that?”

The sudden topic change throws Harry off for a moment. “What? I don’t know, I guess so.”

“Yeah, he wants to move away. He doesn’t tell you, because he knows talking about the future stresses you out, but when we all graduate in May he’ll be gone, probably to LA because he likes the West Coast more than the East, but we’ll see. Zayn will go too, he’ll move back to Detroit, or he liked Columbus when we went that one time for that art festival, or maybe he’ll follow Liam out to California. And you know Niall wants to move to a new city, because he likes his school but he’s always wanted to be closer to home, and all he’s really waiting on is for the rest of us to be done with our degrees before he makes a move.”

“And what about us?” Harry asks, eyes flashing, because he really doesn’t like talking about the future and the thought of their best friends moving far away is making him snap. “Where are we going, in this future of yours?”

“I… I don’t know,” Louis answers. “I’ll follow you to the ends of the Earth, you know that, but I can’t follow if you aren’t going anywhere to lead me. And every semester you ‘stand still,’ as you said, is another six months of college your family is paying for and six months of wasted classes for a degree you don’t even know if you want.”

“Wasted?” Harry’s voice goes high. “Wasted? College isn’t a waste of time, Louis, even if you saw it that way before you went to law school. Education in and of itself isn’t a waste of time.”

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it. I meant that you were taking classes that might not even matter if you decide you don’t actually want to get a business degree.” Louis takes a breath and tacks on, quietly, “Plus, it’s a little rich for you to be waxing poetic about the virtue of education. You don’t even go to class half the time.”

Harry’s breath is a sharp intake.

The bells dings again: round two.  

The door opens at one point and Niall sneaks in, clearly warned ahead of time, his head ducked as he scurries quickly to his bedroom and shuts the door. When Zayn comes in he strides right between Harry and Louis to get to his room, one quick glare all that’s needed to keep them from saying anything to him about it. Outside the sky goes purple-smeared-red, the sun dropping below the horizon.

Louis slumps into one of the dining chairs, his head bowed to rest against his forearms. His back aches from pacing, his throat hurts, his feet are killing him, but that’s all nothing compared to the way his stomach rolls and roils, hating the way Harry looks smaller, somehow. He’s curled up in the armchair, a throw pillow hugged to his chest, his eyes stuck on some point in the middle distance.

They’ve run out of words for the moment, but this isn’t done. Harry still doesn’t see what’s wrong with his putting off the inevitable, and Louis won’t apologize for pushing him to make a decision. It’s not finished, it’s stalled: an angry line of clouds on the horizon that they’ll have to deal with eventually.

“Are you hungry?” Louis asks quietly, and Harry nods. Louis unlocks his phone and calls the pizza place on the corner, and when he asks for their usual (large hand-tossed half ham, pepperoni, and jalepenos and half pepperoni and pineapple), their regular delivery driver asks if he’s feeling okay. Louis laughs and reassures him that he’s fine, but it’s hollow.

It’s quiet when Louis hangs up, the silence echoing. The TV was turned off ages back, and their roommates are so quiet they might as well not even be in the apartment. When Louis stands, his joints creak, like the argument aged him a hundred years.

He moves slowly to the couch, settling against the armrest further from Harry, and unlaces his work shoes. They’ve been on so long that they’ve left imprints on the tops of his feet and that, somehow, is what makes his breath catch in his lungs.

“I don’t want to rush you,” he says quietly, a little shakily. Harry doesn’t acknowledge that he hears him, other than a small twitch of his bare toes. “I want you to choose what makes you happy and I want you to enjoy making that choice. But, Hazza.” Harry flicks a glance over at the nickname, his shoulders melting a little out of their hard line. “Harry, love, this can’t go on. We’re in limbo, here, and until you take a step forward, we’re stuck wasting money and time until you’ve made a choice.”

“It’s not one choice, though,” Harry says, his voice little more than a croak. “It’s choosing if I want to finish the degree I started or to change to a different one, yes, but it’s also choosing my job for the rest of my life, and choosing what kind of cities or places we’ll have to look for places to live and whether we’ll be able to afford to buy a house right away or keep renting or-”

“That’s not all up to you, babe,” Louis says. “I’m part of this too. Let me help with some of it.”

“I’ve tried,” Harry mumbles. “But you give me two scenarios and both of them make me panic about choosing the wrong one, and that doesn’t help.”

“I know,” Louis says. “But I’m trying.”

“I know,” Harry echoes. “But it’s not working.”

The pizza arrives, and they eat in silence. Louis puts the leftovers away while Harry slips into the shower, and as he falls into their bed he wonders if this fight will just stay there in his bones, if he’ll go to sleep with his heart and head aching with fear and frustration and if he’ll wake up feeling exactly the same. If it’ll become a chronic pain, something he deals with so regularly that maybe he won’t even feel it anymore.

He and Harry fall asleep back to back instead of wrapped up in each other, and the apartment is still quiet.

There’s an LGBT club meeting the next day, and it’s weird. Harry and Louis aren’t not speaking, but they’re not really speaking either. Niall and Liam are still mad at each other over the game of darts at the bar (which, in all honesty, was a buildup of small incidents leading up to one blowout—sort of exactly like Harry and Louis’ argument), and Zayn’s not talking to either of them.

Add to that Jesy not being at the meeting because of work, Nick and Olivia both miserable with the first colds of the season, Leigh frustrated that she still hasn’t been able to convince Kendall to give the club a chance, and Perrie out of town for a rowing competition, it’s a bit of a mess. Jade’s there, but she’s got her head stuck in a textbook trying to cram for an exam, and she doesn’t even try one time to trick Louis into calling the club the Gay-listers. The chemistry and fun that usually draws people in and makes them want to be a part of the group is missing, and the freshmen look nervous instead of excited.

So they make it quick, Louis sending around a sign-up sheet so that everyone can pick the committees they want to work with for the spring charity event, and then they call it a night. Harry and Niall mumble something about food, Zayn disappears for the art building so he doesn’t have to work on his projects in the awkward air of their apartment, and Liam half-heartedly offers himself for a coffee outing with Louis.

“Nah, Payno,” Louis sighs, because he’s tired and everything is off. “Let’s just go home.”

 

coffee?

yeah. meet u there
get me a frap

i know your starbucks order, douche

no whip this time jerk

Louis already has the good booth by the heater saved at Starbucks when Zayn walks in, flicking his hair to get rid of the few droplets of rain that dared land there. He slides into his seat across from Louis quietly, shifting some of Louis’ books to the side and reaching for his frapuccino.

“Hey,” Louis says, glancing up and smiling quickly before flicking his glance back to his laptop. He finishes typing his sentence, saves his draft, and closes the laptop, reaching for his own still-warm coffee. “How’s your day?”

“Wet,” Zayn says shortly, laughs a little. “Cold. But otherwise…” His phone buzzes where he’d laid it on the table and he sighs. Louis looks down, sees new messages from Nialler (4) and Lima (7). Zayn sees him looking and shrugs. “Weird. Everything’s weird.”

“Don’t I know it,” Louis sighs back to him, thinking of that morning, when Harry had made him breakfast and then excused himself from the room before Louis took his first bite. They’ve been dancing around each other for a week, now, and their weirdly cordial interactions are wearing Louis thin.

Zayn traces a scratch on the table and, like it bursts out of him, says, “It’s just,” and then stops, like he bit the words before they could come out. It’s not like Zayn’s withdrawn: quite the opposite, actually. He’s usually fine with talking about emotions and difficult situations. It’s this situation and these emotions in particular, then, that are getting to him.

Louis knocks his foot against Zayn’s, smiles. “Go on. I won’t make fun of you if you cry.”

“Shut up,” Zayn says, but he grins a little. It drops off when he says, “It’s just. They’re my best friends, you know what I mean? You and Harry, you’ve always been this, this unit, ever since that first night at the bar. And so me ‘n Niall ‘n Liam, we had to be best friends, because you two were off in your own little world and didn’t realize it. We were the awkward third, fourth, and fifth wheels if we didn’t figure out how to get along on our own.”

“If it helps,” Louis says, “we didn’t mean for that to happen.”

“No, we know that. C’mon, Lou, give’s some credit.” Zayn takes another sip of his drink and stares out the window, watching the world get washed in watercolors. After a quiet few seconds, he says, “It’s not like I don’t know what’s going on. I do.”

“Do you?” Louis asks carefully, tracing his finger around his straw. “We… well, Harry and I weren’t actually sure.”

Zayn levels him with an unimpressed look. “I was ignoring it, mostly. People act like idiots around me when they first meet me, always have. Well, except Hazza,” he laughs, looking up at Louis through his eyelashes.

Louis chuckles as well. “Maybe he’s immune.”

“Nah. He was waiting for you, of course. I’m nothing in comparison, not to him.” He says it easily, like it’s obvious. And maybe it is, from the outside.

“Yeah,” Louis agrees softly.

“So I knew, when I met Niall ‘nd Liam, what was going on. But I figured, y’know, it would wear off, just like with everyone else. Usually people meet me, get distracted by all,” he gestures to his face, “this, and then when they find out I like art and comic books and smoking too much weed they lose interest. But those two didn’t, and then it just got worse.”

“You know how this ends,” Louis says after a moment. “You either pick one and break the other’s heart, or you pick neither and break both their hearts.”

“I can’t choose,” Zayn says. “It’s like choosing which of my arms I want to keep. I want both of them. I need both of them.”

“You… you need both of them?” Louis repeats. “As in…”

“As in I don’t know if it’s love, but it’s pretty fuckin’ close,” Zayn mumbles.

“Both of them?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow.” When Zayn looks annoyed, Louis shakes his head. “It’s not that I don’t believe you, I do. It’s just that that makes it harder, doesn’t it? To choose.”

“Impossible,” Zayn corrects. “Impossible to choose.”

“So,” Louis says, stepping delicately. “Where do you go from here?”

“Honestly? I don’t know. I know it can’t stay like this, but I can’t pick one either.”

“Maybe you could tell them,” Louis suggests. “Tell them you love them both and you don’t know what to do.”

“Would that make it easier for the person I didn’t end up with?” Zayn asks. “To know I loved them, but just not enough?”

“I- I don’t know, Z. Sorry.”

“Nah, it’s not your fault. I let myself pretend nothing was happening for too long, anyway. It’s time to figure it out.”

They lapse into something more quiet, and the ebb and flow of an afternoon at Starbucks moves around them. “Well,” Louis says lightly, “at least it’s your choice that you and Niall and Liam aren’t speaking. I don’t know if Harry’s ever even going to look at me again.”

“Oh, shut up, Lou,” Zayn says, waving his words away. “Like this fight is enough to break you up. You two will be the first couple to figure out how to be buried in the same casket because you don’t like sleeping apart.”

“That’s-” Louis pauses, then laughs, “okay, that’s accurate. Still, this is. This is big, Z. He’s really unhappy. And, you know what? So am I. I’m not happy with him, either, but every time I try to make him talk I just keep seeing his face when he said I couldn’t make it easier, and I can’t do it.”

“But you know what’s different here, between our two situations?” Zayn asks. “Me, Li, and Nialler, we’re an unknown, right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen or what we’re doing or how our problem is going to get solved. But you and Haz, you do know how it’s going to end.” When Louis opens his mouth, Zayn shoots him another look. “Shut up, Lou, you know I’m right. If Harry decided tomorrow that he wanted to change his degree and major in molecular biology or something ridiculous like that and then maybe go to medical school and, hey, he’s going to be here another eight years, do you know what I think you’d do?”

Louis sighs, because he knows what’s coming. “What?”

“I think you’d be right here with him, and you’d help him study for the MCAT and you’d get him through a residency somewhere and you’d follow him to whatever big city hospital he’d end up at and your plans would be delayed, but not derailed, and you would be okay with it. Same thing if he decided he wanted to go to culinary school, or get a degree in photography, or to drop out and not get a degree at all. That’s what’s different here, is that this fight isn’t enough to end what’s between the two of you.”

“We aren’t perfect, Z. Even good relationships end, they aren’t invincible.”

“You’re not perfect, no. But you’re perfect for each other, and that’s what matters.”

“Jesus,” Louis says after a minute. “When did we turn into two Byronic romance novel characters and lose all our street cred?”

“Right about the time we met, right over there,” Zayn says, pointing out into the rainy outside and towards the Square, where the neon sign for the Dive is barely visible over the tops of the trees.

Louis laughs, shakes his head. “I guess so.” He picks at his nails, and spins the little dish of creamer and sugar. “It’s just hard because there’s no right answer. Or, I suppose, there’s no wrong answer. Harry is right to want to take his time to figure out his major life choices, and I’m right in saying that time doesn’t last forever. Either way, one of us is going to have to lose when we shouldn’t have to.”

“I know,” Zayn says simply, and Louis knows he actually does.

“Anyway,” Louis says, pushing those thoughts away. “That’s enough of that for today. Did you see they’ve already got flyers up for the Homecoming bonfire? It’s, like, ages away."

“Three weeks,” Zayn shrugs. “Not that far. Don’t know why they do flyers anyway, it’s not like the whole school doesn’t go. If anyone misses it, it’s because they want to.”

Louis hums. “And then there’s Jesy and Leigh’s Halloween party this weekend.”

“Yeah,” Zayn agrees. “You and Haz still going as-”

“Dunno,” Louis shrugs. “S’pose I’ll ask. Or maybe I’ll just wear sweatpants and when people ask what I am, I’ll tell them I’m sad.”

Zayn chuckles, downs the rest of his frapuccino. “C’mon. Let’s go home.”

The rain is lighter than it seemed from inside when they step out into it, Louis finds. It lands softly on his wrists and hands and forehead and if he was the type to believe in metaphors, that might just be one.

Louis knocks awkwardly at his own bedroom door, stepping halfway inside. Harry looks up from where he’s curled in the blankets on their bed, halfway through a book. His eyes flick down to take in what Louis is wearing and widen just a little but he hides it well, clearing his throat. “Going somewhere?”

“Leigh and Jesy’s party is tonight, thought you might still want to go,” Louis says.

“Oh,” Harry says, like he hadn’t realized what day it was. “Um. What time is it?”

“Almost ten. Leigh called and asked if me and Niall could come early and bring some more cups, they don’t have enough, and I think Li’s going to be there to set up the sound system.” He clears his throat. “Your, um, your costume is still in the closet, if you wanna go. No pressure. Um. Zayn’s leaving at about eleven, so you can walk with him if you want-”

“Lou,” Harry interrupts.

“What?”

He tilts his head a little, and a hint of a smile peeks out. “I’ll be there.”

“You will?” Louis asks, knees a little weak with relief. “Good, that’s. That’s good. Okay, we’re gonna, we’re gonna go, but come find me when you get there, okay? I’m just gonna,” he thumbs over his shoulder dumbly, words still pouring out. “I’m gonna go, text me, text me if you’re coming, but you said you’re coming, sorry-”

“Lou,” Harry interrupts again. This time, his smile is a little wider.

“Yeah?”

“You look good,” he says, running his eyes down Louis’ costume slowly, then back up again. “Really good.”

“I-” Louis says, then stops. “This is silly. C’mere.” He crosses the room in three steps, taking Harry’s face in his hands and kissing him. It’s not particularly long or heated but it’s warm and familiar and a little spark of something like hope flares in Louis’ gut. When he pulls back, Harry’s smiling too. “I really do gotta go. But find me when you get there.”

Louis and Niall head to Leigh’s and Jesy’s apartment and Niall teases Louis the whole way there for the blush on his face just from a relatively chaste kiss from his long-term boyfriend. Louis would tease him back about something but he can’t really quit thinking that maybe this is it, and the fight isn’t over but it’s in the past and they can move on now.

When they get to the party, Jesy and Leigh and a nervous-looking Kendall greet them dressed as the witches from Hocus Pocus with way more cleavage, and the night starts off great. The apartment starts to fill with people as Niall helps Liam with the sound system, their heads close together as they add tracks to Jesy’s party playlist. The punch is wickedly strong and dyes Louis’ tongue red, and he’s dancing to a mash-up of Monster Mash and an old Fall Out Boy song when he spots a feather-plumed hat on a curly head in the doorway. Louis makes his way over and grins up at Harry, admiring the fit of his red coat. “Captain Hook! You made it.”

“We meet again, Pan,” Harry answers with a small grin. Zayn, clad in all black with a mask over his eyes (either Zorro or the guy from The Princess Bride, Louis doesn’t know and he feels like Zayn’s already told him more than once, so he doesn’t ask), winks as he slides past them, whispering a quiet good luck in Louis’ ear as he goes. But when Louis looks back at Harry, his grin is filled with a little more trepidation. “I don’t know if this is a good idea, Lou.”

Louis steps a little closer to be heard over the music. “Look. The situation we’re in, right now, is shit. It’s shitty and it sucks and it’s awful trying to tiptoe around you day to day, and I’m tired of it. So, just for tonight, let’s pretend it didn’t happen. Let’s get spectacularly drunk, and let’s dance, and have fun, and forget about everything that isn’t me, and you, and the 200 other people who have crammed themselves into this apartment.”

Harry, still watching Louis carefully, nods once. “Okay.”

“Good,” Louis says. He drags Harry to the drinks table and pours them both some punch. As he hands Harry his cup, he says, “We’re not what’s broken here, you know that, right?”

Harry takes a drink and grimaces at the burn of alcohol. “What?”

“I mean,” Louis says, frustrated that he can’t find the words when Harry’s finally listening to him. “I mean that whatever problems we’re having, they aren’t because of us. You’re right that it’s not fair that you have to choose right now what you want to do for the rest of your life. That’s not your problem, that’s a society problem, and we’re going to deal with it as soon as we can.” He reaches out, taps Harry in the chest. “We aren’t broken. We’re still good.”

Harry nods again, and downs the rest of his drink. Louis follows with the rest of his as well.

The party blurs, after that. Louis has some more drinks and dances with Niall and Kendall and Jade, he thinks, or at least the girl laughed like Jade, and he has more drinks and talks to someone about law school, and he drinks some more and can’t remember why he woke up this morning feeling sad.

Harry was there. Maybe Harry knows.

“Harry!” he shouts over the music. Lots of people turn to look at him. Maybe they can help him find Harry? Louis stumbles over to the nearest person but two hands grab his hips before he can get there, making him spin around. His vision goes wobbly and then it settles, sort of, or at least he can see a ruffled white shirt and a red coat. “Harry!” he says again, because if he gets one night to not fight with Harry, he should probably spend that time with him. “I missed you, where were you?”

“Right here, Lou,” says Harry, and he doesn’t sound drunk but that could just be something wrong with Louis’ ears. “Been here the whole time.”

“Nuh-uh,” Louis disagrees. “I was here, and you were not. So.” He tries to take a sip from his drink and frowns when he finds it empty. “But you probably weren’t here because you’re mad at me.”

“I’m not mad at you, Lou,” Harry sighs. He takes the empty cup from Louis’ hands and pushes him another one. “Drink some water, you’re going to pass out.”

“You are too mad at me,” Louis grumbles between drinks of water, and he’s a little irritated to find it’s helping clear his head. The alcohol burns in his belly, and it’s too hot in these green tights, and now he’s remembering that he’s mad at Harry, too.

“You’re being immature,” Harry says.

“Yes, well, if I am, I learned it from you,” Louis snaps. “I always have to be the mature one, it’s your turn.”

“You know what?” Harry fumes, then grabs Louis’ wrist and hauls him toward the bathroom connected to Leigh’s room. Harry pushes aside the line of people waiting to get in and throws Louis inside, slamming the door behind him. Louis glares, shifting his tunic back into place.

“What the hell, Harry?”

“I’m tired of this too, you know!” Harry says wildly. “I don’t like fighting with you! I don’t want to be angry with you! So stop trying to make this into my fault!”

“If it is anyone’s fault, it’s yours!” Louis shouts back. His head is starting to pound, and the water has settled heavily on top of the rest of the drinks in his stomach.  

“What happened to ‘society is broken, not us?’” Harry cries, flinging his arms wide. “Isn’t that exactly what you said earlier?”

“Whatever,” Louis scowls, looking away. His stomach is rolling, and it’s too fucking hot, and he’s tired. Tired of fighting, tired of the careful avoidance of topics that might set Harry off, tired of his best friend and love of his life sleeping with his back to him every night, and both of them waking up feeling like they didn’t sleep at all. “Just- you know what? Suck my dick, Harry.”

There’s a quiet moment and then a single word in response: “Okay.”

“Uh,” Louis says blankly. “What?”

“I said okay,” Harry says, and in one graceful movement, he sinks unflinchingly to his knees.

What?” Louis repeats, his voice a little strangled.

Harry doesn’t answer, instead reaching for the top of Louis’ tights and shorts and pulling them both down in one smooth motion. All the blood in Louis’ body rushes towards his cock so quickly that he sways with it and Harry, his eyes burning with something dangerous, shoves him back against the bathroom counter to keep from falling when his knees buckle.

Louis’ hands go to Harry’s hair out of habit, knocking his pirate hat to the floor as Harry ducks and presses a small kiss to the tip of Louis’ cock. He takes Louis down in one slow swallow, pushing pushing pushing until his nose brushes Louis’ skin.

Fuck, Haz,” Louis chokes, winding his hands through Harry’s curls. Harry hums, starting up a smooth rhythm, knowing the exact spots to linger and where to scrape just a hint of teeth to have sparks flickering in Louis’ vision. Louis summons up his last little bit of resilience and says, his voice shaky, “This isn’t going to—ah—work every time we fight, you know.”

Harry pulls back and gifts Louis with a breathtaking smirk. “Is it working now?”

God, yes,” Louis pants.

“Then why are you complaining?” Harry asks loftily, then leans back in.

When Louis comes it’s screaming Harry’s name, and when Harry comes it’s with his back to the bathroom door, his high-waisted black jeans peeled open to his waist and Louis’ hand working his cock, and when they leave the bathroom it’s to a round of applause from everyone waiting. They walk back to the apartment together, hands twined between them because that's how they're most comfortable, talking sporadically but mostly staying quiet, and Louis doesn’t know if the party was a good idea or a bad one or if it was a little of both, but either way it happened.

Time to move forward. They have to move forward.

Or regress backward. That’s an option too, apparently.

Louis gets the call at about three o’clock. He’s at the C&A office with Leigh, structuring an inquiry line and discussing all possible scenarios for their scheduled meeting with their client, Ben, next week. They’re arguing over technique (“Good Cop-Bad Cop is not a viable interrogation strategy, Louis.”) when Louis’ phone buzzes, a picture of Louis and Liam leaping into the murky blue of the waters of Lake Erie popping up on his screen.

“Liam!” Louis answers happily. “Good, perfect timing. I need you to tell Leigh-Anne here that Good Cop-Bad Cop has never once failed in any movie we have ever seen, and so that must mean it works in real life.” There’s a rustling noise, muffled words like someone has their hand clamped over the speaker, then:

“H’lo?” someone asks, and it isn’t Liam.

“Niall?” Louis asks back. “Why’ve you got Li’s phone?”

“Uh,” Niall says, then giggles. “Uh, Lou, I gotta, uh. Tell you something.”

“Niall,” Louis says, amused despite himself. Leigh is using his distraction to pen in her own notes on their interrogation strategy and cross out Louis’ Good Cop-Bad Cop suggestion. Louis tries half-heartedly to steal her pen, and she smacks his hand away. “Are you high? It’s not even 4:20 yet, man, have some respect.”

Niall giggles again, and in the background Louis can hear what sounds like Liam shouting through a closed door. “Maaaybe.”

“Fuck’s sake, Ni,” Louis laughs. “Give Liam his phone back, and go entertain yourself. I’m busy.”

“Can’t, Lou. Lost m’ phone,” Niall laughs, then, like flipping a switch, he goes serious. Or, well, semi-serious. “Plus, I gotta, like. Tell you something.”

“Well, spit it out, dude. C’mon.”

“You can't get mad.”

“Niall,” Louis says, and when Niall doesn't laugh, he waves at Leigh to let her know he’s stepping out and heads for the hallway, shutting the door behind him. “What's going on?”

“Um.”

Niall.”

“Well. Here's the thing.” A small, nervous laugh. “I was smoking up, yeah? And Harry comes in, and he wanted a hit, like, whatever.”

“O...kay,” Louis says. In the background on Niall’s side, he hears Liam still pounding on the door. He wonders absently if Niall’s locked himself in his bedroom or the bathroom: judging by the acoustics, he'd say the bathroom. “Harry's allowed to smoke, Ni. He's a big boy, he can handle a joint.”

“It wasn't. A joint, Lou,” Niall says, oddly earnest. “He smoked, like. A lot more, I don't know. I didn't keep track of exacts but. Um. I left the room for a minute and he, like, I think he drank something too? There's a.  A bottle of everclear out, and he's, like. Out of it.”

“What do you mean, out of it?” Louis asks, and he could cut himself on the edge of his own voice.

“Um,” Niall says.

“Ni, did Li smoke anything?” Louis asks. When Niall answers no, he didn't, he continues, “Let me talk to him.”

There’s a scrambling sound, some more muffled shouting, and Louis really hopes all that scuffling isn’t an impromptu wrestling match, because he does not have the time.

“Lou,” Liam says a few moments later, a little breathless, and Louis sighs in relief. “I got home and Harry was laying in the floor with a bottle of gin and he keeps laughing but he won't talk, or he can't talk, I don't know.”

“Gin?” Louis asks, because for some reason that's the detail that's sticking out. “Niall said everclear.”

Shit ,” Liam swears. “If he was drinking that, Niall must've taken it and hid it somewhere, it was definitely gin I saw. I have to leave in about an hour, I have studio time tonight I have to get to. Will you be back by then?”

“Shit,” Louis echoes. He shouldn't: he and Leigh are behind as it is, their schoolwork keeping them from wrapping up the details of what should be a simple case. James trusts them, but he’s getting edgy. Louis wipes his hands down his face and sighs. “Yeah. Yeah, I'll be there.”

Forty-five minutes and multiple profuse apologies to Leigh later, Louis is opening the door to the apartment, a little nervous about what he might find once inside. As he enters the living room he stops, just for a moment, to observe the tableau before him.

Harry’s in the middle of the floor, spread-eagled, his arms and legs outstretched. He’s got his white sunglasses resting crookedly on the bridge of his nose, the lenses making him seem bug-eyed and alien in their otherwise normal apartment. He’s surrounded by glasses of water, or what Louis assumes is water, as though someone was trying to make him drink them and he refused. Liam is sitting on the couch near Harry, looking somewhat like a mother bird watching her baby from the nest. His phone isn’t even out, the TV isn’t on, it’s just Liam, laser-focused on Harry making snow angels on the carpet.

Liam meets Louis’ eyes and smiles grimly, like he’s seen some things and needs to unload but knows that isn’t the priority at the moment. Harry, oblivious to all this, stops his arms and legs from sliding against the carpet and, slowly, gets to his feet. He tiptoes to the kitchen, high-stepping like a villain in a Pink Panther cartoon, though his periodic giggles ruin his sneakiness.

Liam watches until they see Harry open the fridge and then stands, making his way to Louis. “He tried to cook and I told him he couldn’t, just in case he burned the apartment down,” he says under his breath, looking pained. Louis doesn’t say anything, just watches Harry touch all the bottles of condiments in the fridge door like he’s never seen them before. Liam asks, “You gonna be alright?”

“Harry’s been high before, Liam,” Louis says. “He’ll be fine.”

“Not like this, he hasn’t,” Liam replies carefully. “He smokes to have fun. Not to cope with things he’s trying not to think about.” He sighs, shakes his head. “Why do we even have everclear? That shit’s dangerous.”

“Remember Niall’s bartender phase?” Louis asks, and Liam hums in understanding. Louis swallows. “We’ll figure it out.”

Liam pats him on the back. “I know.” He grabs his keys and pats his back pocket for his phone and wallet, then shoots Louis another small smile. “Be back later. Niall’s in his room, told him he should probably sleep it off and talk to you tomorrow.”

“Probably for the best, yeah,” Louis says. “Now go, I can handle it.”

As the door clicks shut behind Liam, Harry reappears in the living room. He’s made a single-serving of the shitty microwaveable mac and cheese that Zayn loves, and he’s eating it slowly as he crosses the room. He’s concentrating so hard on not spilling his food, he almost runs into Louis.

“Whoops,” he laughs, then spoons up another bite of congealing pasta. Where Niall’s sentences were blocky and choppy, halted by laughter and, later, worry, Harry’s words roll out of him in one smooth line, slow like the beat of a train in motion. “Why are you awake? It’s late.”

Louis frowns, and looks up at the clock on the wall, which reads 3:52 in the afternoon. Harry, slowly, follows where he’s looking. He stares at the time for a moment, then goes to rub his eyes. When his hand bumps into his glasses, he takes them off, gazes at them for a long moment, and laughs again.

“It’s daytime,” he tells Louis.

“Sit down, love,” Louis says, guiding Harry to the couch. Harry sprawls out, still cupping his mac and cheese protectively, and spoons up another bite.

“Louis calls me love,” he says. Then, suddenly, he sits up. “You can’t tell Louis.”

Louis opens his mouth, closes it, opens it again. “Tell Louis what?”

Harry blinks. “What?”

“What’s Louis not supposed to know?”

“That I’m,” Harry says, and then leans close to whisper, “high . And maybe possibly drunk.” He must have spilled some of the liquor on his clothes, because the smell around him makes Louis’ eyes water. “Yeah. Louis can’t know.”

When Harry leans back, Louis rubs at the bridge of his nose, trying to pinch away his burgeoning headache. He shouldn’t, but he asks: “Why can’t Louis know?”

“He thinks I’m not handling things well,” Harry answers off-handedly, digging for the last bite of mac and cheese. After he pulls the spoon from his mouth, he chews slowly and says, “I don’t think I’m handling things well either.”

“Why can’t Louis know that?” Louis asks, a broken record just looking for an answer he understands.

“Because then he’ll be disappointed,” Harry says simply.

And Louis’ heart breaks.

“Hazza,” he says, clears the sticky sadness from his throat. “Babe. Louis could never be disappointed in you. He loves you so much that it scares him, but it’s a good kind of scary, you know? And loving you so much means that even when he doesn’t understand you, he’ll never be disappointed in your choices, because he knows you had a good reason to make them.”

Harry stares at him for a long, long time. He’s pushed his sunglasses up to hold back his hair, and his empty cup of mac and cheese is abandoned next to him on the couch. The weed has made him slow, the heavy alcohol has made him sloppy, and it’s all twisted up inside him like a chemical tornado. His t-shirt is hanging lopsided, his sweatpants stained and two inches too short, and he’s a mess and a half that somehow still looks like a work of art. Louis can’t take his eyes away.

“Louis,” Harry says slowly, “why are you talking in third person?”

And then he laughs, and he leans back, and he closes his eyes. When he starts to snore, Louis drops his face in his hands and wondered how he screwed this up so badly, that his boyfriend would rather get fucked up than talk with him about his feelings.

When Louis wakes the next morning, it’s to find Harry already awake beside him, clutching his head absently as though it’s been aching so long he’s forgotten about it. He’s staring at Louis and biting his lip, like he’s been waiting for something he knows is inevitable, but doesn’t really want to deal with. A great feeling, Louis thinks sourly as he pushes himself up onto his elbows, for your boyfriend to feel while watching you sleep.

Louis silences his alarm and the room goes quiet, taut and still. It doesn’t feel like a Wednesday. Things like this aren’t supposed to happen on Wednesdays.

“Did, um,” Harry croaks, then clears his throat. “Did I fall asleep in here?”

“No,” Louis says. “On the couch. I carried you in.”

“Oh. Thanks.”

“Mhmm.”

When Harry says nothing else, just stares at Louis and picks at his lip, Louis gets to his feet and stretches, joints popping.

“Lou,” Harry says as Louis gathers his things for a shower. Louis turns to look at him over his shoulder. “I hadn’t- I mean, I didn’t want-” Harry breaks off, frustrated. “Yesterday wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Louis takes that in for a moment; it’s not really an apology, and it’s not really meant to be. Louis wants to answer but he's still trying to sort his own self out, so he can’t even begin to parse out how he feels about Harry’s stupid choices in the name of avoidance.

“Okay,” he says simply instead of any of that. “There’s aspirin on your table, I got it for you last night.” Then he nods and heads for the shower. The hot water soothes some of his achy edges, the ones that are hurt and the ones that know he has no right to be hurt and the ones that are just tired, because it’s college and college is exhausting. By the time he steps out of the shower, he feels vaguely human and maybe ready to tackle some things.

“Hey,” Harry says as Louis steps back into their bedroom, running a towel over his hair. He hasn’t moved, is still propped up against their headboard, though his face isn’t pinched in pain anymore.

“Hey,” Louis replies. He pulls his clothes on quickly as Harry watches, pointing to the blue tie when Louis asks his opinion, murmuring that it matches his eyes. It’s misty outside with the threat of rain, and the light filtering through the window is painting Harry grayscale, leeching his colors. He watches Louis slide on his wristwatch, the nice one Harry got him for Christmas last year, and then he watches as Louis sits next to him on the bed, cupping his bare ankle where it peeks out below the bottom of his sweatpants.

“I want to talk about last night,” Louis says. “But I haven’t processed it, and I don’t think you have either, and I don’t want it to turn into another screaming match when it might have just been something harmless.”

Harry nods. “Yeah, I’d. I’d like a little while to think.”

Louis nods too. “Okay. It’s a long day for me at work, but I’ll be back tonight. Maybe we can have dinner?”

Harry smiles. “I’d like that.”

“Me too.”

“Lou,” Harry says as Louis gets to his feet. “I love you.”

Louis presses a kiss to Harry’s lips, then his cheek, and breathes in: vanilla and cinnamon and the slight lingering hint of weed. Home. “I love you too, Haz. Always.”

The drive to work is easy, and Louis doesn’t think about much of anything at all on the way; he hums along to the radio and thinks about where he and Harry might go for dinner and runs his finger along the edge of his tie. It’s a normal morning, except it’s not; and that’s okay. He and Harry will talk, and they’ll figure it out, and it’ll be okay.

It’s a normal morning, but then Louis is parking his car in the Corden & Associates employee lot when Leigh comes rushing out to meet him, her hair wild, her eyes wilder.

“Louis,” she says, clattering to a halt next to his open car door in shaky-footed heels. “Our client’s here, Ben is here, and he's demanding to know why we haven't contacted him about his case.”

Louis’ insides freeze. “Shit.” Then they unthaw. “No, okay, we're okay. I'll talk to him.”

“You're sure?” Leigh asks. She's a steady-handed organizer when it comes to client briefings and interviews, but she has to be prepared in advance to be able to do anything off the cuff. By the look on her face, confronting Ben without their completed list of questions in hand would be impossible.

Louis, though, lives his life off the cuff. He doesn't need a script and he’s memorized his checklist. He knows what he’s looking for. His head’s clear, his heart is steady in its rhythm, and he's ready.

“Yeah,” he says, suddenly fine. He's going to get to the bottom of Ben’s suspicious story and he's gonna be off work in plenty of time to meet Harry for dinner and this, too, is going to be okay. “Set him up in the conference room, will you? I'll be right there.”

He's okay. They’ll be okay. He’ll be okay.

