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Empty Skies

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"We are currently forty-seven minutes late due to heavy snowfall," a kind voice echoed through the coach. "Next stop is Luton."

Harry raised a brow and looked out of the window into the dark night, only illuminated by the bright and thick snowflakes falling from the sky. They stuck to the window, covered the slowly passing landscape in a clean, white sheet.

"Excuse me?"

Harry turned his head, looking at a girl about his age standing in the aisle. She held a bright pink handbag and her orange hair, covered by a Mickey Mouse hat, fanned out over a matching pink, woollen shawl. Her coat was black and buttoned up to her neck.

"Is that seat taken?" she asked, pointing at the guitar case occupying the seat next to Harry.

Harry automatically scanned the coach, noticing it had suddenly filled with people. When he had got onto the train, it had still been almost empty. He smiled at the girl now, grabbing his guitar case. “Taken, yes, but I think it’s actually meant for people to sit on, so…” He trailed off, shrugging.

The girl smiled too, taking a step back to make room when Harry hurriedly got up to lift the guitar case and store it on the rack above their heads.

He spotted a suitcase next to her and pointed at it. "Want a hand with that?"

"That's nice. Thank you." She smiled again, taking a step aside to let Harry pick up the suitcase.

Once Harry had settled back down in his seat, she dropped into the one next to him, puffing a tired sigh. Harry glanced over at her, and she caught him, a smile spreading over her face, blue eyes sparkling.

"I'm not really fat," she said. "The coat only makes me look like it."

Harry frowned. Had he looked at her too sceptical? "I wasn't thinking you're fat."

Giving him a knowing look, she unbuttoned the coat and shrugged it off her shoulders. Underneath, she wore a green jumper two sizes too big on her, swallowing up her hands.

"Well," Harry commented. "Maybe it's because your clothes are all a few sizes too big on you."

"Nah," she answered. "Boyfriend look. It's considered cute."

"Is that your boyfriend’s jumper then?" Harry asked.

"Are you not-so-subtly trying to hit on me?" she shot back. Her orange hair was glowing in the dim light of the coach.

Harry snorted, shaking his head. "Is there a way to answer this without looking like a dick?"

She beamed again, extending her hand. "I'm Perrie, and afraid I've got a boyfriend."

Harry didn't hesitate to shake it. "Harry," he supplied. "And I'm afraid I don't have a boyfriend."

"You've got a guitar, though," Perrie noted.

"Always proved to be the wiser choice," Harry agreed. "My guitar's always faithful to me."

Crossing her legs, Perrie gave him a curious look. "Must be a bit dull, though."

Harry tilted his head in question.

"Like, it can only say whatever you make it say." She shrugged. "That's dull, isn't it?"

"I guess," Harry hummed. "I can't complain so far."

Perrie fell silent, digging through her huge, pink handbag, and Harry turned to watch the snow falling outside of the window again. It slowly painted the glass white, shrinking Harry's view of the landscape. That was somehow a characteristic streak Harry had come to associate with snow; covering up and blurring his view. It was one of the reasons he didn't like snow.

A loud start of music to his right made him jump slightly, turning his head back to Perrie. She gave him an apologetic look, while she pulled out her mobile that was playing a pop song -- Harry had heard it on the radio before.

"Hi, babes," she answered cheerfully. "I'm on the last train now, yes."

Harry watched her worrying her lip and wondered what the person on the other end was saying that made a shadow fall over her face.

"I'm sorry," Perrie mumbled. "I know it is. It's because of the snow, apparently. I'll just take a cab, don't worry about it." She paused. "I get it. See you later."

When she cut the connection, Harry lifted a brow. Obviously her boyfriend would not pick her up, that much he had understood from the bit he could had heard. What a dick, Harry thought as he opened his rucksack to pull out two packages of biscuits.

"Biscuit?" he asked, holding up both packages.

Perrie turned her face to him, blinking. "Yeah," she answered eventually. "Sure."

"Custard Cream or Bourbon?"

"Actually," Perrie said, pointing from the yellow to the violet package, "you have to eat them together, like a---"

"Sandwich," Harry ended her sentence, beaming. "It's how I eat them too!"

"Tastes so much better than each of them individually," she agreed.

Harry grinned and handed her two biscuits, then took two for himself and placed the packages between them.

"So," Perrie asked, munching on her biscuits, crumbles garnishing her pink shawl. "What are you headed for London for?"

Harry shrugged. "I'm moving there."

"Oh? Where are you from, then?" Perrie propped her elbow onto the armrest between them, her hand supporting her chin.

"Cheshire," Harry answered, tilting his upper body a little closer to the window. "How about you?"

"I'm from London," Perrie stated.

"Doesn't sound like it."

She grinned. "True. Grew up in Shields, not too far from Newcastle," she explained. "It's where I've been. Visiting my parents."

"Spent Christmas at home, then?" Harry inquired.

Perrie nodded. "And what are you going to do in London?"

"Music," Harry mumbled his answer. "I'm a musician, and people don’t actually discover a new pop sensation in a village in Cheshire. So I'm moving to London. Much more chances to get into the music industry here, to meet the right people and finally make it work."

"Cool," she beamed. "What kind of music do you play? Sing something for me?"

Harry frowned. "Not on the train."

"Uh," Perrie hissed, making a face. "That's not the spirit. Being embarrassed to sing in front of people will not get you into the charts, love."

"'M not embarrassed," Harry argued, feeling a pout tugging on his lips. "I just don't want to disturb people."

Perrie grinned widely, and Harry noticed her nose wrinkling and cheeks dimpling slightly. "You're cute."

"Who's hitting on whom now?" He felt his cheeks flush, and turned his face to look out of the window again, but only faced a white wall. "But, thanks, I guess."

"Look at that," Perrie pointed out, pressing a hand against the glass. "Is the train even still driving?"

"Feels like it," Harry said. "I hope so."

Suddenly, Perrie gripped his arm, and looked at Harry with huge, worried eyes. Harry automatically jolted, his arm going a little tense under her touch. "You have a place to stay, don't you? Like, you already have a flat?"

Harry’s tension eased and he laughed gently. "I don't have my own flat yet, no."

"What?" She gaped at him. "You can stay at mine for the night. You'll freeze your ass off in this weather."

"That's kind," Harry answered. It really was. As far as Harry was concerned, they were complete strangers, so having Perrie offer him a bed for the night was a very generous gesture.

"Colin wouldn't mind," she added.

"Your boyfriend?" Harry guessed.

Perrie nodded. "He's got a huge flat. You can sleep on the sofa."

"Thanks. I'm already crashing at a friend's place, though."

"Is that so?"

"My best friend from school." Harry pursed his lips, taking another biscuit. "He went to London after we finished sixth form. Doing media studies at university."

"What did you do, then?" Perrie asked. "After school?"

Harry shrugged a shoulder. "Went to Manchester, started studying music engineering, but I'm not too much into the theory. I need to write songs and play them. It's what I want."

"I get you," she said, nibbling on another biscuit sandwich, too. "London's the place to make it."

"You're doing music too?"

Perrie shook her head. "Nah. I'm in Arts school. Doing fashion and design."

Harry sat up, turning to her. "That's cool. You design clothes and do fashion shows and all that?"

"Sometimes," she answered with a shy smile. "I'm not really good."

Harry shook his head. "Don't put yourself down. I'm sure you're really good."

Perrie laughed. "How would you know that? You don't even know me."

"I know people," Harry stated. "And you're the kind of person who is good with fashion. You certainly look like it."

"Thank you," she mumbled quietly.

"So, your boyfriend's a designer, as well? Or even better," Harry guessed excitedly. "He's your model?"

Fidgeting with the sleeves of her oversized jumper, Perrie chuckled an embarrassed laugh. "Nah. He's really not into it. Doesn't have much interest in arts and design and fashion."

Harry frowned. "What’s he doing, then?"

"He's finished studying and works in a law firm. He'll be a really good solicitor."

"Fancy," Harry commented.

"He's really good," Perrie assured him. He wondered whom she was really trying to convince.

"Has to be a good bloke," Harry agreed, nudging her shoulder. "He's made quite a good catch, after all."

"Do you flirt so shamelessly with all the girls?" Perrie asked, a smirk tucked into the corners of her mouth.

"And the boys," Harry answered, grinning back.

+++

More than an hour too late, the train finally rolled into Clapham Junction Station. Harry blinked in confusion when a friendly voice informed them through the speakers about possible destinations and apologised for the delay.

Perrie got up from her seat. "This is where I have to get off."

"Same," Harry said. "Those few hours literally flew by."

Perrie smirked, putting on her coat. "True. Time's flying by when you're having fun, eh?"

Harry nodded, grabbing his guitar case and the rucksack.

"Is that all you have?" Perrie asked, carrying her enormous handbag and the suitcase, as they approached the doors.

"Just me and my guitar," Harry hummed.

Outside the train, Perrie pulled the Mickey Mouse hat over her orange hair. "Well, I hope your friend has some clothes for you, then."

Harry laughed. "I've sent those ahead."

"It was nice meeting you, Harry," she said, extending her hand. "Never had such a fun train ride."

"Likewise," Harry agreed, gripping her hand, not too tightly. Her fingers were thin and delicate. "How are you getting home? Is Colin picking you up?"

"I'll take the tube," Perrie answered. "It's just a few stations."

"I could bring you home," Harry offered. "It's late."

Perrie smiled, stepping forwards to rise to her toes and press a short kiss to Harry's cheek. "You're a true gentleman, Harry. But I take the tube every night. I'm used to it."

Which didn't mean that it was okay. But, well, Harry didn't want to come across as if he was stereotyping women. If Perrie said she'd be fine, he had to trust her judgement. "Alright. Take care."

"And you!" She waved when she walked off.

Harry remained on the platform, waving back, watching her disappear into the crowd. When he couldn't see her anymore, he suddenly felt an emptiness overcome his chest, squeezing his heart, and for the first time since Perrie had sat down next to him, Harry felt anxious again.

For a moment, he just stood there, looking left and right, as if he was expecting someone to come his way, say his name. Someone who had been waiting for him to arrive.

Niall was waiting, he told himself. Niall was here, and he was excited for Harry to move to London, even when Harry was still wary about that decision.

However, Harry couldn't make his decisions based on a mistake of his past for the rest of his life. London was big, and there was no way he would see even a trace of that past here.

Taking a deep breath, Harry looked for the exit when someone ran into him and threw him an angry look, mumbling something about "move, prick." Welcome to London, Harry thought biting his lip. He adjusted his guitar case, straightened out his jacket and moved left, walking down the platform crowded by a sea of strangers.

A pale street light hit him when he reached the top of the stairs that were leading out of the station, and the first sight of London that hit him was a billboard across the street, displaying an ad for some gum. Bright blue, green and pink coloured the poster, made it an immediate eye catcher.

What made it even more of an eye catcher were the three boys posing for the ad. Harry stopped again and took in the faces, saw long lashes and high cheekbones, a gentle look and broad muscles. Feathery hair and stunning, blue eyes. Three perfectly polished smiles, baring white teeth. For a moment, all Harry could do was stare before he turned with a stern frown, looking down.

This was what he had expected London to be like. Bubblegum Pop on the surface. Hopefully, there was more underneath, something different, more raw and genuine. Something Harry wanted to be.

He wouldn't end up pretending to be someone he wasn't.

+++

"Hazza!"

Harry found himself hauled into a warm embrace, big hands pressing against his back, thick hair rubbing against his cheek.

"Hi, Niall," he said, hugging his friend back.

"Man, you're late. I was afraid you weren't coming, after all." Niall stepped back, blond hair in a mess, wearing a winter jumper and jogging bottoms. "It's after midnight!"

"Gave up my flat in Manchester and moved out from my Mum's," Harry reminded him. "I didn't have a choice but to come here. The snow didn't make that an easy task, though."

"This is so sick," Niall cheered, turning around to lead Harry into the flat. "You being here. Did you find a job yet?"

Harry laughed, because Niall made it all sound so very easy. "Still looking. As soon as I’ll find one, I will try to spend as much time as possible on selling my music."

"Babs?" Niall suddenly yelled, poking his head into one of the rooms. "Harry's here!"

A girl appeared from the room, long, dark hair tied up in a tail, eyes bright blue. Harry had seen pictures of her -- Niall had sent him millions over the past year they had been dating -- but she was definitely even more stunning in person. Right now, she was literally drowning in a maroon cardigan, feet covered by huge frog slippers. "Oh, hi! I'm Barbara," she greeted Harry, going straight for a hug. "Niall's told me so much about you."

Harry patted her back slightly. "Thanks for letting me stay."

"No big deal, love," she told him. "Niall's friends are always welcome."

"Alright, Harry must be knackered," Niall said. "We can talk over breakfast tomorrow morning."

"Sounds lovely," Harry agreed, feeling the tiredness of a day spent travelling weighing on his bones.

"I'll make up the sofa for you," Barbara offered, disappearing into another room.

"Kitchen's right here," Niall pointed to his left. "And the bathroom's over there," he added. "If you need anything, let me know."

"I'm fine, Ni," Harry assured him. "Really, thanks for letting me stay here. I'll start looking for a flat as soon as I get a job."

"I know, Haz, don't worry." Niall beamed at him before he dove in again. "It's so good to have you here," he mumbled, hugging Harry tightly. "I missed you."

"I missed you too," Harry immediately answered. "Home hasn't been the same without--" his breath hitched a little, and Harry closed his eyes. "You," he finally said.

Niall pulled back, holding on to Harry's arms. "None of us could stay there forever, Harry."

Harry shrugged. "I guess."

"Are you going to, like---"

"It's London, Niall," Harry reminded him. "Too big to find a single person."

"That particular person wouldn't be so hard to find, I think." Niall lifted a brow.

"That's not what I came here for," Harry simply answered. "I'm here for me."

Smiling, Niall squeezed his arms. "You'll make it, Haz."

"Your bed is ready, Harry," Barbara said from behind them. "Would you like tea before you go to bed?"

"He would," Niall answered for Harry.

"I'll prepare you a cuppa." Barbara disappeared into the kitchen.

"Good night, Hazza," Niall said, following her, and Harry turned to grab his rucksack.

He locked the bathroom door behind himself and stripped out of his jeans and jumper, changing into comfortable tracksuit bottoms and a loose t-shirt. His reflection in the mirror showed a pale face, dark circles beneath his eyes and greasy hair.

Slowly, Harry lifted his arm and traced a finger over the two letters inked into the underside. He stared at the short word, hadn't even thought of it in such a long time. It felt as if it was burning a hole in his skin now.

Shaking his head, Harry lowered his arm, covered the tattoo up with the sleeve and rummaged through his rucksack for his toothbrush. He took his time, washing his face thoroughly, and let the warm water heat up his cold fingers.

The flat was quiet and dark when he came back from the bathroom and Harry stumbled twice on his way back to the living room. He slid beneath the heavy duvet, curling up and reached out for the cup of tea on the table.

Yorkshire tea, Harry thought, biting his lip as the hot tea burned his tongue. Stubbornly, he gulped down more, ignored the feverish heat it left in his throat. He wouldn't lose, wouldn't back away this time.

Taking a deep breath, he turned off the small light next to the sofa and closed his eyes.

+++

For his first day, Harry was actually pretty satisfied with himself. Right after breakfast, he had taken off, going to coffee shops, clothes stores, bakeries, kindergartens and schools. He had been to several shops, handing in applications, and he hadn't allowed himself any distractions from that task throughout the whole day.

He could only hope at least one place would call back sometime soon.

When he had left the last place, he had found a message from Niall on his phone, telling him to come to the pub for dinner, an address attached to it. It wasn't hard finding that particular pub -- it wasn't too far from Niall's flat and located in High Street.

Harry stopped in front of the building, checking on the bold, washed-out golden letters above the heavy-looking, wooden door. The Anchor’s Rope. This was it, then, Harry decided, remembering Niall’s message.

Opening the door, Harry left behind the chilly air of January and entered the pub. The lights were low, radio music was playing quietly from somewhere above Harry's head and every table was empty. Just about the place he had been looking for, really. After spending hours being stuck in underground trains squeezed between strangers and wandering streets filled with people and their chatter, Harry really did appreciate the quiet of the pub.

With no other customer around, he could only guess that the place wasn't really good, but he didn't care too much. He just needed a warm meal, maybe a cup of tea or a coke, and he preferably needed them for less than ten quid.

Niall had texted back that he would be there in twenty, so Harry decided that instead of wandering around, he could just as well wait here.

Dropping onto a chair, he pushed his hair out of his face and stared over to the bar, at the shelf that displayed all kinds of liquors. He had chosen a table in the corner, out of view. It was unnecessary in a completely empty pub, but Harry felt more comfortable and warm in the corner. There was a fireplace on the other side of the room, and for a moment Harry was wishing it were on. He'd definitely sit by the fire and get out his pocketbook.

"Oh," he heard a startled voice say then. "Welcome!"

Harry turned his head to look back at the bar, where a girl had appeared, and he blinked twice before he tilted his head, because -- he knew her. Orange hair, a pretty face, blue eyes framed in black eyeliner. Harry could only stare at her.

"Is something wrong with my face?" Perrie asked.

"Um..." Harry bit his lip. This was awkward. "We met on the train yesterday?"

"Did we?" she shot back, frowning.

Blushing, Harry averted his gaze. "Actually---"

"I'm just joking, Harry," she barked out then, laughing loudly. "Should have seen your face!"

Harry answered her with a pout.

"What are you doing here? I didn't think I'd see you again." She leaned onto the counter. "Not that I'm complaining about it."

"The friend I told you about? He lives close. Told me to meet him here," Harry explained.

"We're not open yet," Perrie said, rounding the counter.

"Oh, sorry." Harry gathered his jacket and rucksack, getting up from his chair. "I didn't notice."

"That's alright," she answered, coming over to his table and plopping down on the chair across from Harry's. "Stay. It's not like we could afford sending any customers away."

"I can leave, if it gets you into trouble," Harry offered.

"Nah." She smiled, her lips a fascinating shade of purple. "It's nice to have some company. Until ten I usually just sit behind the bar and do my nails."

Harry grinned. "Does your boss know about that?"

"I'm afraid he does, yes." She shrugged, crossing her legs. She wore an orange skirt patterned with blue dots and brown tights. "So, what would you like?"

"Tea? And, do you serve food?"

"The kitchen isn't open yet, but in thirty minutes I can have Phil make you something." She got up. "Tea coming right up."

"Thank you," Harry said politely and folded his hands over the tabletop.

While preparing the tea, Perrie kept chattering away cheerfully. "So, how did it go so far? Sold any records yet?"

Harry laughed. "Obviously not. I've been job hunting today."

"Oi," Perrie said, pointing at him as she came back over, setting down the cup in front of Harry. "Can you even pay the tea?"

"Of course," Harry growled. "Anyway, you said I could stay."

She smiled, leaning in to pat his hand gently. "And I meant it. I actually really do like chatting to guests. I meet some rather interesting people here."

Curious, Harry tilted his head. "What kind of people?"

"There is this guy who comes to play here every Friday night," she answered. "He's great. Not very outspoken, really quiet, but when he starts singing -- woah!" She held her palms up. "And he is really nice."

"A musician?" Harry felt it tickle his interest. "So he'll play today?"

"Yes," Perrie agreed. "And then there is this old lady who comes in every now and then. She's almost ninety, but swears it's Gaymer's Pear Cider that keeps her young. She is so lovely."

Harry smiled. "Sounds like."

"Hey Perrie," someone demanded from the bar and Harry looked up to see a man with thin, brown hair lean over the counter. "I could use a hand in the kitchen."

"Coming," Perrie replied cheerfully, before she turned back to Harry. "You enjoy your tea. I'll have Phil make something good for you."

"Thank you," Harry said and watched her leave for the kitchen.

Silence engulfed him, just a faint clatter from the kitchen every now and then cutting through, and Harry smiled slightly. He nipped his tea, as he watched the snow outside start falling in thick flakes, painting the street in blurry grey.

He'd have a quiet one, Harry decided. Just a drink with Niall, a warm meal and a nice chat, before they'd head home and Harry would catch up on some sleep.

+++

Harry briefly remembered that plan when he emptied another pint glass several hours later. It was dark outside and the pub was buzzing with life.

The light was still dim, but now it seemed golden, warm and welcoming. Perrie was behind the counter, chatting away with the blokes sitting on bar stools, downing beer or whiskey. She was glowing, actually, and Harry found himself staring at her more often than not.

It wasn't that he was attracted. That part had been clear from the beginning -- had been clear ever since Harry had been sixteen and had fallen in love with the captain of the school's football team. The thing was, even though Harry was gay, he knew to appreciate a pretty girl. And Perrie certainly was very pretty. She had an honest smile, wasn't fake, and seemed to be unbothered by judging eyes.

In Harry's mind, those traits made a person interesting regardless of their gender.

"Someone's got a crush," Josh cooed. He poked Harry's side and giggled.

Harry turned to him with a frown. Josh was one of the regulars, too, as far as Harry had found out. He worked at an oil company, something about environment and resources had been in the job description. Harry couldn't quite remember.

But Josh was nice, and rather funny. He had a nice sense of humour and he was also paying for Harry's drinks, which was even nicer.

"A crush?" Harry remembered what he had said, picking up on it.

"You," Josh pointed out. "You're totally into Perrie."

Harry laughed dryly. "Yeah, no. I'm really not. She's great, though."

"Come on, kiddo," Josh teased him. "You can tell me. I see the looks you're giving her."

"I'm really not into her," Harry protested.

"She's got a boyfriend anyway." Niall interfered, setting down his pint. "But I bet she already told you. She can't quite shut up about him."

Harry frowned. It had been rather surprising to find that Niall and Perrie knew each other. Then again, Niall was a regular at the pub, so obviously they knew each other. "Yeah, she mentioned him a few times. Still, I'm not interested. She's, like, really pretty and I see why all the guys at the bar hit on her. But," he added and nodded his chin into the direction of the ginger boy playing the guitar left to the bar. He had a round face and pale skin, his lashes were so light, they were only visible when he looked down. "I'm more interested in that guy."

Josh raised a brow. "So you're one of those."

Harry shrugged. "One of those?"

"Should I put in a good word for you with Ed?" Josh winked. "I'm not sure he's into boys, though."

"Ed, is it?" Harry hummed, as he looked over at the boy playing his guitar. One of those, he repeated in his head and tried to ignore the negative connotation. He didn't think outing himself as gay at this moment would be very wise. Niall knew, of course, that was probably the reason he was just quiet right now, but Josh would most likely freak out a bit -- he didn't seem like the intolerant type, but maybe it would be a bit too much personal information to share on a first meeting. "Thanks, but I'm not interested in him like that. I'm interested in his music."

"Well," Josh mused. "I can put a good word in for you anyway. I take it you're a musician yourself?" He gestured at Niall across from them. "Since you're friends with this one here."

Harry nodded. "He's pretty good. I'd like to hear more of his stuff."

"He'll be delighted to play it to you," Niall assured him. "And will demand to hear some of yours in return. Why don't you play something now?"

Lowering his head, Harry laughed gently. "Nah. He's on right now. I quite enjoy him playing."

"I'll ask him to join us," Josh just pointed out and got up from his chair. "And then you guys can just play together."

"No, I really..." Harry fell silent, as Josh rolled his eyes and walked off. He watched Josh chatting to the boy with ginger hair -- Ed, Harry corrected himself in his head -- while he tuned his guitar. Ed smiled at him, greeted him with a handshake and they laughed about something. Then Ed put down his guitar and got up, giving a short hand sign to Perrie, which she answered with a nod and a wink.

"Make that four, love," Josh said loudly and pointed at their table, when he came back. "Ed, that's Harry. He only came to London yesterday."

"Hi," Ed said, sitting down in the chair next to Harry. "How did you end up here of all places?"

"Don't know anyone in London besides Niall," Harry shrugged slightly, shoving his curls from his face. "Not as busy here; not as expensive."

"Well," Ed agreed. "It's not Primrose Hill."

Niall snorted. A group of people from a corner by the window left through the door with loud noises, shouting words back and forth between each other. When the door closed behind them, it was suddenly a lot quieter in the pub. Harry looked around and noticed that only them and the three old men at the bar were left.

"There'd be a bigger audience in Primrose Hill pubs, though," Niall argued.

"Don't think they'd appreciate my music." Ed shrugged and leaned back in his chair. "I'm not exactly singing about their life style."

Harry hummed, folding his hands on the table top. "I don't think those people can't identify with loss and fear, or love and happiness, just because they have more money to spend than others."

For a moment Ed was silent, then he smiled. "That's probably right."

"There you go!" Perrie came to their table and set down five pints, before she dropped into the chair next to Josh.

"Is Phil going to cut that off your wages?" Niall asked with a raised brow.

Perrie grinned. "No, it's on you." She held out her hand. "Gotta pay those four anyway. What's one more?"

Niall shook his head, but put two notes into her palm anyways. "You're a cheeky one. Don't know how you got a boyfriend in the first place."

"Colin thinks I'm cute," Perrie told him, before she gulped down a huge part of her pint. Harry frowned slightly, because it really shouldn't be as cute, seeing a girl drink. Somehow it just fit Perrie, though.

"Is Colin your boyfriend?" Ed asked.

Beaming, Perrie turned to him, and Niall groaned. "Wrong question, mate. She's not gonna stop talking about him now."

"Not true," Perrie complained, leaning over the table to smack Niall's arm. "Sorry that I'm the only person here who's actually happily in love and not just singing about it."

Niall gave her an indignant look, before he hid his expression behind his glass, taking a big swipe.

Harry frowned at Niall, wondering what exactly was wrong, but decided not to ask in front of all these people. "Did you come here to London with Colin?" Harry asked, because if Perrie liked talking about her boyfriend, he didn't mind. He rather had her talking than Josh asking him personal things.

"Not really," she answered. "He came here first. But being back home without him felt so lonely, so I followed him a few months ago."

"That's nice," Harry commented. "I mean, having someone you can't live without." He thought of the first day he had woken up in his bed all by himself, about how it had felt when he had realised that he would wake up by himself for the rest of his life -- that it wouldn't ever be the same, even if someday, someone else would be there by his side.

It still hurt.

"We don't see each other that much, though. What with him in his law firm, and me at Arts school. So we barely get to spend time together." Perrie pouted a bit.

"That's why we only ever get to hear about that bloke, but have never actually met him," Josh told Harry. "I personally think she's making it all up, and there actually is no boyfriend."

"Shut up, Josh." Perrie turned to him. "Colin's got better stuff to do than meeting regulars of the pub I'm working at."

Harry frowned. "Wait," he said slowly. "So he's not picking you up after your shift? How do you get home?"

Perrie looked a little confused. "I walk. Or take the tube."

"Alone?"

"What's so surprising about that?" Perrie glanced at Niall, and Harry noticed he was simply smiling into his glass. "I'm a big girl, I don't need my boyfriend picking me up from work."

Harry looked at her for a moment, considering his words carefully. "I don't know. I just wouldn't let my girlfriend walk home alone at night. No matter how busy I was, I'd pick her up."

Perrie was stunned into silence, apparently, and Josh nudged her arm with his elbow. "Now you wish Harry was your boyfriend, don't you?"

"I haven't even known Harry for a day," Perrie shot back. "But his girl is quite lucky, I have to admit."

Harry lowered his gaze to the table and tried to hide the blush that heated up his cheeks.

"I reckon he doesn't have a girl," Ed commented lowly.

"I don't," Harry agreed, and it felt oddly okay that apparently, Ed seemed to look right through him. He had no idea how exactly Ed was doing it, but he seemed to understand, to grasp Harry's mind immediately.

"What?" Perrie gasped. "There really should be a girl profiting from how perfect boyfriend material you are."

"Perrie's gonna make it her mission to find you a girl now," Niall warned him and Harry bit his tongue.

"Good luck with that," Ed commented before he turned to Harry and pointed at the guitar case behind himself. "You play?"

Grateful for the distraction, Harry nodded. "Yeah. I play a bit."

"Cool." Ed tilted his head with a grin. "You're up for a bit of jamming?"

"Always," Harry answered, following Ed to the front, and leaving behind all talk about relationships and partners and perfect boyfriends.

+++

"Boys," Perrie said, leaning against the bar counter, a bunch of keys dangling from a ring around her finger. "I have to lock the pub now."

Harry glanced at his watch and found that it was past midnight and the pub was completely empty, except for him, Niall and Ed sitting on bar stools, guitar on Niall's knee.

"Sorry, Pez," Ed mumbled and took his guitar case. "Kinda forgot the time."

"That's alright," Perrie told him. "How about you play together next Friday? Looked like you enjoyed it, Ed."

Ed shrugged and glanced at Harry. "I mean, it's nice playing with someone else for a change. If you have time?"

Harry nodded eagerly -- he knew he had to be looking like a complete idiot, embarrassingly eager to get a chance at properly playing with Ed. "I'd love to!"

"Brilliant!" Ed held his fist out and Harry swiftly bumped it with his own. "You have to show me the arrangement for your version of Sweet Disposition. It'd be proper cool if we could play that one together."

While shrugging on his jacket, Harry nodded. "Sure. I'd like that."

"Why is no one asking me?" Niall whined.

"You can be our special guest for one song," Harry allowed. He smirked, ruffling Niall's hair.

Perrie switched off all lights except the one above the bar counter and opened the door, waiting for them to catch up with her. Harry shouldered his rucksack before he headed out, Ed and Niall right behind him.

"How far do you live from here?" Harry asked Perrie, while she locked the door.

"It's about a twenty minutes walk from here." She pocketed the keys, adjusted her enormous handbag over her shoulder. Harry wondered what exactly she had in there -- why in general she needed that much stuff with her at all times. It was bigger than the one he had travelled with. And Harry had everything with him he essentially needed.

"That's quite far," he said.

"You'd feel better if we walked her home?" Ed asked, tone amused.

"If it's not too much of trouble for you? I can walk her by myself," Harry offered, looking from Ed to Niall.

"None of you has to walk me home," Perrie interfered. "I'm not a damsel in distress, Harry."

"Not saying you are. But it's dangerous for a pretty girl to walk dark streets all alone at night."

Perrie wrinkled her nose in an amused expression. "Aw, love, you're very pretty too. Thanks for the compliment."

"I'm serious," Harry protested. "I have nowhere to be anyway, so it's no problem for me to walk you to your flat."

"Whatever," she gave in. "If it makes you feel better."

Harry beamed and nodded, glancing at Ed.

"Come on then," Ed just said.

"I guess I'll head home, if it's okay. Babs is waiting," Niall said, shrugging slightly.

"I guess two boys is enough to get me home safely." Perrie hooked an arm under Harry's and waved at Niall.

"See you at home, Haz," Niall said, turning to walk the other direction.

Perrie laced her fingers over Harry's arm. "So, Harry," she mused. "Ed here says he can't live off anything else but making music. Are you the same?"

Smiling, Harry paced his steps to hers. "Unfortunately not."

"What's your job then?"

"Right now I am jobless," he answered.

"You came here, having no job in prospect?" Perrie frowned. "Love, they'll eat you alive."

"They won't," Harry assured her. "I've started job hunting today."

Perrie hummed before she stopped and pulled out her mobile phone. "Hey, give me your number? I'll see if I can find you something."

Harry glanced at Ed, who only shrugged. He dictated his number and Perrie strolled on, while typing it into her contacts. "Maybe some of my friends know something."

"Thanks," Harry told her, matching their paces again. "You have lots of friends, don't you?"

Perrie pursed her lips, glancing at Ed strolling next to them. "Nah. I know a lot of people, but I only call a few of them my actual friends."

"Sounds like right out of a Hallmark card," Ed commented.

"Write a song about it, if you must," Perrie shot back.

For a while, they walked in silence and Harry started to hum quietly, watching the snow fall around them. He liked the silence, it was comfortable -- not like no one knew what to say, but more like all of them felt comfortable around each other, appreciating the winter night.

Suddenly, Perrie stopped, pointing up a building. "This is where I live."

Harry followed her pointing and looked at the building, its grey facade and dark windows. Some were lit up by yellow, pale light, a few had the blinds down.

“Looks nice,” Harry pointed out.

“It’s just temporary. I’m still looking for my own place. This is Colin’s.” Perrie shrugged, rubbing her hands a little.

Harry wanted to ask why it couldn’t be their place -- they were a couple after all. He barely knew Perrie, though, and that was probably not a question he was entitled to ask a stranger.

"Thanks for taking me," Perrie told them and hugged Ed, before she gave Harry a hug, too. "Come by the pub anytime, Harry."

"Well, I'll be back Friday," he said. "It was nice meeting you. Good night."

"You, too." She waved and disappeared into the building. Harry turned to Ed and saw him grin from ear to ear.

"You know, one could really think you fell head over heels for her," Ed teased him.

Harry pulled a face. "People often confuse politeness with flirting."

"I have a feeling that happens to you quite often."

"Sometimes," Harry answered with a shrug.

Ed resumed walking, not looking back if Harry followed him. "I'd think you were, if I wasn't so sure you came to London for the same reason Pez came here."

Still a few steps behind Ed, Harry asked, "What do you mean?"

"You came to run after a boy, too. Didn't you?"

That took Harry by surprise and he stopped in his tracks, staring at Ed's back. A million answers flooded his head and they all wanted out -- each of them a denial. "What makes you think that?" was what he asked instead.

"Just a feeling." Ed shrugged. "The songs you sing, and the fact that you came here without a concrete plan. You're chasing after someone."

Harry took a moment to let that sink in. "It could be a girl."

"Nah. You're not into girls." Ed pointed down a small road to their left. "I'll have to head that way. How about you?"

Not quite able to catch on, Harry looked down the road, frowning. "I'm not chasing after anyone."

"Alright, mate," Ed simply replied. "Was just my guess."

"I'm here to break into the music market," Harry added, just because he felt like he should.

Ed smiled, but didn't say anymore about it. "So? I'm headed that way. How about you?"

Harry blinked, realising that he had no idea where he should go. "I'm going right," he answered.

"Niall's got your number, right?" Ed lifted a hand to give him a wave. "I'll ring you up about Friday. Maybe we can go for a pint sometime next week."

"I'd like that, yes," Harry agreed, heading off in the other direction. "Take care."

Ed turned and walked off, and Harry gazed down the street ahead of himself before he started walking. It was bitterly cold, snowflakes quietly falling. His old jeans jacket lined with fur inside was enough to keep him warm, though.

Quietly, Harry strolled down the pavement, thinking about how lucky he had been to make friends already on his first evening. Having someone to turn to always made things a lot easier, made him feel a lot more secure in his skin.

Perrie was genuinely nice, and although Ed wasn't very talkative, he seemed just fine. Playing with him had been fun, too, and Harry was looking forward to repeating that. He wasn't quite sure, though, what to make of the comment Ed had made.

Was he really that obvious? It wasn't like Harry had come after him just to be with him -- like Perrie had come here to be with her boyfriend. Harry didn't have a boyfriend. Harry had come to London for his career, not to show up on anyone's doorstep and be a boyfriend.

Harry wanted more; wanted to make it big. And then, maybe then, he would meet him again, and he would be so much more, so much bigger than the boy he had been when they had parted.

And maybe he would understand then.

Harry stopped when he came past a small footie pitch, eyes instantly drawn to the rugged ball lying by one of the tiny goals. The pitch was surrounded by a high fence, painted in green. The gate stood open.

Carefully, Harry stepped closer, opened the gate wider to step inside. There was no grass, only hard soil. Two small booths on either side lined the field, and behind one of the goals was a huge billboard. It was illuminated at night, so Harry could see the ad clearly.

No Place To Hide, it read in bold letters, showing the cover of a CD. New Album Out Now. Harry kept staring at the billboard for a moment longer, studied the three boys shown in tight jeans and posh dress shirts, hair messy and yet perfectly styled, all of them looking mysterious and smart.

Turning around, Harry went over to one of the booths and sat down on a wooden bench. He watched the empty pitch covered in white snow in front of him, eyes darting back to the billboard every now and then.

No place to hide, he repeated in his head, his mind wandering off, thoughts running back to a time he hadn't thought of in a long, long while.

+++

When Harry woke up, someone was pushing his shoulder, tentatively, a low voice saying words Harry couldn't quite grasp.

He blinked his eyes open, slowly sat up on the bench and stared at the person in front of him. An old lady, wrapped up in a big coat and a old-fashioned hat stared back at him. She was framed by a pale morning sun.

"Dear, it's really too cold to be sleeping outside," the lady said, eyes looking worried.

Harry looked around, spotted the pitch and the football. "Fu---" he started, but caught himself. "I must have fallen asleep."

"I saw you from my window," the little woman said. "You know there are a lot of shelters set up during winter. No one has to sleep on the street."

Harry laughed gently, rubbing his icy hands over his face. "I'm not homeless," he corrected her. "I just didn't make it home last night."

"Come on, then," she said, holding out a hand for him. "Have a tea to warm up properly before you go home."

"Thank you," Harry said softly, following her to the house behind the football pitch. "It's very nice of you to come down and check on me."

"I was just afraid you were dead." She shrugged.

Harry shuddered, as soon as they got into the house. The woman unlocked her door and went ahead, not looking back to check if Harry was following her.

"I'll make you a tea, my dear," she said, going to her kitchen and putting her coat over one of the chairs there. Harry remained standing in the door frame to the kitchen, watching her. "I'll have to be upstairs in a few minutes. Someone's coming to look at the flat."

"The flat?" Harry asked.

"I'm renting out the flats in this building," she explained. "Mr Hornington died last month, and now that his sons have finally gathered up all his personal belongings, I need to find a new tenant."

Harry stared at her for a second. "You have a flat to let?"

She turned to him, holding out a cup. "Sit down and drink your tea, love. I'll be back in a few minutes."

And now she was about to leave a stranger alone in her flat? Harry couldn't quite grasp what was going on in the lady's head. She couldn't be a ordinary old lady.

"Actually," he said, holding the hot cup in his numb hands. His skin tickled, itched slightly from the sudden warmth. "I am looking for a flat."

She raised a brow, pulling off her hat and revealing white hair. "Dear, you said you're not homeless."

"I'm not," Harry assured her. "But I'm looking for a new flat. Did you let that one to someone already?"

She sighed. "Come on, then. Take your tea upstairs. You can have a look."

Harry beamed. "Thank you."

She waved a hand slightly and passed him to leave her flat again. Harry followed through the narrow corridor, taking in colourful pictures of cats on the walls. He quickly stepped outside and spilled some of his tea in the process.

"I'm Harry, by the way," he introduced himself as he followed her upstairs. "Harry Styles."

"Harry," she repeated. "That is a good name. I'm Glenda. What do you do for a living, Harry?"

Harry swallowed thickly. "I'm a musician."

"Does that pay you enough to afford a flat?"

"I do part-time jobs, too."

"Well, then." She opened a door, stepping aside to let Harry in first. “The flat’s seventy-five Pounds per week.”

It wasn't spacious. Harry took in a built-in kitchen, three doors, and the number echoed in his head. That was a sum he could definitely afford for a while.

"Bathroom's this one," Glenda said and pointed at the door furthest from them. "It's not too small. Even has a bathtub."

Harry peeked inside, finding a well-sized bathroom with a cupboard next to a bathtub, a sink and a toilet.

"There are two rooms," Glenda went on. "They're both the same size. The one facing the football pitch has always been a bedroom so far. It's quiet at night."

Harry followed her into the room, looked out of the window before they headed off for the other room.

"This one's the living room," Glenda explained. "What do you think?"

Harry turned to her, nodding quickly. "I like it!"

"And you're sure you can afford it?" She gave him a sceptical look.

Harry would have to use up his savings to pay the rent until he would find a job, but he could make it a solid three months on that basis. Until then, he would definitely have a job to pay the rent. "I can. I can pay the first instalment today, if you want me to."

"Hello?"

Harry looked to the door, as well as Glenda who mumbled something under her breath and walked out of the room. When he followed her, he spotted Perrie by the front door, looking fresh and cheerful.

She blinked as soon as she saw Harry. "What are you doing here?"

"Renting this flat," Harry answered.

"What?" Perrie gaped at him. "You can't. I've meant to rent this one."

Harry frowned. "Since when are you looking for a flat? Aren't you living with Colin?"

She blushed, glancing at Glenda, who just stood by, looking from Perrie to Harry. "We decided that I'd stay at his place until I could afford one on my own."

Harry remembered her mentioning something along those lines when he had walked her home.

"You know each other?" Glenda asked into the ensuing silence.

"A little, yes," Harry answered.

"I'll take the place," Perrie suddenly said, stepping closer to Glenda. "As I said on the phone, I quite desperately need a place, and I can afford this one. I brought the first rent, actually."

Glenda laughed, pointing from Perrie to Harry, as he started to protest. "Calm down, lovelies."

"But---" Perrie started.

"Obviously," Glenda cut her down, "both of you are looking for a place that's not too expensive. And this one happens to be affordable for both of you." She looked between them, smiling. "And you seem to know each other. Why don't you just rent this flat together? It's only half the rent for each of you."

Harry blinked, letting that sink it. It was -- actually, brilliant. He turned to Perrie, and she looked at him with big eyes.

"You wouldn't raise the rent?" Harry asked, directed at Glenda.

"No. As long as you pay in time, there won't be a problem."

Perrie suddenly shrieked, and before Harry knew it, she had his hands in hers. "Harry, that's perfect! Let's do it!"

Harry laughed, shrugging, holding on to Perrie's hands, while she jumped up and down in excitement. "Okay. Yeah, okay."

"You can move in as soon as you like," Glenda said, a smile playing around her lips. "You'll have to sign a contract, and pay your first rent. After that, you can move in."

Perrie ran off to the living room, twirling around in the door frame. "I want this room, Harry. It gets more daylight than the other."

Harry shrugged. "Yeah. Fine."

"She's a lovely girl," Glenda said, winking at Harry as Perrie disappeared into her new room. "One you won't find just anywhere."

Harry smiled slightly. "I know." He didn't think he should comment on the fact that Glenda was obviously hoping she had just set them up for marriage now. "Thanks for letting us stay here."

"I like both of you," she decided. "And I like having decent people in my house. Don't disappoint me, Harry Styles."

Harry took her hand and brushed a soft kiss to the wrinkled skin. "I promise I won't."

+++

"Mate, I thought you died on your way back home," Niall complained, groaning tiredly.

"I told you I fell asleep."

"But, in fucking January? It's too cold for a Yeti to sleep outside. How did you, Harry?!" Niall shook his head.

"I'm not that sensitive to the cold, Ni." Harry shrugged as he got out the key and held it in front of Niall's face. "Thanks for coming by so quickly."

Niall frowned. "What kind of key is that? And what have you been up to all day?"

Harry grinned, unlocking the door to the building. "I found a flat."

"Excuse me?" Niall gaped.

"It's my lucky day, really. I got this really amazing flat, and on top of that," Harry added as they reached the second floor, "I got a flatmate, too."

"A flatmate?" Niall followed Harry inside. "You don't know any--"

He stopped when he spotted Perrie coming from her room, wearing an old, plaid men’s dress shirt and baggy jeans.

"Hi Niall," she chirped happily. "Harry said you'd be over. Look at this. It's our new flat."

Niall turned to Harry, gaping. "Perrie?" he asked. "But, you... I thought-- in school you were-- What about Colin?"

Harry laughed. "We're flatmates, Niall. It's cheaper for both of us like this."

Niall apparently needed a moment, then he beamed at Harry. "It's great. You've got your own flat! So soon, Haz. I'm happy for you!"

"Hey guys!" Perrie yelled from her room, when Harry had just enveloped Niall in a hug. "Can you come and help me for a second?"

"Moving in with a girl," Niall stage-whispered to Harry. "It's a decision you'll come to regret."

Harry started moving into the direction of Perrie’s room, a sigh on his lips. He probably would -- after all, he was moving in not only with a girl, but with a complete stranger. Gender didn’t play a role, but the fact that they barely knew each other did.

“Do you regret moving in with a girl?” Harry asked.

Niall bumped his shoulder with his fist. “I moved in with my girlfriend, Haz. That’s different.”

When they stepped into Perrie's room, Harry was about to tease Niall further, but stopped in his tracks, staring at the huge poster she had hung right across from her door.

"Is it even?" Perrie asked.

Niall cleared his throat, obviously uncomfortable. "Yeah, looks alright."

"Escapade," Harry said quietly, staring at the three boys looking back at him from the huge poster. "You're a fan?"

"Absolutely!" Perrie beamed, positioning herself between Harry and Niall. "Colin says I'm childish, but I really like their music, boy band or not. They're lovely guys."

"They're pretty popular with the girls these days, aren't they?" Niall asked.

"These days? They're Britain's greatest act. They have made it worldwide," Perrie corrected him. "Broke every music market there is. It's fantastic."

Her voice sounded a little far away in Harry's ears. Made it, he recalled, broke every music market, worldwide. He blinked slowly. "Which one's your favourite?" he asked, ignoring all the other things he could be saying instead.

"Zayn," she answered promptly. "Everyone says he's really mysterious, but I think he's lovely. He's got an amazing voice." She quickly walked over to the poster, pointing at the boy with black hair and dark eyes. "He's so handsome, too. Can't deny it."

Niall laughed at that. Harry couldn't -- not through that lump in his throat.

"And Liam's quite great too," Perrie resumed. "He's very serious, and a bit short-tempered, but I like the way he talks. He seems sensible in his aims." She smiled at them, shrugging. "I just really enjoy their stuff. You don't think it's stupid, do you?"

"You can like whatever you want, babe," Niall told her, shrugging. Harry felt him glancing over, more than he actually saw it.

"Nothing's wrong with liking a boy band," Harry agreed. When Perrie turned with a huge smile, he frowned. "But, wait. What about the other one? You only talked about two of them?"

Perrie shrugged, looking back at the poster. "Ah, yeah. Louis."

Louis, the name echoed in Harry's head.

"He's alright," she said. "A prankster. But, to me, he is the actual mysterious one. Can't quite grasp him."

Harry choked on a laugh.

"What's so funny?" Perrie wanted to know.

"Nothing," Niall assured her. Harry felt the nervous look Niall threw him burn into his skin. "Harry's being quirky. Should we go get dinner? I'm starving."

Harry glanced at the poster again before he forced himself to turn and follow Niall out of the room.

+++

Later that night, Harry found himself alone in the flat. The kitchen was still empty, missing a table and chairs, and his room was only occupied by his guitar and the suitcase full of clothes he had sent ahead from his mother's house.

He could have stayed at Niall's, but finally having his own place had got him so very excited, he had wanted to sleep in there. It wasn't too far from Niall's flat anyway, just about ten minutes. They'd still have breakfast together in the morning.

Perrie was staying with Colin until she'd have all of her stuff moved into the new flat.

Staring at the snow falling outside of the window, Harry couldn't quite believe how much had happened in only two days. He had moved to London, had found a flat, new friends, and hopefully a completely new path for himself.

He didn’t stay in his room, it felt too spacious and empty in there, so Harry had put a layer of blankets on the floor of the kitchen. There were no noises except from the rustling of the sheets when Harry moved, but he still couldn’t fall asleep.

His gaze kept shifting to Perrie’s door.

Leaving his bed he had set up on the floor, Harry strolled through the quiet flat, listening to his own breathing and the creaks of the floor. He stopped in the doorframe to Perrie's room, his gaze automatically shifting to the poster on the wall.

It knocked all breath out of him, his knees getting a bit weak. In the dim light of the night, he couldn't exactly make out the actual figures on the poster but Harry knew what he would look like.

He didn't need to see. Harry knew, had never forgotten a single line of that face.

+++

It was snowing.

Thick flakes fell from a grey sky and Harry caught them on his palm, getting excited to figure out their structure before they would melt on his skin. His hands were freezing, fingers turning blue in the cold January air, but Harry couldn't care less.

He loved snow.

"You look like a five-year-old."

Harry looked up upon hearing that voice, turning his head. When he spotted Louis Tomlinson approaching him, his breath stopped for a second, getting caught in his throat.

Louis sat down next to him on the wooden bench in the booth, overlooking the football pitch. "What are you doing here?"

Watching you train, Harry thought but couldn't say it. Someone like Louis Tomlinson probably wouldn't even look twice his way. Still, he sat right next to Harry now. "I can sit here," Harry pointed out.

Louis snorted a laugh, pulling his beanie further over his ears. "It's freezing out here," he pointed out. "Why don't you go home?"

"Why don't you?" Harry asked.

Louis shrugged. "I probably don't want to."

Harry wanted to know why, wanted to ask Louis all the questions he had for him, but he clearly wasn't brave enough for that. "We can look at the snow together, then."

Louis was silent after that, just watching the snow fall quietly to their feet.

Harry gasped in surprise when he felt warm wool being draped around his neck after a few minutes spent in silence. He turned to look at Louis who had slid closer to Harry on the bench.

"You're going to catch a cold, if you're not even wearing a scarf in this weather," Louis told him. "I got this one from one of my sisters and it's longer than I am tall." He pointed at the red shawl that was now draped around both of them.

I'm not cold, Harry wanted to say. "That's much warmer," he said instead. It didn't matter that he wasn't cold. He had Louis sat by his side, smiling and close.

How often had he imagined to talk to Louis? To have the opportunity to sit next to him like this? In his imagination, it had never gone like this, though. Not even close. He had imagined chatting to Louis, eyes locking and souls clicking instantly.

Right now, they just sat close, watching the snow fall in silence. They probably clicked all the same.

Fingers brushed, snow gathered in Harry's hair, a small flake stuck to Louis' lashes when they both turned their faces at the same time, looking at each other. Their eyes locked and Louis stared back at Harry, face so close, Harry could see green sprinkles in the blue of Louis’ eyes.

It almost felt too close, for two strangers who had only just met. The feeling was warm, welcoming and familiar.

Snow gently falling around them, Harry felt happier than he had in forever.

+++

Harry released his breath, blinked the memory away and stared into the dark room. Snow was quietly falling outside, and Louis' emotionless eyes stared at him from the poster.

Cold, impersonal, indifferent.

Turning around, Harry closed the door behind himself.

---

Chapter Text

"Louis, can you tell us a bit more about how the band was formed?" the woman interviewing them asked. "You didn't know each other prior to Escapade, did you?"

Louis shook his head, leaning back in the comfortable chair. A camera was pointed at his face, Liam sat to his right, Zayn to his left. "No, I didn't know these boys before we were put together in the band. We're all from completely different places."

"But all of you were involved with music beforehand, weren't you?" the lady asked. Louis quite liked her. She hadn't asked about girls yet, had only focussed on their career and music.

"In a way, yes." Louis pointed at Liam. "He had tried out for X Factor before, but hadn't made it past boot camp."

"I was too young," Liam added. "Simon sent me home, telling me to come back in two years time. Before I got that chance, he called me up a year later, offered me a place in Escapade."

"How about you, Zayn?"

Zayn shrugged and Louis knew he wasn't comfortable with that question. "I sang at a few events, like weddings and stuff? It was just to earn a bit of money to go to uni. One video got really popular on Youtube, and some day I got an email from Syco."

"Like Justin Bieber," the woman noticed.

Zayn laughed a little, sounding fake and forced. Louis knew how much he hated that comparison. "One could say that, yeah."

She turned to Louis. "You were in a another band, weren't you, Louis?"

"I sent in a demo tape," Louis avoided the question. "Proper old school. And I heard back from them a few months later, when I had forgotten about it already. It came as a surprise, but I guess it was meant to be."

He left out all the details of how his heart had dropped reading that email, fear taking over, insecurities weighing him down. It had been surprising in more than one way. And maybe that had been on purpose.

"Part of your success is the great chemistry you guys display." The woman looked between them, smiling nicely. "Are you guys getting along as genuinely as you make it out to be?"

Liam laughed. "Actually, we hate each other. It's all just for the cameras."

"I don't think you can fake a friendship like that," Louis added.

"Like, these two know exactly what it's like. We all have friends outside the band," Zayn mused, "but none of them get what this is like? I can talk about anything to Louis and Liam, and they get it, because they are in exactly the same position."

Louis nodded. "It would've been awkward if they had put an arse in the band. Fortunately, we're all rather chill and cool with each other."

Liam lifted a brow, grinning at Louis.

"Keep it," Louis simply warned him, and Liam winked.

The rest of the interview kept the pace and atmosphere, so by the time the woman was gone, Louis didn't feel especially exhausted. He usually did after a day of interviews, answering the same questions over and over again.

"A car is parked outside to take you back to the hotel," a member of their team said. He was fairly new and Louis couldn't remember his name yet. Marcel, probably. He looked cute in his button down with a slipover and the grey trousers. His glasses were way too big for his face. He reminded Louis of a certain someone when he clumsily handed out files and tripped over his own feet. That was why Louis tended to ignore Marcel most of the time. "You'll have about two hours. Lou and Caroline will help you get ready for the Grammys tonight."

They were led outside, and as soon as they sat in the car, Zayn rolled up by Louis' side. He snuggled in close and sighed sleepily. "Wake me up when we're there."

Louis slung an arm around Zayn's shoulder, his fingers slipping into the short, dark hair at the nape of Zayn's neck.

"He's really using every chance he can get to sleep," Liam said, sitting across from them in the spacious van.

"It's healthy," Louis hummed. "I always feel sleep-deprived."

"It's the jetlag."

"It's this job."

Liam stretched his legs and gently kicked Louis'. "You love it."

Of course he did. He loved every single bit of his life. Especially Zayn and Liam -- if it weren't for them, Louis wouldn't be anywhere near where he was now. That was the most reassuring and at the same time, most depressing thought about it.

On his own, just by himself, Louis would still be stuck in a small town in England, singing and playing the keys in a band that wasn't going anywhere, that was just about the fun. He'd be studying to become a teacher in Manchester, working part-time in a shitty bookstore, going for a pint in the pub every night with his friends.

He'd come home to a boy with pretty curls, bright eyes and the kindest heart every night.

Taking a deep breath, Louis averted his gaze from Liam's face and looked out of the tinted window. Los Angeles flew by, fast and blurry; there was nothing Louis could focus on for even just a second.

"What do you have planned for when we get back to London?" Liam asked suddenly.

Louis shrugged, still looking out of the window. Zayn breathed steadily against his shoulder, the fabric of his t-shirt absorbing the damp warmth. "Sleep," he answered. "Visit my mum and the girls. The usual."

"We'll be off for two weeks, mate," Liam reminded him. "I'll definitely go see my family, but there's gotta be a holiday in there. What do you think of Puerto Rico?"

"Nice," Louis admitted. "Especially since it'll be freezing in England."

"You should think of a place, Lou," Liam told him. "And just take off. Get some proper rest and relax in the sun, have a personal butler bring you cocktails and chill on a private beach. It's what we're working so hard for."

"Take your family," Louis suggested quietly. "They'll love it."

"Louis." Liam's tone carried resignation.

"I'll just stay in London, hole up in my flat and watch shitty telly for two weeks straight," Louis decided. "That's what I need right now."

Liam sighed, but nodded. "If you say so."

Louis glanced at him, smiling in what he believed was a convincing smirk. "I do."

+++

"Louis! Louis!"

Turning his head, Louis looked directly into the lens of a camera, a flash blinding him, but he didn't even blink an eye. A crowd of paparazzi had pointed their cameras at them from behind a barrier, yelling Louis, Zayn and Liam's names to get their attention. Zayn stood quite still next to Louis, only moving his head every now and then. Liam was on Zayn's other side, waving and smiling openly.

It lasted for another thirty seconds, then a member of their team chased them to the other side of the red carpet, where fans were waiting. Louis felt more comfortable with that part, shaking hands, giving hugs and taking photos. The girls screamed in his ear, shrill and high, but Louis didn't mind all too much. At least the reactions were genuine, and of positive nature -- other than the paparazzi who were always after a shot that could possibly ruin the boys' lives.

Louis signed a few more books, pictures of himself, as well as CDs, before they walked down the red carpet to the huge door leading inside.

Another round of interviews began in the huge atrium, their manager leading them from one point to the next. Most questions revolved around them being merely guests tonight, not being nominated for any of the categories and being none of the bands honoured performing. They were getting to present Best New Artist, though. Any screen time was promotion, their manager had told them, and he was most likely right.

"It is what it is," Louis answered, shrugging. "Next year it'll look different, perhaps."

Although it was the Grammy’s, Louis didn't feel too different from all the other award shows he had attended within the past two years. He wore a black Armani blazer, a white dress shirt but no tie, still looking proper posh. Zayn had gone for a bit more classic style, while Liam looked like a young David Beckham. That particular recent development felt quite disturbing to Louis.

When they finally entered the hall and were led to their seats, Louis took in the papers clipped to the seats surrounding theirs.

"Taylor Swift," Liam pointed out. "Right there in the seat next to you."

"I'll have to look happy if she wins then, won't I?" Louis frowned, sitting down.

Their manager took the seat behind them, leaning in to quietly talk to them. "That guarantees you guys will be seen on screen quite often. So remember to keep posture at all times. Clap for every performance, smile happily for every winner."

Louis glanced at him. Richard Griffiths had been their manager from the very beginning, taking care of their image and the media coverage of the band. Not a single word was printed that he hadn't approved of beforehand. Unfortunately, Griffith approved of every kind of press. He claimed a good scandal was what kept them interesting -- that's why Zayn had cheated on each and every girl he had ever dated, Liam was a reckless dumbass, and Louis was an obnoxious, loud asshole.

Well, that was probably what Louis really was -- it just wasn’t all that he was. He was more than that, but people didn't really get to see that if they didn't bother to take a closer look.

"Bad boys sell better than the boy next door," Griffith used to say.

It wasn’t like Louis was in any way the boy next door -- he had never been. Still, he wasn't what the media made him out to be, either. He simply wanted a team which understood and let him act like himself instead of forcing strange actions upon him. Louis couldn't wait for their three-year contract to be up and for them to find another management team. It wasn't long now. By the end of this year, the contract would expire, and Louis was already in contact with several other companies, which didn't make it feel that far away anymore.

"You got that?" Griffiths asked.

Louis shrugged, turning back to watch the stage. Technical equipment was still being installed, cameras placed all around the hall, and it slowly filled with people.

"Look who's here," Louis heard a snarky voice say, approaching them. He turned his head and first took in Liam's ice-cold expression, his hands fisted tightly.

"Who invited you?" Zayn asked back.

"I don't know if you've heard, Malik," Jake answered, taking the seat in front of them, "but I'm nominated for a Grammy tonight."

"It's your third nomination, isn't it?" Liam asked, raising a brow. "You have not yet taken one home, though."

"I'm being considered, at least," Jake shot back. "Not only asked to present an award to people much better than myself."

Louis rolled his eyes and decided not to comment. If he said a word now, that would only end up in a fight that they would probably transfer to Twitter afterwards -- and Louis really didn't have the time or nerves for any of it.

Jake Bugg had been an arse from the very beginning. He felt superior, because he was a solo artist and wrote all of his songs himself. Louis was determined to get to a point where he would write his own songs too, they just weren't in that stage yet. Artistic freedom for them came bit by bit. Louis hated Jake for adding insult to injury -- obviously, none of them were happy with the restrictions that came with their musical contracts.

It didn't make them any less genuine artists, though.

When Jake turned to him with a mean smirk that implied that he felt like winning against them, Louis just looked away, averting his gaze to Taylor Swift arriving and taking the seat next to him.

He was determined not to play into it.

+++

Of course that hadn't worked out.

Next morning, Louis was dragged out of bed at arse o'clock, when it was still dark outside. His phone rang obnoxiously loud right next to his head, and when Louis rolled around and pulled a pillow over his head to drown the sound out, someone knocked on his door.

"Louis, get up," Marco yelled. "Open the door."

"The fuck?" Louis groaned, pushing off the duvet and rolling out of bed. He tried to pat his hair down, getting it at least a bit sorted out, when he opened the door. "You know it's in the middle of the night?"

"It's almost five a.m.," Marco answered. He had been part of their management team from the very beginning. "Morning."

"Middle of the night," Louis repeated.

"We have a meeting in twenty. Your flight back to London is at eight."

"Why do we have a meeting?"

Marco sighed. "Because you are a serious fuck-up, mate. Now, get dressed. Twenty minutes, Griffiths’ room."

Louis growled, shut the door without another word and stumbled to the en-suite bathroom to hop under the shower.

When he came into the room down the hall from his own twenty minutes later, Liam was already sitting in a chair, one leg jittering nervously. His eyes immediately found Louis', a question in his look.

Louis shrugged and sat down next to him. "What is this about?" he asked.

Griffiths had so much as a glance for him, acknowledging Louis' presence with a raised brow, before he got back to typing something out on his tablet.

Louis rolled his eyes. He had an idea what all this was about -- it always was about them being caught saying or doing something they shouldn't have. Too many cameras in a room were a waterproof guarantee for any fuck-ups surfacing.

And Louis knew he had fucked up last night.

Zayn came into the room ten minutes later, looking tired. He plopped down onto the bed, curling up.

"Would you sit straight, please, Zayn?" Griffiths asked. Marco stood behind him, gesturing for Zayn to sit up.

Zayn mumbled something but lifted his upper body, sitting on the foot of the bed.

"Now, I thought we had been clear when I told you to act respectfully yesterday night."

Louis suppressed a groan, averting his gaze.

"Unfortunately though, the internet is flooded with footage of you, Louis, giving Jake Bugg the finger and very obviously telling him to fuck off." Griffiths lifted his tablet, held it up for them to see. A video started playing that showed Louis standing only a few metres from Jake on the red carpet. It had been filmed during the ending ceremony and Louis vividly remembered the moment.

"He kept making comments," Louis defended himself. "About how we'd never get there, weren't worthy of any award we've ever received. The same old shit."

"If it was the same old," Griffiths pointed out, "why didn't you just ignore it?"

"Because he's a freaking arse."

Griffiths put the tablet down. "You need to bridle your temper, Tomlinson. It gets all of you into trouble." He glanced at Marco.

"Escapade's Tomlinson throws jealousy fit at Grammy award show," he reads out from his own tablet. "Louis Tomlinson's being a sore loser after Jake Bugg wins Song of the Year. Tomlinson giving Bugg the finger---"

"Got it," Louis growled. "I got it."

"Do you know what that looks like to the media?" Griffiths sighed heavily. "As if you don't grant him his success."

"I don't," Louis pointed out.

"But the media is not supposed to know," Griffiths reminded him. "In front of them you are ought to act as if they deserve everything they achieve."

"I didn't say a bad word about him in front of the cameras," Louis argued. He knew it was pointless. The damage had been done, and he knew it was his fault. Admitting it was just a bit harder to do.

"You'll make an official statement, and we'll send an apology to Bugg from your twitter in a few hours," Griffiths went on without even acknowledging Louis' last comment. There is no use in making it look as though this had been anything other than it had been. You will have to look honestly sorry for it, Louis."

"I'll have to do it in front of a camera?"

"There is no way they won't ask the next time they get the chance. We scheduled an appearance on Alan Carr for Thursday night. He'll ask, you'll give your answer, and it'll be out of the world. Until then, all of you avoid the press. No comment about this to anyone. Got it?"

"We were supposed to be off. I planned a trip," Liam pointed out. "I'm not in the UK on Friday."

"Well, give your thanks to Tomlinson, because now you will be." Griffiths got up. "We're leaving for the airport in an hour."

Louis knew that it meant the discussion was over. There was nothing to add, nothing he could change about what management had decided. They never had a say in any of this.

Once they had left the room, Louis crowded into Liam's space, tentatively curling his fingers around his wrist. "Li..."

"Don't, Lou," Liam said, sounding tired. "Just, don't."

Louis bit his lip, glancing at Zayn, who wasn't much of a help, a helpless shrug being his only answer. "I never meant for--"

"I know Jake is a pain in the ass," Liam cut him short again. He jerked his arm away, breaking free from Louis' grip. "They're right, Lou. Your temper is getting out of hand lately."

Louis looked down, lacing his fingers to keep from reaching for Liam again. "I'm sorry."

"I know you are." Liam glanced at him, Louis could feel it burn into his skin. Then, he repeated, softer, "I know, Lou. That doesn't change it, though." He turned to look at Zayn. "I'll be in my room, packing. See you guys later."

Louis watched him leave and then turned to Zayn.

"He knows you didn't mean for this to happen," Zayn assured him. "But, man, this really is shit. We've all been looking forward to have some weeks off."

Louis didn't even know what to answer. Of course they had. He had been looking forward to the break, too. His anger had brought them to this point, so Louis had no idea how to channel the anger he felt for himself now. Throwing a fit was not an option, as wasn't complaining to Zayn and Liam.

It was all on him.

"He's right, you know." Zayn stepped closer and squeezed Louis' shoulder lightly. "You've always been short-tempered, but you used to have better control of that. It's not that long anymore. I know it's hard, Lou. I'd like to just lose it and go on a rant about what is wrong with this world we slipped into, but," he trailed off, shrugging a little. "There really is no use. It's just making it worse."

Louis simply nodded, short of any other answer he could possibly give.

Zayn walked away too, leaving Louis behind and to himself.

He hadn't always been like this, Louis thought, burying his hands in his pockets. There had been a time when he had known how to fight his temper down.

That method didn't work anymore. It wasn't even an option.

+++

The pale morning sun hit Louis face when he left the hotel an hour later. A black van was parked in front of the gate, and Louis had to blink several times, squint his eyes against the bright light.

