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Elementary

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Most parents, Harry has come to discover in his first year of teaching kindergarten, are pieces of shit.

That probably isn’t entirely accurate-- even just statistically speaking, every parent can’t be shit. His own parents, for example, were always pretty great. But it’s hard not to get that impression when you deal with parents every day and it’s very rarely in a “thanks for doing a great job” capacity, on either side. Most of his parent interactions involve him sending notes home in the kids’ folders about words they’ve said in class that they certainly didn’t learn on Sesame Street, or meetings about how angry parents are that their kids are falling behind when they haven’t made an effort to help with homework, or writing up incident reports for the guidance counselor about tidbits some innocent kid passes on about how daddy grows funny plants in his closet.

Most parents, it seems to Harry, are just assholes who put themselves before their kids and think that’s alright.

It only gets worse when you consider the parents of the little five and six year-olds on the community football team that he volunteers coaching. They have the nerve to complain to him that their kids don’t get enough field time, as if Harry doesn’t have multiple pages on his clipboard calculating playing time of each child down to the minute to make sure it’s equal. They drop their kids off late to practice or --even worse-- pick them up late, leaving Harry all too familiar with the sad look in a kid’s eyes when they’ve been sitting with coach for an hour after practice because mom and dad forgot about them. They accuse him of being too soft on the kids, of being too hard on the kids, and generally just do a wonderful job of convincing him that parents are usually no more mature than the tots they pass off to him.

The kids make it worth it though, and Harry’s too weak to even attempt to deny that. He loves everything about working with them-- their silly questions, the joy on their faces, the way they look at you like you’re the best thing in the world. However frustrated he gets with the adults he has to deal with as a teacher and a coach, he melts every time a little hand tugs on his sleeve. He’s embarrassingly soft when it comes to kids, which is probably how he got roped into coaching this team anyways, considering that he’s absolutely rubbish at footie and wouldn’t have been caught dead at a game if it weren’t for eleven eager faces looking up at him before each one.

It takes a ridiculous amount of preparation to muddle his way through coaching, which is why Harry is attempting to interpret a play diagram he found online at his desk as his students start trickling into the classroom. They’re all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed first thing in the morning (or at least, the ones whose parents put them to bed at a decent hour are), rushing up to Harry to show him their temporary tattoos and hair bows and whatever else has them sparkling with delight, and he’s more than relieved to shove the diagram under a stack of graded papers and listen to them with all the rapt attention they crave.

One by one the kids make their way to their desks, backpacks stored snugly in their cubbies, chattering amongst themselves as the final minutes leading up to the school day tick away. He’s just about to gather the morning’s worksheets and head to the front when one final visitor approaches, a caramel-skinned little girl with lopsided curly pigtails named Aubrey who also happened to be on Harry’s team. “Hey, superstar, good morning,” he tells her with a grin.

She beams back at him. “Good morning, Mr. Styles!” she replies cheerily, though it comes out closer to ‘misser syles.’ “What are we gonna do today?”

“We are going to be practicing handwriting in the morning, and then after recess I have a special craft for Valentine’s day!” He wiggles his eyebrows and leans in close, as if to whisper a secret in her ear. “Don’t tell anyone I told you, but there will be glitter involved.”

He pulls back just in time to see her eyes sparkle like they were full of the stuff. “I love glitter!” she exclaims, loudly enough that it’s clear she’s a little too young to understand secrets. “My daddy and I have like one hundred tubes of glitter at my house!”

“Your daddy sounds like a pro,” Harry says approvingly.

“He is, he’s a super good art-er.” She wrings her hands excitedly and barrels on before Harry can even correct her grammar. “My daddy says that you’re a rubbish footie coach!”

She says it with such childlike innocence that he’s halfway to a smile and a nod before he even realizes that he’s just been insulted. “Hey,” he says, drawing the word out with a pout, “why am I rubbish?”

For a moment she just looks puzzled, but then she throws her hands up in a shrug and tilts her head curiously at him. “Maybe you need to use more glitter.”

Harry schools his face into an expression of polite serenity. “Well, you can tell him that I’m focused on teaching you all to have fun, because that’s what’s important.”