Their client’s last name is Winston. Ben Winston. Louis has combed his social media enough times now that he could pick the guy out of a lineup while blindfolded, but this is the first time Louis is seeing him in person. Louis takes a moment in the doorway of the conference room to pretend to flip through his case notes, observing the client over the top of his notebook.

Winston is tall, and wide-shouldered, his teeth just that little bit too white to be natural. He's the kind of attractive that makes Louis automatically dislike him: not because he's jealous, but more because he's never really been able to trust people who look like they'll grow up to be a senator or the owner of a car dealership. He looks like the bully frat guy in every college movie ever made.

“How long, Mr. Winston,” Louis asks, still buried in his notes, “were you and Mr. Sidana officially dating?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Winston shrugs, leaning back and propping a casual ankle on his knee. “A few months, maybe? Not quite a year.”

“Not quite a year,” Louis repeats, and writes that down. He thoroughly enjoys the way Winston’s eyes narrow, which is exactly why he did it.

“Is that relevant?” Winston asks.

“Could be.” Louis clears his throat, sends a look to Leigh, making sure Winston sees. “We’re just trying to gather as much information as possible to help our case. Now, Mr. Winston, are you out to friends and family as a gay man?”

Winston’s eyes narrow further. “How is that relevant?”

“It all pertains to the case, I promise,” Louis says, smiling slightly.

“Yes,” Winston says slowly. “Yeah, my family and friends know.”

“And Mr. Sidana, is his sexuality public as well?”

“No,” Winston says. “We had to hide quite a bit, rules with the football team, and so on.”

“Of course. But his friends and family, maybe some of his teammates, do they know?”

“No, none of them. I think I’m one of the few people that he’s told.”

“Right, right,” Louis says, and sends Leigh another look. She nods, because this is what they agreed outside the door: the moment Winston said something that didn’t match with his original story, she’d be letting James know and leaving Ben Winston to his fate with Louis. Winston watches her leave, his brows drawn.

“Where’s she going?” he demands. “And when will I get to talk to the actual lawyer here?”

“Soon,” Louis says, and his smile sharpens. “First, let’s discuss some interesting points. You told James, back in your first meeting, that Mr. Sidana was sending inappropriate pictures of you to his teammates. Did none of them think it was strange that a supposedly straight man had nude pictures of another man?”

“Well,” Winston fumbles, “I-”

“And, to that point, wouldn’t Mr. Sidana’s sending of these pictures be in direct violation of those rules with the football team you mentioned? In fact, most high-profile collegiate players, and Mr. Sidana is among that number, I think, have promotional and public image contracts with heavy penalties for doing things like being caught sending nude pictures.”

“That’s why I’m here, I-”

“Oh, well, if that’s your issue, wouldn’t you go to the athletic department with it? Their legal team would have more access to look into the issue than we would, but your goal, it seems, was,” Louis flips through his folder to the first set of notes Leigh had given him, the transcript of Winston and James’ first conversation, “to ‘bury him with a sex offender charge’? So it was retribution, rather than protection you were looking for.”

“I want him to pay, yes,” Winston grits out, his face red.

“Pay for what, Mr. Winston?” Louis asks coolly, lacing his fingers together. “Because it’s clear that your story is false. What are you really trying to punish Mr. Sidana for?”

Winston stays silent, his mouth hanging open.

“So what was it?” Louis prods. “Did he dump you for another man? Or did he do the unthinkable and date a girl after you? People are allowed to love more than one gender, you know.” Winston’s teeth click together as his mouth snaps shut, so Louis presses on. “Neither of those, huh? Did you pressure him to come out and he said no? That would be a violation of his contract, I can’t blame him there. Or, no,” Louis says, suddenly putting it all together. “You weren’t even dating, were you? You probably slept together, what, once? Maybe twice, if I’m being generous. There’s only one picture of the two of you together, was it that night? You met him at a party, thought you’d bag the hot football player, and the next morning he tells you it was just one night. You probably kept trying, tried blackmail, maybe you told him you had pictures of the two of you and you’d spread them. But nothing worked, right? So you decided to ruin his life with some fake criminal charges, and that would be enough for rejecting you?”

“I don’t have to tell you anything,” Winston sneers, though the vein popping in his forehead tells Louis he must have gotten some of that right, at least. “Let me talk to the real lawyer, you’re just a moron with a laptop and too much time on your hands.”

“Oh, you won’t be talking to James,” Louis says. “This isn’t Scandal, we don’t take any client that just walks through the door, and we definitely won’t take an obviously false case. James is a college town lawyer, he gets more than enough business with DUI charges and helping real students with actual problems. We thought you were one of those that needed help, but it seems like you aren’t.”

There’s a knock at the door, and Leigh reappears. “Louis, do we need security to escort him out?” She doesn’t tack on that they don’t actually have security, but that sometimes Aiden acts as a makeshift bodyguard and Cher keeps pepper spray in her desk, but it doesn’t matter: Winston gets to his feet of his own volition.

“No, I’ll go,” he says, but turns back to Louis. “This isn’t the only law office in this town, and I will make him pay for what he did. Someone’s bound to take my money.”

“Maybe so,” Louis offers. “In that case, I think we’ll be happy to see you in court, especially once I offer Mr. Sidana the use of our legal services.” He sticks out his hand for a handshake, and grins when Winston ignores it, pushing past him to get to the door. Louis and Leigh look on as Winston storms out into the parking lot, laughing as he fumbles his keys in anger and drops them to the ground, then kicks them in frustration and watches helplessly as they roll under his car.

“That’s justice, I believe,” Leigh says, and Louis laughs again, winding his arm around Leigh’s waist as they head back to their office to start on the pile of paperwork they’ve been putting off.

“Louis,” James calls from his office as he and Leigh walk past the open door, “whatever that was, it was a good decision, right?”

“I think so,” Louis says honestly. “He didn’t need our help.”

James looks at him for a moment, then nods. “Alright then. I trust you.”

“Great,” Louis says, summoning up a winning smile. “Because I think I might’ve just promised that we’ll protect the person that guy is trying to sue.”

“Right,” James says, and he doesn’t even look surprised. “Go on, then. You can handle it.”

Louis chuckles, feeling like he hasn’t laughed this much in ages, and pulls out his phone to ask Perrie if she knows whether the football team is practicing that afternoon and if not, where someone could possibly find a star quarterback on his time off.

Louis’ meeting with Amal Sidana runs long: so long, in fact, that it turns to a quick dinner, then an evening with the athletic department’s legal team to talk over their options if Winston finds another lawyer, then, as night fully settles in, coffee at the campus Starbucks.

“I can’t believe he was going to make me into a sex offender for not dating him,” Amal says as he sips his hot tea, still sounding shocked even after Louis revealed the situation to him hours ago. As advertised by Perrie and anyone else Louis and Leigh asked about him, Amal is incredibly likeable and very intelligent, not to mention easily one of the most beautiful people in the school. His perfectly arched brows furrow as he thinks, his Nike hoodie hanging off his broad shoulders attractively. “I don’t even know if I even remember what he looks like. We talked, like, twice after that night, and I told him I had to keep anything I did with dudes locked down.”

“Some people are like that,” Louis shrugs. “They can’t handle being told no.”

“God,” Amal says, looking out the window. “And what a way that would’ve been to come out, eh? ‘Hey, the quarterback’s gay, and he’s also a sex offender!’ The media would go wild.” He shakes his head. “Not that I don’t want to come out, but damn, what a way to go.”

“You want to be public?” Louis asks. “That’s really brave of you.”

“My family doesn’t care, I think my mom always knew,” Amal says easily. “My friends around here know, and I’ve quietly dated a few guys, it’s really the team’s fanbase they’re worried about. People are still so weird when it comes to athletes being gay or bi or whatever, and the athletic department told me they can’t afford for ticket sales to drop.”

“Everyone’s worried about the Ellen Effect,” Louis nods. “She has her show now, but back when she first came out her sitcom got cancelled, and no one wanted to work with her. People think that being gay equals a loss of interest, or outright hate.”

“Yeah. And I get that. I just wanna be myself, you get me?”  

Louis hums, spins his cup. “You know, I’m the adviser for the LGBT club on campus. If you’re interested, you could stop by and check out one of our meetings.” When Amal looks interested, if a little worried, Louis adds, “We’re open to allies as well, so you can just say you’re helping support the community. If anyone asks, that is.”

“That’s,” Amal says, then smiles, “that’s actually really cool, man. Thanks.”

“No problem. It’s a great way to meet people, especially if you’re missing out on being a part of your community. It’s tough, being closeted, and we’ll help in whatever way we can.”

“I’ll check it out, definitely,” Amal says. His cheeks go a little dark, like he's bashful about it. “I've never gotten to do stuff like that, or go to Pride, or anything along that line. It's always been about plausible deniability, you get me?”

Louis smiles sadly. “I get you.”

Amal nods. “Good.” He wraps his copper-penny hands around his white paper cup, stealing the warmth from his drink. He does the same thing Harry does, where he laces his fingers around the cup, making it look even smaller in his too-big hands.

And then, with that little Harry-like gesture, Louis remembers.

“Shit,” he mutters, getting to his feet. “I was supposed to meet someone for dinner.” He checks his phone and winces at the time—11:22, his screen tells him, and long past a decent dinnertime.

“Damn,” Amal grimaces in sympathy. “You’d better go, then. And, hey,” he says, shaking Louis’ hand earnestly before he dashes away, “thanks again, man. You didn’t have to warn me about Ben, but I’m glad you did.”

“Absolutely,” Louis says. “And if he gives you trouble later, let us know.”

“Will do!” Amal calls as Louis dashes away. “Good luck!”

The apartment is dark when Louis gets home. There’s a single plate of leftovers on a plate in the fridge, plastic wrap keeping it fresh, and a note in Harry’s handwriting: for lou.

Harry shifts when Louis crawls into bed behind him, whispering apologies into his ear and squeezing him tight. “Lou?” he asks muzzily, blinking in confusion. “Time s’it?”

“Almost midnight,” Louis says. “I’m so sorry, Haz, work went wild, and I totally forgot to call.”

“S’okay,” Harry says, curling back in the warmth of Louis’ arms. “D’j’you have a good day?”

“I did,” Louis says, realizing he means it. The case that he and Leigh have been stuck on for months is dismissed, and he got to help a young LGBT kid who didn’t even know he needed it. It’s the kind of day that reminds him of why he wants to do this forever. “It was a good day.”

“Good,” Harry yawns. “S’all that matters.”

“God,” Louis breathes against the back of Harry’s neck in wonder, “I love you so much.”

Harry smiles as his eyes droop closed, and then Louis follows his boy into sleep.

There's a moment, between Louis opening the front door and stepping inside the apartment, that he knows something is wrong.

Maybe it's the silence: their apartment is never quiet, not unless it's early on a Saturday morning or if no one is actually home. Niall owns more guitars than he does shirts with buttons, and Liam has a state-of-the-art sound system he got as a perk when he was hired at the studio, and between the two of them there's always music playing is some corner of the place. When Zayn’s in his art zone he puts music on as well, scratchy records and thudding R&B, and when he's taking a break he claims the TV as his own, laughing at shitty reality shows or a new episode of the show with the videos he’s already seen on the internet. Harry is loud in other ways: clattering pans in the kitchen or humming while he adds printed pictures to their wall of photos or emphatic, pointed clearing of his throat as he sends Louis unsubtle hints about heading to their bedroom for a little one-on-one time.

It's quiet now, maybe that's how Louis knows something’s wrong.

Or maybe it's the cool air that hits him, stale and crisp. November has made her presence known this year, creeping in through loose windows and under the gaps of doors. Their apartment is old and creaky, but that’s never been an issue before: old and creaky is nothing compared to the warmth of home, and that’s what this apartment became the moment they stepped into it. It’s still musty and a little dingy, and the microwave sparks if it has to cook something for more than fifty-seven seconds, and the washing machine jumps around so much that they’re always a little afraid it’ll fall through the floor, and the water pressure sucks and the elevator’s broken and the furniture that came with the place is the ugliest stuff on the planet but...

But.

But the moment Louis followed Harry inside the apartment for the first time and watched him spin slowly, taking it all in, and watched the smile unfold across his face until it was blindingly happy, and heard him whisper in Louis’ ear as he tugged him close, “It’s perfect, Lou, it’s perfect and we share it with our favorite people and it’s ours”—at that moment, Louis knew it was home.

And, at this time last year, the place had been strewn with tinsel and garlands and paper snowflakes, a tiny Charlie Brown-esque Christmas tree crammed in the corner and decorated with Harry’s necklaces and Liam’s CDs and stale popcorn strung on Zayn’s sewing thread and Louis and Niall’s attempts at gingerbread men (because they didn’t own ornaments, and it was more special that way anyway). This year, they’ve all been so wrapped up in their own dramas, Harry and Louis in their awkward side-stepping of important conversations, the frosty not-quite-silence between Zayn, Liam, and Niall, that the place is bare of holiday spirit.

Still, it’s never quite this cool and unwelcome, even with their current situations, and maybe that’s what stops Louis just inside the front door, his insides churning.

Or maybe it’s all of that and more; maybe someone watching is prodding Louis towards his and Harry’s bedroom, lifting his heavy feet and pushing him forward. Maybe Fate’s whispering again: she seems to do that a lot when Harry and Louis are involved.

Louis hears a sob as his hand touches the door, he hears another as he pushes it open.

Harry’s curled in a ball on their bed, clutching Louis’ pillow to his chest, his phone abandoned on the sheet next to his head, and he’s crying the way a person only does when they think they’re completely, totally alone. Wracking, horrible sobs, scraping at his throat as they crawl into the air, choked coughs and panting breath; it’s terrible, it’s an awful cacophony of emotion that immediately makes Louis’ knees want to buckle. He stumbles to the bed and reaches out to touch Harry, to find the pain and heal it, to find a way to rip the sadness out of Harry and take it upon himself.

Harry jumps when Louis kneels on the bed behind him, scrambles upright and forces his sobs down. He swipes a hand over his face but wiping the tears away doesn’t hide the redness of his eyes, the way his lip shakes.

“Lou,” he says, and his voice wobbles. “What- what’re you doing home early?”

“James had another meeting, he let us go early,” Louis says, leaning closer. “Harry, babe, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, nothing,” Harry says, waving the question away. When Louis just stares, not taking that for an answer, he sniffs and continues, “It’s stupid.”

“Nothing’s stupid if it makes you cry like that,” Louis promises. “C’mon, love, talk to me. What is it?”

“It’s, um.” Harry’s voice goes out and he shakes his head, reaching for his phone and shoving it into Louis’ hands. Louis unlocks it, wondering what sort of terrible thing Harry’s been sent or seen.

It’s an email, an email from his Managerial Accounting professor, apparently. It’s harmless, not even a full paragraph, and Louis wonders if Harry deleted whatever it was that made him sob like he was facing down death. “Erm,” Louis says, but at the fresh sheen of tears in Harry’s eyes he rethinks the callous, so? that was about to tumble from his mouth. He, instead, reads it again.

Harry -

We’ve missed having you in class these last few weeks. You were an excellent part of our discussion on innovative practices in the industry and I was looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the next few chapters. If there is anything you would like to discuss or anything troubling you, my door is always open.

Yours, Diana Jefferson

“I didn’t think,” Harry chokes out, “that anyone noticed whether I go to class or not. Why do they care, as long as I hand in the homework and show up for tests? I really b-believed what I told you a few weeks ago, that if I don’t move forward then everything just stops but… it doesn’t.” He laughs shakily, brushing away more tears. “It doesn’t, and I- I didn’t know, and now I feel like I’ve been letting everyone down who’s j-just been waiting on me to figure my life out-”

“Oh, Harry,” Louis says, dragging Harry into his arms. Harry automatically burrows against Louis’ chest, wiping wet tears on his shirt. “Babe, you’ve let this all build up in your head so that you feel like you’re keeping the world from spinning, but that’s not what happened. People care about you, and we love you, and we want you to succeed. That’s all it is. The whole world isn’t watching you.”

Harry shakes his head. “Everyone has s-some idea of what they want to do with their lives and for me it’s just- just nothing. I know you’re in it, and the boys and Gems and my mom, and that’s it. Nothing else. I’m just- I’m just here.”

Louis pulls back a little, takes Harry’s face in his hands. He looks unbelievably young like this, wet eyes and red nose and wild curls, a scared boy on the cusp of adulthood and who keeps trying to walk backward instead of forward.

“Is that what you think?” Louis whispers, wiping tears away from Harry’s cheeks with his thumbs. “You think you’re the only one in the world who doesn’t have it all figured out?”

“Yeah,” Harry admits honestly. “Yeah, I really do.”

Louis holds his face in his hands a moment longer, then leans forward to press his lips gently to Harry’s. When he pulls back, he says, “Come on.”

Harry, looking thrown by the turn of events, says, “What?”

“C’mon,” Louis repeats, getting to his feet. “Grab your boots and your coat. Let’s go.”

“Go where?” Harry asks, but Louis is already digging in their closet, swapping his work shoes for his Vans. “Louis?”

Louis pulls his coat back on and wraps a scarf around his neck. He turns around and meets Harry’s confused gaze. “D’you trust me?”

“Course,” Harry says, getting slowly to his feet.

“Then come on,” Louis says, smiling, as he holds out his hand. “I wanna show you something.”  

Harry pulls on his Chelsea boots and peacoat and throws a scarf around his neck as well, and then they’re locking the apartment door and clattering down the stairs, hand in hand. The chill in the air pinks Louis’ cheeks and cools the teary heat of Harry’s so that they match, and so no one even knows that Harry was crying only a few minutes before.

“Lou?” Harry tries one more time as Louis pulls him into a brisk walk, following the far-off sounds of shouting and laughter and too-loud music a few blocks away. Louis doesn’t answer, just squeezes Harry’s fingers before sliding their clasped hands into his coat pocket to keep them warm. The walk is quick, leaves crunching under their shoes and the autumn wind tugging at their hair and scarves. Harry still sniffles from time to time but his face is dry, and he follows Louis’ lead as he ducks between two buildings looking for a shortcut.

They round the corner of the economics building and find what Louis had been looking for: the Homecoming bonfire crackles wildly in the center of the campus green, the crowd around it a mess of blur and shadows. Nick is set up in a DJ booth nearby and Liam is next to him, the two of them gesturing expansively as they talk. A student group is selling snacks and hot chocolate nearby, and the campus security officers are pretending they don’t see the multitudes of flasks and smuggled bottles being passed around.

Harry pauses for a moment, as though he expects them to turn away and go somewhere quieter, but this was Louis’ destination all along. He squeezes Harry’s hand again and leads him into the dusk-darkened middle of the crowd, the flickering flames brushing hot air over them.

Louis turns and smiles, smiles as widely as he can. He reaches out, and takes both of Harry’s hands in his.

“See all these people?” he asks, spreading his arms wide, and Harry nods. The music thuds around them like an echo of Louis’ voice. “There isn’t a single person here who knows what they’re doing with their life.”

Harry’s brow furrows. “But-”

“No, not even me,” Louis laughs breathlessly. “I can write down all the lists I want, that doesn’t make my path any clearer. What if I don’t pass my classes? What if I don’t pass the bar? What if I do pass the bar and still no one hires me? What if we get jobs in different cities? What if we live on the other side of the country from the boys?” He laughs again, runs his hands through his hair. “I have no idea what’s going to happen next month, or a year from now, or five years from now. No one does!” Louis flings his arm out and stops a girl and a guy as they walk past, both of them vaguely familiar from football games or campus events or maybe something else altogether. “Hey, guys, quick question. Do you know what you want to do with your lives?”

The girl bursts out laughing. The guy grins, tips back his flask and empties it into his mouth, and says, “No idea, bro.”

“Thanks,” Louis smiles, and then the guy and girl are off again. Louis turns back to Harry and takes both his hands in his. “We’re all pretending, here. We’re all playing adults and pretending we have our lives together, and we don’t. We’re all lost. It’s not just you.”

Harry breathes out shakily, and the tears reappear in his eyes, glassy with the reflection of the firelight. “I- I didn’t know. I thought it was just me. I didn’t know at all.”

“You’ve been a little trapped in your own head, babe. It’s understandable.” Like he’s privy to Harry and Louis’ conversation or just because he’s got incredibly dramatic timing, Nick switches to the next song and the crowd cheers, Rihanna’s voice singing out we found love in a hopeless place. Louis pulls Harry close, the tips of their shoes touching. “Listen. Sometimes you just have to get through a day. Sometimes… sometimes things that should be easy are hard, and things that might be hard are impossible. Sometimes there are days when all you want to do is listen to songs that hurt your heart, and talk to people who might hurt it even worse.” Harry’s lip is wobbling again. Louis pushes on, his own voice going throaty. “Sometimes you feel too old and too young at the same time, and there are decisions that need to be made and you think should’ve already been made but you don’t feel qualified to make them. And you know what? Sometimes you feel like the world’s going to crush you, but it never will. The fall never comes. And you’ll be okay.”

“But…” Harry says, voice sob-scratched, “what am I supposed to do?”

Louis doesn’t let his smile fall. “I don’t know, babe. I don’t. But guess what?” He leans close, sharing the world’s biggest secret. “That’s okay. It’s all okay.’

Harry crushes his mouth to Louis’ and Louis flings his arms around Harry’s neck, and it’s like he’s been away from home for weeks and he’s finally back where he belongs. Harry’s cheeks are wet and Louis is pretty sure his are too, but they kiss and grasp desperately for each other and the whole world could spin right off course, and they wouldn’t even notice.

“I love you,” Harry is saying tearily between kisses, “I love you I love you I love you.”

Louis holds on tighter, tighter, until Harry gets the hint and wraps his arms around Louis’ thighs and picks him up, their lips never disconnecting. Happiness and relief flood Louis’ veins like some undiscovered drug, and even as night falls, the world’s never seemed so bright.

“This is just a reminder,” comes Nick’s voice over the speakers, “that this is a public event and that some people need to contain their enthusiasm.”

Louis pulls away from Harry’s lips and rests their foreheads together, grinning like it’s the first time, then sticks his middle finger in the air in Nick’s direction.

The crowd around them laughs, but Harry’s laugh is the loudest of them all, and Louis wonders how he survived so long without hearing it.

“We’re okay,” he murmurs against Harry’s lips.

“We’re okay,” Harry confirms quietly.

They’re okay.

Harry giggles as he and Louis race through the student union, bypassing the ancient elevator and heading for the empty stairwell nearby. Their shoes thump loudly as they take the stairs two at a time, palms sweaty where they’re pressed together.

“We’re gonna be late,” Harry singsongs through heavy breaths as they round the corner, passing the Korean Student Association’s darkened office and bursting headlong into the Pit. The assembled LGBT club looks up as one, most of them raising their eyebrows at Harry and Louis’ late entrance. Zayn meets Louis’ eyes and, pointedly, looks down: Louis follows his gaze and finds, to his slight horror, that his shirt is on inside out.

“Sorry,” Louis says faintly to the waiting room. “I was doing… stuff.”

Harry says, into the expectant silence, “I’m stuff.”

The wave of groans that sweeps through the room is loud and disappointed but a little giddy as well, like Harry and Louis’ happiness has seeped into the lives of these sixty people they see every couple of weeks.

“You’re the worst,” Louis laughs, and pulls Harry in for a kiss. “So!” he says, clapping. “Let’s talk charity event updates. Who’s got news for me?”

Snow starts to fall outside the Pit, but inside it’s warm and happy and Harry spends the meeting with his knee pressed to Louis’, and everything seems right once more.

Candlelight does wonders with Harry’s face, dancing shadows in the hollows of his throat and cheekbones, edging his jaw sharper; what works even better, though, is a sheen of rested contentment. He looks more settled than Louis has seen him in months, and that, in turn, gives the butterflies in Louis’ stomach something to flutter about.

They're happy. Their problems aren't gone, but they're finally moving forward.

“Diana wants to meet with me again next week,” Harry's saying, twirling his fork in his pasta. “She’s teaching this class next semester that she thinks I’d like, but she wants to talk to me about it first, just to make sure.”

“So, she's Diana now, is she?” Louis grins, taking a sip of his wine. The waiter comes by to top his glass off and smiles at Harry and Louis’ clasped hands resting on the table.

“Oh, shoot,” Harry says, dimples appearing as he lowers his eyes. “I meant Professor Jefferson.”

“Mhm,” Louis agrees, smiling. “Anyway, what’s the class about?”

“Not sure. Non-profit management, I think, but I’ll have to check. I have to finish up those extra credit essays for her, and when I turn those in I’ll ask then.”

“And,” Louis asks, using his fork to absently bat away Harry’s when he reaches for some of Louis’ calamari, “how’re classes?”

“They’re…” Harry trails off, then chuckles a little. “You’re going to laugh.”

“Try me.”

“They’re… actually sort of interesting,” Harry admits. Louis bites the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling, and Harry continues uninterrupted. “Like, my Financial Accounting lecture is a little dull, but the discussion section is great because we get to actually put the stuff we learn into practice. And Liam’s helping me catch up with the work in our Managerial Accounting class, and he’s figured out how to relate all of it back to doing the budget for his artists at the studio, which is super cool. And my professors are amazing?” He turns the end up like a question, as though he can’t quite believe it. “They know some of the stuff we have to learn isn’t that interesting, so they try and make it more fun and sometimes it actually works. I just-”

When he doesn’t finish his sentence, Louis squeezes his hand. “You just what?”

“I wish I’d known,” Harry says, shrugging. “I spent the last four months not going to my classes because I assumed they wouldn’t help me, and I never really thought that I’d enjoy going.” Louis opens his mouth, but Harry waves his hand before he can get a word out. “I know, I know, you told me so.” He successfully steals a bite of Louis’ calamari and look up at him through his eyelashes. “Sorry I didn’t listen.”

“Nothing to forgive, babe,” Louis says, stroking his thumb across the back of Harry’s hand. “Now. Should we get dessert? Or should we go straight home and find something sweet to eat there?”

Harry smirks and, when his eyes darken suggestively, Louis throws his hand out to call for the check.

On their first free afternoon after the bonfire, Harry and Louis drag the boys to buy Christmas tree. By that evening, the place looks like Santa’s workshop.

(If Santa was a copious drinker, smoked a bit of weed, and had to use paperclips to hang handmade ornaments from the tree.)

(Harry still declares it their best Christmas tree yet.) 

There are no classes the Friday before Finals Week: the administration had meant for it to be a way to ease students into a week of exams and term papers and maybe get a jump on studying.

Instead, the campus is deserted, and the library is a ghost town—the students call it Dead Day, and it’s remarkably apt. The bars on Campus Square are packed full of desperate students celebrating one last night of fun before a week of hard work, and the students who aren’t partying usually spend the day pre-emptively catching up on the sleep they’re going to lose.

For the LGBT club and all their most fun friends, Dead Day is the biggest party of the fall semester, and they go all out.

This year, one of the freshmen who grew up in their college town offered her parents’ house for the venue. Louis wanted to pull her aside and let her know that might not be the best idea, bless her sweet simple heart, but the suggestion was already out there and it was too late to take it back.

“House party!” Niall had crowed. “House party at, erm-”

“Hanna’s,” the freshman supplied helpfully.

“House party at Hanna’s!”

Louis, for his conscience’s sake, caught Liam later and asked him to put aside a little bit of their charity event money aside to give to Hanna when something inevitably got broken.

But he’s not worried about that now. In fact, he’s not worried about anything at all: Hanna’s parents’ house is massive, and Liam brought his good sound system, and Beyonce is singing about being drunk in love, and-

“I am both of those things!” Louis tells Harry excitedly. Harry, who’s running his hands over Louis’ ass as they dance, hums instead of answering. Louis gives him a pass, only because Harry’s mouth finds that spot that makes his knees weak under his jaw.

You got me faded, faded, faded baby I want you

Louis closes his eyes, and the beat thuds in his bones. All due respect to Hanna’s family home, but he’s about three more kisses away from pulling Harry upstairs to find an empty bedroom to ruin.

Harry, like he can read Louis’ thoughts or maybe just the way his body is taut with need, does the only thing that can make the need in Louis’ veins rise higher: he bites at Louis’ throat a little, a hint of teeth and the souvenir of a bruise, and then turns Louis so that his back is to Harry’s chest. Louis’ head falls back onto Harry’s shoulder out of instinct; their hips sway like they’re following choreographed steps.

Last thing I remember is our beautiful bodies grinding off in that club

Harry’s hand spans Louis’ stomach, keeping him anchored. They move, shift, move, shift; Harry’s other hand tangles in Louis’ hair, pulling his head further to the side so he can leave a line of kisses up Louis’ throat.

Bass thuds, heat rises; the only thing that could turn the sparks into a full flame is if Harry-

“Find us a room,” Harry murmurs in Louis’ ear, and Louis’ breath hitches. “Find us a place to go.”

“Or what?” Louis asks, though there’s no doubt in his mind that he’s going to do what Harry asks.

“Or, I guess I could take you right here,” Harry says easily, like it wouldn’t bother him at all. Maybe it wouldn’t. His hand is still scratching intoxicating patterns across Louis’ scalp, and Louis feels himself go limp. “Could clear a space and lay you out, cover you up. Hold you down. You wouldn’t even fight me, would you?”

“Yes,” Louis argues weakly, but Harry just laughs, low and slow.

“You wouldn’t. You wouldn’t mind if they saw, because then they’d get to see what you do to me.” His voice is little more than a rumble now. Louis’ head is starting to spin. “It’d be quick,” he continues, like he’s talking about something the whole world already has access to, “I couldn’t last long. You’ve got me so hard, baby, can’t even see straight.”

“Jesus,” Louis breathes faintly. They’ve stopped even pretending that they’re still dancing; instead, Harry holds Louis close to his body, pressed together like they do when they’re at home, when Harry’s cooking and Louis tries to steal his attention, when Louis’ standing in front of their closet and Harry tries to keep him from getting dressed. Harry’s breath chases chills down Louis’ spine.

“I’d still touch you everywhere, don’t worry,” Harry says. The hand on Louis’ stomach inches downward, his pinky finger touching the edge of Louis’ waistband. “Know you need my hands to feel good, here,” he traces Louis’ inner forearm down to his wrist, “here,” he runs his palm down Louis’ outer thigh, “here,” he touches, just briefly, the zipper of Louis’ jeans. Louis can’t breathe, his air trapped somewhere in his lungs, the rest of his body too busy wondering where Harry will touch next to notice.

“Harry,” he mumbles, doesn’t even know if Harry hears him. His eyes have been closed for minutes now, the whole room might be watching, and Louis wouldn’t even know. Wouldn’t even care.

“Could make you come,” Harry murmurs, tucking Louis’ hair behind his ear so his lips can brush skin. “Make you scream. Make everyone in here watch you fall apart just with my hands and fingers.”

Louis jolts forward and his eyes fly open; he ignores Harry’s deep chuckle and reaches back to grab his hand, yanking him to the hallway and up the stairs. He turns into the first open doorway and hopes to God this bedroom isn’t Hanna’s—he’s maybe had one conversation with her ever, and yet he’d never be able to look her in the eye again if he knew he made Harry come in her bed.

He turns and grabs Harry by the belt loops, tugging him around so that his back is to the bed and shoving him backward, ignoring his growing smirk as he bounces on the firm mattress.

“Did you bring lube?” Louis asks, pretending his voice isn’t shaky with need.

“Mhmm,” Harry says, lazy now, his grin curling. “C’mere.”

Louis falls gracelessly over him, hands on either side of Harry’s head. Harry reaches up and runs his thumb along the edge of Louis’ jaw, then grabs his chin to pull him down into a kiss.

Louis lets him, because it’s what he wanted too: Harry loses himself in the kiss and lets Louis scrabble frantically at the buttons of his shirt, pushing the fabric to each side and running his hands over Harry’s chest. Louis’ shirt is lost next, tossed to places unknown, then shoes are kicked off and belts unbuckled.

“Off, for fuck’s sake take them off,” Louis begs as Harry reaches for the button of his jeans. That makes Harry slow, just to make Louis whine some more.

Louis obliges.

“Harry, please,” he says, ripping his own jeans off and throwing them aside. “I need you.”

That does it: Harry shoves his jeans and underwear down and Louis loses his breath for a minute. Harry’s hard, incredibly hard; his cock jumps as Louis reaches for him, as though Harry’s blood is racing in anticipation.

“Fuck,” Harry hisses, and Louis slides his thumb over the head of his cock to hear him say it again. Harry fumbles for his jeans and digs out a tiny tube of lube, nearly throwing it into Louis’ hands. “Hurry, baby, I won’t last long.”

Louis stripes his finger and reaches behind himself, then leans down and takes the head of Harry’s cock in his mouth. If Harry hadn’t handed him the lube he would’ve demanded it: Harry tends to get lost in it when he gets his fingers into Louis, and all the begging in the world wouldn’t make him hurry. Louis needs it, and needs it soon—he doesn’t have time for Harry’s sweet thoroughness tonight.

He pulls off of Harry’s cock and adds more lube on his second and third fingers, his thighs shaking a little at the stretch as he pushes his middle finger in.

“So gorgeous, Lou,” Harry whispers. His hair is a wild mess, sweaty curls stuck to his neck and forehead. A hot flush has spread across his cheeks and chest, and Louis drops his forehead to Harry’s sternum and adds a third finger.

“Haz,” Louis pants. He’s burning from the inside out, needing Harry inside him soon, no, now. He lets the weight of Harry’s cock slide off him tongue and shifts forward, straddling Harry’s hips. “Haz,” he says again, and he feels himself go sweeter, needier.

“I’ve got you, baby,” Harry says, and he does; he lets Louis slump against his chest as he shifts them backward across the bed, until his back is up against the headboard. He wraps his hands around Louis, one at his waist, one under his bum, and coaxes Louis into a slow, rolling rhythm.

Louis is lax and pliant and he doesn’t let himself be this way very often, but Harry’s looking up at him like he’s the brightest star in the sky and Louis doesn’t know how not to give Harry everything when he does that. Harry guides him with small touches and Louis can’t imagine not letting himself be moved and adjusted and sweet-talked into doing exactly what Harry wants.

“Love you,” Harry kisses into Louis’ throat as his hips thrust up, catching the spot inside Louis that makes him see entire constellations.

Harry,” Louis moans, “Love you too, God, so much.”

It’s the moment at the top of a rollercoaster: Louis goes up, up, up, crests-

And falls, his heart hammering as his entire body throbs with pleasure, heat spilling outward and rushing through his veins. He falls, his world tilting as Harry flips them, puts Louis’ back against the sheets and pulses his hips forward. He falls, and Harry chases him, and they never hit the ground.

“Time s’it?” Louis asks Harry in an undertone as they leave the bedroom, the blankets and sheets hastily put back into place after they’d tugged their clothes back on.

“Um,” Harry says, and checks his phone. After a second, his shoulders start shaking with suppressed laughter. “12:04.”

Louis stops walking. “Do you mean to tell me,” he says, “that we didn’t make it half an hour at this party without abandoning it to have sex in someone’s bed?”

Harry snickers. “Seems not.”

“We,” Louis declares, “are the worst.”

“Definitely not,” Harry murmurs, pulling Louis close. They’re both lazy and sex-soft, like their edges have been blurred. Anyone who knows them at all will know what they’ve been up to; hell, anyone who looks at them will know.

“C’mon,” Harry says. “I’ll make you a vodka cran and we’ll find people to talk to. I think dancing’s out for the rest of the night.”