Liam and Zayn both rushed into the car, taking their seats. Zayn was on the phone, talking to his father in a quiet, muted voice. Liam yawned, staring out of the tinted window.

For a moment, Louis kept standing by the front door of the hotel. Their handlers were not yet there anyway, so there was no need to get into the car yet, other than to be out of sight. They'd return to rainy, grey London, though, and Louis wanted to take in a little more of the weather here.

The sun wasn't fully up yet, the air smelled of a fresh morning and heat, Louis' skin feeling moist and warm. A slight breeze moved the short sleeves of his t-shirt and tugged at the few strands of his hair that poked out from underneath his beanie.

He missed London, but he certainly didn't miss the bloody rain.

"Louis, you comin'?" Liam asked suddenly, and Louis turned his face from the sky back to the car.

"Yeah, sorry." He climbed in on Zayn's side and put his feet onto the seat next to Liam. Someone closed the door, and a moment later, the car started moving.

They spent the ride in silence, all of them too tired from a long night out, and a short night of sleep. Liam played something on his phone, beeping sounds cutting the silence short.

At the airport everything went as usual, rushed and hectic. They were escorted inside by police, checked in for business class and were sent through security separately from everyone else.

As always, a few girls recognised them, chasing them to the gate and asking for pictures. Louis stopped for all of them, making funny faces and flashing peace signs.

"Jake Bugg is an idiot," one of the girl said, sounding sincere. "I love you, Louis."

He smiled at her giving her a quick hug, before they were ushered through a security door and into an isle that led them inside the plane.

It was boon and bane of their lives, really -- the support of their fans. It was nice to know there were people behind them, always having their back and loving them so unconditionally. Then again, Louis thought as he sat down and fastened his seatbelt, it was also scary to have someone support him even when he was behaving like a little shit. Those kids were not supposed to support Louis acting like an arsehole, and he wished he could have been a better idol.

The plane took off just a few minutes later, rising above the clouds where a blinding sun hit Louis' face through the small window. He stared into it until his eyes started to burn.

When he closed them, red and orange sprinkles danced in front of his lids and lulled him into sleep.

+++

"What is that?"

The question was out before Harry could have even greeted him. He had opened the door with a bright smile -- as if that would have been enough to distract Louis from the cut on Harry's lip and the purple bruise around it.

Harry shrugged, stepping aside to let Louis in. He raised his fingertips to his bottom lip. "Nothing."

Louis glanced around the corridor, waiting until the door had closed behind him, then he lurched forwards to touch Harry's cheek. "Harry, what happened?"

"Just--" Harry avoided looking back at him. "I'm clumsy, you know that. Just fell. Tripped over my own feet."

Louis shook his head. "And you fell on your lip?" He tilted his head, frowning. "Harry."

Harry was about to answer, but Louis could hear steps approaching, so he quickly stepped back and buried his hands in his pockets.

"Louis," Anne greeted him. "Good to see you, love."

"And you, Ms Cox," Louis greeted her back politely.

"Did you have dinner?"

Louis shrugged. "Not yet, no. I don't want to--"

"I'll lay the table and call you boys when we're ready to eat," she simply said and winked before she rushed back into the kitchen.

"Can we," Louis started, pointing upstairs, without finishing the sentence.

Harry nodded, leading the way upstairs in silence. Only when he closed the door behind them, did Louis dare to reach out for him again.

"Who hit you, babe?" he asked, carefully running his thumb over Harry's split lip.

"Nathan," Harry finally admitted. He nuzzled his cheek into Louis' touch. "Said I deserved it."

"Fuck, if I was still there, he'd never get even close enough to---"

"No, Lou," Harry interrupted. His big, green eyes looked earnest, the slightly chubby cheeks pale. He was only sixteen, way too young to have to go through anything like this. He had angelic, pretty curls, and he was genuine, always nice and polite. Louis had no idea how anyone in the world would ever want to hurt him.

It equalled kicking a puppy. Who the hell kicked helpless puppies?

"You are not there, and even if you were, that's not a solution," Harry argued, voice firm.

"You didn't even fight back?" Louis asked, eyes widening.

"I don't think that would have helped the situation," Harry mumbled.

Louis moved over to the bed and pulled Harry with him, until they were lying down, Harry snuggled close to Louis' side. "What did he say?"

"He said he wanted me to stop looking at him," Harry answered quietly.

"Looking?" A pang of jealousy hit Louis' chest.

"I wasn't," Harry clarified. "Not like that, anyway." His fingers trailed over Louis' hip, gently playing with the hem of the jumper Louis wore.

"So he simply took out his anger on you?" The idea made Louis feel sick, the image of Harry just taking it without any resistance playing in his head. Louis wanted to turn back time to be there, wanted to protect Harry.

"He's not stupid, Lou," Harry said. "He knows it. He can see it."

Louis frowned and the hand that had been lazily stroking up and down Harry's back stopped. "What?"

"He said I should stop looking at him like a faggot." Harry's voice was muffled, coming out a little tight.

"That is not what you are," Louis growled lowly. "What an arse."

They weren't out, was the thing. Louis had been seeing Harry for almost a year now, but they had decided that they didn't want to come out yet. Living in a small village didn't make it easy, but especially made it harder to hide. They also knew what it would be like if they stopped hiding.

Louis changing schools had made it a little easier. Since he had transferred to the sports college in Crewe, the situation was a bit more relaxed. Seeing Harry every day in school had been a tough task, acting as if they were just friends. And even just being friends had been tough. Explaining everyone else why he was suddenly hanging out with a quirky tenth-grader? Louis had got pretty creative there.

As it was now, they only met outside of school, so no one really took notice of them spending so much time together. In a way, it was a lot harder, too. Louis definitely didn't see Harry as much as he wanted anymore.

"That guy pisses me off," Louis complained, shifting, so he could face Harry. "I'll give him a black eye next time I see him."

Harry just looked at him, his face close. His lashes threw shadows over his cheeks, and his lips were pink and shiny, except for the ugly bruise. He slowly shook his head. "If I wanted him to have a black eye, I would have given him one myself," he pointed out. "But that's not the kind of guy I want to be."

Louis blinked, catching Harry's breath against his own lips, eyes focusing on Harry's.

"And it's not the kind of guy you are. If he thinks he has to smash my face because I fell in love with the most amazing boy in this world, I can take it. I'm above that." Harry leaned in, closed the small gap between them and gently kissed Louis' lips. "So are you."

Louis reached out a hand to touch Harry's hair, shifting closer and tangling their legs. "He hurt you."

With a smile, Harry took Louis' unoccupied hand and laced their fingers. "I love you too."

There were a million things Louis could have said that moment, but he settled on squeezing Harry's hand, holding on, and gently kissing the bruise. Harry closed his eyes and nuzzled in closer, until his forehead rested against Louis' chest.

"I know you're angry," he said, voice muffled against Louis' jumper. "Just promise me you won't do anything reckless."

"You can't ask me not to do anything about it," Louis argued, lips pressed into Harry's hair. Harry was warm, and his hair soft. He smelled of some fruity shampoo he had most likely stolen from Gemma, and his palm was a little sweaty.

Louis didn't think he'd be able to ever let go of this boy. He had lost his heart to Harry, all of it, and he didn't want a single piece of it back. It was safe with Harry, just like lying here with him, holding him close and breathing in time felt safe to Louis.

"You can kiss it better," Harry suggested, and Louis didn't have to see his face to know he was smirking. "We get more out of that, anyway."

+++

"Louis, wake up."

Louis blinked his eyes open, looking confused at Zayn's face in front of him for a moment. Just a second ago, he had Harry snuggled up to him -- his presence had felt so real, his warmth so close. Louis could even still feel it. He looked down at himself and found a blanket spread over his body.

"You slept through," Zayn explained. "Been out for the whole flight."

"Yeah," Louis answered lamely.

It had been a dream. Well, a memory, but Louis never allowed himself to recall any of those. He didn't have much control over his dreams, though.

"You coming?" Liam asked.

Louis threw off the blanket, trying to throw off the feeling in his chest the same way, which sadly didn't work that well. Wilful Ignorance, it was then. That had worked for the past three years, and it would keep working now.

At the airport, they waited for their luggage, then took off to the exit. Before they went out, Liam stopped and wordlessly opened his arms. They knew that once they'd walk through that door, they wouldn't get to say a proper goodbye. Louis buried himself in Liam's embrace, holding him close and trying to convey all the apologies he couldn't form with words. Liam nuzzled his cheek against Louis' head, his grip firm.

"Take care. See you in a few days," Liam said quietly.

"You too," Louis answered. "Get some rest."

Next was Zayn, practically dragging Louis out of Liam's arms and into his own. He didn't say anything, just hugged Louis tightly, before he let go and turned to Liam to hug him just as closely.

"Ready?" Paul, head of their security, asked then.

Liam let go of Zayn, nodding, eyes darting to Louis once. They grabbed their luggage, preparing for the crowd outside. As always, fans were loudly screaming their names, trying to get their attention, and Louis felt bad for not stopping, but the security rushed them along to the cars parked in front of the doors for them. Paparazzi were there, flashlights following their every move and Louis couldn't make out a single word they were yelling.

Just as Louis had expected, it was raining, drops scattering his shoulders and beanie, drenching through the fabric only from the short passage between the door and car. It was too early in the morning, the sky still dark, so Louis couldn't see the rain as much as he heard it when he looked out of the window.

"To your flat?" the driver asked.

"Yes, please," Louis answered.

Moving, Louis thought, tiredly watching drops painting a formless, colourless picture on the glass. They were always moving. It was different cars taking them from one point to the other, planes taking off early mornings and late nights, and half of the time Louis didn't know where he would wake up.

He was in London now, rainy, cold and grey London, and although it should have felt like home, Louis didn't feel like he was coming home at all. There was no excited feeling in his bones, not the anticipation of finally walking through a door and finding a familiar view.

That was why he didn't even unpack when he finally came into his flat. He simply dragged another bag from the closet in his bedroom and stuffed it with clothes and whatever he needed, taking right off again.

People were probably right when they said home was not a house or a place. In Louis' case, home was wherever his mother was, and his mum was in Doncaster now.

She had been commuting between Holmes Chapel and Doncaster for almost a year, which had been very straining for her. The job offer in Doncaster had been what she had always dreamed of, though, so Louis had encouraged her to take it. She had barely been home, always exhausted when she had been, tired and worn out. So Louis had taken a lot of responsibilities around the house. He had dropped off and picked up the girls from school, had taken care of the grocery shopping.

Then he had dropped out of school to follow his dream, and at least Lottie had been old enough to take over some of the chores. His mother had not wanted to move to Doncaster, not with Louis being in the middle of his A Levels, and the girls having their roots in Holmes Chapel.

After Louis had left, things had got harder, definitely, and he still felt sorry for acting so selfishly. He had made up for it by buying a house for his mother in Doncaster, big enough for all five of them. The twins didn't even have to share a room anymore.

Louis had not once returned to Holmes Chapel -- there was no reason to. Home was now in Doncaster.

"Louis," his mother breathed, surprised when he sneaked into the house. It was almost nine in the morning, and although Louis had slept through the whole flight from L.A. to London, he felt as if he had been up for days. Seeing her face took some of the tiredness off his shoulders.

She was in the kitchen, sitting at the table, the newspaper in one hand, a cup of tea and an empty plate in front of her. When Louis walked in, she raised her head, staring at him with wide eyes for a few seconds.

Louis was convinced Johanna Darling was one of the very few women not aging at all. She looked pretty and lively as always, skin peachy and fresh, hair cut classy and dyed in a dark brunette.

She got up and rushed over to hug her son. "Baby, when did you come back?"

"Landed very early this morning," Louis answered, hooking his chin over her shoulder. She smelled of the perfume she had been using ever since he had been a child, her hair was tied in a knot, but a few strands had fallen out and tickled Louis' cheek. "I hope it's okay I came here."

She pulled back, framing his face. "Don't be stupid."

He smiled, kissing her cheek. "Happy New Year."

"Right, haven't seen you yet." She kissed his forehead, gently stroking his hair. "It's so good to have you home. I have to leave in a few, though."

Louis shook his head. "I'll stay for a few days. Only have to be back in London by Friday."

"The girls will be thrilled." Jay beamed at him, not pulling her hands from his face. Worry overshadowed her smile then. "You look tired, baby."

"It's just jetlag," Louis answered. "Just need a proper rest."

"Your bed is made," Jay told him. "I changed the sheets after you left last time, so you can go upstairs and catch some sleep, if you'd like."

"I'll try to stay awake until tonight," Louis said. "Slept on the plane. Should I pick up Daisy and Phoebs from school later?"

"That would be lovely." His mother let go of him and made for the entrance, grabbing a coat and putting it on. "I'll cook tonight. If you don't mind you can take the girls to town and get whatever you'd like to have for dinner."

"Roast Beef," Louis answered immediately. "Missed some proper homemade meals from me mum."

She grinned and pulled him back into her arms again. "It's always good to have you home. I'll see you tonight," she said quietly, kissing his cheek.

Louis waved her off, watching her steer her car out the driveway until he couldn't see it anymore. Silence engulfed him when he closed the door again.

The house would soon enough be filled with noise. Then, he'd finally be home.

+++

"It was so embarrassing, Mum," Fizzy complained, poking her peas with her fork. "He stood right in front of the gates and waved at me."

"That was not embarrassing," Louis argued. "Everyone else was very happy to see me. Except for you."

"It's not that I'm not happy to see you," she amended. "Just, not in front of my school."

Louis frowned. From the amount of pictures he had taken with Fizzy's friends and girls going to her school, he thought that him appearing there had been more of a success. "Your friends were all very polite."

"They are fans, Lou," she pointed out. "And most of them wanna marry Zayn anyway."

Louis pulled a face. "They'd be stuck with a messy, random hobo who passes out without warning if he's not working on some graffiti, really."

"He looks good on posters," Fizzy simply said. "God, boy bands are so embarrassing."

"Excuse me, but your brother is part of one of those," Louis reminded her, scuffing. "What is your problem?"

"The problem is that Gordon thinks boy bands are stupid," Lottie butted in.

Louis thought he had a stroke. He had most possibly just experienced a stroke. "A boy? Are you seeing a boy?" He turned to his mother. "Aren't you keeping an eye on her?"

Jay laughed, sipping from her wine. "Fizzy, if that boy talks bad about your brother, he's probably not worth your time."

"He doesn't know about my brother, is the thing." Fizzy put down her fork, giving Louis a glare. "But thanks to you he is well aware now, and that will ruin my chances with him."

Rolling his eyes, Louis sneaked the meat she had left untouched on her plate. "In that case my goal is accomplished. I've done everything right."

Fizzy kicked him under the table and Louis choked on a pea.

After that, it turned into a big, ugly fight that only ended when Jay grabbed Louis' ear and pulled hard.

"Louis William Tomlinson, would you stop being such a bad example to your sisters?"

Pouting, Louis rubbed his stinging ear, once she had let go of him. The girls dashed off into the living room, and Louis glared after them while clearing the table.

"You're not gonna let her replace me with a boy who thinks I'm stupid, do you?" he asked when he sorted plates into the dishwasher, his mum cleaning a pot in the sink.

She laughed. "None of the girls will ever replace you, Louis."

"They shouldn't hook up with boys who don't like me, though."

"They're certainly not gonna marry any of those," Jay hummed.

Louis' stomach flipped, leaving him a little dizzy. "Okay, let's talk about something else."

His mother laughed, splashing some water at him. "Did Lottie tell you that she slept over at Martin's after Christmas?"

"Okay, sorry to leave you with the dirty dishes, but I need some fresh air," Louis announced, fleeing the kitchen. He stopped in the doorway to the living room, watching his sisters all huddled up on the sofa. Some film was on the telly, and all of them were focussed on the screen. Phoebe and Daisy had spread a blanket over their laps, feet dangling from the sofa, not yet reaching the floor.

They soon would.

For a moment, Louis pondered joining them, butting in between Phoebe and Fizzy, having his sisters surround him. He turned away instead, grabbing his coat from where his mother had neatly hung it over the wardrobe by the front door. He quietly opened the door and stepped outside.

It was cold, the smell of rain gone. Instead, it smelled fresher, of the night and the stars of a January night. Louis tilted his head back and looked at the sky, found it dark and cloudy. He rounded the house and strolled over to the single swing he and his mother had set up in the back garden. Fizzy and Lottie had both grown up with a swing in the garden, and Louis had always been the one pushing them for hours. His mother had wanted one here for the twins too, so Louis had bought her one.

He hadn't once pushed any of the twins on this swing, though. He stored that away in the back of his mind, making a mental reminder for himself to play outside with them tomorrow.

For now, Louis sat down on the swing himself, his feet touching the ground. He wasn't tall enough to make it awkward, though, so he gently started rocking, staring ahead at the house. The terrace connected to the living room was dark, only a bit of light streaming through the windows. Louis couldn't see much of what was going on inside, only his mother walking into the room with mugs and leaving again with empty hands.

Tomorrow morning she would open the newspaper and read another article about her son's sour behaviour. Louis thought of giving her a warning; then again, Jay had learned to ignore the press. Especially bad press, since most of what the media wrote wasn't true anyway.

This story was true, though. And although it wasn't that much of a big deal, it didn't really leave Louis' mind. He felt like it had been a step too far, the straw that broke the camel's back. It had probably been too much, and Louis just really needed the break they had ahead.

At least they wouldn't have to travel as much anymore until the tour would kick off in February. They would promote the new album a little more, would give interviews and have photo shootings, attend the Brit Awards next month.

It was a dream, really, so much of a dream, that Louis got to lead this life. He was lucky and blessed -- and a total twat for complaining or being unhappy about anything. He didn't have a right to be unhappy.

Averting his eyes from the house, he lowered his look to his arm, pushed up the sleeves of his coat and his jumper, until his finger traced black lines that had by now become even with his skin, inked into his arm. Just four little letters, so random. A million people had asked about it, had wanted to know the meaning.

It had stopped feeling like a lie whenever Louis answered that it was just a joke, random and didn't hold a specific meaning.

When he heard the terrace door open, he lifted his head, stared at his mother approaching him. She held a shawl in one hand, way too long and bright red.

"You'll catch a cold if you sit out here like that," she said, gently draping the shawl around Louis' neck. The ends hung down loosely, barely centimetres away from the ground. It was long enough to keep two people warm.

That memory clutched Louis' heart, a tight fist squeezing around it and making it hard for him to breathe. He forced the memory away, focussing on his mother. "Thanks."

"It smells like snow," she said. "I guess we'll get to take the girls for a snowball fight tomorrow. It's been ages since it last snowed."

Louis nodded, fingers digging into the soft red wool pooling in his lap. "Five years," he said. "The last time it snowed was five years ago."

Jay laughed. "That long? No wonder Phoebe and Daisy can't even remember."

Louis kept his gaze glued to the ground. He wished he wouldn't remember either, but remembered all too well.

"Are you coming back inside?" Jay asked, pulling up her shoulders and crossing her arms to keep the cold out.

Smiling, Louis gestured to the house. "You go ahead, Mum. I'll be there in a minute. Can I get some hot chocolate?"

She nodded, giving him a knowing look. "Don't be too long."

Louis watched her leave, and then started rocking again. His toes dragged across the ground and the shawl swayed with the motion. Warm light spilled from the house, silence absorbed the quiet squeaking noise of the swing.

A first snowflake fell onto Louis' lap, outstanding against the red wool. It melted within seconds.

Louis lifted his head again, looking up and staring at the snowflakes that were gently, quietly falling down at him. He turned one palm and held it up, the cold sprinkles melting on his skin. His breath fogged up in front of his face when he exhaled shakily.

At what speed does a snowflake fall, what do you think?

Louis focussed on one and watched it float down to the ground, where it was followed by a next, and another.

Slow, he thought and wound the shawl tighter around himself, rocking back and forth on the swing. The snow kept falling, spreading a thin layer of white over the ground, the house, and Louis.

Painfully slow.

---

Chapter Text

Harry froze after he had opened the door, staring at the picture in front of him.

Perrie sat on the table, legs crossed, surrounded by papers and pens. Her hair was pink -- changed from the lilac colour she had sported for the past couple weeks -- and tied up in a messy bun on top of her head. She wore blue tights and a black jumper, as well as thick socks in rainbow colours.

"Hi," Harry said softly as she didn't even look up. He closed the door behind himself and set down his bag.

Perrie finally looked up and a smile bloomed on her face. "Hey darling."

"New colour?" He gestured at her hair. "I like it."

"I felt like it," she answered, shrugging a bit and putting the pen she held aside.

"Suits you." Grinning, Harry walked over to the table, picked up one of the papers and tilted his head to have a good look. "You're making sketches?"

Perrie sighed. "We'll have a fashion show in a few months. I have to hand in my concept next week."

"What is your concept?" Harry asked.

"Good question." Perrie hopped off the table and went to the sink to make tea. "I'm not sure what I want. Summer clothes, maybe, because it'll be April by the time we show them. But do I show men's fashion or women's? Both, maybe? And in what style?"

"Yours," Harry answered. He opened a cupboard and frowned at the new mugs right in his line of vision. "It should be something reflecting your personality, right?"

"That's so easily said, Harry." Perrie rolled her eyes and switched on the kettle. "My style suits me. It's a style that combines different already existing styles. Or rather brands." She frowned a little. "I need to come up with something that is original and new and hip and trendy."

Harry set down the mugs on the worktop. One was black and had a Mickey Mouse face in white, the other was white and had a Minnie Mouse face in black as well as a red ribbon with polka dots drawn on. "That's what your studies are essentially about, isn't it?"

Perrie groaned, bending her knees and tilting her head back. "Basically, yes."

"Why the pressure, then? You did alright before."

"I know," she mumbled. "It's the first serious fashion show, though."

"I can help, if you want me to," Harry offered. "Just let me know if you need anything."

"You're busy enough as it is," Perrie argued. "Reminds me, how did it go today?"

Harry turned around, rummaging through a drawer for tea spoons. "Yeah, alright."

"You got any feedback?"

"No, not yet." He shrugged, then pointed at the mugs. "Just so I'm not getting confused. You bought us couple mugs?"

Perrie grinned blissfully. She looked a lot more relaxed than she had been just minutes ago. "Got them for two quid each in the Factory Shop."

"What does Colin say about you buying us couple mugs?" Harry smirked. At first, he had been a little worried that him moving in with Perrie would cause problems, but Harry hadn't heard from Colin yet. After having lived with Perrie for more than a month, he had still not met the guy, and by now Harry bought into Josh's theory that Perrie just made up stories about him and he really didn't exist.

"They are not really couple mugs," Perrie said, filling said mugs with hot water.

"Yeah, they are. Mickey and Minnie, reversed colours. Totally couple mugs," Harry argued. He added a dash of milk to both mugs.

"I'll have the Mickey one," Perrie announced then, pointing at the black mug. "Then you can't call them couple mugs, because I have the boy's one and you have the girl's one."

Harry laughed, taking his own mug and sitting down at the kitchen table. "I like Minnie better, anyway."

"Why am I not surprised?" She mindlessly shoved her sketches aside and sat down across from Harry. "I'm working tonight. Ed's in. Are you coming?"

Harry thought about the song he had started to work on before he had fallen asleep the night before. He had started to work at a bakery, and had been too exhausted from a twelve hour shift to properly write. He should use the night off to get something done.

He really shouldn't go. He had really let his music slide lately, hadn't worked hard enough to find a place to play at, or a label willing to listen to his demo tapes.

Perrie sorted through her papers, mug in one hand, foot tapping steadily on the floor. Harry looked over the numerous sketches, thought of the single sheet of paper in his own room.

He really shouldn't go.

"I'll come," he said instead, sipping from his tea.

+++

The year had started more than promising.

Two weeks ago, their tour had kicked off in London. Before that, they had won three Brit Awards -- making them winners of the night --, their new album was in the making, and they had just added more than ten dates to their tour. As of now, Escapade would be on the road for nine months, the tour only ending in November.

"We're still looking for a support act for the Asian leg of your tour," Sybill said, going through a stack of papers in her hands. "Maybe we'll find some artist from over there."

"How many dates?" Liam asked.

"For Asia?" She looked up, skipping a few pages. "Two in Singapore, three in Hong Kong, one in Malaysia. South Korea is on the list, one date so far, but we're negotiating for a second date. Four confirmed dates in Japan -- two in Tokyo, one in Osaka, one in Sapporo."

"Wouldn't it make sense to just take the support artist from the Australian leg?" Louis suggested.

"They're starting an own tour right after, so we'll need someone else," Sybill argued, pursing her lips. "We'll see to that. There's still plenty of time."

Louis kept watching her but tuned out her further ramblings. He wouldn't be able to remember anything that would only be of interest for him in a couple of months anyway. They'd get back to them with detailed lists and plans once time had come, making sure none of them would miss a single thing.

Louis didn't have to take care of anything, someone was always around to take care of things, to tell him where to go, to tell him where to be, to tell him what to say. Sometimes, it made Louis' stomach hurt with how controlled he felt, how little he had to say in his own life, how few decisions he got to make for himself.

"We're only making sure you're doing the right thing," was what he had been told from the beginning. He had bought into it at first, because who was he to argue? He hadn't had a clue about the business and he had needed the help -- all three of them had relied on it. By now Louis knew the business well enough, and he trusted himself to make the right decisions, to choose the right path.

He had signed a lot of contracts, a lot of papers, but that didn't keep him from using as much of his money as he could to build something for himself. Six months ago, he had looked up a good solicitor, had met up with him a few times to discuss business. Two months ago, he and Liam had founded their own company. Having Liam on board with it made Louis feel a lot safer, much more secure in his plans.

Louis wasn't stupid; he knew that singing in a boy band wasn't what he would do for the rest of his life. That would end someday, and when it would, he'd have an alternative, something to keep him in the business, something that would keep the money coming in.

I promise I'll make your dream come true. He had. Louis had made the dream come true. And he wanted to keep doing that -- make dreams come true. He wanted to help other artists to make it big. He had the knowledge, he had the financial background, and he had opportunities.

This was once again a good opportunity for himself. He only had to find a promising act, a good artist to support. He would be the one finding them a support act for the tour, and he would make sure that he'd have shares in them.

This world he lived in now was nothing but tough business, and Louis was determined to keep up. He wouldn't end miserably once his own career was over -- he was thinking ahead, taking precautions for his future.

An opportunity, he thought again, watching Sybill pace the room while she read something out to them from one of her many papers.

He just had to use it wisely.

+++

Harry turned to the sound of the bell jingling above the door. "Welcome," he greeted in a friendly tone, his smile growing wider when he saw Niall coming in.

"Hi mate," Niall said, adjusting his rucksack on his shoulders. "Thought I'd drop by before going home."

Harry had been working in the bakery for a good month, and ever since he had started, Niall had stopped by almost every day. He didn't think Niall could actually eat all the bread he bought. Harry wondered what Barbara had to say about it, which reminded him that he hadn't seen her in quite a while.

"Is Babs not waiting?" Harry asked, angling his body a little to reach one of the pastries on display. He fetched it with a napkin and shoved it into a paper bag.

Niall followed Harry's motions with his eyes, pulling out his wallet. "She's not home yet," he answered, dropping some coins onto the cash desk. "I wanted to show you something."

Harry handed him the bag and frowned slightly, while opening the till and sorting in the coins. "What is it?"

Niall fished a crumpled paper from his pocket, straightening it out with his hands and holding it out for Harry. Tilting his head, Harry took it and read over the simple grey letters on the white sheet.

"An open mic night?" he read out loud. "On Saturday?"

"You should go," Niall told him. "That pub's quite popular. A&R Reps are dropping by regularly, so you might get to leave an impression."

Harry swallowed thickly, feeling his blood run a little cold in his veins. He had contacted several labels, handing out demo tapes. He had not yet heard back from any of them.

"They’re usually not the really big ones," Niall continued as Harry just kept staring at the flyer. "But it's a start, isn't it? If they are interested, maybe the bigger labels would be, too."

"Yeah," Harry breathed. "I guess."

Niall beamed, reaching over the desk to bump Harry's shoulder slightly. "I've already signed you up."

Harry blinked at him. "What?"

"They only accept eight. If I hadn't signed you up the minute I read it, all spots would have been taken by the time you made up your mind." Niall shrugged. "And what's there to lose, Haz?"

What if they hated it, Harry thought, heart racing in his chest. What if they didn't contact him, didn't see anything special in him? Harry didn't think he was ready for that step.

Not again.

Niall opened his rucksack and tucked the paper bag inside. "Okay, I'll see you tomorrow, I guess."

Harry nodded, still standing frozen behind the counter.

"Hey," Niall said stopping in front of the door. He smiled brightly, expression so careless and sunny. Harry wondered how exactly he did that, how he always managed to be so positive. "You'll make it, okay?"

Harry smiled back, cheeks flushing. "We'll see."

"No, Harry," Niall said firmly. "You came here just for that. Don't back down now. You have to keep chasing that dream."

Harry pressed his lips together. "Yeah, okay. Got it."

Niall grinned, giving him a thumbs-up before he left the store.

He was right, Harry thought, absent-mindedly wiping the top of the display. He had lost his fire, too distracted by everything else going on his life. Harry had been satisfied with moving into a nice flat with a nice flatmate, finding a job at a bakery and having a day-to-day routine that paid enough for a living. He had been content spending his days working long shifts, chatting to lovely, old ladies about the weather and cake recipes and going to the pub every few nights, meeting new people. He had distracted himself with decorating the flat, spending hours in second hand and charity shops with Perrie, and sitting with her until late nights, talking about dreams and plans that had become nothing but a nice fantasy in his head.

It wasn't what he wanted to do, what he wanted to be, though. He had come here to fulfil a dream, not to let it end up being a dream for the rest of his life.

I promise I'll make your dream come true, it echoed through his head, and Harry's hand stopped on top of the display. He lowered his gaze, biting his lip for a moment.

It had been the goal from the second he had stood on a stage for the first time. It had been a dream, always a dream, but he had never doubted that it would come true, that they would make it.

Not until Louis had shattered that dream.

+++

"Did you hear back from them?"

Harry breathed heavily from running all the way from school to Louis' house. It had been so much easier when Louis had still been attending their school -- not just in terms of exchanging latest updates, but also in terms of doing boyfriend stuff.

Harry loved to think of it like that. It had been two weeks since he had been allowed to call Louis his boyfriend. Not publicly, but in his own head at least, and in front of Niall. That was enough for now; it was enough to know that they were exclusive, that there was no one else besides Harry that Louis looked at.

That wasn't the matter at hand, though. Not right now.

Louis came down from his tree house, his back turned to them as he slowly climbed the stairs. He skipped the last few steps, landing steadily on his feet.

Harry knew the moment Louis turned around to them.

"We got rejected," he said lowly, looking from Harry to Niall. "They said it's not original enough."

"That doesn't mean a thing," Niall promptly threw in. "It was only the first label we tried. Nothing's lost yet."

"There wasn't even a single one they liked?" Harry asked.

Louis shrugged, shaking his head. "Apparently not."

Harry didn't get it. How could anyone not love the songs Louis wrote? They had all written songs, but Harry thought of Louis' as the strongest ones. How did those people not recognise that?

There was a noise coming from the house, announcing Louis' sisters coming back from school.
"Get up there, lads," Louis just said, pointing at the ladder behind himself. There was a sign at the top, reading "Girls" which was crossed out with red colour. Louis had told Harry once that his mother had made it for him, because she wanted Louis to have a place that was only his and where his sisters were not allowed.

During summer time, Harry barely got to see the house from inside. Louis always took him to the tree house to make sure his sisters wouldn't disturb them. That way, they had been able to have their first time without being afraid of getting caught. It had been a little uncomfortable, but they hadn’t had to worry about Harry’s mum hearing them downstairs or one of Louis’ sisters coming into his room without knocking. Louis had taken his time, the night air a little chilly on their naked skin, the lonely howl of an owl from the distance breaking the quiet of the night.

This place was sacred to Harry.

"Are we gonna try other labels?" Niall asked once they were inside the tree house, sitting down on the cold, wooden planks. "I mean, let's not give up just because of one rejection."

"We'll try again," Louis agreed.

Harry pressed his lips together. What if the other labels rejected them too? What if it really was foolish to believe they were any better than everyone else who tried to get to the top, to live the dream of being a pop star?

"Hey," Louis said quietly, his touch pulling Harry back into reality. He blinked to bring Louis' face into focus. He was close, his fingertips light on Harry's arm.

"I promise," he murmured. "We'll make it, love. We're a good team, the three of us. It's just one rejection. That was to be expected, okay?"

Harry inhaled deeply, nodding his head. He glanced at Niall before he leaned in and gently kissed Louis' lips. Louis smiled, lifting his hand to brush the curls from Harry's forehead.

"Don't worry, yeah?" Louis pulled him closer, an arm winding around Harry's waist.

"Why don't I get that kind of reassurement?" Niall complained.

"You don't really want me to hug and kiss you," Louis mocked him. "Or, well, if you do want me to, I wouldn't---"

"Heeey," Harry cut in, frowning and pulling Louis closer. "No kissing other boys."

Niall laughed, falling to his back, and Harry felt Louis’ giggles echo in his own chest. It was warm and felt familiar. Louis turned his head to press his lips gently against Harry's temple.

"I promise I'll make your dream come true," he whispered, almost drowned out by Niall's laughter. But Harry could hear it, the words sinking into his mind, running through his blood.

He only held on tighter, fingers digging into Louis's skin.

+++

With the jingling of the bells above the door, Harry snapped back to reality. He blinked twice, clearing his mind of the memory, Niall's laughter still ringing in his ears, Louis' breath still warm and soothing against his skin.

A businessman dressed in a grey suit approached the display, pointing at some bread. "I'll have two of those, please."

"'Course," Harry answered, turning to grab another paper bag.

He had to stop recalling those memories. For the past two years, ever since he had managed to get over Louis, he had been so good at ignoring every feeling that had been connected to Louis. Harry had not thought of him often -- and when he had, it had been in the dark of the night, where no one could have caught him.

Louis had not shattered the dream. Temporarily, maybe. But he had not shattered it completely. After all, Harry was here now, and he had made it this far on his own, all by himself.

With a smile, Harry accepted the money from the man, handing out the change. He wished him a nice day and kept the smile on his lips, even when the man was gone.

Harry could still dream, could still follow his plans and work hard to reach his goals.

He didn't need Louis to make those dreams come true.

+++

"Aiden," Louis greeted, once the person on the other end of the line had picked up. "Light of my life, apple of my eye."

"Um," Aiden answered, irritation apparent in his voice. "What do you want, Tommo?"

They had met for the first time on a sunny afternoon in May two years ago. Aiden was a songwriter and producer and had written a majority of the songs for Escapade's first album. He and Louis had hit it off from the very first moment.

In more than one way, actually. Louis loved working with Aiden, he understood Louis' mind, gave just the right suggestions to make Louis' writing just that tiny bit better, without pushing it in a direction that wouldn't suit Louis. He was amazing. Apart from his songwriter abilities, he had proven himself quite a good lover as well.

It was nothing like a romantic relationship, though. They hadn't gone on a single date, and Louis thought of Aiden as a friend -- he was more of a friend than a lot of his actual friends. He wasn't looking for any advantages, wasn't after Louis' money, and he understood the situation Louis was in. Louis trusted Aiden that he wouldn't sell a single word to the press.

It was a trust he had laid on only a few people.

"Just a small favour," Louis answered now, trying to ease Aiden's irritation. "Remember how I told you about the company I founded?"

"The one with Liam?" Aiden asked.

"Yes, that one," Louis agreed. "You have a foot in the indie scene, don't you? All those hipster places and people you have connections to."

Aiden sighed. "Lou, for the millionth time. Hipster and indie is not the same."

"Okay, whatever." Pacing his bedroom, Louis rolled his eyes. "I'm looking for a talented, young act to take on tour at the end of the year."

Aiden was quiet for a minute. "Man or woman?"

"Doesn't matter. Just, someone promising, someone original with charisma. Someone who will definitely make it."

"A safe bet?" Aiden inquired. "That's finding a needle in a haystack, Lou."

"I'm not asking you to spit out a name on the spot," Louis clarified. "I need a few tips, some advice on where to look."

Aiden sighed. "Listen. I have to go, I'm in a meeting, actually. I'll get back to you, okay?"

"I'll hold you to it."

Louis waited for the line to go dead before he hung up too, then he grabbed the bag he had packed and headed for the front door.

He hoped he would find someone who deserved the chance, who deserved making it big. Louis had received that chance three years ago, and he hadn’t hesitated for a single second.

Of course he had Harry in mind, of course he had thought about giving the opportunity to Harry. He was talented, he was charming, he had potential.

Unfortunately, Louis was too much of a coward to take that step. He would have to contact Harry, and Louis was scared witless of that. He wasn’t afraid of what Harry’s reaction would be. He knew what Harry’s reaction would be and that he wouldn’t give Louis the time of the day, would probably spit it back right in his face. That was what scared Louis.

An opportunity given by Louis? Harry would probably rather live under a bridge than stoop down to that level.

And he was right.

Louis slid into the car waiting for him in front of the building. The driver greeted him with a friendly nod and Louis nodded back.

Harry had every right to despise Louis, to hate him and look down on him. Louis never wanted to get into a situation where he would have to endure Harry looking at him; looking at him with a cold, hurtful and resentful expression. Louis didn’t think he’d be able to take it. He knew he was a coward, knew he deserved every single bit of hatred Harry felt for him.

Louis had kept his promise; he had made the dream come true.

Just not for Harry.

+++

"Harry, don't freak now." Niall crouched down in front of him, looking worried. "It's no different from when you play over at The Anchor's Rope."

"It is," Harry protested, voice weak. "Perrie's there, and Ed plays there too. I know the people there, and there are no talent scouts dropping in, judging me."

"Look, you'll be alright." Niall frowned, gripping Harry's shoulders. "You're so good, Harry. You have nothing to be afraid of. You've got some wicked stuff to play out there, and you'll blow all of them away."

"What if they hate it?" Harry swallowed thickly. Niall could talk so easily. He was not about to go out there and risk having about fifty people find everything he had built over his life ridiculous and not worth their time.

"I haven't seen you this nervous since--" Niall cut himself short, biting his lip.

"Yeah, better not go there," Harry agreed, closing his eyes. "This is not the same, though. I don't need him anymore to calm me down."

Niall was quiet for a moment. "Harry, you just need to do what you always do, okay?"

"Why am I first, too? Can't someone else go first?"

Laughing, Niall pulled Harry up from the floor and framed Harry's face, forcing him to look Niall in the eye. He was grinning madly, eyes reduced to small slits. "Harry, you're on now. I'm not letting you waste this opportunity. You hear me? You're using it now, and you'll smash it."

Harry breathed in deeply, feeling his muscles loosen up a little. "Yeah, okay. Okay."

"I'll be watching from the front row, okay?"

"You didn't tell anyone else about it?" Harry asked, just to make sure again.

"It's just me here. Just imagine no one else were here." Niall pulled Harry in, hugging him tightly before he adjusted the headscarf in Harry's hair when he pulled back. "Go get ‘em, Tiger."

Harry barked out a laugh. "Wish me luck."

"You don't need it." Niall turned to open the door of the small back room behind the bar that the bartender had let them use to prepare.

"Thank you, Niall," Harry said quietly, briefly glancing out the door. He had to keep his cool now, couldn't afford to lose it out there on that makeshift stage.

Niall right on his heels, Harry left the room and let his gaze drift over the small audience, a sea of foreign faces. Then, his eyes settled on one, a single one that was familiar.

Harry's breath got caught in his throat, his lips numb, his fingertips cold when his gaze was returned.

+++

"So why exactly is Liam not here?" Aiden sat down a pint glass in front of Louis and slid into the seat across. Music played from the boxes set up next to the stage, so he had to raise his voice a little.

"We're on tour, mate. I only came down from Cardiff for this," Louis answered.

"Having a day off?"

Louis nodded. "And Liam doesn't really know about this yet." He shrugged, taking a swipe from his pint. "Doesn't need to, I guess. I'm just having a look around. I'll let him know once I find a potential act."

"You're serious about this, huh?" Aiden leaned back, eyes sparkling a little in amusement. "Don't get me wrong, but... do you have trouble with the boys?"

"No," Louis answered immediately. "Not at all."

"I mean," Aiden pointed out. "You're at the peak of your career. Why are you looking for alternatives?"

"It goes downhill from the peak," Louis said. "This will be over at some point. Maybe there are another three years in for us. Five at most. I just want to make sure I have a backup plan."

"That's probably not a bad idea," Aiden agreed. "Liam's on board with your company. What about Zayn?"

Louis grinned, thinking about Zayn. "It's not his thing, really. He'll use his name to get into the fine arts market and settle with selling art, disappearing from the music industry."

Aiden pursed his lips, rolling his glass between his hands. "Seems like him."

"Excuse me?" Louis looked up at a guy standing next to their table. He had broad shoulders and pale skin, his hair ginger and eyes green. "I don't mean to bother you, but... You're Louis Tomlinson, right?"

Louis smirked. "The one and only."

"My girlfriend's a big fan of the band. She'd freak if I'd send her a picture with you." The guy shrugged, looking slightly uncomfortable in his own skin. Louis glanced at the table at the other end of the room, a bunch of lads gathered around it, grinning madly.

He had to honestly love her, Louis thought, if he jumped over his own shadow to ask the boy band guy in front of his mates for a picture. Most blokes treated Louis, Liam and Zayn like a disease. "How about I send her a nice video message?" Louis offered.

"That would be so wicked." The ginger lad beamed, pulling out his mobile. "That's very kind. Thank you."

"No problem, mate." Louis shifted on his chair. "What's her name?"

"Holly. She's dragged me to your concert last year." He blushed immediately, looking caught. "I mean, it's--- I hadn't---"

"Yeah, alright." Louis laughed. "I'm aware there are not that many blokes coming to our gigs. Don't stress."

"It was fun," Ginger Boy smiled, shrugging. "Not exactly my kind of music, but--- you know. Decent show."

Louis adjusted the beanie over his hair, brushing some of the strands poking out off his forehead. "Thanks. I'm glad you liked it."

Aiden offered to take the picture of them and Louis pulled a face for the camera, winking at Aiden when he giggled. Afterwards, he let Ginger Boy record a short video message of him. Louis chose his words carefully, waving and smiling nicely because he knew it would end up on Twitter or Instagram.

"Would you please not post it on the internet until the gigs here are over?" Louis asked after the bloke had thanked him for the tenth time. "If the fans find out where I am, they'll definitely show up here."

"No problem," Ginger Boy assured him. "Don't have Twitter anyway. I'll show it to my girlfriend when I get home. She'll probably post it, though."

"That's alright." Louis nodded, raising his pint in cheers. "Enjoy the acts."

"And you. Thanks again." Ginger Boy turned and walked back to his own table.

"They're making fun of him," Aiden commented, glancing past Louis a few times.

"Only because they'd like a picture with the fit boybander as well, but don't have the balls to ask." Louis smirked, dismissing it with a shrug. "Back to business." He picked up a flyer from the table. "Who is going to play tonight? Any potential artists among them?"

Aiden just grinned knowingly but didn't say any more about it, and Louis was grateful he just dropped the topic. They had discussed music elitism often enough, and Louis really wasn't in the mood for it today. After all, Ginger Boy had been pretty nice about it -- Louis had endured much worse.

"There are a few," Aiden said, pulling out a pocketbook. "I had the owner give me the names and his impressions. You want a quick briefing?"

Louis emptied his pint, nodding. "Hit me."

+++

"You're such a prick," Harry growled, shoving Niall's shoulder when he came to hug Harry.

Niall laughed like a maniac and clapped his hands in amusement. "Should have seen your face."

“You’re the reason I have trust issues,” Harry claimed, pouting at him.

Niall smirked. Harry didn’t fight his hug this time, but sank into it. “We both know that the reason for any issue you have definitely doesn’t lie with me,” Niall said quietly, right next to Harry’s ear before he let go.

Harry lifted a brow and stepped past Niall to pull Perrie into a hug. She wound her arms around his neck and swayed them a bit.

"You are the prick, Harry," she complained. "How could you not tell me about this?"

Harry closed his eyes, inhaling her scent for a moment. "What if I had been awful? Wouldn't want to have you witness that."

Perrie pulled back, gently tapping her fingers flatly against Harry's cheek. "Love, I've heard you play before. I hear you writing your songs in your room. You'll have to pay all my drinks to make up for that."

"Drinks?" Harry asked.

Niall threw an arm around each of them. "We're going out. Ed's been playing at another pub and he said he'll join us."

"But there's nothing to---"

"There is," Niall answered before Harry could even finish that thought. He held up a business card. "You've got someone interested."

"Why do you have that card?"

Niall smirked. "Told them I was your manager. The guy's waiting over there. He'd like to talk to you."

"My manager?" He rather didn't think about how to explain to those people that he actually didn't have a manager. Harry glanced past Niall and saw a guy in a leather jacket and shades covering his eyes scribble something down into a pocketbook. "What am I gonna say?"

Niall rolled his eyes. "Just go and be your charming self, mate."

Harry swallowed thickly and squeezed Perrie's hand quickly, as if to give her reassurance. He knew he was the one who needed it, and since Perrie was Perrie, she didn't say anything about it and just let him be. Forcing himself to stay calm, Harry walked over to the guy in the leather jacket.

"Hi," he said, surprised at how firm his voice sounded.

The bloke looked up, his brown hair tied together at his neck, a few loose strands falling over his forehead and temples. Harry couldn't see his eyes through the shades. "Harry Styles, right?"

Harry nodded. "That's me."

"Nice performance. I liked a few of those songs. Send some demo tapes in, would you?" He grinned leisurely, tapping his pen against Harry's shoulder. "We'll make some good stuff out of that."

"Um, thanks," Harry answered politely. "For coming down, too."

"Well, it's not been a waste, at least. Let's see if the rest is as good as you." The guy lowered his gaze again and Harry deemed the conversation over.

"Thanks again. I'll send a tape in." Harry took a step back.

"Your manager has my card."

Turning, Harry went back over to Niall and Perrie. He let go of his breath, his hand shaking slightly. “You lied about being my manager.”

Niall laughed. "We won't work with the first one to offer, Haz. Keep going like this, and you'll get to choose soon enough." He looked around, gaze fixed on the bloke setting up his guitar on stage. "Gonna have to celebrate the first step taken, though. Let's leave, before your competition comes on."

Harry nodded, gripping his guitar case and his jacket. "Wouldn't want to hear them," he agreed. It would just make him lose the confidence he had gained throughout the past hour he had been on stage.

"You made it," Perrie cooed, poking his ribs. "If there's one, there are plenty more."

"Did you reach Colin?" Niall asked Perrie once they were outside and the chilly air of a March night wrapped around them.

"Yeah," she answered. "He can't come."

Niall rolled his eyes. "Did you tell him you're going out with three blokes?"

"He's not bothered by that, Niall. I live with one of the blokes, the other one has a girlfriend, and the third is too busy writing about love to practise it."

Harry burst out laughing. He threw an arm around Perrie's shoulders, pulling her against his side. "If my girlfriend told me that, I'd be even more worried."

"You," she said, pointing a finger at him, "are not even into girls, are you?"

Harry pressed his lips together. They hadn't yet talked about it. Harry had always deflected questions about girlfriends, or any of Perrie's attempts to set him up with one of her girl friends. He glanced up at Niall who only shrugged at him.

"No, I'm not," Harry confirmed, smiling sheepishly.

"Thought so," Perrie said. "So, where's the threat Colin has to be worried about?"

"Ed," Niall answered promptly. "You don't think he writes all the stuff without any experience?"

Harry grinned and listened to their banter. His arm was still around Perrie's shoulders and she hadn't moved away from his touch a single bit. She had slung an arm around Harry's waist, her hand buried in his jacket because the jacket she wore was way too light for March, so she was probably feeling cold.

Laughing at what Niall said, she shot back a sharp reply, smile as carefree and relaxed as it had been when she had sent Harry off after breakfast this morning.

If anything, she felt even closer than before.

+++

"Drinks are on you," Louis said when they slid into a booth in the corner of the club. There was a VIP section and Louis hadn't had any trouble getting the security to open one booth for them. A few girls had recognised him, but were held back by the club's security team now. "You owe me."

Aiden rolled his eyes. "It wasn't that bad."

"There wasn't a single original one. Jason Mraz covers? If he had at least rearranged them." Louis shuddered. "Can't get any less original. And what was that rapper about? Slim Shady is so last century, how did he even get the idea?"

Aiden laughed, banging his fist onto the table. A waitress in short hot pants and a bikini top brought six shot glasses, setting them down in front of them. She winked at Louis, and since he was still sober, Louis decided to politely smile back at her.

"I had another pub in Clapham Junction, but I thought that may be too hipster for you," Aiden told him.

Too hipster, Louis thought. If he was honest with himself, he had quite the weak spot for hipster. "You are too hipster," he pointed out, raising one of the shot glasses filled to its rim. "And look, I'm here, hanging with you."

"We'll go to that one next time," Aiden promised.

"I'm never listening to you again," Louis rejected him and tilted his head back, the vodka burning down his throat. Without hesitation, Louis downed the second one too.

"Don't know why you need to worry about your future anyway," Aiden pointed out. He emptied his second shot glass too, shaking his head afterwards. "You're on tour, mate. Just enjoy life."

"I do. I am enjoying my life," Louis argued. "I'll go back tomorrow afternoon, go on stage Monday night, get to Manchester the day after and repeat on stage there what I do on stage every other night. It's cool. It's fun, and next month, we're off to America. I couldn't ask for more. Just need some relief sometimes."

"Hmm." Aiden tilted his head. "So you'll get drunk and shag a random bloke tonight."

"Definitely," Louis answered, glancing around the club. "Once we're in America, it won't be that easy anymore. Hotels and tour bus, and a crew around us every hour of the day."

"Does anyone know?" Aiden asked quietly, his voice almost drowned out by the loud beat of the music.

Louis looked down, fingers already curled around the third shot glass. "Liam and Zayn do, of course. They're chill. The team doesn't."

"That's tough," Aiden commented.

"Can't complain." Louis shrugged. "I still get laid often enough. I'm not looking for something serious, and one-night stands are possible, so all's good."

Aiden was quiet for a moment, then he lifted his glass in cheers. "Let's find you a pretty boy for tonight, then."

"Or else I will have to go home with you. Wouldn't want to have to stoop that low."

+++

Harry was pleasantly tipsy. He stumbled slightly, catching his balance by gripping the hips of the boy who was dancing in front of him. Okay, maybe Harry was a bit more than tipsy.

Maybe he was drunk.

Perrie was dancing on his left, fencing off any boy who tried to get too close to her. Harry had no idea how she did it, but she managed to keep some space around her. She looked like she was enjoying herself very much a lot.

Harry frowned.

The boy in front of him turned and grinned. He was short and curvy, brown hair falling into his eyes. They were brown and looking glassy. Harry kept searching a spark in them, but they kept looking back at him from dull brown. The guy’s lips were full and bitten red -- he was biting his bottom lip at that very moment, too.

Niall had taken them to a posh club, and the cab had taken forever to get them there. Harry was afraid they were very far from Clapham Junction, and maybe he wouldn't be able to afford the cab home.

Maybe this guy would take Harry home.

He danced languidly, movements slick and smooth, rubbing against Harry. His hands were firm on Harry's waist, fingers digging into the fabric of the simple white t-shirt Harry wore. He smelled of some earthy after shave and clean sweat and he seemed to like vodka cranberry. He’s been drinking one after another during the past hour, and kept buying Harry the same.

Harry didn't even know his name.

The guy got to his toes. "Bathroom?" he asked.

Harry felt his stomach flip around. Do it, his brain demanded. There was no reason not to. The bloke was good-looking, could definitely move and wouldn't have any expectations past a quick fuck in a toilet stall. His fingers slipped beneath the hem of Harry’s shirt, tracing his skin, the waistline of his jeans. It felt nice, left Harry’s skin tingling, as if it was demanding more of those caresses.

It was nice, but Harry was drunk, and not up for a casual shag in a filthy bathroom stall of a nightclub. That wasn’t who he wanted to be.

"I--" Harry stuttered. "I'll get myself another drink."

He let go of the boy and stumbled towards the bar where he spotted Niall and Ed. Both had a bottle of beer in one hand, watching Harry approach them.

"You look terrified, mate," Ed told him.

"'Nother drink," Harry only said.

"I think you had enough, love." Perrie joined them, a hand on Harry's back. "Looks like my tip with the headscarf works pretty well, huh? Hot shortie there was all over you."

Harry laughed at that. Someone stumbled into his back and he gazed around, frowning. Stepping closer to Ed's side, he inspected the crowd. "Got pretty crowded here, huh?"

Ed nodded. "A bit too crowded for my taste."

"How about we head home?" Perrie asked. "Grab our coats and see if we can get a cab?"

Niall nodded. "You guys wait here?" he asked, pointing between Harry and Ed.

"I'll have a piss before we leave," Ed said. "Meet you here, yeah?"

Perrie and Niall disappeared into the crowd, and suddenly Ed was gone too, so Harry found himself left alone at the bar. He sighed and plopped down onto the stool Niall had been sitting on. He buried one hand in his pocket, fishing out all the coins he had in there. His phone was tucked away in the other one, as well as a twenty pound note.

If he had enough loose change, though, he could entertain his waiting time with another drink. Narrowing his eyes, Harry started to count the coins on his palm.

"Need another pound there, mate?" someone asked, and Harry looked up, blinking.

A tall guy stood next to him, hair styled up in a quiff, eyes rather small, Harry couldn't quite make them out in the dim light of the club. "Sorry?"

"I can buy you another drink," the guy offered. "Because you're pretty."

For a moment, Harry just stared at him, then he heard himself answer, "I'm not gonna sleep with you, you know."

The boy's eyes widened comically, but then he started to laugh and they were reduced to small slits. "Okay? Assuming that was my aim, why am I not getting it, then?"

"I'm just not the type for one-night stands." Harry shrugged. Why was he telling a stranger something like that? He should keep his mouth shut, should stop talking. Where were Niall and Perrie? They were supposed to keep him from doing anything stupid. "It's just wrong, somehow."

The bloke nodded, stepping closer. He lifted a finger, and despite the crowd at the bar, he got the bartenders attention right away. Harry followed his movements as he leaned in to talk into the bartender's ear.

"Let me buy you a drink," he said to Harry afterwards, "to at least compensate a little for the fun you're missing out on. Like, in general," he added. "One-night stands are fun."

Harry frowned slightly. He accepted the shot glass the boy handed him, though. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." The guy downed his shot and Harry followed suit. He set the empty glass down on the counter and extended his hand for Harry. "I'm Aiden."

Harry considered it for a second, then he gripped the hand. "I'm Harry."

"So, Harry," Aiden said, leaning against the bar counter. "What are you doing here all by yourself, if not to pick up a one-night stand?"

Harry gestured at the crowd. "'M here with friends. We're about to leave, actually. You?"

"I'm here with a friend, too," Aiden said. "We're both picking up one-night stands."

"Wouldn't want to keep you from that," Harry clarified.

"You don't." Aiden smiled. His smile was actually nice.

At that moment, Niall and Perrie showed up, carrying their coats. Perrie was already wearing Harry's, completely drowning in the brown coat. Harry found it stupidly endearing.

"You comin', Haz?" Niall asked. "Ed's already at the door. The crowd's gone crazy, it's mental to get inside."

"Apparently, there's some pop star here," Perrie added. "That's why so many people are showing up."

"Yeah, let's go." Harry slid from the stool, extending his hand for Aiden. "It was nice meeting you. Thanks for the drink, and good luck."

"And you, mate." Aiden shook his hand, winking at Harry. "See you."

Harry looked back over his shoulder when Perrie tangled her fingers with his as not to lose him in the crowd. Aiden gazed after them with a smile and raised a hand in a friendly wave when he saw Harry looking back.

Harry returned the smile, then he couldn't see him anymore.

+++

Louis couldn't even see straight, much less walk. A firm hand was curled around his arm, guiding him.

At some point, the situation had escalated, and Louis knew he would receive a call in the morning, someone lecturing him on how reckless he had been, showing up in a club of that standard without any precautions taken in advance. One of their team's bodyguards, Alberto, was leading him out of the club now, fending off the girls trying to get to him. He had shown up without a word of complaint, but Louis knew he was causing trouble.

He hadn't even managed to pick up a guy. Before he could have come that far, too many people had recognised him, had spread the information on Twitter, and it had not even taken an hour before the club had been filled with girls. Another crowd was waiting outside.

Louis had his mobile pressed against his ear, trying to reach Aiden.

"Heard you caused quite the commotion," Aiden answered his phone.

"Security's getting me out of here now," Louis said. "Are you gonna come?"

"I met quite a cute boy, actually." Aiden sighed dramatically. "He wasn't up for a fuck, though. I'll meet you at your flat."

"Great," Louis managed to get out before he was shoved to the right and Alberto lost his grip on him. He stumbled into another bloke, almost losing his balance.

The bloke frowned deeply, shoving Louis off himself. "Careful, mate."

Louis caught himself, the alcohol in his bloodstream making it hard to estimate whether he really managed to stand straight or if he just imagined that. Flashing lights went off from all directions, people taking pictures with their phones. The guy in front of him didn't look too pleased, and a bit confused with the group of girls suddenly surrounding them. He was a bit chubby and sported messy, ginger hair.

"Sorry," Louis said. "Didn't mean to shove you."

Alberto dragged him along before Louis could even get an answer from the guy. Louis glanced back once, but the mess that awaited them outside had Louis forget anything else but to get to the car parking in front of the building alive.

It felt like an eternity, his ears ringing, his stomach hurting and his skin burning, but eventually, Louis found himself in the backseat of the black car, all noises from outside drowned out. Alberto slid into the passenger seat and turned to him, worry apparent on his face.

"You okay, Louis?"

He nodded, running a hand through his hair. "I didn't think it would escalate like that."

"That was pretty bad," Alfredo agreed.

"Home?" the driver asked.

Louis nodded again, leaning back. He was about to close his eyes, when he rolled his head to the side, looking out the window.

On the other side of the street, he saw the ginger boy from earlier get into a cab, followed by a girl with bright pink hair. Another person opened the passenger door, eyes bright and apparently talking about something that made the girl in pink laugh.

His driver rounded a corner, and Louis turned in his seat, his cheek pressed to the cold window of the car not to lose sight of that blond boy.

Niall, he thought, his heart beating high in his throat.

That boy had been Niall.

---

Chapter Text

 

Rain was falling outside. The sky was painted a dull grey, the trees bare-branched and the autumn colours of red, orange and gold washed out by the constant rain. Harry's hair was drenched, his skin damp and cold, and his lips slightly blue.

Louis rubbed a towel over his head, drying off the curls before he leaned in to warm Harry's lips with a kiss to get them back to their usual pink colour.

"You could have just given me a ring, idiot," Louis said, shaking his head. They were sitting on his bed, and Harry shifted closer to him, his hands slipping under Louis' shirt. Louis shivered from the cold touch but didn't shove Harry off. "Why would you wait outside in the rain like a dumb, little puppy?"

Harry shrugged. "Forgot my keys this morning," he explained. "And Niall's got rugby training. So I thought I'd see if you were back from school yet."

Louis wound a curl around his finger, smiling softly. "You're lucky that I got home early today."

Harry grinned, fingers brushing over Louis' skin. "Always feel lucky when I get to be alone with you."

"Come here," Louis murmured, pulling Harry in again to steal another kiss. Harry crawled into Louis' lap, snuggling closer. His kiss grew hungrier, Harry's hands more demanding, shoving Louis' shirt up to expose his chest.

"How long before your sisters come home?" Harry asked, starting to unbutton his own drenched shirt. His lips were back on Louis' within seconds.

"An hour, maybe?" Louis fell back onto the mattress, pulling Harry on top of him, Harry's legs  comfortably between Louis'. "Gotta be quick."

Pulling back, Harry gave him a wicked grin before he covered Louis' mouth with his again. His lips were sinful -- Louis had no other word for them. Full and soft and just the right shape to fit against Louis' perfectly. He could have kissed Harry for hours, and Louis couldn't wait for the day to come when he wouldn't have to worry about being caught, about having people know. On that day he would spread Harry out on the sheets and kiss him for hours, probably make him come without touching his cock once. Louis wanted to try that.

There was never time for that, though.

He moaned when Harry ground his hips forwards, causing enough friction for Louis to grow harder in his black school uniform trousers. His bloody tight trousers. As if Harry could read his mind, he shifted slightly and brought one hand down to unzip them and slide them over Louis' hips. All the while, he was kissing Louis' chest, sucking bruises into the skin. Bruises that no one would ever see.

Louis' shirt landed on the floor. Now that he was completely naked, he felt the damp, wet drag of Harry's own trousers against his heated skin.

"Have to get you out of those clothes, babe," Louis reminded him. "You're gonna catch a cold."

Harry grinned as he sat up and opened the button, pulled the zip down. His hair was wildly curled from the rain, his eyes dark in the dim light of the room. Every trace of blue was gone from his lips, bitten red and shining wet from Louis' kisses.

Louis needed that mouth back on his.

"Want your mouth, Haz," he breathed, arching his back to grind into Harry. His wet trousers were rough against Louis' sensitive cock, and he bit back a groan. Harry leaned in, kissing him deeply, tongue dipping into Louis' mouth, chasing his taste. Louis sighed into it, a hand buried in Harry's curls.

"Gonna get my mouth," Harry murmured, pecking him again, before he shuffled down.

Louis frowned, not exactly getting what Harry meant, but when he trailed kisses down Louis' chest to his stomach, further down to his hips, his heart skipped a beat with realisation. He lifted his head, staring down at Harry, crouched between his legs. Harry glanced at him once, eyes so eager, cheeks flushed, then he ducked, taking the head of Louis' cock into his mouth.

Louis couldn't stop looking. They had done a lot -- they hadn't been shy to experiment. This, however, took it a step further, was something they hadn't done before. Ever. Louis had had his hand on Harry's dick too many times to count, and they had both licked come off the other before, had rubbed off against each other. Louis had watched Harry fall over the edge, had watched the white come spilling from his cock onto his stomach and Louis' fist.

This was different, though. Harry slid his mouth lower, took in more of Louis' cock. Spit gathered in the corners of his mouth, dribbling down his chin. He breathed heavily through his nose, but somehow managed to swipe his tongue in just the right way to have Louis see stars. Harry hollowed his cheeks and Louis thought he'd lose it. His hips jerked up, cock twitching in Harry's mouth, making him pull back and cough.

"Fuck, Haz, sorry, I'm--"

Harry wiped his mouth, shaking his head. His face was a mess, lips red and stained with spit and precome. Louis couldn't look at it -- he thought he might come from the sight only.

"Can I try again?" Harry licked his lips, so Louis closed his eyes.

"'M not telling you to stop," Louis answered. "I just never-- I mean, it's the first--"

"I know, Lou," Harry whispered, suddenly all focussed. He dropped a kiss to Louis' thigh. "Your first in everything, right?"

Swallowing thickly, Louis nodded, reaching out a hand to bury his fingers in Harry's hair. "Everything."

Harry ducked back down, taking Louis' cock into his mouth and covering the base with his hand. Neither of them had any experience with this, but the way heat built up behind Louis' navel, his heart beat out of control and his breath got caught in his throat, Louis didn't think that Harry was doing a bad job of it.

His tongue moved in circles around the head of Louis’ cock, traced the vein at the underside before Harry swallowed him again, making up with his fist what he couldn’t reach with his mouth. His fingers caressed Louis’ thigh, sliding lower to his balls.

"Harry," Louis warned sharply, tugging Harry's hair a little harder.

Harry pulled back, just enough to give Louis a pointed look from beneath his dark lashes, then he dove back in. Louis watched the length of his cock disappear into Harry's mouth, felt the hint of teeth, a clumsy swipe of Harry's tongue.

It was enough; enough to push Louis over the edge. Harry's name on the tip of his tongue, he arched off the mattress again, pushing deep into Harry's mouth. Harry groaned around his dick, deeply, and Louis felt it, way up to his chest. It echoed in his head, pulled him down, and he lost control.

Harry took it, moaning around his cock, fingers digging into Louis' thighs. It would leave dark marks, traces of Harry on his skin. Harry pulled back, Louis' cock slipping from his mouth, when Louis lifted his head, his body relaxing back into the sheets. His mouth was wet and streaks of Louis' come ran down his jaw, dropping onto his collarbones.

"Baby," Louis said softly, reaching for him. Harry took Louis' hand, tangling their fingers, so Louis could pull him down to his side. He brought a hand up to Harry's chin, catching some of the droplets with his thumb and brushing them back up to Harry's lips.

Harry watched Louis' face from dazed eyes, the green ten times darker than usual, his pupils blown while he licked Louis' thumb.

"You're gonna kill me," Louis whispered.

"I've been thinking about it for weeks," Harry admitted. "Just wanted to try it."

Louis smiled, brushing a stray curl from Harry's temple. "Have you been practicing on a cucumber?"

Leaning in closer, Harry rested a hand on Louis' stomach. "Bananas," he lazily corrected.

Closing his eyes, Louis tried to chase the mental image from his brain. It would only get him hard again, and they didn't have the time for that.  Which-- he frowned slightly, shifting to tangle his legs with Harry's. He was still in his trousers and completely pliant in Louis' arms. Louis pressed his thigh closer, finding Harry's cock soft against his leg, a telling wet spot at his crotch.