It’s the most cliche line of bullshit Harry’s ever spoken, but luckily for him, Aubrey is too young to know that. She just nods and bounces away to her cubby, leaving Harry to stew at his desk for a minute as the conversation sinks in. Stupid, ungrateful parents, he thinks as he jots down a note about needing to collect permission slips for the upcoming field trip. He may or may not press down too hard and snap the lead off the end of his pencil.

But it’s a sign of how Harry has become disturbingly used to this kind of attitude from parents that his face is perfectly serene when he gets up from his desk a minute later and starts leading the tiny students in their morning stretches. It isn’t their fault, after all, he reminds himself as they all wiggle their fingers towards the ceiling. Some people are just assholes.

The next morning Aubrey is back at his desk before class, this time skipping the small talk and getting straight down to business. “My daddy says that winning is what’s fun, so you ought to teach us how to do that instead.”

Way to teach your daughter to place too much value on competition, jerk, Harry silently fumes. All that comes out of his mouth is a very cool, “You can tell him that if he thinks he can do a better job, he’s certainly welcome to try.”

It comes out a little harsher than Harry intended, but before he can correct himself, she’s already bounded away. Keep your cool, Harry. Ignore it. He’s probably just some overly opinionated slob who doesn’t know anything about football anyways.

The thought calms him somewhat, and he’s actually quite at peace with the whole situation right up until Aubrey approaches him for the third morning in a row and blurts out, “My daddy says he could coach circles around you.”

“You can tell your daddy--” Harry cuts himself off and takes a deep breath instead of finishing his sentence, which is a good thing because the ending he had in mind was definitely not something appropriate to say to a six year-old. It’s a few calming breaths later that he trusts himself to continue. “Can you ask your daddy to come talk to me after practice today, Aubrey? I’d like to chat with him.” He’s very proud of how civil it sounds.

“Is it about glitter, Mr. Styles?” Aubrey asks sweetly, a little dimple appearing on one cheek. It highlights the fact that her barrettes are lopsided.

He offers her a little smile of his own. “Something like that. Okay, go find your seat, sweetheart, we’ve got a busy day!”

It’s more than a little distracting, going through practice that evening knowing that his faceless hater is somewhere in the huddle of parents watching practice from the sidelines. Why has he never paid attention to who comes with Aubrey? Maybe if he had, he’d at least be able to shoot the prick a couple of glares throughout the drills, get him primed for the stern talk he has planned for the end of the evening.

In retrospect he may have taught the new maneuver with the wrong foot, but at least he has the details and progression of his speech memorized. “Your opinions about my coaching style or ability aside, you’re sending her the wrong message here,” he rehearses as he returns the balls and cones to the shed behind the field. “She’s young, she’s soaking it all up like a sponge, and you’re basically telling her that her experience doesn’t matter unless she wins. And furthermore, using her as a messenger to communicate your disapproval puts her in the middle of conflict that she doesn’t need to be a part of, and it’s irresponsible. You ought to be embarrassed.”

“Believe me,” comes a voice from behind Harry, “I am mortified.”

Whoever Harry is expecting to see standing there in the entrance to the shed when he whips around, it isn’t the Greek god he finds. The guy is so good-looking it isn’t fair, somehow making the dad vibe of wearing sweatpants and toting a Dora the Explorer duffel bag look sexy. He’s Hot Dad Hall of Fame material. He’s in league with Ryan Reynolds, with Johnny Depp. Hell, he could give David Beckham a run for his money, and everyone knew Becks was damn near unbeatable.

He must either have not noticed that Harry was staring at him with mouth slightly agog or not cared, because he’s barrelled on in the seconds of Harry’s stunned silence. “I probably should have known better than to use a kid as a go-between, she doesn’t even know how to spell the word tone, much less convey it. You’ll have to excuse me, Mr. Styles, I wasn’t serious about any of it, I was just teasing. I genuinely meant no offense. I didn’t realize that Aubrey was making it seem like I was actually being so rude to you--”

“It’s okay,” Harry found himself saying, tearing his gaze away from feathery brown fringe and tan skin and bright blue eyes to look at the ground, which seemed significantly less creepy. “I got a little too riled up about it anyways. I’ve heard worse.” His face is flaming, because apparently he’s a thirteen year-old girl.

“I just love a bit of good-natured trash-talking, I swear,” the man continues. “Especially when it comes to football, since I play it.”