Louis, remembering what dancing leads to and shoving aside that twinge of yes, again, yes, nods his head in agreement. He follows Harry to the kitchen and accepts his perfectly-mixed vodka cran, then leads the way to a room with a roaring fireplace, where people they know are scattered across various couches and chairs and other soft surfaces.

“For Chrissake,” Jesy says, rolling her eyes as Harry and Louis stumble their way in and fall into a loveseat together. “Already?”

“Hush, you,” Louis says, wagging his finger. “This is our second… third… okay, fourth honeymoon phase.”

“Please,” Leigh scoffs. “Like you ever left that phase in the first place.”

“I spent all last summer in Haiti,” Harry says defensively.

“And how many times did you two have Skype sex? Because I know Louis didn’t have to stay at the office that late that many times.”

“Okay,” Louis says, flapping his hand at Leigh and throwing a pillow at Zayn to make him stop laughing. “You win, we have lots of sex, we’re the worst. What’s going on here?”

“Harry, Kendall’s letting us braid her hair,” comes Jade’s voice, and Louis and Harry lean over the back of the loveseat they’ve acquired to find, as foretold, Jade and Perrie trying to braid Kendall’s hair. They aren’t doing a terribly good job, as Jade’s so drunk she keeps reaching for new strands of hair and missing, and Perrie’s giggling so hard her eyes are watering. Kendall, who looks nearly sober, doesn’t seem to mind, and she smiles up at Harry and Louis.

“H’lo,” she says.

“Hi,” Harry replies. “Aren’t you cold?”

Kendall rubs her hands over her bare arms and shrugs. “It’s not too bad by the fire.”

“No!” Jade says, her eyes going wide. “You can’t be cold, that’s sad! I’ll find you a blanket. You stay right- right there.” She gets staggeringly to her feet, tottering in her heels.

“Take those shoes off, hon,” Louis says. “You’ll break an ankle.”

Jade laughs, bright and musical, and toes her heels off without comment. Mission accomplished, she weaves toward the door, disappearing around the corner.

“Well, alright then,” Harry laughs, and he and Louis turn back to the rest of the group. “What else is happening?”

“Not much,” Jesy says. She’s got Leigh’s head in her lap, and is running her pointer finger over the crown of Leigh’s hair; Leigh looks half-asleep from it, eyes fluttering shut and barely opening again. “Most people are still out by the music, and I think Nick took over for Liam so he and Niall could play beer pong.”

“That might not be the best idea,” Louis says, and he sees Zayn wrinkle his nose. “You haven’t heard any shouting, have you?”

“Not from here,” Perrie promises from behind their seat.

Jade chooses that moment to clatter back into the room. She makes her way to Kendall and sits in front of her, crossed-legged.

“I couldn’t find a blanket,” she says solemnly, and Louis doesn’t dare mention the rack of quilts in the corner of this very room. “But I did find these, and I think they’ll work even better.”

She hands Kendall a teddy bear and what looks like a pair of men’s work gloves. Kendall opens her mouth, closes it, then opens it again.

“Thank you,” she says simply, and Jade beams as she slides the heavy, cracked leather gloves over her dainty hands and places the bear gently in her lap.

“Hold on a sec,” Zayn says, uncurling from the chair he’d claimed for himself. “Do you hear that?”

They’re all quiet for a moment, then Louis hears it too: shouting, he thinks, and even from here the voices sound familiar.

“Shit,” he mutters, and gets to his feet. He pulls Harry and then Zayn up with him and they head out, following the sound of Liam and Niall’s voices. Zayn looks murderous as he follows Louis and sips at the drink in his solo cup; Louis hopes that wherever his friends are, they’re ready for another round of silent treatment from Zayn, because that’s the least of what punishments it looks like he’s concocting in his head.

“C’mon,” Louis hears Jesy say. “They might need our help.”

They pass through the living room, where the music thumps from the corner as Nick handles the sound system; he gives them a nod as they slide through the dancing crowd, probably knowing where they’re headed, as the shouting is more obvious from here. Into the kitchen next, which is full of people refilling their drinks or taking a breather from the dancefloor.

Liam and Niall are in the dining room and, Louis notices with relief, they haven’t quite come to blows yet, though it looks close: the two of them are nose-to-nose, faces red with anger. Their beer pong game is abandoned on the dining table nearby, a single cup still standing in front of their opponents, two wide-eyed guys in possibly-ironic COLLEGE sweatshirts and jeans.

“I’m going to fucking murder you,” Niall is hissing into Liam’s face as they approach. “We were this close and you had to show off-”

“If you hadn’t missed every one of your shots, we would’ve won a long time ago!” Liam snaps back. “These two are pathetic, we should’ve wiped the floor with them-”

“Hey,” one of their opponents protests weakly, then shrinks back when Niall and Liam shoot him quick glares.

“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t-”

“Shouldn’t what, Niall? What’re you gonna do?”

“I’m gonna-”

“Yeah?”

“Gonna-”

Louis steps forward, because Niall’s hand is flexing and he’s never seen the two of them come to actual blows before, and the whole room has stopped to watch this unfold, and Zayn’s standing right behind him shaking with anger because his two best friends are acting like morons again all for the sake of some ill-advised competition over him and-

And Niall reaches out before Louis can get there, reaches out quick as a snake’s strike, grabbing Liam by the back of the head and-

And-

And they’re kissing.

They’re kissing fiercely, grappling like their lives depend on it, like the oxygen they need to survive can only be found in each other’s mouths. Liam wraps his arms so tightly around Niall’s waist that Louis fears he might just break in half but Niall doesn’t seem to notice, seems to not mind at all, actually, by the way he’s arching into it, and-

And Zayn drops his drink, the full cup hitting the wood floor with a heavy thud, the whiskey splashing dramatically over the sides.

And Liam and Niall throw themselves away from each other, though not too far; they’re still within arm’s reach, like they couldn’t bear the idea of stepping fully apart. Their eyes go wide when they see the assembled crowd of onlookers, Zayn taking a shaky step forward so he’s front and center.

Zayn’s voice is higher than Louis has ever heard it when he squeaks, “What just- what was that?

Niall and Liam clearly have no answer—their chests are heaving like they’ve run marathons to get here, and Niall’s cheeks are flaming.  They flicker guilty looks at each other, back at Zayn, and then, like magnets, back to each other.

Harry and Louis have often been accused of being inside each other’s heads, but it’s nothing like the telepathy Liam and Niall seem to have. They stare at each other for a second, two, three, then:

“Yeah?” Niall asks.

“Yeah,” Liam agrees.

Then they turn, in unison, to Zayn.

“You,” Niall says.

“You’re coming with us,” Liam says.

What?” Zayn asks.

Liam grabs Zayn by the front of the shirt, grabs for Niall’s hand, and pulls them both from the room and, since the whole crowd is still standing in awestruck silence, they can hear the sound of a bedroom door slamming upstairs.

“I, uh,” Louis says, breaking the quiet. “I think the party’s over, everyone. I don’t think anyone can top that.”

When Louis wakes the next morning, it’s to newly purple bruises bitten into his throat and a burning need to corner Zayn and demand a full recount of the previous night’s events. He stumbles to the kitchen instead, because he smells bacon and doesn’t even know if the other three made it home last night; for all Louis knows, they’re still locked in a bedroom at Hanna’s and she’s having to explain the unexplainable to her poor parents.

“Morning,” Harry says, sliding a warm plate of bacon, eggs, and toast in front of Louis.

“Morning,” Louis says, pulling Harry down for a kiss. “Been up long?”

“About twenty minutes.”

“Any sign of,” Louis trails off, and then points his fork towards Liam and Niall’s bedrooms.

“Nope,” Harry says conspiratorially, and Louis can tell he’s dying for an update as well. “Haven’t heard anything, either.”

“Hmm,” Louis says. “Interesting.”

Harry snorts. “That’s one word for it.”

They meet eyes across the table and grin, then dive into their breakfasts. Harry tells Louis about the talk he had with Kendall after the Liam-Niall-Zayn excitement died down, that she’s been talking more with her mom and she might be ready to try an LGBT club meeting after the winter break. Louis tells Harry about Perrie worrying about Jade, who’s been studying so hard for the LSAT that she fell asleep leaned against a cereal stand in the grocery store not too long ago. He’s just about to share Perrie’s fears about Jade burning out before she even takes the test when there’s the distinct sound of a door creaking open.

Louis and Harry’s heads both snap up to see Zayn stumbling out of Niall’s bedroom, boxers riding low on his hips, an oversized flannel shirt that Louis is pretty sure Liam wore to the party last night buttoned haphazardly and hanging off one of his shoulders, and looking like he’s been absolutely mauled.

“Goodness, Zaynie,” Louis says, patting delicately at his mouth with his napkin. “Do we need to make sure the wild animal that attacked you is captured?” Harry kicks at his ankle under the table, but the silent reprimand doesn’t mean much when he’s got his fist pressed to his mouth to hold the laughter in.  

Zayn doesn’t say a word; instead, he grins dopily at them, digs three water bottles out of the fridge, and opens a cabinet to peer inside. He takes a few of Liam’s high-energy protein bars out of their box, pauses, and then grabs the entire box and leaves, closing Niall’s door behind him again.

“Oh my god,” Louis says. “I almost thought I’d hallucinated last night.”

“If you did,” Harry say faintly, “I did too.”

They stare at Niall’s door for a beat, then turn back to meet each other’s eyes.

Then they laugh so hard the whole apartment echoes with it, Louis collapsing across the table and paying no heed to his elbow landing in a plate of eggs, Harry falling bodily out of his chair.

The emails are there on their phones when they wake on Christmas Eve, snuggled into Louis’ childhood bed, a soft Georgian morning calling them awake outside the window.

Louis’ email is simple: a commendation from the Dean of the law school, congratulating him on another semester finished and a step closer to being a certified lawyer.

Harry’s email might be even simpler, but a thousand times weightier: between extra credit assignments, doing months’ worth of homework over the span of about a week, and cramming impossibly hard for final exams, Harry has passed all his classes and can move on to his final round of courses as a college student.

They can’t dwell on their good news too long—little feet patter up to their closed door, and little hands tap at the wood to wake them.

“Lou!” yells Louis’ littlest sister Doris. “Presents!”

“Hazzy!” calls her twin brother. “Chris-mus!”  

They’ve got a Tomlinson-Deakin family Christmas ahead of them, complete with breakfast of Louis’ choosing since he’s the birthday boy, and a pile of present under the tree just begging to be opened. They’ve got cups of coffee waiting for them on the kitchen counter, and little sisters and a brother to entertain and cuddle and celebrate with, and Louis’ car is packed with everything but their essentials and has a tank full of gas to get them from Georgia to Chicago before Christmas tomorrow.

But for right now they’ve got each other, and they’ve got their good news, and Louis has a little bit of money secreted away and a few pictures of rings he’s going to get Anne’s opinion on when they get to Chicago, and they’ve got a whole wide future stretching out in front of them.

And Louis can’t wait for the next step.

Chapter Text

Interlude - Spring 2014

Two years earlier.

The thing about the LGBT spring charity event is that it's guaranteed to be the wildest night of the year every single year.

Forget rivalry football games. Fuck frat parties and twenty-first birthdays and you know what? Fuck graduation too, because starting a new chapter of your life or whatever other bullshit Hallmark and the commencement ceremony speaker like to spew about graduation could never live up to the LGBT spring charity event.

And the thing is, it doesn't sound cool. A karaoke party? Okay, just go ahead and wheel your Nana in here, she'll love that. Your wine-loving Aunt Stacey who got a tattoo of a cartoon palm tree on her ankle loves karaoke, why don't you invite her, too? She’ll bring the boxed wine and Cher’s Greatest Hits, it'll be a real rager.

Yeah, right.

But here's the thing they don't tell you in all twelve of the coming-of-age gay kid movies on Netflix: LGBT people throw the best parties. It's a certified fact. They might not talk about it on, like, fucking Glee or whatever, but it's totally true.

Maybe it’s all that repressed emotion and bottled-up sexuality that leads to some damn good times; Niall doesn’t know, and he doesn’t really care to explore the whys and wherefores. All he knows is that he’s been partying since the night he stumbled across the word pansexual on an Internet forum back when he was sixteen and felt the cloudy skies of what the hell is going on with me clear right up, he hasn't looked back since, and every single bit of the journey has been memorable as all hell.

In fact, that very same night Niall discovered an elusive label for his sexuality on a shitty web forum back in the internet version of prehistoric times was the very first night he had a sip of alcohol, and it was goddamn fantastic.

He'd waited until he heard the sounds of his dad’s snores through his bedroom wall, climbed the trellis outside his window, jumped in his rusty old pickup truck and high-tailed it to the next farm over, his best friend Bressie’s family’s place. He and Bres had gotten so hammered that Niall fell asleep in a cow field using a Wild Turkey bottle as a pillow and couldn't keep solid foods down for the next three days.

It was awesome.

Since then, any party Niall has thrown, helped plan, or attended has been a good one. There isn’t a single basement drinking session or hayfield bonfire that he hasn’t been able to improve. Once, he was invited over to his friend Michael’s house only to learn that he hadn’t been joking when he’d asked Niall if he wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons. By four o’clock the next morning, Michael had a brand new stick-poke tattoo on his thigh (a tiny lopsided sword, because he was Niall’s friend but still a nerd), had inadvertently thrown a house party for the ages (when Niall called everyone he knew and forced them to be there), and had gotten his first blowjob (not from Niall; he was with a pretty brunette at the time. Still, he was damn proud).

And Niall is just one pan dude. If he’s like the party version of King Midas on his own, imagine what a whole club of gay kids can do.

Which, he supposes, is the entire premise of karaoke night. It doesn't even need a name: they've tried sticking quirky titles to it but it always reverts back to its true form. It's karaoke night—it will always be karaoke night.

It started years ago; sometime in the ninties, Niall’s pretty sure. Back when individual karaoke machines were a big deal. They actually have a picture of that first one pinned up on the wall in the Pit, a snapshot of twenty or so kids in too-loose shirts and too-tight jeans, looking like they rolled out of an episode of Saved By The Bell. Legends, the lot of them, and they didn't even know it at the time.

It started as a get-together of close friends, the few members of the LGBT club at the time (who, actually, were called the Gay And Lesbian Alliance at that point): they pooled their money to rent one of the smaller meeting rooms in the student union, found someone who'd been given a karaoke machine for Christmas and asked to borrow it, and took a few pictures of the night for posterity. The next year, a few more people wanted to come, so they rustled up a budget for snacks and drinks. The year after that, enough people were interested that they rented one of the medium sized rooms in the union instead of a small one.

Nearly two decades later, the event would probably be nearly unrecognizable to the people who started it. It's big, and loud, and dramatic, and ridiculous, and it's the best night of the year for a dozen different reasons.

And it's finally here.

Niall is helping Liam connect and test the sound system, because that’s what they always do. They’re happiest among knotted cords and tangled wires, and they leave the glitter-strewing and centerpiece-arranging to the girls and Harry.

“Got your song chosen for tonight?” Liam asks between gritted teeth as he reaches back into the cobwebs behind the largest speaker to switch it on.

“Yeah, ‘course,” Niall grins. He’s untangling the microphone cords, a daunting mass of black piled in his lap. “You?”

Liam snorts. “Like Louis would let me get away with not telling him my song choice a month in advance. You know how he gets about this event.”

And Lord knows that’s true. Louis is… well, he isn’t necessarily happy-go-lucky all the time because he’s sort of intense about lots of things, but he’s generally and unanimously the Fun One of their group. Yet when spring hits and it’s karaoke planning time, he becomes sort of like-

“A baby wolverine,” Niall says, and he’d know, because he’s seen one of those and that sort of terror can only be caused by something tiny and evil.

Liam doesn’t have to ask what the hell Niall’s talking about—it’s their mind sync thing, and Louis can fuck off because that’s totally a thing—so he just grins up at Niall, eyes dancing. “Spot on.”

And, speak of the tiny Tasmanian devil:

“Hello, party people!” Louis shouts, throwing the double doors open even though he’s totally small enough to only need one. “How’s it going?” No one answers. “Good? Yes!”

Harry follows Louis into the room, his smile wide and his eyes hooked to Louis, as per usual. Louis is carrying a single manilla envelope; Harry is carrying three boxes that are threatening to crash to the ground. That is also as per usual.

“Jesus, Harry,” says Jesy, jogging up to help with his boxes just before he drops them all.

“Thanks, Jes,” Harry beams. He starts unpacking his boxes immediately: string lights, rainbow flags, and bottle after bottle of glitter are piled onto the table. Jesy, Aimee, and Perrie descend on the new stuff with enthusiasm.

“How’s it looking, boys?” Louis asks as he meanders over to Liam and Niall. They use this same venue every year, a stately ballroom in one of the old hotels about a mile from the college campus, and every single year something goes hilariously wrong: last year, only the red spotlights worked (giving an interesting edge to their Ladies of the Night theme), the year before that, they were accidentally given non-alcoholic beer, the year before that, they found out the ballroom had been double booked by their group and a swing dancing class and they had to share the place.

They made it through all those mishaps okay—in fact, all those issues somehow all made karaoke night even better. The red lights gave the whole place a Chicago feel (Nick kept draping himself against walls and across chairs, chanting “Pop-six-squish-uh-uh-Cicero-Lipschitz” ), the non-alcoholic beer meant that everyone was drinking hard liquor instead of easing themselves into the party and all lost their inhibitions that much quicker, and the swing dancing instructor let the karaoke night kids join in and learn the dances with them as their friends sang on stage.

Still, it’s one thing for some of the lights to not work or for the caterer to drop off the wrong order, it’s entirely something else for a karaoke party to not have a working sound system. Which is why it’s Liam and Niall making sure it’s up and running, as opposed to elderly Mr. Boris, the hotel’s custodian and electrician.  

“All good, Tommo,” Niall reassures Louis, because if they’d hesitated too long then Louis would’ve gone all apoplectic-purple and it wouldn’t have been a good time.

Louis smiles widely. “Good.” Then his Something Is Wrong With Karaoke Night senses must have tingled, because his head twitches to the side and his eyes narrow, and then he’s yelling, “Nicholas Grimshaw I will string you up by your ankles if you think that’s how my food table should look!” and stomping over to where Nick and Jade are half-heartedly trying to arrange a fruit tray.

“He’s so cute,” Niall says, then goes back to untangling the mic cords.

“D’j’ya ever think,” Liam says with a grunt, hoisting a smaller speaker on top of the largest one, “that this is how he’s going to be on his wedding day? And we’ll have to be the ones in charge of dealing with it.”

“Nah, Haz’ll handle it,” Niall says offhandedly. “He’ll be the only one not panicking, anyway.”

“True,” Liam chuckles. “Course, they’d have to admit they’re dating, first.”

“Touché,” Niall nods. “Stupid fuckers.”

“Oh, leave them be,” Liam says, tapping Niall lightly with his foot in admonishment even though he was the one who brought it up. “They’re doing what they think is best.”

“Well they’re wrong,” Niall replies stubbornly, yanking a little too hard on one of the cords in his pile and nearly bashing himself in the eye with a microphone. “They hurt my soul every time they deny they’re together.”

“Your soul will mend, you idiot,” Liam says, rolling his eyes. Still, his eyes track Louis across the room as he leaves Nick under Leigh-Anne’s supervision and joins Harry where he’s unrolling the banner that will hang above the stage. Louis’ hard, stressed edges go soft in Harry’s presence, like just being in Harry’s orbit makes his problems seem smaller. They move like dancers who learned to weave together without actually touching.

But sure, no, there’s nothing going on between them. That would be crazy talk.

“What’chu boys doing?” a voice breaks into his thoughts, and then Niall is distracted for an entirely different reason.

“Zayn!” he says, then feels red filter into his cheeks when Zayn smirks at him. Okay, Horan, time to make this less weird. “Hey, broski.” Nailed it.

“Hey, Zee,” Liam says, and Niall’s stomach flips when Liam’s voice goes all soft.

“Hey,” Zayn grins. “Can I hang with you two? Louis might give me a job if I don’t look busy.”

“Sure, c’mon,” Niall says, patting the floor next to him and shoving half of pile of microphone cords towards an apprehensive Zayn. “You untangle your end and I’ll do mine, and we’ll meet in the middle like Lady & the Tramp.”

“Has anyone ever told you you’re an idiot?” Zayn asks, but he’s grinning and reaching for a loose end of the mic cord mess and Niall’s cheeks heat again.

“Yes, actually,” he says. “Liam did, like, three minutes ago.”

Zayn chuckles and they fall into relative silence, Niall and Zayn working their way through the mass of knots and Liam hooking the speakers to each other and testing the volume.

“What were you talking about before I got here?” Zayn asks, poking his tongue out a little as he works at a viciously dense cluster.

“Liam is fretting about Harry and Louis’ wedding even though that’s a thing that is never going to happen,” Niall tattles before Liam can open his mouth. Zayn flicks Niall in the knee. “Zayn! It’s Liam’s fault, weren’t you listening?”

“I was talking about Louis,” Liam says, which is a damn dirty lie. “You made it about him and Harry. Your fault.”

“It’s no one’s fault,” Zayn says soothingly. “We’re being good friends, remember?”

“We’re being good friends and they’re being awful ones in return,” Liam says under his breath, though he’d taken the same stance just minutes before.

“Hush, the both of you,” Zayn says. “It's their choice.”

Liam mutters under his breath, “A stupid choice,” but at Zayn’s raised eyebrows he goes back to his job. Niall, for his part, stays quiet too, watching Harry and Louis move like magnets across the room. Not even magnets, that’s not the right word. Planets caught in each other’s orbits, maybe. Something bigger than mere science; something massive. Something ground-shaking. Earthquaking. World-breaking.

See, here’s the thing: so Harry and Louis are dating, right? Everyone knows. Everyone.

Well, okay, not everyone knows, but almost everyone at least suspects something’s going on. Just this week Niall heard three freshmen he's sure he's never met before talking over their bagels at a café about how cute Harry and Louis are together. Every time Niall’s mom calls to check up on him, she asks if Harry and Louis have “gotten their heads out of their hindquarters” yet. And Niall's Music Theory professor, a seventy year old man who is deaf in one ear and still thinks discos are a thing, stopped him on his way out of class the other day just to ask, “You're friends with the Tomlinson boy, am I correct? Good lad, good lad, is he seeing the curly-headed fellow he's always with? The one with the fake sounding last name. Styles?”

Everyone knows.

Everyone who spends more than fifteen minutes watching them together knows what's going on. And they aren't overt, not really; it’s not like they’re eye-fucking from across rooms or sneaking away at the same time. It's less obvious, hidden in their soft, instinctive touches and unconscious smiles.

(Though, of course, there are a few more obvious signs. Like the pet names, for instance: Louis is from Georgia so he spews endearments like they're audible punctuation, but Harry's are different. When Niall walks into a room he gets things like sweetheart and sugar and, when he’s done something stupid, he gets bless your tiny-tickin’ little heart, the classic Southern Belle vernacular. Harry gets called darling and babe and, of course, love, and not a single one of them sounds sarcastic falling out of Louis’ mouth.)

(And that’s not even mentioning the love bites, the nights they sneak away together and come back red-cheeked and tousle-haired, the mornings Harry is already in their kitchen at the apartment wearing a t-shirt that is definitely Louis’, even though he swears up, down, and sideways that he slept in his dorm room.)

(Everyone knows.)

So Harry and Louis are together, and that’s great, right? Niall thinks so. He’s never seen Louis so happy, not in the nearly four years he’s known him, and he only met Harry last autumn but he seems outrageously happy too. There’s this thing Niall learned about putting together ensembles in a music class once, and he thinks of it every time he sees the two of them together: harmonies are made when voices of equal caliber but opposite strengths blend together. Those harmonies aren’t possible when one voice overpowers the other, or when the voices are two similar, or too different. Perfection comes when the voices are exactly matched; Harry and Louis are perfect together for the same reasons.

But, for some Godforsaken reason, Harry and Louis have been pretending for nearly eight months now that they’re no more than friends. Badly pretending, that’s for sure, and it’s all pretty unbelievable, but they’re still trying it.

And no one knows why.

Liam thinks Harry might not have been out back in Chicago, and that he’s worried about being in his first public same-sex relationship. Which Niall would totally understand, except that Zayn totally says that Harry came out to him almost the moment they moved in together, and that he was completely casual about it. That doesn’t seem like something that someone who would hide a gay relationship would do. Zayn thinks they’re just trying to stay casual and not rush into anything more serious; if that’s the case, Niall wishes them the best of luck, because he watched Louis fall hard the very first night they met, and he hasn’t stopped falling since. There’s nothing casual about the way Harry and Louis look at each other, or the way they touch like each press of skin burns them together, just for a second.

Niall doesn’t know what he thinks. Well, he does, but none of it is helpful: he thinks that Harry and Louis are being ridiculous. He thinks that, if anyone, they should’ve at least told their three best friends what’s going on between them. He thinks that there shouldn’t be anything in Louis and Harry’s lives that scare them into hiding their love for each other.

But, most of all, Niall thinks he’s reached his breaking point.

See, right there, right there, Louis gets ready to leave Harry to his own devices and, as he goes, trails a soft hand across Harry’s shoulders.

That’s fuckin’ love, and Niall is tired of them hiding it.

He’s jolted out of his thoughts when his hand, unconsciously going through the motions of unwinding the final, dense knot of cords, brushes against something warm. He looks up and catches Zayn’s eye, who grins and withdraws his hand.

“Guess you’ve got the last of it,” he says.

“Yeah, yeah I can- yeah,” Niall stammers.

Speaking of fuckin’ love.

“Everything still okay, boys?” Louis asks. He’s got his clipboard out now, and is making his way down a checklist. Niall hands the now-untangled microphone to Liam, who plugs it into its proper place and taps the mic.

“Everything’s good here, Tommo,” Liam says, and it echoes perfectly through the speakers around the room.

“Excellent,” Louis grins, ticking the box.

With setup finished, the room dashed in rainbows and streamers and tables laden with covered food and unopened drinks, the decorators take a break to go back to their dorms and apartments and get ready for the night. Most people at the event tonight will be in normal party clothes; the ones performing songs, though, tend to go above and beyond to match their songs, and that takes some prep work.

Niall, Liam, and Louis part ways with Zayn and Harry, all of them being secretive with their smiles half-hidden. No one knows who’s singing what, except Louis, who has the masterlist of performers and the playlist burned on three separate CDs, just in case he loses or breaks one.

Well, Louis knows what almost everyone is doing tonight; Harry refused to tell him, and he’d dimpled madly every time Louis asked.

“Just put me down somewhere in the middle of the lineup, and you’ll see,” Harry’d said, smiling widely, refusing to give up his secret no matter how Louis prodded and pleaded.

The song choices are usually kept secret because it’s more fun that way, but this was the first time Niall had ever heard of someone going onstage without a single check with Louis first. There’s gotta be some logistical problems in there somewhere, Niall is sure—Louis has the night’s playlist, is Harry just going to provide his own music? He can play guitar, but that’s not really the point of karaoke, is it? And especially not this karaoke, where songs aren’t chosen randomly a few minutes before hitting the stage but planned out months in advance, complete with choreography, costumes, and the occasional backup dancer.

Ah, whatever. Harry knows what he’s doing, and Niall has his own performance to worry about. He throws on his white shorts (borrowed from Jade) and the silver boots (borrowed from Harry) and the (fake) diamond-studded dollar sign necklace (borrowed from Zayn, who said he bought it “to be ironic” but Niall isn’t so sure) that make up his costume and tosses some more normal clothes on top, a pair of skinny jeans that slide over the tight shorts with ease, and a button-up shirt that hides the body glitter on his chest surprisingly well. He stumbles out to the living room (Harry’s feet are quite a bit bigger than his, but he’s the only person who could possibly have sparkling silver boots Niall could borrow) and finds Liam there in all black, holding what looks like a black bunny mask.

“Hey,” Niall says. “Lou ready yet?”

“Not yet. You know how he is, he had to check his list for any possible issues three times before he even started changing.” Liam stops, frowns a little. “Did you know you’re sparkling?”

Niall grins. “Always, Li. Always.”

Louis half-falls out of his room, wearing acid-washed jeans and tugging on a pair of what look like Leigh-Anne’s motorcycle boots. He’s wearing a normal t-shirt, but holding a bag with what looks like the entire contents of a hair metal band’s dressing room, leather fringe and leather and cans of hairspray as far as Niall can see.

“Did you rob Def Leppard’s stylist?” Niall snorts, picking at some of the fringe trying to escape the bag.

“Fuck off,” Louis says, smacking Niall’s hand away and shoving the fringe back into the bag. “Let’s go, I wanna check the sound system one more time before everyone arrives.”

At the hotel, Louis waves at the nice elderly lady who mans the check-in desk and leads the way to the ballroom. They’re the first ones back, so the room is empty; the constructed stage waits for a performer, a single microphone waiting under a bright spotlight.

“Okay,” Louis says as they step inside. “Jesy’s handling the bar, Perrie and Aimee are doing tickets, you two will get the music set up.” He continues muttering to himself as they head towards the makeshift backstage area to stash their costumes and props until it’s their turns to perform.

“Niall, double check this list,” Louis says, thrusting a pile of papers at him. “Liam, put on some music, it’s too quiet in here.”

Niall frowns down at the list in his hands; he has no idea what he’s looking for so he skims through it and, seeing nothing obviously out of the ordinary, lays aside. Every year, the event goes amazingly (not without a hitch, of course, because nothing’s ever that simple, but the problems aren’t unmanageable and they’re a flexible group), and every year, Louis frets and frets until the moment it’s over.

Niall resolves to care even less just to even out the panic rolling off Louis in waves, and he’s dancing by himself to the Drake playlist Liam put on when Harry and Zayn arrive a few minutes later.

“Nice,” Zayn says, bobbing his head to the beat. Niall dances over to him and pirouettes, off-beat, just to make him grin. Harry joins him, and soon they’re twirling circles around Zayn every time he tries to take a step, giggling wildly at the mix of exasperation and bemusement on his face.

More people start to filter in as evening fades to full night: Jesy and Leigh show up and start passing out drinks, and Perrie takes her place at the front door to make sure it’s only the people who paid for tickets who come inside. (They’d had capacity issues in the past with people cramming themselves into the ballroom, so a few years back they decided to institute a ticket sale instead; it was a brilliant idea, because it made the event more exclusive and people were willing to pay a little bit more to not miss out on the fun). Ed arrives wearing his usual, a plaid shirt, ripped jeans, a guitar case, and a grin; Nick and Aimee, on the other hand, come in carrying full-on garment bags, because, as Nick says as they pass where Niall and Harry are trying to steal bits of chocolate from the food table without Louis catching them, “Divas must always be prepared, my young friends.”

Soon, the place is packed, tables full of laughing, chattering people and the food and alcohol supplies both starting to dwindle.

“Shall we take our seats?” Niall asks, and the others nod.

“You boys go ahead, I need to drop this backstage,” Zayn says, lifting his bag. “Haz, want me to take yours?”

Niall leads the way to the center table next to the stage—perks of being best friends with the organizer of the event, as well as for being on the decorating committee and the first ones there—and they take their seats. Liam nods to Nick, who’s MCing the event, who takes his place at the sound system setup with a microphone and immediately changes the music from Drake to Britney Spears, then raises his eyebrows smugly at Liam when the waiting crowd cheers.

Harry’s nearly vibrating with excitement, his knee tapping rapidly against Niall’s.

“Light’s are still all working, that’s a good sign,” Liam says, peering up at the lighting rig above their heads.

“Well we can’t have a repeat of last year, that would be boring,” Niall laughs. “Gotta have some new problem to panic about, otherwise things get stale.”

“What happened last year?” Harry asks, eyes wide.

“You didn’t come last year?” Niall asks instead of answering. “Why not?"

“Me and Zayn couldn’t get tickets,” he explains. “We didn’t realize people weren’t joking when they said to save our money up and order them the moment they’re available, and we weren’t in the LGBT club yet so we didn’t have an in.”

“Well,” Liam laughs, “you definitely have an in now.”

“Cheers to that,” Niall says, clinking their glasses. He’s sticking to beer until after his song, and then he’ll switch to something harder—no need tempting fate and getting so drunk he might fall off stage.

“So, Haz,” Liam says, leaning close. “Now can you tell us what song you’re singing?”

Harry’s dimples appear automatically. “Nope.”

“C’mon, H!” Liam prods.

“I don’t know either of yours!”

“And it’s staying that way, too,” Niall warns, jabbing a finger at both of them. “Mine is a secret until I get on that stage.”

“See!” Harry says. “Thank you, Niall. The only people that know mine are me, Leigh, and Jesy.”

Niall sets his drink down and turns to Harry, affronted. “Excuse you. Did you say the girls know your song and I don’t? I’m offended, Harry.”

“Listen, Ni,” Harry says, his eyes sparkling like goddamn stars, “the moment you learn how to do a good Stevie Nicks makeup routine, I’ll come straight to you for help.”

“So you’re doing a Stevie Nicks song?” Liam asks.

Harry’s eyes go wide, then narrow. “I… have said too much.”

Nick chooses that moment to lower the volume on the music and everyone still standing rushes to their seats, not wanting to miss a moment of the action. The lights dim and the spotlights focus on the middle of the stage; the curtain parts, just a little, and out steps Louis.

“Hello, everyone!” he says brightly into the microphone. “And welcome to karaoke night!”

The crowd roars in approval, four hundred voices cheering loudly. Niall looks around at the assembled group; everyone from the star quarterback to the student body president is here; only about forty people are actually going to be singing, but no one who is anyone wants to miss the best party of the year.

“For our newbies,” Louis says, and laughs when people in the crowd point out their friends who are here for the first time, making it clear who are the first timers. Liam and Niall hoot and ruffle Harry’s hair, and he ducks away, laughing. “Everyone participating tonight was asked to choose a song to perform that followed our theme. What they do with the song and how they perform it is up to them. There are no winners, but there will be some losers,” he grins, and there’s another wave of laughter. “All proceeds from tonight go to charity, but I know you all don’t care about that right now. So, without further ado,” he reaches out and grabs a barely-visible string, connected to the rolled-up banner Harry hung over the stage hours ago, “the theme for this year’s karaoke night is…”

He pulls the string and the spotlights fly up to shine on the banner, which unfurls with a spray of confetti and, of course, glitter.

“Bad to the Bone!” Louis announces, and the whole crowd yells its approval. The spotlights refocus on him and he spreads his arms wide. “To kick us off is one of our own, and a first-timer, so be gentle. I present to you, Mr. Zayn Malik!”

Harry whoops loudly as Niall and Liam both, nearly simultaneously, crane their necks to see that, no, Zayn isn’t sitting in the seat they saved for him, or at the next table over with the girls. Louis leaves the stage and the curtain opens slowly, fog melting out from the shadows.

“Where’d he get dry ice?” Harry whispers. “I didn’t know we could do that!”

“Everything’s fair game on karaoke night,” Niall whispers back.

“Can Zayn even sing?” Liam asks.

“You’ve never heard Zayn sing?” Harry asks. When Niall and Liam both shake their heads, Harry claps in excitement. “Oh, you’re in for it now.”

