It’s become a bit of a habit already, waking up alone in Louis’s hotel rooms. Louis never wants to be by himself at nights, but as far as Steve can tell, he doesn't really know how to be around anyone either. Steve’s never really had issues sleeping through the night before, but he keeps waking at all hours lately, reaching out to find Louis’s side of the bed stone cold.
Not that he ever goes far: the lounge, the kitchenette, the balcony. Steve found him in the hotel bar once, nursing a gin and tonic that was mostly gin, staring at his phone like he was expecting someone to call.
This time, Louis’s curled up on the sofa in the lounge, knees hugged to his chest and a blanket around his shoulders. He’s watching ESPN with the sound off, two teams of brown men in white uniforms standing around in a grassy field. There’s a mostly burnt-down blunt in an ashtray on the coffee table beside his phone and an empty cup of tea. Louis glances over his shoulder when he hears him. “Hey, mate.”
Steve leans against the doorway to the bedroom, never quite sure of how close to get on nights like this. “D’you want to be alone?”
“Nah, sit,” Louis says, unnecessarily scooting over on the massive sofa to make room for him. He huddles back in on himself, drawing his blanket closer. “Just couldn’t sleep, you know how it is.”
Steve doesn’t really know him well enough to know how it is, suspects he won’t ever really get a chance to. Right now, he gets to be the person Louis lets into his bed at the end of the night. For however long this thing lasts, at least. They’re almost done with scheduled promo for “Just Hold On,” though; Steve doesn’t really have his hopes up for anything after that.
He takes a seat beside him, propping his bare feet up on the coffee table and glancing at the screen with vague disinterest. “Who’s winning?”
Louis doesn’t meet his eyes or drop his head to Steve’s shoulder or curl up against him. Some nights he’s easier to look after than others. “Too early to tell.”
“Mm,” Steve hums, watching a player jump to catch a flying ball and then skidding across the grass. Once in real time, once in slow motion. “You want to eat something?”
“Nah,” Louis mutters, as expected. He’s never really hungry unless fast food’s on offer, and even then he doesn’t eat much. In the short time Steve’s known him, Louis’s lost his mother, broken up with his girlfriend and fought some sort of custody dispute over his baby boy that involved lawyers and a violent panic attack in the backseat of a taxi. He smokes too many cigarettes and parties a bit harder than Steve thinks Louis would like for anyone to notice. He looks exhausted before he puts on his face and eye stuff in the mornings, his cheeks gaunt and bruises dark under his eyes.
The first time he got a glimpse of the dark cloud that hangs over Louis’s head, Louis had been slouched on a couch in Steve’s studio in LA, throwing ideas back and forth with him before they settled on the concept for Just Hold On. “There’s this song I’ve been trying to write for ages,” Louis had said around a thick lungful of smoke. “This person feels like the only thing that makes perfect sense to you out of everyone in the world, and yet you can’t fucking have them.”
“Sure, yeah, I like it. Have you got any lyrics in mind?”
Louis had rubbed his eyes, sighing. He’d been baked like a cake already; Steve’s never really liked to mix work and drugs, but it had seemed to help Louis relax and brainstorm. “Nah, mate, I’ve never had the balls to write it. Maybe something stupid and sentimental like We’ve got all this history, but I’d give it all up if it could be just you and me.”
Steve had nodded his head, swiveling in his desk chair as he scribbled down the idea. “So why can’t you be with this person, like, what’s the thing that’s in the way?”
Louis had stared resolutely at the ceiling. “God,” he’d muttered, tousling his perfectly coiffed hair. “Everything.”
On screen, green and orange-clad supporters jump out of their seats, waving flags and cheering. Steve doesn’t really have any idea how this game works. He nudges Louis’s shoulder with his own. “I can get us some room service if you want. Something greasy? Bacon and fries.”
Louis almost smiles at him. “Your feeding kink is showing.”
Steve holds his gaze, taking in his blown pupils in the dim light. Any kid in their right mind would have the munchies right now, but the only thing on the coffee table is that empty cup of tea. “Want something from the mini bar?”
“Nah,” Louis says, turning back to the screen. It’s quiet for a while, almost companionable, except for how Louis’s still hugging himself a little too tightly. “Bangladesh’s playing a shit game. This is truly awful.”
Steve stretches to rest an arm on the back of the sofa behind Louis, his fingers carding through the curls behind Louis’s right ear. “Come back to bed, then. I’ll help you sleep.”
“Mm.” Louis turns his head to nuzzle Steve’s shoulder, just once. “Not yet.”
Louis’s phone is right there beside his blunt and his cup of tea, quiet. All of it is heartbreaking. “Maybe you should just call him,” Steve says, before he can remember any of the reasons why he shouldn’t. “Maybe it would help.”
Louis pulls back to look at him for a long, horrible moment. Steve’s starting to understand how he works by now, how Louis’s just layers upon layers upon layers of defense mechanisms and barbed wire and old hurt. Just when it feels like Louis’s lowered his guard a little, there’s another seemingly insurmountable wall of secrets and self-defense strategies and self-loathing, and then another, and then another.