“Then you know that you weren’t that far off,” Harry says ruefully, looking up once more with a breathy little laugh. “I really am a rubbish coach. You could probably replace the footballs with tennis balls and it’d take me a week to notice.”

Aubrey’s father is at least decent enough not to lie to him. Instead he gives a wry grin and spreads his hands in a shrug not unlike Aubrey’s cherubic one. “You’ve got great energy, though!”

“I’m probably a better cheerleader than a coach. I’ll happily cheer them on all the way to the goal. Which will probably be the wrong goal, because I can never remember which one is ours.” He hopes that he’s surreptitious as he wipes his sweaty palm on his pants before offering his hand to the man to shake. “I’m Harry, by the way.”

“Louis,” comes the reply. “Louis Tomlinson.” The hand that grips his is soft and slender and probably shouldn’t make Harry swoon a little. It does. A little of that fringe falls into Louis’ eyes as he cocks his head. “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, because again, I mean absolutely no offense, but if you ever want some help with coaching, I could lend a hand. I never miss a practice, so if you need help with-- I don’t know, wrangling them or something, I could, erm--”

“I would love that,” Harry blurts out as soon as he finds the presence of mind to. “Please, god, yeah. I need all the help I can get.”

“Great,” Louis beams, “I’ll give you my number and we’ll work out the details. I think she’s got some paper in here somewhere…”

He has to pull his hand away to dig through the Dora bag (Harry hadn’t realized they were still shaking and sincerely hopes he wasn’t doing anything embarrassing like holding onto it for dear life) and eventually comes out with some writing material. His number winds up scrawled with fuschia crayon on a piece of Lisa Frank stationary that features puppies eating ice cream around the edges, but Harry tucks it into his clipboard like it’s a rare and ancient manuscript.

“Well, I’ll, uh, see you next practice, then,” Louis says as he backs away, half tripping over a bag of knee pads as he does. He catches himself on the doorframe and continues on, still looking at Harry. “Or before then. If you need to. Or want to. I’m around, so. I’ll-- alright, goodbye.” And then he’s gone, exiting the shed into the fading sunlight and leaving Harry to stare after him in bemusement.

Once there’s been time for the thrill of the moment to settle down a little bit, Harry sets in with damage control in the wake of his libido running rampant. “He’s a father,” he tells himself sternly as he washes dishes in his one-room flat later that night, “which means all probability is that he’s straight. And looking like that, probably the counterpart of some Amazonian goddess.” If he finishes the sentiment at a grumble, he can’t be blamed. What’s a man to do?

He can absolutely be held accountable, however, for the fact that he doesn’t let it go after that. He ought to leave well enough alone, but instead he finds himself nagged by curiosity all the next morning. When it’s well into the afternoon and the kids are all engaged in free time until it’s time to go home and Harry is still unable to let it go, he at last resigns himself to the fact that he’s trash and plops down in the miniature chair next to Aubrey. She’s peacefully coloring in a printout of smiling flowers with a series of bright blue scribbles, and positively beams up at Harry when he joins her.

“That is quite the masterpiece, Aubrey,” he praises her, kissing his fingertips like a chef to make her giggle. “I like all the different shades of blue you used. It’s beautiful.”

“Thank you! Blue is my favorite color.”

Harry absolutely does not think about Louis’ eyes. “It’s a pretty great color. Are they all blue, or are there other colors on those flowers, too?”

“Just blue, I think. They’re special blue flowers. But I’m done with that now,” Aubrey replies, placing the coloring page carefully aside and taking a blank piece of paper from a nearby stack. “I’m going to draw my own picture now. What can I draw, Mr. Styles?”

You’re trash, Harry tells himself once before he answers, just for good measure. “Well, you could draw your family.”

“Okay!” the little girl returns excitedly, so easily swayed that Harry manages to feel even worse about his little trick. “I can draw me and my daddy!”

Aubrey’s braid is uneven, Harry notices as she ducks her head to begin drawing, and as always he fights the urge to tidy her hair. He watches with fondness for a moment as her clumsy fingers draw a few disproportionate stick figures without any semblance of a torso. “Do you, uh, have a mommy too?”

“No, just a daddy. And a fish,” she adds thoughtfully, grabbing for an orange crayon and adding a vaguely fish-like figure that’s larger than either person to the page.