Backlights fall and there’s Zayn, just his silhouette, the dry ice fog creeping around his ankles. Nick, who’s an excellent MC, starts the music as the crowd begins to die down, a familiar one-two-three-pause-fourfive bass line that makes Niall sit up immediately.

The spotlight falls; Zayn’s in all black, a leather jacket with a dozen different silver studs and buttons and hoops across the front, three different belts layered around his waist, a low-cut t-shirt underneath his jacket that’s so sheer they can see the tattoos on his hipbones. Girls in the audience scream; a few male voices chime in as well. Zayn raises a hand to the microphone, his fingerless gloves ridiculous and, somehow, ridiculously hot.

He opens his mouth and Niall feels his insides melt.

“I’m giving you to the count of three,” Zayn sings, his voice smooth and cool. He leans with each line, left to right, “to show your stuff or let it be,” right to left. He’s Michael Jackson but rougher, he’s all pop prince but smoother. Niall, for some reason, is suddenly and viscerally reminded of the taste of dark chocolate.

He advances on the microphone stand, presses it between his legs, hip thrusts to “just wait ‘til I get through because I’m bad!

And Niall falls out of his chair.

Holy shit. He doesn’t even bother crawling back into his seat; he’s fine down here, staring up at Zayn and his fucking crotch grabs what the hell Zayn are you tryin’ to kill me.

Zayn doesn’t do anything as undignified as dancing, but his hands never stop moving: brushing his thighs, thumbing his belt, tracing the edge of his collarbone. Niall’s dying, he’s pretty sure, and Zayn wearing leather and singing Michael Jackson in his prime is his light at the end of the tunnel.

The song ends and Zayn takes a quick bow, his grin small but bright under the spotlights. He gets a standing ovation (almost everyone does, that’s the joy of drunken karaoke, but Zayn’s is definitely deserved), and he disappears behind the curtain as Nick shouts into the mic, “Let’s give it up for Zayn and our opening number!”

Niall stays on the floor, still stunned, as the next person comes up on stage to the opening synth notes of Good Girls Go Bad.

“Zee, that was amazing!” Harry cries as Zayn appears at the table, still grinning, stripped out of his jacket and belts but still wearing his gloves.

“Thanks,” he says, breathing a little hard from the adrenaline. “Where’s- oh, hey, Ni. Whatcha doin’ down there?”

“I just,” Niall says hopelessly, and Harry snickers. “I needed to be on the floor.”

Zayn takes the empty seat next to Niall and pats his shoulder. “Okay, babe. Whatever works for you.”

The next few performances fly by: a guy in slouchy jeans and black-framed glasses sings Neil Sedaka, two girls with teal and purple hair absolutely butcher Bad Case of Loving You. Ed takes to the stage armed with his guitar and a smile and brings down the house with an acoustic version of Bad Company. Niall eventually gets the strength to clamber back into his seat, still a little woozy from the image of Zayn’s thrusting that will forever be burned into his mind, just as Nick calls Jesy and Leigh to the stage, followed by Liam.

“That’s m’cue,” Liam says, grinning, as he gets to his feet and disappears backstage.

The applause is loud as Jesy and Leigh take to the stage, The Kooks’ Bad Habit starting up as they get into position. They blend incredibly well together, Jesy’s voice low and Leigh’s voice high, a mix of sultry and scratchy and sexy. They’re always a hit because they know exactly how to move together and tease the audience, trailing fingers along each other’s arms and shoulders. Niall might be so attracted to Zayn he can’t see straight but he knows a good show when he sees it, so he stands up and whistles when they take their bow. Jesy blows him a kiss and he pretends to catch it and swoons, falling across Zayn and Harry’s laps.

“Next up,” Nick announces as Harry pushes Niall off his lap, giggling, “is Liam Payne!”

Pink and red lights swathe the stage as Liam steps up to the mic, the top part of his face hidden by a black bunny mask a la Ariana Grande. It should be ridiculous. It’s not.

Boy you know that you drive me crazy,” Liam sings, and Niall hears Zayn laugh, “but it’s one of the things I like.”

Liam knows how to work the stage, pacing the edges like he can’t be contained, a tiger in a cage, vocalizing along with breaks in the music. His falsetto is truly ridiculous and makes Niall’s breath stop for a second, the words swimming through his head, "IIII’ve been dooooing stupid things, wiiiilder thaaaan I’ve ever been.”

At the first chorus, Liam rips the mask off and flings it aside; his hair’s a mess but in a bedhead, sex-romp kind of way, furrowed by his fingers and smudged imperfection. He pulls the mic free and knocks the mic stand aside, clearing space for him to-

“What the fuck,” Niall can hear himself say, his voice strangled. Next to him, he hears Zayn choke out a cough. “When were we transported into Magic Mike?”

Liam’s on his knees, rolling his hips amid appreciative screams from the crowd. He’s not stripping but his jeans ride low on his waist, a faint shadow visible following the trail of hair below his navel. On a particularly athletic slide, his shirt slides up to show a chiseled stomach, abs glistening in the spotlight.

“What the fuck,” Niall hears himself say again.

The lyrics are ridiculous and silly and so Liam that Niall can hardly deal with it, we got that hood love, we got that good love and Niall wonders why his face feels like it’s going to burn from the heat of the blush on his cheeks every time Liam sends a wink their way.

When he sings, “Boy you make me make bad decisions,” Liam lifts his shirt like he might strip it off but, at the last minute, keeps it on.

Niall wonders why his stomach flips in disappointment.

Liam bounds off the stage in excitement when he’s done, bouncing back up to them smelling like adrenaline and a dusty stage. “How’d I do?” he asks, all wide-eyed enthusiasm.

“Yeah,” Zayn says nonsensically, touching Liam’s shoulder. “Yeah, you. Yeah.”

Niall, for the third time, hears a “What the fuck,” escape his mouth.

“Really?” Liam gushes, like they gave him a full, expansive review of his vocal performance. “Thanks, boys.”

Perrie takes to the stage, singing Usher’s Bad Girl and directing the whole thing to Jade, who turns around and sings the entirety of Usher’s U Got It Bad right back at her. They’re both wearing slouchy, too-big jeans and torn-up undershirts, early 2000s Usher all the way down to their unlaced sneakers. Nick and Aimee laugh their way through a rendition of Bad Romance, making the crowd do the rah-rah-rah-ah-ah, roma-roma-ahs with them. They do three costume changes throughout the relatively short song, each Gaga-inspired outfit more ridiculous than the last, finishing in shiny white bodysuits, oversized, futuristic sunglasses, and, naturally, feather boas.

A drama student Niall’s met a couple of times is next, then Nick announces Harry as the next act.

“Oh,” he says, like he’s surprised, even though they’re moving on towards the second hour of the event and he'd wanted to be scheduled in the middle of the show. He looks around so quickly Niall hears his neck creak; the guys have pushed their table next to the girls’ so they can talk through the less exciting acts, which is potentially a little rude but, to be fair, almost all of them are hurtling towards drunk except Niall and Harry, who are the only two out of their immediate group who haven’t performed yet. They’re an auspicious group in their various decade-themed outfits, but there’s one seat with someone missing, one that has sat empty all night long. “Is-” he starts, then leans toward Niall, though everyone’s listening, “Is Louis not going to be here?”

“We’ll get him,” Jade promises, blinking drunkenly at Harry (“Was that supposed to be a wink?” Niall asks her. She ignores him). “You- you ‘nd Jes ‘nd Leigh go get yourself all pretty.”

“Okay,” Harry says, his grin nervous but edged in excitement. “Okay, but- but you promise he’ll see it?”

“Promise,” Niall says. “We’ll get him here.”

“Good,” Harry breathes. He slips backstage, Jesy and Leigh following him and giggling into each other’s shoulders. Jade and Liam disappear to find Louis, who appears just as the act before Harry finishes a lackluster Bowling for Soup cover and takes a bow to scattered applause.

“What are you doing?” Louis asks, trying to twist out of Liam’s hold on his upper arm. “We’re running low on napkins, and Nick thinks his microphone battery is dying, and-”

“You’re going to sit here,” Zayn says, patting Harry’s vacated seat, “for the next few minutes, and then you can scamper off to panic some more.”

Louis frowns. “What could possibly be important enough for-”

The curtain rolls back slowly, and the stage is dark. They can see Harry’s outline as he grips the microphone, his stance a little awkward, one foot tucked up behind the other and his off hand in his pocket. The music starts, a slow, swinging guitar line, and Harry starts to move, his hips swaying along with the rhythm. It’s a long intro, and anticipation builds; they still can’t really see Harry with no spotlight on him, just the outline of his movements, but just as the balanced tension in the room starts to crash a spotlight falls onto Harry from above, lighting him up just as his husky, bluesy baritone fills the room.

“Need someone’s hand, to lead me through the night,” he rasps, and his voice has never before seemed to rumble like that. That’s not the focus, though; a second spotlight lights him up from the front and there’s an audible gasp from the crowd.

Harry’s not wearing a shirt; or, at least, Niall doesn’t think he is. He is, instead, draped in layered strips of fabric, gauzy and delicate, whites and grays and jewel tones, wrapped around Harry’s torso and falling artfully off his shoulders and arms. It’s an odd look, angelic and bohemian, Stevie Nicks mixed with her wine-drunk, promiscuous cousin, but somehow it fits Harry, softens his edges and sharpens his curves. He’s got his regular black jeans on, a simple hole in the upper thigh a glimpse of something normal, but the black, patent leather boots laced up to his knees are new, arching his calves attractively.

“Oh,” Louis breathes, barely audible over the music, sounding like something (or someone) stole his breath.

“I need someone’s arms, to hold and squeeze me tight,” Harry continues, and Niall wonders if he ate a pack of cigarettes between leaving their table and stepping on stage, his voice all ash and sex. “Now, when the night begins, I’m at an end…”

The music peaks, crests-

“Because I need,” Harry sings, dragging the mic stand forward, “your love,” another step, he’s at the edge of the stage, he’s staring right at Louis, “so bad.”

Louis groans, a low, needy sound, and Harry tips his head back and gasps like it's a physical touch.

Niall would laugh, but Harry’s got his full attention too, closing his eyes and revealing eyelids coated in dark glitter, a little more mystery and a little more danger. He swallows, licks his lips, smiles a dark smile like the words are being pulled out of him and he enjoys every second of it; the spotlight plays in his curls, turning brunet into honey-gilded, the cross necklace at his throat glinting like a talisman.

Harry doesn’t pace, like Liam, but he doesn’t stay in one place, like Zayn. He wanders, stepping slowly, almost gracefully, his hips swaying, following the slow, rolling beat of the music, but he never strays too far from the bit of stage right in front of Louis. He makes sure to direct all the least subtle lines to Louis, too, the ones about lips and dark nights and need, words that burn with suggestion, and Niall doesn’t understand how Louis hasn’t dragged him off the stage to kiss him yet.

Hell, Niall’s about five seconds from doing it himself, and he’s not the one secretly dating Harry.

The song is short, for a Fleetwood Mac song, at least, and Harry finishes with a rusty, aching climax: “Tell me that you love me, and stop drivin’ me mad,” he sings, and this time he pulls his mic stand back to the middle of the stage, mere feet from Louis’ upturned, stunned face. He puts the stand between his knees and throws his head back one more time, gripping the stand like that's what’s driving him wild. “Because I, I need your love, so bad.”

The applause that sweeps through the room is breathless; suddenly the strange, beautiful creature on stage is gone and Harry’s back, his dimples appearing as he folds his hands together in thanks. He doesn’t bother heading backstage, just hops off the front of the stage and comes to stand in front of Louis, his face gleaming with glitter and sweat.

“Hey, Lou,” he says innocently, like he didn’t just pull some sort of witchcraft on stage that made everyone in the room fall in love with him a little bit. “Did you like my song?”

Niall stifles a laugh, and someone sounding suspiciously like Jade snorts quietly behind him.

“I,” Louis says, his eyes still wide. “I- I have to-”

He stumbles away without finishing his sentence, and though Niall expected Harry to be disappointed at that result, he looks up to see Harry grinning instead, looking pleased to have reduced Louis to a stammering mess.

The two tables of Harry’s closest friends are silent as he falls into a chair, waiting for some sort of explanation. He doesn’t even try and hide it, doesn’t try to pretend that he didn’t just serenade his secret boyfriend in front of a room full of people, just grins and shrugs easily and steals Niall’s line, “All’s fair at karaoke night.”

They don’t see Louis for the next few performances—the event is drawing close to its end, and then there’ll be an unofficial (but totally official) afterparty at Jesy and Leigh’s place, but there are still things to panic about and a few more songs to go, including:

“Niall Horan, you’re up next,” Nick announces before a girl with platinum hair takes to the stage and starts bellowing the words to Bad Blood by Taylor Swift. Liam pats Niall on the shoulder and Harry, now drinking steadily to catch up with the rest of the group, smiles broadly, whispering, “Good luck!”

Niall heads for the backstage area, which is a mess of tossed-aside costumes and opened makeup palettes, and starts to dig for his bag buried among the chaos. After a moment, the flimsy privacy curtain parts and Jade slips inside, watching Niall pull off his jeans and shirt, leaving him clad only in the tight white shorts he borrowed from her and the glitter on his chest.

“Hey,” she asks, and she’s wobbly from alcohol but grinning brightly. “Need help with anything?”

“Yeah, actually,” Niall says, pulling out the microphone he borrowed from his internship specifically for this, a Britney-style wireless mic that circles the back of his head and will leave his hands free. Jade helps him strap it on and hide the cord under his white jacket, which he zips halfway up his bare chest, framing the dollar sign bling between his pecs.

“Straight out of 2001,” Jade says approvingly, smacking Niall’s ass he steps up to the stage curtain. “Go get ‘em.”

Niall laughs, then the Taylor Swift girl brushes past him on her way offstage, and it’s his turn.

He drags a chair out to center stage with him while the lights are still dark, the edge of the crowd noise making his heart flutter. He strikes his opening pose: back to the audience, hip cocked, one hand braced on the back of the chair, the other arm draped over his head.

There are a few laughs as the song starts and a few people recognize it, a few more as the backup singers on the karaoke track start to sing. The lights flash, blinding Niall momentarily, and the rush of startled laughter and cheers sweeps him away as he starts to sing.

I wanna be bad wit’cha baby,” he sings, popping his hip again, “I- I, I- I. I wanna be bad wit’cha babaaayyy.”

Harry’s sparkly silver boots make him slip a little as he starts to move, but that adds to it, somehow, adds to the mounted ridiculousness. He tosses his head, circles the chair, and sits down hard, throwing his legs apart and biting his lip. From next to the stage, he thinks he hears Jesy’s loud whistle, Harry’s delighted cackle.

The crowd whoops as he starts actually dancing, punching the air and hopping up and down, moves taken straight out of the song’s music video that had taken him weeks of covert choreographing to learn. He circles his hips and spins, blowing a kiss to the general area where he knows his friends are sitting.

“I wanna be bad,” Niall sings, barely able to contain the hysterical laughter in his chest, “You make bad look so good. Got things on my mind, I never thought I would.”

It’s exhilarating to be the focus of all the eyes in the room, even dressed in the most outrageous thing he’s ever worn, singing a song that shouldn’t be as catchy as it is. The fun doubles when he sees the some of the crowd standing and dancing with him, and he points to the more enthusiastic members of the audience as he swivels his hips and bends over, peeking seductively over his shoulder.

The three minutes of the song stretch on for hours, it feels like, and Niall’s breathing hard by the time the last chorus rolls around. He shimmies himself to the edge of the stage and drops to his knees, running his hands exaggeratedly over his chest, through his hair. “I’m about to break the rules, I- I wanna be bad.”

The crowd cheers, and, just outside the bright circle of the spotlight, Niall can see his friends, laughing so hard they’re collapsing all over the place, and he feels the hysteria at himself, dressed in the worst of the 2000s and draped across the stage like an untrained exotic dancer, bubble up once more.

Then he sees Zayn, still sitting down, his mouth hanging wide open, and something else starts to burn in Niall’s chest next to the laughter. Whatever it is, it makes Niall take the fake diamond chain from around his neck, slide off the stage, and put it on Zayn instead. This close, with the applause dying down as the next performer gets ready to take the stage, Niall can hear Zayn’s breath hitch and he wonders what that means.

“So, whaddya think?” he asks, grinning. “Could I have been a pop starlet?”

“I- where did you get those shorts?” Zayn asks weakly.

“Jade,” Niall says, pointing her out. “I don’t have the ass for actual booty shorts, but I thought these worked.” He turns around, popping his hip once more for maximum effect. When he looks over his shoulder, Zayn is drinking deeply from his Solo cup and Niall’s chest flutters again, a mad grin trying to break onto his face.

He never gets an answer, has to scramble into a seat as the next act takes the stage, but his cheeks burn through the next three songs either way, and he feels each look Zayn shoots him like a physical touch.

Finally, as the alcohol supply is drained, as the food table is emptied, as the crowd grows increasingly rowdier, Nick taps his mic and announces the final song of the night.

“Last, but of course not least,” he says, “give it up for our fearless leader, Louis Tomlinson!”

Niall feels Harry stiffen next to him, and he wonders what tricks Louis will have up his sleeve. Louis will have to beat Harry’s performance, that’s just the way he is, and as the last song of the night he’ll need to be memorable enough to carry the crowd to the afterparty. There isn’t much that’s more blatant than Harry’s singing of I need your love so bad right to Louis, but if there’s a will, then Louis will find a way.

(Funny how, just a few hours ago, Niall was wishing desperately that those two would pull their heads outta their asses and just say something already and quit pretending they aren’t crazy about each other. Now, most of the way through the biggest night of the year, Harry’s thrown himself out there, flayed himself open, removed his heart with a 1960s blues number, and thrown it at Louis’ feet. And now it’s Louis’ turn, and Niall hopes he won’t disappoint.)

Loud, slamming guitar startles Niall out of his thoughts. A pounding drum beat, staccato electric guitar, and a familiar thrumming bass roll in, and then the backing vocals start to sing.

Your love is like bad medicine
Bad medicine is what I need

“Holy fuckin’ shit,” Niall says.

Strobe lights start to pulse in the background, giving them brief glimpses of Louis on stage. His head’s down, both hands wrapped around the mic. The background vocals sing on.

Shake it up, just like bad medicine
There ain’t no doctor that can cure my disease

Flashing blue and green lights spring up and slide over the crowd; the strobe lights speed up, faster, faster, and then the full weight of about six spotlights burst onto Louis all at once as he starts to sing.

“I ain’t got a fever, got a permanent disease,” he belts, but you can’t even really hear him over the roar of the audience as they finally get a good glimpse of him; he grins, and his teeth flash in the bright lights. He’s still in those acid washed jeans; high-waisted and tight, he’s like a vision of Jon Bon Jovi himself, come to grace them at karaoke night. All the fringe Niall saw in his bag earlier belongs to one leather jacket, the sleeves and back panel swishing as he moves. He’s got a worn evergreen bandana tied around his forehead and his hair’s feathered back; under his eyes are smudges of eyeliner, just imperfect enough to be rock n’ roll.

“Holy shit!” Niall repeats, a half-yell, half-laugh. Somehow, this is simultaneously the most masculine and the most feminine Tommo’s ever looked all at the same time—glistening collarbones and tight tight jeans and wild, feral grins. Niall feels his heart lodge itself somewhere near his throat; lit up like this, a Farrah-haired angel, it's sort of hard not to fall a little bit in love with Louis. He can't even imagine how Harry's faring.

He looks to his left and gets his answer: Harry's shaky-kneed, wobbling like he might fall over, spots of heat high on his cheeks.

“Gonna take more than a shot to get this poison out of me,” Louis sings, gravelled voice loud over the boom of the music. “And I got all the symptoms,” he holds up a hand, studded bracelets thick around his wrists, “count ‘em, 1, 2, 3, and you need-”

“That’s what you get for fallin’ in love!” the backing vocals scream, words every classic rock fan could recite in their sleep, anyone whose dad keeps old Guns N’ Roses and Whitesnake cassettes in the console of his car to remind him of the good old days, anyone whose mom still sighs when she sees old videos of Richie Sambora. Niall’s right there; the whole crowd’s right there with him: “You get a little bit, instead of enough.”

“I’ll get you on your knees!” Louis sings back, a choir leader calling his singers to rise.

“That’s what you get for fallin’ in love!” the crowd screams.

“Now, this boy’s addicted, ‘cause your kiss is the drug!” Louis stomps along the front of the stage, doing indecent things to the mic stand. Jade and Jesy scream like it’s a real concert; a few members of the crowd rush the stage and Louis leans down to grab their outstretched hands, laughing.

Louis is alive under the spotlights, chest heaving as he does his best Jersey scream, dusty light dancing in the shadows around him. The first bridge comes and Louis turns up the heat, “Baaaad, baaaad medicine,” he drawls, throwing his head back, licking his lips. “Baaaad, baaaad medicine.”

At the start of the second verse, Louis high-steps his way over to Nick, who does a mic exchange so quickly that Niall nearly misses it, and then Louis is holding a cordless mic and can go even wilder. He spins, fringe flying, and powers through the second chorus.

“There ain’t no paramedic gonna save this heart attack, when you need-”

“That’s what you get for fallin’ in love!” the crowd shouts, and Louis holds out his mic so their voices reverberate back to them, an endless loop. “You get a little bit instead of enough!”

The second bridge; Louis smirks widely, surveys the crowd, and leaps from the stage. Now he’s on the floor, on the far right side of the room, dancing among the members of the audience.

“Can he do that?” Harry asks Niall, yelling above the near-hysterical noise of the crowd and looking on the verge of having a heart attack himself.

Niall laughs. “Who’s gonna stop him?”

Louis pushes a football player back into his seat and circles him, trailing a teasing hand along his chest. Then to the next table, a crowd of drama students, and he dances back to back with a girl while three others swoon at his feet. Then the next table, Aimee and Nick’s group of friends, and Aimee cackles as Louis hip thrusts against her thigh, pulling out a couple of dollar bills and stuffing them in the waistband of his jeans. He, still singing, steals her feather boa and wraps it around his neck.

“Baaaad, baaaad medicine, is what I want,” he belts out, kissing Aimee’s cheek and moving on. He hits each table, picking out a person or two to sing with him, to dance with him, to dance against . At the guitar solo, he yanks off his bandana and flings it—two girls in the back leap after it, joined by a third.

He’s finally circled the room and made it back to the center, where his closest friends are all waiting to see what he’ll do next; Niall, still singing at the top of his lungs, meets Jade’s eye and grins, and they both look simultaneously at Harry. He’s out of his seat and standing, they all are, the whole room is on its feet, but he’s not dancing or clapping; he’s slack-jawed, wide-eyed, red-cheeked. He looks like he’s been slammed by a heavy weight and hasn’t yet regained his breath.

Niall doesn’t know what Louis’ planning, but he sees that sly grin as he approaches the two center tables, and he knows whatever Louis has up his sleeve, Harry might never recover.

Louis starts with Leigh; he dances to her side and hip bumps with her, then circles behind Jade and twirls her. Perrie and Jesy sandwich Louis in a rolling wave of hips, just for a moment, and he takes to it like it’s natural (and, from the number of nights out at the dance club where he’s ended up in that same position, maybe by now it is natural).

“When you find your medicine, you take what you can get.” Liam next; Louis backs up against him and does a full Beyonce, circling his hips and winding himself down until his ass touches the ground, then back up again. “‘Cause if there’s something better baby, well they haven’t found it yet.”  On to Zayn—Louis circles him and grabs his hip, yanking him backwards until he’s snug against Louis’ front. Louis starts a hip roll, and it takes a moment but Zayn complies, laughing, their legs locked together. Louis smacks his ass as he goes, and Liam howls with laughter at the look on Zayn’s face. “Oh-whoa-oh, your love is like bad medicine.”

It’s just Niall and Harry left, and Louis turns to them with mischief sparkling in his eyes, ”Bad medicine is what I need.” He saunters up to Niall and then turns, facing the room and his arms outstretched. Niall, somehow, knows exactly what to do; they didn’t plan this, Niall didn’t even know what song Louis was going to sing, but in that moment he has the gut instinct to reach out and pull Louis’ jacket sleeve, down and off. Louis switches his mic to his other hand, still singing, “Baaaad, baaaad medicine is what I want,” and Niall rips the jacket off his other arm.

Underneath all the fringe is what used to be a Jack Daniels t-shirt, black fabric faded almost gray over time, the white logo flaking off in places. The sleeves have been chopped off, leaving two flimsy straps, the neckline’s been cut out, now dipping almost to the center of his chest, and the bottom half of the shirt is missing, cropped to just above Louis’ bellybutton.

Someone in the crowd shrieks; Niall tosses the jacket aside. Louis turns to him, winks, and it’s time for the grand finale.

Harry’s throat moves as he swallows, all of Louis’ wild attention focused on him—even the spotlights are hitting Harry instead of Louis, now, because everyone knows this is where this was all leading.

“Baaaad, baaaad medicine,” Louis sings, the final time. The guitar slows, just a single line. I gotta, I gotta-

Louis steps toward Harry, another step, a tiger stalking its prey, and Harry plays his part; he stumbles back, tripping perfectly into his chair with an oof. Louis grins down at him as he approaches, bright and fierce.

“I gotta, I gotta-”

Louis does a perfect Jon, gasping out the words like he’s lost his breath. He takes a final step forward until there’s nowhere left to go, his knees pressed against Harry’s, no way to move closer except-

“I gotta do it again-”

Louis settles into Harry’s lap.

“Wait a minute.”

Harry’s hands go to Louis’ hips automatically.

“Wait a minute.”

Louis rolls his hips, a move Niall is pretty sure he must have learned from one of the girls or a Nicki video, and Harry’s eyes roll back.

“Hold on.”

Louis grinds-

“I’m not done.”

Harry moans.

“One more time.”

Louis winds his fingers into Harry’s curls, tugs.

“With feeling.”

The backing vocals start up again, but Louis doesn’t sing along. He drops the microphone, even, winding both his arms around Harry’s neck. Harry slides his hands up under Louis’ flimsy excuse of a shirt. He looks spellbound, like the room could catch on fire and he wouldn’t notice.

The crowd still sings, though, despite the fact that every eye in the room is stuck to Louis in Harry’s lap, the spotlights pinning them down. “Your love is like bad medicine, bad medicine is what I need.”

Louis leans back, one swift movement, and rips his shirt over his head, tosses it across the room. He’s bare-chested, wearing only his jeans and Aimee’s feather boa.

The audience roars, “Shake it up, just like bad medicine. You got the potion that can cure my disease.”

The song fades out. Harry and Louis are both breathing hard, and the whole room is still watching. Waiting.

Louis unwinds the feather boa from around his neck and drapes it around Harry’s instead.

The room is silent. Waiting. Surely they won’t-

It happens quick: Louis tugs on the ends of the boa, yanking Harry forward as he leans down, crashing their lips together in a hard kiss. So hard that Harry flails, arms pinwheeling, and the force of Louis throwing himself forward makes the chair they’re sharing crash backward, Louis and Harry rolling onto the floor.

For a second, it’s still silent. Then, pandemonium.

“Holy shit!” Liam yells.

“I knew it!” Jesy screams.

“We all knew it!” Perrie shouts back.

Harry and Louis are still kissing frantically, rolling back and forth in the circle of the spotlight. The crowd is whooping, clapping like it’s part of the show, drunkenly shouting suggestions. Everyone already knew Harry and Louis were secret dating; now, but now, everyone knows. The big campus secret is out.

Niall is laughing so hard he feels like his ribs might crack; of all the things he thought might happen tonight, Louis and Harry announcing their relationship to the world via striptease was not on his list.

“Holy fuckin’ shit,” he laughs.

“That was karaoke night 2014!” Nick yells into his microphone above the noise of the crowd. “Thank you, and goodnight!”

The afterparty at Jesy and Leigh’s is legendary, carrying on until the sun starts to peek over the horizon and they're all fuzzy with sleep deprivation and a liquor-soaked night.

It's the biggest party on the biggest night of the year. Harry and Louis never show.

The next afternoon, when Niall, Liam, and Zayn roll themselves sleepily out of Liam’ bed (all of them having crashed there at various points the night before), they find Harry and Louis waiting for them, hand in hand, perched nervously on the couch.

“Boys,” Louis says. “We have something to tell you.”

Liam and Zayn try to contain their grins; Niall just laughs.

“Well it's about goddamn time.”

Chapter Text

Part two — Spring 2016

Weak winter sunlight falls like a pale shadow across the apartment’s tiny kitchen, and Harry Styles tries to breathe. It’s January third, a new world, frosted and snow-muffled, and it’s quiet.

Except for this: there's a voice being insistent in his head, taking all of Harry’s attention, stealing it. This voice is not the usual one, that echo of his own deep rumble rattling off the inside of his skull, when are you going to sort out your life, when are you going to stop disappointing everyone, when when when

when will you get it together Styles
you'll never get it together Styles
you’re the worst Styles

That voice is silent now, probably not gone but at least it's not present. This voice isn't that one—it's softer. Sweeter. Kinder. This one says it's fine. I'm okay.

We're okay.
We're fine.
I’ll be alright.

It's patient and understanding and a solid rhythm, a cadence next to the pounding of Harry's pulse. And it sounds a hell of a lot like the beautiful boy Harry left in bed.

Harry took a psychology class about a year ago to fill an elective requirement; it wasn’t really his cup of tea, too much hard science for him to be really invested for too long, but there were a couple of things he learned that caught his attention for longer than a few minutes. One of them was mimicry, or mirroring, the idea that humans spending a lot of time together slowly borrow each other’s mannerisms, words, patterns.

That voice, the one whispering we’re fine, we’re okay, I’m okay—that’s all Louis, something Harry’s heard him do a hundred times before when he was overwhelmed or worried or panicked. A little self-reassurance, a little port of calm in the middle of a storm. Harry’s not even sure Louis knows he’s doing it, half the time.

Harry didn’t realize he’d picked it up, but there it is, an echo in his head: we’re okay. I’m alright. It’s okay.

He holds his mug of tea up to his nose, breathes in the steam, and repeats the words until the syllables are meaningless, a verbal worry stone: we’re okay. I’m fine. We’re fine.

On New Year’s Eve, at a party thrown by one of Harry’s old Chicago friends, the clock struck midnight and Louis didn’t kiss Harry, not immediately. The room exploded in Happy new year!s and confetti and a popped bottle of champagne, and everyone around them was kissing, but not the two of them. Louis had pulled Harry close and tilted their foreheads together; for a moment, in the middle of the madness, they closed their eyes and it was just the two of them, the way it’d always been.

That was when Louis finally kissed him, ushering in 2016 with a press of lips slow and long and sweet, and he’d whispered, “This is our year, darling. I can feel it.”

And Harry felt it too; it was a precipice, big things always are; this was a knife’s edge where falling led to sure death, where falling led to failing and failure is something Harry’s never been able to handle.

A knife's edge, but Louis was there. But Louis had tossed him a rope; hell, he’d built an entire bridge himself so Harry didn’t even have to put his foot to the blade in the first place. If this was their year, it was only because Louis got them through the last one in the first place.

Louis broke the kiss with a final nip to Harry’s bottom lip and smiled up at him, a spot of sunshine at midnight. Harry smiled back, because it was impossible not to when he had Louis’ full attention, the weight of his love pulling Harry under like a welcome tidal wave.

Then, because Louis could be soft and sweet and wonderful but he was still Louis, he said, “Hey. How do you think Zayn, Liam, and Niall chose who kissed who at midnight? Do they trade off? One of each? Or-” he’d squawked as Harry covered his mouth with his hand, grinning so hard his eyes crinkled, still talking even through Harry’s makeshift muzzle, “or do they all three lean in at once? We should text them, this is important-”

That was Harry’s forever, right there. A too-loud boy with a too-bright grin who has so much faith in Harry that he doesn’t know what to do with it all, sometimes.

And that, that was the start of their year.

On the first day of Harry’s final semester as a college student, he wakes a six o’clock sharp, the morning still an inky smudge outside the window and his eyes itchy with sleep.

Louis, snuffling quietly into his pillow, curls into the warm spot Harry left behind as Harry rolls his yoga mat out and starts to stretch. The sunrise catches up with him as he bends, as he moves, as sweat starts to line his arms and chest. His and Louis’ breathing is the only sound in the world, in out in, at least until he can hear movement outside their bedroom door: probably Liam, sneaking out of whoever’s bedroom the other three slept in last night, getting ready for his morning run.

Harry’s phone beeps softly, an alarm to keep him on track; he rolls his mat back up and hits the shower, warm water loosening the muscles that yoga didn’t quite reach. When he steps out and wraps a towel around his waist, he feels almost awake.

Tea, toast, sweatpants, Louis’ (stolen) (borrowed) denim jacket, Harry's own (totally practical, shut up Zayn) Ugg boots because it’s freezing outside and Harry wants to keep all his toes. Hello to a pink-cheeked Liam when he’s returned from his run and before he disappears back into Niall’s bedroom. Gathering his notebooks and textbooks and pencils and laptop and does he need his laptop charger? Might as well, just in case, and, oh, Louis is awake, stumbling into the kitchen as he rubs his eyes.

He stands by Harry’s chair—a little petulant, a little fuzzy with sleep, a little swallowed by Harry's oversized sweatshirt—until Harry gets the hint; he huffs a laugh and moves his tea so Louis can clamber into his lap, burying his face in Harry's shoulder.

“Morning, sunshine,” Harry murmurs, kissing the sensitive spot behind Louis’ ear.

“Is it morning?” Louis rasps. He steals a sip of tea and looks out the window, where a pale sun is just starting to lighten the world. “Are you sure?”

Harry hums, takes another bite of toast. He’s got two classes today, a Business Communication class that is required and is also probably required to bore him to tears, and then Diana’s class (no, no, Professor Jefferson, not Diana while they’re in class) after that.

“Nervous?” Louis asks, spinning one of Harry’s curls around his finger.

“I don’t know,” Harry says honestly. “At this point, anything that isn’t helping me find a career path feels a little useless, but I know I have to go.”

Louis makes a thoughtful noise. “Hmm. Well, in the end, this is only five months of your life. If a class is terrible, it’ll be over soon.”

“Yeah,” Harry says. “I’d like it a lot better if they were all amazing and interesting and helpful, though.”

Louis chuckles, nudges at Harry’s cheek. “No pressure, then.” Harry’s phone beeps again, reminding him to leave soon or he’ll be late. Louis gets to his feet, stretching his arms up over his head until his shirt rides up, showing the yellowing bruise on his hip Harry left there a few days ago. Harry doesn’t resist the urge to reach out and touch it, to fit his thumb exactly over the tender skin, and Louis lets him with a small, satisfied smirk. “Dinner tonight? I should be done at the office by about six.”

Harry’s just agreeing when a door flies open and bangs against the wall. Niall falls out of his bedroom with his shirt half-buttoned, hopping on one foot as he tries to jam his shoe on and still make his way to the front door, a scarf falling from his shoulders and a coat hooked over his elbow and trailing after him.

“Lord help us all,” Louis says, rolling his eyes, and kisses Harry one last time before he goes to help. “Jesus, Niall, you can take thirty seconds to get dressed properly, you’re already going to be late. Do you need a hat? I can find one for you- oh, hello Liam, nice to see you… up and about. I didn’t know you had a birthmark there! How is Zayn still sleeping through all this racket? Why no, Liam I will not leave, I’m being a good friend, you should leave-”

Harry is laughing as he steps outside, the morning seeming a little brighter filled by the noise and chaos of his favorite people sending him on his way.