"It was pretty hot, okay?" Harry mumbled before Louis could say a thing.

Louis grinned, leaning in to kiss Harry. His face was still a mess, and Louis shouldn't be as turned on by that, but he couldn't help himself. Harry was right -- it had been pretty hot. "I'll return the favour next time," he promised instead.

Harry sighed, nuzzling his face against Louis's neck. "If it weren't raining, we could go out and do it in the treehouse."

"We'd freeze our balls off," Louis pointed out.

Harry grinned, and he didn't need to say it for Louis to know what was on his mind. Instead, they kissed again, their tongues sliding together, fingers tangling and disentangling, just to slot back together in a different manner.

Louis felt Harry smile against his lips, humming appreciatively when Louis rolled them over, covering Harry's body with his own. One hand slid down Louis' spine until it came to rest on the curve of his bum.

"One day," Louis murmured, his forehead resting against Harry's, "when we're rich and famous and it doesn't matter what anybody thinks of us, I'll take you to Bora Bora."

"Bora Bora?" Harry grinned. "How did you get that idea?"

"I bet it never rains in Bora Bora," Louis mused, the fingers of his free hand combing through Harry's hair. Their faces were so close he was sure he was going cross-eyed. "I'll rent one of those huts in the sea, and when we wake up in the morning to the sound of the waves, I'll spread you out on our king-size bed for hours and blow you, kiss you all over and make you come again and again, because no one's gonna disturb us."

Harry licked his lips, his tongue swiping Louis's mouth in the process. "I'd like that."

"We'll have cocktails all day, and I wouldn't let you wear a single piece of clothing. Not once for the time we'll be staying in that little hut." Louis grinned, pecking Harry's lips.

"I'm very much on board with that idea," Harry agreed. The sheets rustled quietly when Harry parted his legs to accommodate Louis between them. Their fingers were still tangled, and Harry pulled them up to his mouth, kissing Louis' knuckles. He closed his eyes, holding Louis to his chest.

"Bora Bora it is, then," Louis whispered, sealing Harry's lips with another kiss. It was warm, slick as honey, filling Louis' head and heart, and making him feel light. Only Harry could make him feel that way.

"Bora Bora," Harry repeated against Louis' lips. "I'll hold you to that."

+++

"Who is Niall?"

Louis' eyes flew open, his eyes hit by bright sunlight and a radiating, blue sky.

Miami, he thought, rolling from his back to his stomach. He closed his eyes again for a moment, drinking in the memory of Harry's face, his cute, round cheeks, the plump lips, covered in Louis' come. By now Louis knew how much of a clumsy blowjob that had been. To this day, it was still the hottest one he had ever received. Harry had been so innocent, so eager about it. No one else Louis had been with since had ever been like that.

Except for Harry. During the time they had been together, Harry had improved his technique significantly.

His skin prickled from the memory, but also from the warm sun hitting his back. They were floating on a big, white yacht on the wide Miami sea, the sun spilling from a blue sky.

This wasn't Bora Bora, Louis reminded himself. Bora Bora had always just been a dream.

"Hey, Lou, are you listening?" Liam asked, kicking his foot.

Yes, right, Liam had woken him from his light slumber in memory land. Louis sat up running a hand through his hair, trying to remember the question. "What?"

"Niall," Liam said, frowning at him. "Who is Niall?"

Louis' heart skipped a beat, a million thoughts rushing through his head. He couldn't come up with a single reasonable explanation why Liam would know about Niall. "Where did you get that from?" he asked.

Zayn stirred next to Louis, yawning when he rolled over, facing them with tired eyes.

"Couldn't find my mobile," Liam explained. "Guess I left it in the hotel. Yours was open at a Facebook page. Who is the kid?"

Louis groaned. "It's none of your business, Liam."

Liam lifted his hand, looking at the screen of Louis' mobile phone. "Niall Horan," he read out loud, "going to King's College in London, from Mullingar, Ireland. How did you meet him? Shagged him recently?"

Louis rolled his eyes, standing up from the sunbed. "Fuck off, Liam."

"Someone should tell the kid about privacy settings on Facebook. I can access all of his photos and personal information. Oh, look." Liam gasped. "His girlfriend is a stunner. Why would he fuck you if he has a girl like that at home?"

Something tasted bitter in Louis' mouth. It was probably the repeated implication that he had slept with with Niall. Also, Liam was right, someone had to teach the kid about privacy settings. Louis had scrolled through all of his photos to find an indicator that Niall and Harry were at the same place. He hadn't found one, though. Instead, he had found Harry among Niall's friends.

Harry had been a bit more clever about his privacy settings, though. His profile only showed was a picture of a banana with a face drawn on, a cover photo that displayed the logo of what Louis assumed was some random hipster band, and the basic information that he was from Cheshire, England.

Nothing new there for Louis.

Liam hummed under his breath, scrolling on Louis' phone. "Should I send him a friend request then?"

Something in Louis jolted, and he was in Liam's space before he could even process it. "I told you to fuck off," he hissed, grabbing his mobile. "Take Zayn's mobile if you need one. Mine's off limits for you."

Frowning, Liam glanced at Zayn who had sat up on his own sunbed. He pressed his lips together, raising his hands. "Sorry, Lou. I was just joking. I didn't know---"

"You don't need to know, okay?"

They were all quiet for a moment, Liam looking at Louis with his huge puppy eyes that made Louis want to take it all back and tell him that he hadn't done anything wrong. Liam hadn't, after all. He had just joked around as they always did.

They hadn't joked about anything that lay in the part of Louis' past that he didn't like to share. Niall was a huge part of that particular past.

"Is he your ex, or what?" Zayn asked, voice low and sleepy. "Because, Liam probably doesn't need to know, but I do."

Louis turned to Zayn, feeling anger rile up in his chest again. "You don't need to know anything."

"We don't?" Zayn got up from his sunbed, stepping closer. "We do, Louis, and you know that. Do you think we're stupid, mate? We don't just read the songs you write, we sing them, and no one writes shit like that without having fucked up big time."

Zayn had to stop. He had to stop right away, or Louis would lose it on him, on both of them. "The fuck?" he growled, poking a finger to Zayn's chest. "What do you want from me? I don't owe you a thing about my past."

Zayn didn't even raise a brow. "Yeah, you do. Lou," he added then, voice much softer. "We're friends, aren't we? What did you do to the kid?"

"Nothing," Louis spit out through his teeth. He backed away, and although there was nothing but the wide, blue sea around them, he felt the walls closing in, cornering him. "He means nothing."

"You wouldn't get like this, if he didn't," Liam noted.

Louis stared at them, from Zayn to Liam. "Where does this come from?" he asked, narrowing his eyes. "Definitely not from me leaving a Facebook profile open."

"You've been off for the past weeks," Zayn pointed out. He rubbed a hand over his bare chest, tattoos littering the tanned skin. "Something happened, and the way you’re acting right now? This guy here has something to do with it."

"Can't you just drop it?" Louis asked, his voice sounding tired to his own ears. He didn't want to think about Niall anymore, or --- or anything that he related to that name. He had done too much of that within the past two weeks. "Believe me when I say I'm fine?"

Liam sighed, approaching Louis again. He hadn't noticed how much space he had put between them. "But you're not. Come on, Lou."

Biting his lip, Louis lowered his head. He couldn't. There was no way that after three years of locking all those feelings away, he would dig them up again, lay them open to anyone. He hadn't told a single soul about this -- not even his mother. It was no one's business but his own.

"How about we go inside for a smoke?" Zayn offered. "Get you to relax a bit?"

"You just wanna make me talk," Louis said quietly, looking through Zayn's tactics.

"You won't get out of this, mate." Liam threw an arm around his shoulders. "We're your friends."

"You see, there's something wrong if you have to get me stoned to make me talk." Frowning, Louis let Liam lead him inside. He wouldn't ever turn down a smoke; he wasn't above arguing, though. "You may see the problem there."

They went into the lounge, the air cool and fresh in there, a nice change from the hot sun that had been burning on their skin outside. Louis sighed, collapsing onto the big sofa. He felt weirdly exhausted for having done nothing but napping all day.

"The problem is that you don't even trust your closest friends to talk about your issues with them when you're not drunk, high or almost dead," Zayn pointed out, opening a little box on the table. He got out three perfectly rolled joints, handing both Liam and Louis one each.

"Ha!" Louis sat up, pointing at Zayn with one finger. "I'm pretty sure you haven’t seen  me when I've been almost dead."

"Have you ever been?" Liam asked, frowning.

Louis fell silent, remembering the night he had told Harry about London, about his choices. After Harry had left, and Louis had remained all alone in his treehouse, he had felt it. Almost dead, he thought, a dry laugh escaping him. He had not felt almost dead -- something had died inside of Louis, and it had left him cold, empty and numb.

"What's so funny?" Zayn wanted to know, leaning in to light Louis' joint.

Inhaling the smoke, Louis closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, Liam was still sitting beside him, his foot barely touching Louis' thigh. That was Liam, always close enough to jump in and help. Louis only had to say the word. Zayn was across from them, a calm look in his eyes. He always understood, always knew what was going on in Louis' mind.

They were his best friends, and the only people in the world who would at least understand a little of what Louis had gone through. They had gone through the same.

"Niall was my best friend at school," Louis said into the quiet. He frowned at that, wondered if it was true. Harry had always been so much more than just his best friend, though. Harry had been everything .

"From school?" Zayn frowned and looked at Liam. "Didn't you say he was from Ireland?"

"He is," Louis confirmed. "His parents were struggling, so they sent him to his uncle in England, so he could attend school there."

Liam hummed. "You never mentioned him before."

Louis shook his head. Smoke was clouding his vision. "No, I couldn't. It's-- we're not friends anymore."

"One of those?" Zayn asked, crossing his legs. "He's never been your best friend if he turned into one of the parasites after you became famous."

That stung. Louis took a shaky breath, thinking of Niall's carefree laugh, his positive attitude. It stung even more. "No," he croaked out, taking another drag. "Not Niall. He's kind, and honest, and genuine. He wouldn't do that. He's better than that."

"Come on, Lou. Don't make us drag every detail out of you." Liam shifted closer to him. "What's your story with that kid?"

"You know I was in a band before," Louis said, seeing their expressions change. "Yeah, right. Niall was in that band. It was all his idea, actually. Saw me performing in that school musical. He asked me if I'd sing in a band, and I told him I was writing songs. We became a band." He left out the part about Harry, sitting next to Niall with doe eyes, biting his lips raw in anticipation.

Zayn seemed to catch on, though. "That's a duo," he noted. "For a band, there should have been a few more."

"One," Louis forced himself to say. His voice felt raw in his throat. "There was one more."

"And do they resent you for making it big without them?" Liam asked quietly.

"I---" Louis shook his head, stubbing the joint out in an ashtray. "Maybe. Most likely," he corrected. "I wasn’t honest when I said I sent in a solo demo tape, okay?"

Liam blinked at him, confusion colouring his face. Louis glanced at Zayn, who simply nodded knowingly.

"We sent in demo tapes to labels and companies all around London. We were delusional enough to think we had a chance with Syco, but then, I actually heard back from them." Louis angled his knees, resting his forehead onto them. "They had looked at the video, but they only wanted one of us. Or, well, they wanted one of us to come down for a personal casting."

It was silent for a moment, its heavy impact weighing on Louis' shoulders.

"And you did it," Zayn murmured. "You took the chance."

Opening his eyes, Louis felt a cold shiver run through his body. "I did. In secret, though. If it had never worked out, they wouldn't ever have found out about it."

"It did work out, though," Liam said.

Louis swallowed thickly and raised his head, finding both of them looking at him with sympathetic expressions. He didn't want to go all the way, and talk about the moment he had to tell Harry and Niall. He had told Niall before Harry, and Niall had been-- Niall. He had looked surprised, a little disappointed at first, but  then he had pulled Louis into a hug, and had told him to use that chance, and that he was proud of him, that he wished him all the best in the world.

No such luck with Harry, Louis then thought, an old wound in his chest bleeding out all the pain and sorrow he had locked away for almost three years. He felt like drowning in it, his lungs so stuffed and tight that it hurt to breathe.

"I saw him a few weeks ago," Louis said instead. "You know, that night Alberto had to come to the club and get me out? When we left, I saw him there, getting into a cab."

"And you’re wondering what happened to him," Zayn pointed out. "You’re wondering if he's doing alright."

Liam sighed, dropping his head back against the backrest of the sofa. "He's not doing music anymore, as it seems."

Louis shook his head. "Doesn't seem like it, no."

"And you think it's your fault."

Looking at Zayn, Louis wanted to deny it, tell him that he was ridiculous. He couldn't, though. It was a lie Louis wasn't capable of telling. Instead, he avoided looking Zayn in the eye, and shrugged.

"It's not, Lou," Liam told him, sitting up. "It's not your fault, just because you took a chance."

"I betrayed them," Louis murmured. "We were supposed to make it together, and instead I abandoned them first chance I got."

"Apparently you couldn't make it together, though," Zayn reminded him. "After all, you got rejected everywhere, right? Syco would have taken all of you if there had been potential. The only potential lay with you, Louis, and you're not to blame for it."

No, Louis thought, swallowing the lump in his throat. No, no, no . That wasn't true. They hadn't heard Niall play his guitar, and they hadn't heard Harry's voice when he was singing Louis' songs. They didn't know, hadn't seen what Louis had seen.

Liam pulled him into a hug. "Don't beat yourself up over it, Lou. They'll cut their own path, I'm sure."

Nodding, Louis melted into Liam's side, feeling the warmth of his comfort seeping through his skin. He closed his eyes, the smoke long gone, but still filling up his brain, making him pliant and too weak to argue.

The smoke clouds couldn’t blur the image of the hurt look from Harry’s stormy, green eyes, though.

+++

"So she went there," Perrie said, handing Harry her hairbrush to hold. "And, believe it or not, she walked right into that guy. Snogging a girl from the interior design department."

Harry locked gazes with her in the mirror, shaking his head with a frown on his face.

"Watch it," Perrie shrieked, slapping Harry's shoulder. "Don't move, or this won't look any good."

"Sorry," Harry said, stilling his every motion, sitting straight like a watchdog.

Perrie smiled at him, winking, before she resumed braiding one half of his hair. "Anyway. So Jade walked in on them, and she told me she was so shocked, all she could do was turn and run."

"Poor her," Harry murmured. "She must have felt awful for falling for that guy's terrible speech the day before."

"Right?" Perrie dragged an elastic band over her wrist and tied it at the back of his neck. "She hasn't confronted him, though. I would have gone berserk on that arse. Had told him exactly where he can shove his 'I'll treat you like a princess' talk."

Harry shrugged. He turned his head to appraise Perrie's work on his hair. "Jade's probably not the kind of girl who can just do that."

"I wish I could do it for her," Perrie sighed. "I mean. I'd never let a guy get away with something like that."

"No, you would go right up to him and punch him in the face." Harry grinned, raising a hand to his hair, brushing his fingers through the curls on the left side that weren't braided. He decided he liked it. "And probably kick his balls."

Perrie snorted, raising a brow. "Probably? I would, love." She picked some hair pins from a pink bag to her right and furrowed her brows in concentration when she carefully put them into Harry's hair. "So, who am I dressing you up for?"

Harry blinked. "No one. I don't have any plans for tonight." He smirked. "That's why I let you do my hair. Wouldn't risk anyone seeing me if it turned out bad."

"Excuse me?" Perrie loosened the elastic band and pulled it out a bit harsher than needed. "When did I ever let you leave this flat not looking fabulous?"

"I went to work with pink nail polish on last week, Pez," Harry reminded her.

"You looked cute." Perrie shrugged and zipped up the bag. "We're done. Also, you'll leave like this when we go out!"

Harry turned, eyes wide. "What? We're going out?"

"Well, I am," Perrie answered. "And you're coming with me."

"Where are you going?" Harry got up from the floor where he had sat in front of Perrie's full-size mirror.

"Colin's going out with friends. He said I should come, and that I can bring a friend." She opened the door of her closet, inspecting a few shirts. "I assumed you were busy, but if you're not, you're tagging along."

"Oooh," Harry cooed, smirking. "Now that I have let you do my hair, I am worthy of meeting your boyfriend. Niall's gonna be so jealous."

"Shut up," Perrie groaned. "I'm not keeping him from you guys. He's just really busy."

Too busy to properly take care of his own girlfriend, Harry thought but didn't say out loud. Perrie would not appreciate it. She didn't see any wrong in how Colin treated her, as far as Harry could judge the situation.

"So, you want me to meet your boyfriend looking like this?" Harry asked, pointing at his hair.

"You look great," Perrie assured him and turned. "Speaking of. Can I borrow your shirt? The red, tartan one? It would look fabulous with my new denim skirt."

Harry shrugged and made himself comfortable on her bed. "Yeah, sure."

"Cool." She beamed and dashed out of the room. "I'll go and have a shower."

Curling up, Harry turned the volume of the TV louder, zapping through the channels. His gaze briefly drifted to the poster on the wall, to Louis' face, next to the two faces he didn't know. He didn't think a single day went by without him hearing about them since he had moved here. Either Perrie would tell him the latest gossip or she would listen to their new album in her room, the voices and melodies quietly carrying over to Harry's.

Harry hadn't imagined his life in London to be like this. He had known he'd come to Louis' city, but he had also thought that city would be big enough for both of them. Instead, not a single day had gone by that he hadn't been reminded of Louis.

By a song playing in a store, a promotional poster for the album on a bus passing the bakery Harry worked at, or a billboard displaying some product advertised by Escapade. In Perrie's room, staring at Harry from a lifeless poster on the wall. Louis was everywhere.

No place to hide, Harry recalled, thinking of the CD case in their kitchen where Perrie had put it.

Harry really had no place to hide from his past, from Louis.

+++

"He should be out any minute now," Perrie said, her gaze glued to the front door of the building. She was wearing Harry's jacket because she had once again chosen to dress fashionably instead of warm. It wasn't April yet, so the air was rather chilly.

Harry hadn't commented on it, though. She had dressed up for a night out with her boyfriend -- of course she wanted to look good. Also, it wasn't really a problem for Harry to hand her his jacket; he wouldn't get cold anyway.

They sat in front of the huge building Colin worked at in Camden, and more and more people trickled out of it by the minute. It had been about twenty minutes since they had arrived, Perrie changing her mind the second they had stepped onto the tube.

"We could pick Colin up from work," she had suggested, sitting down. "It's just one stop more."

Harry had shrugged, taking the seat next to her. "Sure."

"I'd like you to meet him before he's around his friends."

Frowning, Harry had turned to her. "Why?"

Perrie had seemed uncertain how to respond. "He's a bit different when Ben and George are around."

"Different how?" Harry had wanted to know. He hadn't met the guy even once, but Harry had known from the first moment he had learnt about Colin that he wasn't worth Perrie's time. Harry had decided at that very moment that he really didn't look forward to meeting him.

"He's not as-- well, attentive," Perrie had deflected the question.

Which had basically meant that he tended to ignore Perrie when he was around his friends. At least that was what Harry had made of what Perrie had said.

Harry glanced at her beside him now, the way she had wound her arms around herself, and her knees bounced up and down. She looked cold, as well as nervous. He was about to ask her about it but Perrie perked up suddenly. The door finally swung open and she was on her feet in a second.

A girl walked out, wearing a tailored business suit, brunette hair tied together in a tail. She was laughing at something. Someone, Harry corrected himself, when he saw the guy who followed behind her.

"That's Colin," Perrie announced, taking a step forwards. Harry was right behind her.

Colin hadn't seen them yet, had stopped at the street, the pretty girl in black standing across from him. And then, everything went a little too fast for Harry to follow. The girl laughed again, taking a step closer to Colin, and he extended his hands, resting them on her hips. They leaned in at the same moment, lips locking.

Perrie froze in front of Harry. He stared ahead, watched Colin pull the girl closer, and her hands slide into his blond hair. They pulled away after a minute, a minute of Harry staring unbelievingly, frozen at what was happening in front of him. It was quiet, those two staring at each other, the girl smiling happily. Perrie still hadn’t moved, and she looked small, so very small with Harry's big jacket over her slim shoulders, reaching her thighs.

Anger welled up in Harry, sudden and hot, his feet moving on his own. He rushed past Perrie, fisting his hands. Before he could say or do anything, though, Colin spotted him and moved the girl behind him. Colin's look went past him and Harry could tell the moment he saw Perrie, realising what she had just witnessed.

"Are you fucking serious?" Harry asked.

Colin raised a brow; a perfectly arched brow in a perfectly shaped face framed by perfectly styled hair. Slick, Harry thought, he looked too smooth, too slick. "And you would be?"

"If that's your most urgent concern right now, you need to get your shit together, mate," Harry answered him, voice dropping to an icy level.

"Why are you here?" Colin asked, ignoring Harry, raising his voice so Perrie would hear him.

"Seriously?" Harry stepped closer. "Your girlfriend comes to pick you up and you're mad at her for catching you cheating?"

"I don't think this is any of your business," Colin pointed out. His expression stayed completely indifferent, annoyance the only emotion shining through. Harry found it disgusting.

The girl behind him had her lips pressed together, looking guilty. So she had known, Harry realised. He felt even more disgusted. Harry turned, desperation making his chest feel tight.

"Perrie," he shouted, but his breath was caught in his throat when he saw her.

Her shoulders were slouched, her knees shaking again, and the look in her eyes was utterly sad. Tears made them shine in the pale light of the evening sun and her mouth was slightly opened, as if words tried to escape but couldn't. Her bottom lip started to tremble.

"Perrie,"  Harry repeated, a lot softer. "Perrie, it’s your fight."

She sobbed, shaking her head. "I don't--" A shaky breath, and she lowered her head. "I don't want to see his face."

The despair, pure disappointment colouring her voice, mixed with shock and sadness, broke Harry’s heart. He turned back to Colin, meeting his cold, indifferent stare. Harry couldn't believe it, didn't understand. One thing was clear, though, very clear in his head.

"Don't you dare ever coming near her again, you worthless piece of shit," Harry growled deeply. "I'll rip you apart if you even try."

Without giving Colin another glance, he turned, finding Perrie still stood the same as before, head lowered and shaking all over. Harry approached her, reaching out, and she easily leaned into him, let him scoop her up in his arms. She sobbed again, her fingers burying into his shirt.

"Come on," Harry murmured, making her move. She held on to his shirt, body shivering, but other than that she was quiet. Harry put an arm around her shoulders, and as they reached the underground station, her walking had turned wobbly.

Perrie started to cry on the tube. Sobs turned into miserable whines, tears drenched Harry's shirt and her fingers painfully grabbed onto Harry’s arm. People glanced at them, frowning.

Harry had no idea what else to do than to hold her and let her cry her heart out.

+++

When Perrie had still not left her bed even once the next day, Harry seriously started to worry. He had woken up to the sound of her crying in her room, the door closed. When he had come home from work, he had found her still in her bed, crying quietly into her pillow.

He thought about the night before when Perrie had braided his hair so carefully, and had told him about how she wouldn't let anyone do to her what that guy had done to Jade. She had looked so tough, so serious, and Harry hadn't had a single doubt that he would never see her end up like this.

He stood in her doorframe now, her room dark, only illuminated by the light coming from the kitchen. Her body was hidden beneath her duvet, only her hair peeking out from beneath, her sobs breaking the silence of the room.

He should have known, Harry thought, watching the duvet rise and fall in constant tremors. Being betrayed, feeling so helpless and stupid for letting it happen -- Harry knew the feeling all too well. Being betrayed and getting your heart broken made people become someone completely different, react in a way they had never reacted before.

Harry thought of a sunny summer day spent with laughter, sweet kisses shared in secret, and the starlit sky only visible in narrow stripes from an old, shabby treehouse where dreams had been shattered in one single sentence.

With a sigh, Harry walked into the room, leaving the door open and carefully sat down on the edge of Perrie's bed. She didn't react when he reached out to pat her hair. Her sobbing continued, shaking her whole body.

Harry knew how it felt; he knew so well.

Without a word, he lay down, lined his body up against Perrie's hidden under the duvet. He put an arm around her to pull her a little closer and felt her melt into the touch.

Harry remained like that, patting her head, holding her in his arms for the rest of the night.

+++

"Mate, it's serious," Harry said quietly, burying his face in his hands.

Niall's voice was barely a whisper. "She hasn't talked?"

"Hasn't said a word," Harry confirmed. "She said she didn't want to see his face, and since then? Crying. She's been in her bed for two days now, Niall. I can't make her get up, or talk, or even eat."

"Fuck," Niall breathed out. "What a fucker. Who does that to a girl?"

They were sitting in the kitchen, both staring at Perrie's door. It was well after midnight and the sobs had stopped about an hour ago. They were the only indicator that Perrie was still alive, so Harry got a little worried that he couldn't hear them anymore.

"I should have beat him up," Harry mused. "You should have seen him, Niall. No remorse, not a hint of guilt in his ugly mug."

"Why was she with a guy like that in the first place?" Niall shook his head, taking a swipe from his beer. "He must have treated her like shit."

"He’s been a shitty boyfriend all along, hasn’t he?” Harry frowned, thinking back of all the times Perrie had talked about Colin. She had never really seemed unhappy. “She works night shifts, and thought it was alright that he never bothered once to pick her up. She didn't even know she was mistreated."

"He really is a shitty boyfriend," Niall agreed. "Can't really feel sorry for his new girl, though." He shuddered. "What are we gonna do about Pez?"

"We need to get her out of bed," Harry stated dryly. "That's the first step."

"So tomorrow, we'll take her out?"

"Maybe something like breakfast here? I don't think leaving the house is a level one task." Harry tilted his head. He remembered how hard it had been to pick himself up and accept that Louis was gone, that he wouldn’t be by Harry’s side anymore. It had been tough to leave the house and face reality, get back to a life in which Louis had been everything to Harry. Pick up the same life, and live it without Louis. "That's probably level three."

Niall frowned. He gave Harry an understanding look, his hand briefly brushing Harry’s arm. "What's level two?"

Harry smirked. "Eat and shower."

For a moment, Niall was quiet. "You think she loved him?"

"She didn't," Harry answered without a moment of hesitation. "She may have fooled herself into thinking that, but she certainly hasn't. That’s not love."

"What is it, then?" Niall suddenly turned to Harry, expression oddly curious. "You're in a relationship, and you depend on each other, and you're happy together. Is it foolish to believe it's love?"

Caught off-guard, Harry immediately thought of Louis, of how they had shared everything, had loved with all their hearts, had talked about every thought on their minds. Harry had deemed that love.

He had been as foolish as Perrie.

"I don't know," Harry answered honestly. He tilted his head, watching Niall's face closely. "What's wrong with you and Babs?"

"Is it that obvious?" Niall asked.

"Mate, it's been obvious ever since I moved here. Something is off between you guys." Harry set down his beer. "What happened to you?"

Niall inhaled deeply, looking at his bottle and rolling it between his palms. "I told her I loved her."

Harry froze. He stared at Niall, somehow expecting a punch line, a joke, but nothing came, just Niall staring at his bottle, his cheeks flushed.

"When?" Harry decided out of all of the questions swarming his brain.

"Christmas." Niall shrugged a shoulder. "We had dinner, and all. She came over to Ireland, you know, to spend Christmas with my family. It was nice."

Harry bit his lip. "She didn't say it back?"

Niall shook his head. "Nope. She freaked, just a little. I told her it was okay, that she didn't have to say it back. That we're okay either way."

"But you're not." It wasn't a question, and Harry saw in Niall's expression that he knew as well that it wasn't.

"She hasn't said a word about it since. But," he added and emptied his bottle in one go, "I can't really do that, Haz. Why doesn't she love me?"

"How do you know she doesn't?" Harry wanted to know. He had never seen Niall so down, every trace of his usual optimistic self gone.

"She would have said it if she did, wouldn't she?"

"Maybe she's just afraid to say it," Harry pointed out. "You guys are good together, aren't you? Maybe she just can't--" Looking for the right word, Harry gazed at Perrie's door. "Commit herself."

"I don't want to lose her," Niall confessed quietly. "I wouldn't be able to take that."

"Wait!" Harry sat up straight, pointing from the door to Niall and back. "You don't think Barbara's cheating on you, do you?"

Niall's eyes widened comically. "She wouldn't."

"No, she wouldn't," Harry agreed. He lowered his gaze to his hands. "Maybe you should talk to her again. Tell her that it upsets you."

"That would drive her even further away from me," Niall argued.

For a few seconds, Harry weighed his words carefully. "If it does, she's not the right one anyway, Niall. You being honest with her shouldn't make her want to distance herself from you. Not if she's honest with you, too."

Niall stared at him for a moment, then he nodded. "Yeah. Maybe that's true."

Harry nodded back. It was, he thought and turned back to look at Perrie's door.

"It is," he said out loud, meeting Niall's gaze. "Believe me, it is."

+++

Tilting his head back, Louis barked out a laugh. His eyes crinkled, he slapped his thigh and held his stomach, losing his breath.

There was something on TV, but Harry didn't what it was, and he wouldn't ever find out because he couldn't take his eyes off Louis. Harry didn't think Louis understood how pretty he really looked when he was laughing like that.

"Haz," Louis said, breathless. "Have you seen him lose his trousers? Hilarious."

"Yeah," Harry just said, nodding quickly.

Louis frowned, tilting his head. "Are you tired? You’re not really watching the film, are you?"

They were the only ones still awake. Niall had meant to come over as well, but had cancelled last minute due to some family problems. Harry suspected his parents had called, and Niall felt homesick. It happened every now and then, and Niall tended to bury himself in his room at those times.

That left Harry to stay for a sleepover at Louis' house all alone, though. It was the first time that they would share an actual bed for the night. Louis' mother had set up a guest bed in Louis' room but Harry had no intentions of sleeping in it.

"I'm a bit tired, yes," he admitted, although he really wasn't. He didn't dare snuggle up to Louis in the living room, was the truth. Harry was afraid of someone suddenly showing up, finding them all tangled up, snogging.

"Okay, up with you." Louis pulled Harry's hand and dragged him off the sofa. He switched off the TV before he reached for the light, turning it off too.

Harry left his hand in Louis’ while they went upstairs. Their fingers were laced, Louis' slotting automatically between Harry's, the way they always did. They just fit.

"You can use the bathroom first," Louis said, his voice sounding way too casual for Harry’s nerves to take it.

Why was he so casual about this? They were about to spend the night in the same bed -- the thought only made Harry's heart stutter in anticipation. He managed to nod, though, collecting his pyjamas and toothbrush before he headed off to the bathroom.

He took his time, trying to calm himself down. Apparently, it wasn't a big deal for Louis, so Harry shouldn't make a big deal out of it, either. He should act all cool and relaxed about it, shouldn't expect it to be any different from any other night they had spent together.

When he came back, he was prepared to act collected. That plan went downhill the moment he spotted Louis on his bed, already in his pyjamas and a cup of tea in his hand. Another one stood on the bedside table.

"Tea?" Harry asked. "Now?"

"I can't go to bed without a cuppa," Louis answered, shrugging a shoulder.

It was so easy, such a random little thing about Louis, but it was also what pushed Harry over the edge. He loved every single, little detail about Louis, found all of it utterly endearing. And Harry knew, knew somewhere in the back of his mind, and maybe in a corner of his heart, too, that he had loved Louis from the very first moment.

"I love you," he said, watching Louis' hand freeze after he had raised it to take another sip.

Harry froze, too, Louis' gaze coming to rest on him. He had not just voiced that thought out loud, had he? Harry groaned inwardly, feeling all of his organs cramp until he felt sick to his stomach. He had said it out loud.

The way Louis looked at him, confused, stunned, uncertain -- yes, Harry had just said that out loud.

"Oops?" he added, in lieu of a better solution. It had never meant to be said. Not yet, anyway. He had meant to tell Louis someday, of course, but now was too soon. He would drive Louis away from him, scare him off, and eventually lose him. All that, just because Harry wanted too much too soon.

He blinked when suddenly, Louis was in his space, his hands coming up to frame Harry's face, fingers gentle. His eyes were clouded, blue turning grey, and Harry was about to say more, when Louis shut them. Next, Louis' lips were on Harry's, warm and tasting of bitter black tea. He gently opened up Harry's mouth with a soft, sweet kiss, his tongue sliding against Harry's, nudging it to make him respond to Louis.

When Louis pulled back and Harry opened his eyes again, his limbs felt heavy, his brain clouded and he couldn't see anything but Louis' face, the warm smile on his lips, the happy sparkle in his eyes.

"Hi," he said quietly, pulling Harry out of his daze.

Harry blinked, hands coming up to rest on Louis' hips.

"I love you, too," Louis murmured, one thumb gently brushing Harry's cheek.

Letting go of his breath, Harry realised that he had held it for all the while. He breathed out a shaky laugh, resting his forehead on Louis' shoulder. Louis nuzzled his cheek against Harry’s hair, humming quietly while they stayed like that, holding on to each other.

This was it, Harry thought later when he lay in Louis' bed, burying into Louis as he pulled Harry closer. This was all he had ever wanted, and all he would ever need in his life.

The darkness of the night engulfed them, not a single light shining through, and Harry could barely make out Louis' face, had to use his fingertips to find out Louis' expression. It didn’t matter, though, because Harry found everything he needed to know. He traced the smile on Louis' lips, wondered if it would show in Louis' eyes too. Opening his own, Harry stared into the dark, couldn't see a single thing.

Harry didn’t let it unsettle him. He closed his eyes, nuzzling into Louis’s embrace.

He only needed Louis to love him, everything else would work out somehow.

---

Chapter Text

Hi , Louis wrote down, staring at the word for several seconds. The black ink stood out against the clean, unlined paper. Some spots were still shimmering, the ink not dried yet, and Louis ran a finger over it. The word smeared, staining the paper.

A stain, he thought, and ran the smeared finger over the tattoo on his right arm, some of the ink rubbing off. It was a stain, just like the tattoo on Louis' arm, but that couldn't be erased anymore, would permanently remain as it was.

Leaning back against the headboard of the bed, Louis dropped the pen. He was sitting on the bed in his hotel room that was illuminated by the small bedside lamp. For two weeks, Escapade had been touring the US, keeping Louis distracted from the recent confrontation he had faced with his past.

Now, in the quiet of the luxury hotel room, he was allowing himself to let his thoughts drift to the past, to the moment Harry had told Louis he loved him for the first time. He had looked so innocent and scared, surprised by himself.

Louis' whole heart had belonged to Harry in that one moment.

Tracing his finger over the tattoo again, he thought of how much it had hurt when it had been made, how the fresh ink had stood out against his skin, the Oops! a stark contrast, as if it had been stamped onto his skin. It was smooth now, had faded a bit in colour, melted into Louis' skin.

They had gone out on a limb to get those tattoos. Right after Louis' eighteenth birthday, in January, they had taken the train to Manchester to get them done. Harry had been begging his mother for weeks to allow it, until she had finally given in -- under the condition that he got his tattoo somewhere where it would be easy to cover up.

It had been a foolish idea, really. An idea that only a lovesick idiot could have come up with. Since they hadn't been out to anyone, they had used the first words they had said after confessing their love as code words. It hadn’t been easy being around each other in public, and it had given Louis’ an odd, exciting kick, whenever they had used them. The first time, they had been at one of Louis’ football games, and Niall and Harry had come up to the sidelines before the game, wishing him luck. A ball had hit Harry’s arm, and he had kicked it back, missing the aim completely. With a foolish smile, he had said, “Oops”. Louis’ heart had skipped a beat at that, and Harry had stared at him for a second before he had repeated it again, looking into Louis’ eyes and making the meaning clear. From then on, whenever they had been in public where it had been impossible to tell each other "I love you", they had said "Oops" and "Hi" instead.

It had been Louis' idea to get the words permanently tattooed onto their bodies.

Harry had been so fearless. While Louis had liked the idea of getting a piece of Harry tattooed onto him, the idea of a needle piercing his skin hadn't been too attractive. So Harry had gone first, smiling at Louis all the while, holding on to Louis' hand and only wincing a little at the pain.

Louis remembered that the finished tattoo had looked exactly like the Hi he had just written into his pocketbook. Black ink in Louis' handwriting, smudged on Harry's skin.

They had rushed into that, had wanted everything, much too soon. Louis had been certain at that time that Harry would be by his side forever, that nothing would ever change that.

It had taken a single sentence to break the spell.

Sighing, Louis turned the pages in his notebook, an unfinished songtext glaring at him from the paper. There were plenty more in that book, plenty of lyrics he had written over the past three years, collected in a small, ratty notebook that Louis carried everywhere. Every thought of Harry, every memory of a past Louis wanted to lock away in his heart was engraved in that book.

They were songs that were never meant to be written. Mistakes, a collection of mistakes Louis had made in his life, and they all came back to one moment.

Every one of his mistakes came back to Harry.

Louis took the pen, staring at the words in front of him.

I've felt the ground move beneath my feet
All the walls are still closing in
And it's hard to love when you're caught beneath
the shackles of your skin

He read the words over, thumb brushing the tattoo on his forearm before he added a few lines at the end of the page.

We've lost it all love since
It's far too much to take
But my love for you was blind and true
As my magnificent mistake

+++

Leaving the train station, Harry turned with a blinding smile. Just five minutes earlier, he had been fast asleep, head on Louis' shoulder and their fingers laced, securely tucked between them. Now he was practically glowing, eyes wide awake and smile so happy, Louis couldn't help but grin back at him.

"Lou, look," he said in excitement, holding out his palm. "It's snowing!"

Louis buried his hands in the pockets of his jacket, raising his shoulders and nuzzling his chin into the warm wool of his shawl. He glanced up at the sky, seeing snowflakes floating down. They melted on the ground, left it stained with wet spots that grew by the minute.

"It's not really snow, is it?"  Louis asked, catching one on his palm. It left a droplet on his skin. "It won't stay."

Harry looked around, people passing them on the crowded place in front of the train station. Louis watched him turn, scanning the area before he looked at Louis again. "No one else seems to care."

"It's no different from rain, Haz," Louis told him.

"But they're snowflakes," Harry protested, catching another one. He closed his fingers around it and looked up again. "At what speed does a snowflake fall, what do you think?"

Louis had no idea how Harry came up with those questions, where those random thoughts came from, but he had stopped questioning it long ago. Harry was random, quirky, pondered the strangest things in life -- and Louis had come to love that about Harry as much as the fact that he had curly hair, and dimples and wore those ridiculous, baggy jeans that hung low on his hips.

"I don't know, babe," Louis answered easily. "They're all different, right?"

Harry blinked, the snow slowly melted into fine sleet that made his hair glistening, curling up even more over his ears. "What do you mean?"

Shrugging, Louis stepped closer, tugging one of the curls behind Harry's ear. "They say every snowflake is individual, right? I'd guess they fall at different speeds, then."

Harry watched him with wondering eyes for a moment, before he glanced around again. He rested a tentative hand on Louis' hip, standing so close Louis could feel his warmth. It was nice, touching Harry like that in public. From the look in Harry's eyes Louis knew that they were both thinking the same. No one here knew them, no one paid attention to the two young boys standing in front of the station, just a breath away from a kiss. No one cared.

"You're my special snowflake, Lou," Harry said quietly, looking completely serious, entirely earnest about it.

"You're such a sap," Louis answered lightly, and he knew the fondness had to show on his face. It was okay, though. Nothing Harry didn't already know.

"Only when it comes to you," Harry answered.

Louis snorted, shaking his head. "You do know you turn into a sap everytime we're watching romantic comedies?" he teased, brushing his thumb over Harry's jaw.

"It's because they remind me of you," Harry protested, a small pout on his lips. "Of us."

"Your life's not a romantic comedy, Harry," Louis reminded him.

"I'm about to kiss you in the rain," Harry answered, smirking. "That's pretty much a romantic comedy."

"We're missing out on some drama to make it a proper storyline, don't you think?" Louis teased and grinned back. "Like, you leaving me to become a pop star on your own, but then---"

"Shut up and kiss me," Harry demanded, leaning in to catch Louis' lips.

Louis gasped slightly, closing his eyes and sinking into Harry's arms. One of Harry's hands tangled into his hair, and Louis cupped his own around Harry's jaw, tilting his head lightly. Sleet had turned into rain, sprinkling them softly. Louis felt it drench his skin, his hands slick and cold, raindrops running from his hair down his temple.

When they pulled apart, Louis could only imagine his smile being as big as Harry's, a manic grin, so happy and wide.

"I love you," Louis said quietly, catching a raindrop on Harry's lip with his mouth.

Harry nuzzled his nose against Louis' cheek, winding his arms around his neck. "I want it to be like this," he murmured, so only Louis could hear. "Holding you, kissing you in public. This is so nice."

"Feels good," Louis agreed. He pulled back slightly, brushing a stray curl from Harry's face. "We'll get there."

Harry nodded, squeezed Louis once more. "Promise."

Louis nodded, inhaling the scent of Harry's hair before he pulled back and laced his fingers with Harry's. "Come on, now. We have an appointment at the tattoo parlour, you ridiculous snowflake."

Harry laughed, bright and loud. It was Louis' favourite sound in the whole world.

+++

Louis stared at the words in front of him for a little longer, thought he could still feel the rain on his skin and Harry's mouth on his lips. He traced a finger over his bottom lip, glancing at the window where rain was quietly tapping against the glass.

They had been good, had made a good couple. Harry had been honest and endearing, loving and giving -- Louis had loved every single bit of him.

Maybe the mistake hadn't been Louis leaving Harry; maybe Louis hadn't had another choice. They had been so close, too close, sharing every single heartbeat, every breath.

Maybe the mistake had been falling in love with Harry in the first place.

Louis closed his notebook and switched off the light.

In the darkness the thought didn't feel as heavy on his chest, and was easier to believe.

+++

Convincing Perrie to come had required all of Harry and Niall's joined forces, so Harry felt relief settling into his chest, a heavy load falling from his shoulders when he saw her walk into the pub.

It was Saturday night and somehow, Niall had managed to get Harry a slot at an open mic night in a pub in Central London. Harry had no idea how Niall did it, but one thing was certain -- Niall could talk everyone into what he wanted them to do. Harry wished he had that talent, but as long as Niall used it to get Harry gigs like this one, he wasn't complaining.

"Thanks for coming," Harry said, pulling Perrie into a hug.

"Of course," Perrie answered. "I wouldn't miss this. It's big, isn't it?"

"Some important people regularly come here," Harry confirmed, glancing around. "People who are involved in the music industry. I have to impress someone tonight."

"You'll charm their socks off, babes," Perrie told him.

She had lost a couple of pounds, but at least the colour in her cheeks was back. She smiled genuinely lately and her eyes sparkled when she laughed, but Harry still caught her staring out of their kitchen window aimlessly, expression blank.

The knowledge that the look in her eyes would never really fade, would settle somewhere deep inside her, left a sting in his chest. The grief would be a part of her, just like it had become part of Harry when he had dragged himself out of his bed, acknowledging that Louis had betrayed him and wasn't part of his life anymore.

He wished there had been a way to save Perrie from that.

Keeping a hand on her elbow, he pointed across the room. "Ed, Niall and Barbara are over there," he said. "I need to go backstage."

"They have a backstage area here?" Perrie raised a brow. "This is the real deal, isn't it?"

"A&R Reps all over the place," Harry simply said.

Perrie kissed his cheek. "It'll be great. Heard that song you practiced last night." She winked, grinning openly. It looked a little forced. "You're welcome for the inspiration."

Biting his lip, Harry wanted to protest, but wasn't ready to tell her about his past, about how what happened to her had ripped open wounds that had never really healed. Instead he watched her go over to the table, instantly starting to discuss something Barbara wore.

Shaking his head, Harry turned.

It was about Perrie. He had written a song about betrayed trust, a hole in his heart and numb lips that missed the taste of another pair. It was about Perrie, for Perrie. She had suffered, and just like she had said, Harry had used it as inspiration for a song.

He didn't write songs for Louis anymore.

Harry had stopped doing that a long time ago.

+++

"I think they hated it," Harry stated.

Ed grinned slightly, shaking his head. He tapped his cigarette with one finger before he took another drag. "They didn't."

They were outside of the pub, Ed smoking leisurely while soft rain poured from a black sky. Harry tilted his head back against the brick wall he leaned against. "No one seemed particularly interested."

"It'll work out on the next gig, I guess." Ed shrugged. "It takes time, Haz."

"It's just so frustrating." Harry heard the door open and turned his head to see a group of five leave.

"You had an offer that one time, didn't you?"

"By a guy who thought if we sent my lyrics to the right dance producers, they could be a hit," Harry deadpanned. "I couldn't possibly agree to that."

Ed shook his head. "Suppose not."

"Sorry?"

Harry looked up from Ed's face, seeing a stranger stand next to him. He was tall and lanky, dressed in dark clothes. He smiled kindly, and his eyes were clear, looking friendly. He seemed familiar, but Harry couldn't quite pinpoint where he had seen him before.

"May I join you for a moment?"

Harry nodded, stepping aside a little to let the stranger come closer.

"I have a bit of a problem, really," the guy said.

"What is it?" Harry asked, ready to help out.

"I'd kinda like to ask for your number," the mystery man answered, shrugging. "But I'd also like to ask for a demo tape. Would you consider me rude if I asked for both?"

Harry blinked. "You want my number and a demo tape?"

"Well, the thing is." He stopped, seemed to consider his words for a moment. "Harry, right?"

Harry nodded dumbly.

"Look, Harry, we can pretend I want your number for business purposes. But I'd end up using it to ask you on a date." The man shrugged again. Harry noticed that his quiff didn't seem affected by the rain at all. "That wouldn't be quite right, would it?"

A smile tugged on the corners of Harry's mouth. He glanced at Ed who seemed oddly preoccupied with his cigarette, smirking to himself. "I guess," Harry mused.

"So, my friends just went home. How about we have a drink and talk about your music? I really liked your performance," the guy admitted.

"Thank you," Harry said, smiling openly now. "I don't think it'd be a problem if he joined us, would it, Ed?"

"'Course not." Ed flipped his fag, turning to the door. He opened it, winking at Harry when the guy walked inside ahead of them.

Harry followed, catching up on him to lead the man to their table. "Guys," he said, stopping next to Niall's chair. "Do you mind-- um." Frowning, Harry turned to the man next to him. "Sorry, I guess I didn't catch your name?"

"I'm Nick," he answered, grinning widely.

"Would you mind Nick joining us?" Harry asked into the round. Barbara shook her head lightly, a smile on her lips while Niall patted the chair next to him in invitation. Perrie stared at Nick with wide eyes, giving Harry an appalled look when Nick took off his jacket.

Harry didn't quite get what she was trying to communicate, so he sat down across from her, shrugging.

"I'll have another drink. Can I get you guys something?" Nick asked, pointing at the bar.

Harry saw everyone else shake their heads. "We're good, thanks."

As soon as Nick was out of hearing range, Perrie leaned forwards, eyes wild. "How did you pick up Nick Grimshaw of all people?"

Harry blinked, suddenly realising why Nick had seemed so familiar.

"Nick Grimshaw?" Barbara repeated, turning to Perrie.

Perrie rolled her eyes. "Don't tell me you didn't recognise him."

Barbara and Harry exchanged a look, both shrugging helplessly.

"Did you know?" Harry asked Ed.

Ed smirked. "Of course. He does the breakfast programme on the radio, Harry. The whole nation knows him."

"He is no Greg James, though," Niall threw in. His arm slung around Barbara's shoulders, he leaned in, pointing at Harry. "It's still worth a lot if he didn't just ask for your number."

"Asked for my demo tape," Harry replied. He felt like choking, because this suddenly felt very serious.

Niall beamed. "Play it well, Haz. Could be your chance."

Nick came back, setting down a pint glass on the table before he sat down. He was met by silence, everyone looking at him, and Harry felt greatly uncomfortable on his behalf.

"So I guess you told him?" Nick asked, tone light. He sipped his beer, glancing at Harry. "What spoilsports you are."

"Sorry," Harry blurted out.

Nick laughed, shaking his head. "It's alright. Not a secret, is it?" He looked around, leaning back in his chair. "So, since all of you know my name now, how about you introduce yourselves to me?"

Harry let go of his breath when Niall happily obliged, starting to chatter away.

The night had taken an interesting turn.

+++

"So Harry," Nick said when silence had settled at their table for a moment.

He was on his second pint, had led a long discussion with Niall and Ed about Glastonbury, and had literally been a complete fanboy over Holly Willoughby, Fearne Cotton and Caroline Flack with Perrie and Barbara. It was a mystery to Harry how he could have the same level of knowledge about recent gossip and music.

"I quite liked your little gig earlier." Nick moved his glass a little. "Are you signed yet?"

"Forward," Niall commented.

"I'm not signed, no." Harry shrugged. "There was an offer."

"Two," Niall corrected.

Harry frowned, glancing at Niall. "One recently. The other one was when I was very young."

Nick hummed, watching him closely. "Let me rephrase that a little," he said. "Why are you not signed?"

Blushing, Harry took another swipe of his beer.

"Right?" Perrie asked. She looked overly excited. "He's so good. He could make it, couldn't he?"

"Absolutely," Nick agreed. "I like your style. We get a lot of love songs these days that focus on heartbreak. I like the positive touch your songs have." He smirked a little. "Well, there was one heartbreak song in there, but I guess there has to be."

Harry shrugged, glancing at Perrie. "Got inspired there."

"There are enough people who will love that too. There has to be some contrast. But I think especially the folky ones, the happy one---"

"Happily," Harry provided the song title.

"Yes." Nick pointed at him. "That stuff is great. I'd like to hear more of it."

"Thank you," Harry breathed, unable to form any other coherent thought.

"Happy music from a happy chap," Nick summarised, unfazed about Harry obviously having lost his voice and use of his brain. "It's a nice change."

"It's genuine," Ed commented. "That's why people will like it."

Nick nodded. "Exactly. It convinced me, at least. Although, you had me the moment you smiled up there." He pointed at the stage. "Those dimples work magic."

Harry blushed again, cheeks flushing hot.

"It's another factor," Barbara threw in. "Harry's very likeable, isn't he? That's important in the music industry."

"Absolutely," Nick agreed. "You're pretty and charming. They'll love you."

"Where do I sign?" Harry asked, smirking. His heart was still beating wildly in his chest, but he forced himself to play cool.

Laughing, Nick shook his head. "Not so quick, popstar."

"Now, I’m the one with a problem, I guess" Harry pointed out.

"I'm sure we can figure a way to solve it," Nick offered.

Glancing at his friends surrounding him, Harry leaned forwards. "So, you asked for my number and a demo tape. I can't give you both, though."

Nick lifted a brow, and Harry felt Perrie kick him under the table. "You can't?"

Harry shook his head. After a short fight, he managed to trap Perrie's feet between his ankles. "I don't want you to think I'm only giving you my number because I want that record deal."

"Aw, how noble you are. What a prince," Nick cooed. "Okay, let's make a deal."

"I'm listening."

"You give me your demo tape and I get Niall's number because he's pretty cool," Nick suggested, glancing at Niall. Barbara frowned pretty openly at Nick. "And I give you my number. You decide what you do with it."

Harry thought about that for a second. He considered the offer, considered if it was fair to both of them. Under no circumstances did he want Nick to feel used. It was a peculiar situation, really, with Nick showing interest in Harry as a person, as well as in Harry's music. With his position in the music industry, that made difficult it for Harry to make a clear distinction between both.

He wouldn't go on a date with someone just to use them for his career.

Then again, Nick seemed really nice. He was fun, and pretty cool about Harry not willingly jumping into it immediately. His sense of humour was nice, and from what Harry had gathered, Nick liked a lot of the same bands as him.

There wasn't a reason not to give it a try.

"Okay," he said, nodding. "That's a deal."

Nick smiled, taking out a pen and scribbling his number onto a coaster. He exchanged it for the CD case Harry held out for him and handed Niall the pen, so he could write down his number for Nick.

When he got up, Nick winked at Barbara. "No worries, love. I just want his number because I have a feeling that for business matters, I better contact him than Harry."

Barbara blushed, glancing at Niall. "Um, yeah."

"It was nice meeting you guys." Nick raised his hand in a short wave. "See you around, I guess."

"See you," Harry said. "And thanks."

Nick winked at him, then turned and left the pub.

For another moment, it was silent, then everyone started to talk at once.

"Fuck, Harry, you made it!" Niall yelled.

"He's totally into you," Perrie shrieked.

"Told you that performance did it," Ed mumbled.

"Did that freak hit on Niall?" Barbara asked.

Harry decided to focus on the most urgent issue first. "You should watch it, Babs. He's gonna steal your boy."

Niall laced his fingers with Barbara's on the table top. "You realise that I'm not really into men?"

"I don't care," Barbara countered. "It makes me---" she pressed her lips together, shrugging. "As Harry said. You're my boy."

They were on the right track, Harry thought when a goofy grin bloomed on Niall's face. He leaned in to say something into Barbara's ear. Harry caught Perrie staring at them, that look back in her eyes. He knew it was a twist to her heart, a mean sting that wouldn't stop -- a longing for something that was gone.

"I'll get another round of drinks," Ed announced. "This needs to be celebrated."

Perrie looked up, gazing after Ed for a moment, before she focussed back on Harry. "This is definitely a turning point." She grabbed Harry's hands, beaming at him. "I'm so happy for you, Haz."

"Nothing's settled yet," Harry reminded her. "For all we know he could hate the demo tape. It's different from the live version."

Perrie shook her head. "Well, even if that would be the case -- and it won't be, let's be real -- you get to shag Nick Grimshaw."

Harry felt a blush creep up his neck. "Who said I would shag him?"

Niall and Barbara had surfaced from their little bubble, and Barbara pointed at Harry sternly. "Excuse me, Harry, but you'll have to. To take his mind off Niall."

Perrie laughed. "Do it for Babs, Harry."

"Seriously," Niall said, his voice less humorous than Perrie and Barbara's. "He seemed honestly interested. Don't shoot him down without giving him a chance."

"I didn't plan to," Harry assured him.

At that moment, Ed came back, setting down a round of shots. "Now the hard work starts, Harry," he warned him."You'll sign a deal and they'll get you to knuckle down to contracts, and managers will swarm you, telling you where to go and what to do."

Harry blinked. "I hate when you do that," he groaned.

Ed smirked. "It's the truth, man. I can tell you."

"It comes with signing a record deal, I guess," Harry contemplated. He raised a shot glass, waiting for the others to mirror the motion. He downed the drink, strong alcohol burning down his throat.

"What if the manager knows you well, though?" Niall asked. "What if he didn't need to tell you all those things, because he'd let you have a say?"

"Those don't exist," Ed pointed out.

"They do," Niall argued. "If they're friends."

For a moment, Harry could only stare at him. Because, if Niall was proposing what Harry thought he was, that would top up the night just that tiny bit more.

"Listen," Niall said, tone serious. "Harry, I played your manager for the past couple months. It worked, didn't it? I got you the gigs, talked to the right people. I can do that. It's what I’ve wanted to do all my life."

"But your studies," Harry protested. "You're not finished yet."

"No," Niall agreed. "But this is a chance, Harry. I want to be a manager anyway, but the artist I want to manage needs me now. So." He crossed his arms on the table. "Does the artist only hire a manager with a degree? Or does that not matter?"

Harry swallowed thickly. "You wanna be my manager?"

"There's no one better for the job, is there?"

"I---"

Niall lifted a hand. "Wait." He turned to Barbara who watched him with a small smile gracing her lips. "You're okay with this, aren't you?"

She lifted a hand, brushing the hair from his forehead. "I think it's as much of a chance for you as it is for Harry."

Niall beamed, tilting his body to briefly kiss her. Then, he turned back to Harry, giving him an expectant look.

"We're a good team," Harry admitted. "Of course, if you want that, I'd be happy to have you by my side."

Niall jumped off his chair, pulling Harry into a tight embrace, which was rather awkward with the table in between them. When he let go, Perrie came back from the bar, putting down another set of shot glasses, all filled to the brim.

Harry turned to her, seeing tears glimmer in her eyes when she handed out the glasses.

"Stop it," Harry said. "I've seen enough of you crying for the rest of my life."

Perrie barked out a wet laugh. She set down her glass and framed Harry's face, getting to her toes to kiss his lips with smacking sound. Harry was too startled to react, blinking at her in confusion.

"This is just so great," Perrie said, shrugging. "I'm really happy for you, Harry."

Ed raised his glass, putting a hand on Harry's shoulder. "Congrats, mate."

Harry didn't even try to bite back the grin that split his face in two.

+++

On Monday, Harry picked Perrie up from work after his shift at the bakery.

He had dinner at the pub, working on a song, sitting at a table in a corner. He had most of the melody set, just had to fit the lyrics in somehow.

His mobile vibrated next to him on the table. Harry picked it up with a frown, and opened the text he had received from Nick.

Going to a band called Pixie and the Dusts on Friday w/ some friends. You in? xx

Harry smiled, checking his timer for when he'd get off work before he texted back.

Sounds good. Count me in! .xx

He got back to writing his song, and when he surfaced from that a while later, Perrie was putting up the stools. Harry watched her for a moment before he collected his sheets and put them into his bag.

"Phil’s locking up tonight," Perrie said. "I'll just go get my stuff and be out in a minute."

Harry waited outside, checking twitter on his mobile until Perrie came out.

It was still quite chilly for April, but Harry could smell summer already. Perrie had dyed her hair blond in order to greet it, she had told him last week when she had come home sporting a new hairstyle once again. Harry thought that he was ready for summer, too.

He was ready for a change.

"Did Nick text you?" Perrie asked.

Harry had been hesitant about contacting him, but Perrie had pushed him a little, making him give into it.

"Yeah, earlier tonight," Harry answered. "We're going to a concert on Friday."

"Sounds great," Perrie said, nudging his shoulder. "Seriously, don't be so insecure. I haven't seen you bring anyone home since we moved in together. You have to be sick of being single."

Harry laughed gently. "It's not so bad."

"What are you waiting for?" Perrie wanted to know. "You'll never find the right one if you don't take some action. Nick might just be Mister Perfect."

Harry thought of feathery hair, small hands in his, and bright blue eyes for a moment. No. That had proven to be the wrong route. "He may be," he said instead. "I'm just not the type to jump into it. I'd like to know who it is I'm letting into my bed."

"Nothing wrong with that," Perrie mused. "Nick seems to be cool with that. Which, plus point for him, isn't it?"

"It is," Harry agreed.

They walked down the stairs to the tube station, starting to run when they saw the train coming in. After a short sprint, Harry let Perrie go in first and they sat down next to each other. For the short ride, they sat in silence, Perrie's head resting on Harry's shoulder.

Neither of them had been home between classes and work, so Harry emptied their mailbox when they got in, shuffling through the letters on his way upstairs. There was a postcard for him from Gemma. It displayed a pretty landscape in Italy, and Harry sighed, envious of her going on a holiday with her boyfriend.

"Something for me?" Perrie asked while she locked up the door.

"A letter, yes," Harry answered, handing it over and closing the door behind himself. He put the other letters on the kitchen table to open them later and went off to his room, putting his guitar in its usual corner.

"Oh my God!" he heard Perrie shriek then, followed by a high-pitched scream. "Harry!"

Frowning, Harry peeked out of his room, seeing her jump up and down in their kitchen.

"Harry!" Perrie repeated, clutching the envelope against her chest. "This can't be true!"

"What?" Harry asked.

"I won tickets!" Perrie ran up to him, holding up two concert tickets. "I thought I'd give it a try and applied, and---" She beamed, throwing her arms around Harry's neck. "I won! I really won."

"That's great. I'm happy for you." Harry patted her back.

"You have to come with me," Perrie instantly demanded. "Like, I owe you for taking care of me the past few weeks."

Harry shook his head. "It’s not necessary, Pez."

"Please say you'll come." She looked at him with pleading eyes. "I promise you'll like it."

"Which band is it, anyway?" Harry asked, laughing a little.

"Escapade." She waved the tickets in his face.

Harry felt his fingers go numb, his breath getting caught in his throat. He wasn’t sure he was still breathing at all. He forced a smile. "Why don't you take one of your girl friends?"

"They don't like them," Perrie mumbled, obviously disappointed. "They wouldn't want to come."

"I don't like them, either," Harry pointed out.

"Excuse me?" Perrie stood with her hands on her hips. "You never even bothered to listen to them."

"Boy bands are not really my thing." Shrugging, Harry turned to go back into his room.

Perrie followed on his heels. "That's such a pretentious thing to say, Harry. You said no band should be judged by the genre they're in. Why would you exclude Escapade from that?"

Harry felt his fingers twitch, his blood running just that little faster in his veins, making him nervous. He had managed to avoid consciously listening to Escapade up until this day -- and he had no intentions of changing that anytime soon.

"Sorry, Pez," he pressed through gritted teeth. The words felt heavy on his tongue. He didn't look at her, folding a t-shirt he had left on his bed earlier. "I'm really not interested in going to that concert. You'll have to find someone else."

Perrie remained standing in his doorframe, looking a little lost, confused by Harry's reaction.

He couldn't explain it; Harry didn't think he'd ever get to a point where he could explain Louis to anyone in the world.

"Okay, I get it," Perrie mumbled. She turned and left Harry's room.

Harry breathed out, closing his eyes. That had not gone well. He shouldn't have been this harsh to Perrie. It wasn't her fault; she didn't know after all.

With a sigh, Harry fell to his bed and buried his face in the cushions.

It wasn't the thought of seeing Louis in person that scared Harry. He had fought long and hard to get over Louis, and although his wounds had never healed completely, Harry had managed to move on the best he could.

What he was scared of, what Harry was afraid he wouldn't be able to deal with, was seeing Louis on a stage.

Living his dream.

+++

They had received another rejection.

It had been the seventh, out of so many applications they had sent out. Harry had found it in his mailbox when he had come back from school, checking his emails first. It was a habit he had developed over the past few weeks.

Rolling over, Harry curled up on the floor of the treehouse, waiting for Louis to show up. He was late -- maybe his train was late. Louis had spent the past four days in London, visiting his aunt and uncle. Since it was the school holidays, he had to use the time to fulfil his family obligations.

Harry missed him. He was so used to having Louis around every day that spending four days without him had made him feel incomplete inside. Like half his heart had travelled to London with Louis.

Louis was the only one who would be able to reassure Harry about the rejection. It was unsettling Harry inside, a fear let loose that they would never make it. He needed Louis to tell him that everything would be alright.

For a moment, Harry closed his eyes, allowing himself to think of the email he had received from Syco a couple of months ago -- finally a positive answer. It had been positive only on first glance, though. They had asked for Harry alone, without Louis and Niall, had wanted him to come down for an audition. Harry's heart had been racing out of control when he had read the email.

He had rejected the offer without a second thought. It had always been their dream, they were in this together, and Harry didn't want any of it if it wasn't with Louis by his side.

He traced his finger over the tattoo on his biceps, hidden under the sleeve of his t-shirt. It was blending into his skin well, the rough edges long gone. Louis' handwriting inked into Harry's skin, as a sign of them belonging to each other.

The birds stopped chirping, a startled rustling of the tree followed, and Harry opened his eyes, knowing Louis was climbing the ladder. He sat up, crossing his legs.

"Hi babe," Louis greeted him lightly when he reached the top, crawling into the treehouse.

Something was off, Harry could tell by the look on his face. "Hi."

Louis approached him, still crawling, and crowded Harry's space in no time, hands settling on Harry's waist.

"I missed you," Harry breathed before he sealed Louis' lips with a kiss. He opened his lips, drinking in Louis' familiar taste, sinking into his warmth. Louis pushed his shoulder lightly and made Harry lie down until Louis could slot himself between his legs.

They kissed for a few minutes, maybe hours, Harry lost track of it. He had Louis back in his arms, everything else could wait.

Louis lifted his head abruptly, detaching his lips from Harry's. He breathed heavily, eyes half-lidded, and he licked his lips. Harry's stomach twisted, making it hard to breathe.

Something was wrong.

"I'm going to London," Louis murmured quietly.

Harry stared at him, unmoving.

Without another word, Louis leaned in again, attaching his lips to Harry's neck. He pulled down the collar of the t-shirt to suck at Harry's collarbones. Harry’s skin felt numb, the feeling of Louis’ lips unreal.

Harry stared at the ceiling, small stripes of a bright blue summer sky visible through the wood battens, trying to process Louis' words. His heart pounded loudly in his ears, his chest expanding with it.

"You-- what?" he asked, voice raspy.

Louis stopped moving. He let go of the collar and lifted his upper body again. His expression was calm, alarmingly calm.

"I signed a contract with Syco," he said quietly. "Starting next week."

This was a bad dream, Harry decided. He couldn't tear his eyes from Louis. But he had to -- had to, if he wanted to wake up and return to his world, to his Louis.

"They wanted me to come down to London for a casting. For a three-piece band." Louis averted his gaze from Harry, biting his lip. "I got through. I signed this morning."

Harry's numb hands slid from Louis' hips to the floor and hit it with a wooden noise. He was sure his heart wasn't beating at all while he stared up at Louis. His eyes felt dry, but he couldn't even bring himself to blink.

"You lied to me," Harry finally managed to choke out. He wasn't quite sure what he was referring to. The fact that Louis had lied about why he had been to London or everything else Louis had ever told him.