“I’ve got an internet connection,” Steve says cautiously into the ensuing silence. “I’ve seen the questions and conversation topics you’ve put on the interview blacklist. I can put two and two together.”
He doesn’t say I saw you two backstage at the X Factor in December, because he still doesn’t really understand what he saw. The green room had been full of people who loved Louis, his siblings and bandmates and friends from home, and Louis had kept it together so stubbornly that he was sweating by the time he’d left with his band. Niall and Liam had shaken Steve’s hand and patted Louis’s back, but Harry had mostly lingered at the back of the room, out of the way. Steve hadn’t missed the way he’d looked at Louis, though, or the way Louis’s eyes seemed to flicker towards him all night. By the time Louis had crawled into Steve’s hotel bed the next morning, he’d been shaking with exhaustion, his eyes bloodshot and his cheeks pink. Steve never asked him where he’d spent the night, just turned him onto all fours and held him down and fucked him ‘til he passed out.
Louis’s eyes are narrowed, guarded, hard. He purses his lips tightly, something in his jaw jumping. “And what is it that you think you’ve put together, exactly?”
Steve’s seen enough wildlife documentaries to know when to back down. “We don’t have to talk about it.”
“No, spit it out, then,” Louis says sharply, turning the TV off. “What is it you think you’ve got figured out about me?”
“Your secrets are safe with me, you know that, right?”
“I know that,” Louis says impatiently. He looks different with the lights off, the sharp angles of his face highlighted by the city lights coming in from the window. Christ, Steve could get so lost in this kid, if there was any chance Louis would let him or any chance that Steve could make it out again unscathed. “Don’t talk to me like I don’t know that. You think I’d have you ‘round like this if I didn’t trust you?”
Have you ‘round. So that’s what they’re calling it. “I’m just trying to be your friend here, Lou.”
“Answer the question, then.”
Steve bites the bullet, motioning towards Louis’s deafeningly quiet phone. “It’s Harry, isn’t it?”
It takes a few moments before Louis deflates like a balloon, leaning forwards on the couch to drop his elbows to his knees and his head into his hands. “Fuck. Don’t do this right now.”
“I’m just trying to look after you. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—”
“I can look after myself,” Louis snaps.
“Obviously,” Steve agrees, his hands balling into fists to stop himself from reaching out. “You’re holding everything together way better than I would’ve—”
“Don’t have much of a choice, do I? I’ve got my sisters and little brother and one-year-old son and a fucking career and half the world watching. I can’t just fall apart, even if I wanted to.”
That’s the thing, though, that Steve doesn’t think Louis’s realised. He’s been falling apart for as long as Steve’s known him, holding onto things with increasingly whitening knuckles. At some point he’s inevitably going to buckle under the pressure. “You’re so lonely, Lou. You don’t have to be.”
Louis sounds like he’s on the verge of tears, but Steve knows he won’t let himself cry in front of him. The blanket’s slipped off his slight shoulders. “Fuck, isn’t everyone in this industry?”
“Not like you, they’re not.” Steve swallows against the lump in his throat. “Maybe you should just give him a call.”
Louis sighs, exasperated. “It’s complicated.”
Louis lights up the remainder of his blunt, taking a deep drag before slouching back against the couch. “You know, he’s only ever met Freddie once,” he says after a while. “He’s in LA all the time and we just… don’t talk. He just had a birthday party in West Hollywood.” He looks away, chewing at his lip. “That’s ten fucking miles away. He didn’t even invite me.”
Steve doesn’t know how to stop his own heart from breaking, much less Louis’s. “How often do you almost call him?”
“Reach out, Lou. If not to him, then to someone else. You’re barely sleeping.”
Louis shrugs, smiling in a way that doesn’t reach his eyes. He rubs a hand over Steve’s thigh, squeezes briefly at his knee. “You’re a good mate.”
Steve covers Louis’s hand with his own. On another night, Louis would’ve linked their fingers together and maybe leaned in to kiss him. Steve’s always loved the taste of weed in Louis’s mouth. “Try to be.”
Louis squeezes his fingers. “Just give me a minute, yeah?”
Steve lets go of him and heads back to the bedroom. He glances at the time on the microwave on his way back to confirm that yep, they’ll both be wrecked for their first radio interview in the morning.
Louis makes a sound; Steve stops in the doorway to glance back at him. “Will you fuck me after?” Louis asks cautiously. His phone’s in his hand. “Just… hard, so I can get to sleep.”
Steve lets out a sigh. Everything about Louis just makes him so bottomlessly sad. “Yeah, of course. Just wake me up if I’m out by the time you turn in.”
“Anytime,” Steve says, shutting the door beside himself and pressing his ear against it. He shouldn’t eavesdrop, but he can’t help himself.
There are a few moments of silence, before he hears Louis murmur, “Oh, hey,” from across the other side of the door. He laughs a little, but it sounds strangled, close to tears again. “I didn’t think you’d pick up.”
Steve backs away from the door, aching all over. He digs through Louis’s suitcase for lube and condoms and sets them them on his nightstand, ready for whenever Louis needs to be put back together again.