He really, really ought to leave it there. He doesn’t. “Does your daddy ever like to go on dates with girls?” he asks, holding his breath and praying to the patron saint of kindergarten teachers that the unconquerable oversharing nature of little kids pulls through for him just this once.

Aubrey looks up at him with brow furrowed, in that trademark expression that every kid seems to be born knowing that clearly communicates the sentiment of Why Is This Grown-Up So Dumb? “Why would Daddy go on dates with girls?” she asks, her little button nose crinkling. “He says our family is special because someday I’m gonna have two daddies. Daddies are boys, Mr. Styles, not girls.”

Harry could swear that the clouds part above him and heaven shines down its light on him, but he tries to keep a neutral expression. It’s all he can do to redirect the line of conversation. “Is your fish a boy or a girl?”

The decoy works and Aubrey launches excitedly into a lengthy discussion of her fish’s appearance, lifestyle and personality, and Harry lets his mind wander a little to absorb this information. It’s not that he plans to do anything with it, that would be ridiculous. He’s just going to tuck that fascinating little tidbit away so that he can quench that curiosity and move on.

He honestly believes that, too, right up until Friday morning when he gets a phone call from one of the parents who was supposed to be chaperoning their field trip to the museum today, saying that something has come up at work and she can’t come along today. Harry feels his blood pressure instantly spike. “Right, good thing it’s not like we have to have a certain number of chaperones in order to be allowed to go on a field trip or anything,” he mutters sarcastically after he hangs up, kneading his temples. “Not like you’ve just single-handedly ruined the field trip an hour before we’re due to leave, too short notice even to find anyone to cover you--”

Harry freezes, eyes popping open mid-gripe and fluttering to the messenger bag containing all the ungraded papers and game plans he was planning to work on during the bus ride. He doesn’t need x-ray vision to clearly see the hot pink paper that has Louis Tomlinson’s number on it. There’s a brief second where he nearly convinces himself not to call, because he doesn’t even really know the guy and he hasn’t spoken to him since the other night at practice and this is kind of a really big favor--

But then he imagines the crushing disappointment on twenty-five little faces if he has to tell his class that they won’t be going to the paleontology museum after all, and he’s digging in his bag before he knows it.

The voice that picks up the phone on the fifth ring is deeply confused. “Hello?”

“Uh, hi,” Harry starts, then clears his throat when it comes out kind of pitchy. “Hi, is this Louis Tomlinson?”

“Who is this?”

“Er, Harry. Harry Styles.”

“Oh, Harry!” The tone of tense confusion leaves Louis’ voice at once, replaced with relief and recognition. “You sound different over the phone, I was worried for a second my number had leaked again or something. What’s up?”

Harry pushes down his confusion at Louis’ response and clears his throat again. “Listen, I know this is extremely short notice and I hate to even ask, but I had to at least try…”

“Oh?” Louis asks, his voice a little higher than before.

“If you’re not busy today, do you think you could come along on Aubrey’s field trip to the museum? One of the chaperones cancelled and if we don’t find a replacement we can’t go and the kids have been looking forward to this for absolute ages and it would just really be great if you could come. No pressure though, it’s totally understandable if you can’t.” It all seems to rush out of Harry in a single puff of air.

“Oh. Oh,” Louis says after a moment, giving a laugh that would almost sound nervous if Harry didn’t know better. “The field trip, right. Yeah, I can-- uh, I can move some things around, yeah. What-- uh, what time are you leaving?”

“Really? Oh that’s incredible, you’ve really saved the day.” Relief floods through Harry, and he sags back into his chair with a sigh. “We leave at nine.”

There’s exactly long enough of a pause where someone might pull back and check the time on their phone before Harry hears a muffled swear from the other end of the line. Louis’ voice comes back, louder. “Okay, I’m on my way. There’s not a dress code, is there? Do I need to like, bring anything? Cash for the entrance fee?”

“No, no, you’re perfectly fine, we’ll cover your ticket,” Harry rushes to assure him, though he knows that by ‘we’ he really means that it’ll be coming out of his own pocket, which is lined with more lint than spare cash. “Come just as you are. I can’t stress enough how much of a favor you’re doing me.”

There’s a breathy little laugh. “Of course. Listen, I’m hopping in the car now, I’ll be there as quick as I can, yeah? See you soon.”