It was their dream, wasn't it?

When had Louis decided to make it his own dream? To live it without Harry?

"Haz," Louis started.

And why were they still so close together? Why was Louis tangled with Harry when he had just told Harry that he would leave him? "No," Harry cut him off, shaking his head. "No."

"Come on, now, this is not---"

Harry shoved Louis off, sitting up and shifting away from him. "What do you mean, next week?"

"I'm moving to London," Louis simply said -- as if it was nothing, just that easy. "Haz, it was an opportunity I couldn't refuse."

Staring at him, Harry heard his heart rock back into motion -- and it was racing. "Fuck you, Louis," he breathed, unable to form any other answer.

There he was, Louis, the boy he loved, the boy he knew everything about. The boy Harry knew better than himself. And yet, he knew so little, hadn't known Louis was capable of a betrayal like this. He stared at Harry with that inscrutable expression -- as if he didn't even understand what he had done.

"Harry," he said again, voice soothing.

"You lied," Harry repeated. "I can't---" he swallowed thickly, getting to his feet and dashing to the ladder. "You fucking lied all this time."

"That's not true." Louis followed him, grabbing Harry's elbow before he could climb down. "Listen to me, please. Baby."

That brought tears to Harry's eyes, they pooled in the corners, burning, his throat tightening up. "Don't you dare," he hissed. "Not after you abandoned me so easily."

Louis' hand jerked back as if he had burnt himself on Harry's skin. Harry could see hurt in his face, his blue eyes turning grey, shadowed by pain.

Good, Harry thought, climbing down the steps. He looked at Louis once again, saw desperation on his features as he shook his head in a silent protest to Harry leaving.

Harry had a million things to say that swarmed his brain, accusations and angry tirades. Instead, he just held Louis’ gaze until he reached the ground, adamantly trying to convey every one of his feelings through his angry, ice-cold stare. He stood there for a moment, eyes locked on Louis’, and his heart broke just that tiny bit more when Louis averted his gaze and bit his lip.

Harry turned and walked away slowly, his limbs feeling oddly stiff, as if they were frozen. Only when he had rounded the house, and he knew that he was out of sight, did he start to run.

He ran blindly, lungs burning, tears staining his cheeks and heart shattered in his chest.

+++

Louis blinked his eyes open slowly, his TV screen coming into vision. He recognised a character from Little Britain, watching for a few seconds before he realised it was his phone ringing that had woken him.

He grabbed it off the table and picked up when he saw Aiden's ID.

"Louis," Aiden greeted him. "Back in London?"

"Since yesterday, yes," Louis answered, rolling onto his back. Noises of laughter came from the TV. "How are you?"

"I'm good, the usual," Aiden said. "You? Jetlagged?"

Louis hummed. "Just slept all afternoon."

"So you're well-rested to go out tonight," Aiden noted, sounding chipper.

Louis frowned, considering that. "Going out doing what?" he asked.

"There's a concert by a band that you'd probably like as a supporting act," Aiden told him. "They’re playing a small club in Camden, possibly a hundred people. Pixie and the Dusts."

"What a dumb name," Louis snorted.

"They have potential."

Louis should go -- a band playing clubs for less than a hundred people sounded like just the kind of band he was looking for. And if Aiden said they had potential, chances were they'd be really good and worth some attention.

"Not tonight," Louis answered.

"Louis, come on," Aiden started.

"We're playing the O2 again tomorrow," Louis explained, feeling tired at the thought of having to show up for a gig tomorrow. "It's an extra show before the European leg starts next week. I guess I could use a night in, catch some more sleep."

"Why am I not invited to that gig tomorrow?" Aiden wanted to know, mock-appalled. "I didn't even know about it."

"You can come, if you want. I'll get you in," Louis offered. "It was added only last month. High demand."

"It's always high demand for you guys." Aiden sighed. "So I'll go to the concert by myself tonight?"

"Sorry, love," Louis apologised. "Need to be fit tomorrow."

"It's okay. I get it. I'll see you tomorrow?"

"See you," Louis confirmed.

"Have a good night," Aiden said softly.

"And you."

Louis hung up, closing his eyes again. He managed to grab a blanket from the armchair, spreading it over his body. Little Britain was still airing on telly, the laughter and high-pitched voices lulling him back to sleep.

+++

"That was pretty good," Harry said, hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans.

Nick nodded, walking next to him. Their arms were brushing, but Harry didn't bother to put more space between them. It felt comfortable. The few friends he had taken along were walking in front of them, chatting away, not paying them much attention.

"I got a tip that they're fantastic," Nick told him. "They play some wicked stuff, but it's not for the radio."

"You wouldn't play them?" Harry asked, surprised by that.

"Top forty for the Breakfast Show," Nick explained, shrugging. "Their music is for the night time programmes, where you get to play original and unusual music."

Harry gazed at Nick for a second. "Do you miss that?"

"Sometimes," Nick admitted. "I wouldn't want to go back, though. My team is great, and I'm having a lot of fun as it is."

"Sounds like it," Harry agreed.

"Aw, Harold," Nick cooed. "You listen to my show every morning just to hear my voice."

"I had to convince Betsy to change the radio in the kitchen to Radio One," Harry revealed, winking. "She only agreed to it when I told her the host of the Breakfast Show is a dear friend of mine. She's been listening to Capital FM for the past ten years."

"What is wrong with Betsy?" Nick asked, clutching his chest. "Chris Moyles did so well to please her generation."

Harry laughed. "She's very fond of Matt."

"If she only knew." Nick shook his head. He stopped when they reached the underground station. "We're going back to Nicco's," he said. "Are you in?"

"I'd love to," Harry admitted, biting his lip. "But I have to be at the bakery at five tomorrow morning. So I shouldn't."

"Alright," Nick said easily. He looked a little nervous, hands buried in the pockets of his leather jacket.

Harry looked at him for a second longer, pondering his options. He could lean in and kiss Nick right now -- it wouldn't be weird, would it? Nick had admitted from the first second that he was interested in Harry.

"Maybe we could go out again? Like, dinner or something?" he asked instead.

Nick smirked, nodding. "Sure, I'd like that. Call me up when you're free."

"I'm pretty sure you're the busier one here," Harry pointed out.

"Never too busy to meet up with you," Nick said, winking at Harry and leaning in to kiss his cheek. He turned, catching up on his friends who were already taking the steps down to the station. "Talk to Niall. I sent him a few things."

Harry waved, watching Nick leave, staying at the top of the stairs until he couldn't see Nick anymore. Slowly, he let his fingertips graze his cheek that still tingled a little from Nick’s lips. A gentle breeze moved his hair, making him shiver slightly and bury his hands in his pockets. He turned, preoccupied with the thoughts flooding his mind.

It was about time he stopped pushing everyone away. Harry hadn't had a serious relationship since Louis had left. At first, he had been too hurt, too stuck on Louis to even look at anyone new. And after that, Harry had become careful, very careful whom he let close enough to his heart.

Louis had been too close, Harry had given him every single piece of him -- and that had been wrong, his biggest mistake. He had been completely dependant on Louis, had stopped being his own person, every of his actions and thoughts focussed on Louis.

Harry had confused it for love, when really, it had been nothing but blind dependency. Like an addiction.

He had tried sleeping with random people, making it about the sex rather than the feelings, but each time he had tried, he had pulled back last minute, had fled before he could have taken the last step. It wasn't him, wasn't how Harry's mind -- or heart -- worked.

He wanted something stable, something honest, wanted the sex to mean something, not only to be a release. He wanted to give, lay his heart bare for someone else to see and take care of.

Maybe he had a chance at that right now.

When he got home, Harry stripped off his jacket in his room. He stepped to the window to close his curtains, his hands freezing in motion, gaze caught by the huge billboard at the footie pitch.

It had displayed an advertisement for tea during the last weeks, but had been changed to a poster of Escapade now. Special Concert at London O2 Arena , it read at the top. Louis' gaze was lowered, hands buried in the pockets of a denim jacket, hair an organised mess. Zayn looked off camera, Liam stared right ahead.

That was too much, Harry thought, throat tight.

He had vowed to never find out anything about that band, but now he knew the two blokes’ names already, feeling bitter towards them for taking Harry and Niall' spot -- which was ridiculous, because it had never been meant to be Harry and Niall in the first place.

Closing the curtains, Harry turned and stormed into the kitchen. He took out the CD Perrie had positioned next to the CD player Harry had insisted they needed in the kitchen. He put the disk in, pressing play.

When the music started, Harry exhaled, his hands falling to his side.

If he wanted to finally leave Louis behind -- all of it, every bit of that past -- he had to know where Louis had moved on to. He had to find out what Louis did now, where he was and how he lived. He had to know who Louis was without Harry.

If he didn't, he would always wonder.

Harry thought about going back to his room, leaving the door open and listening to the songs from there. It felt like running away again, though, so he just got his duvet from his bed and closed the door to his room, leaving the music outside of it.

He curled up on the kitchen floor, listening to the song playing, to the voices, of which he only recognised one.

When I close my eyes you're still there, still smiling without a care , someone sang. I keep you in my dreams where you're close. I’ve run as far as I could but a piece of you is still with me, no place to hide .

The songs moved on to raindrops at the end of summer, hearts tearing apart by one wrong word, to the feeling of regret, up-tempo songs about wanting to change the time, going back. There were others in between, songs that didn't trigger memories, that didn't clearly carry Louis' handwriting.

Harry didn't have to look it up to know which songs Louis had written. The songs told stories about long summer days spent hidden in the trees, about inked skin that held memories of brighter days.

It's spring, but you're still snowing after two and a half years , Louis voice quietly sang, lulling Harry to sleep. I want it to be snowing inside of me and never melt there. I'm losing my sense of season.

I know it's love .

+++

Harry woke up to the lights being switched on, startling him from his slumber. He sat up, rubbing his eyes, and found Perrie by the door, staring at him. The music was still on repeat, filling the room.

"Why are you sleeping on the floor?" she asked.

Tiredly, Harry gave up on pretending. He could probably come up with a lie, but he didn't want to lie to Perrie. "Didn't want to let Louis into my room."

For a moment, Perrie was quiet. Then she slowly closed the door and set down her handbag. She slipped out of her boots, went over to the CD player to switch it off, and sat down next to Harry, winding her arms around her knees. "I thought you'd never tell me."

Harry blinked, tilting his head. "What?"

"About Louis," Perrie murmured, looking guilty. "Niall slipped when he was drunk last week. I told him about the tickets and that you didn't wanna go with me." She shrugged, biting her bottom lip. "He told me that it was because you guys used to be in a band."

Niall couldn't be trusted drunk. Harry should have known. He averted his gaze, fidgeting the fabric of his duvet between his fingers. "That all he told you?"

Perrie nodded. "I'm sorry, Haz. Had I known, I'd have never put up the poster and played their music or asked you to come to their concert." She put an arm around him. "I'm not going either. I'm not a fan of someone who betrayed you."

Harry laughed dryly. "Pez," he said then, memories rushing back in, of snow and a red shawl, a kiss in the rain, whispers and touches hidden in a small treehouse, stolen looks exchanged at school. "He was-- we were--" Harry swallowed thickly. "I loved him," he finally settled on. It was the first time Harry had said it out loud. It felt foreign on his tongue, sounded strange to his ears.

Perrie stared at him, hand still on his shoulder. "Did he---?"

"Break my heart?" Harry choked, pressing his palms to his face. "Yeah, he did. We were together, like-- not out," Harry explained. "But we were together. He decided to go on without me, and I let him just leave me behind. I let him push me over, and I hate him." It all just babbled out of him now, the words spinning in his head, running through his mind, and Harry couldn't grasp a single one before he said them. "I hate him for doing that to me, and I hate that I let him do it. He should have never had that kind of power over me, to hurt me the way he did. He just decided I wasn’t worth it, and he turned away so easily. How could he turn so easily?"

“Harry---”

“How dare he write songs about it?” Harry threw his hands up. “How can he write about all the things we shared, as if they still mattered to him when he was the one who just threw it all away?”

Perrie pulled him in, arms tight around Harry's shoulders. "Fuck, Harry," she mumbled. "What an arse."

Harry didn't correct her. He buried his face in her neck, closing his eyes. He knew it wasn't fair, knew there was so much more to that story. But at the moment, he just needed someone on his side, someone who understood him.

Taking a deep breath, he pulled back, looking at Perrie's face. "I'll come with you. To the concert."

"Harry, love," Perrie started, looking worried. "Are you sure that's what you want?"

Harry nodded. He had made up his mind. "I'll have to see it with my own eyes to get over it."

"Okay," Perrie murmured quietly, brushing his hair with her fingers. "If that's what you want."

"It is," Harry firmly replied.

+++

"Louis, are you all set?"

Louis turned, giving a thumbs-up to the assistant who had asked. "Yep, ready to go on stage."

Zayn appeared next to him, putting a hand on his back and leaving it there.

"Where's Liam?"

"Should be out any minute," Zayn said. "Have you memorised the setlist?"

Louis rolled his eyes. "Of course."

Special concerts were nice, because they got to play different songs from the ones they had set for their tour. It was a nice change from the gigs that had become routine, even if every gig felt different in atmosphere and mood.

"Looking forward to the encore," Louis pointed out when Liam joined them. "Playing new songs for the first time is always fun."

"They'll love it," Liam added.

"They better."

+++

Harry heard the music start through the heavy door he stood in front of. He hadn't yet entered the hall, couldn't have brought himself to do it. Instead he had stayed in the lobby, watching excited teenage girls enter the arena, chatting away, buying merchandise with Louis' face on it.

It had made Harry feel sick.

He thought of the day when Louis had left Holmes Chapel to go to London, about how Harry had woken up that morning. His heart had felt heavy in his chest, as if it hadn't belonged in there, wanting out.

Harry had wished it could have been that easy -- exchanging his heart for a new one. One that didn't know what Louis' hair smelled like, or how his heartbeat picked up speed when Harry kissed him, how he laughed when he was tickled and how he talked in his sleep.

That morning, Harry had decided that, after all, he couldn't let Louis go.

Shaking his head, Harry took a deep breath, finding himself in the same position again. He was running after Louis. But this time, he had come to end it properly.

He opened the door and walked in, immediately spotting Louis on stage. Averting his gaze, he searched for his seat, found Perrie in the crowd and joined her. He could feel her tension loosen up when she shot him a glance.

Harry could only stare at Louis on the stage, seeing him in person for the first time in what had been three years. He had changed a lot, was much more built, his hair longer, his face much more defined. He wore jeans and a simple t-shirt. The tattoo on his arm visible, right on display for everyone to see.

Harry couldn’t look at it.

Upbeat music playing, their voices clear and loud above the crowd's screaming, and they put on a decent show, obviously having fun on stage. Harry's gaze followed Louis high-fiving Zayn, slapping Liam's bum, his energy unleashed and making him glow. His smiles were bright, crinkling his eyes.

With the crowd around him going wild, girls screaming loudly at everything that happened on stage, Harry felt weirdly calm. His heart beat slowly in his chest and he stood completely still. He forgot about the music, all noise drowned out in his head.

He hadn’t realised time going by until the band left the stage and Harry had to tear his eyes from Louis. When they came back ten minutes later, Harry hadn’t moved a single bit, eyes instantly locking onto Louis again.

“We only have one encore tonight,” Louis announced. “It’s a new song, exclusively played for you guys for the first time. I hope you’ll like it.”

He glanced at Liam and Zayn, when the music started playing, a soft tune. Liam started singing, his voice warm and golden.

I know it and yet, I’m afraid
and to confirm it you hold me
you kiss me, you say that you miss me
but I can’t calm down, oh why tonight?

Zayn took over, voice filling the sudden silence in the arena.

Where are you now?
Tell me, what are you doing?
Images inside my head,
what are you thinking now?

Harry let the words fill his mind, closed his eyes to shut everything else out.

All he could see was Louis.

+++

He wouldn't make it.

Harry's lungs hurt, feeling as though they were pierced by broken glass. He ignored it, though, running just that tiny bit faster.

He caught a glimpse of the clock at the station, and if that one was correct, he had one more minute. Only a minute. He hurried up the stairs to the platform, seeing that the train was still there, and tried to spot Louis.

Instead, he spotted Niall at the end of the platform, and Harry set off into another sprint to reach him.

"Niall," he breathed heavily, reaching him. Niall turned to him, eyes wide. "Where--"

A ringing noise echoed through the station and the train started moving. Harry lifted his look and his eyes instantly locked with Louis'. Taking a tentative step towards the train, he saw Louis' face through the glass.

Harry felt paralysed, too shocked by the picture in front of him.

Louis stared at Harry, eyes red, cheeks stained with streaks of tears. His skin was pale, his lips bitten, and he was moving away -- slowly moving away.

“Lou,” Harry choked on the word, reaching for the window. "Please."

Louis bit his lip, tears dwelling in his eyes again, then he turned away, his back facing Harry.

Harry stopped in his tracks, lowering and fisting his hand by his side. He watched the train gaining speed, leaving the station, taking Louis away from him.

This time around, he didn’t cry, having shed every tear inside him during the days before. Instead, he tried to breathe through the splinters still piercing his lungs, trying to make sense of all this.

He still stood there long after, staring into the distance, wondering what he had done to make Louis turn away.

+++

Opening his eyes, a single tear escaped Harry, his lips trembling a bit. His gaze found Louis again. He sat on the stairs to the upper part of the stage, eyes closed, singing with all his heart.

He looked like the boy Harry had fallen in love with all those years ago.

But I know I’ll stay 'cause next to you is where I belong.

The words ripped into Harry's heart.

Let me believe it when you’re gone.
I guess it’s just a helpless night ,
a helpless night, a helpless night.

It was, Harry thought, when Louis repeated it on stage again and again. That was what it felt like, helpless , and that made it easier to let go, to finally leave Louis behind the way Louis had left Harry behind three years ago.

Perrie reached for his hand, tangling their fingers wordlessly, and Harry squeezed back, holding on.

Louis opened his eyes, and for a moment, Harry thought he'd see him, but of course he wouldn't. He wasn't supposed to, anyway. Instead, Louis' gaze drifted over the crowd when he sang the last line and all lights went out.

Maybe Louis had managed to move on, too.

My heart melts when you’re gone.

---

Chapter Text

Louis knew he shouldn't be so smug about it, but whenever Liam or Zayn messed up, he felt oddly relieved. It reminded him that they were only human too, and although they usually handled their fame much better than Louis did, they couldn't always cope with it.

They had been back from the first part of their European tour for only a few days, and spring was in full bloom over here, just on the verge of summer. So, really, who could blame Zayn for getting a little reckless?

He had been out with friends, which was how it usually started when things went downhill. Of course he had been drunk, so Zayn had not given it much thought when he had gone home with a girl.

"She asked for my name," Zayn had protested yesterday morning when their PR team had called an urgent meeting. "She had no idea who I was."

"Apparently she did know, though," someone had calmly told him, showing a profile on twitter and opening an Instagram link. The girl had posted a picture of Zayn sleeping, his hair all messed up, chest naked.

The backlash was huge, of course, with their fans going crazy on Twitter.

Following the advice of their team, they all decided to stay in, so they wouldn't be seen in public where anyone could come up to them and ask questions. They had enough to do anyways, Louis thought. Not much time to go out and be seen.

They were holed up in the studio where they were recording some first vocals for the new album. Aiden was there, as well as some other people they had written songs with, producers and technicians. They had decided on only four songs yet that would definitely make it onto the album, three written by Louis, one by Liam.

"This is going to be a huge change from your previous two albums," Aiden had commented, looking over the songs again. "It's gonna be big."

Zayn had been rather quiet all day, not participating in any talk. He put away his phone when he was asked to record something or pay attention, but other than that he kept scrolling on his phone. Probably checking Twitter to see what their fans were writing about him.

Louis wanted to tell him to leave it alone, to wait until it all blew over and no one cared about it anymore. Then again, he knew Zayn was different -- Liam and Zayn both were.

Zayn usually kept up to date with the stuff the media reported about them, always knew about the latest rumours that were spread about them. Liam did, too, although he took it a level further, because he didn't just read it, he also tended to comment on it on Twitter.

Louis had stopped looking at it long ago. He didn't know who he was allegedly dating this week, or what arsehole move he had made in an interview, or how awful his outfit was when he arrived for rehearsals the other day.

Louis looked up as Liam came back into the room. They were on lunch break, and their assistant had apparently just come back from Tesco's. Liam handed Louis a lunch box and a bottle of water, putting Zayn's on the table.

Zayn had his head in Louis' lap, not acknowledging Liam's presence at all and still scrolling on his phone.

"Hey, Z," Louis said, running a hand through Zayn's hair. "You hungry?"

"Not really," Zayn murmured.

"Come on, Zayn," Liam pushed gently, his foot kicking out to nudge Zayn's arm. "Don't let it drag you down."

Frowning, Zayn turned to him. "It’s not about the negative backlash from the fans," he clarified. "It’s just frustrating that every girl I meet is after my fame."

Louis hummed. "It's not easy to find someone genuine."

"If it makes you feel any better," Liam said, waving a magazine in front of their faces, "Heat's more interested in Nick Grimshaw's new boyfriend than your little slip."

"I don't care," Zayn stated, turning his head again to look at his phone.

Louis watched Liam turning the pages of the magazine with Nick Grimshaw's face on the cover. "Who cares about Grimshaw anyway?"

Liam shrugged. "Quite a few people, actually," he pointed out.

Aiden came back in that moment, plopping down onto the sofa next to Liam. He had a sandwich in one hand, and looked at the page Liam was reading. Louis saw him frown down at it.

"Who's that guy?"

Liam shrugged. "Nick Grimshaw's new boyfriend, apparently."

"I think I've seen him before," Aiden mused.

"Maybe Louis shagged him," Liam joked, glancing up with a smirk. "Totally your type."

"Fuck off, Li." Louis scowled at him. "I'd like to believe that someone who had me wouldn't ever stoop so low as to fuck Nick Grimshaw. I sleep with decent people."

Liam rolled his eyes and turned the page. "Whatever."

“What’s your problem with Grimmy?” Aiden asked.

“He’s a twat.” Louis shrugged. “Not my cup of tea.”

Aiden hummed quietly.

“It’s because he’s just as witty as Lou,” Zayn commented. “Louis doesn’t like people who are equal in taking the piss.”

“As I said,” Louis simply repeated. “I like decent people.”

"At least the people you slept with didn't post pictures of you in their bed," Zayn commented.

Louis sighed and patted his head. Zayn rolled around and curled up, burying his face in Louis' t-shirt.

Someday, Louis thought, running his fingers through Zayn's hair, he would find someone who was worth it, someone who wouldn't be after the fame and the money. Someone who would only be there for Zayn.

Louis thought about the day he sat on a train, seeing Harry, expression wild, desperate, and tears in his eyes. He had looked so lost and as if he had only needed one thing to gain back control -- Louis. He had only needed Louis to be himself again.

That had been the problem, though. Harry had needed him too much, had built his whole life around Louis, up to the point where he hadn't been able to take a single step without Louis by his side.

That hadn't been healthy for either of them.

It hadn't justified any of what Louis had done to Harry, though.

He had lost the chance of finding someone perfect for himself in that moment Harry had stared at him through the window of the train. Right then, Louis had given up on love to become who he was now.

Perhaps it was a cliché, but it was true that you couldn’t have both. Louis had decided upon a big career, and had left behind the only true love he had ever known.

It hadn't been wrong, he thought now while Zayn was breathing evenly against Louis' stomach. He got what he had always dreamt of, had found Zayn and Liam, and Louis would never exchange a single memory he had made with them, didn't think there could have been anyone else taking their places. It hadn't been the wrong thing to do.

It just hadn't been right either.

+++

"Thanks for coming, Niall," Louis said quietly, looking at the ground.

People passed them, getting onto the train. Louis glanced at his watch, seeing he had five minutes left.

"Wouldn't want to let you go without a proper goodbye." Niall gently shoved his shoulder.

"It's okay if you hate me, you know," Louis told him, biting his lip. "I did fuck this up big time after all."

"You did," Niall agreed. "You should have told us from the beginning, mate. It's such a huge thing." He was quiet for a few beats. "You know that neither of us would have ever stopped you."

Louis nodded, couldn't answer.

"Harry's in a state, though," Niall murmured. "He doesn't get it. I don't either, you know," he added.

"I love him," Louis choked out. Tears gathered in the corners of his eyes. "But he's-- I can't take it, Ni."

Niall stepped closer, resting a hand on his arm. "What?"

"He can't do it without me," Louis rushed out. "He relies on me completely, and it's too much. I can't take it."

A shrill ringing startled both of them.

"Lou--"

Louis lifted his head, biting back the tears. "I broke his heart."

Niall sighed, drawing him into a hug. "You're the biggest idiot I ever met, Louis," he growled deeply. "You think Harry relies on you completely? You rely on him just as much, don't you know that?"

Louis drew back, staring into Niall's face. "What?"

"You know it's a mistake," Niall said sternly. The serious look was so unusual on him, it scared Louis a little. "You know that without him, you won't ever make it either. You need each other, Louis. And it's not too late to get Harry back. He'd forgive you."

He would, Louis thought. Harry would always forgive him. They would make up, and he would kiss Harry's tears away, and Harry would kiss a smile onto Louis's lips. They would go back to their life -- a life in which they only dreamt about making it big one day.

Louis shook his head. He hugged Niall again, burying his face at his neck.

"Take care, Niall," Louis told him, squeezing his arms. "I'm sorry, okay?"

Niall frowned deeply, but instead of saying any more, he nodded.

Louis turned and got onto the train, sitting down. The tears began to fall once he was alone. He bit back a sob, thinking about Harry -- about the way he had frozen in Louis' arms, the hurt expression on his face, the anger when he had left.

He could never have both. Being with Harry would always hold him back, would always make him want to take a step back and consider what was good for them , not for him.

With Harry, there was no Louis , there was only Harry and Louis .

The offer only stood for Louis, though.

He breathed out shakily, lifting his gaze, and in that moment his eyes locked with Harry's. Louis could see he was breathing heavily, eyes wide, looking bewildered. He desperately reached out for Louis, his hand coming up to touch the glass between them.

No, Louis thought. He couldn't stay -- Harry held him down like an anchor dragged a rope to the bottom of the sea. And Louis knew that if he stayed, he would eventually hold it against Harry.

It wasn't fair to either of them.

Harry's face fell, desperation in his eyes, and he lowered his hand. The train started moving and Louis noticed that he was shaking his head. He held Harry's gaze for a moment longer, tried to say it all in one look.

I'm sorry, I can't do this, it's all too much, I need to do this for myself, he wanted to say , but wasn’t sure his eyes could convey it all .

He turned away, breaking their eye contact, Harry’s desperate expression imprinted on his lids when he closed his eyes.

+++

"Pez!"

Harry stormed into the flat, finding the kitchen empty and making a beeline for Perrie's room. He stopped at the doorframe, staring at Perrie standing on a chair across from her bed. She had her hands on one corner of the massive Escapade poster as she glanced at him over her shoulder.

"Oh, hi Harry," she greeted him.

Harry frowned, excitement forgotten. "What are you doing?"

"I think it's about time I took this down," she told him, gently ripping the corner off the wall.

It had been almost two months since the concert, and Perrie had not uttered a single word about the band since then. She didn't listen to their music anymore -- at least not when Harry was around.

"You know you don't have to, right?" Harry asked, watching her carefully peel off the other side.

"Looking at it actually makes me feel a little sick," Perrie confessed. "They're a good band, and the concert was amazing, but..." She trailed off, rolling up the poster in her hands.

When she made to climb from the chair, Harry rushed over to give her a hand.

"You looked so sad, you know?" Perrie shrugged, looking at Harry's face. "You're my friend, Harry, and I don't want to look at the guy who hurt you every day."

Harry smiled weakly. "I'm okay, Perrie."

With a stern look, Perrie held his gaze. "You cried."

"I didn't!" Harry groaned and burrowed his face in his hands, feeling his cheeks flush in embarrassment.

"You did, if only a little." Perrie put the poster aside and grabbed Harry's hands, pulling them down. "And even if you hadn't? I wouldn't want his face on my wall, after everything you told me."

Harry took a deep breath, swallowing the lump in his throat. "I'm over it now." He unrolled the poster on Perrie's bed with one hand until Louis' face came into vision. "It doesn't hurt anymore, you know?"

Perrie nodded. "That's good."

“Seeing his face doesn’t bother me as much as it used to.” Harry thought of the boy he had watched on stage, glowing and happy. It wasn’t the boy Harry had let go all those years ago. That boy was gone, and the one looking at him from the poster and billboards wasn’t anyone but a stranger to him.

"It was probably never love to begin with," he added quietly, letting go and watching the poster roll up again. "He wouldn’t have done that to me, if it had been, right?"

Harry caught the look in Perrie's eyes, and knew she understood because she had come to the same conclusions about herself. Shaking her head, she drew Harry in and hugged him. “I’m going to get a poster of Zayn only. That’s much better anyway.”

Harry laughed and sank into the embrace, letting Perrie hold him for a minute. "Hey," he said then, getting some of her platinum blond hair into his mouth. "I actually came with pretty good news."

She pulled back, grinning. "What is it?"

"I got a gig," Harry told her, watching her face light up even more. "At a BBC event next month. Niall organised it, and Nick put in a good word."

"Wow!" Perrie jumped a little. "That's a first headliner for you, isn't it? Like, no one else on stage that night?"

Harry nodded excitedly. "Just me. And it's some kind of VIP event? There will be celebrities and bigwigs from the music industry."

Perrie threw her arms back around his neck. "I'm so proud of you, Harry!"

Harry swayed them a little. "Thanks, love. Really. This summer is gonna be amazing," he added then. "Niall's got me onto four festivals, as well. I get to play seriously, in front of people and all."

"You will," Perrie laughed. "You wanna see what I bought today?" She turned and opened her handbag, pulling out a CD.

"Fuck, it's already out?" Harry breathed in awe. He held Ed's first record in his hands -- among all the things he had going on recently, he had totally forgotten about the release date.

“And,” Perrie added, pulling out a Heat magazine. Nick’s face was on the cover, so Harry had an idea what he would find in there.

“I bought it because there’s an article about Zayn,” she admitted. “Guess who I discovered in the main story, though?”

Harry snagged the magazine from her hands and opened it, shuffling the pages until he saw a picture of himself walking next to Nick.

“I’m in a gossip rag,” he deadpanned.

Perrie grinned widely. "I think we have a lot to celebrate tonight, don't you?"

+++

Festivals were great.

Harry had spent the last month sorting his life out and preparing for his gigs. He had cut down working hours at the bakery to have more time for writing songs and practising. Nick had dragged him to a few events, always introducing him to the right people.

In that way, Harry had ended up in a good studio with Niall and a friend of Nick’s, recording a proper demo tape to hand out to different labels. Niall had said it wouldn’t be long anymore before they’d get the real deal, that one of the big fish would certainly sign him soon.

Things with Nick developed steadily. Nick invited him along when he was out with friends, but often enough joined Harry when he met up with Niall and Ed at The Anchor’s Rope. He never pushed things, never asked questions and always adjusted to Harry’s pace, which was a nice change.

They had kissed, full-on snogged a few times, but Harry hadn’t slept with Nick yet. Now that Harry was away for almost a month to play three different festivals, he was rather relieved about that fact.

At this point, Harry wasn’t sure he wanted a relationship -- it would complicate things. For the moment, Harry wanted to concentrate on his career.

He could imagine doing this forever; festivals were awesome .

The ones Niall had got him into were only small ones, but still -- better than nothing. People were actually gathering around the stage to see him perform, and Harry felt it tug at his nerves.

He loved the atmosphere and mood of those small festivals, loved sharing a tent with Niall and watching other artists perform. Ed had been at the first one too, and at the end of Harry's gig, he had come on stage for a jam session. Niall had joined them for one song too.

Harry had liked that, had felt entirely secure then.

Now, however, he felt as nervous as never before. Out of the three festivals, this was the biggest one and Harry had made the mistake of glancing at the audience from backstage. There were a lot of people gathered already, waiting for Harry to come on and play.

"Harry," Niall said calmly. "What's different from last time? You just go out there and play your songs. They'll love you."

Harry breathed shallowly, trying to will his racing pulse to calm down. It'd be okay once he was on stage, he knew that. The hard part was forcing himself to take the step and go out.

"I can come with you," Niall offered.

Harry shook his head.

"Fuck, Haz." Groaning, Niall tugged at his arms to make Harry stand up from the floor. "You really need to overcome the stage fright. Can't be a singer like that."

"I know," Harry croaked out, his knees making him feel wobbly on his feet.

"How did he do it?" Niall wanted to know. "He always managed to calm you down."

Harry thought of Louis hands, the ghost feeling of fingertips on his skin, combing his hair. His voice echoed in Harry's head, familiar and soothing. Harry's heart gave a silent flutter at that.

He had changed since then, wasn’t that kid anymore. He wasn’t fucking scared anymore.

"Fuck," Harry breathed out, fisting his hands. "I'm gonna go out," he said then, grabbing his guitar.

He saw Niall's confused face but didn't comment on it before he turned and walked out on stage with rapid strides.

+++

"Remind me again why I had to come here?" Louis asked, watching the crowd of people in front of him.

"Because our PR thought it was time we were seen out again," Liam reminded him.

"And this is a party, but not a party ," Zayn added.

"Don't you wish it were?" Louis sighed, taking a glass of champagne from a waiter passing them with a tray.

"I'd actually rather be in my bed," Liam pointed out. He wore a suit, looking dapper as always. Louis thought he'd never grasp why Liam did that to himself all the time. Suits were so bloody uncomfortable. "With pizza and beer."

"I'd join," Zayn murmured. "Well, since we're here, though, I'll see if the bar has any better drinks to offer."

Liam was dragged into a conversation shortly after and Louis sighed to himself. He let his gaze drift over the crowd again, spotting a number of familiar faces. There were a lot of people among them that he should go over and greet properly, chat up to keep their business relationship steady.

Well, he decided, they could just as well come and talk to him. He took another sip from the overly expensive champagne that was way too dry for Louis' taste. He was afraid he wouldn't get a beer around here.

His gaze settled on a bloke standing not too far from them. He had his back to Louis, but it was a bloody attractive back. Broad shoulders and a slim waist, lean legs in very skinny jeans, and a small bum, just about the right size to fit in the picture. The guy's stance was a bit funny, though. He stood with his feet almost crossed, arms behind his back and fingers laced. His dark hair wasn't exactly curly, more of a wavy mess tied back by a headband, as it seemed.

Louis averted his gaze to the guy next to him, and a sour taste settled on his tongue that he tried to rinse with champagne. The fit bloke was with Nick Grimshaw, which made him ten times less attractive.

Unfortunately, he was still a hundred times more attractive than the rest of the people in the room, and Louis hadn't even seen his face.

"Hey, Lou," Liam said next to him, turning. Louis tore his stare from the guy in tight, black jeans to look at Liam. "The BBC is doing a charity thing in August, the week after we're back from Spain."

Louis tilted his head, looking at the man across from Liam. "How can we help?"

"I sent a request to your management," the man said, shrugging. "They said you were not available for that date."

"Which date exactly?" Louis wanted to know. It wasn't that he didn't trust Liam. But when it came to organising schedules -- he didn't trust Liam. He often enough mixed things up and got dates wrong.

"August twentieth," the man answered, looking hopeful.

"We have a week off after Spain, don't we?" Liam asked, frowning at Louis.

"Yeah, we do." Louis put down the glass, giving up on finishing the dry champagne. "What charity is it?"

"We're raising money to make people aware of the bullying problems most schools in the UK deal with. It's a campaign against bullying in schools."

Louis had no idea why their management would decline the request for Escapade to support that project. "We'd definitely like to help with that," he said. It was a good cause, would improve their image. They would use their influence for something good -- Louis definitely wanted that. "We'll put in a word."

The man beamed, extending a hand to Louis. "Thank you, guys." He grabbed Liam's hand afterwards, shaking it effusively.

"Ah, look," Louis heard a voice behind him then, just as Zayn came back from the bar, joining them. Zayn smiled politely, so Louis turned to face Nick Grimshaw. "My friends from Escapade did show up too."

Louis gave him an unimpressed look, then noticed his company and ---

His heart skipped a beat, two, three. It didn't start beating again.

The curls were gone. Or, well -- a wavy mess, Louis remembered his earlier thoughts. The round cheeks were gone too, replaced by soft cheekbones. Dimples still pressed into those cheeks, the smile a little lopsided, mouth too big for that face and lips pink and full.

Green eyes were still bright, looking friendly and clear. Louis' heart kicked back into motion, beating louder and faster than ever before.

"This is Harry," Nick's voice tuned in again, breaking through the hissing in Louis' ears.

"Hi," Harry said -- and what was that voice? Dark and raspy, so much rougher than it used to be. Sandpaper on velvet, Louis thought, every fibre of his body drawn to the boy in front of him. Harry extended his hand and shook Zayn's, grabbing Louis' just as casually before he moved on to Liam. "Nice to meet you."

He didn't--- Louis stared at him, at Harry . That was Harry right there in front of him. The boy Louis had had his first kiss with, the boy who had literally deflowered Louis, the only person Louis had ever said "I love you" to. And he didn't recognise Louis.

"Harry's going to play tonight," Nick announced. "You guys will be blown away, he's got some wicked tunes."

Harry blushed, lowering his head and shaking it. His bottom lip was glistening, pink and wet from him biting it repeatedly, his lashes throwing long shadows over his cheeks.

Louis couldn't stop staring at him.

"You're talking to the world's most successful band here," Harry reminded Nick, looking up at him. "I don't think they're blown away that easily."

Louis watched Nick's hand come up to rest on Harry's hip and pull him just that tiny bit closer -- Harry went easily.

"He's modest," Nick said with a smirk.

"I'm looking forward to hearing you play," Liam told Harry and Louis didn't have to look at him to know that his smile was kind.

"Thank you," Harry said softly, not acknowledging Louis the tiniest bit. He had to feel Louis staring so hard at his face -- he had to . "It means a lot, coming from you guys." His smile didn't falter a bit. "Your songs are really great."

"You write your own songs?" Zayn wanted to know.

"Singer-songwriter, yes," Harry answered. He crossed his arms behind his back, looking like a kid. Louis wanted to reach out and touch. He had to make sure Harry was real. "Been writing for years."

"Young talent," Liam commented.

"You sound like a grandfather," Zayn told him, laughing and nudging Louis' side to make him join Zayn in teasing Liam.

Louis couldn't move.

"Hey, Haz. You have to get ready to go on stage now."

Louis' heart dropped a second time when he turned his head, forced his eyes to leave Harry's face and look at Niall. He stopped next to Harry, and it took a second -- Louis could see the exact moment recognition dawned on him.

"Shit," Niall said loudly.

"Lou, isn't that---"

Louis turned to Liam with a stern look, making him fall silent immediately. He noticed Harry eyeing him curiously, Nick looking a little perplexed when Niall stepped closer to pat Louis' shoulder.

"Louis," he said, tone as kind and carefree as ever. "Man, it's been a while. Didn't think we'd meet you here."

"Yeah," Louis answered lamely. "It's a small world."

Niall's gaze flickered to Harry several times.

"How have you been, Niall?" Louis asked softly. Both of you, he thought but didn't dare say it.

"Good, mate," Niall answered nervously. "Reckon I don't have to ask you, do I? Made it big time, haven't you?"

Louis darted his eyes back to Harry who watched them calmly. Liam had shuffled a little closer to Louis, so he could feel Liam's warmth by his side. Zayn had fallen very quiet.

"I---" Louis' voice cracked. He had no idea what to answer. There was no way to answer this that wouldn't make him feel like the biggest prick on earth.

Why wasn't Harry looking at him? Why didn't he say something?

"You guys know each other?" Nick asked into the ensuing silence, and Louis had never been so grateful for his nosiness before.

"We went to school together," Niall explained, once again glancing between Harry and Louis. "Anyway, Harry," he said then. "Stage?"

"'Course," Harry answered. He smiled again, his expression so very open and calm. "It was very nice meeting you guys."

"And you," Liam said absently.

Zayn didn't say anything.

Harry averted his gaze to Nick, squeezing his waist briefly, before he followed Niall to the stage.

Louis stared after them, trying not to lose sight of Harry in the crowd. When he eventually did, he wasn't sure his heart was still beating, or his blood still running through his veins. He felt cold all over, numb and frozen in place.

"Hey, Lou," Zayn said gently, jolting his shoulder softly.

Louis blinked, coming out of his stupor to find that Liam and Zayn both stood very close. Nick was gone, and no one else seemed to be paying them attention.

"Are you okay?" Liam asked.

"Fuck," Louis breathed out. His throat felt raw.

"You had no idea he got into music management?" Zayn wanted to know.

Louis shook his head. "No, I didn't know."

"There's no need to freak, Louis," Liam assured him. "He cut his path, didn't he? And if that kid's any good, he'll get pretty far."

"That was still sufficiently awkward," Zayn commented. "But he didn't seem mad. Just as taken aback by the situation as you were."

Harry, Louis thought, the hiss in his head drowning out whatever else they said, because---  Harry, Harry, Harry Harry . He had looked at Louis with a polite smile, had shaken his hand like a stranger. He had talked to Liam and Zayn, had leaned into Nick Grimshaw's touch, all the while smiling as if he didn't know Louis.

There was no way in bloody hell that Harry hadn't recognised him.

"Good evening, dear friends," Nick's voice suddenly ripped into his blind thoughts. Louis looked up to see him on stage, microphone in one hand, champagne glass in the other. "I'm very happy to welcome all of you to our charity party tonight."

He proceeded talking about the event and Louis stared at him, couldn't help but replay how Nick's hand had come to rest on Harry's hip in his mind again and again. It left his stomach in tight knots.

"Anyway, since these little events are always a bit nicer with live music, I would like to introduce you to my friend Harry. He's still very young and came to London only this year." Nick turned to the back of the stage. "He's prepared some nice tunes for you. Give it up for Harry Styles."

The crowd applauded politely while Louis watched Harry walk on stage. Nick rested a hand on his shoulder before he left and Harry adjusted the microphone, gazing over the crowd.

"Good evening. I'm Harry," he said, his voice low. "Thanks for having me. I hope you'll enjoy my songs. The first one is called Song."

Naming his song Song , Louis choked on a dry laugh. That was something only Harry Styles would come up with. What a fucking loser. Louis felt like crying, because he still knew those things -- still knew so much about Harry.

Harry started to play his guitar, and when he sang, the room fell silent, everyone turning to the stage.

"Fuck," Liam hissed next to Louis. "He is good."

To you, not so far in the future,
Where will we cross paths?
It's not that I'm turning my back to you,
I’m waiting here
Just as I am, as the unchanging skies

Louis' breath got caught for a moment, every cell in his body focussed on the boy on stage. His voice was deep and full, carrying so many emotions Louis didn’t know which one to grasp first. They were gentle and calm emotions, leaving a tingling behind in Louis’ chest.

That song wasn't sad, and yet, Louis couldn't find a way to describe its mood. The lyrics were cryptic. The next one wasn’t any less cryptic, telling a story of a brave, young girl getting over a broken heart and finding herself. Louis wasn’t sure, as the lyrics didn’t give away too much. But it didn’t sound like the story of a boy.

"The next one is a song I wrote for a friend," Harry announced then, smiling slightly. "I think we all know the feeling of relying on a friend, knowing they're by our side, no matter what. This one's called Process."

"He wrote those?" Zayn asked between the two songs. "It's fucking poetic."

It was, Louis thought, completely under Harry's spell. He couldn't answer, couldn't even bring himself to tear his eyes from Harry. He looked like he belonged right where he was.

By being hurt, and tripping over your feet
by letting your tears fall freely,
you can grow up
Right beside you, there's someone to dry your tears
you're not alone
From here, let's get going

Those songs were about friendships, and pursuing dreams, growing up and about beauty of life and love. They told stories of a boy who found his way and appreciated every day of his life, lived it to the fullest.

Louis swallowed thickly. There was not a single trace of Louis in Harry's songs.

Not one.

+++

Harry raised his head, staring at his reflection in the mirror, his skin pale, pupils wide. His hair curled over his temples, wet from when he had splashed water into his face a moment ago. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes and blindly groping for some paper tissues. He dried his face and hands, ready to go back.

That had been hard. Nothing in his life had ever been as hard as pretending not to recognise Louis, to hold back the pain and anger and act as if he was just another face Harry got to know through Nick.

Louis had looked at him as if he had seen death, staring wide-eyed and unbelieving.

Yeah, Harry thought bitterly, he had probably never thought he'd meet Harry at an event like this -- much less see Harry on a stage by himself. He had to fucking think again, then. Harry had made it, and he had made it without Louis.

It had been the first time ever in his life that he had gone onto a stage without a single drop of fear in his body. Harry had been so set on proving Louis that his presence didn’t affect him one single bit, that he had completely forgotten about being nervous.

He had just wanted to show how good he had become, how good he was without Louis.

He turned when he heard the door open and something inside him froze as he saw Louis come into the toilet. He had his hands in his pockets and his expression was a lot calmer than before. He looked good in the dark jeans and dress shoes, a white t-shirt beneath his blazer.

He looked like he was straight out of a magazine. It suddenly made Harry feel angry.

"Hi," Louis said quietly.

And how dare he? Harry gritted his teeth, turning to throw away the used paper tissues. How dare Louis greet him like that, out of all greetings he could have chosen?

"What do you want, Louis?" Harry asked, trying to level his tone. He turned back around, arching a brow.

"Just wanna talk to you for a sec," Louis answered. He looked sheepish, withdrawn and insecure.

"I don't think I have much to say to you, actually," Harry pointed out, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

"Really?" Louis asked quietly, approaching him. "I think there's a lot to say."

"I can summarise it real quick for you, if you want," Harry offered. He noticed the shock in Louis' eyes, briefly, before he schooled his expression back into that calm look. Good, Harry thought. "You told me you loved me and wanted to be in a band with me. You decided that no, you were not in love and fucked me over for a new, better band. I’ve cut my path without you. End of story."

Louis propped his hip against one of the basins. "You know that's not all there is. You need to know---"

"I don't need to know anything," Harry cut him short. "I think I know all there is to know."

"Harry," Louis said, drawing out the name impatiently. "Listen."

"I don't want to listen to you." Harry looked Louis over from head to toe. "What do you want? I don't even know you."

"I'm still the same---"

"I’m not." The words ripped into Louis', harshly echoing off the tiles. "I am not the same boy, Louis. I am not the boy anymore who couldn't be without you, and who was afraid of a world without you by my side. I stopped being that boy, and I'm rather happy with the way it is now. Without you. I don't miss you."

Louis stared at him for a long moment. "Don't you want an explanation?"

"No." Harry shook his head. "I didn't need it back then and I don't need it now. You decided I wasn't good enough for you, or your career. What's there to explain?" Harry tried to hold back, tried not to say all the things he had wanted to tell Louis since he had left. Each and every one was hurtful, and Harry wanted to be over the pain. He just wanted to forget it all.

Louis nodded briefly, and silence settled between them. Harry could hear water running somewhere behind the walls.

"I'm sorry, Haz," Louis said then, so quiet Harry could barely hear it.

And yet, it was everything Harry could hear, taking over his mind, sending a shiver down his spine. He knew there was no going back in that moment. "You know what?" he asked, almost not recognising his own voice. It had dropped to an ice-cold level.

Louis didn't seem to suspect anything as he watched Harry with hopeful eyes.

"Fuck you," Harry hissed out. "Fuck you and your apology. You don't even have a right to feel sorry, or to feel anything about me at all. You fucked me over in every possible way, and you never once bothered to apologise. You never bothered to think twice about me when you made your choice. You might just as well have gone off to fuck another boy behind my back. It wouldn't have been any different."

Louis gasped, opening his mouth to speak up.

"You would have never? Yeah, think again, Louis." Harry pushed out a dry laugh. "You didn't have a problem getting rid of me like you'd get rid of an annoying pet. You found something better, and that was it. And you did it behind my back -- I don't know what you would call that, other than betrayal."

"It was a chance," Louis protested. "I couldn't refuse it."

Maybe Louis hadn’t lied when he had said he was still the same as three years ago. Harry had thought Louis had moved on on his own terms, but apparently, he still didn’t understand more than he had back then.

As if it was about his fucking career.

"I'm not saying you had to refuse it." Harry shook his head, running a palm over his face. "It's about promises you made to me that you didn't even think about before breaking them. Was there really no other solution in your mind than going behind my back? Did you have that little trust in me?" He didn't even wait for Louis' answer, because Harry knew, he knew the answers to every question he ever had about Louis. "No, you fucking didn't trust me at all. You just screwed me over -- and Niall, both of us -- because we weren't good enough for you."

Louis stared at him, the calm, professional expression from earlier gone. Better, Harry thought. It was getting better.

"If you've listened to any of the songs I---"

"You can shove those up your arse, Louis," Harry told him dryly. "Your songs about fucking snow and bloody regrets and first loves that didn't go right? It's your fault it didn't go right. You are the only one to blame for that. I don't wanna hear them." Snorting deprecatingly, Harry shot Louis a cold look, saw him shrinking even further under Harry's gaze. "What a fucking hypocrite you are. You decided to leave, and you decided that you didn't love me. Stop whining about it. It's pathetic."

All colour drained from Louis' face, and Harry knew he should stop. He couldn't, though, couldn't stop the words from coming out.

"You're not writing those songs for me," Harry pointed out. "You write them for yourself, because you pity yourself. You know what? Fuck you for that too. You have absolutely no reason to pity yourself. You made that decision for yourself, because you thought you couldn't have both. Well, Louis, you made your choice, so get over it."

Louis lowered his gaze, apparently shocked into complete silence. His lashes threw long shadows over his face, and for a moment Harry felt the urge to pull him into his arms. He looked so small, so vulnerable, and lost.

Not your boy, Harry reminded himself, fisting his hands. He didn't know the boy standing in front of him.

Harry had to end this, hand to make a clean cut to set both of them free from that past. He never wanted to be reminded of the pain again. He wanted to finally store it away in a corner of his heart and never have to open that part again.

"I got it removed," he said into the quiet of the room.

Louis looked up, confusion in his eyes.

Harry tapped his left biceps with one finger. "The tattoo. I got it removed."

Louis' mouth fell open and he gaped at Harry. His hand automatically came up to curl his fingers over his own arm, where Harry knew the Oops! was hidden under the sleeve of his blazer.

It was a lie, but seeing the hurt look in Louis' eyes gave Harry an odd feeling of satisfaction.

"You cut me from your life so easily, Louis," Harry murmured. "I've completely cut you from mine."

Louis looked like he was going to say something, but instead he lowered his head again, fingers digging into the sleeve.

"I'm saying this once, so you better listen." Taking a deep breath, Harry straightened. "I don't need you. I came all this way without you, and I'll go farther. Don't you fucking dare interfere in any way. I don't want to hear from you or see you ever again."

Louis' mouth formed a thin line, Harry could see him clench his jaw, but he still nodded tightly.

Without another word or glance at him, Harry walked past Louis, leaving him behind.

+++

"Louis?"

He raised his head, turning from staring at the toilet stall wall to the door. He heard steps approaching, a light knock on the door.

"Are you in there?"

Closing his eyes, Louis ignored the voice. He couldn't even place it -- one of the security people, but which one?

"Louis?" The man asked again. "Are you okay?"

What a question. Nothing was okay. Louis had gone through the worst scene of his entire life, had got his heart ripped out of his chest and trampled on it until every fibre of it had been left aching. Harry had thrown everything Louis had ever regretted in his life at him, had ripped open every wound of the past, reminding him what scum he really was. He had been pushed over without mercy.  

No, of course he was not okay.

Louis buried his face in his hands, groaning. This had gone completely differently from how he had expected it would go.

Harry had driven the message home by pretending not to recognise Louis -- he had understood that Harry was over it, that Harry had moved on. Louis had too. Or so he had thought. Seeing Harry on stage, singing songs about a life that didn't involve Louis, owning the stage all by himself -- Louis had grasped it then.

Harry was doing well, Harry had made it on his own. Without Louis.

He had thought that it meant they could face each other, bury that past and move on. He had been so sure about it, the feeling of finally getting to put that guilty conscience to peace, making him calm and confident.

Instead, Harry had ripped every wound open and had dragged out every one of Louis' fears and regrets. He had made sure it would sting, that it would leave Louis hurting as much as Harry had hurt. Louis bit his lip, trying to hold in the tears.

He wouldn't fucking cry.

"Louis?" The guy asked again, and reminded Louis that he wasn't alone. "What's going on? Are you in pain?"

Fucking pain, indeed, Louis thought. It was so painful he couldn't even move. His head was throbbing, and his stomach was in knots, making him feel sick. His lungs were hurting, his breathing laboured, and his heart felt clenched, every beat painful.

Harry had been right. Every word he had said had been true -- and Louis had known it from the day he had left, had always known it, but had never had the balls to admit it to himself.

He was the fucking worst, and he had screwed up, fucked up the one thing he had been certain of in life. Instead of properly cherishing their relationship, he had kicked it, hadn't even realised how special they had been.

I don't miss you .

Louis stared at the tiled floor, feeling completely drained. Harry didn't miss a single thing about them, didn't think back to those days and miss how they had fit together, or how they had whispered in the dark, what they had experienced and what they had told only each other.

Harry didn't miss a thing about that past, probably looked back at everything with a bitter feeling inside his chest. Why wouldn't he? Louis had fucked it up, had robbed it of every meaning for Harry.

The knocking on the door got louder and louder, someone repeating his name over and over. Louis stared blankly ahead, at the door pounding. He blinked slowly, flexing his fingers against his thighs before he got up and opened it.

"Louis, what the fuck?"

He stared at the man in front of him. Daniel, Louis thought, placing the face. Right, the name was Daniel, and he had joined their security team just a few weeks ago. Poor sod -- he was the newbie and had to do the job on a Saturday night. Certainly, he'd rather be home with his wife and son. Daniel's son had turned three this year, Louis remembered.

"Louis?" Daniel asked. "Are you okay?"

"No," Louis said blankly.

"I'll get you home, then," Daniel offered without further questions, leading him to the door. "Try not to show it, yeah? Act normal."

Normal, Louis thought, following Daniel on numb feet. He didn't even see where he was going, gaze fixed on the floor. Nothing was normal anymore -- how was he supposed to go back to his normal life?

Somehow, he had always believed that if he ever met Harry again, things would magically work out. In a corner of his mind he had always known it wouldn't, but he had reassured himself that he could make it up to Harry if he just got the chance.

He couldn't.

Louis raised his head when he suddenly found himself outside. A car pulled up in front of him and Daniel opened the door for him. They were in a small street, the ground wet, the air chilly. Louis slid into the car, curling up on the back seat.

He would have to live like this forever -- He wouldn't get to talk himself out of this one. Harry had laid it out for him, every single bit, every nuance of how Louis had ruined what they had shared.

Harry hated him -- no, he despised him, which was so much worse than hate could ever be. Harry wouldn't ever forgive him, or give him another chance to make up for what Louis had done to him.

He stroked his thumb over his tattoo, thinking of the look on Harry’s face when he had said he had got his removed. Although he hadn't met Harry in three years, had only had him in dreams and memories, Louis had always felt connected to him by that tattoo. Knowing that connection was gone felt like losing Harry all over again.

Only, this time around, it cut much deeper than the first time.

 

Chapter Text

"You should reconsider the popstar thing," Ed pointed out, gesturing at Harry's chest. "You'd make for a good model, mate."

Harry laughed. "I think I'm good. But thanks."

Niall ran a finger over the fancy grey t-shirt. It had a low-cut collar, exposing Harry's collarbones, and the light fabric pooled on his hips. The sleeves ended just above his elbows, and one constantly slipped off his shoulder. Perrie had painted his nails black, insisting that it was an important detail the look couldn’t work without, and that people would notice.

"It actually matches the headband," Niall pointed out.

"That's the idea behind it," Harry told him, touching the band holding back his hair. It was made of the same fabric as the shirt, laced with another one that had tiny skull patterns.

All of them turned when Perrie joined them. Her cheeks were flushed, eyes bright and grin so wide, it split her face in two.

"You did so well, Haz," she cooed, going in for a hug. "Thank you so much."

Harry wound his arms around her shoulders, holding her close. "Anything for you, babes."

She sighed happily, drawing back to turn to Niall and Ed. "Thank you guys for coming," she said before giving both of them a hug too. "I'm really happy you could make it."

It had been her first solo show, and she had been preparing for it for months now. Harry was partly glad it was over, partly afraid of what would come next. When Perrie had asked him a few weeks ago to be the model for her final piece, Harry hadn’t thought he'd have to do more than show up and walk onto stage for a few minutes. He should have given it more thought before he had said yes.

Between the gigs Niall had scheduled for him, playing festivals and going to meetings with actual music labels, Harry had done nothing else but help Perrie prepare for this day.

It was a relief that everything had gone smoothly.

On top of that, Harry had been too busy to even think about Louis once -- at least not during the day. He had always wished for an opportunity to say all the things he hadn’t got to say three years ago. Now that they had all been said, however, Harry didn't feel the satisfaction he had thought he would.

Closure, he had wanted closure. Instead, when he closed his eyes every night since then, he saw the pain in Louis’ eyes, his lost, small figure in that cold bathroom, all hunched in on himself. Although Harry knew that Louis deserved it, had deserved every single word, he didn't cope well with hurting people. Not even the people he couldn’t stand.

Harry had never been good at confrontations. Back in school, Louis had done that for him, and when Louis had been gone, Harry had simply avoided them most of the time. Whenever he had got into a confrontation with someone else, Harry had felt bad about it until it could have been resolved.

There wouldn't be a chance to resolve things with Louis. There was nothing to resolve.

"Earth to Harry," Niall said loudly, shaking him gently. "You're in there?"

Harry blinked, looking from Niall to Perrie. "Sorry. Yes, of course."

"I have to stay a little longer and help get everything back in order." Perrie gestured behind herself.

"Anything we can help with?" Ed asked immediately.

She smiled at him, shaking her head. "I don't think, no."

Harry tugged at the shirt he was still wearing. "Where can I get changed?"

Gently, Perrie put a hand on top of his. "Leave it on. It's yours."

"But---"

"I want you to keep it. I made it with you in mind after all." She patted his hand softly. "I'll bring your other shirt back home later."

Harry smiled, taking her hand into his for a moment. "Thanks."

"You guys gonna head home?" Perrie asked, eyeing Ed and Niall.

"I thought we could stop by Tesco's on the way," Harry suggested. He turned to Niall, when they started walking. "You call up Babs to come over, and I'll make dinner. To celebrate."

Perrie beamed. "I'd love that!"

"Okay, so you get finished here, and meet us back home later?"

"Deal," Perrie agreed, squeezing Harry's arm. "Make it something spicy. You know I love spicy food."

Harry kissed her temple and hummed. "See you in a bit."

+++

"What's so funny?" Harry asked, several hours later, sitting at their kitchen table, hands folded over his stomach. Niall was sitting across from him and he apparently couldn't stop giggling. "What are you laughing about?"

Niall gasped for air, wiping at his eyes. "Just," he managed to get out and set down his glass on the table. "You're so dumb, Harry."

"Heeeey," Harry complained. "'M not."

Perrie shook her head, giving him a doubtful glance. "You think he wants to be just friends ?"

Harry shrugged, frowning a bit. "Well, he's not really making a move, is he?"

"Maybe it's about time you made a move," Barbara suggested.

"You're so thick, Haz," Niall told him, refilling his glass with more rum and what only looked like a dash of coke. "Obviously he wants to be more than friends."

Harry desperately turned to Ed for help, pouting his lips. This was not on him. He hadn't read Nick's signs wrong. Whenever they managed to meet up -- which wasn't very often, with both of them being pretty busy working -- Nick didn't give a single indicator that he wanted more than them casually hanging out. The occasional kissing seemed to be part of being casual, Harry had come to understand that, and to deal with it.

Ed smiled slightly, patting Harry's thigh. "Before you start to wonder what exactly he wants, you should probably make up your mind what it is that you want."

Perrie sighed, resting her chin on her hands. "There's a wise man, Harry."

Harry rolled his eyes. "I know what I want."

"If 'shag Nick Grimshaw' is on top of that list, problem's solved, mate," Niall pointed out. "I thought you were clear about that."

Perrie poked Harry's ribs. "Same. You've been weird ever since that BBC thing."

Niall laughed dryly, emptying his glass once again. "That's what Louis always does to him."

Harry froze, staring at Niall, and it only took a moment before Niall stared back at him, looking caught. He glanced at Ed and Perrie, biting his lip.

"Fuck, Haz," Niall started, trailing off with an apologetic look.

"Perrie knows anyway," Harry said, feeling oddly calm. He felt everyone else staring at him.

"About you and Louis Tomlinson?" Ed asked, sounding not too fazed.

Harry turned to him, confused. "How...?"

"Niall told me you used to be an item," Ed said. "Months ago, when he was drunk."

Harry turned to Niall, raising a brow and giving him an unimpressed look.

"He told me, too," Barbara supplied, looking guilty. "In Niall's defence, he wasn't drunk when he did."

"So, you guys knew all this time?" Harry looked between Barbara and Ed, feeling a little lost.

"Yeah," Ed answered lamely. He shrugged then. "It didn't make a difference, though. So he was your boyfriend couple years ago. You've got nothing to do with him anymore, do you?"

Lowering his head, Harry nodded. "He's obviously moved into a different league."

Perrie reached out to touch Harry's elbow. "So you saw him at that BBC event?"

Glancing at Niall, Harry shifted in his chair. "Briefly."

Niall snorted. "Should have seen him. I had a first class front seat during Harry's little act."

"What do you mean?" Perrie asked.

Harry noticed Barbara giving him a little smile, suspecting she had heard the story before, when Niall went on. "He walked over to them -- like, Escapade, of course -- and acted as though he had never met any of them before. Shaking hands politely, being all coy about their talent. Louis looked like a train had hit him. I almost felt sorry for him."

Perrie gasped, staring at Harry. "You just pretended not to know him?"

Shrugging, Harry leaned in to refill his own glass. He had no idea how the conversation had shifted to Louis so suddenly. It made him crave a drink. "Anything else would have made me look weak."

"And he just let you get away with it?" Ed wanted to know. "That makes him look like a coward, actually."

Harry looked at him for a moment before he mustered up an answer. "No," he said slowly. "No. He didn't just let me get away with that."

Niall gaped. "What?"

Taking a sip from his rum and coke mix, Harry fixed his gaze on the table. "After my gig, I went to the loo, and he followed me there."

"What did he say?" Perrie asked, voice hushed.

Harry shrugged. "Not much. I kinda--" He swallowed thickly. "Snapped."

For a moment, it was silent, some of the noises from outside trickling through the open window. Harry remembered seeing a group of kids playing footie on the pitch in front of the house earlier. They yelled and laughed, their voices carrying over.

He knew they expected him to go on.

"I told him everything I didn't get to say back then. I told him that I'm over him, and that I really don't appreciate his songs. That I hate his guts, basically. For what he did back then." Taking a shaky breath, he looked up, finding Niall's gaze. "I made sure he knew that I have moved on."

"So you had a go at him?" Perrie asked.

"I think so. I don't think he expected me to still be angry." Harry thought of how Louis' jaw had gone slack, his blue eyes turning grey in shock. "He looked a little shocked."

"Obviously," Ed said. "If he knows you at least a bit, he'd know that you don't just have an angry go at anyone."

Harry clenched his jaw. "He doesn't know me."

Ed gave him a quick smile, but he didn't say anymore about it.

"And now?" Niall asked. "You feel any better about it?"

Harry sighed, but then forced a nod. "Yes. I think I'm really over it now. He's been an arse, and he was wrong to go behind my back like he did. I feel much better, now that I've told him. Got it off my chest, you know?"

"And if you met him now?" Perrie put up one foot, resting her chin on her knee, as she looked at Harry. "Would it not hurt anymore?"

Harry shook his head. "No, absolutely not. I've said everything I had to say. He can't hurt me anymore."

Perrie smiled, reaching out to caress Harry's cheek. "That's good, Haz. I'm happy for you."

"We have to drink to that," Barbara announced, refilling their glasses. "It's a huge step, isn't it?"

It was, Harry thought. He hadn't realised it himself up until now, but it was a huge step. For three years he had been hurting, had kept on hurting over everything Louis had done to him. He wasn't hurting anymore, the pain gone with the moment he had seen the regret in Louis' eyes.

There was no going back, all of it was in the past now, everything he had ever had with Louis. None of it was part of the present, none of it still held any meaning for Harry's life. He was done and over with that.

Harry smiled, gulping down his drink and trying to chase away the bitter taste on his tongue.

+++

"Zayn, let's go out?"

Zayn looked up from his Kindle, giving Louis an irritated look. "I'm staying in tonight."

Pouting, Louis walked into the room, closing the door behind himself. Zayn's bed was neatly made, looking untouched, as Zayn sat in a chair by the window. Louis dropped down onto the duvet, burying his face in the soft pillow.

"You just can't stand a neat room, can you?" Zayn absently asked, not raising his look from the device in his hand.

"Why does no one want to go out with me?" Louis groaned, rolling around, messing up the sheets.