Louis is a secret listmaker.

It shocked Harry a little, the first time he and Louis went grocery shopping and Louis pulled out a legal pad filled with precise handwriting that was organized by aisle, food size, and order it should be picked up in to ensure that frozen things weren’t melted by the time they were putting the bags in the car. Louis exudes chaos and seems like he’d be the kind of guy to never plan anything ahead of time ever; it’s all a front, though, as Harry has discovered Louis is secretly a giant, organized, list-loving, highlighter-using, favorite-pen-owning nerd.

The first time Harry made fun of Louis’ grocery lists, Louis raised an eyebrow (and he’s damn good at that, so Harry maybe should have rethought his insults), and said, “Fine. Next time, you plan the shopping trip.”

(By the time they made it back to the apartment after the Harry-led trip, Louis had crescent-shaped marks on his palms from clenching his fists so hard and Harry had only managed to buy them a half gallon of the milk he later remembered he hates, three bags of chocolate, a box of number two pencils, a refrigerator magnet, and three carrots he spent twenty minutes choosing. Louis had to go back the next day and get everything else Harry had forgotten, and Harry hasn’t made fun of the grocery lists since.)

Harry’s a little more carefree. And by carefree, Louis would say that he is comically spacey and easily distracted and “You’re cute, Styles, but remind me to never ask you to do more than one thing at a time” (just because Harry decided halfway through vacuuming the living room once that he wanted to bake a pie, not realizing he’d left the vacuum running. Or that the carpet in that bit of the room would always smell a little like burnt hair).

So he doesn’t like lists, or the stress of planning, or the rigidness of schedules and decisions and contracts and blueprints. He doesn’t like goal-setting except for in one specific circumstance: he only sets goals if he knows without a doubt he can achieve them.

Sometimes, on the rare occasions Louis lets him buy food alone, Harry writes grocery lists after he gets back from the grocery story, just to pat himself on the back for remembering everything. When he makes out to-do lists, he puts things like “wake up” and “drink coffee” and “start my to-do list” just so he can have something he definitely can check off.

So when he decided, bright and sort of early on January first after the headache and nausea from the night before faded away, that he was going to quit procrastinating and finally figure out what the hell he wanted to do with his life, he changed his routines and mindset to follow. He wasn’t going to spend any time or energy on anything that wasn’t helping him figure out what he wanted to do with his life. In fact, he’d decided, if there was anything that actively took his attention away from his big realization pursuits, he was going to discard it from his life.

He falters on that stance, though, as Diana enters the classroom with a harried smile and starts passing out the syllabus for Intro to Non-Profit Industries.

“Welcome,” she says, smiling. “Hope everyone found the place okay. In this class, we’ll be exploring the different types of non-profit organizations and what sort of challenges they face, both short-term and long-term.”

Harry takes a deep breath; just because the syllabus seems a little… sparse of things he’s interested in, doesn’t mean he should write off the class completely. He did that last semester, and the semester before, assuming he couldn’t learn anything useful from his professors when that wasn’t the reality.

“This class is structured on discussions,” Diana continues at the front of the classroom. “Each week, you are required to spend at least ten hours volunteering at a local non-profit of your choice. We will meet at this time every Friday and discuss what you’ve learned about the organization, the industry, and yourself.”

Harry shifts a little; his hopefulness is dwindling a little, replaced by a growing unease in his stomach. But he likes Diana, that’s the thing. He thinks there’s a lot he can learn from her. But if it’s not something he’ll take with him into a career, is it worth spending his time learning?

“If you do not contribute,” Diana says, “you do not get class credit. You’ll have a few weeks to try a few different places and get settled, and then I expect you to choose one and stick with it.”

Well that’s-

That’s pretty much Harry’s exact problem on a much smaller scale. Why would Diana suggest he take this class? How is he supposed to panic about his future occupation when he’s busy panicking about choosing an organization to work at for the next few months?

“Experiencing a little bit of everything is far less educational than immersing yourself into one area and learning from others who are doing the same in different areas,” Diana continues, heedless of Harry’s trepidation. He avoids her eye as she steps around the front of her desk, perching on the edge. “Any questions?”

A girl in the front raises her hand. “What if we don’t know any non-profits in the area?”

“Excellent question. You can always look into finding one on your own, but I also keep a list that you are free to look over and find one that calls out to you.”

“Do we keep track of our own volunteer hours?” a boy asks.

“Yes, I will give you a weekly tally sheet that a supervisor will sign off on every week.”

More questions from the small group of students wash over Harry as he stares down at the freshly printed syllabus, blankly flipping his pen, over and over and over.

He has five months, January through May, to sort his life out. He has to take everything he’s learned in his college classes thus far and try, somehow, to hone in on what he enjoys enough to make a career out of it. He set this goal, he’s changed his morning routine and his comfortable schedule with Louis and his whole entire mindset to accommodate this, and he told himself he wouldn’t allow things that distracted from that. And then, once he's tackled that mountain, he has to turn around and start his hunt for a job in his newly chosen field, throwing himself in with the millions of other unemployed college graduates who probably have more solid goals and achievements and will surely be hired instead of him.

How is this helping him figure himself out? How is volunteering to clean up parks or serve food in a nursing home or walk dogs going to find him a job? What the fuck is he even doing here?

Harry stumbles into the apartment at the end of a long day later that week and falls, face first, onto the couch, heedless of anything or anyone who might be there already. A hand whose owner he might be laying on pats his shoulder awkwardly.

“Bad day, Haz?” Zayn asks, his voice muffled because of Harry’s forehead jammed against his mouth.

“Jus’ tired,” Harry sighs, burrowing down against Zayn’s chest. He’s a scrawny thing but a decent pillow, though Harry has to avoid his sharp collarbones to be comfortable. A small price to pay, he thinks contentedly to himself, breathing in Zayn’s old leather and acrylic paint smell.  

“Well, I see my spot was stolen,” says a voice, and Harry blinks one eye open to see Niall standing in front of him, juggling four bags of chips in his arms. “Cheap shot, Styles.”

“You get him all the time,” Harry mumbles, waving his hands. “Go ‘way.”

Niall, instead of going away, picks up their tangled legs and maneuvers himself underneath them, so that Zayn’s calves are resting across his lap, Harry’s legs slot on top of Zayn’s, and Niall’s bags of chips—cool ranch, hickory barbeque, sour cream and onion, and chili cheese, judging by the scent—are on the very top of the pile.

After a moment, and through a mouthful of snacks, Niall says, “I don’t get him all the time. That’s sort of the point.”

Harry stills, turns over a little to look at Niall (and apologizes to Zayn when he wheezes out a protest at the knee Harry plants on his thigh). “Are we talking about this? Can we finally talk about it?”

“We weren’t keeping you from talking about it,” Zayn points out, as Niall munches another chip. “We just… didn’t have all the answers ourselves.”

“Oh my God, I have so many questions,” Harry says, scrambling upright and apologizing again for the elbow he lands on Zayn’s spleen. He ends up settling in the floor in front of Zayn’s couch, looking up at the two of them, hands clasped in his lap.

“I thought you were tired,” Zayn says in amusement.

“Not too tired. Never too tired for answers.”

“Alright, Mulder, calm it down,” Niall says, using Zayn’s shin as a makeshift plate to create a chip sandwich.

“What’s going on in here?” Liam asks, stepping into the living room. His hair’s wet from a shower, his only article of clothing a pair of sweatpants riding far too low on his hips.

“Harry has questions,” Niall says, waving Liam forward. Liam plants a kiss on Zayn’s forehead and vaults himself over the back of the couch, settling next to Niall on the armrest.

“Questions,” Liam repeats. “About what?” Niall shakes his hand at the three of them draped across the sofa, limbs tangled together naturally. “Ah. Well, Haz, we got a month of peace. S’pose it’s time.”

“Oh my God, okay,” Harry says, racking his brain for a question to ask first. Unfortunately, every word he’s ever thought has seemed to have left his head. “I can’t remember what I was going to ask."

Niall barks a laugh, shaking his head. “How anti-climatic.”

“No, hold on, I’ll think of something.” Harry taps his chin. “Oh, I know. Have you told your parents yet?”

Niall snorts again. “Are you kidding me? I haven’t even told my ma and dad I have an iPhone yet, they’re definitely not ready to hear about a sexuality that makes it sound like I’m attracted to cookware. Let’s not even mention not one, but two boyfriends. No way.”

“So what are you going to do?” Harry asks. Pauses. “And didn’t you all spend New Years with them?”

“Yes,” Zayn cuts in before Niall can answer. “A wild and crazy New Year in the middle of fuckin’ nowhere, Wisconsin.” He’s grinning, though, and Niall grins back.

“You weren’t complaining then that there was nothing to do,” Niall says, waggling his eyebrows, and Liam groans, his cheeks red. “But yeah, my parents aren’t super observant about stuff like that. I used to have guys sleep over all the time, and as long as there wasn’t a girl in the room we could close the door and do whatever we wanted.”

“Jesus,” Liam says, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“M’ mom knows,” Zayn says, stretching his arms over his head in an approximation of a shrug. “Don’t know if she was really surprised, and I dunno if she’s told Dad. I guess he’ll figure it out when he figures it out, and if he has a problem he can tell me then. He’s met some guys I’ve dated before, so it’s not like it’ll be a shock.”

“We were at my place right before Christmas,” Liam says after a moment, stroking absent fingers through the hair at the nape of Niall’s neck. Niall rolls his shoulders like it tickles, and Harry is struck by the sudden realization that this must be how they feel around him and Louis all the time—a little grossed out, but so happy that they’re happy that he doesn’t know what to do with all his gushy feelings. “I can’t do the whole ambiguous thing with my parents, they’d see right through it, so I just sat them down and- and told them.”

“It was a little weird after that,” Niall admits. “They had a bunch of questions about if we’d ever get married, have kids, if what we’re doing is even legal.”

Zayn reaches over, rubs his thumb over Niall’s knuckles. “I think they understood it a little better when they saw us just acting normally, though. It sounds weird from the outside, but it doesn’t seem so when you see it…” he waves his hands, looking to Niall and Liam for backup, “happen, I guess.”

“Yeah,” Harry agrees, because that’s one thing about this whole situation—he’s never once thought it was a bad idea. Surprising, sure, and a hell of a story, but not a mistake. The way the three of them move together is instinctual, like before they were always a little wrongfooted and now they can do what comes naturally. Harry clears his throat. “How’d you decide to just- to give it a try?”

Liam snorts. “Well, there wasn’t much deciding anything at first,” he says, winking at Niall, who smirks back. “It was more…”

“Impulse,” Zayn says.

“Need,” Liam adds.

Niall shivers.

“Ew,” Harry says.

“But after that,” Liam says, ignoring Harry completely, “It was like, we could ignore it, what happened, or we could talk about it. I knew Niall was- well, we both were- we both, um, were willing-”

“We were both head over heels,” Niall takes over for Liam, no blush fading onto his cheeks. He’s sure of his words, unflinching. “But we were both so focused on Zayn, y’know? We didn’t even notice that we were it for each other, too.”  

“And I knew,” Zayn says, steady gravity in his voice, something unshakeable in his eyes. “I was gearing up, ready to try and be selfless, to let them know that I couldn’t choose one or the other, and if they’d decided they were happier without me, I’d step out of their way.” Liam makes a hurt little noise at that, and Niall reaches over, takes his hand. “But Niall suggested this, said we had nothing to lose, and I knew that if they were okay, if they wanted to give us a try, I was all in. I wanted to be selfless and I ended up being more selfish than before, because now I have both of them.”  

Niall hums contentedly at that, rubbing his knuckles against Zayn’s knee. They’re all caught up in each other for a moment, soft eyes and softer smiles, until Harry ruins it by sniffing loudly.

“Sorry,” he blubbers when they all turn his way, “it’s just so beautiful!”

Niall cackles a laugh, and Zayn tosses a pillow at Harry, grinning and rolling his eyes. “Get over yourself, you sap.”

“Never,” Harry says. And then he scrambles to his feet and launches himself onto the couch, the four of them delving into a wriggling pile of swearing and shouting and elbows and bags of chips, and Harry isn’t even surprised when Louis walks in the door, takes a moment to assess the situation, and leaps right into the fray.

At Diana’s suggestion, Harry’s first volunteer project for her class is at a homeless shelter.

“You consider yourself a humanitarian, right?” she’d said, as he kept lingering on the names of animal shelters in the area looking for volunteers. When Harry nodded, she said, “Good,” and circled the name of a homeless shelter, tapping it several times with a long fingernail. “Start with humans, then—people tend to care more about cute puppies than humans living on the streets, they’ll need your help more.”

So here Harry is, at the homeless shelter, and a steely-eyed woman with a clipboard is looking him over suspiciously, like he might be planning to run off with the shelter’s supply of socks or something. Her nametag says Henrietta; it fits, somehow. “Can you clean?”

“Erm,” Harry says, because who can’t clean? Is that an excuse people have actually used? “Yes?”

“Can you cook?”

“Yes.”

“Heavy lifting?”

“Yeah.”

“Hmph,” she sniffs, like she doesn’t believe him, but she ticks a box on her clipboard and turns, instructing him to follow. She points out the kitchen, already full of people in hairnets and white aprons bustling about to get ready for dinner, and the living areas, sparse and dingy and a little sad, clumps of people in corners of the room, some still sleeping in small, fold-out beds. They’re moving quickly so Harry doesn’t have a lot of time to take in the scene, but he does see a little girl by herself on the outskirts of the nearest group, dressed in a stained, filthy Dora the Explorer t-shirt that’s the slightest bit too small, her bare feet nearly black with dirt. She’s playing with a threadbare stuffed dog, one of its button eyes dangling sadly, stuffing falling out of a rip in its stomach. Harry’s heart seizes as she looks up, meeting his eyes and smiling, her tiny grin missing multiple teeth.

“This way,” Henrietta says, shoes tapping impatiently on the tiled floor. Harry tears his eyes away from the little girl and follows, stopping when she comes to a halt in front of a locked door. When it swings open, he finds a dusty storeroom, about six feet wide but so deep he can’t see the end, shelves crammed with tattered boxes labeled water and socks and cereal. Henrietta reaches up and grabs a string hanging from the bare lightbulb overhead, yanking it downward and waiting a moment while the old bulb decides if it wants to flicker on or not. When it does, the place is lit in sickly yellow light, shadows still heavy in the corners. “You’ll be working in here. I’ll have boxes brought to you that need to be stored.”

And then he’s alone, in a dirty, cobwebbed closet, feeling entirely useless.

He doesn't have long to sit and fret, however, as other volunteers start bringing him boxes, loaded on carts and so heavy they take two people just to unload. Harry starts putting them away, trying to group similar items together but giving up as more and more boxes are brought to him and he runs out of empty space. It’s hard work, a little mind-numbing, but Harry doesn’t mind—he chooses one of his workout playlists and sets his phone on a nearby shelf, time moving faster as he works to the tune of the Stones and The Clash.

After what feels like an eternity of stacking and shoving and sweating but is probably only about two hours, the boxes stop arriving and Harry is fetched to help serve dinner. He’s thrown a hairnet and a pair of rubber gloves and shoved to the end of the serving line, handed a ladle and stood in front of a vat of brown gloop that is trying to pass as chili.

Groups of people trickle in, and Harry’s stomach starts to hurt a little more with each person that passes through; he’s broke, sure, he and Louis scrounging together a living from Harry’s student loans and Louis’ paychecks from the law office and a whole lot of creative solutions to things breaking or ripping or dying. But he’s never faced this, this unavoidable despondence where sad, grimy faces watch him with careful eyes as he spoons inedible food onto their plates, a sort of all-encompassing hopelessness emanating from all of them. Some of them wear the winter particularly badly, rips in their coats and fingerless gloves that do nothing for their blue-purple fingertips, their red noses, their coughs and shudders and cracked, dry skin.

The little girl in the Dora t-shirt comes through, a woman next to her holding her tray for her, and something in Harry cracks at the tiny, real smile she gives him.

“Gracias,” she whispers as he tips a little more meat onto her plate.

“De nada,” Harry answers, using up most of the Spanish vocabulary he knows and smiling tremulously. His heart is doing backflips and his stomach is trying to copy it, but it keeps getting stuck somewhere near the sharp parts of his ribcage.

The little girl perks up when she hears the stilted Spanish syllables roll off his tongue. “Yo soy Marisol,” she says brightly as her mom is distracted talking to a different volunteer. “¿Cuál es tu nombre? ¿Vive usted aquí? Me gusta tu pelo. ¿Por qué llevas ese sombrero?”

Harry wants to answer, to talk to this little girl, to be a friendly face for a short moment; there's something in her sharp-eyed grin that reminds Harry of Louis’ new freshman friend from the LGBT club, Olivia, and her bright, careful eyes, and the comparison makes Harry's insides twist. His Spanish is rudimentary, though, and she's rattling off questions quicker than he can answer them anyway, so he just lets her speak, the words rolling over him. She and her mother are the last two in line so there's no hold up as she babbles innocently, her smile sweet—it's the least he can do. He's here to help and yet he's never felt so helpless, the full weight in his stomach only intensifying since he left the supply closet he'd been delegated to earlier.

“Marisol, ¿qué haces?” the little girl’s mother hisses, finally realizing why she and Marisol aren't proceeding past Harry's chili station. The next few sentences are rattled off almost quicker than Harry can catch them, but he hears a few phrases that freeze his blood, make his smile drop along with Marisol’s: have to be careful and strange men and dangerous, so dangerous. She tugs Marisol away from Harry without a backwards glance, though Marisol does peek over her shoulder and give Harry a sad parting wave.

Then they're gone and the dinner line is empty and Harry excuses himself, digging in his jeans for his phone and dialing without even looking.

“Hiya, Haz,” comes Louis’ cheerful voice. He’s at work, the sounds of a normal Corden & Associates day in the background. “Thought you were volunteering today.”

“I am,” Harry says, his voice wobbly. He stops against a bare stretch of wall, hunching over a little. “Lou, I-” he breaks off with a sniff, the despair in his chest rising like flood water.

“Harry, love, what’s wrong?” Louis asks, immediately concerned.

“I can’t do it,” Harry whispers. “Lou, I can’t do this. I feel so helpless, and- and useless.”

“Honey-”

“And they’re all looking at me like- like I can help, but I can’t, I can’t give them what they need and this is terrible, Lou, it’s awful-”

“Harry,” Louis cuts in over his panic. “Baby, you’re not being asked to solve homelessness. Just being there helps, you’re helping with food or whatever they need.”

Harry knows Louis is right, he does, but the full, thudding weight under his skin isn't listening to reason. Powerlessness swamps him, a sudden disease he can't shake off.

“When I went to Haiti, I was able to do something,” Harry says, chest growing heavy as well with the weight of his anguish. If this keeps up, his whole torso will weigh him down, drown him in shallow water. “It might not have been much, in the grand scheme of things, but I could be taught what to do and use that to help. Here I’m just- I’m just watching as they try to survive when I have a four hundred dollar phone in my pocket and I bought these jeans pre-ripped because they look cool.”

“So that’s not the place for you,” Louis says firmly. “Finish up whatever you were helping with, thank them for the opportunity, and go home. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Harry sniffs. “But maybe I can-”

“No, Haz. You can’t work somewhere that’s going to send you into an emotional spiral every time you walk through the door.”

Harry breathes in, a shuddery, shaky mess. “You’re right. I know, you’re right.”

“There will be other people there to help the shelter. Don’t try to carry it all on your own.” Louis is quiet for a moment, then. “Your heart is so big, sweetheart, but you can’t save the world. Not working ten hours a week in a place that drives you to tears, anyway.”

“I know,” Harry says again. “I know.”

Louis blows out a breath. “I love you so much, babe. I’ll see you at home.”

“Love you, Lou.”

Henrietta doesn’t seem surprised to look up from her clipboard to see Harry standing there, and she definitely doesn’t seem surprised at his red-rimmed eyes, his scratchy voice as he tells her he thinks he won’t be able to come back to volunteer anymore. As he’s turning away to leave, she stops him.

“It’s hard for everyone,” she says, and the hardness of her voice has softened somewhat; rough gravel rather than cool steel. “I’m here everyday, and it never gets easier. You have to find a place that makes it worth the pain.”

Harry nods, and Henrietta nods back; somehow, Harry knows they have an understanding. He won’t be back, but she won’t be disappointed because he isn't just running away. He’s trying to find his fit. His place.

As Harry leaves the building, words echo in his head.

Find a place that makes it worth the pain.

Right. He’s got to keep looking.

The old clock tower is tolling its sixth chime as Harry skids into the Pit, stumbling over his own feet, his scarf flapping wildly behind him.

“Sorry, sorry,” he gasps, hunching over to rest his hands on his knees, breathing deeply. “Was way”—deep gasp, hitch in side, Jesus—”across campus.” He stands up straight, pressing a palm to his chest, his lungs aching from the cold air outside, brittle and achey. “What’s wrong, what’s the emergency?”

Louis looks up from the Official Karaoke Night Notebook spread across the table and blinks, the fuzziness in his eyes clearing. “Haz. Come help me with this.”

“Sorry I’m late,” Harry apologizes again, dropping his bag in an empty chair.

“S’fine,” Louis says distractedly, waving his hand.

“It's fine?” Niall yelps, indignant, from across the room. He’s buried under a pile of paperwork, Zayn and Liam and Olivia beside him, looking disgruntled at their assigned task. “He's here half an hour later than us and you yelled as us for ten minutes!”

“He was in class. And I like him more,” Louis says, and Harry shoots Niall a smug look. He joins Louis by the Notebook and presses a kiss to the top of his ear, just to see his focused facade break for a moment as Louis squirms away from the ticklish brush of lips. “Quit that,” Louis says, smacking lightly at Harry’s arm. “Help me figure this out.”

“What's the issue?” Harry asks, leaning close. The Notebook is open to a to-scale diagram of the ballroom where, in three months, they (and the rest of the LGBT club) will be hosting the biggest bash of the year. This notebook will come to be the bane of their existence as the event draws near (and as Louis grows more and more manic, hell bent on perfection), but for now it's a detailed roadmap, meant to get them through the event as smoothly as possible. It's a giant collection of receipts, checklists, flyers, and detailed plans for karaoke nights long past, each year’s organizer adding their wisdom before they pass the book down to the next one in charge. This is the third year Louis has run the event and Harry would bet good money he could organize it in his sleep; still, Louis pours over the Notebook like it’s his saving grace.

“The ticket waiting list is already filled, and there’s a waiting list for the waiting list, which means we won’t actually have to work to fill the event,” Louis says, brow furrowed.

“Failing to see how that’s a problem, my dear,” Harry says, wrapping an arm around Louis’ waist. Louis leans into him unconsciously.

“Well, it’s great, yeah. And having to turn people away from the event makes it exclusive and more people are interested, but that’s not really the point, you know?”

“And what’s the point?”

“To raise money for charity,” Louis says. “To get a bunch of people together who wanna have a good time and raise a shit ton of money.”

“So the problem is that more people want to come and we want more people to come, but there’s no room?” Harry clarifies, and Louis nods, still looking lost in thought. Harry looks over the diagram, trying to see something Louis must have missed. “Why don’t we take out the food tables?”

Louis shakes his head like Harry just suggested they all set themselves on fire. “What?”

“Take out the food tables,” Harry repeats. “Look, there’s a smaller room right next to the ballroom, right? So you check and see if it’s available that night, and put all the food and drinks in there. That clears out space for at least another five tables, more if you’re creative.”

“What about when people need more food or refills? They won’t want to leave the room and miss anything.”

“Have intermissions. Or assign some students to act as waiters.”

“Intermissions,” Louis repeats, rubbing at his chin. He looks down at the diagram and tilts his head, considering. “We could do that.”

“Yeah?” Harry asks, grinning. “Did I solve the problem?”

“You solved a problem,” Louis says, tapping Harry on the nose. “Don’t get cocky.”

Harry laughs and steps behind Louis, tugging him backwards against his chest and sliding his arms around Louis’ stomach, resting his chin on Louis’ shoulder. “Is that the dire emergency you texted me about, then?”

Louis checks his nail beds, feigning confusion. “Hmm?”

“The emergency that made me rush across campus”—Harry exaggeratedly checks his watch—”An hour and a half before the club meeting actually starts?”

“I’m quite sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Louis says.

“Are you quite sure?” Harry mocks, smile so wide his cheeks ache. “Well pardon me, Miss Bennet, I didn’t realize you were quite sure.”

“Are you two done?” Liam asks, studiously not looking at them. “Because Harry’s right, we’re really early and there’s nothing to do.”

“We could get food!” Niall says, perking up immediately.

“Yes,” Olivia agrees fervently, dropping her stack of papers.

“There are things to do,” Louis protests. “We could-”

“No,” Harry says, covering Louis’ mouth with his hand.

“I forget how obsessed you get around this time of year,” Liam says conversationally, and Louis’ eyes narrow; Harry gets the feeling that if he removed his hand the room would be filled with Louis’ thoughts on that matter. “It’s just karaoke night, Lou.”

“But-” 

“No,” Zayn says, abandoning the stack of papers he, Niall, and Liam had been assigned to organizing.

“Guys, really-”

“No,” Niall whispers, putting his hand over Harry’s hand pressed to Louis’ mouth. “Food.”

They make a Whataburger run and get back to the Pit with plenty of time to spare, sharing burgers and chicken and sips of milkshakes and throwing fries at Liam every time he mentions how fast food ruins his diet. Slowly, the Pit starts to fill with people, so Louis gets to his feet to put away the Notebook and welcome the familiar faces as they start to arrive. Perrie comes in and waves Harry over to ask about his Christmas, leaving Niall, Liam, and Zayn tangled together on the couch. They’re garnering a lot of looks, though no one has said anything outright yet; Harry wonders who’ll be the first to break and finally ask the question.

He’s happy, though, to see that his friends haven’t seemed to have noticed anything—Zayn is feeding Niall french fries and the three of them are wrapped in each other as always, not paying a bit of attention to anyone else.

“So that’s for real then, eh?” Perrie whispers, nodding toward the couch.

“It’s real,” Harry confirms. “It’s weird and it’s the most wild thing Liam’s ever been a part of, but it’s real.”

A few moments later, Louis buoys up to Harry’s side, wrapping excited hands around his arm and shaking him a little.

“He’s here!” he whispers, eyes alight.

“Who’s here?”

Louis bounces on his tiptoes. “Amal!”

“The guy from your case a few months ago?”

“Yeah!”

“That’s great, Lou,” Harry says, kissing the side of Louis’ head. “Go talk to him, he’s probably nervous.”

“Oh, right!” Louis says, kissing Harry’s cheek in return and bounding away to greet a tall guy standing nervously in the doorway, his hands tucked into the pockets of his sweats. He smiles when he sees Louis, their conversation making the tension in Amal’s shoulders loosen little by little.

A few minutes later, Amal is seated with Olivia (who is trying desperately to hide her excited smile in the corners of her mouth) and her friends, no one has accosted Liam, Niall, and Zayn, and Louis is standing at the front of the room, taking it all in with bright, content eyes.

“Hello, everyone, and welcome to the first spring meeting for the Gay-listers!” Louis says.

When the crowd of people in the Pit cheer back at him, matching his excitement, happy to be here, ready to get to work and make this year the best ever, Louis goes supernova with happiness, and something like starlight settles in Harry’s veins at seeing Louis on top of the world.

After the disaster that was Harry’s attempt at volunteering at the homeless shelter, he arranged another meeting with Diana to try and figure out where the hell he’s supposed to go from here.  

“She told me I have to find something that’s worth the pain,” Harry said, playing with the rings on his fingers instead of meeting Diana’s eyes across her desk. He knew it was silly, but he felt a little like he’d disappointed her for having to leave the shelter early, like she’d brought him into this class and assigned him this volunteer project and he’d messed it up.

“Wise words,” Diana said, tapping her pen, her eyes inscrutable. “What do you think?”

Harry shrugged. “I don’t know. It sounds like something I’d agree with, and Louis said something along the same lines. I just don’t know if I know what’s worth the pain. That’s my giant problem I’ve been dealing with, and now it’s like it’s doubled. I have to find a volunteer organization I’m passionate about as well as a career plan I’m passionate about.” Harry took a deep breath, ruffling his hand through his hair. Frustration welled in his stomach, seeping through his words. “It makes me think-”

Then he stopped, but Diana looked like she already knew what he was going to say. “Think what?”

Harry worried at his lip, then blurted it out. “That this class is taking my focus away from what I need to be thinking about.”

Diana didn’t answer immediately, clicking her pen a few times and settling back in her seat.

“I don’t want to sound ungrateful,” Harry said in a rush, suddenly afraid he’d offended her. “I appreciate all your help you gave me last semester and saving me a spot in this class. I just worry that if I spend too long concentrating on something else, I’ll look up and it’ll be May, and I’ll be graduating with no idea where to go or what to do, and all I’ll have is a list of volunteer hours and no one to hire me for them.”

Diana was nodding, looking contemplative. Finally, she spoke. “Someone once told me that service towards others is helping someone else’s body while also helping your own mind.” She clicked her pen a final time and pulled Harry’s list of potential volunteer organizations toward him, smiling a little at the pen scribble covering the homeless shelter’s name. “The thing about volunteering is that it is learning, it’s just a different type of learning than you’re used to. It’s how I learned things about myself that I’d never have learned in other situations. And if you know yourself, you know what you want, and what you don’t want. Which, it sounds like, is exactly the problem you're facing. You don't know what you want.”

She pushed the paper back across the desk to Harry, and he looked down to see a little star drawn next to one of the pet shelters Harry had wanted to try first.

“No one has ever regretted time spent helping those who need it,” she said, and smiled. 

Two days later, as Harry is shovelling dog poop out of a kennel and trying to avoid the eyes of the Mastiff in the cage next to him that looks like it wants to eat him, he spends only a few minutes repeating those words back to himself as sarcastically as possible.

When he gets back to the apartment, his shirt is adorned with new claw rips from a Pekingese who took a liking to him, his hair a disaster, and he knows he smells like a wet dog left to bake under a hot sun. He ignores Liam’s startled laughter and stomps to the kitchen, tearing the list of volunteer organizations off the fridge door. He crosses Happy Tails Animal Rescue off the list with a vengeance, and retreats to the shower.

Back to the drawing board.  

Harry wakes slowly on a Saturday morning in late January, his muscles bunching as he points his toes and stretches. Next to him, he can hear Louis breathing evenly, a familiar warm weight against Harry’s back and his hair tickling Harry’s shoulder. It’s cold in the bedroom but warm under the covers, and Harry draws the blankets tighter as he blinks the sleep from his eyes.

A soft snuffle and a twitch of delicate fingers, and then Louis is awake too. Harry grins as he feels a dry kiss on his back, and he rolls over to pull Louis close, their legs tangling.

“Your nose is cold,” Harry murmurs as Louis burrows closer. He makes a discontent noise in answer.

“My everything is cold,” he says, voice scratchy from sleep. “‘specially my toes.”

He pauses like he said something meaningful, and Harry waits for him to continue. When frozen toes press suddenly against his shin, Harry yelps.

“See?” Louis laughs, eyes brightening as he clutches Harry close so he can’t roll away. “I told you!”

“I believed you!” Harry says, gasping his own laughter. He breaks Louis’ grasp and twists to the edge of the bed. Louis takes the opportunity to burrito roll himself up in all their blankets until only his face is visible.

“Now what,” he says, a grinning sausage roll boy who should look ridiculous but instead looks too adorable for words.

“Now I freeze to death,” Harry laughs, shaking his head. He’d slept naked, as per usual; that seems like a mistake now. Louis watches as a shiver racks through him, pebbling his skin with goosebumps. He starts to roll in the opposite direction, unraveling his blanket cocoon.

“Come back,” Louis says plaintively when he’s finished, suddenly sugar sweet. He sticks his lip out in a pout. “Your job is to keep me warm, and you’re failing.”

Harry tries to look serious, but that’s nearly impossible with Louis theatrically wobbling his lower lip to get him to roll back over. He gives in, of course, though he grumbles a bit as Louis tugs at Harry’s arm until he’s resting on top of him, their legs and the sleep-warm skin of their chests pressed together. Harry props himself up on his elbows, looking down at Louis, who doesn’t even try to hide his smug smile at getting his way. “You just keep your toes away from me.”

“Of course,” Louis says, wide-eyed innocence, then grins and ruins that illusion.

Harry leans down to take a kiss, because if not they’ll end up ripping the sheets trying to wrestle without leaving the warmth of their blanket cocoon. Louis opens up for him immediately, the stale taste of his mouth chased away the longer Harry lingers.

“Mmm,” Louis says, eyes slow to open when Harry pulls away. “Very good morning.”

Harry smiles, and looks over at the clock on his bedside table. It’s approaching ten o’clock, which on a Saturday means there’s still a good three hours before they have to leave their bed and pretend to be responsible, productive adults. He leans over, reaching across to Louis’ table instead, and opens the drawer.

Louis laughs when he sees what Harry’s going for, tickling at Harry’s ribs. “A little early, isn’t it?”

Harry’s hand bumps into their bottle of lube, a box of condoms, a vibrator, another bottle of lube, some of his own hair ties, and finally finds the little plastic box he was looking for. He grins at Louis as he tugs it out, settling the Tupperware container on Louis’ chest. “Never too early.” The sharp, sweet scent of weed escapes into the room as he lays the container lid aside. “What’s the phrase—wake and bake?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Cheech,” Louis snorts, his stomach shaking and making it difficult for Harry to keep the container from tipping over. “You're the expert, of course.”

It doesn’t take Harry long to roll a decent joint—years of practice, and all—and he smiles as he pulls out the grinder he bought Louis the year before. (He’d stuffed it into the bottom of Louis’ Christmas stocking, and then Louis’d had to pretend he didn’t notice because Harry forgot they were doing Christmas morning with Louis’ whole family, including his nosy, impressionable siblings.) The silver steel catches the morning light as Harry twists it, the green and blue etched lighthouse still as bright as the day he bought it. He packs the hemp paper and rolls it easily, but he hesitates before handing it over to Louis to take the first hit.

“Y’alright?” Louis asks, and when Harry nods he brings the blunt to his lips. Harry holds out their lighter and clicks it, and Louis lifts himself up to inhale and catch the end of the joint, then falls back against their pillows once more. He holds the hit for a long moment, studiously ignoring Harry making faces at him to get him to release early or cough, but he does retaliate by blowing his exhale right at Harry’s face.

“Jerk,” Harry laughs, waving the smoke away from his face. He slaps the lid back on the Tupperware and moves it to the bedside table.

“You started it,” Louis grins. He offers the joint to Harry, who takes it and rolls it back and forth between his fingertips, finding the fold seam and running his thumb over it.

Harry hasn’t had anything to smoke since that night last fall, when he got trashed on weed and the rest of Zayn’s everclear and woke up with the stomach-churning certainty that he’d said about a dozen of the wrong things to Louis. That morning was the first time he and Louis ever consciously acknowledged that their fighting was taking a toll on them, that they agreed they needed space to clear their heads. The memory of Louis’ face, blandly vacant as he got dressed and avoided Harry’s eyes, still hurts Harry somewhere near his lungs.