“See you soon,” Harry echoes, and hangs up with a grin. It takes about thirty seconds after that for the nervousness to settle in as he realizes this means actually facing Louis. “One obstacle at a time,” he mumbles to himself before launching into a flurry of preparation.

By 8:57 he’s curbside in front of the school with all the kids and chaperones loaded onto the bus, chewing his thumbnail and clutching his clipboard protectively as he anxiously paces the sidewalk. Louis still hasn’t arrived but Harry refuses to give up hope. He said he’d be here, he thinks firmly. If he wasn’t planning on coming, he would have just said no…

Just then a car comes whipping into the parking lot faster than is perhaps wise in a place packed with children, pulling into a parking space and almost immediately exited by a very flustered Louis. It’s a sleek and obviously very expensive Jaguar, Harry notes with eyebrows raised, but one with four doors and a bulky, high-end car seat in the back. Louis doesn’t seem to match it in the least, wearing a tee shirt, sweatpants and what appear to be cleats. He hops on one foot as he attempts to rid himself of the shoes, tossing them roughly into the vehicle before grabbing a wallet and a pair of flip flops and jogging across the parking lot in his socks.

“I’m here, I’m here,” he says breathlessly, throwing the flip flops down on the sidewalk in front of Harry and slipping them on over his socks. He gives Harry a salute, cheeks flushed from his hurry. “Reporting for duty.”

“I was worried you weren’t going to come after all,” Harry says with a smile, sounding more relieved than he intended. “What were you doing before I called?”

“Oh, you know, just kicking the ball around.” Louis shrugs and looks down at his feet, then winces. “Don’t judge me for the dad meme socks-with-sandals look, yeah? I didn’t have time for a wardrobe change.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Harry says, grinning wider, before their conversation is interrupted by the harsh beep of the bus’ horn. “Come on, let’s go. Aubrey saved you a seat towards the back.”

They board in a hurry, Harry in the first seat and Louis scooting his way to the middle where Aubrey bounces up and down with excitement at his approach. He kisses her cheek and then shakes the hand of about eight other kindergarteners that he’s joyously introduced to, eyes crinkling with kindness at the chatter of the children.

Harry absolutely does not watch how gently and energetically Louis interacts with the class on the bus ride, or as they peruse through the museum all morning. That would be absurd, but if Harry were watching, he’d see that Louis seemed at ease with a gaggle of children pulling him in every which direction. Maybe it was the way that he seemed to burst with a childlike energy himself, a genuine delight at the marvels of dinosaur bones and geodes and whatever else he came across. At the same time, he maintained control of the kids assigned to his group, reining them in when they got too wild and gently redirecting their curious fingers whenever they started inching closer to exhibits labeled do not touch.

He’s got the makings of a teacher, Harry finds himself musing as they stand in the crowded lobby listening to a lecturer talk about the tools they use to excavate fossils. Louis is a few feet away, too engrossed in the talk to notice Harry’s gaze. Either that or he’s just a really fantastic dad.

Another surge of people must enter the room because suddenly Harry finds himself pushed forward and knocked off balance, legs that he never quite grew into even a decade after puberty stumbling forward and sending him bumping into Louis. Strong hands catch him by the shoulders, and suddenly he’s six inches away from those marvelously bright eyes. “Oh, H-- Mr. Styles. Careful there. No wipeouts in the middle of the tour.”

“I want you to coach the kids,” Harry blurts out all at once, unsure if he’s even speaking English, it’s said so fast. Louis blinks at him in surprise and Harry has the presence of mind to flush a little in embarrassment. “I mean-- god, you must think I’m so rude, here you are going out of your way to do me a major favor and here I am asking you for another. You’re just really great with the kids and I really am miserable at pretending to know anything about football and I swear I’m not usually like this, I’m just… a little wonky today.” You make me feel dizzy.

“No, it’s fine,” Louis assures him, voice colored with surprise and perhaps just a hint of amusement. “I’d love to. Like I said, I’d be more than happy to help. We’d be a dream team at coaching. I’ll teach them how to play football and you’ll teach them how to win graciously.”

“A dream team,” Harry repeats, somewhat vacantly.

“I’ll uh, I’ll draw up some plans and bring them to practice on Monday,” Louis says evenly, smiling widely at Harry before turning his attention back to the speaker.