"You've been going out in every city we've been to during the past two weeks, Lou," Zayn reminded him. "It's getting a little tiring."

"Just a few drinks, Zayn," Louis pleaded, staring at the ceiling. "It's our last night in Spain. Madrid's got the nicest clubs. We should go out."

Zayn sighed and put down his Kindle. "What's wrong, Lou? Have you even been sober once since we picked up the European tour again?"

Louis wondered about that. He'd been sober for too long, his nerves throbbing under his skin, his heart aching for something he couldn't reach, something he could never make undone. His mind was always in a place where pale light made Harry's face look stony and hard, his eyes dark and unreadable for Louis.

A place where the Harry in front of him was not his Harry.

"Hey," Zayn said gently, suddenly next to Louis. He leaned against the headboard and ran a hand through Louis' hair. "How about you call it an early one tonight?"

"I can't," Louis croaked. "Not gonna get any sleep."

"You can stay here," Zayn offered. "I’ll tell Liam to come over."

Louis nodded, the prospect of having both Liam and Zayn next to him quite comforting. "I'd like that."

Zayn grabbed his mobile from the bedside table, typing out a quick message. "You'll have to tell us, you know?" he said quietly while he typed. "You've been acting like a kicked puppy for two weeks straight."

Louis turned his face into the pillow again, closing his eyes. "You know, don't you?"

"It's about that blond guy, isn't it? Your friend from school who we met at that BBC thing?"

Louis was quiet, and before he had made up his mind about what he wanted to say, Liam came into the room by quietly opening the door. He wore jogging bottoms and a faded t-shirt, his short hair a little dishevelled.

Without a word, he came up to the bed and crawled in on Louis' other side. "Finally ready to talk about it?"

Louis rolled onto his side, facing Liam. "You guys could have said something."

"You didn't seem ready," Zayn pointed out.

"He didn't seem mad at you, Lou," Liam said, making himself comfortable. "He looked taken aback, maybe uncomfortable, but not angry or mad."

Niall hadn't, Louis thought when Zayn dropped his head onto Louis' shoulder. Niall hadn't looked mad. Harry on the other hand, had been very mad. And by pretending to not even recognise Louis, he had managed to get the message across. By letting his anger show when Louis had confronted him in the toilets, though, he had ripped Louis' heart into pieces. Achingly slow, cutting Louis up inch by inch.

He had probably deserved it.

"Things won't ever go back to the way they were," Louis said, closing his eyes. "I fucked it up, and we won't ever be the same again."

"Lou, you need to stop feeling guilty," Liam reminded him. "It's done, happened. You can't change what's done."

"I know," Louis sighed, nuzzling a little closer. "I just wish he knew how much I regret it, how much I would like to make it up to him."

"He was quite important to you, wasn't he?" Zayn murmured quietly.

Quite, Louis repeated in his head, thinking of Harry's body melting into his own, Harry's eyes lightening up whenever he had spotted Louis, of Harry biting his lip when Louis had grazed his knuckles over the bare skin under Harry's shirt.

Everything , Harry's voice echoed in his head.

"Yeah," Louis answered simply, keeping in the words that would describe just how important Harry had been. Liam and Zayn didn't know about him -- no one knew about Harry. Or what Harry had meant. They were talking about Niall; Louis had to focus on that. "He was an important friend."

"Don't get me wrong," Zayn added, keeping his voice low, one hand resting over Louis' waist. "But if he was that important, how could you even do something like that to him in the first place?"

That stung, made Louis curl in on himself. Usually, this would be the point for him to block them, to push them away, get angry and tell Zayn to shut it, that it was none of his business. Now, however, Louis didn't think he had the strength, didn't think he could put up a fight.

If he had been less of an selfish idiot, less of a blind and ignorant fool, he wouldn't have done it in the first place. He would have talked to them, both of them, to figure out what to do. Instead, Louis had thought he had figured it all by himself.

"Hey," Liam hushed him, pulling Louis into a warm embrace. "Fuck, Louis, this really gets to you, doesn't it?"

"What can we do to help?" Zayn asked, curling around his back.

"Make me less of an arse," Louis answered, his face buried against Liam's chest. "Turn back the time and make me talk to them."

Liam laughed a little. "You're not an arse. At least the Louis I know is not an arse."

"You can be, you know," Zayn pointed out. "When you glue my boots to my suitcase." He pressed a warm kiss to Louis' hair. "But for the really important stuff, you're never an arse. You may have failed them, but you never failed us. You never would."

Louis nodded, closing his eyes. He would never do anything to betray his friends -- he had learnt that lesson. He only wanted for Harry and Niall to know that too.

"Thanks," Louis murmured. "I'm sorry I've been so rubbish the past weeks. I'll pull myself together, yeah?"

"It’s alright," Liam told him. "You'll be fine. I promise."

Smiling slightly, Louis closed his eyes. "Can we stay like this? Just until I'm asleep?"

"Sure," Zayn assured him. "We'll be here."

When Louis woke up the next morning, his limbs felt stiff, his back cramped, but Liam and Zayn still lay as close as they had when he had fallen asleep.

+++

August ended with rain.

Harry left the bakery, looking up at the grey sky. The air felt warm on his skin, the cool raindrops a harsh contrast. He hurried down the street to the next tube station and shook out his hair when he had reached the bottom of the stairs.

Just what he had hoped to look like on his date, Harry thought when he caught his reflection in one of the train windows. Or, maybe-date. He wasn't exactly sure if he was headed for a date right now.

Nick had called the night before. It had been the first call in weeks, actually. They had texted sometimes, but other than that, they had both been too busy to meet up. Harry had been a little surprised that Nick hadn't yet forgotten him.

They had agreed to have dinner together today to catch up a bit. Harry wasn't sure if Nick would bring other friends, or if it would be just the two of them. Maybe he should have changed after work, since he didn't even know where they were going to have dinner.

He ran a hand through his hair again, pulling out his mobile phone. He had a message from Niall, telling him to enjoy the night, two emojis added at the end of the message, one winking, the other a fist. Harry decided not to ponder the meaning of the fist.

When he got off the tube, Nick waited at the top of the stairs, looking a little tired, but smiling. His hair was soaked, too, and he hadn’t bothered bringing an umbrella. It made Harry feel a lot better about the state his hair was in.

"Hey," he greeted Harry, pulling him into a warm hug. "Haven't seen you in ages."

Harry hugged him back. "Same, mate. It's been a while."

"Been busy?" Nick asked.

"Pretty busy, yeah," Harry agreed. "Good busy, though."

Nick hummed. "I reserved a table at an Indian restaurant. That alright with you?"

"Sure." Harry followed him.

At the restaurant, they were led to a small corner table, slightly hidden away from prying eyes. Harry opened the menu the waitress had handed him, averting his gaze from Nick's face. So this was a date. A casual one, but with only the two of them, it was definitely a date.

"So, popstar," Nick said with a smirk. "How was Glasgow?"

"Well, nothing like the Big Weekend," Harry answered. "Just a small folk festival, basically. But lots of great people to talk to. And stuff."

Grinning, Nick nodded. "And stuff. I see. Always so eloquent, young Harold."

"Shut up," Harry snorted through a laugh, kicking Nick's shin under the table.

"I was out with Rita the other day," Nick told him, kicking back. "She said her record label signed a new artist?"

Harry blushed, looking down at the table. Nick had arranged for Capitol Records to listen to some of Harry's demos and meet up with him. That meeting had gone pretty well. "I got the paperwork a few weeks ago. Niall went over it, to find any possible loopholes and stuff. We had it changed, just a bit."

"Cocky," Nick commented. "One would think you'd sign whatever is thrown your way at the prospect of finally making it."

Shrugging, Harry fell silent when the waitress came back to take their orders. He waited until she was gone before he picked up the conversation again.

"I've been thinking about it a lot. I don't just want to take a chance. I want to make it right." Harry took his glass, swirling the wine slightly.  "And I'm not doing it without Niall. It's a decision that will change my whole life, and I guess--" He stopped himself, pushing the images of a clear blue sky and Louis' calm, collected face from his mind. "I guess a rushed and hasty decision won't get me where I want to be."

Nick was quiet for a moment, his feet now stuck between Harry's, completely still. "You know," he said then, taking his own glass. "That's why you'll make it. They'll accept your conditions, I'm pretty sure they will, because they wouldn't want any other label to snag you away."

Harry blushed again, his cheeks feeling a little hot.

"So basically, you're signed," Nick noted, kicking his feet again to get Harry to look up at him.

Harry complied, biting his lip to hold back a grin. "Not officially, but once they send back the contract... Yes."

Nick beamed, reaching for Harry's hand. "That's so great, popstar. I feel so proud of myself."

Harry laughed. "Excuse me?"

"Well, basically, I discovered you." Nick gave him a cocky smirk. "The music industry can thank me for having such fine taste."

Harry squeezed Nick's hand as he laughed. "We'll see about that."

"You can thank me too, once you're a worldwide sensation. Remember my name when you're rich and famous, living in a fancy villa in Hollywood next to Justin Timberlake and Leonardo DiCaprio," Nick suggested. "Most importantly, remember my number, so you can give it to Leo."

"If things should ever end up that way, I will remember that," Harry promised. "Until then, you'll be the famous one."

Nick hummed. "Reminds me. There's this private-something-party this Friday. I forgot. Maybe a birthday? It's at Funky Buddha, and I can bring however many guests I like. You wanna join?"

Harry frowned a little, leaning back when their food was served. "Isn't that one of those high-prestige clubs? I don't think I can---"

"Hush," Nick cut him off. "You won't have to pay. It's a private party. I'd put your name on the guest list."

Harry nodded. "Yeah, sure. I'd like to come."

"Text me Niall and Perrie's full names later? I'll add them too." Nick smiled at the waitress, mumbling a thank you.

"Thanks, Nick," Harry told him once she was gone. "You know you don't have to do that."

"Not doing that for you, popstar," Nick answered. "I like to surround myself with cool people."

Harry smiled, and jumped slightly when his mobile went off in his pocket. "Crap," he cursed, pulling it out. "Speaking of the devil," he added upon seeing Niall's name flash on the display.

"Take it," Nick said, gesturing at the phone. "I don't mind."

"Sorry," Harry mumbled, answering the call. "Niall, texting worked perfectly fine before, didn't it?"

"Sorry, Haz," Niall answered. "But this can't wait. I know you're on a date with Nick, but you need to come home."

Harry's heart dropped to his stomach. "Did something happen?"

"I--" Niall sighed. "I can't do this on the phone, Harry."

"Is Perrie okay?"

Niall laughed slightly. "She's fine. It's about work. And pretty urgent."

Harry glanced at Nick who stared at him worriedly. "Yeah, okay. I'm on my way."

"What's wrong?" Nick asked as soon as Harry had hung up. "Everyone good?"

Harry shook his head. "I think it's about the contract, maybe? Niall sounded pretty tense."

Nick turned to gesture for the waitress. "I'll give you a ride home."

+++

While Sybil babbled on about the Australian leg of their tour, Louis kept checking his mobile. Aiden had sent him all important data on the band they had seen a week ago. They had been pretty good live, playing instruments, their front girl blessed with an amazing voice.

Louis was sure they were worth a shot. He'd have to talk to Liam about it, but for now he wanted to check the chances of getting them on tour as a support act in Asia.

Of course, Asia wasn't exactly the target group for a newcomer band, but fortunately, these days it didn't really matter anymore. It would be enough to give them a boost in Europe, at least, with fans recording the band's performances and putting them up on Youtube. The association with Escapade would do the rest.

When the meeting ended, Louis hung around, watching Liam and Zayn leave, too caught up in a conversation to notice that Louis wasn't behind them.

"Um, Sybil," Louis asked once the door was closed.

She turned, looking a little surprised to still see him there. "Louis. I didn't think you'd have any questions, given the fact that you didn't even listen."

Louis shrugged, giving her a careless grin. "It's not about the Australian part of the tour."

"What else is it, then?"

He walked over to the desk, tapping his fingers against the wood before he picked up a pen and turned it between his fingers. "Since we didn't sign a support act yet, I thought I could make a suggestion. I found this really amazing band from South London, and they---"

"Oh, that has been sorted already," Sybil commented, not looking up from the tablet in her hands.

"What?" Louis blinked. "Did you find a local artist?"

"Oh no, that was too much of a hassle, really. The Korean venue refused any Japanese acts, the Japanese refused any Chinese, and the Chinese refused both Korean and Japanese and were acting a bit picky when we suggested a Malaysian or Indonesian act. Didn't know Asians hate each other so much." She looked up, giving a helpless shrug. "But, well."

Louis stared at her, feeling slightly overwhelmed by that load of information. "Okay," he answered slowly. "Who did you get then?"

"Liam made a suggestion."

Louis blinked. "What?"

"Liam suggested an act. Said it was a young talent worth supporting, and after viewing some material, we agreed and sent out a request." She smiled at Louis. "I don't think they'll refuse; they'd be stupid to, but just in case you can leave me all information on your pick."

Frowning, Louis buried his hands in his pockets. Liam hadn't told him of any young potential acts he had discovered lately. Not that he had to, but usually Liam did.

"Who is the act?" Louis asked. "The one Liam suggested?"

"Um," Sybil shoved a few sheets of paper around, filing through them before she pulled one up. "Harry Styles."

Louis' heart dropped, his mind shut down, and without another word he rushed out of the room.

+++

"Liam!"

Louis pushed open the door and stormed into the studio where Zayn and Liam were sitting on the sofa and going over some songs for the new album.

They both looked startled when Louis approached them, and Louis didn't even stop for a second before he jumped on Liam, gripping the collar of his shirt.

"You fucking dick," Louis hissed, curling his hand into a fist. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

"Louis," Zayn gasped, gripping his arm. "Are you out of your mind?"

Liam stared into Louis' eyes, his own big and scared and Louis' face was close enough that he could feel Liam was holding his breath.

"I think Liam here is out of his bloody mind." He pushed Liam against the backrest of the sofa with one forceful move and climbed off. "I could beat you up. God, I really just want to beat you up."

Zayn stood up, looking between the two of them in confusion. "What the fuck is going on?"

Louis paced the room, running a hand through his hair. "Liam," he spat out, pointing accusingly, "sent out a request for Harry fucking Styles as a support act for our Asian tour."

For a moment, silence fell upon the room, Liam looking at Louis with a guilty expression, Zayn staring at Liam with wide eyes.

"You said you wanted a chance to make it up to Niall," Liam reminded him. "It's a massive chance for him, a boost for his act, which --- all he really needs, isn't it?"

Zayn breathed out heavily. "Fuck, Li. You didn't."

Liam looked confused, standing up, too. "What? If Louis had sent out the request, he would have rejected it straight away. But it came from me, and I made it clear that Louis had no doing in it. I wanted to do something for Lou," he added, shrugging. "I thought it'd be a good thing for both of you."

"Fuck." Louis stared at Liam for a whole ten seconds before he crouched down and buried his face in his hands. "Fuck," he simply repeated. There was no way out of that. By now, Niall would have already received that request, and would have told Harry about it.

Harry, who had told Louis to stay away.

"Oh Liam, you idiot," Zayn sighed, sounding tired. Louis raised his head to look at him. "It's not about Niall. It's about Harry."

"What?" Liam and Louis asked in unison.

"He was the third one, wasn't he?" Zayn asked. "And from the way you looked at him, he was more than just that."

Screw Zayn. Screw Zayn for always being so observant, Louis thought, burying his face in his hands again. He let go of a shaky breath. "Yeah."

"What?" Liam asked. "But he--" He fell silent and Louis heard a numb sound, assumed Liam had plopped down to the sofa again. "He didn't know you?"

"He pretended," Louis clarified, and saying it out loud hurt. He knew he had a lot of things to say out loud that would just rip further into him. "He pretended not to know me, because he's pretty pissed."

"So you two...?" Zayn asked.

"Were a couple, yes," Louis confirmed. "And I left him for--" He gestured up at them. "This."

"Fuck, Lou, that's fucked up," Liam commented.

"I know," Louis groaned, closing his eyes. "I bloody know that, Li."

"What exactly happened back then, Louis?" Zayn asked, sounding rather collected.

Louis swallowed thickly, sitting down and drawing his knees to his chest. "Can we make it the short version? Please don’t make me go through all of it."

Zayn nodded. "About time you told us, though."

"Well, in that case." Louis sighed, looking up at them, both sitting next to each other on the sofa again. "I met Harry when I was seventeen, after one miserable football training. It was snowing and he looked cold, so I sat with him for a while. He showed up for all of our training sessions and games afterwards, claiming it was because of Niall, but he always cheered loudest when I scored." Louis smiled slightly, shrugging. "Guess I couldn't help myself, he was just so lovely. I don't even know how it happened, but before I knew it, he was my boyfriend. No one knew, though. Except for Niall."

He looked at them, feeling bad seeing the sympathy on their faces. He didn’t deserve it, none of it.

“We formed a band, and we weren’t too bad. Niall’s ace at the guitar, and Harry---” he stopped himself, running a hand through his hair. “Well, you’ve heard him. After a year, we started applying to labels, small ones, but got rejected each time. Until I received an email from Syco. And that was it, basically.”

"Were you guys still together when we first met?" Liam asked.

Louis nodded. "Yes."

"That's a long time, Lou. What? Two years?"

"Roughly."

"And you just threw it away for this?" Zayn asked, baffled.

It sounded so wrong, and completely failed to describe what happened that day. Then again, it was an spot-on description.

"Basically," Louis answered.

"And now he's doing it on his own," Liam noticed. "Pretending you never existed in his life."

Louis put his forehead to his knees. "I wish he had kept it at that." He bit his lip, forcing himself to go on. "I followed him to the toilet."

"Oh, Lou," Zayn groaned. "That probably didn't end too well."

Louis shook his head. "He laid it all out for me. How much he hates me, how little respect he's got left for me, that he despises the songs I've written."

"You fucked him over for a career," Liam said, sighing. "Of course he would."

Louis lifted his head to look at them. It hurt, still hurt, although Louis had thought he had finally moved on from that, had shut Harry out of his heart to keep himself from further harm.

"He told me to stay away from him," he added, frightened of the reaction that had to come to Liam's request. "To stay out of his business."

"That doesn't look good for you, does it?" Liam asked.

"He's gonna be so pissed," Louis groaned.

"I'd like to say sorry," Zayn pointed out. "But you are aware that Liam would have never done that if you had just told us the whole truth?"

Louis nodded tightly, gritting his teeth.

"What are we gonna do now?" Liam asked after a moment.

"Wait for their answer, I guess," Zayn said. "I don't suppose either of them was very delighted to hear from us at all."

"What if they say yes?" Liam looked from Zayn to Louis.

"They won't," Louis answered. "There's no way Harry’s gonna say yes."

+++

"There is no way I’m gonna say yes," Harry spit out, pacing the kitchen.

Perrie was sitting by the window, drinking her tea and watching him pace. Niall was behind him, then next to him, stopping for a second, before he resumed following Harry through the room, trying to calm him down.

Harry was bloody calm. Just a little upset, maybe.

"Listen, Harry, I don't know what this is about, but the email says it's Liam Payne who suggested you after seeing you play at that BBC thing." Niall furiously waved a piece of paper in front of Harry's face, trying to get him to read it.

Harry had no intention of reading it. "And you wanna tell me Louis had no fucking clue about this?"

"It says he doesn't," Niall said sheepishly.

"Only an idiot would believe that, Niall," Harry told him, throwing his hands up. "What's he trying? To humiliate us?"

Niall sighed, biting his lip. "I don't know, Haz. Maybe it's some kind of payback?"

"What right does he have to be pissed?" Harry wanted to know. "He broke my heart, he fucked me over and when I tell him off for being such a dipshit, he fucking offers me to be his support act?"

Niall shrugged, looking clueless. "Apparently."  

"Harry," Perrie piped up from the other side of the room. Her feet were bare and her hair a little messy, her shorts showing off a lot of her creamy thighs. She looked completely unaffected. "I don't think he would. Maybe it's really just Liam wanting to give you a chance."

"In bloody Asia?" Harry laughed tiredly. "I should probably try and build a career here, first."

"Well," Niall butted in. "Playing in foreign countries is not exactly a disadvantage anymore. Youtube and Twitter would do the job. Your name associated with Escapade would do the trick, and get you attention worldwide."

Harry took the words like a punch to his gut. "Thank you, I'm not interested in being associated with that band," he forced out before he turned around to the door. "Tell them they can kindly fuck off and that I don't need them."

“You said you’re over it, Haz,” Niall reminded him. “Why are you making such a fuss about this?”

“I am over him,” Harry confirmed, opening the door. “I’m so fucking over that arse.”

"Harry," Niall and Perrie both said.

"I need some fresh air," Harry simply stated and was out the door before either of them could stop him.

With his blood pumping through his veins, boiling hot, Harry stormed onto the small footie pitch in front of the house, stopping when he spotted the billboard at the back of the field. It was almost dark by now, but a few lights illuminated the poster that showed a little girl, everything black and white, except for the bunch of colourful balloons she carried.

Love makes me strong , it read at the bottom, and for a moment, Harry just stood there, staring at the billboard.

He slumped down, falling to his back and staring up at the sky, trying to will down his anger. The sky was painted pink and orange at the edges of his vision, everything else a clear blue. A slight breeze tickled his skin, cooling down his blood.

He had promised himself not to let Louis unsettle him ever again, to just forget about him and move on. Apparently, though, Louis still had the power to get to Harry's head.

Forget about it, he told himself, closing his eyes. He would forget about it, not grant Louis a reaction at all. Everything he would get would be that kind rejection of the offer that Niall would type out. Not a word from Harry, not a proof of how upset he was about Louis trying to humiliate him.

While darkness swallowed the radiating blue of the sky, Harry breathed in the night air, trying to shut out every thought about Louis in the same way.

He tried until he fell asleep, dreaming of blue eyes that defeated any darkness.

+++

"Oh God, I should have picked the yellow dress," Perrie whined, clinging to Harry's arm. "I should have known!"

Harry patted her hand, rolling his eyes. "You look fine, Pez."

" Fine ?" She repeated, appalled. "Fine isn't nearly good enough."

"Purple suits you, love," Harry told her, looking her over again. In the dark light of the club, the light purple of her dress seemed almost white, making her stand out. "You look fabulous, and now stop it."

Nick laughed, putting an arm around Perrie's shoulders. "They're gonna be all over you, darling. Harry here will have to guard you all the time to make sure none of the bad boys make a move on you."

"Obviously not," she corrected him, stepping aside a bit to let go of Harry. "I don't need anyone to guard me."

"I can take care of myself," Harry mimicked her voice.

Perrie punched his arm.

"Ow," Harry whined, rubbing his biceps. "I was just joking."

"You, my dear, have been in a spoilt mood since Wednesday, and I'm not letting you take it out on me." She still patted his arm in a gentle manner.

"I'm not," Harry argued. "I've signed my record deal yesterday. I'm in the best mood."

Perrie lifted a brow, but didn't say anymore about it.

"Reminds me," Nick piped up. "Everything okay? About Wednesday?"

Harry blushed. "Ah, that. Yeah, it was nothing. Sorry about the fuss."

Nick shook his head. "It's fine. I'm glad everything's good." He raised his hand, obviously waving at someone behind Harry. "Excuse me for a second, yeah?"

"Sure, go ahead," Harry allowed, smiling.

"That's probably the last we've seen of him tonight, isn't it?" Perrie asked, gazing after Nick.

"I guess." Harry turned back around and spotted Niall making his way through to them. He had three pint glasses in his hands, managing not to spill a single drop.

"Damn, this space is packed." Niall set down the glasses on the table and slid onto the sofa. "What a hassle to get a pint."

Harry was about to answer when someone patted his shoulder to get his attention. He turned around with a smile, expecting Nick, and froze when he saw Liam.

His first instinct was to glance past him, checking for Louis, because if Liam was here, chances were that Louis was, too. Harry cursed himself inwardly for that reaction, focussing back on Liam.

"Hi," he said, almost drowned out by the music. "Sorry to disturb you guys."

"Um," Harry answered eloquently.

"It's okay," Niall took over for him.

"Could I talk to you for a second?" Liam already sat down across from Perrie. Harry felt her shift closer, her gaze fixed on Liam's face.

He noticed her, putting on a smile and extending his hand. "Hi, I'm Liam. I don’t think we met before."

Her eyes flickered to his hand before she leaned into Harry's side and brought her lips close to his ear. "Damn, he sent the wrong one to convince you."

Harry couldn't help but laugh at that, and Perrie took Liam's hand, introducing herself with a kind smile. Liam looked a little confused.

"Louis told me that it's very likely you got upset over my offer," Liam began, clasping his hands together. "I just wanted to tell you guys that it wasn't my intention to offend you in any way."

He looked earnest about it, brows furrowed in worry, lips a thin line. Harry didn't think it was acted. "Well," he said, shrugging.

"Look, I didn't know," Liam added quickly, before Harry could say anymore. "At least not about you." He turned his face to Niall. "We only recently found out about you, actually. And when we met you at the BBC event, I was quite impressed by Harry's talent, and I thought I'd give him a little push. And, in addition, a little push to your career, since Louis isn't really in any position to hand out opportunities to you guys."

"Blunt," Perrie commented.

Liam shrugged. "I think being honest is the only way to settle things here."

He had a point, Harry thought and adjusted his position. Liam was right that lies wouldn't help their case. He felt a sudden pang of sympathy for the boy in front of them, and that was quite irritating. He wasn't supposed to like any of Louis' new friends.

"And I mean it when I say you're very talented and deserve the chance," Liam went on when no one answered him. "I'd really like to have part in that, but I see why you wouldn't let me. The offer was genuine, though. I wouldn't have made it if I wasn't convinced that you're worth it."

Harry stared at him for several long seconds, not sure what to say. Perrie nudged him with her elbow, though, to remind him to speak.

"Um, thank you," Harry choked out, his throat feeling a little tight.

Liam smiled, looking satisfied. "Great. Thanks for listening, yeah?"

Harry nodded, giving Niall a helpless look when Liam stood up.

"Hey, how about we have a drink together?" Niall asked. "Come on, just one shot."

Liam beamed. "I'd like that, yes."

Harry watched them drift into the crowd, chatting away. That had probably not been a good idea, but Niall obviously took to him, and Harry could see why. He was brave, and honest and not afraid to speak his mind, apparently.

"That was awkward," Perrie commented.

"Sufficiently," Harry agreed.

"Funnily, though," Perrie added, frowning into her glass, "his reputation doesn't seem fake. I like him."

Harry sighed, thinking about leaving it uncommented. That would feel wrong, though. Especially after Liam had shown so much courage as to come up to them and talk about it honestly.

"Yeah, me too," he admitted, leaning against the backrest of the sofa.

"Still wish it had been Zayn," Perrie mumbled.

Harry pulled her against his side, laughing and feeling a lot lighter.

+++

Louis watched the crowd on the dance floor, sipping his cocktail. He had managed to escape his last conversation, pretending to go for a wee. He was watching Nick Grimshaw from his corner behind the bar, wondering if that prick still had his hands all over Harry.

Liam had fucked off pretty soon after they had come here, and Louis wished Zayn had tagged along after all. Or that he himself had decided to stay home, just like Zayn had.

When he spotted Liam in the crowd, he perked up, about to wave him over, but saw Niall behind Liam just in time to stop his motions. Louis lowered his hand, frowning at the scene in front of him.

Liam leaned over the counter, holding up two fingers and turned back to Niall. They were chatting, looking relaxed around each other. Louis had assumed that Niall would stick to Harry's side, being angry at them for sending out that offer for Harry. Instead, Niall looked as cheerful as ever.

It seemed he hadn't changed a single bit since three years ago.

Niall wasn't the kind of person to hold grudges, or to blame anyone for someone else's mistakes. Liam had done nothing wrong, and Niall would be the first person to understand that and see Liam for who he was, not as one of Louis' allies, the way Harry probably thought of Liam.

A wave of affection rolled over Louis, the realisation of how great Niall really was, and that he had lost such a good friend when he had left three years ago.

He should have never given up on them.

Liam spotted him when he turned back to the bar, his head slightly tilted, and he turned to Niall, leaning close and gesturing towards Louis. Niall's gaze found him and his cheerful expression faltered a little.

A moment later, they walked over to him, and Liam threw an arm around his shoulders, squeezing him. "Hey mopey."

Louis poked Liam's side. "Bugger off."

"Be friendly, I brought a guest," Liam scolded him, pulling him a little closer.

"I can see that," Louis mumbled, glancing at Niall. "Hi."

Niall cleared his throat. "Yeah, hi."

Liam let go and put his arms on the table, glancing from one to the other. "I'll leave you to it for a minute and get us drinks, yeah?"

Louis threw Liam a desperate look, trying to make him understand that he couldn't just leave Louis alone in this, but Liam pretended not to see and went off. Slowly, Louis turned his gaze back to Niall, biting his lip.

They were both quiet for a few moments, then Niall said, "Harry's here, too."

Louis nodded, feeling his heart rate pick up speed. "I figured."

"He's pretty mad about the offer," Niall added, sounding tense.

"I--" Louis lifted his head, knowing there was no use in denying anything, or explaining himself. Niall probably already knew, could see it in the way Louis acted. "I'm sorry, Niall."

Niall sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Yeah, I guess you are. I mean, you look it." He held Louis' eyes with his. "I'm not so mad at you on my behalf, Louis. Harry's been a complete mess."

Louis broke the eye contact, glancing away. "I know."

"I don't think you do, Lou," Niall corrected. "He used to worshipped the ground you've walked on. You dropped him like a hot potato once you had a better offer." Niall was quiet for a moment, as if he was waiting for a comeback. Louis didn't think he could find his voice. "You remember what you told me at the train station?"

Louis nodded.

"I took care of him, you know? You told me to look after him and make sure he would be okay. I did. And I will keep doing exactly that." Niall took a deep breath, apparently still waiting for Louis to say something. "You asked me to take his side, and I did. No matter what he says, Lou, he's not okay, not even close to okay, and that's why I will keep taking his side in this."

"I want you to," Louis choked out. "I fucked you over the way I fucked him over, so there wouldn't be any reason for you to take my side."

"It's been three years, Louis," Niall reminded him. "Life's gone on for me, and I certainly got over it. I never really wanted to be in the spotlight anyway."

"That doesn't erase me betraying you," Louis pointed out.

"It doesn't," Niall agreed. "But it's easier for me to move on, to forget about it and think back of our friendship as something good. We had a wicked time, mate."

Louis felt a smile tug on his lips. "Yeah, we had."

Niall shrugged. "I wasn't the one completely attached to you, investing my heart into you, though," he told Louis, looking worried. "I felt betrayed, but I got over it once I grasped what exactly you had been offered. You picked a shit way to handle it, but I can't blame you for taking that opportunity."

Those words felt like a warm blanket, a soft caress on Louis' wounded heart. It was more than he had ever expected to hear from Niall.

"Thank you." He wasn't sure Niall could even hear him, his voice too weak to raise over the music.

Niall shrugged, glancing up when Liam came back with drinks. He lifted a brow. "You guys okay?"

Louis looked up, staring at Niall, unsure what to say. Were they okay? Was there a way that they'd ever be okay again?

"Kinda," Niall answered for him.

"Well, it's a start," Liam noted. "How about we drink to that?"

"I'd never refuse a drink," Niall said, raising his glass. He clinked his to Liam's before taking a huge gulp. "Just for the record. As Harry's mate I'm not sure about the offer, but as his manager, I really want him to take it."

Liam pointed a finger at him. "You'd be a shit manager if you didn't."

Niall laughed at that. "In the end, it's up to him, though. It's a huge opportunity wasted, but I guess I can't force him. I wouldn't want to."

"What if I promise to leave him alone?" Louis asked.

"What?" Niall asked.

"It's a huge deal, a great opportunity," Louis repeated Niall's words. "I don't want to be the reason he's missing out on it again."

Liam put an arm around his waist, fingers gentle on Louis' hip.

"I haven't sent out the email rejecting the offer yet," Niall admitted.

Louis looked up. "You haven't?"

Niall shook his head. "It kinda hurts rejecting an offer like that. I was still hoping he'd change his mind."

"Is there?" Louis asked, leaning closer to Niall. "Is there any way to change his mind?"

For a second, Niall stared back at him wordlessly. "You know there is," he answered then. "Despite everything, you know how to press his buttons."

Louis bit his lip. "He'll hate me even more."

Niall smiled. "Don't think he could, Lou," he pointed out. "If you play your cards right, he'll tell me to accept the bloody offer before we'll leave this club tonight."

Louis pondered that for a moment, his mind occupied with the fact that Harry hated him so dearly -- hated him enough for Louis to use that as a base to manipulate Harry. He looked at Liam who blinked at him in confusion.

He had lost Harry already, there was nothing there he could lose by taking that step.

"Let's give it a shot," he decided, turning back to Niall.

Niall bit his lip. “You’re okay with that?”

“If it means he’ll make the right decision, I’m okay with it, yes.”

"Louis," Liam stopped him, curling his fingers around Louis' arm. "Did you think that through? If Harry was to accept, it won't just be about him. You'll have to spend a month around him, too." Liam looked worried. "Would you be okay with that?"

It was about Harry, Louis thought, shaking his head. Louis couldn't make this about himself -- couldn't think of how much it would hurt to have Harry around, so close, and not being able to be close .

"It's okay, Li," Louis assured him.

Niall turned around, gesturing to the other side of the room. "Let's go."

Louis swallowed thickly, keeping Liam close by his side, and followed Niall through the crowd.

+++

Harry looked absolutely stunning.

The grey t-shirt was cut so low, it showed off his collarbones, milky white skin, the shadow of the dip between his collarbones looking creamy. His hair was braided on one side, just a few strands that held it out of his face, making it resemble an undercut.

Louis had the urge to reach out and touch, run his fingers over Harry's neck, grip the hair at the back and comb through it.

He was laughing at something the girl plastered to his side had said. She had dark blond hair and wore a purple dress, her hand resting comfortably on Harry's thigh.

Louis' stomach clenched a little, and he wondered if Harry had come to some life-changing conclusions within the past three years. They looked good together, and Harry seemed protective of her, his arm loosely slung around her waist.

"We got you drinks," Niall announced, sitting down next to the girl.

Harry's gaze found Louis, and his expression turned sour. "What does he want?"

Niall reached over the girl -- who was quite frankly glaring at Louis -- to pat Harry's thigh. "Don't bare your teeth, Thor," he said calmly. "We're just having drinks."

Harry glanced at Niall, frowning slightly.

Louis took the moment to smile at the girl next to Harry. "Hi, I'm Louis. Nice to meet you."

Her lips formed a thin line and she shifted closer to Harry. "Yeah, I don't think so."

Niall rolled his eyes. "That's Perrie. Usually, she's a very lovely girl."

Play it cool , Louis reminded himself. He couldn't let them intimidate him. He had to put on a mask, and act arrogant, cocky to get what he wanted. He had to be the one intimidating Harry.

"She seems nice enough to me," Louis commented, gently pushing a glass in her direction. "Liam told me he talked to you," he said then, pointing his attention back to Harry.

"I don't think I told Liam to get you to join us," Harry said, ignoring the glass in front of him.

"Believe it or not, Liam makes decisions on his own." Louis shrugged, desperately wanting to reach out for Liam and burrow into his side. He trusted Niall on this, though -- he could push Harry to make the right decision for his career.

"Anyway," Niall butted in. "I thought we'd just have a drink together, since it was a misunderstanding and no one meant any harm."

Harry glanced at Niall before his gaze settled on Louis again. He looked uncertain, suspicious even. Maybe he sensed that something was wrong. Maybe Louis had to ease him into believing this.

"I had no idea, okay?" he said, feeling a lot better when letting his real emotions show. "Liam didn't tell me about it, otherwise I would have told him to leave it."

"I told you to stay out of my business," Harry reminded him, and his voice sounded firm, unaffected. He didn’t seem sympathetic at all. "Do you need a rerun of why I don't want you to meddle?"

Louis braced himself, lacing his fingers. "I remember, thanks. I'm not meddling with your business, though," he clarified, leaning back on the sofa he and Liam sat on. "I have better things to do, really."

Harry lifted a brow. "I suppose you do."

"So what is this?" Louis gestured at Harry. "You here, trying to gain ground in the music industry?"

"What do you think it is?" Harry countered, looking gradually more pissed. "I think you out of all people would know that I've been working towards this for years."

He did; Louis knew so well. "I thought I did, and you had just jumped on the bandwagon," he said casually, sipping from his drink. It hurt, seeing the irritation flash over Harry's face for a split second.

"Excuse me?"

Liam winced a little next to Louis, obviously intimidated by Harry's cold tone, but Louis tried to ignore it. He couldn't afford getting weak now. He gave an indifferent shrug, focussing his gaze on the table. "Just had the suspicion you're not actually here for yourself, but because of me."

Harry clenched his jaw, his brows furrowed. "Aren't you a bit full of yourself?"

"Aren't you ?" Louis shot back immediately. "You're trying to prove that you can make it on your own? You don't have to prove anything to me, Harry."

"I'm not trying to," Harry pointed out, and he was obviously trying not to let his anger shine through. Almost, Louis thought. He almost got him. "You're not relevant to me anymore, Louis."

It hurt, cut deep, but Louis could see that Harry was just as hurt by how Louis treated him. It made his heart flutter slightly, the realisation hitting him that he could only hurt Harry because he still mattered.

It didn’t mean anything, though, because Louis was about to crush it again, like he had crushed Harry caring for him before.

"I would believe that, but you've always been a shitty liar," Louis calmly stated. "You're afraid, just admit it."

Harry let go of Perrie and leaned forwards, his elbows on his knees. He arched a brow. "Do I look scared?"

Louis gave him a long stare, trying to keep his emotions at bay. He smirked. "Actually, no," he answered. "But I know you are, or else you wouldn't have refused the offer."

Harry's expression turned confused.

"If I didn't matter anymore, as you claimed, you wouldn't have declined it," Louis added. He kept holding Harry's gaze, making sure he would hear what Louis was about to say next. "But you did, because you're afraid you'd only end up in my bed again if you accepted."

Harry inhaled on a hiss. "I wouldn't give you the time of the day."

With a kind smile, Louis raised his glass. "We both know you would."

"That's enough," Perrie suddenly spoke up. "You’re disgusting. What an arse." She got up and grabbed Harry's hand. "You're not going to listen to any more of this. We're leaving."

Harry stared at Louis, looking entirely disgusted, and Louis found a glint of disappointment in his eyes. He averted his look to empty his drink. Perrie dragged Harry off, and Louis turned to Niall.

"Lou," Niall said. "He'll be so pissed when he finds out, but---" He cut himself off and got up, holding out a hand for Louis. "Thank you."

Louis took Niall's hand, meeting his eye. "Glad I could help."

When Niall dashed off, Louis turned to Liam who stared at him with a slack jaw.

"Who are you?"

Louis choked out a laugh. "Still the arse I was three years ago, apparently."

"When he finds out you and Niall played him to get him to agree, he'll just hate you even more."

Louis took Harry's unfinished drink, eying the liquid for a moment before he gulped down what was left of it. It left a burn in his throat, and a light feeling in his limbs. Niall's earlier words echoed through his head, and Louis knew that they were true.

"He couldn't hate me any more, Li," he murmured, looking into the empty glass. "It doesn't matter."

+++

"What a twat," Perrie fumed once they were outside, approaching a cab. "What an utter twat!"

Harry tried to keep his anger in, tried not to explode. Perrie was right -- Louis was a complete and utter twat. Apparently, fame had changed him into a heartless, arrogant dick.

"Harry!" he heard Niall call his name, and turned to him. Niall reached them, slightly out of breath. "That was--"

"We'll accept," Harry told him before Niall could even finish his sentence. "We'll fucking accept that offer and I'll show him just how over him I am."

Niall blinked in confusion.

"Harry, do you really think--"

Harry turned to Perrie, giving her a stern look. "I'm not gonna let him believe that. I'll kick his fucking arse."

Perrie bit her lip, but she nodded, apparently on board with the idea of kicking Louis in any way.

"Are you sure, Harry?" Niall asked.

Harry took a deep breath, opening the cab door. He stared at Niall, saw the doubt in his eyes. There was nothing doubtful about it -- he would show Louis how bloody little he cared about him and his fucking fame.

"That game's on."

---

Chapter Text

Harry turned his head at the sound of a light knock on his door, throwing the last shirt into his suitcase. He rose from the crouching position he had been in for the past fifteen minutes, trying to repack his things so everything would fit in.

"Finished packing?" Perrie asked, leaning against the doorframe.

"Think so," Harry answered. "It's strange having to pack for a whole month."

"And for, like, three different climate zones?"

Harry nodded and rocked back on his heels. "I'll send a postcard from every place."

"And bring souvenirs," Perrie reminded him. "I want something really cool from China."

"Hong Kong's not China, love," Harry corrected her.

Perrie rolled her eyes. "It's the same culture."

The ringing of the doorbell made both of them jump slightly, and Perrie frowned.

"Are you expecting anyone?" she asked.

Harry shook his head. "No. I wanted to go to bed early."

Perrie pressed the button to open the door downstairs. "Who could it be then?"

A minute later, Nick showed up at their door, slightly out of breath from climbing the stairs, apparently. He remained standing outside, gaze settling on Harry's face.

"Sorry for coming by unannounced," he said, shrugging.

"No," Harry immediately responded, shaking his head. "That's alright."

"Come in," Perrie offered and stepped aside, turning to Harry. "I'll be in my room, if you need me."

Nodding, Harry watched her go back into her own room. Nick took off his shoes and buried his hands in the pockets of his jeans, giving Harry a long stare. It made Harry feel uncomfortable.

"Um," he said, pointing behind himself in the direction of the kitchen table. "Tea?"

"Yes, thank you." Nick followed and sat down, still weirdly quiet.

Nervously, Harry started to prepare tea. He had no idea what this was about? Was this Nick coming to set the record straight between them before Harry went out of reach for a whole month? If it was, Harry had no idea how to react.

He had liked how things had played out between them recently. They had met up for dates a few times, had gone out with friends. Some nights, they had ended up kissing, sometimes full-on snogging. They had never talked about it, though. It had felt easy and uncomplicated to Harry -- they just kept each other company, enjoyed a good time together, a lovely friendship, no strings attached. Most importantly, no expectations.

Harry set a mug in front of Nick and took the seat across from him. He curled his fingers around his own mug, waiting for what Nick had to say.

Staring into his mug, Nick bit his lip, exhaling on a shaky breath. "I kissed Nicco."

Harry blinked, not quite sure how to react. "Um..."

Nick looked up, face scrunched up in distress. "I don't know what we are, Harry, or if we even are-- something. I don't know. But if we are, I'm not--" He fell silent, shaking his head. "I'm not two-timing or anything."

Leaning back in his chair, Harry breathed out slowly. "That's good."

Nick frowned, looking utterly lost.

"I mean," Harry added quickly. "You and Nicco. You always liked him, didn't you?"

Nick shrugged, lowering his gaze to the table. "I thought he never really looked at me like that."

Harry hummed, unsure how to answer. "So you tried to find someone else."

"Maybe," Nick said. "But I never meant to go behind your back. I just-- we never... you never let me--" He shrugged again, blushing.

"It's okay, you know?" Harry tilted his chest forwards, crossing his arms on the table. "It's not like we are anything exclusive. We're friends, aren't we?"

Nick nodded quickly. "But, like," he started, trailing off again.

"We kissed," Harry ended the sentence for him. "Snogged a few times."

"I just want to make sure it's not more than I thought it was," Nick admitted. "I want us to be on the same page about this."

Harry smiled slightly, reaching out to touch Nick's hand briefly; just a gentle caress of his knuckles against the back of Nick's hand.

"I have a few commitment issues," he said easily, trying to keep his tone light. "You may have noticed."

Nick's laugh was hollow. "I noticed."

"If you've been waiting for Nicco to come around, I'm definitely not gonna stand in your way, now that he has," Harry clarified.

Nick didn't seem happy with that. "That makes it look like I was only keeping you around, dropping you until I got a better offer."

No, Harry thought, it didn't. He knew what that felt like, and this didn't.

"Nick," he said calmly. "We've never talked about this. I never expected anything of you."

"But there was clearly something going on," Nick said. "And I want you to know that nothing happened while we were-- sort of-- you know."

Harry smiled. "Look, you can't even name what it was. It's okay." To gather his thoughts, Harry sipped his tea that was still too hot. "I'm glad that you came to talk to me, though."

Nick shrugged helplessly.

"We still can be friends, right?"

"Of course," Nick answered promptly. "I was hoping we could be."

Harry grinned, nodding. "So," he added then, grin turning into a smirk. "What happened with Nicco? How did you make him change his mind?"

Nick laughed a little, cheeks turning pink in embarrassment. "I have no idea. He showed up yesterday night, and he said all these... things."

"Good things?"

"Yeah," Nick answered. "Good things. And he kissed me before he left."

Harry drummed his fingers against his mug.  "That's good, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Nick answered. "I hope so. I really want things with him to work out. He's been it from the moment I met him."

Harry smiled. "Yeah, I know that feeling."

Nick lifted a brow. "Do you? If I have to be honest, you seem rather scared of the whole concept of falling in love."

"Maybe a little." Harry sipped his tea again, the hot liquid burning down his throat.

"Well, I hope that whoever broke your heart burns in hell for it," Nick stated dryly. "You're too sweet to suffer from heartbreak for the rest of your life."

Harry glanced up, finding Nick's expression serious, no trace of joking in his eyes. "I'm as good as over it."

Nick reached out to flick Harry's forehead. "Far from it, popstar."

"Shut up," Harry shot back with a laugh.

For a while, they sat in silence, both drinking their tea, occasionally looking at each other and exchanging small smiles.

"You've got everything packed?" Nick asked then.

Harry nodded. "Ready to leave in the morning."

"Time goes by quick," Nick mused. "Feels like yesterday that I saw you in that pub. Now you're off to tour with Escapade."

"You know them well?" Harry asked.

Nick shrugged. "I did some promo stuff with them. Interviews and such. They're okay."

"Okay?"

"Well." Nick drew out the word. "Liam is a nice bloke, quite chatty and easy to get along with. I have no idea what to make of Zayn. He's nice, but he doesn't engage with people, as it seems. He never plays along, really."

Harry hummed, heart beating a little faster. "What about Louis?"

"Dunno," Nick said, frowning. "You've surely met them by now? Don't you think he's a bit of a prick?"

Snorting, Harry set down his mug. "I haven't met them since the offer came in a few months ago, actually."

"So you have no idea who you'll be spending the next month with?"

Harry shook his head. "Not really, no."

"In that case," Nick warned him, "stay clear of Louis. That boy is trouble."

Harry frowned. "What do you mean?"

Nick pursed his lips. "Definitely a case of closeted celebrity, if you ask me. And he's not dealing well with it."

A rush went through Harry's body, and he couldn't stop the shiver. That was something he hadn't thought of yet -- Louis was still not out, still lying about who he really was. "How would that be my problem?"

"It doesn't have to be," Nick said. "Unless you end up shagging him."

Trying to will his hands to stop shaking, Harry lifted his mug again, drinking calmly. "I think we've just established that I don't sleep with people randomly."

"Decent people," Nick noted. "You're looking for decent people."

Harry nodded.

"Don't know why I didn't cut it," Nick added, mock-offended.

"You're far from decent," Harry giggled.

Nick gasped, clutching his chest. "That's it, I'm out of here."

When Nick got up, Harry followed, carrying the empty mugs to the sink. Nick put on his boots again before he shrugged on his coat.

"Take care, popstar. Text me sometimes, yeah?"

Harry nodded. "If I find the time."

Nick nudged Harry's shoulder playfully before he pulled him into a tight hug. Harry returned it immediately, hands coming around Nick's waist, his cheek resting on Nick's shoulder.

"See you in December."

Harry nodded, waving him off when Nick went to the top of the stairs.

He stood for a moment longer, listening to the quiet sound of steps on the stairs, echoing off the walls.

+++

"Everything okay?" Perrie asked when she came out of her room later.

Harry turned off the tab, grabbing a towel to dry off the mugs. "Hm," he hummed. "Looks like I just got dumped."

Perrie gasped. "What?"

"It's okay," Harry reassured her immediately, smiling in her direction. "He let me down easy, and I'm actually glad we talked about this before the tour."

"I always thought Nick was pretty into you," Perrie mused, opening a cupboard to store the mugs away.

"I think we were both a undecided about this," Harry explained. "I didn't know where I wanted it to go."

"You're not sad?"

Harry shrugged. "It's a strange feeling, really. It doesn't hurt, or anything. He handled it quite well."

Perrie smirked. "Did he, now?"

"I mean," Harry added, ignoring her expression. "He was honest about it, and he didn't want me to get the wrong idea. I don't think I ever had anyone treat me like that?"

Perrie bit her lip, grin dying down. "Was there even anyone who had the chance to treat you in any way? I mean after---"

"No," Harry said softly. "I never let anyone close enough. If Nick had wanted, though, he would have been able to break my heart, but he didn't."

Perrie hummed, standing still for a moment. Then she dove in, enveloping Harry in a hug. "It'll be lonely without you."

Harry laughed a little, shaking his head. "You'll be busy all the time. Don't bring different boys back every night."

Perrie pinched his arm. "As if."

Inhaling her scent, Harry closed his eyes. "Can I sleep in your room tonight?"

"Now look who's gonna be homesick within a week," Perrie teased him. "You won't survive without me for five days."

"It's probably true," Harry agreed quietly.

"Go, grab your duvet," Perrie said after a minute spent in comfortable silence, Harry gently swaying them. "I'm not gonna share mine with you."

Harry grinned, pressing a kiss to her cheek before he dashed off to his room.

+++

Jakarta was hot.

Louis ran the back of his hand over his forehead, his fringe already greasy from sweat. Louise, their stylist, came over every two minutes to fix their make-up and hair, cursing under her breath. An outside photo shoot had probably been a bad idea.

Louis just wanted to go back into the building where they had got ready for the shoot earlier, the rooms all cooled by air conditioning. It wasn't that he didn't like the hot temperatures -- he had always preferred summer over winter -- but this wasn't like summer in Britain. The air was humid, thick in his lungs and heavy on his skin.

"Okay, guys, that's it!" someone yelled, and Louis took the time to thank the crew and shake the photographer’s hand before he dashed inside, stripping off his damp t-shirt.

"Get changed," Marco instructed. "We'll take you back to the hotel in fifteen minutes."

Liam hopped on one leg, trying to shimmy out of his jeans. "I need about 5 hours in that pool."

Zayn laughed. "You'll be bored out of your mind within one, mate."

"I don't care." Liam shrugged. "I'd rather be bored than this ."  

"You're off tonight," Marco informed them. "So if you'd like to do that, you're free to."

Louis shrugged on a new t-shirt, certain it would be damp again by the time they arrived at the hotel. "Did you reserve a table for dinner?"

Marco nodded. "Yes. Five people, seven-thirty."

"Five?" Zayn asked.

"Your support artist and his manager arrived earlier today," Marco explained. "When I asked them if they was going out for dinner or wanted to stay in, they said they'd eat at the hotel. I figured you could just as well have dinner together."

Louis turned away, trying to hide his expression from Liam and Zayn. They would see the discomfort, would know how much it upset Louis.

It had been almost three months for Louis to get used to the idea of Harry joining them on tour, and yet that thought hadn't quite sunk in. He was going to see Harry every single day, and he would have to talk to him, actually interact with him -- Louis had no idea how.

"I can tell the restaurant to set up two tables?" Marco offered, since he had to notice the tension.

"No," Louis answered immediately. "It's fine. Perfect."

"Okay, get ready, the car is here." Marco left the room.

"Louis, you could have let Marco cancel that reservation," Liam said, putting a hand to Louis' elbow.

"I don't want him to think I'm avoiding him," Louis clarified.

Zayn nodded, approaching the door. "You can't avoid him, anyway. Cancelling the reservation would just have postponed it. So, better jump in there now and see how it turns out."

"Bad," Louis answered. "It will obviously turn out bad."

Liam's hand fell away when Louis made to leave the room.

"Just remember we'll be there too," Zayn reminded him when they went back outside.

+++

When Louis came to the restaurant for dinner, he found the table still empty. A waitress had led him to a table by the huge window overlooking the city. It was already dark outside, the city lights bright and colourful against the night.

Liam was first to join him, sitting down across from Louis. "I just heard soundcheck starts at nine tomorrow morning."

"Too early," Louis complained.

"Means we'll have to get up at seven," Liam calculated. "Considering the jetlag will kick in soon, I'd better go to bed early tonight."

Louis was about to answer when he spotted Niall and Harry come into the room together. Niall was wearing shorts and a faded t-shirt, talking to the waitress. Harry was standing behind him in his tight black jeans and a button-up that wasn't buttoned up much. It was gaping over Harry's chest, revealing pale skin and several necklaces.

Harry’s eyes immediately set on Louis and his jaw clenched, features turning from relaxed to tense.

When they both came over, Louis averted his gaze, trying to look unfazed.

"Didn't know we were going to share a table," Niall commented when he took the seat next to Liam.

Louis noticed Harry shooting Niall an appalled look before he sat down next to Louis. The chairs were so close, Louis could feel the warmth radiating off Harry. He smelt different from how Louis remembered him -- the slightly sweet, musky scent of the cologne Harry had used to spray onto his wrists and neck replaced by something much darker and heavier.

Louis' eyes darted to Harry's wrist, memories taking him back to all the times he had chased the scent there, lips pressing down onto Harry's pulse point.

"Is it a problem?" Liam asked innocently.

Niall shrugged, pointing at Harry and Louis across from them. "We know that it's not as much a problem for me as it probably is for these two."

"Don't throw food at each other," Liam warned, giving Louis a stern look.

"Why would I throw food at anyone?" Louis asked, frowning. "That's just stupid."

"You were always first to start a food fight," Niall commented.

Louis glanced at Harry and found him completely engrossed in reading the menu, apparently not even paying attention to them.

Zayn saved him from having to answer when he showed up at that moment, sitting down on Louis' other side at the head of the table.

"Sorry I'm late," he apologised, looking from Niall to Harry.

"Nothing new there," Louis commented.

"This is a nice opportunity to get to know each other a little, isn't it?" Liam asked, glancing around the table. "I mean, we'll be spending the next month together after all."

"I don't think it will be so hard to avoid each other, despite staying at the same hotels." Harry didn't even lift his head when he spoke.

Louis laced his fingers, looking at them closely and felt Zayn lean forwards next to him.

"Harry, right?" he asked.

Harry glanced up then, attention focussing on Zayn. He nodded briefly.

"I don't think I've talked to you much? Once, maybe?" Zayn's voice was calm. "I don't see why I would want to avoid you, or what I've done to have you avoid me."

Harry blushed, looking back at his menu.

"I get that you're maybe not comfortable around Louis, and I think every one of us here can respect that, but it wouldn't be fair extending that anger towards Liam and me," Zayn explained, knee bumping against Louis' under the table. His voice dropped a little when he added, "that's quite a dick move, really."

Biting his lip, Harry blushed. He sat up straight in his seat, stumbling over his own words. "That's not what I meant-- or thought."

Louis watched him, feeling his heart beat a little out of control. Harry still looked so young, still reacted exactly how he would have reacted three years ago. He looked flustered, a little guilty, and he was never too proud to admit a mistake and apologise. He would apologise.

"I'm sorry," Harry said, as if on cue.

"No harm done," Zayn replied easily. "Let's just try to make this not awkward, yeah?"

Nodding, Harry sat back in his chair, fidgeting with a page of the menu.

Zayn bumped their knees together again, and Louis turned his face, catching the small smile on Zayn's face. He had Louis' back; he wouldn't just sit by and watch Harry tearing Louis apart again. That message was clear.

Louis desperately wanted to hug him.

The waitress came to their table, asking for their orders and the tension eased off for a couple of minutes. They were all quiet when she left again, and Louis saw Liam opening his mouth a few times, always holding in the words, though. Eventually, he seemed to make up his mind.

"Louis said you'd been doing music yourself, Niall," Liam pointed out. "Why the change of mind?"

Shrugging, Niall sipped from his water. "It's just for fun, you know? I play my guitar and sing a bit, but I don't really write songs or want to perform on stage. I just like music."

"So you decided to work behind the scenes," Zayn noted.

"I think you know how much bullshit happens in this business," Niall said. "Judging from your success, you would have seen quite a bit already."

Liam and Zayn didn't react other than looking at Niall, so Louis took it upon himself to answer. "We've witnessed some of the bullshit, yes."

"That's what’s wrong with this business. It should be about the music, and nothing else." Niall glanced at Harry. "And I wanna prove that it's possible. An artist that sells just as well, without giving in to the media shenanigans."

"That'll be hard," Liam commented.

"If you have an artist who's genuinely talented, it's not," Niall argued. "And I just happen to have a genuinely talented artist."

Liam looked a little lost, Zayn doubtful and Louis didn't dare turn his face to Harry. He was very still next to Louis.

"You do," Louis agreed after a moment. "And I'm pretty sure you'll make it."

Niall smiled, no trace of relief on his face. He was pretty certain of what he was doing, sure of where he was headed. Louis admired him for his confidence.

"We don't really need your reassurance," Harry pointed out then, voice low. "So keep it."

"Wasn't meant as reassurance," Louis said, swallowing thickly under Harry's cold gaze. "Just my honest opinion."

Harry's laugh was hollow when he raised a brow. "Guess we should value the opinion of someone who's made it big, shouldn't we?"

Louis felt himself shrinking in his chair, feeling small under Harry's gaze. He didn't ever lose an argument, always had a witty comeback. Louis didn't show weakness in front of anyone, always had a way to find the right words to look in full control of every situation. Not with Harry, though; he couldn't fight back against Harry.

"I'm sure that's not how Louis meant it, Harry," Liam interfered.

Harry kept staring at Louis for a moment longer, then he turned away again. "Yeah, sure."

Bad, Louis thought, closing his eyes for second. He had thought this would go bad. It was heading towards miserable so far, completely spiralling out of control.

He really wasn’t looking forward to the upcoming month.

+++

If Louis had hoped for things to cool down a little overnight, that hope died completely when they watched Harry's soundcheck the next morning. He was bouncy on stage, goofing around with the technicians and singing with all his energy.

His voice was the first thing Louis had heard when entering the arena.

Harry had been on stage already, having arrived much earlier than Louis, Liam and Zayn. Niall had been busy with the soundcheck people, making sure they'd set everything up for Harry's voice to fill the hall in the best way possible.

He was singing a slow song, not exactly a ballad, and Louis identified it as a lullaby after listening for a few minutes.

"See, it's time to sleep," Harry ended the song on a low note, looking at Niall.

Niall gave him a thumbs-up before he shouted through the arena. "We'll check your guitar now."

Someone came on stage to hand it to Harry. He smiled politely, sitting down on the stool that stood behind him and adjusting the guitar on one knee.

"Just play a few chords," Niall instructed.

Harry started playing, looking completely relaxed and content with himself. The volume of his guitar changed a bit, sounding hollow in the arena for a moment before it echoed off the walls, filling up the space.

They kept going like that, a procedure Louis had gone through a million times and got bored of just thinking about having to endure later. Harry looked all excited about it, cheeks flushed and eyes bright.

After a while, he started singing again and Niall nodded at Harry to signal him to keep going while they fiddled with the sound. Louis shifted his weight from one foot to the other, noticing that he was suddenly standing all by himself.

Just when Louis had detached his eyes from Harry for a moment to check for Zayn and Liam, he heard Harry's voice falter a little, a hitched intake of breath, and the melody fading out.

Louis turned back, seeing Harry stare at him, the delight completely gone from his face. It was unbearable, the knowledge that Louis could rob Harry of all his happiness, that the only effect he had on Harry was to make him look bitter, sombre and uncomfortable.

Like so many times before, it made Louis feel helpless and cold because he had no idea how to change it.

"Harry, just keep playing," Niall instructed. He turned to Louis and gave him a look that clearly said leave .

Louis glanced back at Harry, finding him idly strumming his guitar, humming into the microphone and looking at Louis over and over again. It was as if he put up a guard, built a wall around himself to make Louis see as little as possible of him.

Ducking his head, Louis buried his hands in his pockets and turned to go to the backstage area outside of the main hall where Harry was playing.

+++

Harry woke up the next morning with an actual hangover, messed up sheets tangled around his body and a hollow feeling inside his chest.

After the gig, Niall had taken him straight to the hotel bar. Harry had wanted to go out, but Niall had insisted a few drinks at the bar were good enough. They'd celebrate properly when the tour was over.

"Maybe for the last gig you will also manage to walk on stage without having a mental breakdown beforehand," Niall had mused, swirling the bourbon coloured liquid in his glass.

After that, Harry had bought a bottle of vodka to take back to his room, and had made Niall do shots with him.

That was all he could remember. The bottle stood across from him on the table, empty and reeking of alcohol. Rolling out of bed, Harry groaned and walked over to the window to let in fresh air and clear some of the stench.

Niall wasn't there, so Harry assumed he had gone back to his own room sometime during the night or earlier this morning. Or noon, Harry noticed when he looked at his mobile and found that it was already two in the afternoon.

It didn't matter much; he was off for the day. Escapade was doing some promotional work, recording with TV and radio stations before they took off to Malaysia to spend another two days promoting there. That gave Harry time to prepare for the gigs and do some sightseeing with Niall.

Playing in front of an audience that big was something Harry had to get used to. It had been terrifying the day before when he had finally been able to bring himself to walk on stage. There had been mainly girls, looking a bit curious from what Harry had been able to see in the short moment before the lights had blinded him completely.

From then on, it had been only him and his guitar. He remembered talking in between songs, telling stories, laughter from the audience.

Niall had said it had gone well, that they had loved him. Harry wasn't so sure about that, but he was satisfied that he hadn't bored them for the time he had been on stage.

When he had come off the stage, Niall had been there, wrapping him up in a hug, yelling into his ear. Over his shoulder, Harry had caught Liam, Zayn and Louis looking at them. Louis had averted his gaze immediately, looking terribly uncomfortable, Zayn had given him a small smile and Liam had winked, giving a thumbs-up.

Frowning at the memory, Harry rolled over the crisp-white sheets, feeling hot, even though he was completely naked. Louis was behaving-- well, odd. Harry had never known him to be quiet and tense, to avoid an argument or fight.

There had never been a time when Louis had been present in Harry's life that he hadn't been his Louis. It wasn’t just that the Louis Harry got to observe here was not his Louis anymore, though.

He was a completely different person.

Harry rolled out of bed, sighing slightly and rubbing his forehead. He needed some painkillers and some water, and most definitely a shower. Rummaging through his suitcase he found the first aid kit Perrie had packed for him. It had been her farewell gift, as she had called it.

She had made the bag herself. The fabric she had picked was sky blue, patterned with dark green hearts. She had sewn a pink cross at the front and had filled the bag with what she had reckoned were the most important medicine. Mostly painkillers and stuff against mosquito bites.

Harry swallowed a pill and downed half of a water bottle afterwards, then he took a long, cold shower. By the time he was finally dressed and looking presentable, it was almost four.

He took the lift down to the lobby, deciding he would use the time before dinner to buy souvenirs and postcards. He had promised Perrie a postcard from every place, after all.

When the lift doors slid open, he spotted Louis, Liam and Zayn just walking into the lobby, all three of them laughing. Harry stayed by the lifts round a corner, watching them fall onto the sofa by reception. They couldn't see him from there.

"I can't believe she gave you her number," Liam was just saying, fanning his face with one hand.

"She probably thinks you guys can meet up for a slumber party and braid each other's hair and paint your nails." Zayn smirked.

Louis lifted a brow. "Obviously she would like a slumber party, yes. Not so sure about the braiding and nail polish, though."

"Come on, Louis, she must have noticed," Liam argued. "Those media people always notice."

"Do they notice before or after they ask me about girls?" Louis wanted to know, smirking cockily.

"They notice the moment you walk into the room, just like every person with a functioning brain." Liam made a strange gesture with his hand. "That wrist thing is not the manliest thing to do, you know?"

"We're in Indonesia, mate," Louis pointed out. "Maybe I come across as the extremely manly one here, while you guys are just ordinary."

Zayn snorted. "Have you seen me?"

Barking out a laugh, Louis pinched Zayn’s side and they started to wrestle each other, which led to them falling off the sofa. Liam watched, expression unimpressed.

"Guys, would you please pull yourselves together?" Their assistant rolled his eyes. Harry couldn't remember his name, but he was literally always around.

Louis poked out his tongue as soon as the guy turned back to reception and Liam started to snicker, mimicking him scolding them.

"We can go upstairs now, they cleared a conference room for us to meet some local business partners," their assistant informed them. "You have an hour to rest and change."

Harry's stomach dropped when he realised they were headed for the lifts. He quickly turned and pressed the button for the lift, the doors sliding open just in time to make it look like he had just come down.

"Oh. Hi Harry," Liam greeted him.

"Um, hi," Harry said back, forcing a smile.

Louis suddenly seemed very interested in the tiles on the floor, shifting to stand closer to Zayn, who watched Harry with wary eyes.

"Going out?" Liam asked.

"Yeah," Harry answered. "Thought I'd buy some souvenirs."  

Liam smiled, and it actually looked genuine. Harry hadn't figured him out yet. Zayn was easier, because Zayn clearly was on Louis' side, and while Harry was sure that Liam was on Louis' side just as much, he also seemed keen on getting along with Harry and Niall.