But it’s not like it was the weed or the liquor that caused his problems, that was just the chemical catalyst that gave him a way to express all the rolling turmoil in his head. Even if he didn’t remember it the next day.

There’s no turmoil now, though, or at least he’s got a leash on it. All his problems that plagued him back in the fall are out in the open and have been discussed thoroughly with the man underneath him, watching him with careful eyes. Spilling all his fears and insecurities lessened them, somehow; he’s better, and a morning toke wrapped up in Louis and their worn, soft sheets isn’t likely to set him off.

“Everything’s okay, baby,” Louis says reassuringly, so Harry brings the blunt to his lips and sucks the smoke into his lungs. Holds it, holds it longer, feels the tightness in his chest as his body begs for oxygen.

He tips his head back and closes his eyes, exhaling smoke towards the ceiling. As it leaves his mouth, he groans.

“God,” Harry says. He’s instantly calmer, the tension in his body unspooling.

“Yeah,” Louis agrees, stealing the joint back. Just one hit and he’s already sounding more Georgian, his syllables molasses and syrup. In a few minutes he’ll be dropping the gs at the ends of his words and adding unnecessary adverbs to sentences that didn’t need them.

(In the years since Louis left his home state he’s trained himself out of the Southern Gentleman accent, but there are two things that unwind his vaguely Midwestern disguise and show the Georgia boy underneath: spending any amount of time talking to his mama, or a good hit of decent weed. And this is really good weed.)

They pass the blunt back and forth until it’s almost gone, and Harry can feel the THC wandering through his system and making him even more loose, fuzzy. He’s pulled the covers back up over his shoulders and burrowed down next to Louis, his head resting on Louis’ shoulder, his leg thrown over Louis’ thighs.

Harry nuzzles against Louis’ collarbone, kisses a wayward path up to the curve of his ear. Louis hums and tips his head to the side, letting him explore. Harry feels light and airy, his fingertips buzzing where they touch lightly against Louis’ ribs.

“Mm,” Louis hums again as Harry tugs on his earlobe with his teeth. “Forgot how you get when you’ve smoked.”

“How do I get?” Harry asks, a little distracted by the taste of Louis’ jaw.

Louis huffs a laugh. “Like a cat in heat.”

As though Louis’ answer has brought his attention to it, Harry suddenly realizes that he’s hard against Louis’ thigh. His blood is hot, his cheeks warm. He decides to climb back on top of Louis, settling in the dip of his hips and relishing in the way their naked skin slides together.

Louis moans and tips his head back, hands finding their way to Harry’s waist. Harry starts to rolls his hips, enjoying the little noises it draws out of Louis’ throat.

After a moment, Louis brings the joint to his lips for one last long hit and holds the smoke in his cheeks, reaching over to drop the end of the blunt into the discreet ashtray on his table. He still hasn’t exhaled when he sits halfway up, thumbing at Harry’s bottom lip in familiar way. Harry bends and meets him in the middle, inhaling as Louis shotguns the smoke into his mouth, the two of them nearly seamless with all their practice.

Harry sways forward and then falls, cupping Louis’ cheek with one hand and sliding their mouths together. Louis whines, a little needy, and chases Harry’s tongue, curling his own in that way that makes Harry’s knees weak. They break apart just long enough to blow the smoke out of their mouths and then they’re crashing back together, heavy, steady kisses like the beat of waves on a shore.

Dizzying serenity has washed through Harry’s mind, leaving all thoughts of last fall behind for happy blankness and simmering arousal. He can’t focus on anything outside of Louis, but that’s never been an issue before so he gives over to it, letting it pull him under.

Their hips are still hitching together, a lazy rut of warm skin, but they’re more focused on the breaths they’re passing back and forth than rushing toward orgasm. Their hands move slowly, tracing tattoo outlines and sharp bones and those little places they know will make each other gasp, Harry’s wrists and Louis’ inner knee and Harry’s lower back and Louis’ waist.

Louis threads his hand through Harry’s curls and pulls, lightly, just enough to make Harry pull back from their kiss. “Whaddyou want?” he asks, chest rising and falling heavily, words drawling and sweet.

“God, Lou,” Harry says. He wants a lot of things, not the least of which is to keep Louis talking forever, his voice like a glass of tea—dark and sweet and enough to make him wet—to Harry’s parched throat. “Can I fuck you?”

“Shit,” Louis says, stretching it into two syllables. “Yeah, baby, ‘course you can.”

Harry fumbles his way back into the drawer until his hand finds the lube again, and then he’s slicking two fingers. “How’d’you want it?” he asks, sliding the first finger in easily up to the knuckle, watching as Louis melts like his strings were cut. “I can do slow and deep, make you ache with it later.” Louis’ mouth drops open, gasping a breath. “Or fast, I know sometimes you want it fast. Always asking for more.” He works his wrist, loosening the tight muscle. “Asking for it harder.” Louis whimpers as Harry pushes in the tip of his second finger in. “Begging me for it.” 

“Harry,” Louis moans.

“Yeah,” Harry murmurs. “Just like that.” He slides his second finger all the way in, leaning down to kiss Louis to distract from the stretch. Louis reaches up and threads delicate fingers through his own hair, tugging on the sleep-disheveled mess like he needs an outlet for everything he’s feeling. Harry gives him a third finger for that, working it in slowly. He feels like he’s moving through a layer of thick air, every touch firmer, every movement deeper, the lightness in his limbs replaced by a honeyed heaviness.  

Louis squirms but even that is lazier than usual, languid and irresistible. Harry kisses patterns across Louis’ ribs and his head swims, high from the smoke and Louis’ tiny, gasping noises. He angles his wrist and brushes up against the spot that makes Louis’ hips try to arch off the bed.

“Harry, please,” he begs, so Harry reaches for the lube again, slicking himself with one hand and rubbing relentlessly at Louis’ prostate with the other.

Harry’s head and heartbeat go quiet when he pushes in, the entire world narrowed down to the place where they’re connected. Louis’ breathing is shaky, his hands trembling where they spasm against Harry’s shoulders. Harry gives him a moment to adjust and then shifts his hips a little, a little more.

“Made for me, weren’t you, Lou?” Harry murmurs, and Louis moans.

Harry laces their fingers together and pushes, shushing Louis’ little whimpers with gentle kisses. The rhythm builds and so does the volume of Louis’ noises, until every thrust forward is like a counterpoint to the chorus of ah, ah, ahs. The beat of skin against skin throbs through Harry like an exaggerated heartbeat, thud-thud, thud-thud.

“Harry, baby,” Louis pants, skin pink and warm. “Harry, oh God, yes.”  

That’s all Harry needs; the heat running up his spine explodes outwards, tingling in his fingers and toes and wrapping around his voice as he cries out. He drops his forehead to Louis’ chest and breathes through the waves of pleasure crashing through him.

He lifts his head as his awareness returns, blindly seeking Louis’ lips. Louis meets him happily, all sharp nips and sweet tongue, his cock still hard against Harry’s stomach. Harry reaches down and wraps his hand around him, a few quick tugs just the way Louis likes it all he needs before he’s spilling between them, hot heat pulsing between them accompanying a shout and a bite to Harry’s collarbone.

Harry pulls out slowly and falls sideways, fucked out and swimming in bliss. Louis flings his hand out and pats around on the floor until he comes up with one of Harry’s t-shirts, using it to wipe himself clean.

“A very, very good morning,” Louis rasps after a quiet moment.

Harry grins and rolls over, reaching for the Tupperware container again, needing to see the way Louis’ kiss-pink lips wrap around a second joint.  

Harry’s list of volunteer organizations sits between him and Diana on her desk. There are pen slashes through five different options, all of them feeling like the volunteer equivalent of wearing two different shoes on the wrong feet. Nothing fits, nothing seems right, though the rest of Harry’s Non-Profit Industries class seems to have easily settled into jobs they enjoy.

“You’re trying too hard,” Diana says. She doesn’t look frustrated; on the contrary, there’s a spark of something like interest in her eyes, as though she’s enjoying the challenge. “What do you like to do? What’s something that doesn’t feel like work?”

“Erm,” Harry says. “I like baking. Photography, poetry. Fashion. I play guitar, a little bit of piano.”

“What do you do when you aren’t in class?”

“Hang out with Louis, and our roommates. Cook, work out, play video games. Watch TV, football. Go to LGBT club meetings.”

Diana makes a noise at that. “Is that something you enjoy, the LGBT club?”

“Yeah,” Harry answers.

“Ever think about considering that your volunteer organization?”

Harry picks at his lip. “Not really. I mean, I love it, and it’s a chance to work and spend time with my favorite group of people, but that’s always been Louis’ thing more than mine.”

Diana steeples her hands. “What do you mean, Louis’ thing?”

“I mean,” he repeats, tugging at the ends of his hair where it lays on his shoulder. “Like, what the lady said to me at the homeless shelter. Henrietta. About finding a place that’s worth the pain—that’s the LGBT club for Louis. He came into college and was really… I don’t know the right word, wary? Maybe? About the gay community, because of some things he went through when he was younger. But he found his place and now it’s worth it, even when he has to work really hard for next to no recognition, or when he has to deal with students going through a rough time.”

“So that’s what we’re looking for,” Diana muses. “You need your version of that.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

She laughs a little, shakes her head. “Not asking for much, are you? Just your life’s calling.”

Harry laughs too. “I try to be low maintenance but it just doesn’t work.”

She smiles and circles another volunteer place on his list for him to try, an after school music program similar to the one at Niall’s school, and sends him on his way once more.

Harry’s birthday comes and goes in a splash of celebration—”A full week of Harold,” Louis declares, beginning with breakfast in bed the Sunday before he turns twenty-two (well, toaster-heated Poptarts and a blowjob in bed, but it’s the thought that counts) and culminating in a raging party a week later that kicks off exactly the minute he was born over two decades before.

In between all that there’s a quiet dinner at James Corden’s house, a lovely two-story place near the C&A office with just enough space to house all Harry’s favorite people for a night. Nick sets up a fun, chill playlist, Jesy supplies the wine, Jade and Perrie paint a banner, Leigh, Ed, and Liam lead the singing as Zayn and Niall bring out a massive cake glowing with candles, and all the while Louis looks unbearably happy, eyes shining.

He calls for a toast as they cut into their slices of cake, lifting his glass of champagne.

“I could say a lot of things that would be beautiful and moving and would probably make you all cry,” Louis says, grinning as Nick mutters something about his humility. “But tonight I’ll keep it short and sweet. To my favorite person, my other half, my once in a lifetime. To Harry.”

“To Harry,” everyone echoes.

And they all drink.

The Dive is quiet as the clock ticks toward noon, cozy and warm inside as chilly wind batters against the windows. Harry's got the place almost to himself, other than the two old men at the bar trading exaggerated stories and cheap whiskey; it's not surprising, since the rudimentary kitchen in the back of the bar is really only good for throwing together some nachos or a basket of fries that patrons are too drunk to critique, so the place isn't much of a coveted lunch locale. Jesy doesn't mind if Harry brings his own food, though, as long as he brings her some too and buys a drink or two while he’s here. 

He's writing up a report on a small business for his marketing class, which is easy when Jesy has no qualms about sharing details about the bar and its operations (“Advertising?” she'd said, wrinkling her nose at Harry when he asked. “I think we put an ad in the paper once. Three years ago.”). He's typing away on what's surely going to be a short report when someone slides into the booth across from him, startling him and making him nearly knock over his glass of amber.

“Hello,” Nick says, not outright laughing at Harry's surprise but definitely twinkling in the eyes about it. “I was told you'd be here.”

“By who?” Harry asks, and shoots a look at Jesy, who's suddenly started whistling and wiping clean glasses behind the bar, almost as though she's not listening. “And why, what's up?”

“Well, my young Harold,” Nick says, leisurely stripping out of his gloves and scarf. “I think it's about time we had a conversation.”

“About what?”

“About you,” Nick says, and smiles. “I meant to find you for a chat ages back, but I got busy, and I didn’t know if it was welcome. Not many people like hearing that the things they’re struggling with aren’t unique to them.”

“I wouldn’t mind.”

“Ah, well, I think you wouldn’t either, but I’ve been burned before. Humans are strange, they like to think they’re the best at handling the situations they’re in, even when they’re not.” 

“So,” Harry says, taking a sip from his drink. “What is this thing you weren’t sure you should talk to me about?”

Nick looks at him for a long moment, long enough that Harry puts his glass down and closes his laptop screen. After another few seconds, Nick speaks. “Did you know my bachelor’s degree is in music production?”

Harry, caught off guard, says, “No. I thought it was broadcast journalism.”

“Ah, see, that’s what my Master’s degree is in,” Nick says, just a hint of self deprecation in his smile. “No, my first was music production. It’s why Liam and I work together so much at the radio, I started in his field and we talk about that a lot.” He thumbs at the leather bracelet on his wrist, looking thoughtful. “I got two degrees and went through six years of college before I figured out what made me happy. Compiling degrees is an expensive hobby, I don’t recommend it. It left me with lots of education and no direction and a student loan debt that I’ll probably die with.”

“Wow, Nicholas, that’s… comforting,” Harry says, deadpan.

“Hush, child, I’m spreading wisdom,” Nick replies. “Basically, you can do what I did and meander your way through an education until you stumble onto something you enjoy, or you can be proactive and figure it out on your own.”

“I’m trying,” Harry says. “I am, but sometimes it’s hard, and then it stresses me out, and then I have to not think about it for a while.”

“I totally get that,” Nick says. “I do, believe me, it’s a vicious cycle. But you can’t keep pretending that this isn’t real life, and that none of your actions have consequences. It is real life, and as isolated as our little college world seems, what you do here and what you learn here lasts forever.”

Harry opens his mouth to retort, to say he knows exactly how real and terrifying his consequences are, thanks very much, but Nick stops him with a hand on his wrist. His eyes are soft.

“Harry, this comes from a place of love, I promise,” he says, and the air deflates from Harry’s puffed-up lungs.

“I know,” he answers after a moment. “Sorry. Go on.”

Nick pats his hand and sits back. “I know I, of all people, shouldn’t have to tell you, of all people, to think about Louis, but I’m going to do it anyway. You know the story of how he got it into his head he was going to be a lawyer better than anyone.”

That’s true; it’s one of the last big pieces of himself that Louis gave to Harry, handed over like a key to his heart. They’d been sort-of dating—secret dating, as their friends insisted—for months when Louis took Harry by the hand, unlatched the window in his bedroom at their old apartment (before Zayn and Harry joined them and they moved to their current place), and led Harry out onto the sloping roof of his building.

“Are we s’posed to be up here?” Harry asked, poking at a loose shingle with his toe.

“Hush, Curly,” Louis said. “I need a dramatic setting for a dramatic story.”

“Dramatic story, huh?” Harry asked, intrigued as always by everything Louis did, and helpless in the face of his curving, amused smile. “Go on, then.”

So, Louis went on.

He told Harry all about growing up in his little neighborhood, all the houses small and neat but a little worn at the edges, some of the paint starting to chip away. They all had white picket fences and tire swings in the front yard, and it was as close to heaven as Georgia could get, or so Louis thought. He grew up spending his summers playing with a group of kids all about his age, Sammy and Alyssa and Robbie and Stephie, and they were his best friends in the whole world. When they got older they were all in the same kindergarten class at school, and every spare moment Louis didn’t spend sleeping or eating was spent with his friends.

But then Sammy’s daddy got a promotion and they moved to Augusta. Halfway through second grade, Alyssa’s mama and daddy got a divorce, and she moved to Connecticut with her mama and brothers. But that was okay; Louis’ mama had a baby and suddenly he was too busy helping her take care of little Lottie to be sad, and he still had Robbie and Stephie.

In fourth grade, Robbie started playing football and tried to kiss Stephie. She slapped him in the face and he got mad, pushed her down, called her a lesbian dyke and a slut and lots of other things Louis wasn’t absolutely sure he understood. Robbie stopped walking with them to school, but that was okay, because Stephie was always Louis’ favorite anyway.

In sixth grade, Stephie and Louis tried kissing to see what it was all about. It was wet and weird and they decided it wasn’t for them.

In seventh grade, Robbie and his football friends pushed Louis up against his locker and called him a fag. It was the first time, but it wouldn’t be the last, and when Louis asked his mama what that meant, she cried and told him it was okay if he was different. He still didn’t know what it meant, just that it was an insult and that when they said it, his face burned with embarrassment and whatever it was that made that happen, he didn’t want to do it again.

In eighth grade, Louis kissed Will Young behind the gymnasium. Will kissed him back but when he left, he told Louis they couldn’t tell anyone.

Except Will must’ve told someone, because the next day Robbie pushed Louis into his locker again and said he’d better keep his disgusting homo mouth to himself. Louis told his mama he got into a fight at school over a girl, and that the black eye didn’t really hurt that bad. Stephie let Louis wear some of her makeup so the shiner didn’t look quite so dark against his skin, and then she kissed a bruise on Louis’ neck so his mama would believe he actually had a girlfriend.  

The night before they started high school, Stephie and Louis walked from their neighborhood to the old park where they’d spent most of their childhood. They laid themselves out across the merry-go-round, feet sticking in opposite directions and faces next to each other. Early August heat picked at them, leaving them sweaty and sticky, but the looming threat of school the next day kept them from walking home and packing all their new notebooks and pencils into their old backpacks and needlessly dreading the morning.

“Lou,” Stephie said into the quiet air, barely audible over the sound of the cicadas in the trees around them.

“Mmhm?”

“Can I tell you something?”

“Yeah, Steph. What’s up?”

Later, Louis remembered blinking and catching the tail end of a shooting star across the deep blue sky. It didn’t seem important in the moment, though, because the whole world took a deep breath when Stephie said her next words.

“I… I don’t think I’m a girl.”

Louis sat up, his elbows pressed hard against sun-warm wood, and looked over at his best friend. She had tears running down her face, the silent type. Louis reached over and grabbed her hand.

“What are you saying, Stephie?”

“I’m saying,” she said, a deep breath, a sniff, a rough rub of her eyes. “I’m saying that people say I’m a girl, but I don’t feel like one. My name doesn’t sound right when it’s attached to me, and I get confused when people call me she. I’m not a she, I don’t know what I am but it’s not she. And this… this body,” she spat, her hands shaking, pawing at her t-shirt, one of her favorites—too big, shapeless, made her look…

Made her look like a boy.

“This body doesn’t feel right,” she said, tears still flowing, throat choked with sobs. “I look at it and it doesn’t make sense to me. None of this makes sense.”

“Okay,” Louis said. He didn’t know what any of this meant, or how a person didn’t feel like they belonged in their body, but he knew Stephie and if Stephie said she was hurting, she really was hurting. “Okay. So what do you want?”

Stephie sniffed again. “Wh-what?”

“What would fix this?” Louis asked, bringing his other hand up so he had Stephie’s hands pressed between his own palms. “If you could change anything to make yourself stop feeling this way, what would you do?"

“I’d… I’d change my name. Make everyone stop calling me a she. Tell my mama that I don’t have anything against the color pink, but I have no intention of wearing anything with pearls. Cut my boobs off and bury them somewhere.”

“Okay,” Louis said again. “We can do that. Well, except the boobs thing, let’s not try that. But we’ll find you a new name, I’ll go with you to talk to your mama, and we’ll figure out what will work instead of she.”

“He, I think,” Stephie whispered. “I like he.”

“I can do that,” Louis promised.

Stephie laughed, a weak little sound, and buried her face against Louis’ chest. They stayed like that for a long time, until the porch lights on the nearby houses flickered on and folks came outside for an evening sit after supper. When Stephie pulled back, his eyes were dry but still red, though a little harder. Like he’d found all he needed in Louis’ skin.

“You know what I really want to do, right now?” he said. “Burn all my dresses.”

Half an hour later, a pile of lace and lavender went up in flames, a tiny bonfire they’d set in a little alleyway next to the high school they’d be attending the next day. As they watched Stephie’s girlhood burn, he took Louis’ hand.

“Have you thought of a new name yet?” Louis asked.

Stephie was quiet for a minute, then he murmured, “Stan.”

Freshman year was hard for Louis and Stan. Teachers thought Stan was going through a phase, refused to call him a boy and often sent him to the school counselor to “have his head checked.” Louis started smuggling clothes out of the lost and found that might be Stan’s size, old jeans a decade out of style but better than the rhinestone-pocketed ones his mother kept trying to force him into. Louis came out as gay to Stan, and then his mama, and let the rest of the town gossip and speculate all they wanted. He was in a new fight every week, at least until people learned to leave Stan alone and that picking on him or Louis would be a sure way to have Louis’ fist in their teeth.

Then… it got better. Louis found people who weren’t scared his sexuality was a contagious disease and joined the soccer team, and soon became popular despite how much Robbie and the rest of the football team glared when he walked too close to them. Stan started working in a diner, saving all his spare tips in a jar covered in pictures of shirtless men he cut out of magazines. They passed ninth grade, then tenth grade, then eleventh grade. Senior year was set to be a breeze, or at least as close to a breeze as Stan and Louis’ lives could get: half the town still treated Stan like a toddler throwing a fit and saying he wanted to be something as impossible as a dinosaur, and Louis got his own brand of flack thrown his way by the people who told him that being gay was a choice, and that it wasn’t too late to turn away from the path he was on. But things got easier, and people accepted that Louis and Stan weren’t changing, and that there was a new status quo. Senior year was going to be good.

And then, on the way home after a football game early that fall, a gang of guys jumped Stan and beat the hell out of him, putting him in the hospital.

And then, when Stan was back on his feet and as tough as ever and Louis could focus on something else besides the panic that Stan wouldn’t be okay, he fell in love with a boy. A kind boy, a sweet boy, who was incredibly nice when he told Louis he only liked girls, but they could still be friends.

Someone overheard, and told everyone else.

Someone carved slurs into the door of Louis’ locker.

Someone else threatened to burn down the movie rental store where Louis worked if he wasn’t fired immediately, and so his apologetic manager said they had to keep the safety of the employees in mind and told Louis not to come back to work anymore.

Someone started telling his little sisters that he was going to hell.

Someone stole his soccer jersey and cut it to pieces, leaving the fabric in a heap on his doorstep.

And everywhere Louis went, he couldn’t escape the whispers.

“I knew I couldn’t fix it,” Louis told Harry on the roof of his apartment building, who was agog and heavy-limbed after Louis’ story. “It was a tiny, conservative town that needed a target to focus all its righteous zeal on. No amount of yelling and screaming could change their ways, and Stan and I knew that. We knew we just had to get outta there, quick as possible, and never look back.” Louis’ voice was all Georgia again, the memories sticking to him like sweet tea. “But it wasn’t me I was worried about. It was kids who were going to be scared to come out after me, because they’d seen how I was treated. It was the kids who were scared but were gonna come out anyway, and were gonna face harsh consequences for it. It’s them I worried about when I left.”

“Lou,” Harry breathed, still in awe that Louis could withstand what he did and come out of it still intact.

“So that’s why I’m going to be a lawyer,” Louis said, a hint of grit in his tone. “I’m strong enough. Not everyone else is. And I’m gonna be there to help.”

Harry blinks and he’s no longer on the roof holding Louis’ hand; he’s in the Dive, and Nick is watching him carefully.

“See what I mean?” Nick asks, gently. “Louis took what he knew about himself and made a career out of it. He carved an occupational niche out of his neuroses and needs. That’s what you need to do too.”

“I don’t know how,” Harry confesses.

“It’s all about knowing yourself,” Nick says. “And you know yourself, Harry, you do. You’re the most self-aware person I’ve ever met. You’re just so focused on looking further and further for more and more possibilities, you’ve stopped looking at yourself.” He reaches over and snags Harry’s notebook, flipping to a new page. He grabs Harry’s pen and clicks it decisively. “Here. Let’s narrow this down. What do you want out of a job?”

“Um. To help people?” Harry asks. When Nick nods and writes that, Harry continues. “To make enough money to support my family. To stand for a cause I believe in. Maybe working with kids? I like kids. Um.”

“Keep going,” Nick urges.

So Harry does.

An hour later, they’ve got a wild list of scribbled possibilities and no-gos, things Harry definitely is interested in and things that made him wrinkle his nose in disinterest. He and Nick are arguing over whether photography can be considered something that helps people—Harry says yes, Nick says only if he’s planning on heading to a war zone—when Louis slides into the booth with them.

“Hello,” he says, bright-eyed. He’s loosened his tie and looks like he’s had a productive day, a weary sort of contentedness around his shoulders. “What trouble are you two getting into?”

“We’re deciding Harold’s future,” Nick says, pushing the notebook across for Louis to read.

“Do you know Diana Jefferson?” Harry asks Nick as Louis pats his hand across the table, looking for a pen without pulling his eyes from the paper. Harry slides the pen to him and Louis grabs it, scrawling his own notes into the margins of their haphazard lists. “She’s in the business department.”

“Oh, yeah,” Nick says. “I’ve worked with her before. Nice lady.”

“Yeah, she is,” Harry agrees. “She’s basically helping me do the same thing we did tonight, only instead of finding my future job we’re finding me a place to volunteer for the next three and a half months.”

“You need a volunteer organization?” Nick asks.

“For a class I’m in, yeah.”

“I’ve got one I think you’ll like.”

Harry heart trips. “You do?”

“Yeah, it’s actually a funny story. Before Louis took over the karaoke night duties from me a few years ago and I had to plan it, we had to find a new LGBT organization to donate the karaoke proceeds to because the place we’d always donated to was closing. It was this nice place, an LGBT safe home for kids who were kicked out of their houses or ran away, but it lost its funding and closed, so we switched to the national charity we’ve been donating to for the past few years. That place reopened, though, and they’re trying to get it back into working condition.”

“Really?” Harry asks. His palms are sweating a little. Harry slides the pen out of Louis’ grip and rips off a little piece of paper for himself. “What’s it called, and where is it?”

“Can’t remember the name,” Nick says. “But it’s over on Blackjack Street, you can’t miss it. And they’ll definitely need all the help they can get.”

Harry stows the little slip of paper in his pocket, and then Louis resurfaces from his perusal of Harry and Nick’s work of the past hour, and he and Nick get into a spirited debate over the still to-be-decided karaoke night theme. Harry sips his beer and tries not to think that the excited jumping in his stomach is anything like a premonition of good things to come.

Harry takes a deep breath, holds it, and then belts along with Ewan McGregor. “MYYYY GIFT IS MYYYYY SOOOOONG,” and then into a whisper, “and this one’s for you.”

“Shut up, Harry,” Perrie says tossing a pillow at the back of Harry’s head.

“I can’t help it!” he moans, throwing himself dramatically across Perrie’s lap. “This movie does things to me.”

“Well,” she says, patting his hands delicately. “Contain that, would you?”

“Louis!” Liam calls. “Harry’s being needy again.”

“Be right there!” Louis trills from the kitchen.

Harry stands, twirls, ignores the next round of projectiles being thrown at him. “And you can tell everybody,” he sings to Louis as he reenters the room, holding a bucket of popcorn as large as his torso, “that this is your song.” Harry takes the bucket from Louis’ hands and passes it to Leigh, who immediately grabs a handful. Harry takes Louis’ wrist and pulls him in so they're dancing, taking no notice of Niall’s shout to get out from in front of the TV. “It may be quite simple but, now that it's done. I hope you don't mind-”

Harry spins Louis again, and delights in the way Louis’ eyes crinkle.

“I hope you don't mind-”

“I mind,” Liam says loudly.

“That I put down in words-”

“I'm about to put you both down,” Jesy calls.

“How wonderful life is-”

“I will vomit!” Jade threatens.

“Now you're in the world.”

“Ugh,” Zayn says as Louis tugs Harry down into a kiss. “I'm literally in a relationship with two people and you two still blow my mind with the sap levels. How is that possible.”

“Dunno, Zaynie, but I'm sure your boyfriends will dance with you if you ask nicely,” Louis grins as he pulls back from Harry's lips. He thumbs the apple of Harry's cheek and steps back, taking his popcorn bucket from Leigh's lap and herding Harry towards their vacant seats.

“Maybe later,” Niall says, eyes riveted to the screen where Ewan and Nicole Kidman are meeting in the elephant on top of her rooms in the Moulin Rouge.

Liam flicks Niall's wrist. “You'd make us wait?” he asks, faux outraged.

Niall turns to him, gesturing at the screen, his eyes a little crazed. “They're falling in love in front of our very eyes, Liam! You already know I love you and will dance with you at any time that is not coinciding with watching two star crossed lovers in a burlesque house.”

“Hmmph,” Liam harrumphs, crossing his arms.

Niall sighs, reaches over Zayn, and grabs Liam by the cheeks. He hauls him in for a kiss, messy, loud, pulling apart with a smack. Then, for good measure, he kisses Zayn as well.

“Are we good?” he asks pointedly, letting go of Zayn and letting him melt back against the sofa.

“Yup,” Liam squeaks, his cheeks red.

Zayn just nods, moving so fast his chin blurs.

“Good.”

“That was more than I'd really planned on seeing when we agreed to join movie night,” Jesy says conversationally. Leigh is tucked up under her arm, her fingers carding through Leigh's hair.

“Oh, please,” says Louis, throwing his legs over Harry's lap. “Like you didn't enjoy that.”

“The only thing I enjoyed was learning just how red Liam can get,” Jade teases, she and Perrie snuggled at the other end of Harry and Louis’ couch.

“Yeah, is Niall really that good or are you just easy to please?” Perrie asks.

Liam chokes on his drink. Niall, smirking, pounds him on the back to clear his airways. Harry meets Louis’ eye and laughs, then catches a snippet of song and joins back in as Ewan and Nicole sing U2.

“Hey,” Zayn says a little while later, when Christian and Satine are sharing secret kisses during their play rehearsals. “Remember when Louis and Harry thought they could pull off a secret relationship?”

There's a chorus of oh my god, I totally forgots and snorts from Niall and laughter from Jesy. Louis groans.

“We never secretly dated,” he disputes, but it sounds weak even to Harry.

“Yes you did,” Perrie says. “There was that whole half a year after you met, when you swore nothing was going on but we all knew better.”

“Nothing was going on!” Louis cries.

Harry lets him have that for a moment, but: Well…”

“Aha!” Niall says, pointing a finger at them. “Thank you, Haz. I knew it.”

Louis turns to Harry, eyebrows raised. “We did not secret date, Harold. What are you on?”

“Well,” Harry repeats, grinning. “We weren't not secret dating.”

“Please explain for the record,” Leigh pipes in.

“Yeah, I’d like to know as well,” Liam says.

“It doesn’t take that long to explain that we weren’t,” Louis shoots a pointed look at Harry, “I repeat, were not, secret dating.”

“Oh, c’mon, Louis,” says Jesy. “We were all here for it, we all saw. Why didn’t you just tell everyone what it was from the start?”

Niall taps the volume down with the remote, because they’re all utterly rapt waiting for Louis or Harry to answer, and nobody cares about the Duke’s troubles anyway. Louis sends Harry another look so pointed he feels like he should check for cuts.

“I guess, um,” Harry tries, because he supposes he should handle the fallout, “I guess it was because we were both on the same page, and as long as we were okay with the situation we didn’t feel like everyone we knew needed to be briefed on it as well.”

“But what do you mean, you were on the same page?” Jade asks, her chin propped on her hands. “What had you agreed on?”

“It was…” Harry stops, because it’s been almost three years and even if he could remember the exact thought process, he’s not sure he could convey it accurately. So he changes tack. “Have you ever looked at someone, or listened to them speak, or discovered something really poignant and it just, like, hits you, that this is your person? Your rest-of-your-life person, I mean.”

It’s silent after Harry’s question, and it takes Louis’ snort of, “Tactful, Haz,” to realize he just asked a room full of people in relationships to describe their feelings on the longevity of those relationships.

But then Liam murmurs, “Yeah.”

And Jesy echoes him.

And Niall nods, and Zayn takes his and Liam’s hands.

And Jade and Perrie share a look, their faces softening.

And soon everyone has agreed, and Louis is smiling indulgently because he loves when his friends are happy but trying to hide the smile in Harry’s shoulder because he can’t let them see how much he cares.

“Right,” Harry says, a little unsteady from all the love in the room. “Right. So, I looked at Louis, and he was half-drunk and kept jumping in surprise when I answered him because he hadn’t realized he’d been speaking aloud.” Harry intercepts Louis hand as he reaches over and tries to twist his nipple, grinning at the flush across Louis’ cheeks. “And he was ridiculous and loud and kept pulling down his shirt so I’d see his collarbones”—another nipple twist averted—”but I knew that he was important, probably the most important person I’d ever met in my life.”

Louis stops trying to attack Harry’s chest long enough to say, “It seemed like too much too fast.”

Harry nods, remembering that same feeling. “Yeah.”

“Like, here was this person,” Louis says, and smiles, and Harry’s heart does a somersault, “so perfect I couldn’t look away from him, and I knew I had to have him. But just the thought of it scared me, I knew I wasn’t ready, and it seemed like I had to make so many more mistakes and learn from those before I could even try to be good enough for Harry.”

“It didn’t seem…” Harry trailed off, finding Louis’ hand and squeezing it, “right, I suppose, to jump into the rest of my life with the exact right person when I wasn’t even sure of who I was yet."

“But then,” Louis takes over, the two of them falling into the familiar routine they use when they tell the story of their first meeting, or their Christmas holidays, or their weekend road trip. The faces of their captive audience fade into the background, Harry’s focus only for Louis. “We weren’t exclusive, and we weren’t even really dating, but we couldn’t just go out and date other people.”

“Who could possibly measure up?” Harry grins.

“No one,” Louis nods in agreement. “I’d seen my future and it was curly-haired and wore sheer shirts, I didn’t have a single second to spare on anyone else.”

“And, of course, we hooked up a few times, just to make sure it was right.”

“Harold!”

“Okay, like, more than a few times. A lot. Pretty regularly, actually.”

“Harry Edward, I swear.”

“But that spring, we realized we were practically already dating, we were sleeping together, we’d met each other’s parents, we knew we were living together the next year, and we, well, I knew I loved him more than I knew what to do with,” Harry says, tracing the ridge of Louis’ knuckles with his thumb. “We were it for each other. Why pretend otherwise anymore?”

“Plus, there was the whole, um,” Louis adds, waving his hand. “Karaoke. Thing.”

“Yeah,” Harry laughs. “Plus that. That pretty much sealed it.”

“That,” Niall says after a quiet, contemplative moment, “is the most ridiculous logical path I’ve ever tried to follow. You two are ridiculous.”

“We never claimed to be anything else, Nialler,” Harry sighs, pulling Louis into his lap.

Another quiet moment. “Goddamn if you two aren’t adorable, though,” Perrie adds, a little grudgingly.

A chorus of quiet noises chime an agreement, and Harry can’t stop laughing, even when Niall turns the volume up again.

The movie continues and everyone settles once more, sniffles starting up as Satine starts singing to Christian’s retreating back in full view of the Duke, tears streaming down her face. Christian joins her, and Harry mouths along with the words to Come What May, his lip wobbling a little.

“If I don’t get proposed to with this song playing in the background,” he announces, joking but also sort of not, “just go ahead and not even ask, ‘cause I’m gonna say no until you get that part right.”