In doing so he releases his hold on Harry’s shoulders, and Harry realizes that for the second time in the very brief period he’s known Louis, they’ve had touches linger longer than perhaps was normal and he hadn’t even noticed. At least this time he doesn't have to worry if he's the one who hung on too long. He spends the rest of the afternoon idly wondering if he’s developing some sort of nerve damage or if he’s really just that hopeless.

It isn’t hard for Harry to admit that Louis is easily ten times the coach Harry ever was. Harry has the patience and enthusiasm, sure, but Louis actually knows how to play the sport. He shows up to every practice with new skills to teach, simple enough that even kids as young as these have no problem keeping up, yet effective enough that they actually appear to be playing football now rather than just running around in circles.

For all of Louis’ smack talk about winning, he didn't turn out to be one of those coaches who demanded perfection. He’s got a competitive gleam in his eyes, sure, and when they actually start winning their Saturday morning matches against the other kindergarten teams he perhaps gets a little too gleeful, but one raised eyebrow from Harry and Louis was always sure to praise effort rather than results. They really are a dream team when it comes to coaching, and if Harry ever feels suspicious about the odds of having found a decent soccer dad who wanted to help and actually had the know-how to do it, he always forgot to question it when he was busy reveling in the joy on the kids’ faces.

That is, until the team is practicing passes one evening and a flash of light in the distance catches Harry's attention. When he looks up he doesn't see anything, returning to reviewing the schedule without concern, but the next time he glances up he sees Louis frozen at the edge of the field, staring in the direction of the flash. Seconds later more flashes follow, and Harry realizes with surprise that there's more faces watching the game from the parking lot today, unfamiliar ones with cameras that looked a little too fancy to be proud parents taking shots for the scrapbook.

Louis’ completely ignoring the kids now, striding over to the strangers with fisted hands, and Harry starts to jog after him with a sinking feeling. Louis is toe-to-toe with one man when he arrives, face flushed with anger and words hissing out through clenched teeth. “You have no right to be here,” he’s saying hotly, finger an inch from the man's face. “This is an invasion of privacy!”

“It's a public park,” one of the other men replies with an air of disinterest. “We've as much right as anyone to be here.”

Harry sees Louis’ eyes narrow and moves forward to place a calming hand on his shoulder, but Louis shrugs it off before Harry can say a word. “These kids have nothing to do with anything,” comes Louis’ biting reply. “They're innocent. Are you going to go around asking every parent here for permission before you go printing this crap for a couple of quid? Of all the disrespectful places to show up!”

He's been so focused on trying to discover the riddle of Louis’ words that Harry doesn't even notice Aubrey approaching until she's tugging at the hem of Louis’ jacket with wide eyes. “Daddy? What's going on?”

Everything is suspended for a moment and then it all erupts into a storm of flashes and shouts. Harry hears Aubrey gasp and the next thing he can see past the blinding lights is Louis’ stepping in front of her. “Aubrey, please, get back,” he says desperately, trying to block as many lenses as he can with his body. “Stop it!” he barks at the crowd, his voice sharper than Harry's ever heard before.

Harry doesn't hesitate. He scoops up Aubrey into his arms, tucking her face into the crook of his neck, and takes off away from the fray as fast as he can. “Take five, to the water cooler!” he calls to the kids as he approaches, and soon there is a gaggle of confused but compliant children following him to the far end of the field.

He doesn't set Aubrey down until they're as far as possible from the chaos, still shielding her with his body though he isn't sure why. She holds tightly to his legs, peeping one wide eye around him to look back at where Louis still stood. “Don't worry,” he says before Aubrey can even ask, confident in his own words without really having caused to be. “Daddy will take care of it.”

Eventually she releases her grip on him and joins the other kids sipping their water and chattering obliviously. Harry stands between them and the dying confusion like a sentinel. By now the parents have started nervously inching towards the kids and the last of the strangers were scattering in the face of Louis’ wrath.

“We're going to go ahead and call practice early today,” Harry says loudly, and the kids all chorus their happiness at the news. “Everyone go home and rest up, and I’ll see you champs first thing tomorrow for the game!” They run to their parents, and Aubrey, who has been chattering excitedly about her sleepover tonight with Sarah since 3 days ago, immediately takes her friend's hand. She looks back at Harry uncertainly, then glances down the field to where her father is pacing with a kind of nervous energy. “It's okay sweetie, you go ahead,” he says softly, nodding to her. “I'll let your daddy know that you're with Sarah and her mom.”