"Have fun, then," Liam said kindly. "See you later, I guess."

Harry glanced at Louis again and noticed every trace of the playful, giggly boy he had observed just minutes ago gone.

"See you." He stepped aside to make room for them to pass.

Their assistant had held the lift for them and Harry watched them get inside, Liam's hand brushing over the small of Louis' back, Zayn's shoulder touching Louis'. It looked completely casual, nothing out of line. Except for the fact that the Louis Harry had known had never accepted gestures of comfort from anyone, not in public.

Not even from Harry.

The doors closed and Harry kept looking at them, the hollow feeling in his chest from earlier this morning settling back in his chest.

It was pounding and gradually growing, eating him up from inside.

+++

"Haz!" Niall greeted him as he opened his door. "Thought you wanted to go shopping?"

Harry gave him a long look before he dashed past Niall into the room. He crossed his arms and turned back to Niall.

"Well," Niall said, looking a little confused as he closed the door. "I guess shopping's off the list. It's good you came by, actually. You wouldn't believe, there are seven videos up on Youtube from last night, and one of them has almost five-hundred likes already. More than a thousand clicks already!"

Harry felt excitement in his veins, wanted to sit down with him and watch the videos, see what people commented, watch the number of clicks raise steadily.

That wasn't what he had come here for, though.

"The day we got the request from them," he started instead, carefully watching Niall's face. "That day you told me to put my personal issues aside and do what's best for my career, right?"

"And look who was right," Niall commented, grinning, apparently not yet catching up on what Harry was getting at. "People loved it, Harry. This gives you the best exposure."

"You see, Niall," Harry said calmly, ignoring what Niall told him. "I have a problem here."

Niall frowned, looking a little shocked. "A problem? Mate, this is---"

"I didn't want to accept the offer, but I did because Louis was an absolute arse about it," Harry just went on, cutting Niall's words short. "He acted so arrogant about it, implying I was a coward for rejecting it."

Now, Niall seemed to grasp what this was about, his shoulders slouching a little, his expression turning guilty. It was answer enough for Harry.

"And now that I'm here, the same bloody arrogant arse who made me accept the offer can't even look me in the eye, and each time I so much as turn to him, he looks like a kicked puppy. He can't even talk to me."

Niall shrugged helplessly.

"Niall," Harry said keenly. "What the fuck did you do?"

Sighing, Niall turned, running a hand through his hair. "I knew that I couldn't convince you to do this on my own. But he could because he's the only one who could get to you like that."

Harry clenched his jaw, trying to hold back an outburst of anger that would make him say and do things he would regret afterwards. "What happened to you being my manager and friend? To you respecting my decisions and not going behind my bloody back?"

Niall flinched, turning back to Harry. "I couldn't let you refuse this, Harry. It's too much of a chance to get you recognised. An offer like this is something you just can't reject ."

"And you couldn't just tell me as much? Instead you plotted with Louis -- fucking Louis Tomlinson of all people -- behind my back?"

"I did tell you," Niall argued. "I said that you should accept it despite the thing with Louis."

"But you always said it was my decision ultimately," Harry pointed out. "When actually, you planned all along to ignore my decision and just do what you thought would be best for me."

"And isn't it?" Niall shot back. "Fuck, Harry, I'm sorry, okay? But this is the best fucking thing that could have happened to your career, and you know it."

Harry shook his head, every fibre of his body vibrating with anger. He would go mad if he stayed here. He felt like he knew next to nothing -- because everyone seemed to lie to him.

"Maybe you can pull your head out of your arse," he hissed, making for the door, "and start thinking of me as your friend before you make decisions for me like I was just your fucking client."

Storming off, Harry crossed the corridor, pressing the button for the lift. It arrived within seconds, and Harry felt his anger increase even more when he got off on the next floor. Without hesitating for a single second, he pounded his fist against the door to Louis's room.

"You said we had an hour, so what the hell---" The words died on Louis' lips when he saw Harry, his eyes going wide.

He had been sleeping. Harry could tell from the way his eyes were glassy, his skin looking warm and soft, his hair matted to his temple at one side. For a moment, Harry felt something else beneath his anger, something gentle and smooth, like affection or endearment.

Those weren't emotions he had reserved for Louis anymore, though.

"I'm sick of it, Louis," Harry growled, pushing past him as he had done with Niall earlier. "I'm so sick of you."

Frowning, Louis slowly closed the door, keeping his eyes trained on Harry. "Nothing new there, I guess."

"Aren't you funny?" Harry tried to calm down, desperation mixing into his anger. "I don't think you get to joke about this."

For a moment, Louis was quiet. When he spoke, he was closer than before, just a few feet away from Harry. "I guess I don't. Sorry."

"Stop apologising," Harry spit out. "I don't want your apologies."

"Okay," Louis said, nodding briefly. "I won't apologise anymore, if that's what you want."

Harry lifted his head, looking Louis over, trying to find anything, just a hint of the person he knew how to grasp. He couldn't grasp the one in front of him.

"Why are you doing this? Why do you just take everything I throw at you?" Harry asked, the desperation taking over. "Fucking fight me."

Louis looked at him, exhaustion prominent on his face. "I don't think I have a right to, Harry. You can tell me to stop apologising, but you can't make me stop feeling sorry."

That inflamed Harry's anger again because how dare he say that? "Is that why I'm here?" Harry asked, every syllable hurting in his throat. "Because you're feeling sorry for me?"

"I told you I had nothing to do with it," Louis answered.

"Didn't you?" Harry stepped closer, waiting for Louis to raise his head and look at him. "Did you really not have anything to do with me coming here?"

Something flashed in Louis' eyes, the exhaustion gone for a split second, replaced by something vivid.

"Why do you keep lying, Louis?" Harry wanted to know, his chest aching with it, the hollow dark space pounding heavier, craving something to swallow, to absorb and fill it up. His voice dropped to a tight whisper. "Why do you always lie to me?"

Louis' mask crumbled, Harry could see it, finding traces of his Louis beneath. An angry Louis, that Harry could handle, knew how to deal with. He couldn't handle Louis being submissive -- that wasn’t how they worked.

"You say you're sorry and yet you keep lying to me," Harry pushed further, trying to elicit a reaction from Louis. "Why do you always lie to me to get your way?"

Louis slowly shook his head, mouth falling open as if he was about to say something.

Say something , Harry thought. Stop being so passive all the time .

"Is this a game to you?" He held Louis' gaze, saw the blue gradually turn into grey, a sign for anger, a storm boiling up inside of Louis. "Is it a fucking game you play to get what you want?"

Louis' voice was tight when he finally spoke up, a raspy undertone taking off the edges. "I've never played with you."

That was Harry's go, his starting shot. "Then what did you do exactly when you went behind my back for weeks, telling me lies about why you went to London?"

"I did not play with you," Louis hissed. "I thought I was doing the right thing."

"How is lying ever the right thing to do?"

They were so close Harry could feel Louis' chest expand when he inhaled. "If it hadn't worked out, you would have never known. I thought telling you once it had worked out was soon enough."

"I would have never known you never really wanted us, or the band, would have dropped me and Niall first opportunity you got." Harry narrowed his eyes. "You thought that was the right thing to do? Feeling that way about us and not fucking telling me?"

"Telling you from the beginning wouldn't have changed the outcome." Louis raised his voice a little, and Harry could see the same despair he felt reflecting in Louis' eyes. "I fucking knew that I would lose you either way."

"So you decided to be a bloody coward about it," Harry noted, "and lied instead of telling me what was going on. Did it ever -- just fucking once -- occur to you that maybe I would have supported you?"

He saw Louis clench his jaw, knew that he tried to hold in whatever he was about to say. Louis turned away abruptly, pacing the room, running his hands through his hair.

Fucking no. No . Harry wouldn't let him get away with that. He wanted answers, and he would get them now. With one step, he was next to Louis, gripping his biceps and spinning him back around. He opened his mouth to push Louis to say what he had on his mind when Louis' gaze met his, the look in his eyes knocking all breath out of Harry.

In a fraction of a second, Louis had his hand buried in Harry's hair, hauling him towards Louis, his lips crashing against Harry's. Harry gasped, his fingers tightening around Louis' arm, nails digging into his skin. He kept staring into Louis' eyes, radiant blue staring back at him as their lips moved together, Louis' tongue sliding into Harry’s mouth when he exhaled.

For a moment, Harry got lost in it, too surprised, too caught up in how those lips were so familiar, that taste so different, the effect still the same. The hollow pounding in his chest shrank, stopped throbbing, leaving Harry completely motionless. Then he growled in the back of his throat, pushing Louis off forcefully, so his back hit the wall behind him.

"What the fuck ?" Harry ran a hand over his mouth, staring Louis down.

Panting, Louis licked his own lips and Harry felt the urge to punch him. He had never wanted to punch anyone, had always been above such actions -- but right now, he really wanted to punch his fist into Louis' face, make those lips bleed.

"I didn't want you to support me," Louis said, picking up their conversation as if nothing had happened.

Harry gaped at him. "You fucking kissed me!"

Louis took a deep breath, still leaning against the wall. "I knew you would have supported me, Harry. I knew that you would have forgiven me, eventually. Had I been honest, you would have stayed by my side and--- Fuck," he sighed, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes. "You would have held me back."

Harry felt those words stab into him like a dagger.

"I could have never done this if you had still been around," Louis went on, pushing the dagger deeper and deeper with his words. "I would have always considered you, would have never put my everything into this. I couldn't tell you," he added, voice shaky. "I didn't want you to be part of this."

Swallowing thickly, Harry fisted his hands, his breathing shallow. "You thought I wouldn't have done everything to---"

"That was the fucking problem, Harry," Louis cut him short. "You would have done everything for me. You would have given up yourself, and everything you ever wanted, just to be with me. I couldn't be everything to you."

Every bit of anger drained from Harry, he felt all of it vanish, the hollow feeling settling back into his chest. He loosened his fists, his fingers feeling numb.

"You played," he simply said. "You fucking played, and you lied."

Louis looked up at him. "I've always still---"

"Loved me?" Harry asked. He couldn't even bring himself to laugh at that. All he managed was a strangled sob. "And yet, that wasn't enough to be honest with me."

"Harry," Louis said, the exhaustion back, colouring his voice thick.

“What even was I to you? What did you see in me?” The questions spilled out, all of the thoughts he had kept in for so many years. “You make it sound like I was nothing but a fucking burden to you.”

“That’s not true.” Louis shook his head.

“Then what, Louis?” Harry wanted to know. “What was I? Your convenient, little toy?”

Louis pressed a hand to his stomach, a if he was trying to keep himself up. “You fucking know that you were never just that. I fucking got you tattooed onto my skin.”

Harry fell silent for a second, the ink beneath his own skin burning.

“And I still have it, Harry,” Louis added. “Because you were never just a game, or a toy. And I never lied about that .”

It wasn’t fair, wasn’t fucking fair to imply that Harry getting it removed meant he had never loved Louis. It was a fucking low blow.

You didn’t want us anymore, Louis,” Harry reminded him. “Don’t twist things around.”

“I’m not twisting things.” Louis’ fingers clenched around the fabric of his shirt, his gaze still fixed on the floor. “I’m being honest, like you asked me to.”

Honest, Harry thought. He had wanted honesty, and now that Louis had given him the truth, Harry couldn’t help but think that it hurt just as much as the lies had. His lips still tingled from Louis’ kiss, his taste still lingering on Harry’s tongue, oddly sweet.

"What was that just now? Why did you fucking kiss me?"

"Because you needed to shut up," Louis answered, looking up again. "I had to make you shut up."  

Harry tried to inhale, but his chest hurt, every inch of space filled by hollowness, dark and painful. He stepped closer to Louis again, suppressing the urge to yell and scream at him.

"Don't you fucking dare do that again," Harry warned him, voice low, growling in his chest.

Louis held his gaze this time, didn't look away, eyes challenging. He still looked tired, but he was not caving in, definitely not letting Harry walk away without a fight.

A knock on the door made both of them startle, and Harry took a step back.

"For fuck's sake, Louis," the assistant from earlier yelled. "Get your arse upstairs."

With only one glance at Harry, Louis pushed off the wall and went over to his suitcase. Harry took in the room for the first time, found the bed slightly messed up, the door to the bathroom open and sunlight flooding in through the broad balcony door.

His attention was drawn back to Louis when he yelled, "I'm coming, Marco," and pulled his t-shirt over his head.

Harry froze, watching the muscles in Louis' back work, the bumps of his spine visible, dimples pooling dark shadows at the small of his back before he put on a new t-shirt. When he turned again, the defiant look was still there, his lips a tight line.

"I gotta go," he said without so much as a glance towards Harry. "Guess this conversation is over."

"Don't think I have much to say to you anyway," Harry shot back immediately.

Louis stopped at the door, a hand resting on the handle. "There's too much to say, Harry," he said quietly. He opened the door, looking over his shoulder once.

"You don't really want to hear any of it, though."

+++

Throughout the whole five days they had spent in Malaysia Louis hadn't exchanged a single word with Harry. For most of the time, they had just avoided each other, had kept a distance and one had left the room as soon as the other had come in.

Louis grew tired of it, though, tired of having to pretend and of feeling guilty. Harry kept making him feel guilty -- about their past, about what he had said in that hotel room last week, and about that kiss.

That fucking kiss. He had wanted it so badly, hadn’t been able to keep his mind off it when Harry had been so close, his face just inches away from Louis'. His mind had shut down completely, everything becoming a white noise, his focus solely on Harry's lips. Memories had flooded his mind; memories of how Harry had tasted, of how his lips had felt on Louis, his tongue smoothly nudging into Louis' mouth.

Louis had wondered if Harry still kissed the same -- he had wondered how many guys had kissed him since, had taught him new techniques and if Louis would be able to pick them out, tell all the moves Harry hadn't used three years ago.

He had wanted a taste, just a single taste to kill his curiosity, to still the burning desire for what he had lost and craved so badly now that he had Harry so close again.

For a moment, he had thought it would solve everything. A simple kiss, and everything would fall back into place. Harry would press him back against the wall, hands gripping Louis' hips tightly, possessively as they had used to.

It hadn't solved anything, had messed him up just even more. Louis wanted to do it again, wanted to feel those lips back on his, Harry's breath shuddering into his mouth and his hand firmly gripping Louis. He wasn’t supposed to want any of it, though, wasn’t supposed to crave for Harry’s kiss, or touch, not even a look his way.

Although everything about Harry was different -- his shape, his taste, his voice, his mind -- Louis still felt attracted to him, still felt attracted to the traces of the boy he had loved lingering underneath.

Louis couldn't have resisted. Apart from that, it had been the only way he could have thought of to make Harry shut up.

They were at the Philippines now, and Louis was glad the concert was about to start. It would take his mind off things, get him to forget about it at least for the time he would be on stage.

Liam and Zayn had sensed something had happened when they had boarded the flight to Malaysia. Zayn had kept glancing from Louis to Harry, as if he had been been trying to figure out when they would jump and rip each other apart.

This time, Louis had told them about it before they even had to ask.

As a consequence, Liam had stopped trying to make all of them become friends.

"Louis!"

He turned, frowning slightly when Niall came into their dressing room.

"Louis, you have to do something," Niall demanded, slightly out of breath. "I can't get through to him."

Alarmed, Louis approached him, automatically reaching for Niall's arm. "What's wrong?"

"Harry's in a right state," Niall explained. "He's completely out of it. He doesn't even react to me."

Liam joined them, looking worried. "What happened? Did he have--"

"Stage fright," Louis said, hand falling from Niall's arm.

Niall nodded. "And he won't go out."

"Why today?" Zayn asked from across the room.

"It's not just today," Niall admitted. "He's had it since the tour started, every night he performed. But I always managed to get him out on stage. He's not having it tonight, though."

Louis shook his head. "Don't think he'd want to see me of all people."

"But you always got him to calm down," Niall argued.

"We're not like that anymore, Niall," Louis reminded him.

"I don't care, Louis. Use what you are now if it helps." Niall threw up his hands, looking helpless. "He needs to go out now ."

"I can take care of it," Zayn offered. "Kick his arse onto stage."

"Zayn," Louis hissed. He turned back to Niall, hesitating for a moment. "Let's go."

"God, thank you," Niall groaned, framing Louis' face and placing a wet kiss on his forehead.

"Gross," Louis commented, trying to keep the affection out of his voice.

Niall went ahead and Louis followed him, seeing Harry crouched behind the entrance to the stage, a couple of security and technicians surrounding him. Louis' heart dropped to his stomach when he saw Harry's expression.

As soon as they reached him, Louis gave Niall one look, and he was glad that it was still enough to make Niall understand that he needed to be alone with Harry. He waited for everyone to clear the area before he kneeled down in front of Harry.

"Hey," he said quietly, reaching out.

Harry batted his hand away. "Fuck off, Louis."

"Niall said you're not doing well."

"I'm fine."

"You need to go out there, you know," Louis reminded him. "If everything's fine, why are you not out there?"

Harry lifted his head, his cheeks pale and eyes glassy. A thin layer of sweat shone on his forehead, and his lips were red from him biting them. Louis could see where he had torn the skin off and some blood had dripped out.

The urge to pull him into his arms and go through the ritual they had used to have was overwhelming. He would suck the fear out of Harry with a thorough kiss, would press his thumb against his wrist, catch his pulse there until it calmed down again. Until Harry went lax in his arms, became pliant and completely focussed on Louis.

He couldn't do that, wasn't in a position to be that person for Harry. It wasn't who they were anymore.

Instead, he had to use what they were now to make Harry pull himself together.

"You know, Niall told me I'd still know how to press your buttons," Louis said quietly, watching Harry breathe shallowly while he stared at Louis. The green of his eyes had turned into the colour of a foggy forest. "I do. I pressed the right ones to get you to agree to this."

Harry whined a little, lowering his head again.

"I knew exactly what would make you accept the offer, so I did it." Taking a deep breath, Louis tried to somehow reflect his calm onto Harry. "I could do that right now. Press a few buttons and make you go out there."

Louis noticed Harry digging his fingers into his shins, his forehead resting against his knees.

"When I kissed you last week," Louis kept going, "I pressed buttons too. I wanted you to shut up, and I knew a kiss would get you so out of it. You pressed some buttons too, Harry," he added in an afterthought. "You knew how to get me out of my shell, didn't you? You kept pressing them until I snapped and gave you what you wanted."

Harry lifted his head, his breathing already a lot calmer.

"I don't want to press buttons," Louis admitted once Harry's eyes had locked with his. "I want to solve this without having to lie, or play."

Louis could pinpoint the exact moment the spell broke. Harry blinked once, slowly, and his eyes looked a lot clearer, his fingers unclenching and loosening their grip. His chest expanded on a deep breath.

"I need to go," he said quietly before he looked away.

Louis remained kneeling on the floor when Harry got up and took his guitar. He didn't have to turn around to know that Harry was standing in front of the exit for a few more beats.

When he was gone, Louis breathed out slowly, a strange hollow feeling expanding in his chest.

He felt weirdly numb to the throbbing pain.

---



Chapter Text

Harry leaned back in the slightly uncomfortable seat on the balcony of the arena. He was overlooking the stage and all seats from there, munching on a banana.

His soundcheck had ended a while ago, but going back to the hotel didn't make much sense as it was too far away from the arena. Going outside for the remaining time until the concert started wasn't an option for him, either. The weather was just fine, but he would need his inhaler after ten minutes. Hong Kong's air was thick in his lungs, and not even the masks helped.

Niall was back at the hotel, making calls and arranging for television and magazine appearances for when they'd be back in London. Touring with Escapade had gained Harry a lot of attention, the whole nation was curious about the boy Escapade had deemed worthy of opening for them on tour.

He watched them gather on stage now. A few technicians were wiring them up, Liam stared into the distance, his mind obviously in a different place. Zayn and Louis were talking to each other, giggling, and fooling around with the guy trying to set them up.

Harry jumped a little when the sound suddenly kicked in and he could hear their voices echo through the hall.

"Have you quite finished?" Louis asked, shoving Zayn's shoulder.

"We'll finish you," Liam threatened, strolling closer to them.

"Ha!" Louis set off into a run to the other side of the stage. "As if you lazy folk could even keep up with me."

Liam was on his heels in seconds and Louis managed to duck him and run back to the centre of the stage where Zayn was still standing, watching them with his arms crossed. Harry gasped a little when he realised that Louis didn't stop but instead tackled Zayn down, turning them around in the fall, so Zayn landed on top of him.

Louis had lost his microphone, but through Zayn's Harry could hear them giggle, both releasing a loud "ooph" when Liam threw himself on top of them. He started to tickle Louis and Zayn joined in after a moment, Louis' yelps and laughs filling the arena.

Harry found himself smiling at the scene in amusement, as much as in endearment.

He caught himself when someone else's voice scolded them loudly, and Harry saw a man standing in front of the stage. He had his arms crossed in front of his chest.

"Guys, get a grip," he said, sounding annoyed. "We don't have all day."

Liam and Zayn got up, both extending a hand to help Louis when he didn't move. Harry saw him stare at the ceiling with a bitter expression on his face. He wondered what was going on in Louis' head.

Harry didn't know any more. There had been a time when he would have known every thought on Louis' mind with just one look at him, one single glimpse. When he looked at Louis now, all he saw was a blank face, or guilt and regret.

There was more of the Louis he used to know when he was around Liam and Zayn. Harry couldn't help but feel hurt by how Louis reached out for them and obviously relied on them, trusted those two. He knew by now that they weren't a replacement for what Harry and Niall had been, but that didn't make it any easier.

They were so much more, their friendship on a completely different level.

It had become even more apparent after they had left the Philippines. Zayn and Liam seemed to understand Louis on a basis where they didn't even need words. They just understood. Harry had observed small touches, concerned glances and hushed conversations.

Something had changed between Harry and Louis, right in that moment when Louis had told him that he didn't want to lie anymore. He had been earnest about that, completely honest, and it had broken down a wall in Harry. He had seen a side of Louis that he hadn't known before, not three years ago, and certainly not now.

There was something vulnerable about him now, a side that made Harry want to reach out for Louis, take him in his arms to keep him safe. Louis had always been the stronger one of them -- Harry had never felt the urge to protect him.

He had no idea why he felt it now; he wasn't supposed to, after all. Nothing in him should long for Louis.

It had been the kiss. Harry was convinced it was all down to that kiss. It had released feelings, long forgotten feelings in Harry, the ones he had locked away in a corner of his heart. It was only natural that Harry reacted so intensely -- no one had yet compared to Louis, after all.

He groaned a little and tilted his head back, closing his eyes. It was a bloody complicated situation -- he felt angry at Louis and attracted to him at the same time, and suppressing either of them wasn't easy.

Harry just wanted to feel nothing at all towards Louis. He wanted to be indifferent and unaffected by Louis. Instead, Harry thought, and leaned forwards to catch sight of Louis kicking a small ball across the stage to Liam, he had started to care again.

"Zayn, you'll go to the back of the stage," the guy in front of the stage instructed.

Louis missed the ball passed to him. "To the back?" he asked, while Zayn wordlessly strolled to the huge wall. Harry knew that usually, Zayn was on the upper stage.

"We can't install the floating stage in this arena," the man answered. "So we'll have to work with the main stage. You'll be at the right front, and Liam's on the left."

They each took their positions, and Louis looked sceptical. "What about You, Seasons and In Time? I mean, if we don't have the floating stage…"

"We'll have stools for that part. It'll look all classy," the guy explained.

Louis didn't seem too convinced. Harry could clearly see the resentment on his face. "And for the rest it'll be like this?"

"Mostly, yes," the man answered, eyes fixed on a paper. "You can switch up positions sometimes. You know the drill."

"But like this, Zayn's not really visible for the crowd, is he?" Liam argued.

The man still didn't look up. "Let's be honest, he doesn't exactly have a stage presence, anyway. What does it matter, as long as his voice is heard?"

Liam gasped, Zayn looked heavily confused and Louis dropped his microphone, taking the ball. Harry frowned, confused by that reaction until Louis dropped it from his hands again and kicked it. The ball hit the man's hand, the papers landing on the floor.

"We're three people in this band," Louis said once he had the guy's attention. He didn't need the microphone to make himself heard. "And each one of us is going to be seen on this fucking stage."

The man didn't answer. Harry could only see his back, but by the way he stood completely frozen, hands still in the air, holding on to nothing, he was sure his expression had to be a baffled stare.

"If that means we have to work some overtime to work out a proper choreography, then that's what we have to do. We're all equally important in this band." Louis glanced back at Zayn and Harry noticed he looked actually wounded. Liam had gone over in the meanwhile, and was just standing next to Zayn.

"We can't really work on a new---"

"We can," Louis cut the guy off. "If you're not up to doing your fucking job, we're just going to improvise. If that ends in a mess, it'll be your fault."

Harry got up at that moment, feeling sick to his stomach from hearing those words. His seat snapped against the back, the noise echoing through the arena. Louis' eyes darted up to him, his gaze locking with Harry's for a moment.

It made Harry feel even sicker, and without another glance, he turned around, dashing off into the corridor outside. The nauseous feeling in his stomach made him dizzy, and felt cold all over, his eyes actually tearing up.

He closed them, leaning against a wall and tilting his head back to force himself to breathe evenly. After several seconds, he just gave up and slid down to the floor, crouching and burrowing his face between his knees.

Louis' words echoed in his ears, the image of his stern expression imprinted on Harry's eyelids. He bit back a sob, as he started shaking all over again, angry at Louis, at himself, at everything Louis was now and could have never been for Harry.

Louis would never betray Zayn and Liam.

+++

Harry winced slightly, feeling less dizzy when he heard the door open. For a moment he was afraid that if he lifted his head, he would see Louis standing there in front of him. He had no idea how to face Louis right now, how to face him without breaking down and making a complete fool of himself.

Harry didn’t sense Louis, though, when the other person crouched down next to him. He turned his head, temple still resting against his knee. Zayn sat ight there, elbows resting on his own knees, eyes closed.

Feeling oddly overwhelmed by sympathy, Harry exhaled shakily. What had just happened in there had been quite harsh on Zayn, after all.

"Are you okay?" he asked quietly.

Zayn hummed. "Just wanted a moment to myself."

"Oh," Harry replied, glancing back to the door and biting his lip. "I'll just--"

"Stay," Zayn interrupted him, followed by a sigh. "Just needed to get away from Liam and Louis. They're like mother hens, really."

"Hm," Harry said in lieu of a better answer.

Zayn was quiet for another moment before he opened his eyes. Harry noticed he had extremely long lashes, and remembered Perrie rambling about that fact when she had been drunk.

"You don't like us, do you?" Zayn asked then.

Taken by surprise, Harry blinked dumbly. "What?"

"Me and Liam, you don't like us, do you?" Zayn laced his fingers, looking at Harry with unwavering eyes.

"I-- No," Harry stuttered, frowning. "I don't even know you."

Zayn fell silent again, still staring at Harry. "Louis's pretty overprotective," he said then, completely out of context.

Harry averted his gaze.

"He would never watch one of his friends getting hurt without taking action," Zayn went on, tone calm and quiet. "He's always considerate of the people around him."

"I guess," Harry answered, remembering Louis' expression from earlier.

"I know you think he's an arse," Zayn pointed out. "And he has been a dick to you. But he's not like that anymore."

"What are you trying to get at here?" Harry frowned, giving Zayn a sceptical look.

"He's good," Zayn murmured. "And I think Liam and I profit from how he changed after making a mistake with you. He's the most loyal friend I've got."

Harry snorted dryly. "You're welcome."

Zayn hummed, falling silent again. He tapped his fingers against his knees and Harry glanced at him, finding him watching Harry with a crease between his brows.

"You know," he added, pursing his lips, "I get that it hurts you. But I just can't watch you hurt him any more. He's cracking, and I think it's enough now. He's suffered enough for what he's done, hasn't he?"

Harry stared at Zayn, feeling his eyes go dry, but he couldn't blink.

"He's not that person anymore who did you wrong, Harry," Zayn added. "Why don't you give him a chance to prove that?"

"Because," Harry answered without thinking about it, "I don't want him back in my life."

Zayn nodded slowly, looking at his hands. "I see," he murmured. "Just. Why are you here?"

Harry felt his heart drop, his breath getting caught in his throat. He was not running after Louis. "What do you want?" he asked, quietly. He hated how his voice trembled. "I can't just forgive him."

"I'm not asking you to," Zayn pointed out. "I just want you to stop being so bitter towards him. You guys can't bury this and move on if you keep resenting him for what he's done."

"How could I ever stop?" Harry asked.

"You still care." Zayn shrugged, turning his head to look at Harry. "I've watched both of you for the past three weeks, and you care as much as he does."

"You don't even know me," Harry reminded him. He felt tired, exhausted from the conversation. Zayn’s constant stare made him feel uncomfortable, exposed. He felt as though Zayn saw more than Harry wanted him to see.

At the same time, Harry wondered how much Louis had really told him. About their past, about last week, about the kiss.

Harry’s lips tingled and he bit them to stop his body from remembering Louis’ touch.

"But I know Louis. Better than you do," Zayn added. It was a stab straight into Harry’s heart. "And he cares about you, more than he should."

Harry clenched his jaw, thinking of how Louis had rubbed his thumb over the tattoo on his arm. "I don't want him to care."

"You have to let him go, then." Zayn got back to his feet. "If you honestly want him to leave you alone, you have to tell him as much. I can't keep watching him chasing your forgiveness when there's no chance for him to receive it."

"I'm not---"

"You've changed him, Harry," Zayn cut him off. "He's become a better person, and I think you would see that too, if you stopped resenting him for something he regrets with all his heart. You just have to see him for who he is now."

Harry felt too small, too cornered, still crouching on the floor. He got up too, his knees feeling slightly shaky. "Why are you telling me all this?"

"Someone has to. And Louis won't." Zayn smiled slightly, expression a little bitter. "He's not so good at saying good things about himself."

For a moment, Harry just stared at him, wondering how he had ended up here. His heart hurt, his lips felt a little numb, and his fingers were cold. Zayn looked at him calmly, patiently, and Harry knew he had to say something about Louis.

There was nothing to say, though.

"I do like you and Liam," he said after a while. "Which I didn't want to admit at first."

Zayn nodded, expression unchanging. "He didn't replace you, Harry. We're different."

The door opened in that moment, and Louis stepped out. He froze when he spotted Harry, eyes darting from him to Zayn and back.

"We need you on stage, Zayn," he said quietly, holding the door open with one hand.

"Yeah, sorry." Zayn glanced at Harry again. "I forgot the time."

"It's okay," Louis assured him. "Mark came up with an idea that I think could work."

"Okay, let's look at it."

While Zayn approached Louis, Harry looked up from where he had been staring at the ground and found Louis' gaze fixed on him. This time around, Louis broke the eye contact and turned, a hand coming up to rest on Zayn's shoulder.

"Hey, mate, you really okay?" he asked in a hushed voice.

Harry gazed after them until the door fell shut.

The sick feeling in his stomach was replaced by a dull throbbing, images bouncing off the walls of his skull. All of them were of those little moments from within the past weeks when Harry had seen the differences, the changes, the new facets of who Louis had become.

They were spinning in his head while Louis' voice kept echoing in his ears.

I don't want to press buttons anymore .

+++

South Korea had gone by in a rush. Louis couldn't even remember the details, only the hotel and the arena still present in his memory. Other than that, it had been a constant fight with himself to stay out of Harry's way.

They had gone back to ignoring each other after the concert in the Philippines. There was no anger behind it anymore, though. Louis felt like they ignored each other because neither of them knew how to act around the other.

Harry had been hurt, had looked so damn hurt at the rehearsals in Hong Kong. Even from a distance, Louis had seen the pain in his eyes, and he had known that it must have been hard for Harry to see Louis defending Zayn -- fighting for his band when he had never fought for theirs.

Zayn hadn't told him what he had talked to Harry about. They had been talking, Louis was sure about it, but Zayn hadn't given Louis anymore than a simple, "He was just seeing if I was okay."

Louis turned his head now, looking at Harry who was engrossed in a book. Louis noticed the Japanese signs at the front, a laughing comic face flashing him a peace sign. Harry always did that on the plane -- read travel guides for the country they were headed to.

It was late afternoon, the sun slowly disappearing outside the small plane window, and the cabin was completely quiet. Liam and Zayn were in the seats behind Louis, both fast asleep, leaning against each other. Louis spied at them through the crack between the seats, snickering at how Liam drooled in his sleep. Zayn would freak at it having dripped onto his t-shirt, and Louis would give both of them shit for that.

When Louis turned back, he noticed Harry looking at him, the book in his lap. Niall sat next to him, his head leaning against the window frame. He was fast asleep, too.

Louis cleared his throat, getting comfortable in his seat, pretending he didn't notice and fidgeting with the hem of his jumper.

"I--" Harry spoke up, stopping again, and Louis turned to him wide-eyed. Harry averted his gaze, licking his lips. "Have you been to Japan before?"

Louis swallowed thickly, trying to stay calm. His heart was up in his throat, beating wildly. "Um, yes," he said. "Once."

Harry nodded, apparently undecided about whether he should say more. "Well," he pointed out then. "Obviously, I haven't been to any of these countries before."

"We hadn't been to Malaysia and the Philippines," Louis contributed. He felt like he started to ramble. Who cared where they had been before? He had been around the world, Harry had probably figured as much. "The fans had wanted us to come for ages."

Harry glanced at Niall, leaning away from him and a little closer to the aisle. "I didn't even know there were such big arenas there."

Louis shrugged. "There are arenas everywhere in the world." He dared to look straight at Harry and found him already looking back. "You've been reading about Japan?" he asked, pointing at the book in Harry's lap.

"It's what I've been looking forward to most," Harry admitted. "I've always wanted to see Japan."

Louis felt himself smile. "You'll love it," he said softly. "It's a completely different world."

Harry's eyes were big and bright with interest. Louis' heart ached when he realised that he had never known he had missed that expression until now. "Really?" he asked.

"They have the funniest TV shows," Louis told him, feeling a lot calmer. "We've been on one where we've played hilarious games. Everything was colourful and bright and everyone is cheerful and over the top polite."

"You liked it," Harry noted, smiling slightly.

"Definitely," Louis agreed. "The audience is completely different, too. They get all quiet when we sing. I feel that they really appreciate the songs, you know?"

Harry nodded. "I'm looking forward to playing there." Tapping his book, he frowned slightly, tilting his head. "Is it hard to understand them?"

"Absolutely." Louis laughed. "Don't expect their English to be as good as that of the Korean people."

"It's because Japanese is a syllabic language," Harry explained. "They split up English into syllables, and if it doesn't fit, they add some."

Louis smirked. "You've learned quite a lot from that little book, haven't you?"

Shaking his head, Harry glanced at Niall again, careful not to startle him when he unbuckled his belt and slid over into the seat next to Louis. All of a sudden, he was close enough for Louis to feel his warmth, to smell the mixture of his cologne and aftershave.

Louis held his breath, feeling scared. From here, he could either fuck it all up or finally make a step towards Harry, getting closer. His eyes darted to Harry's lips for a second, mind thrown back to the kiss two weeks ago.

"They use quite a few loanwords from other languages," Harry said, skipping through the pages of the book. "Especially from English."

Louis dared to lean in a little to look at the page, his head coming close to Harry's.

"Terebi, for example," Harry said, pointing at one word. "It's from English."

Frowning, Louis glanced up at Harry's face. "That's not English."

"It is," Harry argued. "It's TV."

"Yeah, it's really not."

Harry giggled -- giggled ! Louis' heart skipped a beat.

"Or look at this," Harry held the book closer to Louis' face. "Aidoru. That's what you are."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Louis wanted to know.

"Idol," Harry clarified. "It says, a person of public interest, often a singer, actor or model. Often all at once . "

Louis frowned slightly. "I'll take the all at once ."

Harry glanced at him, the smile on his lips dying when he seemed to realise how close their faces were. He scooted back a bit, blinking at Louis. Pretending to read in the book, Louis tried to keep his breathing steady.

"You do have to act quite a bit for this, don't you?" Harry asked.

Louis leaned back in his seat, shrugging. "Sometimes."

"Isn't it hard?" Harry's voice sounded concerned.

"Not so much," Louis answered. He forced himself to look at Harry. "It doesn't matter what job you do, you always have to act to a certain extent, don't you? It's not like I have to portray someone completely different, more like..." he thought about that for a moment. "Leaving out details?"

Harry nodded, humming quietly.

"It's not only like that in this job. Everybody does it all the time, I think."

"Having everyone know all about you would make you vulnerable," Harry noticed softly.

"Yeah," Louis agreed, turning his face towards him again. "So it's not that difficult. There are a few things I'd rather not lie about, though."

He could feel Harry's stare on him, as if it was boring a hole into Louis' face. "Like what?"

Louis shrugged, biting his lip. "Some essentials, really. My home, my family," he said, then he added quietly, "my relationships."

"They don't want you to come out, do they?" Harry asked, sympathy in his voice.

"It's just as much my decision," Louis clarified, but he didn't dare look at Harry while he said it. "I didn't want it at first."

"But you want it now?"

"Maybe," Louis ducked the question vaguely. "How about you? Heard you're with Nick Grimshaw."

Harry's breath got caught for a moment and when Louis looked at him, he seemed a little uncertain before he lowered his gaze. "Um, yeah. It's been in the media, hasn't it?"

"And Niall?" Louis asked, not ready to hear more about Harry being with someone new. The thought made Louis feel slightly dizzy. "Does he have someone?"

"He's got a girlfriend in London," Harry told him. "Barbara. She's lovely, really. He said he loved her."

"For Niall, it's always been all or nothing, right?" Louis looked past Harry, seeing Niall curled up in his seat, fringe matted to his forehead and chest rising in slow, constant breaths.

"True," Harry agreed. "He really misses her. Yesterday he told me he doesn’t sleep well without her next to him.”

Louis thought of how he had fallen asleep next to Harry at those rare times, how he had never imagined a future where he would ever fall asleep without Harry next to him.

“He seems well into her,” he commented, instead of letting those images take over his mind.

“Perrie always says he's investing his heart in too many things. It'll burn him out one day."

"Perrie," Louis repeated. He remembered the girl looking like a fairy, with bright blond hair in a purple dress. "She's a friend?"

"My flatmate," Harry said, smiling. "She's a fan."

Louis lifted a brow, laughing dryly. "She didn't come across like that."

"She changed her mind a bit when she found out about us," Harry commented.

Head snapping around to Harry, Louis stared at him for a moment and Harry just stared back before they both looked away at the same moment.

"I'll have to get Zayn to sign something for her," Harry said then, sounding slightly out of breath. "He's still her favourite."

"I guess I could help with that," Louis offered, keeping his voice quiet. "If you, like, don't want to go through the embarrassment of having to ask Zayn."

Harry bit back a grin, Louis saw him sucking in his bottom lip, and it reminded him painfully of how Harry had tasted. He wanted to taste Harry again, nip on his lips, lick his skin, right there beneath his ear where he would smell of clean sweat and cologne.

"That'd be nice," Harry said, nodding slightly. "Thanks."

Louis kept his eyes trained on Harry, incapable of looking away. He swallowed thickly, digging his fingers into this thighs to keep himself from reaching out.

"My pleasure," he answered, and he meant it.

+++

Harry sat next to Louis for the rest of the flight. They didn't talk much after that, but Harry stayed nonetheless.

When they left the plane, Niall and Harry went ahead, Niall obviously teasing Harry with how Harry blushed. Louis saw Harry quickly shake his head and Niall laughed loudly. Ignoring it, Louis put on a jacket and jumped slightly when Liam poked Louis' side with his elbow, winking.

Harry glanced back over his shoulder and Louis caught his look, attempting a reassuring smile. His chest tightened around nothing but hollow emptiness when Harry quickly turned away.

Zayn put a hand on Louis' shoulder, squeezing gently.

+++

"Ruisu-san?" the woman said, looking confused.

"Louis," the other woman repeated, pointing at Louis. "Liam and Zayn."

"Liyamu?"

Louis rolled his eyes. They were meant to give an interview before their soundcheck, but apparently the interviewer already failed at writing down their names.

Rie-san, their interpreter, smiled kindly and spelled the names out, saying something in Japanese.

"Ahhh," the interviewer cooed, looking at them as if she's had a epiphany. "Zayn," she said, pointing her pen at him. Then she turned to Liam. "Liam?" There was a bit of an u sound at the end, but other than that it didn't sound too different from how Zayn pronounced Liam's name.

When she turned to Louis, she smiled brightly, looking very eager. "Rui."

He heard Harry snort at the back of the stage and turned with an arched brow. Harry smirked at him, apparently more than amused by how the woman just couldn't get Louis' name right. He bit his lip, nodding his chin in the direction of the interviewer to signal Louis to turn back around.

Rie-san shook her head when Louis looked at them again. She said something else in Japanese, ending it on a singsong. "Rululu."

"Rululu," the interviewer lady repeated, looking delighted. She smiled at Louis apologetically. "Lou."

"That's it!" Louis exclaimed. "Lou is completely fine."

She bowed her head several times and wrote something down.

"We don't have the letter L in Japanese, so you guys will encounter this problem more often," Rie-san told them. "Most people will probably call you Rui and you," she added, looking at Liam, "Riyamu."

"I'm better off, mate," Louis told him, patting Liam's shoulder.

"Why isn't there a problem with Zayn's name?" Liam complained.

Rie-san smiled kindly, her face not giving away any of what she was thinking. "Zayn is uncommon, but not hard to pronounce for Japanese."

"Unfair," Louis mumbled.

"Should we start the interview?" Rie-san asked without further commenting on it.

The rest of the interview went smoothly, the interviewer asking in Japanese and Rie-san translating the questions and answers.

When Louis turned in between, he noticed Harry was still standing at the side, watching them with crossed arms. He looked interested, mumbling something to himself.

"Arigatou," Liam said once they were finished and Zayn mumbled his thanks as well, bowing slightly.

Louis shook the lady's hand, saying a polite "arigatou" himself.

When she was gone, technicians started to set up everything for Harry's soundcheck. Niall climbed onto the stage, grinning at Louis.

"What did they ask? I didn't understand a word," Niall said.

"The usual." Louis shrugged, watching Niall plaster a sheet of paper to the floor with the setlist for Harry. "How we like Japan. What the tour has been like so far. Which songs we like to perform most."

"Is there even anything you haven't been asked before?"

"I'm sure there is," Louis answered. He buried his hands in the pockets of the jogging bottoms he was wearing. "There's a long list with answers we're never asked."

"Guess I'll have to make a list like that for Harry too," Niall mused. "He's got a million press dates scheduled for when we're back next week."

"I'm glad to hear it," Louis commented.

Niall smiled at him. "He wasn't. He's been really pissed about this."

"About you and I going behind his back," Louis noted quietly.

"Yeah," Niall confirmed. "Didn't properly speak to me for days. But he came around, eventually."

Louis lowered his gaze, inspecting the tips of his worn Vans. "What else is planned for when you get back?"

"He needs a proper first single, obviously," Niall said. "Been recording before the tour and picked one."

"Process, I guess," Louis deduced. "It's good single material."

Niall nodded. "Yes. We'll have a video shoot, and loads of promo going on before he'll get to actually promote the single."

"Sounds like it all worked out nicely." Louis smiled, glancing around when the lights switched a few times.

"So far," Niall agreed. "Thanks for the opportunity, Lou."

"Don't say that," Louis argued. "It was Liam's idea."

"You know what I mean. He probably got mad, but Harry knows that he would have missed a great opportunity if he had refused. Thanks for making him take it." Niall reached out to squeeze Louis' arm. "I know it wasn't easy for you."

Louis shook his head. "No, it wasn't."

"Things get better, mate," Niall assured him. "He'll come around, I promise. He's always had a soft spot for you and that hasn't changed."

Something in Louis broke, he could hear it clatter, could feel the pieces rip into his flesh, tearing him up from inside. It was a sudden thought, dropping on him like a bomb, making his chest feel cold and tight.

What if he had never fallen out of love with Harry? What if Louis was still in love with him?

It was hard to breathe, all of a sudden, so he just nodded, forcing a smile for Niall. With a frown, Niall squeezed his arm again, then he turned and left the stage, clapping Harry on the back as he walked over to his microphone.

He passed Louis, slowing down a little, his shoulder brushing Louis' despite all the space on stage.

"Just say something for a test, Harry," someone instructed.

Louis turned, looking at Harry standing in front of his microphone, hair held back by a blue headscarf, legs in dark skinny jeans that looked like they were painted onto his skin, and a jumper looking soft and warm on him.

"Rululu," he sang softly and turned to Louis, grinning cheekily.

Forcing himself to come off as calm and casual, Louis strolled over to him. "Did you just call me Rululu?"

"It suits you," Harry commented with a shrug. "I don’t think it’s your turn on stage yet, Rululu."

"It's always my turn on stage, Curly."

Harry raised a brow. "Don't I know it?"

For a moment, Louis was afraid again, afraid he had gone too far, but the cheeky glint in Harry's eyes wasn't gone. He was still smirking, a challenge in his tone and his expression.

"I'm an idol, remember?" Louis asked.

"Aidoru," Harry answered with a bright smile.

"Yeah, that," Louis agreed, heart beating a little faster at the sight of the dimple appearing in Harry's cheek. He was beautiful like that.

"Harry," Niall said loudly, making both of them turn their heads. Niall lifted a brow, a knowing look on his face. "You finished?"

"Have you quite finished?" Louis asked loudly, and Harry laughed. He wanted to catch it like a firefly and put it in a glass to marvel over its beauty for hours.

Niall grinned. "Sit down and shut up, Lou," he instructed. "Harry, start with Song, yes?"

Harry nodded, waiting for Niall's sign.

Louis was silent while he sat to the side and watched Harry rehearse his songs. Harry joked with Niall, sometimes turning to glance at Louis, mouthing "Rululu" to tease him.

It was nice; it felt nice to fall back into easy interaction with each other, to leave the pain behind for a while and pretend that none of the pain, none of the tears and hatred had ever happened. It only felt nice on the surface, though, because Louis knew that it wasn’t this easy, that they were both trying, both pretending.

Yet, when Harry laughed, his cheeks dimpling, Louis’ breath got caught the same way it had years ago.

Louis' heart beat wildly in his chest, his pulse throbbing in his ears and fingertips, and he wondered if he still loved that boy in front of him.

+++

Harry woke up when he heard someone knock on his door.

He slowly blinked his eyes open, feeling disoriented for a moment, the dark place unfamiliar, the sheets smelling of foreign washing powder and the bed much harder than his at home.

Japan, he thought when he fully woke up, remembered the gig from earlier. They'd be in Tokyo for another day before giving a last concert in Sapporo in a few days.

Harry had spent the past few days sleeping as little as possible. Instead, he had been out and about in Tokyo, trying to see as much of the city as he could.

Grunting, he rolled out of bed, switching on the bedside light and making his way to the door.

He felt a jolt go through his body when he saw Louis in front of him.

"Sorry, were you alseep already?"

Harry rubbed his eyes. "Been a few busy days."

Louis smiled. "True." He was silent for a moment, studying Harry's face.

"Did you want something?" Harry asked, scratching his stomach beneath his shirt. He noticed Louis' eyes dart down, following the motion.

"Yeah, we---" Louis looked up again, clearing his throat. "Marco said if we want to go out to celebrate the end of the tour, we should do it here. There aren’t a lot of good clubs in Sapporo, apparently."

"So you're going out?" Harry pursed his lips.

"Niall's on board too," Louis said, his voice sounding hopeful.

For another beat, Harry just looked at him, then he turned, leaving the door open. "I need to change."

Louis hesitated by the door, looking a little lost before he came in and closed it. "Take your time."

Harry didn't say any more before he went to the bathroom. He closed the door behind himself and stripped off his t-shirt, staring at the tattoo at the underside of his biceps.

He hadn't taken a change to the bathroom, and Louis was in his room, waiting for him.

Well done, Styles , he thought, groaning a little. He switched on the tap and washed his face, brushed his teeth again and then dried his face off with a soft, fluffy towel.

He gently opened the door a bit and poked his head out, seeing Louis sitting on the bed, legs crossed and staring ahead, obviously lost in his thoughts.

"Turn around," Harry said, pulling him out of his daze.

Louis turned to him, frowning. "What?"

"I'm only wearing underwear, so turn around," Harry instructed.

Louis lifted a brow. "Since when do you have a problem with nudity?"

Nothing Louis hadn't seen before, Harry thought and noticed in Louis' eyes that he thought the same. Neither of them were brave enough to point it out, though.

"You could just as well wait outside for me," Harry said, ignoring Louis' comment.

"You asked me inside."

"I don't remember saying 'Please come inside, Louis', actually." Harry rolled his eyes, his feet getting cold on the tiles. "Turn around."

Louis shook his head, mumbling something before he turned on the bed. "Would you feel better if I burrowed my face in the pillow?"

"It does have the benefit of making you shut up, too," Harry considered, waiting for Louis to bury his face in the pillow. His legs were still dangling off the bed, kicking gently. Harry waited another second before he walked back into the bedroom and took jeans and t-shirt out of his suitcase.

He kept his eyes trained on Louis' frame on the bed while he pulled them on. Louis looked lax and pliant, as if he was actually sleeping. Harry looked at him for another moment, took in the curve of his spine, how the t-shirt stretched over his shoulders and blades when he inhaled, tight jeans pronouncing his bum.

Harry exhaled shakily, thinking of how Louis' lips had felt against his, how he had been staring back into Harry's eyes, his body close, not close enough.

He kicked Louis' foot, probably a bit harder than intended. "I'm dressed."

Louis lifted his head, looking over his shoulder. "Good to go?"

Harry ran a hand through his curls. "As good as. Just my hair."

"God," Louis sighed, dropping his head back to the pillow. "You really did become a prissy, uptight princess."

Harry glanced at him from where he was tying a headscarf into his hair in front of the mirror. "As if you didn't spend hours styling yourself."

"Merely one," Louis corrected him.

"Must be a new record." Harry grinned, turning back around. "Oh, look. Finished, and in under fifteen minutes."

"Could have been ten," Louis said, getting up from the bed. "If you hadn't wasted so much time arguing."

"I wasn't the one arguing," Harry reminded him, spraying some cologne to his wrists. "I was making a demand, and you argued."

Louis' gaze was glued to Harry's left wrist for a moment, then he averted his eyes, shrugging. He went to the door and opened it. "Who's arguing now?"

Harry bit back the grin spreading over his face and grabbed his coat off the chair. "You always have the last word, don't you?"

Louis' smirk came quick and easily. "Let's go, princess. The car's already waiting."

+++

Louis remembered he had been to New Lex Tokyo before when he found a picture of himself and Liam with a short Japanese guy on the wall downstairs to the club. The wall was plastered with pictures of celebrities who had been to the club.

Taka, the manager -- and the guy from the photo, Louis realised -- greeted them when they went inside. Loud music was playing, the small dance floor crowded with people, and they were led to the VIP area, black and red sofas arranged around small glass tables.

"What can I get you?" Taka asked.

"Vodka," Niall answered, making himself comfortable on the sofa.

"A bottle," Louis ordered. "And five shot glasses."

"Please," Harry added.

Louis shot him a bemused smile.

"What?" Harry asked, pouting his lips, looking ready to argue again.

It's cute , Louis almost caught himself saying. "Nothing," he answered instead. He saw Niall grinning at him, wiggling his eyebrows.

"We have a day full of promo tomorrow, so don't overdo it," Zayn warned Louis. "Marco's gonna have your head if you show up hungover."

"Has that ever happened?" Louis asked, raising a brow.

Zayn smiled slightly, glancing at Harry. "Not yet."

"See," Louis pointed out. "No need to worry. I know my limits."

+++

Four hours later, Louis honestly wished he didn't. He wanted to grab the bottle of vodka -- the third they had ordered -- and pour it all down his throat until he went numb and blind.

Each time he came back from the dance floor, Harry was just that tiny bit more drunk. He was surrounded by pretty girls -- all models, that much Louis could tell -- flirting heavily. Niall sat on the other sofa, completely engrossed in talking with people who hadn't been there when Louis and Liam had left for the dance floor. Zayn sat on a smaller sofa in a corner, apparently talking about tattoos with Taka. Taka had his sleeve rolled up, showing off the ones on his arm.

Louis focussed back on Harry, saw him laugh at something, the line of his throat exposed when he tilted his head back, his laugh loud and bright. The blond girl next to him rested her hand on his thigh, and jealousy flared up in Louis' chest. He gritted his teeth, watching Harry scoot a little closer.

Fuck, he really didn't want to see any of it.

"Should I get another round?" Liam asked from behind Louis.

Checking his watch, Louis shook his head. "We should probably head back to the hotel soon. It's almost five."

"I'll get Zayn," Liam simply said, walking off.

Louis glanced from Niall to Harry and back. He decided to go for Harry first, approaching him with a small tap to his shoulder.

Harry turned his face, and Louis immediately took in the glassy eyes, the pink cheeks and his dopey grin. It faded once he realised who stood in front of him, and Louis' heart sank in his chest when Harry's face fell, a sad expression taking over.

"Hey," Louis said gently, keeping his hand on Harry's shoulder. "We're leaving now."

Harry frowned at him. "You're leaving?"

"All of us, Harry," Louis clarified.

"You just left," Harry said, eyes trained on Louis' face. His voice was a little slurred. "You just left like it was nothing."

Oh God, Louis couldn't do this. Especially not in a dark club in bloody Tokyo. "Love," he said, crouching down to get closer. "You're drunk. You need to go to bed."

Harry looked at him for a moment, eyes frantically checking Louis' face. Then he nodded. "Yeah, bed sounds good."

"Come on. " Louis rose to his feet, stepping back.

With a smile, Harry turned back to the girl. "I have to go. 'Twas nice talking to you."

"You could---"

"Harry," Louis said urgently, interrupting her.

Harry got up from the sofa, his balance obviously off. With gangly arms and legs, he caught himself, eyes half-lidded when he smiled at Louis. "Got it."

"I can see that," Louis just said, frowning. He turned around, taking a few steps to reach Niall. "We're leaving, Niall."

Niall looked up at him. "Already?"

"It's five in the morning," Louis pointed out. "And fuck, Niall, Harry's completely wasted. You ought to keep an eye on him."

"He's got plenty reason to get wasted, Lou," Niall reminded him. "Let the boy have some fun."

When Louis turned back around, Liam and Zayn stood by Harry’s side, and Liam had an arm around his waist to steady him.

"We should really go," Zayn said. "This one is about to pass out."

Niall went over, holding up Harry's other side by draping Harry's arm around his shoulder. "Hey, champ. You proper celebrated your first tour, didn't you?"

Harry grinned while Liam and Niall led him towards the door. Louis and Zayn stayed back for a moment to thank Taka before they followed them out.

"He's a lightweight," Zayn commented when they took the stairs, no one around but a bulky Japanese security man.

"Seems like it," Louis just said.

"You think it's cute, don't you?" Zayn teased him, grinning.

Louis rolled his eyes, trying to come across as casual. "I don't---"

"Admit it, Lou!" Zayn stopped on the stairs, poking Louis’ arm for a reaction.

"Yes," Louis bit out. He tried to hold it in, but eventually gave up and smirked. "He's endearing."

Zayn just grinned, holding the door for Louis when they reached the top of the stairs and went outside.

They reached the car that had been waiting for them, and Liam and Niall had just managed to get Harry to sit down in the very back of it.

"We should probably leave the back to him," Niall suggested. "In case he throws up."

Liam hummed in agreement.

"I'll join him," Louis offered. "Can't really leave him there all by himself now, can we?"

Without waiting for the other guys' reactions, Louis climbed into the back, sitting down next to Harry. He reached over Harry to help him fasten his seatbelt before he took care of his own.

Once Liam, Zayn and Niall had settled in the seats in front of them, the van started moving. Harry's head dropped to Louis' shoulder and he sighed heavily.

"You're good?" Louis asked quietly.

Harry shook his head, scooting closer and Louis' skin started to tingle.

"Are you feeling sick, Harry?" Louis asked, pressing two fingers under Harry's chin to lift it.

Immediately, Harry's eyes opened and Louis' gaze was met by vibrant green. "Yeah," he answered slowly. "Sick of it all."

"Okay," Louis said, a shudder running down his spine. He suppressed a shiver. "We'll be at the hotel in a minute."

"I tell you something," Harry breathed quietly, beckoning Louis closer with one finger.

Louis tilted his head, bringing his ear close to Harry's mouth. He could feel Harry's breath against his skin, warm and moist, his lips dry against the shell of Louis' ear.

"Rululu," Harry slurred, starting to giggle and burying his face against Louis' neck. His hand fell to Louis' thigh.

In an instant, Louis' blood was on fire. It ran thick and hot through his veins, leaving him feeling as though it was lava pumping through him. Harry's hand was warm, his fingers grazing his crotch just ever so slightly and Louis wanted to die on the spot.

Instead, he leaned into Harry a little more, Harry nibbled on the skin over Louis' racing pulse, lips lazily dragging up and down. Louis felt Harry's lashes swipe against his jaw, Harry’s warmth spilling into Louis and filling every space inside him.

The car came to a halt, just when Louis was about to sling an arm around Harry and pull him closer. Instead, they both pulled back. Louis cleared his throat and unbuckled both their belts before he climbed out.

He held out a hand to help Harry out of the car, and Harry kept holding on afterwards. Louis tried to ignore it.

"Mate," Niall started once they were in the lift, frowning at how Harry heavily leaned against Louis. "That's a bit--"

"He's drunk, Niall," Louis murmured, an arm around Harry's waist to keep him steady. "He doesn't know what he's doing. He just needs someone to take care of him."

Niall looked sceptical. "He seems pretty set on you, though."

Liam snickered when Harry mumbled something incoherent and twisted his fingers into Louis' coat, holding on. "He's pretty set, yeah."

"They say drunkards tell the truth," Zayn pointed out, watching Harry with calm eyes.

The lift stopped at that moment, the doors sliding open.

"I can take care of him from here," Niall said once Louis had managed to drag Harry to his room.

"It's okay, Niall. I'll just get him into bed."

"You sure?"

Louis nodded. "No problem." He slid his fingers into the front pocket of Harry's jeans. Harry chuckled, squirming a little. "Harry, where is your bloody key card?"

Niall pulled it out of Harry's back pocket, sliding it through for Louis before he handed it over. "Good night, Lou."

"You too," Louis answered distractedly, pushing the door open with one foot. Harry was heavy, almost asleep in Louis’ arms.

"Come on," Louis murmured, dragging him to the bed. He pushed the duvet back first, then he helped Harry lay down.

"I'm so tired, Lou," Harry sighed, curling up instantly.

"I know. It's okay," Louis reassured him, taking his shoes off. "We need to get you out of these clothes first."

Harry blinked at him, lazily so. His lips were slightly parted. "Are we going to have sex?"

Everything in Louis jolted, his pulse racing, his stomach knotting up. Images were instantly flashing through his mind, of Harry arching into him, lips parted, delicious, little noises coming out of his mouth, his skin rosy, sweaty, marked up by Louis’ mouth and hands.

"No," he answered, his voice feeling shaky. "You're drunk, Haz."

"Hm," Harry answered, lifting his hips when Louis tugged on the waistline of his jeans. It was fucking torture, having Harry pliant and soft on the bed, letting Louis strip him out of his clothes.

"Arms up," Louis instructed, tone tight.

Harry started to raise his arms but he suddenly stopped, draping them over his chest. "I'll leave it on."

"You sleep in clothes now?" Louis asked, trying to distract himself from the images of Harry going down on him.

"Yeah, sometimes." Harry closed his eyes, sighing. "Can't take off the shirt."

Louis frowned, but Harry seemed to be drifting off to sleep. He rose from the edge of the bed, dropping a light kiss to Harry's temple to stop himself from pressing his lips to every other spot of Harry's body.

He was about to turn when Harry grabbed his wrist, fingers curling around his skin, warm and firm.

"Don't leave," Harry murmured quietly, eyes barely open, but fixed on Louis. "Don't just leave."

Louis stood frozen for a moment, staring at Harry. He could feel those pieces of whatever had shattered inside him rip through him and tear open his insides. Just breathing was painful, his skin burning where Harry touched him.

How was he supposed to say no? Even if Harry would hate him in the morning for giving in when he shouldn't have, Louis couldn't just turn away now.

He shrugged off his coat and stripped off his jeans, then he lifted the duvet and slid into bed next to Harry. It was broad, leaving enough space for another person. Louis stared at the ceiling, listening to Harry breathing next to him.

He glanced at the clock next to the bed. It was six in the morning, and he was still awake, thoughts occupied with the boy lying next to him, with everything he had done and said tonight. If Louis closed his eyes now, he’d feel Harry’s breath against his ear, hear him singsong “Rululu” before giggling. He’d feel Harry’s hand on his thigh, fingers squeezing gently, and he’d feel Harry’s lips drag over his neck, dry and soft.

Louis would feel Harry’s fingers curling around his wrist, would see him stare at Louis with tired eyes, sincere and genuine in his quiet plea.

Louis remembered Zayn's words, repeating them in his head over and over again.

Maybe all those words hadn't been for him , but for the Louis Harry had lost in the past.

Harry turned in his sleep, mumbling words that reminded Louis of blue skies and sunny days, of innocent kisses and warm skin beneath trembling fingertips.

"Lou," Harry sighed, sliding up against Louis' body, burrowing his face against Louis’ shoulder. Louis turned instinctively to fit against Harry, bodies lining up perfectly despite them being completely different now. Harry was bigger, everything about him feeling different, but their bodies still slotted together perfectly.

Louis’ hand came to rest on Harry's back, fingers pressed against the fabric of his t-shirt. He closed his eyes and inhaled Harry's scent, let himself soak in the feeling of Harry's skin against his own.

When Harry sighed in relief, Louis could hear it echo in himself.

+++

It was fairly dark in the room when Harry blinked his eyes open.

There was a constant drumming behind his temples, his eyes hurting from the little light that came through the blinds, his mouth tasting horrible and his muscles feeling sore. He inhaled deeply, closing his eyes again and shifting closer to Louis to burrow in his warmth. He pressed his nose against Louis' chest, inhaling his scent, feeling it soothe him. Louis' hand was resting lightly on Harry's hips, his thumb pressing into Harry's skin just above his hip bone.

Harry relaxed into the contact for several seconds before his eyes flew open and he jolted back, almost falling off the bed. Louis stirred in his sleep, lips moving slightly and Harry stared at him in shock, in fear, heart beating out of control in his chest.

He lifted the duvet, taking in his pants and the t-shirt before he lifted it further to look at Louis, finding him similarly dressed to Harry.

Releasing his breath, Harry dropped the duvet, staring at Louis' sleeping form. He didn't feel like he had had sex last night -- but he couldn't be certain.

Why the hell was Louis in his bed?

"Fuck," Harry groaned, burying his face in his hands. He didn't remember a single thing, not even how he had got back to hotel. They had been in a club in Roppongi, they had ordered a lot of vodka, and he had avoided Louis most of the night.

Yet, Louis lay in Harry's bed, breathing steadily and sleeping peacefully. His arm had been slung around Harry, his body pressed close against Harry's and their legs tangled. Harry couldn't just accept it as that. He had to know why, needed an explanation.

Carefully, he shifted back closer to Louis to touch his shoulder. "Louis."

Louis sighed, a frown forming on his face.

"Louis, wake up," Harry said a little louder, shaking him.

"What?" Louis asked, voice gravelly and rough.

"What the fuck are you doing in my bed?"

Louis' eyes opened, his look cautious when he found Harry's, seeming very awake now. He slowly sat up, hair dishevelled and his skin looked warm and soft.

"I slept," he answered.

"Don't fuck with me," Harry growled, frowning deeply.

He caught the look in Louis' eyes, knew that he had to bite back the joke. This was not the time for fucking jokes, though.

"Louis," he added seriously, tone demanding.

"I just fell asleep," Louis answered, averting his gaze.

"And you managed to take off your jeans before you just fell asleep ?" Harry lifted a brow. The pounding behind his forehead was getting stronger.

Louis sighed, running a hand over his face. "I'll just head over to my room, okay? Have to be downstairs in an hour anyway."

"Don't just---"

"Leave?" Louis ended it for Harry, a bitter and rueful smile playing around his lips. He climbed out of bed, grabbing his jeans and coat from the floor. "Guess I have to, Harry."

Harry swallowed thickly, his heart weighing heavy in his chest. "Did we-- I mean. Last night..."

"Don't be silly," Louis said gently, not looking at Harry. "You were sloshed."

"Did you take me home?" Harry inquired, watching Louis climb into his jeans.

"We all went back to the hotel together. You just had a bit too much, so I made sure you got into bed without killing yourself trying." Louis shrugged, looking unbothered, but Harry could hear the strain in his voice. "Do you have painkillers? I can bring you some."

Harry shook his head, and the throbbing behind his temples became prominent again. "Got some."

"Take them and go back to sleep," Louis simply instructed, turning to the door.

"Louis," Harry said before he could even think about what he was about to say.

Louis stopped at the door, but didn't turn.

"Just," Harry murmured, looking at his back. "Thanks, I guess."

"Don't mention it," Louis answered, then he left without another word.

+++

Sapporo was cold.