“Wow, Harold, could that possibly be a message for a specific target?” Liam asks.

Everyone giggles except Louis, who leans close to Harry’s ear to whisper, “I won’t forget your sappy music, Hazza, don’t worry.”

Harry’s stomach fills with so many butterflies that he has to put his hand over his mouth to keep from squealing. Louis smirks and kisses his cheek, then leans back to enjoy the rest of the movie like he didn’t just try to murder Harry with proposal plans.

At first, Harry thinks the address on Blackjack Street is a badly executed joke made by Nick. The few businesses that are still open nearby are liquor stores and dollar marts and a gas station with bars over the window. Untamed grass grows knee high on some front lawns, and he automatically locks his car door just in case something ridiculous happens, like the car battery dying and leaving him stranded in the only part of town with no cell service. Or something.

Harry slows the car to a crawl and unplugs his phone from the AUX cord, dialing Nick while trying to keep a wary eye out.

“H’lo?”

“Nick, have you sent me to my death on purpose?” Harry asks, craning his neck to catch any movement. A plastic sack waves sadly where it’s caught on a fence, but otherwise the street is deserted and still.

“Not recently, no,” Nick says. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m on Blackjack Street trying to find your volunteer location, and I think I’m going to be murdered.”

“Oh, Harold, don’t be dramatic. So it’s a little run down.”

“A little?”

“But the place is lovely, and they’ll appreciate the help.”

Harry sighs. “Fine. Which one is it?"

Nick chuckles. “Oh, you’ll know it when you see it. Unless they’ve painted recently, the place tends to stand out.”

Harry stops staring at the scraggly dog trying to push its way into an abandoned building he’s driving past and looks up the street a little. “Oh,” he says, and can’t help but laugh as well. “Think I found it.”

“There you go,” Nick answers, and Harry can hear his grin. “Call me later, let me know how it goes.”

“Will do.” Harry slides his car into park and pockets his phone, staring up at the violently purple building in front of him. It looks like an old house, a Colonial, maybe from the early 1900s, with a deeply sloping roof and a tiny awning over the front door. The stone pathway through the front yard is shot through with weeds, a shutter on a front window hanging by one of its hinges. There are roof shingles missing and the paint is chipping. The sign out front is old, with rotting wood around the edges, the words faded: TRUE COLORS YOUTH CENTER it reads, the little rainbow in the corner almost completely worn away.

The front door creaks open just a little when Harry knocks, a pair of wide brown eyes peeking out at him from the dim interior. Those eyes look him up and down, and ultimately look unimpressed. “We aren’t buying whatever cookies or magazines you’re selling.”  

“No, um, I’m,” Harry fumbles. “I’m not, like, a Girl Scout. I’m here to volunteer. Is there someone I can talk to? About… that?”

The brown eyes narrow, then there’s a small hand on the door holding it mostly shut as the eyes disappear back into the gloomy building. There’s muffled whispering, then a second pair of eyes, this one greeny-brown like moss on a tree, peeks out at him as well.

“Oh my god, yeah,” Harry hears a deeper voice say. “Let him in.”

The door swings open and Harry comes face to face with the people deciding his fate: the girl is tiny, all monochrome browns from her hickory hair to her carob eyes to her warm-apple-cider skin. She looks like the type to not realize how small she actually is; a chihuahua who’d eagerly stare down a Great Dane, the type to challenge people double her size to a fight. Next to her is the owner of the green eyes, a Korean boy who seems, just from this welcome, much more excited to see Harry in the doorway than his companion. He’s wearing salmon colored jeans and a white button up shirt that’s just a little too big, and is the sort of guy who knows exactly how attractive he is and will use that entirely to his advantage, but he’s so cute about it you end up not caring.

“Hi, oh my god, welcome,” he says, fanning himself. “I’m Jae, this is Evie, we, like, live here.”

“Hi,” Harry says, tucking his grin away. His own boyfriend considers flamboyant to be one of his most accurate descriptors, and yet Harry’s not quite sure he’s ever met anyone as camp as this kid. “So, uh, about that person I could talk to…?”

“Oh, you want Miss Georgia,” Jae says, beckoning Harry in. The hallway is just as dim as it seemed from outside, a single yellowed ceiling light brightening the place, but it’s not as haunted house-ish as Harry expected. There’s a worn path in the middle of the floor, decades of steps wearing down the wood, and the paint is brighter in squares on the wall, as though frames hung there for so long the house corroded around them. Jae and Evie are both barefoot, and something about that loosens Harry’s shoulders—maybe it’s the ease with which they navigate the house, stepping over floorboards that squeak under Harry’s feet, that makes Harry feel a little more comfortable as well. “She’s in the office, like, buried under all this paperwork. It’s literally the worst.”

Harry hums and follows the two of them to an open door. “Miss Georgia,” Jae says, knocking shave-and-a-haircut against the doorframe. “You’ve got a visitor.”

“What?” asks a confused mountain of paperwork in the middle of the room. “If it's the man from the state department, tell him I'll have the permits done by Friday, I promise.”

“Uh,” Jae says, looking Harry up and down, lingering on his peacoat and the silk shirt underneath unbuttoned to show the top of Harry's butterfly tattoo. “Unless the guy at the state department got, like, super hot overnight, this isn't him.”

“What?” the pile of paper asks again. After some shifting and a few muffled curses, a woman crawls out from behind the teetering mountain of forms and files. “Oh,” she says, clearly surprised. “Hello. I'm Georgia, I run this center. How can I help you?”

The revealed Miss Georgia is wearing overalls with one strap unhooked, a white undershirt beneath the denim. Her cloud of tightly spiraled curls is threaded through with tiny hints of silver among the black, though she can't be much older than thirty. A lavender headband keeps her hair out of her eyes and matches the socks on her feet, which are dirty on the bottom like she's been walking around all day without shoes.

Harry likes her immediately.

“I'm Harry,” he says, shaking Miss Georgia’s hand. “My friend Nick have me the address for this place-”

“Oh, honey, I'm sorry,” she says in a rush, all apologies. “We're not at capacity but I won't be able to take any more kids in until I get the place back up and running, I'm cutting it close as it is.”

“Oh! No, no, that's not why I'm here,” Harry reassures her. “I'm actually here to volunteer.”

Out of anything Harry could offer, that seems to surprise her the most. “To do what?”

“Um.” Harry shrugs, as eloquent as he could be. Every other place he’s tried to volunteer at gave him the cursory lookover, handed him a broom or a pet leash or a soup ladle and told him to get to it. “Whatever you need.”

“Hmm,” Georgia says, rifling through a nearby stack of papers. “Your friend’s name is Nick? Last name Grimshaw?”

“Yeah. Do you know him?”

“Not personally, but I've seen his name on a few major donation forms from back when my aunt ran the center.”

Georgia steps around the paper mountain and shoos Jae and Evie away, and they retreat but not far enough away for Harry to miss their whispers about his eyes (Jae) and his untrustworthy look (Evie). When Georgia turns she takes Harry in with his third long, scrutinizing look of the last fifteen minutes.

“I'd appreciate any help, Harry,” Georgia says, voice careful, “and I'd love to be able to hand you a bag of tools or the key to the lawn mower and let you go fix all our problems, but I'm afraid we've got bigger fish to fry.”

“Oh,” Harry says. His stomach drops; it feels, oddly, like being fired.

“There's just no way I can commit time and money on making the place look nice or function a little smoother when we barely have the funding to eat three meals a day. Until the place is securely up and running, I'm afraid we're at a bit of a standstill.”

Well, if that isn't the story of Harry's life.

“I really am sorry,” she says again, and Harry can tell she means it, “but unless you happen to be an expert on lobbying for more money for a non-profit in desperate need-”

“Oh,” Harry says again, and his heartbeat picks up its pace. “I can do that.” They'd covered it last week in Diana’s class, a whole chapter in their textbook and a packet of online resources, all sorts of lists of government grants and business loans that cater to non-profits. He could totally dive into some research tonight, even, see what he could find. “I mean, I’m not an expert, but I know a little.”

“Really?” Georgia blinks in surprise. “What about budgeting, accounting, things like that?”

According to Harry's transcript, he's halfway to a degree in the field. He thinks he can balance a few checkbooks, maybe plan out a monthly budget. He's done it before, for a class grade. “Yeah, I can.”

Georgia’s eyebrows are steadily climbing. “Marketing? We need an online presence.”

“Yeah, definitely.”

“Activity coordination?”

“Sure.”

“Supply distribution?”

Harry thinks of Henrietta, that dusty supply closet in the homeless shelter. Little Marisol in her Dora shirt.

“Yeah.”

“You can't know about contract law, can you?” Georgia asks. “There's no way, that would be too perfect.”

“I don't know anything about law stuff, no,” Harry says slowly, and Georgia's shoulders slump like it was too good to be true. “But my boyfriend is about four months from becoming a full fledged lawyer, he could probably take a look.”

Georgia brings her hand up to cover her mouth. Her eyes are a little glassy.

“Harry,” she says, “I don't know what your feelings are regarding fate, but I think you were meant to come here.”

Harry grins, does a slow spin to take in the room, looks at the fading wallpaper and the dusty shelves and the piles upon piles upon piles of paper. When he turns back to Georgia, she looks like she's waiting for him to say it was all a joke, that he's never planning on helping.

“I think,” Harry says, takes a breath. Smiles. “I think you're right.”

“Louis!” Harry cries as he bursts into the apartment. “LOUIS!”

“What, oh my god, what is it?” Louis asks, scrambling out of the kitchen and barrelling into Harry, running frantic hands over his chest and stomach like he’s checking for wounds. “Are you hurt? What's going on?”

“Lou, oh my god,” Harry says, grabbing Louis’ hands.

“What?”

“I found it, babe. I found my volunteer place.”

Louis stops looking for internal bleeding and his head snaps up. “What?” he repeats. “That creepy place Nick sent you to?”

“Yeah, Lou, it’s amazing,” Harry says, then backtracks. “Well, no, it’s falling down and they have no money, but it’s going to be amazing. I’m going to make it amazing."

“Baby, that’s wonderful!” Louis says, throwing his arms around Harry’s neck. “C’mon, let’s sit, tell me all about it.”

So Harry does.

“It’s brilliant, Lou. It’s this old house, like, from the twenties or something, and it’s this ridiculous shade of purple. And it’s all worn down and scary looking, but it used to be really nice and then the lady who ran the place died and they didn’t have anyone to take over. So now her niece is there, her name is Georgia, she’s amazing, and she’s trying to get the place back up and running because it was her aunt’s dream to have this LGBT shelter for kids who’d be on the street otherwise. There’s already a few kids there, I met them, this girl named Evie who’d give you a run for your money, and this kid Jae who… well, who would also give you a run for your money, just in a different way, and Darcy and Jack and Chandler, and I didn’t get to talk to them long but they’re all sweet kids.” Harry takes a deep breath, and Louis’ eyes shine in amusement.

“That’s amazing, Haz.”

“And I can help, Lou! All their problems are things I’ve learned about in my classes, accounting and budgeting and marketing and remember that web design class I took for an elective credit? And it’s all a lot of non-profit paperwork stuff that I think Diana can help with, oh, and I told her you’d look over her vendor contracts to see if you could spot anything weird, I hope you don’t mind-”

“Of course not, I’d be happy to help.”

“I knew you would.” Harry collapses back against the arm of the couch, throwing his arm over his eyes. “It’s just… it’s perfect, Lou, it’s the perfect place, and it’s a cause I care about and it didn’t make me want to cry to see all those kids there, it just made me want to try harder to help because they deserve it, they deserve so much.”

“So, what’s next?” Louis asks, thumb rubbing circles against the bone of Harry’s knee. Harry suddenly feels the exhaustion he’s been ignoring, from hours spent touring the house and being shown their major repair issues and bent over stacks of paperwork with Georgia so he could get a sense of where he needed to look for help. It’s a deep tired, deep in his bones, but a good tired. An accomplished tired.

“She’ll need references, so I’m getting those tomorrow,” Harry says with a yawn, shifting over and curling up against Louis’ side, throwing his legs over his lap. “Just to make sure she’s not letting some random person come in and mess everything up, and that I’m capable of helping with, like, real legal paperwork. But then, I guess I just… start?” He smiles at the thought; finally, after what feels like years stuck in quicksand, he’s taking his first step towards something.

“Proud of you, baby,” Louis murmurs.

Harry nods off against Louis’ shoulders, dreams of the purple house and Louis’ praises wrapping through his head.

In late February, Louis’ prep for the bar exam begins.

Well, it begins again, since technically he’s been prepping for the bar since he was about seventeen, saving every scrap of notes from classes, meetings with advisors and faculty, and the dozens of dense law books lining the shelves in his and Harry’s bedroom. He’ll be taking the exam in July, hours upon hours in a crowded convention center room in Wilmington, answering hundreds of multiple choice questions and writing a couple of essays all to prove he knows what he’s talking about.

Harry, who thinks all of that sounds like a nightmare, happily takes over the role of fetching anything Louis might need. He keeps his boy caffeinated, fed, on a decent workout and sleep schedule, buys him highlighters and notecards for his studying needs, backrubs when he’s stressed, blowjobs when the backrubs don’t work, and uses some of Niall’s bulletin board paper from school to make a giant checklist of everything Louis has to sign up for, pay for, and study for as the exam creeps closer.

The stress has already seemed to be getting to Louis’ head, though. He’s jumpy, clicking out of tabs on his laptop when Harry walks behind him, and ending phone conversations abruptly when Harry walks into a room (“Yes, mama, I’ve looked at both the silver and the platinum and- okay, gotta go, Harry’s back from class sorry bye!”), and spending a lot of time watching Harry. And not the normal type where he watches Harry read or drink tea with a sweet look on his face. This one is calculating. Assessing.

“Do you know what’s going on?” Harry asks Niall and Zayn one day when Louis and Liam are out for a jog. “He’s welcome to keep things to himself, of course, I just don’t know if I should be worried.”

Zayn doesn’t even take his eyes from the TV screen when he answers. “No, Haz, everything’s fine, I’m sure.”

“He’s just stressed, right?” Niall adds. “Probably nothing. Maybe you watching him so closely is making him nervous.”

“Maybe,” Harry allows, thumbing at his lower lip. “I just hope he’s not hiding anything bad.”

Niall, who’s taking a drink of his water at the time, coughs and splutters water all over himself, the couch, and Zayn. Zayn cackles and pounds at Niall’s back, clearing his airways, and Harry’s almost forgotten what they were talking about until Zayn grins over at him, his eyes glinting a little, and repeats, “I’m sure everything is fine.” He slams his palm against Niall’s back again. “Right, Niall?”

“Right, right,” Niall wheezes.

Harry’s not so sure, especially when he walks into his and Louis’ bedroom a few days later and Louis throws what looks like a magazine onto the desk when he hears Harry approach and flings his jacket on top to cover it up, turning to face Harry with a guilty expression.

“What was that?”  

“Uh,” Louis says, his cheeks red. “Porn.”

“Really?” Harry asks brightly. “Anything good?”

“Uh,” Louis says again. “No, no it’s. Uh. Really bad. Bad, y’know, porn.”

“Oh,” Harry says, frowning. “That sucks. I was just coming to tell you we’re ordering pizza for dinner, so…” He waves at the hidden magazine, trying not to articulate the question out loud.

“Oh! Yeah I’ll, I’ll be out in a sec,” Louis says.

His cheeks are still red as Harry leaves.  

“That’s not that weird!” Jade promises when Harry tells the story later. “In fact, most people would be embarrassed to be caught reading a porn mag. I think you’re overreacting.”

“But we always watch porn together,” Harry points out, rather logically, in his opinion. “Why is this porn secret?”

“Maybe paper porn is something one should keep as an individual pursuit,” Jade says sagely.

Harry shrugs, still unconvinced.

Jade sighs. “Look. Whatever it is Louis may or may not be doing is probably a good thing. So just, I don’t know, chill out. Think about something else instead.”

“You know what it is!” Harry accuses.

“I don’t know anything!” Jade retorts, hands up in surrender. “I’m just saying, if he needs his space for something which I know nothing about, maybe just give him that space.”

Harry huffs and crosses his arms over his chest, and pouts until Jade buys him a caramel frap with extra whip just to make him smile.

Two weeks after Harry officially starts volunteering at True Colors, the weekend weather is reportedly going to be gorgeous. The first rays of spring sunlight are peeking through clouds, the temperature cranks upward with each new day, and Harry has roped all his friends into helping restore the True Colors house to mint condition.

“Wow, Harry, could you have picked a scarier part of town to spend your extra time?” Niall asks as they roll past the gas station with the flickering neon signs in the windows advertising cheap beer. Harry waves at Jerry behind the cash register as they pass, and Jerry nods back.

“It’s not so bad,” Harry says. “The gas station only has bars on the windows because people used to break in and steal cigarettes. But that doesn’t happen nearly as much anymore! And there, that dollar store up ahead with the broken sign? They sell the best homemade salsa there, the lady’s grandma makes it.”

“I shouldn’t be surprised Harry’s friends with the whole neighborhood already,” Liam says, “but somehow I still am.”

When they pull up in front of True Colors, the car goes silent. Harry waits for their opinions, fidgeting a little.

“That... is one purple house,” Louis says.

“I can’t look away,” Niall agrees.

“C’mon, let’s go inside,” Harry says. “Nick and the girls will be here soon, and I want to introduce you guys to everyone before that.”

They pile out of the vehicle and Harry leads the group to the door. When he knocks, there’s a scramble of footsteps and brown eyes peek out at them.

“Password?” Evie asks.

“Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus,” Harry recites, and Evie nods and allows access.

“Uh, Harry?” Zayn asks.

“It’s the Hogwarts motto in the original Latin,” Harry says. “Evie and Darcy are just now reading the books, so we’re all dealing with that.”

“Watch it, Curly,” Evie says threateningly. “Or you’ll have to deal with my fist next.”

“Feisty,” Niall says, and steps back when Evie turns her eyes to him. “Sorry.”

“C’mon,” Harry urges them again. He feels like a kid showing his friends around his new treehouse, pointing out all the cool stuff he’s been working on. “Everyone this way, Evie?"

“In the parlor. Jack found a way to rig the TV antenna up so we can get PBS.”

Harry leads the way to the parlor, a large room in the center of the ground floor. Old, threadbare sofas and chairs ring three sides of the room, a TV with a wavering picture against the empty wall in front of ancient, moth-eaten curtains. A little group is perched around the buzzing screen, giving poor Jack directions for changing the antenna position that completely contradict each other.

“To the left, your left, Jack, honestly-”

“I think I see Days of Our Lives!”

“My nana used to put tinfoil on the ends to make the signal stronger-”

“That’s not a thing, Darce, don’t be ridiculous.”

“Like, tilt it? A little- no, no, too much-”

“Hey, everyone,” Harry says, and all five faces turn their way.

“Harry’s here!” Jae cheers. Louis huffs a laugh under his breath.

“These are my roommates, and we’ve got more on the way,” Harry says. “I wanted you all to give this group the special vetting before the rest arrive.”

“Hi, you can start with me,” Jae says, launching to his feet and sidling up to Liam. “You’re, like, someone who should be in a sexy lumberjack calendar.”

“Oh my god, Jae, you can’t just tell people they’re sexy lumberjacks,” Darcy whispers furiously, pulling on Jae’s arm. She’s got her dreads piled up in a bun on top of her head today, Georgia’s lavender headband above her forehead.

“Oh, I don’t mind,” Liam says cheerfully.

“Good, because I second that opinion,” Chandler says, grinning. Harry can feel the moment Louis spots Chandler, the way he sways forward like he’s barely keeping himself from going to her immediately.

“Goodness, you kids, go shake their hands and introduce yourself like humans with manners instead of barking at them from the floor like puppies,” Georgia says, but she’s grinning as Darcy, Jack, Evie, and Chandler scramble to join Jae and start the round of introductions. Harry slides his hand around Louis’ wrist and tugs him out of the mayhem and over to Georgia.

“Georgia Rose,” Harry beams, “I’d like to introduce you to my Georgia rose.”

Louis snorts, and Georgia puts her hands together like she’s praying. “Oh my goodness, Harry, that was terrible.”

“It really was,” Louis agrees, grinning widely. “Did you spend the whole ride here thinking that up?”

“No,” Harry disputes, but both of them level him with the same look. “Okay, yeah, I did.”

“Goodness,” Georgia says again, then turns her gaze to Louis. “So you’re the boyfriend I’ve heard so much about.”

“And you’re the purple house owner I’ve heard so much about,” Louis counters, smile ticking up the corner of his mouth.

Georgia smiles, and Harry can let out the breath he was holding.

Nick and the girls arrive a few minutes later, and the official workday begins. “Alright, troops,” Harry says once the second round of introductions is over and they retrieve Evie from where she’d hidden after squeaking at the sight of Jesy in denim cutoffs and an old band tee. Harry’s bent over the massive dining table, double-checking a separate list of all the things they’ll need to finish today. “You’ve got your assignments. Me ‘n Georgia will be swinging by from time to time to check in, and we’re ordering Chinese for lunch. Everyone set?” The group around the table nods. “Great. Let’s make this place pretty again, everyone.”

The majority of the group heads outside, rollers and stepladders in hand, ready to tackle the monumental task of restoring the house’s purple exterior to its former glory. Jade and Nick found some purple that wasn’t quite so hard on the eyes, and it’ll look great with all new white trim.

Liam and Niall and Jack all have tool belts strapped around their waists and are, quite literally, comparing the sizes of their hammers. They’re fixing some loose stairs and some shaky shelving and a leaky sink and all manner of other things that Niall, who grew up on a farm and therefore actually knows how to use the tools at his waist, declared would be “no big deal.”

Perrie, Kendall, and Darcy are starting a deep clean of the inside rooms, getting the walls ready for new coats of paint and vacuuming off furniture that no one knows the original color of underneath all the dust and dirt.

Last is Louis, who smiles gratefully at Harry as he’s paired with Chandler, the two of them sent to Georgia’s office so Louis can look over the contracts Georgia’s been dealing with lately.

When the room is cleared, Georgia slings her arm around Harry’s shoulders. “I owe you for this, Harry. I really do.”

“Definitely not,” Harry admonishes, bumping her hip with his. “You don’t owe me a thing.”

The morning is spent in a wash of work; Liam brought his sound system so he sets that up on the front porch, and the windows are thrown wide open to catch the tunes and the breeze. Harry checks the parlor and finds Darcy and Perrie dancing, yanking the heavy velvet curtains down and throwing sunlight into the dark corners of the room. Nick is standing on the awning over the front door as he paints, old, chipped magenta disappearing under a smooth coat of mauve. Evie is on Jesy’s shoulders as they work on the trim around the windows, her face brilliantly red. Harry grabs a brush and helps for a while, only getting mildly covered in paint when Zayn and Jae ambush him, rolling his bare arms and shins with Purple Mountain’s Majesty by Glidden.

Harry lets Louis and Chandler have a little time before he goes to find them. Chandler is arranging stacks of paper and finally sorting it all into the ancient filing cabinet. Louis has a couple of his law books out and is combing through the tiny print. Harry stops outside the door to watch, just for a moment.

“How, um,” Chandler asks. Her voice is shaky, its usual confidence gone. Her back is to the room but Harry recognizes that scared slump of her shoulders. “How did your friend know he was making the right choice?”

Louis doesn’t look up from his book—and this does seem, Harry thinks, like the type of conversation that is easier to have when you can pretend eyes aren’t watching you—but he smiles, just a little. “Stan said when he walked out of his surgery, he finally felt like the person he was born to be.”

Chandler doesn’t answer, but Harry can hear her breath hitch. Louis gets out of his chair and pulls her close; Chandler’s only eighteen, but she still stands a few inches taller than him. Louis is used to it though; he pulls Chandler in just like he does when Harry needs him, making himself bigger, letting Chandler be smaller.

He meets Harry’s eyes over Chandler’s shoulder and smiles.

Lunch is hastily shoveled Chinese food and laughing so hard that their stomachs hurt. Chandler tells the story of how she chose her new name—”I was born Brad, can you believe? As if I had any chance of being a convincing Brad. Anyway, you know that episode of Friends where Phoebe gets to name one of her triplets?”—and Liam follows that with a story about the first time he brought a boy home and got so nervous he got sick and his mom and boyfriend had to awkwardly introduce themselves as they helped Liam to the bathroom to throw up some more. Louis, who has heard this story a minimum of five times, still laughs so loudly he scares Darcy and she gets hiccups.

After lunch, with the purple paint on the exterior walls drying in the spring warmth, the group traipses back inside and starts on the smaller projects. Niall and Jack have removed the rotten wood from around the sign out front, and Zayn and Chandler have their heads together discussing how to repaint it. Niall and his crew are back on repair duty, following Georgia from room to room and fixing whatever she points at. Perrie, Evie, and Jade head to the craft store a few blocks over to pick out some fabric to reupholster the chairs and couches with mice holes. The rest of the team arms themselves with spray bottles, rags, and bright yellow rubber gloves and gets to scrubbing.

And Harry… well, Harry does just about everything else. He decorates Georgia’s office, now clean of all its paperwork. He hangs a few of his photography prints on the hallway wall once it’s repainted a nice light blue. He mows the lawn. He takes Louis and Liam to a Walmart with a garden center and buys a load of cheap plants for the little flower gardens out front. He rearranges the pantry so all the bulk food fits better. He makes a plate of brownies for afternoon sustenance, and tosses a couple of lasagnas in the over for dinner too.

And, through the whole day, right by his side, is Louis. He’s charmed the kids and Georgia, he’s helped Harry figure out what needs are most pressing, and he’s looked over the organization’s contracts and found them sound so Georgia can sign them and move forward.

At the end of the day, the fifteen of them are exhausted, dirty, covered in paint, and grinning widely.

And the True Colors house looks like a home once more.

“You did it, babe,” Louis says, slipping his hand around Harry’s waist.

“We did it,” Harry answers.

“No,” Georgia murmurs. “This was all you, Harry Styles.”

The spring 2016 karaoke night comes and goes in a splash of strong alcohol and glitter. The event goes perfectly; returning students love the intermissions idea, and the extra attendees means they’ve made more money this year than ever before. At the last moment, Louis finds an extra six seats and invites Georgia and the True Colors kids, their eyes wide as they take in the spectacle.

The theme is “Yas Queen,” because “We’re a bunch of gay kids who love our eyeshadow-rocking, ballad-singing, soul-crushing mothers,” Nick explains. The lineup of acts is ridiculous, from Celine Dion (Liam), to Cher (Niall), to Lady Gaga (Leigh), to Beyonce (Nick, Jade, Jesy, Zayn, and about three other people, all separately and all different songs). Olivia tries her hand at Rihanna. Amal nearly brings the house down with a cover of Christina Aguilera. Harry does Sia, wailing out the lyrics to Fire Meet Gasoline, his black and white wig almost covering his eyes as he dances across the stage.

Louis does Britney, because he’s the only one who could. His eyeliner is smudged and his hair is platinum—a non-permanent change, Leigh promises Harry, and he’s a little disappointed about that—and his red leather jumpsuit clings to him obscenely. He even does the music video version, pulling Harry up on stage to mouth along with Britney as she says, “But I thought the old lady dropped it into the ocean in the end?” and Harry, helpless, answers, “Well, baby, I went down and got it for you.”

At the end of the night, after they all sing the final song (a rousing rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody, because you can’t salute queens without Freddie Mercury), after the crowd of exhilarated students and True Colors kids take their leave, after cleaning is finished and the banner is unhooked from the ceiling and they’re all buzzing with anticipation wanting to head to the afterparty, Louis climbs on stage for one last message.

“I’ve done this event,” he says, a little hoarse, “for three years now. Every year we put on an amazing night and show the world that we are not the sad, scared, lonely people they want us to be. We’re full of life, and happiness, and love.”

He reaches into his bag and pulls out the Notebook, stuffed full of karaoke memories and lessons learned. He smiles down at it, rubs his thumb over the cover.

“Someone else has to take over now,” he says, and there’s an audible rush of nos and you can’t gos, that has Louis biting his lip. Zayn and Niall are both burrowed against Liam, their eyes wet. Nick is blinking back tears, and Jade’s are carving a path through her makeup.

Harry’s insides feel like he’s been through an earthquake.

Louis waits, and it’s like they can all hear the drumroll. Finally, he says, “Olivia.”

“Um. What?” comes her voice from the back. Then, “Me?”

“You, honey,” Louis laughs a little. “You’ve been with me through it all this year, and I trust you to make it even better.” The assembled LGBT club nods—she’ll do amazingly, and they can all see it.

“Wow, oh my god,” she says, weaving towards the stage. She presses her hand over her mouth when Louis hands her the Notebook. Then she drops it, and flings her arms around Louis’ neck.

“Thank you,” she says, over and over and over. “Thank you. For everything.”

Jade and Amal lead the standing ovation. Louis’ eyes are shiny when he looks out over the crowd, these weirdos and outcasts and people society doesn’t want to love, the ones Louis took in and loved so hard they stayed.

Harry stands, and he claps, and Louis meets his eyes as his first tears spill over.

Harry is the one who brings the check to True Colors. Niall and Liam have tagged along, and Niall brought a few of his guitars so they could have an impromptu music lesson if the kids want it. Harry waits until they’re distracted learning the riff to Smoke on the Water (“The easiest tune in the world, I promise,” Liam tells them) before he slips away to Georgia’s office.

When she sees the amount on the check, she drops the little slip of paper and screams.

“What is this?” she asks, eyes wide.

“On behalf of the LGBT club, I’d like to offer you the proceeds from our yearly charity event,” Harry says, smiling widely. “We’d also like to set this up as a regular contribution, and make True Colors the club’s official philanthropy project.”

When Georgia finally lets him go, it’s just because it’s dinnertime and the food’s growing cold, and she doesn’t stop sniffling all through the meal. 

Harry signs his name on the signature wall of the Pit on the second day of April, the sun shining brightly through the windows high on the walls. It’s just him and the boys; Zayn claps Harry on the shoulder after he writes his own name along the windowsill and passes the Sharpie to Harry.

“No, try this one,” Louis says, and passes Harry the same metallic gold pen he’d signed his own name with two years before.

Harry stretches up on his tiptoes, and signs. When he pulls back, Louis laughs, and pulls him in for a kiss. As they leave the room, flicking the lights off behind them, Harry turns to see it one last time. Under Louis’ faded ink is his own, a plus sign connecting them for as long as this wall stands.

Louis Tomlinson

+

Harry Styles

As May flies toward them, everything seems to oversaturate itself. The quiet moments are quieter, the louder moments making Harry’s ears ring. Every second feels like it could be the last of its kind; when the boys go out to the Dive on the weekends (and Fridays and some Thursdays and the occasional Monday...) they linger a little longer, and Jesy lets them stretch closing time until 2:30, maybe three o’clock. LGBT club meetings, now that they don’t have an event to plan, devolve into telling stories about first meetings and first heartbreaks and first crushes and whiling away hours together in the Pit until it’s dark outside. Harry and Louis make love like one of them is heading off to war: constantly, passionately, leaving marks and bruises as mementos when they’re finished.

Louis’ studying for the bar increases, and most mornings he eats his cereal with a book propped up against his glass of juice. Zayn has started leaving his job applications on every available surface, and gets calls constantly asking him to move to Los Angeles or Seattle or Miami or, once, Paris. He turns them all down, saying none of them feel right.

Harry buys his cap and gown, and stows them in the back of his and Louis’ closet so he doesn’t have to look at it.

With Louis’ increased time spent with his nose stuck in heavy, unreadable tomes, Harry spends more and more of his free time at True Colors. Sometimes Louis tags along, brings three books that it takes the both of them to carry, and finds a quiet corner to hole up in. Harry doesn’t have to be there so often, he volunteers more than double the amount he needs to for Diana’s class, but he loves every moment spent in that wild purple house.

Georgia is a licensed therapist and holds group therapy every afternoon, individual meetings once a week. Harry sets up crafting projects, and Zayn comes in to paint with them every once in a while. Liam and Niall have made the music lessons a regular thing, and Ed stops by sometimes too. Louis doesn’t bring an instrument or a trick or anything to entertain the kids, but when they can drag him away from his books he tells stories for hours; some are real, some not, but all keep his audience riveted, his voice smooth like river stones.

One night, they’re all watching an old VHS movie together in the parlor on the ancient TV (The Land Before Time, at Jae’s insistence), and Evie turns to Harry with wide, solemn eyes.

“How much longer do you get to stay with us?” she asks. The others turn to hear his answer, even Jae, who otherwise hasn’t looked away from the faded, staticky picture on the screen.

“I don’t know,” he answers honestly. “I graduate in a few weeks, and we’ll be here until Louis takes the bar in July. After that…” he trails off, unsure.

Georgia makes a noise at that, but doesn’t say anything when Harry asks.

They watch old cartoons until the kids drop into sleep, and then Louis is there helping Harry off the floor, his back sore, murmuring a thanks to Georgia as they head back to the apartment to catch some sleep.

The week before graduation, Liam comes home from work and tells everyone not to make dinner plans, because he’s made a reservation at the fancy Italian place over on Fifth.

“La Bella?” Harry asks, impressed. “Are you asking us to marry you?”

Louis, Niall, and Zayn all choke, and Harry shoots them a weird look.

“Alright, fellas, it wasn’t that funny.”

“Nonsense,” Louis wheezes, “you’re hilarious, dear. Now, Liam, you were talking about dinner?”

“Yeah,” Liam says, eyes crinkled. “Wear something nice, and I’ll meet you all there at seven.”

It’s rare to have a night out that doesn’t allow them to wear the same old t-shirts and tatty shoes they always wear, so it’s a little fun to dig in their closets and put something a little more formal on for a change. Louis wears a tie to work most days so this time he forgoes it, wearing a black shirt buttoned up to his chin and a pair of his black skinnies that make Harry weak at the knees. Zayn digs out the old leather jacket, wearing a blue shirt underneath approximately the color of the sky in the morning. Niall wears a silk shirt Harry convinced him to buy months ago and his new glasses. Harry wears red, a gauzy long-sleeved number that’s nearly sheer, the one Louis nicknamed his pirate shirt when he bought it.

Now, Harry’s not one to be vain. But when they walk out of the apartment towards Louis’ car, one of their neighbors runs into a nearby light pole because she doesn’t want to look away, so he’ll admit, just this once, that they all look damn good.

They arrive at La Bella a little early—Niall was hungry, so he’d rushed them out the door before Louis was finished primping—but Liam still beats them, seated at a circular table for five in a quiet corner away from the dinner crowd. There’s a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket, and Harry stops short.

“Liam, I was joking about proposing to us,” he says, taking a seat between Louis and Niall. “I love you but I don’t think me and Lou are ready to jump into polyamory with you all.”

“That’s not why we’re here, but thank you, Harry,” Liam says. He seems nervous, which makes Harry nervous. He feels like he can almost see the bomb over their heads, ready to drop. “I just wanted to tell you all that-”

“Buongiorno, and welcome to La Bella,” says a waiter who suddenly materializes next to their table, beaming widely. Liam deflates, but smiles at the man as he takes their drink orders.

“As I was saying, I wanted to tell you-”

“Here’s some bread for you gentlemen,” the waiter says, reappearing with two small baskets of breadsticks. He sets those down carefully, then arranges a few dishes of butter around the table. After he’s finished, he takes a short bow and leaves once more.  