“Thanks Mr. Styles!” Aubrey needs no further encouragement to let herself be pulled along towards the cars with Sarah. One by one the kids leave with their parents, Harry doing his best to studiously avoid the questioning glances of the adults. Soon he and Louis are the only ones remaining on the pitch.

Louis has yet to stop pacing. Harry cleans up the equipment, then finds a nice soft patch of grass and sits himself down on it, leaning back on his hands and watching calmly as Louis finishes working off whatever emotion has him moving so restlessly. The sun has almost set by the time Louis begins to make his way back to where Harry sits, plopping down on the ground beside him as they stare at the purpling sky together.

“I can't decide whether I'm more pissed off or embarrassed,” Louis finally says, and indeed it's hard to tell what makes his cheeks so pink. He’s got tears in his eyes.

Harry blinks over at him. “Do you want to explain what happened?”

“It's the goddamn media,” Louis spits out, though Harry knows the anger isn't directed towards him. “They think they've got a fucking right to everything, it's despicable. I don't want my child's face plastered all over some tabloid somewhere.”

“A tabloid? I’m confused, who were they? Why were they here taking pictures?”

Louis looks over at him, finally, and half a smile actually quirks at his lips. “You-- you don’t have any idea who I am, do you?”

Harry wracks his brains and comes up with nothing. What a bizarre thing to ask, after they’ve been coaching alongside each other for months. “I don’t suppose that the correct answer is ‘Louis Tomlinson, Aubrey’s dad,’ is it?”

“I’m a football player, Harry,” Louis says with a breathy laugh. “I play for Man U. Did you seriously not know that?”

“Oh.” Harry takes a few seconds to let that sink in. Suddenly it all makes sense-- the expensive car, the enthusiasm for the sport, his expert way of teaching the kids how the game is truly played. “So that’s why you’re so good. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I thought you knew! I don’t want to sound like I’m full of myself, but,” he shrugs, “I’m kind of a household name the past few years.”

Harry rolls his eyes at Louis. “Do I look like the kind of guy who knows the name of football players? I know exactly one, and that’s David Beckham, and that’s only because he’s exceptionally good-looking.”

“So what you’re saying is that if I were better-looking you’d know who I was?” There’s a devilish glint in his eye, but he doesn’t force Harry to respond. “Well, now you know two football players, I suppose.”

“I suppose I do.” They sit quietly together for a while longer, Harry silently reviewing the complete history of their time together in his mind. “So that time you subbed for that chaperone position and you showed up with your hair on fire wearing cleats, you were--?”

“At practice, yeah.”

“You left a practice for Premier League team to come on a kindergarten field trip?” Harry asks incredulously. “If I’d known that, I never would have called!”

“What are they going to do, kick their best player off of the team?” Louis grins devilishly, but then his face softens. “Aubrey comes first, my team knows that. She’s always been my priority, and always will be. One missed practice didn’t ruin me. I’m smashing it this season.”

He gets up and walks to the cooler, grabbing his sports drink from the table next to it and taking a swig. Harry watches him thoughtfully. “So those people, with the cameras, they were-- what, paparazzi? Here to take pictures of you?”

Louis’ face darkens as they return to the original topic, a scowl taking over his features. “And Aubrey. Which is the part that really fucking pisses me off. I understand that media bullshit is a part of my life, I signed up for that. But she’s six years old, and every time we go out we run the risk of her being photographed for money just because she’s my daughter. She’s terrified of the cameras, Harry.”

His voice is very quiet by the end, and Harry gets up too so he can look Louis in the eyes. “It’s not fair to either of you,” he says gently.

Louis just hangs his head. “Thank you for getting her out of there, by the way,” he mumbles after a moment. “For helping me protect her.”

“Of course,” Harry earnestly replies. “It seemed like you could handle them on your own, so I figured I’d do what I could for her. I saw she was scared, even if I didn’t really know what was going on.”

Louis’ eyes flick up to meet his. “I should have told you before. It was inevitable that they’d eventually catch wind of this, and a pro player teaching a little league team is like catnip to those people. I should have warned you this was coming. You must be pissed.”