It was the last stop on their tour, and with the beginning of December, snow had started to fall in the northern regions of Japan.

Louis pulled his jacket closer around his chest, crossing his arms to keep the cold out.

"And you're sure you wanna go up on that mountain?" Zayn asked, giving Harry a sceptical look.

Apparently, Harry had planned that in Tokyo when he had been sightseeing in the city. He had looked up attractions in Sapporo and found that the hot springs on a mountain outside of the city were very popular.

They had just arrived and were sitting in a van that was taking them from the airport to their hotel. Liam and Niall sat in the front seats with Marco who was engrossed in reading something on his iPad. Louis was stuck in the back between Harry and Zayn.

"I'm not coming," Niall decided, turning to look at Harry. "It's bloody freezing."

Harry turned to him, looking shocked. "What? You said you'd come along."

"Harry." Niall's tone was dry and stark. "I'm not climbing a bloody mountain in this snow."

"But we'll take a car," Harry argued. "There's a guide who drives up and shows us around."

"Not happening, Haz." Niall shook his head. "I'll freeze my arse off up there."

Harry pouted, but didn't put up more of a fight.

"I wouldn't go up there for a million quid," Zayn commented. "They have a hot spring at the hotel we’re staying at, you know."

Harry shrugged. "I already booked the tour, and I really wanna see it. So."

"It'll be freezing," Liam pointed out. "Is it worth the frostbite?"

"I'm not really sensitive to the cold," Harry told him. "Well," he added then. "You guys can think about it. If you'd like to join, you're always welcome."

"No offence, but I'm not gonna get up at four in the morning to look at some snow," Zayn commented.

"You never said anything obout four in the morning!" Niall piped up, giving Harry an accusing stare.

Harry's grin was quick. "I may have forgotten to mention that."

"Cheeky monkey," Niall grunted, turning around in his seat. "No way I'm coming."

Louis glanced at Harry, seeing him shrug it off. His hair was tied together on top of his head but most of it had already fallen down again. He looked a little pale, and still very tired.

While Escapade had spent another day doing promo in Tokyo, Harry had spent the day recovering from his hangover, as far as Louis could tell. Niall had told Louis earlier that Harry had slept all day, only getting up shortly before they had left the hotel.

He smelled of fruity shampoo, no trace of cologne or aftershave, and the way his hair curled above his ears had Louis suspect that Harry had showered before checking out of the hotel, getting to the airport with wet hair.

Louis desperately wanted to run his fingers through it, loosen the knots and wind the curls around his fingers.

He could take Niall's place and accompany Harry on his little trip.

Turning his head stubbornly, Louis tried to focus on something else. He rested his head against Zayn's shoulder and closed his eyes. The idea was completely stupid. There was no reason for them to do anything together.

They had only shared a bed -- had slept next to each other, bodies entwined and skin on skin. It was nothing special. All Louis had to do was force the memory of Harry sleeping in his arms out of his mind.

That shouldn't be too difficult.

+++

Harry rubbed his eyes, yawning and checking the hotel lobby for signs of another person. He was alone, the light dim and everything quiet. Someone sat behind reception, reading a book.

With a sigh, Harry sat down in a chair, adjusting his beanie over his hair and checking his watch again. There were still a few minutes left until four, so he leaned back, closing his eyes for a moment.

It wasn't the best idea, though, since he always drew up images of Louis when he closed his eyes. His skin tingled with the memory of Louis lying close, tingled more when Harry remembered the kiss. All of it had felt so familiar, and at the same time completely different.

It had been a while since Harry had woken up next to someone else.

Perrie was an exception, of course. Other than that, he hadn't shared a bed with anyone in years. He had become used to sleeping alone.

Waking up to a warm body holding him had been nice, though.

"Harry Styles?"               

He opened his eyes, looking at the boy standing in front of him. He was tiny, really, his face pretty. Almond eyes and bleached hair, a bright smile that pronounced his cheek bones.

"Yes," Harry answered.

"I'm Yuya," he introduced himself. "Ready to go?"

Harry got up, nodding. "Of course. Thanks for picking me up."

"Is it only you?" Yuya asked, glancing around.

"My friend actually--"

"Sorry I'm late."

Harry closed his mouth, turning to face Louis approaching them at a jog. He wore boots and a thick coat, hair tucked beneath a dark red beanie.

"No problem," Yuya said, extending his hand. "I'm Yuya. Nice to meet you."

"Louis," he answered, shaking the hand. "Likewise."

"Okay, let's go," Yuya suggested. "We should get there before sunrise."

He went ahead, and Harry turned back to Louis, waiting a few beats until he was sure Yuya couldn't hear them.

"What's this?"

Louis shrugged, eyes looking puffy and tired. "I decided I wanted to see the hot springs in the mountain."

"Louis," Harry started.

"I'm not gonna be in your way, if it worries you, Styles," Louis clarified. "I couldn't sleep anyway, so I figured I could just as well join your little trip."

"Don't make fun of it," Harry warned him.

Louis rolled his eyes. "Get going. We don't have all morning."

+++

The car ride was quiet. Some Japanese music was playing on the radio and Harry listened to the foreign sounds, staring out of the window. He was sitting in the passenger seat, next to Yuya who was driving. Louis was in the back, and Harry didn't dare turn and check on him.

He was probably asleep.

"Have you been to Japan before?" Yuya asked after a while.

Harry shook his head. "No, it's my first time."

"I've been to Tokyo before," Louis answered from the back.

Not asleep, then, Harry thought. He turned to Yuya instead. "Your English is very good."

Yuya smiled, bowing his head. "Thank you. I lived in America for a few years. It's a very difficult language."

"You do speak Japanese, don't you?" Harry asked, laughing.

"It's not easy to understand?" Yuya noticed.

"Definitely not. I've learned a few words, though," Harry told him. "Ganbarimasu, and Otsukaresama deshita."

"Ii na!" Yuya answered, laughing. "Sorry, I mean, that was very good!"

"Ii na," Harry repeated, testing the words.

Yuya nodded at him, smile bright. "I could teach you---"

"So we're going to look at hot springs when we're there?" Louis asked from behind them, voice low.

Yuya looked at him through the rearview mirror. "Well, there are a few. We'll pass on our way. Harry wanted to see Diamondo Dust, though."

Biting his lip, Harry was glad Louis couldn't see his face.

"Diamond Dust?" Louis repeated, sounding curious.

Yuya nodded. "Yes," he answered. "It's a rare form of snow that only occurs on very cold days and when it's dry, powdered snow that's been falling. We could get lucky today. It's gonna be sunny."

"We're making this trip because there's a chance to see snow glittering in the sun?" Louis inquired.

"It's a rare occurrence, Louis," Harry pointed out, turning to look at him. "And something that only occurs here."

“Well, that makes it worth the hassle, I suppose,” Louis said dryly.

"We'll be there soon," Yuya threw in, apparently not sensing Louis' sarcasm. "It's only a twenty minute walk after we leave the car."

Harry smiled at him, trying to ignore Louis mumbling to himself in the backseat.

+++

"I came here for glittery snow," Louis complained for the fifth time when they walked through the snow.

The path was lined by trees, covered in a thick layer of snow, the sun only just rising in the east, colouring the pale blue sky orange and pink.

"Can anyone else hear running water?" Louis asked, stopping.

Promptly, Harry ran into his back, almost knocking both of them down. He steadied his hands on Louis' waist, trying to catch his balance.

"That's a hot spring nearby," Yuya explained turning to them.

"You okay?" Louis turned his head to look at Harry, hands coming to rest over Harry's. His nose was red, his lips almost blue, and his cheeks pale from the cold.

"Don't just stop like that," Harry mumbled, feeling himself blush. He pulled his hands away and rounded Louis, walking ahead.

"We're almost there," Yuya announced.

A few minutes later, they reached a plateau from which they could overlook a range of huge, spindly trees in front of a stunning view of the sky above the valley.

"It's pretty," Louis breathed out right next to Harry.

"There's a small hotel up the path, just five minutes from here," Yuya said. "Meet me there when you want to go back."

"Thank you, Yuya," Harry said politely, waving a hand. He bowed for good measure, watching Yuya walk away.

When he turned back around, Louis was rubbing his hands, blowing them warm.

"Are you cold?" Harry asked, suddenly very aware of the fact that he was completely alone with Louis.

"It's bloody freezing," Louis commented.

Harry looked down on himself, the coat he wore open over his chest, a scarf loosely around his neck. "Do you want my scarf?"

Louis laughed gently. "No, thanks."

"You didn't have to come, you know," Harry pointed out quietly.

Louis was silent for a moment, the sun rising further, drawing long shadows of the trees on the white ground. "I wanted to," he said then, staring ahead.

"It may only be glittery snow," Harry said, shrugging. "But I really want to see it."

A breeze came up right in the second Louis turned to him. Snow sprinkled from the trees, floating in the air like tiny stars and Harry gasped, watching the snow sparkle in the early morning sun. The light blinded him, all the trees glittering while moving in the breeze, swaying.

Glittery snow sprinkled them like pixie dust, cold on Harry's skin and softly melting into it.

In a daze, Harry turned when Louis took his hand, tangling their fingers together. He looked bright, eyes so blue they were competing with the sparkling snow.

"No doubt," Louis said quietly, gaze holding Harry's. "I still love you."

Harry's breath caught, his mind shutting down and his hand going limp in Louis'.

"Shh," Louis hissed, stepping closer. "Don't panic," he added, his face suddenly very close. Snowflakes were sticking to his lashes.

"Louis," Harry said quietly, something spreading in his chest, taking over his heart.

"Getting up in the middle of the night to watch glittery snow in the sunrise," Louis murmured, bringing his other hand up to tuck a curl beneath Harry's beanie. "You're still a romantic."

"Don't---"

"It's okay," Louis said, smiling reassuringly. "There's still so much of the boy I fell in love with. So many things that remind me of him, and what we were."

Harry blinked slowly, nodding.

"I'll always be in love with that boy, Harry," Louis went on, his fingers slowly untangling from Harry's. "That's what a first love is, right? Someone you'll love forever."

Trying to speak, Harry got cut off by another breeze, snow dancing around them, embracing them in a cloud of sparkling dust.

"I'm sorry for hurting you," Louis whispered, lips very close to Harry's, lashes fluttering and covering his eyes when he looked down. "I should have never done that to you. Not for anyhing."

Harry's throat was tight, his lips feeling too cold to move them. He couldn't name the feeling in his chest, but it spread, spread throughout his body, making him shiver.

"I like who you are now," Louis told him. His hand was barely still holding on to Harry’s, only their pinkies linked. "You've become strong and even more beautiful. You’re kind and witty, and always considerate. You've cut your own path and built a life for yourself, fought to get where you want to be."

Harry couldn’t breathe when Louis looked up at him again. "As much as I'll always love who you were, you're someone else now, and I needed a bit of time to come to terms with that. We won't ever be how we were back then. We can only be who we are now." Keeping his eyes fixed on Harry's, Louis bit his lip, shuddering out a breath. “You don’t need me.”

Staring into pale blue eyes, Harry nodded slightly, trying to believe that it was true. He had spent the past three years proving to himself that he didn’t need Louis.

“I guess I need you, though,” Louis confessed, voice hushed, almost too quiet for Harry to catch it. "I don't want to go back to pretending you don't exist, Harry."

Harry felt himself shake his head, slowly, as if it was happening in slow motion. Behind Louis, the air was sparkling, and he looked very young, his insecurities written all over his face, anxiety in his eyes.

"We've never been friends," Louis said, blinking and a few snowflakes fell onto his cheek. Harry brushed them away with a thumb. "Can't we try being friends?"

Harry didn't hesitate for a single moment. He brought his arms up and wrapped them around Louis' neck, pulling him into a tight embrace. Louis' arms came around his waist, fingers digging into Harry's back as Louis buried his face against Harry's shoulder.

"We can try," Harry murmured, swaying them slightly. Louis exhaled shakily, his warm breath moist against Harry's neck and Harry closed his eyes. He breathed in the scent of Louis' shampoo, mixed with his cologne, focussed on the warm hands pressing against Harry's back, Louis' small frame completely burrowing into him.

When Harry opened his eyes again and stepped back, Louis was smiling at him, his eyes looking soft, his lips pink and full and his cheeks rosy with a blush.

The dust had settled, just a few single flakes still floating down, only giving the illusion of glitter in front of an icy sky and a pale morning light. Harry pulled his jacket closer around his body, suppressing a shiver when he watched a single snowflake float to the ground, Louis standing next to him, warm and still.

Everything inside Harry trembled, and he was feeling cold, freezing cold.

---

(According to a Japanese legend, two people who see Diamond Dust together will fall in love.)

 

Chapter Text

Harry felt dead on his feet when they finally arrived at Heathrow. There hadn't been a direct flight, so they had to change planes in Frankfurt, which had finally tipped him into exhaustion.

Niall looked just as tired, his eyes red-rimmed, and his skin even paler than usual. He stood next to Harry in front of the conveyer belt at the luggage claim area, yawning repeatedly.

Saying goodbye to Louis in Narita had been strange. They had both been hesitant about it, before Louis had made a move, hugging Harry and wishing him a good flight. Louis, Liam and Zayn had taken a different flight, going directly to Los Angeles where they'd get straight back to recording.

Over Louis' shoulder, Harry had caught Liam smiling and Zayn looking sceptical. Niall had seemed suspicious, but he hadn't said a word about it yet.

Harry wouldn't have known how to explain it anyway. He couldn't possibly explain what had happened in Sapporo, or what had shifted between them. All he knew was that he didn't want to be angry anymore, that he just wanted things to calm down and for Louis to stop being wary around Harry.

"That's yours," Niall said, pointing at a suitcase. Harry stepped forwards, heaving it off the belt. Only a few minutes later, his guitar case showed up, as well as Niall's suitcase. Harry checked his guitar, and made sure there was no damage before they walked over to the exit.

"I'm not gonna take the train," Niall announced. "We'll take a taxi."

"No objections," Harry mumbled.

They stepped out through the sliding doors, and Harry stopped in his tracks when he saw Perrie and Ed, both grinning widely. Perrie held a paper that read Welcome and had lots of glittery hearts drawn on.

When he wanted to ask Niall if he had spotted them too, Harry turned at just the right moment to see Niall drop all of his luggage and open his arms to catch Barbara. She threw her arms around his neck and Niall buried his face in her hair, arms tight around her waist, lifting her off the ground.

Smiling, Harry glanced at Perrie when she turned up next to him. He slung an arm around her waist, pulling her against his side and kissing the top of her head, while catching Ed's eye and returning his smile.

"You look tired, mate," Ed commented.

"I could fall asleep right here," Harry said, resting his cheek against Perrie's hair.

"I've changed your sheets," Perrie told him. "You can just fall into bed when we get home."

Humming, Harry opened his eyes again, gaze settling on Niall and Barbara. They hadn't moved much, obviously in their own little bubble. Niall had pulled back slightly, breaking their kiss, and Barbara kept running her hands through his hair.

"Missed you," she said quietly.

"Missed you more," Niall answered, grinning.

"No." Barbara shook her head. "No, Niall. You don't get it."

Niall frowned, setting her down. "What? Seriously, Babs, of course I do. Hotel beds really aren't---"

"I love you," Barbara blurted out, framing Niall's face to make him look her in the eye.

Harry could see Niall's face fall, and felt Perrie's fingers grip his jumper tightly, tugging on the fabric. Slowly, Niall turned to them, blinking dumbly.

"Please tell me you just heard that too," he pleaded.

Perrie laughed. "You're supposed to say it back, you twat!"

A warm feeling spread inside Harry when Niall faced Barbara again, her eyes soft and patient, waiting for Niall's answer. Niall kissed her lips once before he buried his face against her neck, and Harry could pinpoint the second he said it back. Barbara's face lit up, a grin spreading over her features.

For a moment, they stayed like that and Harry didn't even dare to move. Then Niall tilted his head back and grinned madly, lifting Barbara again, arms tight around her waist.

"Come on, you lot. We have to get going," Ed announced. "Parking fees are ridiculous."

Niall set Barbara down, and she took his hand, staying close. Harry turned to Perrie, seeing the dreamy look on her face and poked her arm. She rolled her eyes and grabbed one of his bags.

The ride home was quiet. Harry didn't take in too much of it, his eyes falling shut immediately, only Niall and Perrie's chatter from the backseats keeping him barely awake. Ed was humming along to a song on the radio and rain was drumming onto the windscreen and roof of the car.

When they arrived home, Harry didn't manage much more than stripping off his clothes and falling onto his bed, pulling the duvet up to his chin.

The sheets smelled weirdly unfamiliar, and it didn't feel like his own bed. It made him dream of a time when he had shared his sheets, rare times when he had woken up beside someone else, had buried his face in a pillow that smelled of herbal shampoo and sweet cologne.

It mixed up with images of a dark hotel room and Louis' sleeping face, his hand on the pillow, fingers short and thin, looking fragile. Images of winter, a red scarf tying them together, sparkling snow clouding Harry's vision.

He dreamt of long gone days mixed up with current memories. Louis's lips moving under his own, Louis' skin against his, cold spreading in Harry's chest.

The dreams didn't stop.

+++

"So," Liam said, looking at Louis with an arched brow.

Rolling his eyes, Louis leaned back in his seat, looking out of the window. Liam was sitting next to him, Zayn was in the seat in front of them. He was turning around now, looking expectant.

"What?" Louis asked.

"So," Liam repeated. "You and Harry."

For a split second, Louis wondered if they had planned this; getting Louis to sit in the window seat, so they could easily corner him. It did look like a perfectly laid out plan, the way both were closing in on him now.

"It's not what you think it is," Louis simply said. "Don't say it as if we were sneaking behind your back or something."

Zayn arched a brow. "What exactly were you doing then?"

Louis shrugged. "Looking at a weather phenomenon, I guess."

"You guess?" Liam asked.

"Well," Louis drew out the word. "Snow that sparkles in the sunlight, yes."

Zayn and Liam were both quiet for a moment.

"And you wanted to see that?" Zayn's tone was sceptical.

"Why not?" Louis asked, shrugging.

"Lou," Liam just said, impatient.

Sighing, Louis closed his eyes. "Yeah, okay. I wanted to go with Harry. It was pretty, though."

Zayn frowned. "So, you guys just stood there, looking at snow?"

Louis lowered his gaze, biting his lip.

"I knew it!" Liam exclaimed. "What happened, Louis?"

"I asked him to be friends," Louis answered, quietly. "I realised that after the tour we wouldn't see each other anymore, and everything would go back to how it used to be."

"So you thought you'd rather be friends than nothing," Zayn noticed. "I assume he was on board with that idea?"

Louis nodded. "Yeah, he was."

"I couldn't be friends with any of my exes," Liam pointed out.

"Exactly," Zayn agreed. "Especially not with any of those who hold grudges."

"It's not like that," Louis argued, feeling his heart drop a little.

"You wanna tell me he doesn't hold a grudge?" Zayn asked. “Well, Louis, you may remember how exactly the Asian leg of the tour kicked off for you. You were fucking trapped in a shell."

He had been, Louis remembered. He had been afraid of every word or glance towards Harry, afraid to do or say something wrong to upset him even more.

"We've talked," he said weakly.

"And did it solve anything?" Liam wanted to know.

Louis thought of the anger in Harry's eyes when he had left the room after the kiss, thought of the empty expression on his face when Louis had sent him out on stage.

He could still feel Harry's arms around him, could still feel the sigh shuddering from Harry's lips against his temple. That had been an answer, too, hadn't needed words like all the other confrontations throughout the last month.

They'd be okay, Louis knew that things would work out if he just got a chance to make an effort.

"We're better," Louis answered vaguely. "I'll work on it."

Zayn sighed. "Just be careful."

Louis smiled slightly before he turned to look out of the window again. If he got hurt in the process, he'd take it; take all of it and just endure it.

It was much more important that Harry didn't get hurt again.

+++

Being back home meant only one thing for Harry -- work.

For two weeks straight, he didn't get much else done other than giving interviews where he was asked about Escapade nonstop, and recording in a studio, as well as meeting with people from the record label. They advised him on marketing strategies, gave Niall a list of PR agencies to contact and talked about requirements for Harry's first album.

As much as being on tour and playing in front of sold-out arenas had felt surreal, this felt even weirder to Harry. He was stopped on the street for pictures, asked for autographs, and girls followed him, taking pictures of him when he went to Tesco's before going home.

Today, he had his first day off in weeks, and Harry liked how it had turned out so far. He lay on Perrie's bed, sprawled on his stomach and Perrie sat behind him, painting her nails. A Christmas movie was on the telly and Harry only took in parts of it, nodding off every once in a while.

"This is nice," Perrie said. "You've barely been home since you came back from Tokyo."

Harry yawned, turning his head to look at her. "I've missed this. Being lazy is really nice."

Perrie laughed. "It is." She grabbed Harry's hand and rested it on her knee, starting to spread green polish over Harry's thumbnail. "Have you talked to Louis since the tour ended?"

Harry watched her for a bit, shaking his head no. "Too busy."

“Come on, Harry,” Perrie urged him on. “What exactly happened?”

Harry hadn’t told Perrie yet about everything that had happened on tour. He had told her about the cities and the things he had bought, local stuff he had brought for her and explained. But he hadn’t talked about Louis -- only that they were trying to be friends now.

“A lot,” he answered, closing his eyes again.

“What does that mean?” Perrie went on to Harry’s forefinger, painting his nail. “A lot of talking? A lot of shouting? Any fistcuffs?”

Harry laughed quietly. “Talking. Like, they kinda tricked me into accepting the offer.”

“Who is they ?”

“Niall and Louis,” Harry clarified. “Niall was behind it, actually. He wanted me to take the offer, so he had Louis… press my buttons,” he murmured, remembering Louis’s words. “And it worked.”

Perrie gasped. “Niall?”

“I figured it out once we’d been on tour for a few days. Louis completely avoided me and kept looking at me like a beat up puppy.” He shrugged, shifting slightly so Perrie could grab his other hand. “I just figured that Niall had something to do with that.”

“Did you kick his arse?” She wanted to know, sounding angry.

“Kinda,” Harry confirmed and sighed. “I was mad for a few days, but eventually, I couldn’t take him apologising anymore, so I forgave him.”

“Not cool, though. Especially not since Louis is probably the biggest trashbag to team up with.”

Harry pondered his answer for a moment. “He’s not so bad, really.”

“He was such an arse at the club,” Perrie argued. “I can’t really imagine him not being one around you.”

“That wasn’t him, Pez. It was just an act. He said it didn’t matter,” Harry murmured, thinking of Louis’ face when Harry had confronted him. “I already hated him, so it didn’t matter.”

For a moment, silence stretched between them, Perrie quietly painting Harry’s nails. “Did he at least apologise?” she asked then.

“Yeah,” Harry answered. “He apologised and he explained himself.”

“Hm,” Perrie hummed, and Harry didn’t know what it meant.

“He kissed me,” he said then. He hadn’t even told Niall, but he felt like Perrie would understand.

Her hand slipped and Harry felt the wet brush on his skin.

“Fuck,” Perrie mumbled, grabbing a tissue. “He kissed you?”

“Out of the blue.” Harry shrugged, not feeling as riled up about it anymore as he had in that moment -- quite the opposite, actually. Something warm glowed up in his chest at the memory. He opened his eyes, looking at her. “And I got really mad.”

“Of course you would!” She rubbed the tissue over Harry’s finger. “What an---”

“I want to kiss him again.”

Perrie froze, stopping her motions, and she looked up. The surprised expression on her face turned sympathetic when their eyes locked. “Are you really gonna go there?”

Harry shrugged. “Apparently not.” Seeing her confused look, he added, “He came with me onto the mountain in Sapporo. You know, where I got you the good luck charm?”

Perrie nodded.

“He came with me, and suddenly, he said all those things, about how he would always love the boy I was four years ago, and how he admires who I am now.” Harry swallowed thickly. “I thought he was going to tell me that he loves me, that he wants a second chance.”

“You can’t give him that, Harry,” Perrie reminded him. “He doesn’t deserve a second chance.”

He probably didn’t, Harry thought, rolling onto his back to stare at the ceiling. Harry shouldn’t be so weak, but Louis had been right --- a first love was someone you loved forever. Maybe that was the reason Harry still felt so attracted to Louis.

“He doesn’t want one,” Harry told her. “I thought he was going to kiss me and literally beg for another chance. Instead, he told me that he just wanted me in his life, and asked if we could be friends.”

Perrie was quiet and Harry didn’t dare turn his face to her. “That’s actually quite sweet,” she said then. “But, still. It doesn’t change what he’s done to you, Harry.”

Harry nodded. “But he’s changed. I actually like the person he’s become.”

“You gotta be careful with him,” Perrie reminded him. “Don’t go too fast, or you’ll regret it.”

“No,” Harry agreed. “I won’t do anything stupid. I just want to get over the pain and the hatred.”

“And is that working?” Perrie inquired.

“In a way?” Harry tilted his head, frowning slightly. Thinking of Louis now was still painful, and while the hatred was mostly gone, it still left Harry with a desperate feeling. A different desperate. Harry couldn’t grasp what it was. “I’m not sure how to be friends with him, though. I haven’t even talked to him since the tour ended.”

Perrie hummed. "The whole being friends thing isn’t working out too well, I suppose."

"It's a bit weird, isn't it?" Harry asked. "I don't even have his number."

"Ha!" Perrie grinned. "So you did think about contacting him."

Harry was quiet for a second. "'Course," he said then, shrugging.

"Hey," Perrie murmured running her hand through Harry's hair. "It'll be okay, yeah?"

"I hope so." Harry closed his eyes again, letting Perrie finish painting his nails.

She was the best, actually. Being resentful and angry had been hard to keep up for Harry, and Perrie understood that he just wanted to leave that behind him. She always understood him, and while she was also looking out for him, all she was concerned about was Harry’s happiness.

Perrie was the very best.

Her words made Harry realise that it was probably up to him to reach out to Louis first, though. After all, Louis had been brave enough to make a step towards Harry and say all the things he had kept inside. The least Harry could do was make a step towards Louis now and show him that he was sincere about being friends.

"You're stupid for not getting his number, though," Perrie pointed out, breaking the comfortable silence.

Harry giggled. "I didn't even think about it."

"There's quite a bit you didn't think about, apparently," Perrie said in a huff. "You, lucky bastard, were around Zayn for a month and didn't even think of getting your faithful, caring and loving housewife so much as an autograph."

"I prefer the term spouse," Harry simply answered, earning a shove to his shoulder.

"Twat," Perrie mumbled before she rolled off the bed and grabbed her coat. "Gotta get to work. Are you dropping by later?"

"Sure." Harry let his head fall back onto the pillow, watching her tie her scarf. "I'll pick you up."

Grinning, Perrie winked at him through her reflection in the mirror. "See you later, love."

Harry raised his hand, waving half-heartedly. When he heard the front door fall shut, he let go of a sigh and sat up, grabbing his mobile from the table next to Perrie's bed.

He opened Twitter and looked up Louis, pressing the follow button when he had found him. Frowning, he realised that adding Louis wouldn't do the trick. He was a celebrity, obviously Harry couldn't just send a direct message.

He tapped on Louis' name and then stared at the white space, thinking about what to write. Friends, Harry reminded himself. They were friends now, so Harry had to sound friendly. Biting his lip, he typed out a tweet to Louis.

@Louis_Tomlinson Trying to reach you, mate. It'd be easier if you added me.

Without thinking about it twice, Harry hit the send button, letting go of his breath when the tweet was out. Immediately, his notifications blew up with people tweeting him. Harry frowned at the list of tweets.

@Harry_Styles  Story of my life. You'll have to wait at least a year for him to notice you  #louisdoesntjustaddanyone

Didn't he know it? Harry snorted, putting his phone away. There had been a time when Harry had been looked at Louis for months, waiting for Louis to notice him. He had, eventually, and Harry was sure it would somehow work again.

He took the woollen blanket from the foot of Perrie's bed and curled up underneath it, eyes glued back on the TV screen. It only took a few minutes before Harry nodded off again, the quiet voices lulling him to sleep.

When he woke up, a rerun of an old Friends episode was on, and Harry watched it with bleary eyes for a few minutes before he remembered the tweet he had sent earlier.

While he had been asleep, his mobile had blown up with notifications. He had almost five hundred new followers, just as many mentions and twenty DMs. Frowning, he reopened Louis' profile and immediately saw the tweet at the top.

@Harry_Styles it'd be easiest if you had my number ;) check your dm.

Ignoring the other messages, Harry scrolled through his inbox for Louis', opening it to find nothing but a string of digits. He copied it and saved it to his contacts, opening a new What's App chat.

Hii. Sorry if I'm bothering you .

He saw Louis' status change to online before it changed to typing .

No problem. should ve given you my number earlier I suppose.

Harry smiled slightly, his heart beating a bit out of rhythm. This felt strange, a little unfamiliar -- although texting Louis had been an essential part of his days just three years ago.

Actually, I was wondering... Could you do me a favour?

For a moment, there was nothing, then Louis' answer popped up.

What do you need?

+++

"I can't believe you're doing this to me," Zayn complained as Louis parked his car.

The area looked a little dodgy, so Louis was worried about his car not being here in one piece when he came back later. He shouldn't have taken the Range Rover -- it would actually hurt if something happened to that car.

"Stop whining," Louis said to Zayn, turning. "It's just one evening, and you'll get a free meal out of it."

"I can get free meals anywhere I want, Lou," Zayn reminded him.

"Harry's cooking is something else, I promise."

"You just want to score points," Liam said. "I don't know why we have to play along in this."

Louis got out of the car, frowning. "I'm not. We're trying to be friends, Liam. And he can only be my friend if he's friends with you lot, too."

"You're selling me to get in his pants," Zayn reminded him.

"Fuck off," Louis growled. "It's just a tiny favour. He said you're always welcome."

"He's not selling me off," Zayn pointed out. "You are."

Louis rolled his eyes. "And don't you dare making any of those comments in there. You'll scare him off."

Liam snorted. "Wouldn't want to ruin your chances of getting laid."

"Not trying," Louis shot back, giving them a glare to make them shut up.

He noticed the small footie pitch next to the building and stopped for a second, staring at the huge billboard displaying a poster for a movie, bold letters stating Right Next To You . Louis stared at it for a moment before a shrill noise made him wince and turn back to the door.

He followed Liam and Zayn inside, taking the stairs to the third floor where Niall waited for them at an open door.

"Merry Christmas!" Niall greeted them, wearing a silly Santa hat.

Liam went easily when Niall opened his arms and hugged him. "It's good to see you, mate."

Niall didn't even give Zayn a chance -- as soon as he had let go of Liam, he launched himself at Zayn, embracing him. "Zayn, hey!" he cooed and Louis watched Zayn give in and hug him back, a fond smile on his face. "How have you been?"

"Good, man," Zayn said. "You?"

"Always good," Niall confirmed and turned to Louis, grinning widely.

"Hi, Ni," Louis greeted him, going for casual.

"Come here and get your Christmas hug." Niall spread his arms.

Without hesitation, Louis stepped into his embrace, hugging Niall back tightly. He sighed a little, feeling much better than before.

"Missed you," he said quietly and Niall squeezed him just that tiny bit tighter.

"Come in, come in," Niall said then, ushering them inside.

While Louis took off his coat, he saw Zayn going straight to the table at the window, stretching out his hand for the girl sitting on a chair and folding napkins.

"Hi, I'm Zayn!" he said in his friendliest voice. "Surprise!"

Louis blinked, watching the girl do the same, her expression confused and a little bit scared. Then he got distracted by Harry bursting into laughter. Louis turned his head to see him at the cooker, wearing a ridiculous apron showing a design of a woman's body in a Santa dress.

"That's not her, Zayn," Harry pushed out between giggles. He turned some of the knobs at the cooker and cleaned his hands on his apron. "She'll be coming later."

Zayn frowned slightly, but kept his hand extended. "Um, well," he mumbled. "Still. Nice to meet you."

The girl laughed, taking his hand. "I'm Barbara. And Perrie's gonna freak out when she sees you. Maybe you could be a bit less forceful about it, though?"

"Thanks for the invitation, Harry," Liam said politely, putting a hand on Zayn's arm. Louis knew it was to calm Zayn down. The words "freak out" always triggered panic from Zayn.

"I'm happy you guys could make it." Harry smiled genuinely.

"It's a bit less busy with Christmas just around the corner," Liam told him. Then he turned to the ginger boy who was quietly watching them. "Hi. I don't think we've met. I'm Liam."

"Ed," the boy answered, shaking Liam's hand. He wore a headband with a fake halo in white and gold.

"It's a Christmas party," Niall announced, coming from one of the other rooms. He held several hairbands in his hand. "You have to dress up properly."

"You're not serious," Louis complained. "I'm not wearing that."

"Yes, you are. You can be a Christmas angel like Ed." Niall stuck it into Louis' hair, grinning. "And you two," he turned to Liam and Zayn, "can be reindeers."

Reluctantly, Liam and Zayn put the hairbands on, both looking as though they had antlers on their heads.

"Nice," Harry commented. Then he pointed to the table. "Sit down. What would you like to drink?"

While Harry served them drinks and Niall chatted away happily, Louis took in some more of the flat. It wasn't big, but it looked nice. It was obvious that a girl lived with Harry, as there were a few feminine touches to the furniture.

"Perrie is still at work, but she should be back any minute," Harry said when Louis focussed back on the conversation. "She doesn't know you guys are here, though."

"Where does she work?" Liam asked.

"In a pub," Harry answered. "It's not too far from here. Ed used to play there Friday nights. It's nice."

"You're a musician too?" Zayn asked, turning to Ed. Niall joined their conversation, one arm slung over the back of Barbara's chair, and she turned to Liam, asking him about his plans for Christmas.

Louis glanced over his shoulder when Harry went back to the cooker, stirring one of the pots. Louis got up and approached him carefully, leaning against the work surface.

"Do you need help with anything?"

Harry glanced at him with a smile. "No, thanks. I'm fine."

"What did you make?" Louis asked, eyeing the pots.

"Turkey, roast potatoes and cranberry sauce." Harry lifted the lid of a pot. "And Christmas pudding."

"All by yourself?"

Harry shrugged. "I like cooking."

Louis only hesitated for a second. "I know."

Harry smiled again, then he turned to look at the table. "I know, I asked you to bring Zayn because of Perrie, but if he's uncomfortable with that---"

"It's alright, Harry," Louis reassured him.

"I just don't want him to think that's all he's here for." Harry frowned slightly, eyes trained on Zayn.

"He knows that," Louis lied, thinking of what Zayn had said earlier. It didn't matter, though, because Zayn would realise that Harry wasn't like that, that Harry genuinely wanted him here.

"I think Perrie's coming," Barbara said suddenly, and everyone else fell silent.

There were steps outside the door, stopping and followed by some rustling.

"Open the door for her," Niall whispered to Zayn. "Quick."

Zayn exchanged a look with Louis, and he knew exactly what it said. You fucking owe me, Tomlinson . Louis bit back a grin, just nodding at Zayn.

Holding his breath, Louis watched Zayn approach the door, and when he opened it, Perrie came into sight. Louis could only see Zayn's profile, but it was enough to catch the initial shock in his eyes.

The shock on Perrie's face was bigger, though. She lifted her head, hand buried deep in her handbag. Her cheeks were flushed from the cold, lips painted purple and her hair tied up in a bun. She gaped when she recognised Zayn, and dropped her whole bag.

Louis felt embarrassed just watching them as they both got to their knees to pick up what had spilt from Perrie's bag. Zayn kept throwing her nervous glances while handing her a pack of kleenex and a lipstick.

"Better than I expected," Harry commented quietly.

"He's completely struck," Louis told him.

"I think that's good." Harry winked, turning back to watch Zayn hold the door for Perrie.

"Um," Zayn mumbled, pointing inside. "Welcome home?"

Perrie walked past him, glancing at Liam, then at Louis before she went for Harry. "Are you fucking joking?" she hissed.

"Told you I'd have friends over for dinner." Harry shrugged, smiling innocently.

With a glance at Louis, Perrie fell silent, giving Harry a long look before she said, "I need to change."

"What?" Niall piped up. "We've been waiting for you to start dinner. I'm starved, Pez."

She turned back to Niall with a keen stare. "I need to change."

Barbara leaned in to kiss Niall's cheek before she got up and followed Perrie into her room. Niall groaned, rolling his eyes.

Harry turned to Zayn, giving a helpless shrug. "She may not look it, but she's really happy. Thanks."

Zayn just nodded briefly. "No problem."

Grinning, Louis sat down at the table, exchanging a look with Liam, who was biting back a grin himself.

"Let's drink to that," Ed exclaimed, suddenly drawing attention to himself and raising his glass.

Louis followed suit. "Good idea."

"I see you've been quite busy," Liam commented while Harry started to arrange food on the plates.

Harry shrugged a little, glancing at Niall. "I guess. Loads of promo, really."

Niall nodded. "We're doing loads of summer festivals, and have a tour planned for autumn."

"That sounds great," Liam said, beaming.

"How about you guys?" Ed asked. "Busy year ahead?"

Louis shrugged, setting his glass down. "We're in the middle of changing managements right now."

Niall lifted a brow. "You are?"

"The old was a bit..." Louis made a vague gesture with his hand.

"Old-fashioned," Zayn provided.

"So you have quite a few changes ahead, then?" Harry asked, bringing the first two plates to the table. Louis got up to help him serve the plates and earned a sweet, grateful smile from Harry.

"Basically," Liam said, "we won't be as busy touring anymore, and get more time for writing and spending time with our families."

"That's nice," Ed said.

"The bullshit stories will stop too," Louis pointed out, his gaze locking with Harry's for a moment. "I mean, they never really will. But at least it won't be our own management selling them to the media."

Just then, Perrie and Barbara came back into the room, both giggling over something, exchanging pointed glances.

"Get over here," Harry demanded, taking his seat next to Ed. "Food's getting cold."

Both girls rushed over and Louis watched Perrie throw her arms around Harry's shoulders from behind him, pressing a kiss to his hair.

Harry smirked to himself, patting her arms and leaning into her touch.

It looked nice, Louis thought. He didn't quite understand the pang of jealousy making his stomach clench, but that smile on Harry's face was reserved for the people closest to his heart.

He hadn't directed it at Louis once since they had met again.

+++

"Barbara seems nice," Louis said, kicking the ball to Niall and jogging back to his position by the goal.

"Nice?" Niall asked, mocking offence. "She is the hottest, wittiest and loveliest girl gracing this planet, mate. And all you can come up with is nice ?"

Harry laughed, glancing between them. This actually felt familiar -- the three of them, just like in the old days. Of course, everything was different now and nothing was remotely like it had been back then -- but it resembled the old times well enough to make Harry feel nostalgic.

After dinner, Perrie and Barbara had offered to do the dishes and clean the kitchen, and Niall had insisted on a round of footie with Louis. Harry had tried to convince Liam, Zayn and Ed to join them, but none of them had wanted to go out in the cold.

So it was only them, kicking the ball around and chatting.

"I don't really know her," Louis defended himself. "But from what I could see, I'd say you guys make a good couple."

"The best," Niall corrected him, passing the ball to Harry.

Harry tried to stop it with his foot, but failed, losing his balance and falling on his back. Groaning, he sat up and rubbed his head. Louis and Niall were both laughing madly, so he shot them a glare.

"That was not funny," he complained.

Niall shook his head. "Yeah, it really was. You're such an idiot."

Louis jogged over, extending a hand and still giggling. "You okay?"

"I hurt my bum," Harry complained, grabbing Louis' hand.

"Nothing there to cushion the fall," Louis hummed, shrugging.

"We can't all have arses like yours, Tomlinson," Niall reminded him, grinning.

"I've been informed that there's no other arse like mine out there," Louis confirmed. He sighed, feigning modesty. "There are lengthy posts on the internet dedicated to the curve of my glorious bum."

Harry rolled his eyes. "And you googled each and every one of them to save them to your computer."

"You do seem like the type to google yourself every day," Niall threw in.

Louis smirked. "There's too much, really. I'd be busy all day."

Harry knew that Louis probably didn't like to read any of the stuff that was written about him on a daily basis. It was very likely that most of it wasn't very nice, after all.

Louis gently played the ball over to Harry, like he would for a child, maybe. Harry didn’t know if he was endeared or offended.

“Zayn googles himself quite often,” Louis commented.

“Perrie googles Zayn quite often too,” Niall immediately answered.

Louis threw Harry an appalled look. “Is he safe in there?”

“Perrie’s not a crazy fangirl,” Harry protested, kicking the ball a little harder than necessary in  Niall’s direction. “A fan, but not crazy. I bet she tries to avoid him and gets all shy.”

“She didn’t seem shy to me,” Louis pointed out. He shrugged then, receiving the ball from Niall. “Zayn’s pretty shy too. Guess that won’t lead to much, then.”

“Maybe if they got to meet again,” Harry suggested, rocking back and forwards on his heels.

Louis seemed to perk up upon that. He shoved the ball around, rubbing the back of his neck. "I was wondering, since it's my birthday soon..."

"Won't let you beat me in a kick-off,” Niall deadpanned. “Not even for your birthday."

Louis kicked the ball in Niall's direction. "Shut it, you twat. I was inviting you to my party."

"Oh, great," Niall said. "A party's always good."

"You could bring Barbara, if she wants to come," Louis said before he turned to Harry, and the hopeful glimmer in his eyes actually did make his heart sting. "And Perrie and Ed are welcome, too. They're nice."

Smiling, Harry took a small step backwards. "I'll be home during the holidays."

"It'll be on New Year's Eve. No one’s really got time over Christmas, do they?" Louis shrugged. "There'll be loads of people. I sent Nick an invite," he added then.

Harry blinked. "I didn't know you were friends."

Blushing, Louis averted his gaze, looking at the ground. "We're not. But I thought since you guys are--" He shrugged his shoulders again. "I thought it'd make you more comfortable."

Harry caught the look Niall gave him, genuine concern and empathy in his eyes. "Tell him," he mouthed at Harry, nodding his head.

"Thanks," Harry murmured, turning back to Louis. "For, like, inviting us."

Louis just nodded, glancing at Harry. "Yeah. No problem, really."

"Maybe you should tell Ed, Babs and Perrie yourself," Harry suggested. "The girls will be over the moon at the prospect of a party."

Louis grinned, the spark not quite reaching his eyes. "Great. So you two are coming?"

"Deffo," Niall agreed.

Harry smiled. "Yeah. Didn't have plans yet."

"Cool," Louis answered and Harry could see relief washing over his face.

One step at a time, he told himself, and this would feel normal too. He just had to work a little harder on it, then the whole thing about being friends would work out somehow.

When every trace of insecurity had vanished from Louis' expression and stance, Harry could feel himself breathe again, his heart beating a little faster as Louis started to run, chasing after Niall and they both ended up falling over. Tilting his head back, Louis barked out a laugh. His eyes crinkled, he slapped his thigh and held his stomach, losing his breath.

Harry forced himself to look away.

Louis’ laugh was still as infactuous as ever.

+++

"I need your ID, please."

Staring at the bulky man in front of him, Harry handed his ID card over, making more space so the others could hand over theirs too. The man looked at all of them before he glanced up, eyes roaming over Harry's face.

They were standing in front of the door to Louis' flat, loud music pounding from inside, and what he could see from outside was a spacious hall, brick walls and modern furniture. That, as well as having to go through a security check, made Harry realise once again that Louis was a different person now, was living in a completely different world.

He held the box with cupcakes closer to his chest while the security man checked his list for their names. How stupid of him to make cupcakes for a party with a budget that was probably bigger than Harry's yearly income.

"Ian," the security man said then, handing their IDs back and looking over his shoulder. "Could you please lead these guys directly to Louis?"

Another guy turned, frowning slightly. "All of them?"

Harry's heart started to beat a little faster, and he was afraid something was wrong. Perrie shuffled a little closer, her hand coming to rest on Harry's back.

"Mr Styles and all of his guests," the bulky one answered. He gave them a smile. "You can't pass just like that, though."

"Need us to go through a casting first?" Niall asked from behind Harry.

The guy grinned. "Wouldn't want to make you embarrass yourself in front of your girl," he said before he looked back at Harry. "I'm afraid you'll have to leave one of the cupcakes."

Harry blinked, then he felt relief loosen up his tense muscles. "That's not a problem." He opened the box and let the guy choose one of the sweet delights.

"I'm Alberto, by the way," he introduced himself. "If you need anything, just let me know."

"A beer," Niall answered promptly.

"I'll let Louis take care of that," Alberto answered. "Ian's gonna get you to him."

"Thanks," Harry mumbled as they went inside where Ian was standing.

"Thanks for the treat!" Alberto turned away then, greeting the couple that had just arrived.

Perrie linked her arm with Harry's and over his shoulder, Harry checked if Niall and Barbara were still behind them before he followed Ian.

"Hey!" Louis yelled when they came into a living room that was twice as big as Harry and Perrie's flat. The windows were huge, there was a big cream-coloured sofa, a glass table and wooden floors. One wall was red bricks, the other white and almost completely covered by a gigantic flat screen.

Louis was surrounded by men, mostly. Handsome and very attractive men. Harry's fingers tightened around the box, and he felt an odd heat in his chest at the sight of all those guys solely focussed on Louis.

Louis however got up and stumbled over to them, eyes bright, lips and cheeks pink and his hair a little dishevelled. Harry wondered if it had been someone else's fingers messing up the strands.

"I'm glad you came," Louis said, going for Niall to hug him.

Niall went easily, arms wrapping around Louis instantly. "Happy belated birthday, mate!"

"Oh, yeah, what's my present?" Louis smirked, swaying slightly when Niall let go.

"I'll probably let you win in a one-on-one footie match," Niall promised, winking.

"Oh, you," Barbara hissed, rolling her eyes. "We got you something. I hope you'll like it."

For a moment, Louis looked at her with wide eyes, then he hugged her briefly. "Thank you," he murmured, sounding genuinely touched, before he turned back to Perrie and Harry.

"I made something for you," Perrie said, handing over her wrapped present. "Happy belated birthday."

"That wasn't necessary," Louis pointed out, taking it. "Thanks."

There was tension for a moment, and Harry knew that Perrie was still wary around Louis. But eventually, she sighed and shrugged. "Yeah, totally was, love. Your hair's pretty long and those black headbands you always wear aren't very fashionable."

Louis gasped. "Are you implying I'm not always fashionable?"

"Absolutely."

Laughing, Louis pulled her into a hug too. "Thanks for helping me improve, I guess."

Perrie patted his back. "Someone has to, I guess."

"I assume you're the one who braided Harry's hair tonight too?" Louis asked as he pulled back.

Perrie shrugged. "Can't have him rock the same style every day, now can I?"

"And does he paint his nails himself or are you responsible for that too?" Louis inquired, smirking.

"Hey," Harry interfered, drawing out the word. "I can hear you, you know."

Louis turned to him and his smile was lovely, open and mischievous. "Never said I didn't like it," he commented, lifting a hand to run his fingers over the part of Harry's hair that Perrie had braided.

"I made cupcakes," Harry said because he had to say something before his heart threatened to beat out of his chest.

"You don't expect me to share them with my guests, do you?" Louis asked, eying the box.

Handing it over, Harry shook his head. "They're yours. You can do whatever you want with them." He hesitated for a moment, then he leaned in and kissed Louis' cheek. "Happy belated birthday."

Louis seemed a little tense, holding on to the box, then he turned abruptly, going over to the table.

"We got cupcakes," he announced loudly. "The first one's mine, mind."

"Hey, Louis, I got you another drink," someone said and Harry watched a guy approach Louis, touching his lower back and handing him a glass filled to the brim with dark liquid.

"Great." Louis accepted it, smiling before he turned back to them. "Drinks are in the kitchen, help yourself."

Niall was off within a fraction of a second, and Perrie squeezed Harry's arm before she followed him together with Barbara. Harry almost didn't register it, his attention focussed on the guy next to Louis.

"Aiden, you gotta meet Harry," Louis said, leading him over. "He was our supporting act for the Asian tour."

"I remember," Aiden said, and Harry studied his face closely. "You're sick, mate."

When he smiled, it clicked and Harry blurted out, "I know you!"

Aiden blinked. "Do you?"

"We--" Blushing, Harry glanced at Louis, unsure how to proceed. "We met in a club once."

Aiden looked horrified. "Oh, shit."

Louis choked on his drink, coughing and spilling some of it over his t-shirt. When Harry faced him, the rosy colour had vanished from Louis' cheeks, and his mouth gaped open.

"No," Harry protested vehemently. " No . We just had a drink together."

Aiden breathed out in relief. "You just gave me a bit of a scare, you know."

"You tried to pull Harry?" Louis asked, appalled.

"Well, I mean..." Aiden gestured at Harry, as if his argument was obvious.

"Fuck off," Louis growled and stepped closer to Harry, hand coming to rest on Harry’s hip. "Keep your hands off him."

Harry faced Louis, blinking slowly. That sounded a lot like jealousy, and Harry wasn't sure Louis was entitled to be jealous. "What?"

Louis' head snapped around to him and he looked as though he was only realising his actions now. His hand jolted back like he had burned himself. "I mean," he said sheepishly. "You deserve better than this twat here. Even for a one-night stand."

"I'll remind you next time," Aiden pointed out.

Harry looked back at Aiden, processing those words, because they could only mean one thing. He felt his fingers go numb, and wondered if he himself was entitled to jealousy -- because what he felt was definitely jealousy.

"Are you guys--"

"We should get you a drink, Harry," Louis cut in, gripping Harry's arm.

Harry turned back to Aiden once, saw him smirking into his glass while Louis dragged Harry off to the kitchen. They passed Zayn and Perrie on their way, and Zayn briefly acknowledged Harry with a smile and wave of his hand.

The kitchen was empty, cupboards open and water running from the tap in the sink but Louis didn't seem to care. He took a plastic cup and filled it with whatever he had mixed in a huge bowl. Harry noticed him adding lots of fruit before he handed him the cup.

Their fingers brushed when Harry took it from Louis, their gazes locking, and Louis took a step closer.

"Listen, Aiden’s just a friend," Louis said.

"So am I," Harry answered promptly, surprised by himself.

Louis broke the eye contact, looking down. "Yes, of course."

Setting the cup down, Harry reached out tentatively, fingers brushing over Louis' arm. "It's a bit odd, I guess," he said quietly. "With everything we were. Once," he added in an afterthought.

"I just don't want to make this awkward," Louis admitted.

"You're not," Harry reassured it. "Let's just forget about it."

Nodding, Louis took another cup and filled it. "Okay. Great," he agreed, the cheerful tone sounding not entirely genuine.

Harry lifted his own cup in cheers before he downed half of it in one go. He had a feeling this would probably get easier once he was drunk. Right now, it was very difficult not to reach out and pull Louis in, maybe kiss him, just a little.

The urge was fierce, Harry's fingertips tickling with it. He resisted, smiling forcefully when other people piled into the room and stole Louis' attention.

A refill seemed like a good idea before Harry left the kitchen to find Niall or Perrie.

+++

When Louis came out of the kitchen, he couldn't spot Harry in the crowd of his living room. He saw Zayn in a corner of the room, leaning against the wall, and listening to something Perrie was telling him. The way they were standing, close, Perrie leaning in to talk into Zayn's ear while his fingers brushed her elbow -- no question that Zayn had secured himself a midnight kiss for later.

Liam was outside, smoking with a group of friends, and Louis spotted Niall among them, his arm slung around Barbara's waist. They were laughing at something, Niall's laughter the loudest.

"So," Aiden said, appearing at his side. "That Harry is the infamous ex?"

Louis decided to just down his drink in one go. At this point, it didn't matter anymore. "Don't know what you mean."

"Maybe you should see your face when he's around," Aiden suggested.

"We're just friends." Louis shrugged.

Laughing, Aiden glanced at Louis. He shook his head. "You're head over heels for him."

"Shut up, Aiden." Louis was about to turn and join Liam outside -- since he really didn't want to go over and ruin Zayn's chances with Perrie -- when another group of people came into the room. Nick Grimshaw was leading them, an arm thrown over Harry's shoulders. Harry had his hands buried in his pockets, dimples pressing into his cheeks and he looked as though he was a bit tipsy.

"Hey, there he is!" Nick yelled and pointed at Louis.

Great, Louis thought, now he would have to face Harry and his new boyfriend, and pretend he wasn't bothered by it. Aiden put a hand to the small of his back, and stayed close by Louis' side.

"Thanks for the invitation, Tommo," Nick said politely, and Louis would have appreciated it if he had taken his hands off Harry, but no such luck.

"I'm glad you could make it," Louis answered, avoiding looking at Harry. Instead he glanced past Nick and inspected the rest of the group.

"We just wanted to get some more drinks," Nick said. "Care to join us for a round of shots?"

"Always," Aiden answered. "How about a drinking game?"

Louis rolled his eyes. "You just want to strip."

Aiden shrugged. "Sue me. How about it now?"

"Yeah, why not?" Louis answered, looking at Nick again. "You?"

"Sounds fun," Nick agreed and pointed to the sofa. "Get us some alcohol."

Louis glared at Nick's back when he led Harry away, arm still around Harry's shoulders as if he belonged to Nick.

"Please tell me this is one of your tactics and that it'll end with Nicholas Grimshaw vanishing from my party," Louis inquired as he followed Aiden into the kitchen.

Aiden set shot glasses onto a tray, frowning at Louis. "No? I just want to strip."

Sighing, Louis grabbed a bottle of Tequila and made his way back into the living room where Harry sat on the sofa, squished between Nick and Niall.

"We've found some more players," Nick announced, gesturing at Barbara, Niall, Perrie and Zayn.

"Where's Li?" Louis asked Zayn.

"Haven't seen him in a while. You should be worrying about your bedroom, mate." Zayn smirked.

Rolling his eyes, Louis crossed his legs as he sat down on the carpet. "Okay, what's the game?"

"A classic," Aiden announced, drawing a card from a pack. "We'll pass it around with the mouth, obviously. Whoever drops it, gets a kiss. Both have to drink, though."

Nick already filled the glasses, humming in agreement. "Rules are clear."

"Also, we'll have to switch the order. No couple sitting next to each other." Aiden pointed from Barbara and Niall to Perrie and Zayn.

"We're not--" Perrie started, but got cut off by Aiden.

"Just go sit on the other side, love." He winked at her. "We both know he'd drop the card on purpose."

Perrie blushed, but she wasn't too shy to shoot back an answer. "Maybe I would drop it on purpose."

"Just proves my point," Aiden replied. He gestured at Harry and Nick. "That counts for you, as well. Split up, lovebirds."

Louis saw Harry nervously glance at Nick, and Nick got up, changing seats.

"Gotta try something new every once in a while, don't we?" he said lightly as he sat down between Barbara and a guy Louis had never seen before.

"It's just pecks, right?" Barbara inquired, frowning slightly.

"Better not drop that card," Zayn told Niall, poking his ribs.

Niall just winked at Barbara.

"Positions have to be changed after the card is dropped," Aiden went on explaining. "Other than that, get snogged. Get drunk."

Louis instantly glanced at Harry across from him, catching him staring back before Aiden tapped Louis' shoulder to get his attention. When Louis turned to him, he leaned in to take the card with his mouth, breathing in to keep it attached to his lips.

"Looks like tonight I might get that Tommo kiss after all," Niall joked.

Hey, no kissing other boys , the memory replayed in Louis' head, Harry's voice, much younger than now, sounding upset and offended. He passed the card on to Niall who promptly dropped it when Zayn leaned in to him.

Three kisses and four shots later, Louis had to change seats again. He had kissed Barbara which had been okay, just a friendly peck, and he had kissed Liam who had joined them in the fourth round. Liam had framed Louis' face, drawing the kiss out, a big, wet smack to Louis' lips. The third one had been Nick and Louis had decided to take an extra shot for that.

He slumped down onto the sofa, his vision a little blurry and his limbs pleasantly loose. Watching Barbara and Niall exchange the card made Louis frown, but he didn't say a thing because they didn't use the opportunity for a snog. What a lame couple; they were disgustingly sweet.

When Louis turned his head, he noticed Harry next to him. He hadn't swapped seats yet, had always passed on the card without dropping it once. He was staring at his fingers now, oddly interested in his nails, apparently.

Aiden turned from Nick and passed the card on to Harry, winking at Louis when Harry leaned in. He didn't drop the card to steal a kiss from Harry as Louis had suspected. Instead, Harry received it and turned around.

The card dropped before he had even bent forwards to Louis.

"What an idiot!" Nick yelled.

"Shots!" Niall added.

Glancing at Harry, Louis took the glass and brought it to his lips. Harry did the same, downing his shot. Then he got up to change seats and Louis wanted to reach out and pull him back in, take the kiss he deserved.

Instead, someone came in at that moment, announcing, "It's only two minutes 'til midnight!"

"Better join the outside crowd to watch the fireworks," Liam mused.

Everyone got up, slowly piling outside, and Louis watched Harry leave together with Nick by his side, chatting to Niall. With a frustrated sigh, Louis filled another shot glass, gulping down the burning alcohol.

He had been so close. So close to a kiss -- just a small one, just a shadow of what the one in Malaysia had been, of all the ones they had shared four years ago. Why couldn't he even have it in a game?

"Hey," he heard a soft voice say and turned to see Harry approach him. "Are you not coming?"

Staring at him for a moment, Louis thought about just standing up and taking what he wanted. Standing up and hauling Harry in, claiming his lips in a rough kiss, tasting the alcohol and cupcakes on Harry’s lips, and make him moan, just ever so slightly while he would go all pliant and soft in Louis’ arms. He couldn't do that, though. It wouldn't feel right.

"In a second," Louis answered.

"That may be a little late, because--"

"Ten! Nine! Eight!" The crowd outside started to count. "Seven! Six!"

Louis looked past Harry, found Zayn standing close to one of the windows, briefly looking back. He winked and nodded his head before he turned around again.

Everyone outside started to yell, an outburst of happy voices, the fireworks going off with a loud noise, painting Louis' garden in bright colours.

When Louis faced Harry again, he looked just as desperate as Louis felt.

Harry came up to him, fumbling with the hem of his shirt before sitting down next to Louis. Louis’ heart completely stopped beating, every cell focussed on Harry, and he shivered when Harry’s gaze dropped to Louis’ lips for a split second. He inhaled deeply and Louis could see a nervous flicker in his eyes before Harry leaned in and caught Louis' lips in a kiss.

It was different, completely different from how it had been in Malaysia. It didn't feel less urgent, but it was definitely calmer. Harry's lips slowly dragged over Louis', opening up his mouth with gentle nips, his tongue only flicking over Louis' bottom lip.

Louis tilted his head, opening up for Harry and did what he had wanted to do all night -- he buried one hand in Harry's curls. Harry made a delicious noise, sighing into their kiss and brought one hand up to Louis' waist.

They pulled apart, and as Louis opened his eyes, he saw Harry's lids flutter open, his pupils wide, eyes a little glassy. Louis licked his lips, catching Harry's taste on them and leaned his forehead against Harry's.

"Happy New Year," Harry murmured.

Louis closed his eyes, knowing the magic would be over in a second. "Happy New Year."

Before either of them could say anything else, people came back in, and brought along loud noises and excited chatter. Harry pulled away, standing up to fall into Perrie's arms while Liam tackled Louis from behind, throwing his arms around Louis' shoulders.

After that, Louis lost sight of Harry completely, wondering where he had gone off to, and who he was with, if he had kissed someone else, if he still tasted Louis on his tongue.

Maybe it had just been a dream -- it certainly felt like that.

+++

Harry sighed tiredly, curling up on the sofa, his head resting on Niall's shoulder. Barbara had already fallen asleep, buried in the sofa cushions.

Almost everyone had left already. It was only them remaining, as well as Perrie.

"Why don't you take her upstairs?" Louis suggested. "You guys can sleep up there."

"Really?" Niall asked. "We can call a taxi."

"It's almost seven, Niall. Just get some sleep." Louis pointed upstairs, turning to Harry. "You and Perrie could take the spare room, if you don't mind sharing a bed."

"Zayn's already sleeping there," Perrie informed him. "He was feeling tired earlier and told me he was going to lie down there."

"And he never came back," Louis commented. "Old story."

Harry looked at him, staring at Louis' lips as he said something else. He still felt them on his own, moving under Harry's, languidly, lazily.

It had probably been wrong to give in to that desire, but Harry couldn't yet bring himself to regret it. He had tried to keep his distance afterwards, well aware that if he got closer to Louis again, it would only end in Harry planting another kiss on him.

It was complicated, because Harry still felt wary about it, but at the same time, every bloody fibre of his body was attracted to Louis, wanting him in every way possible.

Harry decided to keep all regrets for when he was be sober again.

"Hey, Haz," Perrie said, touching his shoulder. "Are you asleep?"

Harry shook his head slowly. "Almost."

"We'll just stay here on the sofa," Perrie told him.

"Would rather you sleep in the bed. Zayn's not gonna jump you, is he?" Harry asked, frowning a little.

"The bed is quite big," Louis pointed out. "And Zayn's asleep; of course he's not gonna jump anyone."

"You take the bed," Harry instructed, tiredness making it hard to form sentences.

"Okay," Perrie gave in.

"Do you need something to sleep in?" Louis asked. "I can lend you a t-shirt and sweats."

It was the last Harry heard before they were out of the room, Niall behind them with Barbara in his arms. Harry kicked off his boots and opened the buttons of his shirt, winding his upper body out of it before he got rid of his jeans.

Resting his head on a cushion, he was almost asleep when he jolted awake again, someone saying his name. Blinking his eyes open, he found Louis in front of him, a thick bed cover in tow and dressed in boxer shorts and a t-shirt.

"Budge up," he whispered. "We gotta share."

Harry rolled over until he hit the back of the sofa and Louis lay down in front of him, spreading the cover over them. Gentle, grey light streamed through the windows and without a thought, Harry curled around Louis' back, burying his nose in Louis' hair.

"Hey, Haz," Louis murmured quietly, fingers coming to grip Harry's wrist.

"Hm?" Harry reacted, trying to hold off sleep for a moment longer.

"It wasn't just a drunken fantasy, was it?" Louis asked, his thumb gently rubbing over Harry's pulse point.

Harry wanted to tell him that it had been exactly that. It would have been much easier to deal with if they pretended it had never happened. Instead he shook his head, nose brushing over the nape of Louis’ neck. He didn't dare to say a word.

He was afraid whatever he said right now would destroy the fragile peace he felt while lying here with Louis. He just wanted to fall asleep like this and forget about anything else.

Louis lifted Harry's wrist and pressed a short kiss just beneath his palm.

"Go to sleep, love," he whispered.

Harry nuzzled closer, and did exactly that.

+++

He woke up alone.

When Harry sat up, scratching his head, he was completely alone in the spacious living room, pale sunlight flooding the floor. Rubbing his eyes, Harry looked around and found himself surrounded by a mess of empty bottles, plastic cups and dirty dishes.

The heavy bed cover had pooled around his waist and Harry snorted out a laugh when he recognised the Iron Man print. Louis was a bloody toddler.

When he shivered slightly, Harry realised that his chest was completely bare and for a second, he panicked, eyes checking upon the tattoo on his arm. He had forgotten about it, had let down his guard completely.

What if Louis had seen it?

With a wildly beating heart, Harry grabbed his shirt off the floor and pulled it on, not caring to button it up. It was enough that the sleeve covered his arm. Dressed like that, he crawled out from underneath the bed cover and stumbled over to the kitchen, a constant rhythm pounding behind his temples.

Louis wasn't there. Instead, he found Niall, Liam and Zayn at the table, eating pancakes.

"Hey, Harry. Morning." Liam saw him first, waving him over.

"Morning," Harry mumbled, sitting down next to Niall.

"Here," Zayn said, shoving a glass of water and two pills in Harry's direction.

"My kind of breakfast," Harry commented and swallowed the pills before he gulped down the water.

"Do you know where Louis slept?" Liam asked, spreading butter over his pancakes.

"Um," Harry mumbled, lowering his gaze.

"He'll pop up like you did, Liam," Niall commented. For Harry, he added, "Barbara found him in the bathtub this morning."

Liam shrugged. "It was quite comfortable, actually."

Laughing, Zayn shook his head. "You could have joined me in the guest room."

Harry's head snapped up at that. "Where's Perrie?"

"She was still asleep when I got up." Zayn threw Harry a glance, rolling his eyes. "Don't look at me like that, Harry. Nothing happened."

"Alright," Harry murmured, nodding.

"Which only leaves us with the question where Louis has disappeared to," Liam noted.

"He showed us to his bedroom and took the bed cover with him," Niall commented. "I thought he was going to join Harry on the sofa."

Feeling his cheeks flush, Harry got up to refill his glass with water.

"He did leave the cover with Harry," Zayn commented.

"He stayed," Harry told them without turning around. "He stayed with me."

"I knew it!" Niall shouted, making Harry's ears ring.

"We just shared the sofa," Harry protested. "I shared a sofa with you a million times."

"I'm not your ex-boyfriend you've been pining over for years, though."

Zayn laughed dryly and was about to say something when the terrace door opened and Louis came in.

He was wrapped in a woollen jumper and a thick scarf, his hair covered by a dark beanie. His nose was red, his lips pale and he looked completely exhausted. Harry wanted to go over and pull him in, warm him up by kissing every inch of his body, put him back to sleep with gentle touches and soft words.