“Right,” Liam says, brow tight. “I asked you all here because-”

“And here are your drinks,” says the fastest waiter in existence.

“I’m moving to New York!” Liam blurts out.

Niall drops his fork. Zayn drops his bread. Even the waiter goes still, holding Zayn’s glass of red wine a few inches above the table. It’s silent as he finishes handing out the drinks as quickly as he can, excusing himself quietly.

“What?” Louis asks, because Niall and Zayn have gone fishmouthed, struck dumb. “When?”

“How?” Harry asks.

“A record label I’ve been in contact with offered me a job,” Liam says. “It’s exactly what I want to do, and I get my pick of locations.” He looks down at the table, his hands fidgeting. “New York was the closest.”

“Li, that’s… that’s amazing,” Harry says weakly. He always knew Liam was going to take over the world but this… even this is unexpectedly good.

“I haven’t officially accepted yet,” Liam says, turning his gaze from Harry and Louis to the two that are still silent. “I can say no, if that’s what you want me to do.” He breaks eye contact again, this time watching Louis nervously fold and unfold his napkin. “But I want to take it.”  

“I…” Niall says, then rubs at his forehead. “Li, babe, that’s incredible, it’s just-”

“It’s just a lot to take in,” Zayn agrees. “Wow, New York? It’s so…”

“Yeah.”

“It’s not that far from here,” Liam rushes to say. “An hour and a half by plane, and the label has a private one I can use.”

“Why are you saying that like we’d stay here?” Zayn asks, confusion heavy on his face.

“You wouldn’t?”

“Liam, what the hell,” Niall says. “Of course we’ll go wherever you go.”

“Why do you think we’re freaking out?” Zayn asks. “You’ve just told us we’re moving to New York.”

“You’re coming with me?” Liam repeats, a slow smile spreading on his face.

Zayn’s face softens. “I think I’d follow you anywhere.”

“Mm,” Niall hums in agreement. He appears to have gotten over his shock, buttering another bite of breadstick. “Maybe not anywhere. Not too fond of Florida.”

“Okay,” Liam says, breathless. “Okay, I promise we won’t move to Florida.”

Niall finishes his bite, wipes his fingers on his napkin. When he looks up, he’s grinning. “Are we doing this?”

Zayn and Liam exchange a look, their lips tilting up as well. Liam raises his eyebrows, and Zayn nods.

“We’re doing this,” Zayn says, and then laughs like he can’t believe it.

The dinner goes smoothly after that, the waiter coming back when the tension at the table has melted away, and they spent the next couple of hours eating really great food and pelting Liam with questions about his new job.

At some point during the meal, Louis slips his hand into Harry’s and squeezes tight. Harry knows they’re thinking the same thing: the five of them have never been apart for more than a few months before this; Louis has been living with Liam and Niall since he was nineteen.

What are they going to do when the other three leave?

The next day, all Zayn’s job applications are swept in the trash, replaced by new ones:

Looking for: graphic designer
Location: Brooklyn

Applying for the job of museum curator
New York, NY

Looking for a web content creator
Company based out of Brooklyn

A week later, Niall comes home with the news that he’s given his two weeks’ notice at Hamilton Elementary, and that he’ll start looking for schools near Liam’s studio in New York as soon as possible.

It’s official. This is really happening.

Harry and Zayn’s families fly in the day before graduation, arriving in a pile of suitcases and carry-ons, Anne and Trisha pulling all the boys in for hugs.

“Are you really dating two people?” is the first thing Zayn’s sister Waliyha asks. “Because that’s, like, super selfish, and you should share.” She bats her eyelashes at Niall and Zayn flicks her in the middle of her forehead.

Gemma turns to Harry, then flicks her gaze over to Louis, who’s whispering conspiratorially with their mom. “Feel free to keep yours to yourself,” she says, grinning brightly.

Harry pinches her elbow in retaliation.

They have dinner cooked by Harry and Anne, reassure their mothers that yes, they have everything ready for tomorrow and no, nothing needs to be ironed or steamed or altered, and then the Malik and Styles-Twist families head for their hotels, wanting an early night before the chaos of graduation the next day. As soon as the door closes behind them, Louis is unearthing three bottles of champagne.

“Well, boys,” he says, popping open the first bottle and sending it around, “let’s make this a proper shindig, shall we?” They use cups for the first bottle and a half, pouring and toasting and pouring again, but soon they stop caring, swigging straight from the bottle and passing it along as the night gets darker outside the window.

“Hey,” Niall says. He’s lying on the floor, his feet up on the couch. “Remember when Zayn painted Harry nude for his life art class and like six girls asked him for Harry’s number?”

“Oh, god,” Liam laughs, “and they kept ambushing him every time we went out for drinks.”

Harry groans, covering his face with his hand. He’s a little drunk, so he misses and smacks his throat instead. “That was the woooorst.”

“Please, you loved every second of it,” Zayn grins. “What about when Niall’s mom made him call and check in every night at nine o’clock to make sure he wasn’t ‘out drinking himself into an early grave.’”

“Bless her heart,” Louis says fondly. Maura is a little traditional, but they love her all the same. She’s like a straight-laced version of Niall, only with better clichés to drop at a moment’s notice. “Of course, we’d just wait until she called and then go out for the night.”

“And she will never hear about that part,” Niall warns, pointing at all of them.

“Remember when Louis found that kitten by the biology building and tried to raise it in the Pit?” Liam asks, trying to drink from the bottle without lifting his head off the arm of the couch.

“Almost got us all kicked out for that one, didn’t he?” Harry remembers fondly. It was the ugliest little thing Harry’d ever seen, all too-big eyes and batlike ears, but not a single person could say no to Louis when he melted and walked around with the kitten on his shoulder for a solid week.  

“How was I supposed to know the Korean Student Association president was deathly allergic to cat dander?”

“And the first night we went to the Dive, remember that? We were so worried they’d know our IDs were fake, and then we realized we were all twenty-one and our IDs weren’t fake.”

“What about that party at Jes ‘nd Leigh’s, when Harry decided to try on all their dresses and have a fashion show?”

“I’ll have you know that I worked those looks, Liam Payne, and don’t you dare say otherwise.”

Quiet lapses over them for a moment. When Niall speaks again, his voice is a little shaky.

“Remember our graduation day, when we all thought Louis was moving far away to some special law school and then told us, right before we crossed the stage, that he was staying here for another two years?”

“Remember our first day in this apartment? Harry cleaned every surface three times and Louis still destroyed the place by the end of the day.”

“Remember the first karaoke night we went to?”

“Remember all the karaoke nights?”

Louis’ voice cracks, and he takes a swig of champagne to cover it up.

“Remember when I met you boys and you were the only reason I survived college?” he asks quietly. Harry reaches over, takes his hand. “And that I can’t imagine a day without you all and I know that’s codependent as hell but at this point, I really don’t care?”

“Yeah,” Liam murmurs in agreement. “I remember something pretty similar myself.”

They pass the bottle around until it’s empty, and the stars glint silently outside their windows like they want to join in.

“Dude, help me figure this out,” Zayn says. They’ve crammed themselves into the men’s restroom with apparently every other guy graduating today, attempting to makes themselves look as presentable as possible while wearing cheap nylon and silly hats. Harry turns as well as he can in the middle of the crush of people in front of the mirror and watches Zayn tilt his graduation cap in every possible angle, focusing hard on his reflection. “Do you like this one?” He tilts the cap back on his head, so the the front of his hair is mostly untouched. “Or this one?” He slides the cap forward and slightly to the side, the tassel swinging next to his ear.

“The second one,” Harry says. “It’s jaunty. Now come on, I’m about to suffocate.”

They exit the bathroom and join back up with Jade and Perrie, who stumble out of their own bathroom in a cloud of hairspray and perfume. The four of them follow the crowd of graduates streaming outside to line up for the ceremony. They’re supposed to sit by discipline, but Zayn doesn’t like many people in the art program and Harry wants to sit next to people who won’t judge him too harshly when he inevitably cries, so they’re sticking together.

Music starts up ahead, the band playing the school fight song, and the banner carriers lead the graduates into the gymnasium. Harry’s eyes have to adjust for a moment as they transition from bright sunshine to dim interior, but he reaches out and grabs Zayn’s gown so he won’t lose him, and reaches back to take Perrie’s hand. He keeps his eyes on his feet as he follows Zayn to what he hopes are the correct chairs, and as soon as they’re sitting they all turn to look for their cheering section.

“There they are, look,” Zayn says, and points. Harry follows his finger and finds his mom waving at him, about halfway up the bleachers, Gemma on one side of her and Louis on the other. Niall and Liam are sitting between Louis and the Maliks, Trisha and Yaser trying to keep the girls from obviously taking Snapchat selfies out of boredom. Jesy and Leigh are in the row in front of them, with Nick and Olivia and Amal and even more of the LGBT club kids. Harry scans the section again, catching more familiar faces like Perrie’s mom and Jade’s tiny grandma and Zayn’s aunt, and then he has to do a double take.

Next to Gemma, leaning over to talk to Louis and looking incredible in a plum colored dress, is Georgia. Jack and Jae are beside her, adjusting each other’s bowties, and he watches as Evie frowns and smooths her skirt down over and over. Darcy and Chandler are next to the two new kids at True Colors, recent additions who’re able to stay because Harry pushed another grant application through and got them a little more money.

Harry stands; he can’t help it. Graduates are still wandering to their seats in a slow, meandering line, so no one’s even noticed him. He waves back at his mom and the movement catches Louis’ eye, then Georgia’s. They both smile and wave, and Harry presses both his hands to his mouth and blows them kiss after kiss.

“Oh my god,” Harry whispers when he sits back down. It’s already hard to swallow, so he’s definitely not making it out of this ceremony with tears unshed.

At least he’s not wearing makeup today, though, because Jade and Perrie have to keep pressing fingernails to the corners of their eyes to keep their eyeliner and mascara intact.

The last graduate files in, the college president stands, and the day begins.

Later, Harry couldn’t tell you what the speaker says in her address. It’s all a blur of Lincoln quotes and Dr. Seuss references and Harry’s never really been the type to be motivated by ineffectual positivity, so he mostly tunes it out.

Instead, he thinks of how impossible it seemed, just six months ago, that he would make it here. That he would be able to cross this stage and take a picture with a man he’s never met and be handed a diploma printed on five dollar paper but that he paid thousands upon thousands to hold.

The speaker takes her seat and the first row of graduates stand to cross the stage. Harry’s breathing starts coming quicker.

“This is it,” Perrie whispers, and she’s right; it’s the end of the road. From here on out, they’re real adults. No more goof-off classes and club meetings and sleeping ‘til the afternoon just because the mood strikes.

No more LGBT club. No more classes with Diana to challenge the way he looks at the world. No more True Colors. No more nights into early mornings spent at the Dive. No more sunny morning chats with Liam before the other three are even awake. No more FIFA marathons with Niall until their thumbs are cramping and they’ve eaten every snack in the apartment. No more record shopping with Zayn, finding things to play in the background during yoga and painting.

College is over.

Holy shit, college is over.

Zayn nudges Harry and he realizes it’s time to stand. His knees almost buckle but he makes it, somehow; following Perrie up to the spot next to the announcer, handing the man his card with his name on it.

“Harry Styles,” he hears.

He crosses the stage. His heartbeat thumps in his ears. He shakes someone’s hand. He smiles. Camera flash, spots in his vision. The diploma cover is cool and rough under his fingertips.

At the end of the stage, he pauses. He looks down at his diploma, the fruit of his labors, the meaning behind all this madness, and then he looks up.

His mom is crying, patting a tissue under her eyes as she smiles tearily. Next to her, Louis’ eyes are shiny with tears as well, and from across the gymnasium he gives Harry a tiny thumbs up. The True Colors kids are all standing; Harry watches as Evie sticks two fingers in her mouth and lets out a piercing whistle over the applause.

Behind Harry, the announcer says, “Zayn Malik,” and there’s an even bigger explosion of noise from Trisha and the girls and Liam and Niall, who are making absolute fools of themselves as Zayn crosses the stage. When he reaches Harry, his face in pink with embarrassment but still looking a little pleased, he throws his arm over Harry’s shoulders.

“We did it,” he grins.

“Fuck yeah we did,” Harry laughs.

They join Perrie and Jade at the bottom of the stairs and that’s it.

They’re college graduates.

Louis, who is of course the mastermind behind inviting the True Colors kids and Georgia to the ceremony, has made reservations at a restaurant not far from campus. It’s a short walk and it’s not oppressively hot, so Harry beams the whole way there, clinging hard to Louis’ hand.

They’ve got an entire back room to themselves, which is good because between Harry’s family, Zayn’s family, the True Colors group, quite a few of the LGBT club kids, Diana, James Corden, and a few other stragglers, there’s nearly forty people in their party. Appetizers are brought out and Harry’s had so many envelopes passed his way he’s struggling to balance them all and his mom keeps kissing him on the forehead like she can’t help it.

Wine is brought out with the meals and the toasts begin—some are silly, like Nick’s, and some are very much not, like Yaser’s, and Harry and Zayn keep elbowing each other through each of the serious speeches to keep themselves from tearing up again.

Towards the end of the night, Georgia stands and raises her glass.

“Hello, everyone,” she says. “Most of you don’t know me, but I’m the facilitator at the LGBT safe house where Harry volunteers. He has, quite literally, been the reason the place is running at all, not to mention running smoothly, and without his help and the help of his wonderful partner,” she tips her glass to Louis, “and friends,” to Liam, Niall, and Zayn, this time, “I don’t think these kids would have a home to live in. He’s been strong, and intelligent, and irreplaceable in our journey, and I believe I speak for everyone who works with him when I say we all try our hardest to be like him. We would be nowhere without Harry Styles.”

Harry’s mom reaches over and rubs his arm like she’s overwhelmed, and Louis takes Harry’s other hand. Georgia smiles, and reaches down to pick up a plain manilla envelope from the table in front of her.

“Now, I’m a therapist, got my degree in psychology, so when I was faced with the prospect of filling out dozens and dozens of grant applications and legal forms, I nearly had a heart attack.” The crowd chuckles. “Luckily, I had the help of the dynamic duo here,” she nods to Harry and Louis, “to teach me what to do and what to look for. Which is how I found this,” she says, holding up the envelope. “I used everything Harry taught me and had the good people at Corden & Associates give it a look over before I sent it in, and I just got the confirmation back yesterday.”

She pauses for dramatic effect, the whole room hanging on to her every word.

“True Colors has been awarded a grant for a half a million dollars over five years,” she says, and Harry’s breath catches. “The funds can be used for food, amenities, repair and upkeep, and, most importantly, salary for full-time workers. So, Harry, if you’re willing,” her grin grows widers, “I’ve got a job opening and I think you’d be just perfect to fill it.”

Harry knocks over a chair and bumps into at least three tables in his haste to get to Georgia, throwing his arms around her as the assembled audience bursts into applause.

“Really?” he asks, pulling back to check her expression. “This isn’t a joke? Or a dream? I can really be paid to work for you?”

“With me, Harry,” Georgia corrects gently, pulling him into a hug once more.

When he finally lets go he finds his mom next, then Gemma, both teary once again and whispering congratulations in his ear. Then he turns, and he finds Louis, waiting for him in the middle of the room.

They crash together and Harry sobs, just once, into Louis’ shoulder. “I did it,” he sniffs, overwhelmed in the best possible way.

“I know,” Louis murmurs. “And I’m so proud.”

May fades into June with the onset of summer heat and, for the first time in months, life in the apartment goes stagnant. All five are playing a waiting game, watching the time pass as they wait for their next steps to begin. But they've got the lease on the apartment until July first, and their need to be around each other increases with every turn of the calendar page, so they take the days as they come and weather the stillness before the storm together.

Liam has officially accepted the job at the New York record label. He's settling things at his current label, finding and hiring someone to take over for him and pushing the last work on Ed's debut album through so that he isn't leaving Ed stranded. He's planned out his last few shows on the college radio station (including one whole morning dedicated to that same debut album), and has slowly but methodically started going through the apartment and packing the things he won't need in the next month, winter clothes and extra t-shirts and scarves and old books and boots.

Niall found a position at an elementary school in Brooklyn almost immediately. He starts in July at P.S. 118, his classroom waiting for him already. He resolutely does not start packing, claiming he needs everything he owns kept out of boxes in case of some sort of specific emergencies.

(“Yes, Liam, I'm aware it's 95 degrees outside but, consider this: what if the air conditioner breaks and it can only blow air at, like, 30 degrees, and then that loose faucet breaks and floods the place and it freezes. I might need my snow gloves if that happens, right? So, y'know, don't pack them.”)

Zayn has tentatively accepted a position at an up and coming art gallery just two blocks from Niall's new school. He'd deliberated for ages before making a decision, looking over offers of everything from graphic design work to art teacher at a local studio to art curator for a private collection.

“I don't know if gallery work is right for me, though,” Zayn confessed to Harry one night. “I've always made art, I've never talked about it. What if I can't articulate what I need to say?”

“Here,” Harry answered, opening his laptop and typing in the name of the gallery. A minimalistic website was the first search result, and it had most of the gallery's works up and available for viewing. Harry clicked on the first one, a canvas coated in shades of blue with no real discernible picture. “Okay,” Harry said. “Make me care about this. Make me relate.”

Zayn stared at the picture for a moment, then said, “Okay, so, first of all this picture is overwhelmingly sad. You can see it in the color palette, but it's in the brush strokes as well. See how this one line of periwinkle cuts through the canvas like he's lost the strength in his arm and the stripe just followed. And notice the carelessness of the work in the corners—he’s sad, but he’s dejected about it. Something went wrong and he doesn’t know how to fix it, so he’s stuck wondering what could have been.”

Harry looked, and, suddenly, he saw: he saw heartache in the brushstrokes, melancholy in the swaths of blue. The corners did seem thoughtless, somehow, and Harry could almost picture a man standing in front of this finished canvas, his palette and brush hanging by his sides, his shoulders slumped.

“Holy shit, Zee,” Harry said. “You’re gonna kill it at this job.”

So that’s the three of them set, a U-Haul van hired for the last day of June, an apartment in Brooklyn waiting for them.

For Harry and Louis, it all hinges on the bar. The exam itself isn’t until the end of July, so there’s a weird three week period between having to leave the apartment and Louis taking the exam, and then after that they have to sort out what their plan is: Harry has told Georgia to keep the job at True Colors open until they know what’s happening, and he continues volunteering without being paid until they can make something official. Louis won’t get his results until the end of August, at least, and then he’ll have to start looking for jobs. If they’re moving out of town, Harry doesn’t want Georgia to have to go through the hassle of terminating his job there and finding someone new to hire, but at the same time he can’t imagine anything one else working there in his stead.

It’s a little bit of a mess, and until they can make more decisions, they’re basically stuck in limbo.

And so June passes; and so they wait.

Two weeks before their last day in the apartment, Louis turns to Harry at the breakfast table and gives him a calculating look.

“I think we should find a house,” he says, and Harry splutters on his water.

“What?” he asks, wiping his face with his sleeve. “But I thought we said-”

“I’ve got news,” Louis says, cutting him off. His smile is careful, but wide. “Good news. James said that when I pass the bar, I’m welcome to come work at C&A full time. I’d just be a junior associate, but-”

“Oh my god!” Harry cries, leaping across the table to seal his mouth to Louis’, kissing him fiercely. “Oh my god!” he says again as he pulls away. “He offered you a real lawyer job?”

“A real lawyer job, yeah,” Louis laughs, his eyes crinkled in happiness. “So I think we should get a house. Like, buy one, not just rent.”

“You want to buy a house with me?” Harry asks, his brain doing loop-de-loops trying to keep up. “I feel faint.”

“I’ve been thinking about it,” Louis continues. He’s rubbing circles on the backs of Harry’s hands, even though Harry can’t really feel his hands. He appreciates the gesture anyway. “With the cut of the grant set aside for your salary over the next five years, and then what James said my starting salary would be, we could easily get a little cottage or two-person house near the law office. If, for some reason,” and he blushes, and Harry’s life has never been better than this moment, with Louis Tomlinson blushing like a maiden about the thought of their future together, “we someday need, um, a bigger place, or if we get new jobs and have to move somewhere else, we could always rent it out, or something.”

“You want to buy a house with me,” Harry repeats, breathless.

“Yeah, baby,” Louis promises. “I want to buy a house with you.”

Harry kisses him again, a long press of lips he pours everything into, a conversation for no one else. And when he pulls back, he grins, and pulls out his phone.

“Mom?” he asks when she answers. “What are you doing this week?”

When she answers that she’s not doing anything, Harry’s grin widens and so does Louis’ to match. “Good. Pack your bags, we’ve got some house hunting to do.”

The last thing out of Harry and Louis’ bedroom is their curtains.

Harry had almost left them; one of those things where he just got so used to seeing them there, hanging in the window, that it seems strange for them to be anywhere else. His hand shakes a little as he removes the rod and slides the lace off, folding the scraps of fabric carefully and laying them on the top of the little box of odds and ends that didn’t fit anywhere else in all the packing.

A nineties alternative station is playing on the radio in the kitchen, where Harry knows Louis is going over their checklist one last time, making sure the apartment supervisor won’t fine them for anything when they’ve completely moved out. Eagle Eye Cherry is singing about saving tonight, but Harry knows it doesn’t work that way.

Liam, Niall, and Zayn are gone. They packed up their shared U-Haul and delayed as long as possible, but as it neared six o’clock Liam said something about stopping halfway to New York to catch some sleep, and how they’d need to go soon.

Harry watched them leave from the sidewalk outside the building where they’d lived together for two years, and somehow even all the “I love you”s and “We’ll visit, we promise”s didn’t seem to fill the hole left when they drove away in a line: Liam up front in the moving truck, Niall following in his vehicle, Zayn driving Liam’s car at the rear.

Now he and Louis are all packed up too—their U-Haul is still sitting out front, mostly full, waiting to drive them to their new destination first thing tomorrow morning. It’s a tiny cottage, just big enough for Louis and Harry but honestly not much else, walking distance from the C&A office and currently in the process of being purchased by Louis and Harry.

It needs a little work, and the coat of paint on the outside of the place started chipping off probably about the time the first Bush was president, and it’s actually smaller than the apartment they’re in now but it’s perfect; it’s perfect, but right now Harry sort of hates it. He didn’t want this change, he didn’t want to watch his three best friends in the world drive away and leave him and Louis behind.  

“Hey,” Louis says in the doorway. He’s watching Harry with soft eyes, probably knowing exactly what Harry’s thinking. He always knows what Harry is thinking. “What do you say we go grab one last drink?”

“At the Dive?” Harry asks, closing up the box with the curtains on top.

“Yeah, sounds perfect.” Louis walks close and presses a kiss to Harry’s cheek. “I have to run something to the office really quickly, but I’ll meet you there.”

“Okay,” Harry says. “I’ll give you a couple minutes’ head start.” He looks down at his t-shirt, covered in dust and dirt from a day of moving. “I should probably dig out something else to wear, too.”

“I think you left one shirt in the closet,” Louis says as he walks out the door. “Meet you there in twenty?”

Harry hums in agreement and goes to peer into the closet. Louis is right: he’s got one shirt still hanging inside, his sheer black one with the roses, one of his favorites.

He’s pretty sure he packed that already, actually.

Weird.

Harry shrugs and strips, tossing his old t-shirt on top of the box and shrugging into the black one. In the bathroom is his little bag of bathroom essentials he’ll need first thing in the morning, and he uncaps his deodorant and reapplies it quickly. His curls are a sweaty mess, so he combs them back and ruffles out the worst of the damp spots. Checks his teeth, wipes a bit of moisturizer on his face, and then he’s ready to go.

The evening air is pleasant so Harry walks to the bar instead of driving, meandering his way through familiar streets he supposes he won’t be walking much anymore. He’s got a new part of town to explore, a new place to call home. The summer crowds are lighter at Campus Square, mostly just the upperclassmen and grad students around and the majority of them are too broke to do anything more than hunt for the happy hour specials. There aren’t any lines out the pizzeria or taco shop doors, and the pub on the corner is dark inside.

The walk up to the Dive is silent, except for the hooting of an owl perched somewhere overhead. It’s a bit surreal, and as Harry pushes his way inside, he thinks it’s strange that his last time here, at least for the foreseeable future, is just about the opposite experience of every other night he’s spent in this building.

Alberto is standing in front of the second set of doors, barring Harry from entry. It’s dark behind him in the main bar area.

“Hey, Berto,” Harry says, frowning. “Are you closed tonight?”

Alberto just grins, knocks twice on the door, and reaches for the handle.

“Okaaaay,” Harry says, still confused. “Thanks.”

Alberto’s grin widens, and he pushes the door open so Harry can see-

Candles.

Candles everywhere, littered across every surface. A line of white pillars and tea lights along the bar top, a succession of bright light in the otherwise dark room. Flower petals follow the candles, strewn in a wandering path along the side of the bar, leading to-

Leading to their booth.

Their booth, the place they’ve spent so many nights Harry could never count them all. The booth where they met, when Harry’s life changed forever because of a boy who was too drunk to control his volume when he whispered how pretty he thought Harry was. The table is covered in more candles, these in shades of blue and green along with the white.

And sitting in his usual seat, staring peacefully into the flames and somehow the brightest spot in the room, is Louis. He looks up when Harry takes his first step fully into the bar, grinning widely.

“Louis, what…” Harry says, but Louis just beckons him forward, still smiling.

There’s piano playing softly on the sound system overhead. A familiar song, but Harry can’t place it. He knows it’s important, though.

“Hello, sweetheart,” Louis murmurs as he approaches, holding out his hand. Harry takes it, of course, but he’s still staring around at the place in awe.

“What… Louis, what’s going on?” he whispers. In the silence before Louis answers, Harry can hear the song again. Suddenly, he knows what it is.

Come What May.

“If I don’t get proposed to with this song playing in the background,” he remembers saying, “just go ahead and not even ask, ‘cause I’m gonna say no until you get that part right.”

Holy shit.

“Holy shit,” Harry says, feeling his eyes go wide. “You’re- holy shit.”

Louis huffs a laugh and, in one smooth motion, drops to his knee.

“Holy shit!”

“I don’t know why I didn’t prepare for more cursing during this bit,” Louis chuckles, his eyes sparkling. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a little black velvet box. Harry’s heart starts to race. “Then again, you haven’t let any part of this be easy. You’re picky about your rings, and you kept wanting to see what I was looking at on my laptop, and the one time I tried to look at a jewelry catalogue I had to tell you it was bad porn so you wouldn’t dig it out.”

“Oh my god,” Harry remembers. “I thought you were hiding something.”

“Well, I was, and you almost caught me,” Louis grins. He reaches up, takes Harry’s hand again. The smile at the corner of his mouth softens, his gaze along with it. “Harry. You know I could talk for days about how you’re the reason I get up in the morning, and how every day with you is happier than the one before. I could tell you that sometimes I have to stop and take a breath when I remember that this is my life, and that you’re in it, and that you’re happy being in it forever, because the thought of that is so astounding to me. And, of course, I could pull out the really sappy stuff to make you cry,” he laughs quietly, thumbing the first tear off of Harry’s cheek, “and tell you the world is a brighter place with you in it, and that I can’t wait to be by your side as you make it even better. I could do all that, but I won’t.”

Harry makes a strange half-laugh, half-sob. “Gee, Lou. Thanks.”

“Anytime, darling.” Louis slides open the top of the box, showing two shiny silver rings nestled inside, one smaller than the other. The pattern is the same around both, intricate silver rope circling the band. The larger ring has a line of green gemstones around the top, the smaller ring’s gemstones are blue.

Harry presses his free hand to his mouth.

“Harry Edward Styles,” Louis says. His eyes shine brighter than the gemstones. “Will you marry me?”

“Of course,” Harry says immediately, tearfully, “of course, yes, of course!”

Louis pulls Harry into a hug and they’re kissing, and then Louis is sliding the ring onto Harry’s fourth finger.

“I can’t believe this,” Harry whispers, staring at the way the ring catches the light. He reaches for the box and take Louis’ ring, sliding it onto his finger as well, so they match. Louis holds him close and presses kiss after kiss to his cheek.

There’s an unsubtle pop nearby, a loud rumble of, “CONGRATULATIONS!” and suddenly the bar is flooded with light; standing just out of the orange pool of light from the candles is a crowd of people, all beaming at them and sniffling and brandishing champagne bottles. Harry sees Nick and Ed and Jade and Perrie, Jesy and Leigh towards the back, his mom, Louis’ mom, Stan, their sisters, Kendall, Georgia, James, Olivia, Amal, Diana, and, right up front, grinning at Harry’s dumbstruck expression, Zayn, Liam and Niall.

“You’re here,” Harry breathes. “You’re all here.”

“They wanted to be here for you, Hazza,” Louis smiles against Harry’s shoulder. “All your favorite people, all in one room.”

Harry sweeps Louis into a low, arching kiss, ignoring the catcalls and whistles, kissing him until neither of them can see straight. His heart pounds against his ribs, the happiest rhythm he’s ever heard.

Then, he straightens back up, and holds out his hand. “We're engaged!”

The crowd cheers back at him, and then the party begins.

Harry doesn’t remember much about the party.

He does remember sneaking away with Louis, pressing him up against the brick wall in the alleyway outside the bar. He remembers the sound of something tearing, and pulling away from Louis and whispering, fiercely, “Home. Now.”

He remembers bursting through the apartment door, Louis in his arms with his legs wrapped around Harry’s waist. He remembers slamming Louis’ back up against the door of their bedroom, and then the door opening and the two of them tumbling inside.

He remembers realizing they’d already packed their lube, and he’ll never forget the look on Louis’ face when he murmured, “Don’t need it. Turn over, love.”

He remembers bits and pieces of the next part, Louis’ face between his cheeks, his tongue working Harry open and making him sob, Harry’s fingernails scratching against the floor, his voice going out as he shouted, a single press of a fingertip to his prostate to have him writhing, wailing, coming. Turning over, bleary-eyed and wobbly-limbed, veins shot through with spine-tingling waves of pleasure, and seeing Louis’ wet face, his sweaty hair, the spots of red high on his cheeks.

He remembers getting his mouth on Louis’ cock and thinking, I get to do this forever. And then not thinking of much of anything at all as Louis rolled his hips forward, fucking Harry’s face just the way he likes.

He remembers falling asleep looking at his ring, glinting in the moonlight.

He remembers the important parts.

Harry wakes with a champagne headache, his head pillowed on his arms, his legs achey for some reason he can’t recall. Sunlight is bright across the room, spilling in through windows with no curtains. Someone’s head is resting on the dip of his back, and judging by the small feet tucked up under each other that Harry can barely see from the corner of his eye, it’s Louis. They’re in the apartment, in their bedroom with no furniture, and apparently they crashed on the floor last night.

“Urgh,” Harry groans, stretching a little. Louis huffs and prods at him until he settles again. “C’mon, Lou,” he says, and his voice sounds like gravel. “‘m dying here.”

Louis groans too. “Why isn’t there a bed here,” he mumbles.

“We packed it,” Harry answers. “Were gonna sleep on the couch, remember?”

Louis makes a noise and wiggles, then sits up. Harry looks over to see his disheveled mess of hair, no shirt, and-

“Are those my underwear?” Harry asks. Suddenly, the cold floor on his skin in new places makes more sense. “Where is your underwear?”

“Umm,” Louis says, twisting. “Aha, found them.” He stands and hops, yanking his boxers off the blade of the ceiling fan. He tosses them to Harry, who yanks them on and stands.

“Erm, did your proposal plan include morning-after clothes?” Harry asks, holding up his silk shirt from the night before, covered in champagne, dust, and what might be dirt from the few minutes they spent kissing up against a tree between the bar and the apartment.

“No,” Louis mumbles, looking at his own dirty, sweaty clothes. “Hold on, maybe Li brought extra.”

He steps out, shutting the door quietly behind him. Harry take the opportunity to stretch, to study the rather impressive scratches he left on the floor last night, to shake his legs out so they don’t twinge so badly.

When Louis reenters, his face is red. “Uh, he’s not here,” he says, handing Harry his dirty clothes from the day before. Harry grimaces, but slides his jeans back on. “Also, some people are already awake and here.”

“What do you mean, some people are here?” Harry asks. Then he does a double take back at Louis. “You went out there in just your boxers, and there are people here?”

“Your boxers, technically,” Louis says. “But otherwise, yeah.”

“Huh,” Harry says, then chuckles. “Well, today should be fun.”

It turns out to be their mothers awake already, moving around each other in the kitchen, unpacking doughnuts and bagels and to-go cups of coffee and tea.

“Here,” Anne says, pressing a coffee into Louis’ hands and a tea into Harry’s. “Drink fast, and grab something to eat. Once you’re done, we’ll head out.”

“To where?”

She and Jay share a grin. “You’ll see.”

Harry, stomach rumbling, eats his bagel in three huge bites, shoveling down a banana as well. Once the trash is thrown away and the last bit of clothing is cleaned up from the corners of the bedroom, Jay and Anne usher Harry and Louis out the door.

“Your keys are in your car,” Jay says. “Follow us there.”

“Follow you where?”

Still no answer.

“Hey,” Harry says as they pull away from the apartment for the last time. “Where’s our U-Haul?”

“Huh,” Louis says, rubbing at his eye sleepily. “I have no idea.”

Harry recognizes where they are when Jay’s car turns left on their new street. The U-Haul is parked out front of their little cottage, but that’s the least interesting thing happening at their brand new house.

Niall, Liam, and Jack are on the roof, hammering new shingles into place. Nick and Kendall are repainting the front door a bright, cheery green. Louis’ stepdad Dan is mowing the lawn, while Stan and Ed are elbow-deep in soil and fertilizer, planting rosebushes by the front door.

“C’mon,” Jay tells them, leading them inside. Louis takes Harry’s hand and they walk into their home, the empty rooms replaced with their familiar furniture, the place alive with the sounds and voices of their favorite people.

“About time you two showed up,” Liam grins, handing them a bag. Louis opens it and laughs, showing the contents to Harry: two pairs of shorts, two t-shirts, even a hair tie.

“What is all this?” Harry asks in awe. Niall appears, wiping sweat off his brow and swigging from a water bottle.

“It’s two people who do so much for others that they deserve something nice for themselves every once in a while,” he says with a warm smile. Zayn makes a face at his sweaty shirt, so he bends and rubs his wet hair on Zayn’s arm.

“Eurgh,” Zayn laughs, pinching lightly at Niall’s arm, who dances away, cackling. He turns to Louis and Harry, eyes bright. “It’s people who love you. That’s all.”

And so Harry slips his hand around Louis’ waist, and Louis leans against his side. Their fingers fold together, brand new rings clinking against each other. They watch as Jesy and Jae and Amal and Jade move their beaten thirdhand dining table into place by a wide window. They watch Gemma string some of Harry’s pictures on a wire along a wall, Leigh helping choose which to hang up. They watch Georgia and Lottie and Nick shelve their movie collection and laugh at their taste. They watch Chandler and Perrie and Darcy start a packing peanut fight.

They watch as all different parts of their lives combine into this madness, this happy, wonderful, bright madness.

They watch as their beginning unfolds.

And Harry can’t wait to get started.