“Pissed? No, I’m not pissed.” Louis tries to hide his relief by taking a casual swig of his drink. Harry feels his heart speed up before he continues, his breath reduced to just a flutter of oxygen through his lungs. “I’m just wondering how absolutely fired I’m going to be when the paparazzi blast pictures of you going on a date with your daughter’s teacher.”

It’s downright comical, the way that Louis gasps in the middle of taking a drink and winds up sputtering and coughing in his shock, except that Harry is too busy trying not to pee his pants with nervousness to appreciate it. “A date?” Louis croaks when he can breathe again, and for one split second Harry’s almost afraid that he’s going to tell Harry that he’s misunderstood everything and this has all been just a very unfortunate case of Harry making an ass out of himself. A decade or two passes before he continues. “Are you serious? You’d be interested in going out with me?”

Relief floods through Harry, and unlike Louis, he doesn’t try to hide it. “Christ, yes. If you keep coaching the team like you do and we win the little league tournament, I’ll even pay.”

Louis cards a hand through his hair and looks at Harry with bright eyes, half a smile playing at the corner of his mouth. “And what if we lose?”

Harry licks his lips. “You’ll just have to make it up to me.”

The effect on Louis is instantaneous, his pupils dilating as he takes a step closer to Harry. When he speaks, his voice is suddenly much lower than before. “So what you’re telling me is that I make out like a bandit either way.”

This is the part where Harry is supposed to say something witty, or at least vaguely intelligent. That’s how banter works, and he’s well aware of it. But Louis’ step forward has put them so close together that Harry’s entire field of vision is taken up by golden skin and blue eyes and Harry can’t think of a single word that’s in English, let alone one that makes sense in whatever conversation he’s supposed to be having with the creature before him.

Harry’s eyes drift shut. He can feel Louis’ breath tickling against his lips and he leans forward, not quite touching, so close they could exchange electrons. His lips fall open and so do Louis’, and Harry’s pulse is pounding so hard through his veins that he thinks the tremble of a heartbeat might send their lips brushing into one another and put an end to this moment of precipice.

“We shouldn’t.”

The words, filled with as much crushing disappointment as they inflict, make Louis’ lips just barely graze across Harry’s. It’s a fraction of a kiss. Harry could cry. Instead, he leans his forehead against Louis’ so that his lips are far enough from danger that he can answer. “No, we shouldn’t.”

“It’s not appropriate. You could lose your job.”

“It’s not appropriate. I could lose my job.” It’s difficult to tell whether Harry is repeating the words because his brain isn’t working well enough to generate any of his own, or if it’s because he’s actually convinced they’re worth giving a damn about.

Louis’ eyes must open, because Harry can feel his eyelashes fluttering against Harry’s cheek. “How long ‘til the end of the school year, again?”

Harry laughs, a wry laugh that still manages to come out breathy. “Two months.”

This is only the third time they’ve make true skin-to-skin contact, and this time, Harry is painfully aware of exactly how long it has lingered. Louis takes a step back and maybe they’ve accidentally become magnetized because Harry’s body feels compelled to follow. He only barely resists. Louis sucks in a quick breath and then lets it out slow, more of a sigh than anything else. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Harry.”

Either he got tired of waiting for words that never came or Louis just never intended to stick around to hear Harry’s reply in the first place, because he’s turning and walking away long before Harry can think of a damn thing to say.

Harry is a professional. He is a grown man who can absolutely put his feelings (both those arising in his heart and those with origins a little further south) for Louis aside to get through the season and the school year without losing it. He’s a very professional man, and that’s a thing he can handle.

That’s not to say that it isn’t hard, though. They’re together at practice three times a week now that the tournament is drawing closer, not to mention all the times that they casually --or at least somewhat casually-- run into each other when Louis is picking up Aubrey. It’s hard not to acknowledge that everything is different, when now there’s a countdown in Harry’s mind of exactly how long until the school year ends.

(It’s 9 days, 13 hours, and 27 minutes.)

With Louis at the head, the tournament isn’t even a competition. When the ref at the final match blows his whistle and signals their team’s victory, Louis immediately rushes onto the field to gather as many little athletes as possible into his arms. He still manages to meet Harry’s eyes over the heads of the horde, though, and he mouths something that looks suspiciously like dinner’s on you.

Harry feels a grin spread across his face that’s half pride in his team and half entirely selfish, running towards the fray and the excited faces waiting to greet him, feeling like he’s definitely won… twice.