Louis' eyes roamed over Harry's torso, apparently taking in every detail and Harry remembered the tattoo. He pressed his arm closer to his chest, staring at Louis intently to find any hint of whether he knew or not.

"Where have you been?" Liam asked.

"Kicking a few balls in the back garden," Louis answered, voice rough.

"Got a bit bored lying next to Harry, or what?" Niall joked.

Louis' jaw clenched and he averted his gaze to the ground, clearing his throat. "I'll take a shower."

The other three boys all turned to Harry when Louis left. Zayn raised a brow, Liam folded his hands on the tabletop and Niall had a sympathetic look in his eyes.

"What did you do?" Niall asked.

Harry pulled the shirt together over his chest, suddenly feeling over-exposed. "Why do you assume I did something?"

"Because he's just like he was when you first joined us on tour," Liam explained.

At that moment, Barbara and Perrie came into the kitchen, both looking fresh and awake, even though they were in their dresses from the night before.

"Morning," Perrie chirped, sitting down next to Zayn. He wordlessly got up to get a plate for her.

Barbara took Harry's vacated seat and stole a bite of Niall's pancakes. Niall didn't even complain, just cut another piece for her.

Liam still watched Harry with expectant eyes and Harry swallowed thickly. Harry thought of the kiss, of Louis slotting against his body perfectly, Louis' lips dragging over Harry's wrist.

He hadn't done a single thing -- all of it had just happened .

"I'll call a taxi," he said, moving back towards the door to the living room.

He'd better be gone before Louis came back from his shower.

Harry felt the others gaze after him but didn't dare turn around. Instead, he picked up his jeans from the floor and pulled them on before he buttoned up his shirt. He searched for his coat in the entrance hall, finding it buried beneath a pile of other coats and hesitated at the door for a moment.

Gazing up the stairs, he listened to the noise of running water. He imagined Louis under the spray, hair wet and plastered to his head, water dripping from his chin, running over the curve of his back, drops gathering on his shoulders and in the dip of his collarbones.

He’d use some herbal shampoo -- that’s what his hair smelled like, Harry had it memorised from last night.

Perrie came into the hall, looking worried. She opened her mouth to speak, but Harry cut her off with one glance.

"The taxi will be here in five," he said, opening the door. "I'll be waiting outside."

---

Chapter Text

He could talk to Liam and Zayn -- Louis knew that he could always talk to them about anything. They would listen, and Zayn would give Louis some good advice while Liam would hold him, stroking Louis' back reassuringly.

Yet, there was only one person who would understand all of it, who would know exactly why Louis couldn't handle this. There was only one person who knew both him and Harry well enough to tell Louis what he was supposed to do.

It was late, almost midnight, and Louis had just returned from Los Angeles. They had flown over the day after New Year, which had left Louis with no opportunity to see Harry again and talk to him.

Also, the fact that Harry had left so abruptly had said a lot too. Louis had taken that as Harry not wanting to talk about--- it. That. Them .

Louis wouldn't have known what to say, anyway. They had texted back and forth for a bit, with Louis making the first step. Just meaningless words, some polite exchanges of Have fun at home and Thanks again for the invitation , as well as Have a good time in L.A . No mentions of the kiss, no mentions of sleeping cuddled up on the sofa.

Throughout the week they had spent in Los Angeles, Louis hadn’t been able to think of anything else but Harry's body next to his, arms tight around Louis' waist, breathing steadily and warm against Louis' neck.

Louis had spent almost an hour lying awake on the sofa, just staring into the pale winter sun while Harry had still been asleep next to him. When Louis had turned in Harry's arms, carefully so as not to wake him, he had found Harry's expression peaceful, his lashes fanning against his cheekbones, lips slightly parted. Louis had run a finger over them, thinking of how they had felt on his own.

It had come as a bit of a shock when Harry had moved, and Louis had pulled his hand away, afraid of being caught. Harry hadn't woken up, though. Instead, he had nuzzled closer, one hand slipping beneath Louis' shirt, a knee slotting between Louis' thighs.

"Lou," he had murmured quietly, fingers brushing Louis' ribs.

That had driven Louis away. He had slowly peeled himself from Harry's side, slipping out from beneath the cover. His heart had beat wildly in his throat, pounding loudly in Louis' ears and completely out of control.

Harry had known exactly, even in his sleep, who it was he held in his arms. The realisation had been like an ice-cold shower, making everything inside Louis freeze.

What was he supposed to think, to expect -- to do ?

"Louis?"

He turned, seeing Barbara approach him. He put on a smile, greeting her with a friendly wave.

"Niall said you guys were in L.A.?" she pointed out, unlocking the door.

"Um, yeah. We only came back today," Louis answered. "Is he home?"

Barbara nodded, smiling. "'Course. Come in."

Louis followed her inside, waiting in the cramped, small corridor. A moment later, Niall came from one of the rooms, looking confused.

"Louis," he said, gesturing for him to come over. "What are you doing here?"

"Hey, Ni," he said, feeling tired all of a sudden. "Do you have a moment?"

Niall glanced behind him. "Babs, we'll be in the kitchen," he said before he closed the door and went ahead to lead Louis into another room.

The kitchen was small, only a tiny window above the sink, but it looked exactly how Louis would have imagined Niall's kitchen. There was a shelf with a collection of bottles, pictures on the fridge that showed Barbara and Niall in various places, always smiling brightly into the camera.

"Tea?" Niall asked.

"Please," Louis answered, sitting down at the table in the middle of the room.

Niall put the kettle on before he sat down across from Louis. "I assume this is about Harry."

"Yeah," Louis admitted, nodding. "I'm going crazy, Niall. I don't know what to do."

"Did you sleep with him at New Year?" Niall asked bluntly, crossing his arms.

Louis' heart stumbled just at the idea of it. "No," he answered. "Why would you think that?"

"Because Harry's no better off, mate. And he won't talk to me," Niall added. "What happened?"

"We kissed," Louis said quietly. "He kissed me at midnight."

Niall got up to fill the mugs with hot water. "Just out of the blue?"

Biting his lip, Louis swallowed thickly. "I may have kissed him in Malaysia?"

"In Malaysia?" Niall turned, arching a brow. "That early on? I had suspected Japan."

"I tried, Niall, I promise. I really tried to keep my distance. I didn't mean to kiss him, it just happened." Louis buried his face in his hands. "And then the tour ended, and I had to make him stay -- I couldn't let him go back to a life where I don't exist for him."

"You asked him to be friends," Niall noted, sitting down across from Louis again and setting a mug in front of him. "Harry told me that much."

"I fucked it all up," Louis groaned. "I thought being friends would be a good solution, but I just can't do it."

"Who the hell stays friends with their ex, anyway?" Niall asked. "That's not possible, is it?"

"I think it is for a few people," Louis argued.

"People who didn't split in a fight, yes." Niall tapped his fingers against the table top. "But people who broke each others' hearts and held grudges for years? Those people don't become friends, Louis."

"I don't want to lose him again." Saying it felt oddly liberating, like letting go of a heavy weight.

"I know, Lou," Niall reassured him softly. "But being friends is not the solution. You know that for you guys it can only be all or nothing."

Louis looked up, finding Niall's gaze. "I don't think he'd give me a second chance. It's like there is a wall around him that I can't break down."

Niall didn't answer, just gave Louis an intense stare.

"I want to fight for him, Ni, I really do. But how am I supposed to, when he's not even free?" Louis ran a hand through his hair, shrugging helplessly. "I feel awful, because I don’t encourage people to cheat. That's not who I am."

"To cheat?" Niall asked, sounding confused.

Louis laced his fingers, forcing the words out of himself. "He's with Nick, isn't he?"

"Is he still making you believe that?" Niall rolled his eyes. "That fucker. I told him to clear that up."

Louis looked up. "What?"

"He's not with Nick, never really has been, actually. Something was going on, but they've never been a couple."

Louis needed a moment to work through that, a bitter taste in his mouth. Harry had deliberately made Louis believe that he was with someone else, that he wasn't available and that Louis stood no real chance, other than being a fling, if anything, a sneaky affair behind his boyfriend's back.

"But he didn't deny it when we were over for Christmas dinner and I invited you guys," Louis protested. "And at my party--- He didn't say a word against it when Aiden called them a couple."

"I think part of him still wants to hurt you, Louis," Niall murmured, removing the tea bags. "That wall you mentioned? He still resents you. A part of him probably always will."

"There has to be a way to make him believe me," Louis argued.

"Well, Louis, you would have to go back in time and change the decision you made back then." Niall shrugged. "I think he's afraid you'd make a decision like that again."

"I wouldn't!" Louis protested vehemently, fisting his hands. "I was fucking eighteen years old, Niall. I was young and dumb, and had no clue. What would he have done? If he had ever been in that position? How can he be so sure that he wouldn't have made the same mistake?"

Silence stretched between them after that and Niall sipped his tea before he inhaled deeply.

"Okay, Louis, since this will always stand between you, I'll tell you now," Niall announced, sounding very serious. "Harry's too proud to tell you, but if you don't find out about it, you'll never break down his walls."

Louis frowned. "What are you on about?"

Niall set down his mug, holding Louis' gaze. "He got the offer first, Louis," he said then, quietly, and Louis registered the words, but didn't understand what they meant. "Syco contacted him first, asking him to come down to London for that casting. He declined without a second thought."

"That's a lie," Louis whispered, his voice feeling rough in his throat.

Niall shook his head. "I'm afraid it's not."

"Why didn't he fucking tell me?" Louis felt something hot boil up in his chest.

"Because you had the same choice, Louis," Niall told him, sympathy on his face. "And you didn't pick him."

Tears built up behind Louis' eyes, he could feel them burn, threatening to spill, so he stood up. Swallowing the burn down, Louis desperately tried to calm himself, to get a grip, but it just increased, spreading through his body.

"I need to go," he said, storming out of the kitchen.

"Lou!" Niall yelled after him. "You can't just---"

"I fucking can," Louis spat out and opened the door. He glanced back at Niall, seeing the helpless expression, the worry in his eyes.

He knew, he understood why Harry hadn't told him, had never rubbed it in Louis' face that he had been a second choice -- Harry just wasn't like that.

Yet, Harry had asked honesty of Louis, had wanted every bit of the truth. While Louis had given up himself, had made himself completely vulnerable to Harry, he had not even deemed it necessary to treat Louis with the same honesty.

Harry had played him, and Louis wouldn't let him get away with that.

+++

Sighing contently, Harry stepped out of the shower, towelling his hair. The hot water had loosened up his muscles a bit, helping him to relax for a few minutes under the soothing spray.

Completely naked, he walked out of the bathroom and switched on the kettle. He scratched his hip while he yawned and took a mug from one of the cupboards, adding a teabag. Humming to himself, he enjoyed the quiet around him.

Being alone in the flat for once was actually pretty nice. Perrie was out with friends, and she was going to stay at Jade's place since it was closer to the club they had gone to. That left Harry with a quiet night in. He had written songs with some interesting people all day, so all he had planned was to curl up on Perrie's bed, watch some telly and drink his tea.

A loud knock on the door jolted him out of his thoughts and he frowned slightly, looking down on his naked body.

Who would show up here after midnight? If it was Niall again, asking for milk because he was too lazy to walk to Tesco's, Harry would have to sit him down for a serious talk. It couldn't go on like that. Maybe Perrie had come home after all? She would have a key, though, Harry mused as he rushed into his room to pull on some pants.

The knocking was repeated, rapidly, loudly, sounding impatient and Harry hurried to the door. He opened it widely, hand freezing on the handle when he saw Louis in front of him, looking slightly out of breath, brows creased and hands fisted.

"You!" he growled and stepped in, close enough to Harry to stab a finger to his chest. "How dare you?"

Harry blinked in confusion, his skin burning up where Louis' fingertip rested. "Louis," was all he could say, voice trembling.

"Are you fucking kidding me?" Louis spit out, shoving in closer, intently staring at Harry's eyes, holding his gaze. "You were probably having a right laugh at me all this time."

With a tentative touch, Harry gripped Louis' arm and pulled him inside to close the door. He took a step back, bringing some space between them. "What are you talking about?"

"How many things did you lie about?" Louis asked. "If you can't even think what this is about?"

"I didn't--"

"Lie?" Louis finished for him. "So what was it when you made me believe you were with Nick Grimshaw? Fucking Nick Grimshaw, of all people! Do you even know how much it hurt to have to watch him just touch you?"

Harry's heart dropped to his stomach. "I never said we were a couple."

"Fuck you, Harry," Louis growled, pointing at Harry accusingly. "You knew very well what you were doing."

He had known -- of course he had known. It had been a cowardly move, Harry was aware of that. He had used it to hurt Louis, which made him a pretty indecent human being.

"Lou," he said quietly, reaching out a hand.

"And did you really think---" Louis fell silent abruptly, eyes going wide, his breath catching. He stared at Harry's arm and his face fell completely.

Harry quickly pulled back his hand and pressed his arm to his chest. The damage was done, though. Louis had seen it. Like lightning, Louis' hand shot forwards and he gripped Harry's arm, fingers digging into the flesh. They were cold, and yet Harry felt his skin catch fire, burning where Louis touched him.

"Are you joking?" Louis hissed, thumb brushing over the Hi! on Harry's biceps. His eyes darted up to Harry's again, and they were blue fires, cold and hazardous. "Making me believe you're taken, not telling me about the fucking offer -- but this? How could you lie about this ?"

Harry felt like crying, his throat tight, his heart clenched in his chest, as if a fist tried to stop it from beating. He couldn't stand the look in Louis' eyes, couldn't stand the idea that it was his fault Louis looked so hurt.

"I didn't want you to know," he stuttered, unable to tear his gaze from Louis'.

"There are a few things you didn't want me to know about, aren't there?" Louis bit out, pulling his hand away and running it over his face. "I can't believe this. You were probably laughing at me all this time, satisfied with your payback."

Harry shook his head, slowly. "Louis. No."

Louis turned away, running his hands through his hair. "Niall said you got the offer first."

"I declined," Harry replied. He didn’t know what Louis wanted to hear.

"Why didn't you tell me back then?"

Shrugging, Harry stared at Louis' back, his slumped shoulders, his narrow waist. He looked so small.

"It wasn't important. I had rejected it, anyway. What did it matter?" Harry took a deep breath, fumbling with his hands. He didn't know where to put them.

"Maybe I would have encouraged you to take it," Louis murmured, still not turning. "Maybe you should have been the one to--"

"No," Harry cut in, shaking his head. "Not back then. I wasn't ready, and it wasn't what I wanted."

Louis was silent for another moment. "You just wanted me," he said then, and Harry almost didn't catch it.

It was true. Harry hadn't wanted anything else but Louis. "Yes," he answered. "I only wanted you."

"You should have told me," Louis choked out, and his voice was thick with emotion. When he turned, Harry saw the blue of his eyes swimming. He instinctively made a step towards Louis, reaching out. Louis slapped his hand away. "You should have told me back then. You should have told me this time around."

"It's not important--"

"It fucking is," Louis argued. "I was only a second choice, Harry, and you knew it all along. While you asked me to be bloody honest with you, you kept lying to me!"

Harry bit his lip, turning his face.

Louis sobbed -- he actually sobbed , and Harry didn't even dare look at him. "And on top of that you told me you got the fucking tattoo removed. Do you even know how much that hurt? Can you even imagine how it felt? To think that I cried about it-- Fuck you, Harry."

Every word cut, and Harry knew he deserved it, knew he had brought this upon himself. He had been well aware that Louis would be furious if he found out about that Harry had lied. He hadn't imagined it to hurt this much, though.

"Did you get off on watching me make a fool of myself?" Louis sounded bitter, so very bitter. "While I was too bloody in love to even see straight, you probably had a right laugh at me, planning out your next move."

Harry stared at the floor, his body going cold, his skin freezing. Goose pimples spread over his arms, and all he could hear was in love , replaying in his head, bouncing off the walls of his skull.

"I did what you asked of me, didn't I?" Louis inquired, on the verge of desperate now. "I was honest with you, and I'm sorry I can't make up for what I did, that I can't make it undone. But I fucking tried, Harry. I tried to make it up to you. I just wanted a second chance."

Looking up, Harry found Louis in front of him, anger, despair and something else, something soft and vulnerable mixed in his expression.

"Why couldn't you just tell me that you were never going to give me one?" Louis kept staring into Harry's eyes. "Did you kiss me to humiliate me, too?"

That was too much. Something inside Harry broke in that moment, shattering in his chest, setting free a rage inside him that spread through his body, making Harry feel hot all over.

"Stop it," he choked, the words rough in his throat. "You know that's not true."

Louis looked defeated. "You told me you got my tattoo removed , Harry."

"Because you fucking broke my heart," Harry reminded him.

"And you broke mine when you let me run after forgiveness that you obviously never intended to give," Louis shot back. "I thought I'd rather be your friend than going back to being nothing to you. But you never intended to actually work on that, did you?"

"I fucking tried, didn't I?"

"But you didn't want it," Louis countered, throwing his hands up. "You just kept playing me. Is that how you treat your friends ?"

Harry lost it, his hands coming up to push Louis' shoulders, pressing him against the wall. "We're not friends, Louis. We never were bloody friends ."

Before Harry knew what was happening, he had Louis' lips on his, their bodies pressed closely together, Louis' heart beating wildly against his own. Their tongues met and Harry tilted his head, curling his against Louis', sucking it into his mouth and swallowing Louis' quiet moan.

He shoved one knee between Louis' thighs and grabbed his hips, pulling him against Harry's crotch, his teeth catching Louis' bottom lip. Harry realised that it was all him, that Louis had his palms pressed flatly to the wall, a pained expression on his face as he stared back at Harry from dazed, half-lidded eyes.

With one slick move, Harry turned him around and pressed Louis' front to the wall, crowding against his back. He let his forehead sink to Louis' shoulder, gently biting his nape to keep himself from going down on Louis.

"I wanted that kiss," he heaved out, breathing heavily, his voice muffled against Louis' skin. "And I wanted the one in Malaysia. I wanted to kiss you when I was so angry I didn't even want to see you. I wanted to kiss you when you told me you didn't want to play anymore."

Louis shivered against Harry, but other than that he was completely still.

"I wanted to kiss you when you had sparkling snowflakes stuck to your lashes and asked me to be friends," Harry added, caging Louis in with his arms. He slightly shook his head, breathing in Louis' scent of herbal shampoo and faint cologne.

"Fuck, Lou," he added, lifting his head. "I couldn't ever be just friends with you."

Louis slowly turned, still not reaching out to touch Harry. He just turned around when Harry pulled back a little, and stared at Harry -- eyes wide, lips slightly parted. His breathing was heavy and when Harry stepped closer again and felt the soft wool of Louis' jumper drag over his skin, he realised for the first time that he was wearing next to nothing.

Louis' eyes darted to Harry's lips, and apparently he was very well aware. He brought up a hand, running a finger over Harry's abs and drew the tip over Harry's sternum, up to his chest. Their gazes locked when Louis's finger stopped beneath Harry's jaw.

"Please," Louis breathed.

That was all the permission Harry needed. He dove back in, claiming Louis' lips in a rough kiss. His teeth dragged over Louis' bottom lip, and Louis pressed his finger against Harry's neck, as if to find his pulse there. Then he moved his hand up and gripped Harry's curls, so Harry tilted his head to deepen the kiss.

He couldn't breathe, couldn't even think of it as Louis' tongue met his. Harry pushed Louis against the wall, his hands grabbing Louis' hips, drawing them close to his own. Louis gasped, moaned quietly, and Harry knew that he had to be able to feel Harry getting hard.

Of course he would -- Harry wasn't wearing anything but some tight briefs. There was nothing to conceal his current state. And Harry was in a right state.

He drew back a little, pulling Louis' lip with his teeth before letting go. They were both trying to catch their breath and Harry could feel Louis' chest expand against his. Louis' head was tilted back, his eyes closed and his lips were swollen and pink, glistening wet. Harry brought a hand up to run his thumb over them.

While Louis opened his mouth to swipe his tongue over the digit, Harry snaked his other hand between them and opened the button of Louis' jeans. Louis opened his eyes, watching Harry, going all tense the moment Harry slipped his hand in, running his fingers over the base of Louis' cock.

It was unfamiliar -- while Louis was the only person Harry had ever touched like that before, it still felt strange do this after almost four years. Every nerve in Harry's system was tense, vibrating with excitement and fear likewise.

Louis didn't seem to notice. He sucked harder on Harry's thumb, moaning louder. His nails were digging into Harry's flesh, just above his hips and Harry bowed his head, attaching his lips to Louis' neck.

"Fuck, yes," Louis mumbled, nuzzling against Harry's hair and pushing his hips forwards. "Harry."

It fired Harry on, urged him into going further, pushing Louis' jeans down together with his underwear. His hand was dry, too dry to properly stroke Louis' cock and Harry lost his patience. Louis' hand was groping his bum, fingers slipping beneath the waistband of Harry's briefs to caress naked skin. Harry wriggled slightly, impatiently, and Louis got the hint, shoving the fabric down until it pooled at Harry's feet.

Louis was still wearing his jumper, but Harry couldn't care less. He lifted Louis off the ground, hands firm on Louis' thighs and pressed him against the wall with his own weight. Louis crossed his legs at the small of Harry's back, holding on to his shoulders.

Harry closed his eyes when their cocks rubbed together between them, precome leaking from his own. Louis kept rocking slightly, keeping the friction up, and Harry huffed out several breaths, nails digging deep into the underside of Louis' thighs.

"Babe, come on," Louis demanded, a breathless whisper.

Harry lifted his head, finding Louis already staring at him. He looked beautiful, lips parted, and a moan escaped him every time they rocked together in just the right way. Louis framed Harry's face, leaning in to take another kiss.

Getting lost in it, Harry rocked harder against Louis, pushing him forcefully against the wall with every thrust of his hips. Louis gasped into his mouth, their kiss turning into them desperately breathing into each other.

Harry's knees got weak, threatening to buckle, when one of Louis hands trailed down Harry's chest and gripped his cock firmly. With his thumb, Louis spread precome from the slit down the length, tugging firmly, once, twice. Then he opened his hand and broke their kiss to look down between them.

His fingers curled around both their cocks, stroking them together and Harry could feel Louis' cock throb against his own. Louis was struggling to keep it up, his hand too small, fingers too short.

"Lou," Harry moaned, freeing one hand and pressing Louis' back harder against the wall to make sure he wouldn't lose hold. It had to hurt, had to be an uncomfortable burn, but Louis didn't even seem to notice. Harry brought his hand up, licking his palm before he wrapped it around their cocks beneath Louis'.

Louis' mouth fell open in a silent moan, and Harry watched him as he twisted his wrist slightly, taking over. Louis kept circling a finger around the head of Harry's cock, pressing his thumb just beneath it.

"Harry," Louis choked out then, tugging on his hair. Harry went easily, meeting Louis in another kiss. "Haz," he breathed into Harry's mouth, hips stuttering.

He came with a long moan, breaking their kiss to bury his face against Harry's neck, his body tensing up completely. His warm come spurted between them, dripping onto Harry's stomach and hand. Using it, Harry kept pumping their cocks, even afterwards when Louis started to go limp in his arms. Louis sighed and hissed, then he caught Harry's earlobe between his teeth, nibbling gently.

"You're still so pretty like this," he whispered, breath hot and wet against Harry's ear. With one finger he smeared his come over Harry's abs, rubbed it into the skin.

Harry felt it roll over him like a wave. It wasn't fast, didn't hit him. Instead, his orgasm slowly unfurled through his body, reaching every cell. His vision became blurry, his fingers numb and a white noise drowned out every other sound.

When Harry came down again, he felt Louis gently stroking his hair and mouthing over his neck. Louis' jumper was damp, and Harry's skin was sticky. Exhaustion washed over Harry, making his knees shake.

"Slow, baby," Louis murmured.

Harry curled his arm around Louis' waist and slowly sank to his knees. He sighed in relief, nuzzling into Louis and holding him close. Louis' legs had slightly shifted up, wrapped around Harry's waist now, so that his bum was resting on Harry's lap.

"That didn't solve a thing," Harry noted, still slightly out of breath.

"Not really," Louis agreed. "But at least we've got it out of the way?"

Harry smiled lightly, lifting his head to look at Louis. He rested his palm against Louis' cheek, searching his face. Louis' looked completely relaxed and for once, there wasn't anything beside that. No guilt, no regret, no pain.

Harry grabbed the hem of Louis' jumper and pulled it up and over his head. Louis lifted his arms without protest, let Harry strip him, so they were both completely naked.

"I want to do it again," Harry confessed, gaze fixed on Louis' face.

Louis smiled, tightening his legs around Harry. "That makes two of us."

Exhaling quietly, Harry shifted, trying to get more comfortable. "Maybe we can take the next round to my bed, though."

"Maybe we could take a nap first?" Louis suggested, looking hopeful.

"Yeah, that's alright." Harry brushed a stray strand from Louis' face, leaning in again to kiss him. Louis went easily, opening his mouth for Harry's tongue.

"I'm still mad at you," Louis said quietly, fingers tangling with Harry's. "Don't think you can make me forget about it by keeping me in a sex haze."

Harry rested his forehead against Louis', a grin tugging on the corners of his mouth. "I guess we have a lot to talk about, Lou."

"We do," Louis agreed. "And we should. I want to do it properly this time around."

"Yeah," Harry breathed, throat going tight. This time around -- they were really going there. Something warm ran through his veins, slow and thick like golden honey. It felt sweet.

"Did you use Perrie's shower gel, by the way?" Louis casually asked. He sniffed Harry's shoulder before pressing a kiss to the skin.

"She's got that strawberry stuff," Harry answered. "I kinda like it."

"Hm," Louis hummed, resting his cheek against Harry's shoulder. "Me, too."

"Hey, don't fall asleep here," Harry warned him, pinching Louis' waist. "I'm not gonna carry you to bed."

"I was hoping you would," Louis sighed.

Harry shook his head, but he didn't move. Instead, he kept rocking them lightly, feeling Louis' heartbeat steady against his own. Louis ran his fingers up and down Harry's side, tracing his ribs and brushing his skin. Eventually, Harry untangled his hand from Louis' and gripped him tightly beneath the thighs.

"Hold on," he instructed and Louis wound his arms around Harry's neck.

It felt new, the way Louis was clinging to him, let Harry take care of him. While standing up, Harry noticed that Louis tightened his grip, coming impossibly closer, as though he was trying to crawl into Harry. He had never known Louis to get like this, but it was nice.

Harry stumbled into his room and gently lowered Louis to the bed before he went over to his dresser to pull out some boxer shorts. When he turned back around, he hesitated.

"Or, um--" He shrugged a little. "Do you sleep naked now?"

There were so many things he didn't know. The man in front of him was someone he knew , and yet he was so different from the person Harry had used to know. Harry didn't know how to handle that.

Louis smiled, shaking his head and reaching for the boxer shorts. "Still don't like it."

Harry handed them over and lifted the duvet, crawling beneath it. He watched Louis pull on the shorts before he did the same. For a moment, they stayed like that, enough space between them to fit in another person. Then, Louis reached out and took Harry's hand, bringing his wrist to Louis' lips.

Harry shifted closer, winding an arm around Louis and closing his eyes. Louis sighed, gently pushing one leg between Harry's and nuzzling close, humming when Harry kissed his forehead.

Louis’ fingers were still curled around his wrist when Harry fell asleep.

+++

Louis had no idea where he was when he woke up.

Sunlight hit his eyes, making it hard to open them so he rolled over and sat up, inspecting the room. He needed his clothes, his mobile to call Alberto before---

A hint of sweet strawberry in the sheets brought him back to reality and Louis' muscles loosened up, every memory of last night washing over him. Harry's lips, Harry's taste, Harry's hands -- if he closed his eyes, Louis could still feel them. There had been a lot of words said, too, and those were probably more important.

He got the offer first , Niall's voice kept replaying in Louis' head.

In the next room, he heard some clattering, and a clear voice singing quietly. Lying back on the pillow, Louis listened for a while. He didn't know the song, so he assumed it was one of Harry's original ones; maybe one he had written recently for his album.

What if Harry had changed his mind? What if Louis wasn’t worth it and Harry wanted his career more than he wanted Louis? He had every right to, had every reason to want that career more than he wanted Louis. After all, Louis had never known to what extent Harry had really been hurting. So now that he knew the whole picture, he didn't know how Harry could ever forgive him.

Sleeping with Harry had been satisfying at that moment, but in the long run, it didn't change a thing. There had been lies, and bad intentions, hatred and pain -- none of it was overcome by what had happened last night.

Louis only noticed the singing had stopped a second before the door opened. He pulled the duvet up to his chin and saw Harry peeking his head inside. When his gaze locked with Louis', he smiled slightly.

"I was afraid you’d died," Harry commented, coming into the room.

"You could have woken me," Louis told him.

Harry shrugged and sat down on the edge of the bed. He was wearing a jumper with a reindeer on, as well as grey jogging bottoms. Louis wanted to cuddle him, just steal some of his warmth -- and maybe the jumper.

"It's okay," Harry assured him. "You had a long week. I just wasn't sure you had to be anywhere?"

Louis shook his head. "No, I'm off today."

"Good," Harry hummed, playing with the strings of his trackies. "I made some breakfast."

This was so awkward. Louis didn't want it to be awkward. He wanted to fall right back into the easy understanding of last night. Why was it suddenly that hard to be relaxed around Harry?

"Haz, listen," Louis started, not sure where he was going with this. "I can leave if you want me to," he offered quietly.

Harry blinked, a little frown forming on his face. "Would you rather leave?"

"No," Louis answered immediately, shaking his head.

"Good, because you promised me a talk. And sex," Harry added with a smirk. He got up, going over to a chair where Louis could see his clothes, folded up nicely. "It's a bit cold, so you probably want to get dressed."

Louis rolled out of bed, running a hand through his messy hair. "I'd rather have a shower, if that's okay."

Harry nodded. "'Course. I can--"

"After breakfast is fine," Louis said, taking his jumper and pulling it on. Then he reached out for Harry's hand before he could turn around. Carefully, Louis stepped closer, looking at Harry's face. "Thank you," he added quietly, squeezing Harry's hand.

Harry lowered his gaze and squeezed back before he tangled their fingers and gently tugged Louis along into the kitchen.

He had set the table with plates and mugs, and something smelled greasy; Louis suspected it was in the pan on the cooker. The radio was playing quietly, some cheerful pop music, and through the window, Louis could see kids playing on the pitch behind the house.

One of the boys shot the ball over their heads and it bounced off the huge billboard, leaving a muddy stain just above the hand of the girl pictured who was chasing a bird. Some things are meant to be free , it read and Louis tilted his head, staring at it for a little longer.

"Tea?" Harry asked from behind him.

Louis turned, watching Harry pour water into one of the mugs. Harry moved, holding the kettle over the second mug and shot Louis a questioning look.

"I love you, Harry," Louis blurted out, his blood running a little too fast in his veins, a bit like heady wine.

Harry slowly set down the kettle, but he still looked at Louis. With a few steps, he approached Louis and stopped in front of him. He sighed quietly. "So we're gonna talk the really serious business before breakfast, hm?"

Louis swallowed thickly. Although he had known that Harry wouldn't say it back, Louis still got nervous, still felt his heart drop.

"I just need you to know that," Louis told him, shrugging helplessly.

"You said it yesterday, too," Harry pointed out, and for once Louis couldn't tell his thoughts, or even his mood. "That you're in love with me."

"I am." Louis raised his gaze to meet Harry's, not afraid to let him see it, too. "It doesn't matter what happens after this, Harry. I'll accept it, because I mean it."

Harry was quiet for a moment, just watching Louis' face. "Why do you assume that I wouldn't want this?" he asked then, and now Louis could tell his emotions. He was upset.

"I-- I don't know," Louis said. "You've just started your career, and obviously it won't be easy, and we have a lot to work on, and maybe you don't want to put in the effort or have the time to--"

"Shut up," Harry cut in. He turned back and picked up the kettle again, pouring water into the second mug. "You still don't get it."

Louis bit his lip, feeling a little lost. He just wanted Harry to turn around and smile, like he had when he had come to wake Louis earlier. How had Louis managed to break that tiny bit of comfort within minutes? He should have just kept his mouth shut. Then again, maybe these things needed to be said.

"What is it I don't get?" he asked.

Harry sighed and turned back around to Louis, shaking his head. "You were wrong when you said I didn't need you. I do, Louis."

"I think you've got along without me just fine," Louis argued. "Look at you. You've come to London and you made it all by yourself. You managed to impress the right people. Your songs are amazing, Harry, and you'll be a star, I'm sure of it."

Harry laughed humorlessly, rubbing his eyes. "Fuck, Louis. Can you hear yourself?"

Louis winced, wondering what he had done wrong. "But don't you--"

"That is not what I need you for," Harry said slowly, pronouncing every word. "It never was. I don't need you for my songs, or my fucking career, or to give me a push and introduce me to the right people. I need you , Louis," he added, gesturing wildly. "I need you for myself. It's not like back then, not that I can’t be without you. I just want you by my side. Why don't you get that?"

Louis stared at him, the words slowly trickling through his brain, right into his heart. "For yourself?”

"Do I need to spell it out for you?" Harry asked, throwing his hands up. "Is it so hard to understand, Louis?"

Even if he'd wanted, Louis couldn't get a single word out.

Harry seemed to take it as a prompt to go on. "I just want to wake up next to you whenever I can. And I want to come back to London after my radio tour and go straight to your flat and let you take care of me. I want to fly out to God knows where, just to see you for a few days, and I want to tell you about my problems, and fears, and what makes me happy, and I want you to tell me everything that's on your mind in return. Because that's what couples do, bloody hell."

Harry exhaled loudly, as if in relief of finally having it all out there between them. His eyes bored into Louis', their intense green holding Louis under their spell.

Before Louis could say a word, he felt a hot rush in his blood, going to his head, making him choke. Tears gathered behind his eyes, burning hot, and his lip started to tremble. He quickly averted his gaze, because-- no. He would not cry in front of Harry.

"Lou," he heard Harry say then, and suddenly, he was in Louis' space, voice soft and hands gentle as they touched Louis' arms. "Fuck, Lou. Don't."

" Don't you , Harry," Louis bit back, not raising his head. Instead, he lurched forwards, winding his arms around Harry's waist and burying his face against Harry's chest.

Harry slowly slung his arms around Louis' neck, sighing into his hair. "I don’t need you like I used to, Louis.”

Louis froze, remembering how he had told Harry to his face how he had felt suffocated by Harry needing him. He had still not told Harry that he had been wrong about it -- that Louis had suffocated Harry just as much, even if Harry had probably not realised it back then.

“We needed too much, Louis. Both of us,” Harry said, caressing Louis’ tense muscles. “We can’t do that again.”

Shaking his head, Louis held his breath, fingers clenching Harry’s jumper. Both of us , it bounced off the walls of his brain.

“I could live without you by my side and still be happy, lead a fulfilled life." He paused, his fingertips grazing Louis’ shoulders. “But I don’t want to.”

"Yes," Louis breathed, nuzzling against Harry. "I don’t want to be without you again."

"Then don't make it so complicated," Harry demanded. "If we’re on the same page about that, we can work it out. That's a good start."

"I'm afraid to disappoint or hurt you again," Louis murmured, clenching his fingers around the fabric of Harry's jumper.

Harry gently pushed Louis back, raising a hand to brush it through Louis' hair. "If that's what’s worrying you, you won't do that so easily again," he said, a small smile on his lips when Louis glanced up at him. "If you do, though, I won't let you get away with it this time."

"You didn't exactly let me get away last time, did you?" Louis asked. He wanted to say more, wanted to make Harry understand everything he had on his mind. But it was too much; Louis had no idea where to start.

“No one should get away with something like that,” Harry murmured, shrugging a little.

“There’s so much you need to know.” Louis buried his face against Harry’s neck, trying to find the right words. “We can’t just pretend it never happened. I want this to work, Harry.”

"I won't forget about it, Lou. And I can't promise that I won't be wary sometimes. But I'll never hold against you what happened in the past. We’re over that, aren’t we?" Harry leaned in, putting his forehead to Louis'. "I trust you to get it right this time."

Louis looked up, biting his lip. Harry gently smiled down at him and Louis' heart fluttered slightly, his breath catching. He slowly moved his head, rubbing his nose against Harry's and a smile spread on his face when Harry chuckled quietly.

Just when he was about to close the gap between their lips, the front door opened and Louis jolted back. Perrie was standing in the doorframe, frozen and staring at them. When Louis tried to step back, Harry tightened his arms around him, holding him in place.

"What's going on here?" Perrie asked, closing the door.

Up until this moment, Louis hadn't even thought of her -- not even when Harry had kind of fucked him against the wall of this very room the night before.

Louis felt his cheeks flush.

"We were about to have breakfast," Harry answered lightly. "D'you wanna join us?"

"You were kissing." Perrie didn’t beat about the bush. She set down her handbag and opened her jacket. "And Louis is beet red."

Harry turned his face, smirking slightly when he looked at Louis. "We were about to kiss, before you so kindly interrupted us," he clarified.

"I assume you weren’t having a tea party last night," Perrie mused and went into her room.

"I don't think that's any of your business," Louis piped up, raising his voice so she would hear.

Harry giggled and pressed a kiss to Louis' temple. "Sit down. Breakfast's gone cold."

"Is she like that every time you let someone stay the night?" Louis inquired and sat down, taking his tea.

"Um," Harry said, suddenly seeming a little distracted. He took the pan from the cooker and shovelled eggs and bacon onto their plates. "No?"

"Makes me feel special, then," Louis commented.

"Harry!" Perrie yelled from her room before she came back into the kitchen. "Can I borrow your lilac jumper?"

Harry gestured at his room. "Sure, go ahead."

She crossed the kitchen and disappeared into Harry's room. Louis frowned slightly. This seemed a little bizarre, almost as if Perrie had expected this. Despite the initial moment when catching them, she hadn't appeared surprised at all.

"Definitely not a tea party," she commented when she came out of Harry's room again. She looked a little lost in Harry's jumper, but in a way, it was cute.

"Easy," Harry said, taking two slices of toast. "We had a bit of a rough morning."

Louis picked up his fork, gathering some of the scrambled eggs. He raised a brow at Harry. "A bit?"

" You dropped the bomb even before we had breakfast," Harry pointed out. He kicked out his foot under the table and hit Louis' shin.

"I was only saying what needed to be said," Louis corrected him. He hooked his foot around Harry's ankle and rubbed his toes over Harry's calf. "You acted all drama queen on me."

Harry raised a brow. "Drama queen? I recall you were the one who actually started to bawl like--"

"Drama queen," Louis attested, throwing Harry a warning glance before he looked at Perrie.

She still stood by Harry's door and had her arms crossed, a fond expression on her face. "I take it you sorted things out?"

"Kinda," Harry said, linking his other foot with Louis'. "We're working on it."

"Good," she said, coming over to kiss Harry's cheek. "I gotta leave for work."

"I'll have to leave for that studio session in an hour," Harry said, looking worried. "So I can't come pick you up."

Perrie dismissed it with a wave of her hand. "Don't worry about it." Then she turned to Louis, giving him a long stare.

"Am I in for a lecture?" Louis asked, pretty sure he knew what that look on her face meant.

"You pretty much know what I have to say to you," Perrie told him. "So you’d better not fuck it up."

Louis lowered his gaze to the table. "I'd be stupid to."

Before he knew what was happening, Perrie had kissed his cheek too. She was rubbing her thumb over his cheek, probably to wipe the lipstick stain.

Harry winked at Louis when he looked up.

"See you tomorrow," Perrie said, the cheerful quality back to her voice as she picked up her jacket and bag again. "Don't get too wild."

When she was gone, Louis turned back to Harry. He felt like a hurricane had just ripped through the kitchen.

"Don't mind her," Harry commented, calmly drinking his tea.

"Does she, like-- know?" Louis asked. "I mean. Everything?"

Harry nodded, concentrating on his food. "I told her most of it."

"I'm lucky she didn't bite my head off, I guess," Louis mumbled.

"Well." Harry drew the word out. " Most of it included me wanting you back, so she probably knows that hurting you isn't helping my case."

Louis' heart missed a beat, and he gave up on trying to eat. Breathing felt a lot easier than before. "Did she tell you Zayn kissed her at my party?"

Harry gaped. "She didn't!" He slammed a fist to the table. "I knew it!"

Louis laughed slightly. "He wants her number, but he's too shy to ask."

"Fortunately, I'm not above playing matchmaker," Harry said. "That's an easy one."

"You do know what she's in for, should this work out, don't you?" Louis asked tentatively. "It won't be easy."

Harry set down his mug and pulled the sleeves of his jumper over his hands. "I did think about that, yes."

Of course he had, Louis thought. Harry was in for the exact same thing, after all. Louis’ stomach turned at the thought, because Harry would only be in for it, if Louis made that one certain step.

"Lou," Harry said, reaching over the tabletop to grab Louis' hand. "Don't think about that right now. We'll figure it out."

Louis nodded, lacing their fingers.

"You should take that shower now," Harry reminded him. "We'll save the rest for later, yeah? I've got to get changed and leave in a bit."

"You're not going to join me?" Louis asked, pouting a little.

"Not now," Harry answered and got up, carrying the dishes to the sink. "We'll save that for later too."

Louis watched him for a little while, watched Harry's muscles move beneath his jumper, the curls at the back of his neck. Quietly, he got up and moved over, bringing his arms around Harry's waist from behind. Without a word, he pressed his lips to Harry's shoulder, holding him tight for a moment. Harry leaned against him, tilting his head slightly.

"If you want to, you can wait here for me," Harry told him, cleaning a plate.

"I think I'll head home," Louis rejected the offer. It was tempting, but being in Harry's flat without him was a scary thought. Louis didn't feel comfortable with that. "I'd still like to see you tonight."

"We could meet for dinner," Harry suggested. "Or I'll come to yours after."

Louis nodded, running his fingers over Harry's stomach. "I'd like that."

Harry turned in Louis' arms, drying his hands off on a towel. He leaned in and sealed Louis' mouth with a sweet kiss, lips soft and dry on Louis'.

They still had a lot to work through, but Louis felt like the most important issue was solved -- they both wanted this. Falling back into each other wasn't easy, wasn't going smoothly. Ultimately, though, they would get there. Louis would make every effort to make it work.

He drew back and slipped a hand under Harry's jumper, smirking when Harry chased his mouth. He gently rubbed his thumb over Harry's hip.

"You're still welcome to join me," he murmured.

Harry sighed and shook his head, crossing his arms behind his back. "Don't have the time," he said, looking genuinely sorry about it. "Later."

Louis nodded, getting to his toes to kiss Harry once more -- just a brief peck to his lips. Then he slipped his hand from beneath Harry’s jumper, turned and went to the bathroom.

It was reassuring to know that Harry gazed after him, and Louis hoped Harry did so with a smile on his face.

+++

It was raining when Harry got out of the taxi. Clumsily, he tried to shield his head with his jacket, pulling the collar up over his hair. He hadn't thought of bringing an umbrella when he had left the house earlier this morning.

Actually, he hadn't thought of anything other than Louis when he had left the house. His mind had been occupied with the way Louis had touched his hand, the way Louis had looked as though he had something to say, something on his mind that he didn't know how to voice.

Harry knew the feeling.

The only thing he was certain about was that he wanted to be with Louis -- but neither of them seemed to know how to make it work. They both had to fight through that, through the awkward clumsiness and the oppressive fear.

He rang the bell at the gate, waiting for it to slowly open before he ran up the slip road to the building. Reaching the entrance, he shook out his hair, pushing it back with one hand.

Louis was already waiting at the door to his flat, still in the jumper Harry had worn this morning. Louis had pulled it on after his shower, arguing that his own reeked of sweat and sex. He looked warm now, and much calmer than earlier.

"You're soaked," he greeted Harry, stepping aside to let him in. "I'll get you a towel."

Harry waited until Louis had closed the door, then he pulled Louis against his chest, pressing their lips together. Louis was indeed warm, a nice contrast to Harry's damp, cold skin. He sighed into their kiss and Louis pressed in closer.

"Now I'm just as wet," Louis commented when he pulled back, but he didn't look upset about it.

"Better get you out of these clothes then," Harry suggested and tugged at the hem of the jumper.

He saw the shift in Louis' expression, sudden discomfort flickering over his face.

"Can we--" Louis started, drawing a nervous breath. "Fuck, Harry, I want to," he blurted out then, coming even closer, one hand on Harry's chest, the other running up into Harry's hair. "I want to undress you and kiss you, and get my mouth on every bit of you. I want to suck you off and make you come, over and over again, make you beg for it and moan my name. I really want that."

Heat pooled in Harry's stomach and he felt his cock twitch in interest. He licked his lips, staring at Louis' mouth before he caught himself and looked back up into Louis' eyes, seeing the glimmer of despair. Louis seemed genuinely torn, which prompted Harry to stroke his back reassuringly.

"But?" Harry asked.

"I ordered some Italian," Louis said. "And opened a bottle of wine."

"That sounds good," Harry agreed. "Sex does sound better, though."

A smile unfurled on Louis' lips, the blue of his eyes getting warmer. "I want to get a few things out of the way first. Talk."

Harry nodded, placing his hand on the back of Louis' neck. "I think we should."

"I don't know where to start," Louis admitted, holding on tighter.

"How about we go to the kitchen and sit down first? Have a glass of wine," Harry suggested, rubbing his thumb over Louis' nape to calm him.

"I set the table on the terrace." Louis shrugged. "I thought having dinner in the garden would add some romance?"

Laughing, Harry leaned in to kiss Louis once more. Just one, Harry promised himself, then he would step back and concentrate on the important matters at hand. Louis fisted his hand over Harry's chest, lightly tugging on his jumper.

"Come on." Harry stepped back, tangling his fingers with Louis'. "Let's have dinner in the garden."

Louis pointed at a door down the corridor. "Fetch yourself a towel, yeah? I'll get the food from the kitchen."

Harry gazed after him for a moment when Louis rushed into the kitchen, taking a deep breath. This would work. He just had to remind himself that eventually, everything would be fine. This already felt a lot less awkward than it had felt this morning.

In the bathroom, Harry took a towel from a pile by the window and ran it over his damp hair. He stopped in front of the mirror and tried to sort his hair out, but gave up after a few minutes. The rain had made it all frizzy, so there was no way to tame it.

Louis was outside, lighting three candles on the table beneath the canopy when Harry came into the kitchen. It was still raining, a constant rhythm playing above their heads, and Louis had set up a patio heater, its warmth reaching Harry by the door.

"I hope you like red wine?" Louis asked. "I wasn't sure because, you know, we never drank wine when--" He stopped, frowning slightly. "Then."

Harry walked out and noticed that Louis hadn't put the plates in front of the chairs at opposite sides of the table, but in front of the bench for two. "Red is perfect," Harry told him before he gestured at the table and the patio heater. "Fancy."

"I know how to impress," Louis commented, filling the wine glasses.

The thought of Louis doing things like this to impress other people was strangely irritating. Harry tried not to think about it. "You've ordered food," he reminded Louis instead.

"And I put it on the plates all by myself." Louis threw him a quick grin, finally looking a lot less nervous. He sat down on the cushioned bench, patting the space next to himself.

"I feel proper wooed," Harry mocked him, making himself comfortable next to Louis. Truth was, he really did. With the rain falling outside their comfortable, warm bubble, the delicious smelling food and the candles, it did feel like a romantic date.

Louis shifted closer until his thigh touched Harry's. "Don't let the food get cold."

"What's yours?" Harry asked, pointing at Louis' plate after he had taken the first bite of his own -- pasta with various vegetables and chicken. Before Louis could answer, Harry had already poked his fork into Louis' food, though.

"It's a bit spicy," Louis told him, a little late because Harry had already swallowed it down.

Harry coughed, gripping his wine glass and taking a slice of bread from the plate Louis immediately shoved under his nose.

"I figured you wouldn't like it very much," Louis pointed out, rubbing Harry's back. "Never been a fan of spicy food, have you?"

"Spicy is fine," Harry argued. "That stuff, though? Is making me breathe fire."

Louis frowned a little, tilting his head. "Is it?" He seemed to consider that. "Maybe I got a bit less sensitive to spicy stuff since I met Zayn."

Harry didn't answer, just nodded and turned back to continue eating.

"They're pretty great, you know," Louis added then, his hand still placed on Harry's back. "Zayn and Liam."

"I like them," Harry answered, poking his fork through his food.

"I know it must have looked to you like I just replaced you and Niall with two other blokes," Louis went on, his voice quiet and low. "But they were never just that. I came to regret a lot of things throughout the past three years, Harry. But never them."

Harry bit his lip, nodding again. He had no idea why, because he had seen it for himself, had witnessed how close Louis had grown to the other two boys, had talked to Zayn about it in detail. Yet, hearing it from Louis somehow still hurt.

"It may sound like a cliché," Louis murmured, "but they are my brothers. They are family to me."

"I know that," Harry answered, dropping his fork, giving up on pretending this was some light dinner conversation. He turned his head to Louis. "I know how much they mean to you."

"But you don't ," Louis argued. "You compare them to what I had with you and Niall, but it's not the same."

Harry waited a moment, trying to force down the throbbing pain in his chest. "It's more," he choked out then. "They mean so much more than we ever did."

Louis' eyes widened and his hand came to rest on Harry's thigh. "No. Harry, no ."

"You wouldn't ever betray them," Harry argued. "You'd do anything to protect them and you never--"

"It's different," Louis cut in. " You're different."

Harry frowned, keeping his eyes trained on Louis' face.

"It's like you said, Harry," Louis explained. "We could never be just friends. You were always more than that. Always ."

"It didn't feel like that, though," Harry reminded him. The candles flickered in a sudden breeze, one of them going out. "Not when you just left."

Louis looked down, nodding. "I know. That's why you can't just say things like you said this morning."

Harry blinked in confusion.

"That you forgive me," Louis murmured, his fingers digging into Harry's thigh. "You can't just forgive me when I didn't even apologise properly. You deserve an explanation, don't you?"

"You told me already," Harry stated. "You told me that you felt like I held you back, that I was too dependent on you. That you couldn't do this with me by your side."

Louis bit his lip, exhaling shakily. "But that's only one part -- there's so much more to that. I had no idea, Harry."

"No idea of what?"

"I think I only realised it when I got my first flat in London," Louis murmured, and Harry frowned at the sudden change of topic, not sure where Louis was headed with that. "It was a huge flat, two bedrooms and a spacious kitchen, a living room and a balcony, and a bathroom with a huge bathtub."

Harry turned his face back to the table, watching one of the candles. That sounded a lot like--

"Just like we had always imagined it," Louis said before Harry could suppress the thought. "And I tried to ignore it, pretended I didn't notice."

Swallowing thickly, Harry kept staring into the flickering flame.

"Until one night, I came home from a night out with Liam and Aiden, so drunk off my head. Wanna guess what I did?" Louis asked, laughing dryly.

Harry shook his head.

"I ran a bath for us, and started talking to you." Another bitter laugh. "I went into the bedroom and kept calling you, looking for you, until I realised you weren't there, and that you never had been."

"Louis," Harry said quietly, moving his hand to place it over Louis' on his thigh.

"I think I had a proper breakdown," Louis admitted. "I realised that I had been wrong, Harry. I had felt so trapped because I thought you had depended on me too much, that you had held me back. But in reality I had depended on you just as much. If not more."

Harry blinked, staring at Louis wordlessly. He didn't know what to say -- or if he even could say anything about that.

"It's another cliché, Harry," Louis added, voice lower now. Warm light from the candles and the patio heater illuminated his face, his lashes throwing long shadows over his cheeks when he looked up. "But even though I had fulfilled my dream, had managed to make it come true, it didn't make me happy . Because you weren't there to share it with me."

"That's--"

"Yes," Louis confirmed before Harry could even voice it out. "It's what you said this morning, Harry. I need you for myself, too. And I want all that -- sharing everything with you."

A smile tugged at Harry's lips and he squeezed Louis' hand beneath his own.

"I'm sorry, Harry." Louis scooted closer again and Harry shifted a little to accommodate Louis against his side. "I realised it way too late, and I couldn't go back. I thought I loved you, but I only understood how much I really did, and what it really meant when I had fucked it all up."

Harry slung an arm around Louis' shoulders, running his fingers through Louis' hair. "What do you mean?"

Louis shrugged lightly before he put his head to Harry's shoulder. "I said I loved you, and I think I meant it, but I didn't really understand what love was back then? I just loved having you around, and I loved kissing you, and I loved all those experiences -- sex," he added. "I loved everything about it. I loved being in love . But I don't think I understood that I was really in love with you . Not until I had run away."

Kissing Louis' head, Harry nodded and watched another candle go out in its glass.

"I want you to forgive me, Harry. I want nothing more than that because I want another chance," Louis admitted, nuzzling closer. He shivered slightly and Harry noticed that the hand he was still holding was cold. "You're a romantic, and you're quirky, you're caring and honest -- that hasn't changed, and I didn't realise how much I loved that about you back then. I still love it now, and everything I've found out about who you are now. I'm still in love, or again -- I can't even tell. I can only tell that I want you . All of you."

Closing his eyes, Harry lowered his head, feeling completely weightless all of a sudden. He littered Louis' face with small kisses, lingering at the corner of Louis' mouth.

"You said something like that in Japan," he whispered against Louis' mouth.

"I don't think so, no," Louis protested and Harry saw his eyelids flutter. "I didn't tell you how deeply I fell for you this time around."

Harry's heart stuttered at that confession, and he pressed his forehead against Louis'. "You didn't say it as directly, but it was in there. I was too much of a coward to let myself see that, and admit it, act on it. I was afraid to let you too close again."

Louis pressed his lips together. Harry watched them form a thin line, turning white at the edges before Louis opened them again. "Because I don't deserve--"

"That's not what it was about," Harry cut in, gripping Louis' hair tighter. Because of the humidity in the air, the tips at the back of Louis' neck had curled, as well as the strands over his temples. "The one who left without a second thought doesn't deserve it, maybe. But, Louis, you said I changed," Harry reminded him, "and that you fell in love with who I am now. You changed, too. It wasn't easy to accept, but you're different from the boy I used to know."

Louis looked up, just a hint of the candlelight glimmering in his eyes.

Harry inhaled deeply, tangling Louis' fingers with his own. Louis' hand was warmer now, only the fingertips leaving cold marks on Harry's skin.

"I guess I have a few things to apologise for myself," Harry murmured.

Louis slightly shook his head. "No. I deserved that, I guess. You never got to pay me back for breaking your heart, after all."

"That's not how it works, though, is it?" Harry played with Louis' fingers and watched them fit between his own, tangling and untangling them. "I hurt you, and I hurt you on purpose. I lied to you, and you had every right to be angry."

"It's just--" Louis moved his right hand to Harry's arm, curling his fingers over his biceps. "I felt connected to you because of the tattoos. Losing that connection--" His voice broke and he shrugged helplessly.

"I know," Harry murmured. "I knew it would hurt you."

Louis swallowed thickly, nodding. Harry was aware that Louis had known it, but hearing it out loud probably ripped the wound open once again. Louis was strong, beautifully strong for staying where he was, for not pulling away.

"Nothing really justifies that, Lou," Harry went on, caressing the back of Louis' hand with his thumb. "Hurting people on purpose is not something I usually do. It's not who I want to be," he added. "But I couldn't even think straight when it came to you."

"Yeah," Louis breathed out, nodding softly. "Okay."

"It's not okay," Harry argued. "But it will be. We'll make it okay."

Louis shut his eyes and Harry saw the last bit of candlelight vanish from his face, the third candle going out. He closed the gap between them and kissed Harry, lips finding Harry's in a calm drag, a soft nip.

It felt different. The kiss was warmer, easier than the ones they had shared before. All urgency was gone, and Harry could feel sweetness, relief, as well as faith in that kiss. Louis sank against him, hand holding on to Harry's, and Harry drew in every detail of the moment, memorised every second.

Louis' fingers between his own, Louis' thumb pressing against the tattoo, Louis' dry lips opening up for Harry. He tasted of heady wine and rich tomatoes, something else beneath that was familiar, reminded Harry of long gone days. The way he kissed was different, though, maybe sweeter, maybe rougher -- it made Harry's blood boil all the same.

The patio heater was their only source of light and Louis' skin looked golden, a warm gleam covering his face. The rain had stopped at some point, and silence embraced them, comfortable and only disturbed by the occasional dripping from the roof.

After a moment, Louis pulled back, eyes brighter than before, cheeks pink and lips wet. He licked them as if to chase Harry's taste.

"Aren't you cold?" he asked, slightly tilting his head.

"No," Harry answered, repositioning himself to get closer to Louis again. How would he ever be cold with Louis in his arms? "I don't really get cold."

Louis rolled his eyes, shoving Harry's shoulder lightly. "Idiot. You're ruining my plan."

"What plan?" Harry frowned, watching Louis bend over the armrest of the bench and pulling up a blanket and--

Louis wound the red scarf around Harry's neck once, pulling him closer by the end that pooled in Harry's lap. Harry took the other end and draped it around Louis' neck, lifting an arm to let Louis sink back against his side.

"I had it in a box in my Mum's house in Doncaster until last year," Louis said, spreading the woollen blanket over their laps. "It magically reappeared when it snowed so heavily last January."

Harry smiled, thinking of the day he had come to London, how he had met Perrie on the train and had fallen asleep in that little booth on the footie pitch in front of the billboard with Louis' face on it.

"You're the actual romantic here," he commented and tugged at the scarf, bringing Louis' mouth closer to his own again.

"Maybe," Louis answered, grinning into their kiss.

Harry moved his lips up to Louis' temple, gently placing another kiss there and let Louis snuggle up to him again. He stared off beyond the canopy into a dark, empty sky. Louis drew patterns with his finger on Harry's chest, breathing steadily against Harry's neck.

It was an endless space to fill, Harry realised. They were going to have a lot of lights to fill their empty skies with, to light them up with every new memory they were going to make together.

"Hey, Haz," Louis murmured, his finger stopping its motion, his heart beating a little louder against Harry's chest. "We'll try again, won't we?"

Harry slightly shook his head, adjusting the scarf around Louis' neck. "No," he answered quietly and prompted Louis to look up at him.

"No, Lou," he repeated, a smile on his lips. "We're moving on."

---

 

Chapter Text

Louis trailed his finger down Harry's spine to kill time.

He had woken up almost an hour ago, lying on the right side of his bed. Harry had lain on the other side, stretched out on his stomach, face squished by the pillow and turned to Louis. The duvet had pooled around his waist, the pale skin of his back glowing in the soft morning sun streaming through the window above the bed. Messy curls had spread over the red sheets, Harry's hand on the mattress, as if he had been reaching out to Louis.

They had to relearn a few things, it seemed.

Louis had quietly scooted closer, shifted into Harry's space. A warm feeling had spread from his chest when Harry had instinctively curled an arm around Louis' waist.

They were getting there.

Waiting for Harry to wake up, Louis kept himself busy mapping out Harry's body with his fingers. His skin was soft and warm, his muscles lax beneath Louis' fingers. With one twirl, Louis curled a strand of Harry's hair around his finger before he buried his hand in the mess of curls. He gently scraped Harry's scalp, watching Harry's face scrunch up, a little satisfied noise escaping Harry's lips.

Leaning in, Louis pressed his lips against Harry's shoulder. He sat up, looming over Harry's back and attached his mouth to Harry's nape, gently kissing before sucking a bruise into the soft skin. Harry shifted beneath him, stirring and puffing a little sigh.

"Lou," he mumbled quietly, voice rough and sleepy.

Louis smiled, pressing another kiss over the red mark blooming on Harry's neck before he shuffled down and littered Harry's back with more kisses, trailing down the knobs of Harry's spine to the small of his back.

"Morning, babe," Louis murmured, shaping the words against Harry's skin and pressing his fingertips into Harry's love handles.

Louis had been afraid those were gone. When he had met Harry again, his body had looked so very different -- tall and lanky, long limbs and defined muscles. This body didn't belong to the boy with the chubby cheeks and love handles peeking out above the waistline of jeans riding low on his hips.

Yet, after getting to undress Harry and follow every line of his body with his fingers, Louis had found that not too much had changed. Harry still moved the same, and he was still as responsive, still sensitive in the same places.

"I'll be leaving for New York tonight," Louis said quietly. "Gotta leave you a few things to remember me by."

Harry hissed when Louis bit down on his hip. "Didn't you just come back from L.A.?"

Louis just hummed. Harry didn't need to know that he had been supposed to go straight to New York from Los Angeles. Coming here for a mere two days had been worth it -- more than worth it. After all, he had Harry in his bed right now and Louis was about to thoroughly fuck him.

That would leave him with something to remember Harry by for the week he was going to spend in New York.

"From tomorrow, I'll be on a radio tour for two weeks," Harry said, sounding distracted. He gasped slightly when Louis shifted to fit his hips against Harry's thigh. The way Harry moved back against him made Louis’ cock twitch and harden immediately.

"We'll figure something out," Louis answered, kissing Harry's ribs.

Harry sighed again and Louis saw him fist his hand in the sheets, face turned into the pillow.  Louis sucked bruises into his skin, leaving marks all over Harry's back. The way Harry squirmed and arched beneath him made Louis lose a piece of his mind, all of his blood rushing south. He still wore his briefs, his cock pressing painfully against the front and he eased the urge by rutting against Harry's thigh.

"Love," Louis murmured against Harry's shoulder blade, licking over the teeth marks he had just left there. "Open the top drawer for me, would you?"

Harry breathed heavily, freezing beneath Louis. Louis' hand wandered lower, thumb lightly pressing between the crack of Harry's butt cheeks to get his message across.

He wasn't prepared for Harry to move away, to wince and roll over onto his back. His erection was actually tenting the duvet, but Louis averted his gaze quickly, looking up to Harry's face. He shifted closer, aligning their bodies and rested his hand on Harry's heaving chest.

"What's wrong?" Louis asked.

Harry lifted his arm, sliding it over his eyes. "Sorry for ruining it," he answered instead of giving an explanation.

Louis frowned and reached out to pull Harry's arm from his face. "Nothing's ruined. I just thought you wanted--"

"I do," Harry cut in, shaking his head. "I want you."

A wave of heat rolled through Louis' body, reaching his toes and leaving behind a tingling in his stomach. "But?" he asked.

Biting his lip, Harry averted his gaze. "It's-- I kinda--" He shrugged, glancing at Louis. "It's been... a while."

Louis' muscles loosened, all tension easing off. He smiled, running a hand through Harry's hair. "Two days is not exactly a while, baby."

Harry laughed slightly, and he closed his eyes. "You know what I mean."

"A while since you've been fucked?" Louis asked, seeing Harry blush. He was so endearing, Louis couldn't help but kiss his cheek. "Why would I mind that?"

"I'm a bit out of practise," Harry stated, still not looking at Louis.

"Hey," Louis murmured, tangling his fingers with Harry's. "We don't have to go all the way right now. We could start with blowjobs, you know. Anything, really. I just want to touch you, make you feel good."

"I might not be able to, you know," Harry pointed out, gesturing at Louis' body, "please you."

Louis snorted, rolling his eyes. "Because you haven't had sex in, what? A few months?"

Harry turned to him, eyes open and clear now. He stared into Louis eyes, his fingers squeezing Louis' harder than necessary. Something clicked and Louis froze, hand going limp in Harry's.

"Fuck, Harry," he choked out, propping himself up on one elbow. "Are you saying you haven’t had sex since-- since us ?"

Averting his gaze, Harry's cheeks flushed again and he bit his lip, shrugging.

Louis just stared at him, not sure what to make of it. He was still plastered to Harry's side, but the heat was gone, their bodies slowly cooling down. Harry hadn't moved away, but he was slowly withdrawing from Louis, his gaze fixed on the wall opposite.

Without thinking about it twice, Louis lifted a leg and climbed on top of Harry, straddling his hips. Stopping now would be the single worst thing to do. Harry stared up at him, one hand automatically coming to rest on Louis' thigh, the other was still laced with Louis'.

"Nothing?" Louis dug deeper.

Harry just nodded, closing his eyes as if in pain.

Louis blinked. "How did you survive?"

"Fuck off, Louis," Harry shot back, glancing at him briefly. "It's not exactly vital."

"It actually is," Louis corrected him.

"I like it to mean something, okay?" Harry said, sounding a little tired. "I don't just have sex with someone because they’re attractive." He looked at Louis again, a stubborn tilt to his chin. "It's called making love for a reason, isn't it?"

Louis couldn't help but laugh. He leaned in and pressed his lips against Harry's. They both tasted bitter and of sleep, but Louis didn't care right now -- he just needed a physical reminder of their connection.

"It had nothing to do with you," Harry told him once they broke apart. "Don't let it go to your head."

"What? That I'm the only person you ever had sex with?" Louis smirked. "Too late."

"So what?" Harry asked, moving his hand up on Louis' thigh. "Did you sleep around excessively?"

Louis choked, jolting back. "Don't say it like that. It makes me feel cheap."

"I thought about it, you know?" Harry admitted, seemingly not too bothered by Louis not denying Harry's question. "Just abandon everything and sleep with random people. I just sort of figured it wouldn't work? It had to mean something to make me get over you -- the person would have had to mean more to make me forget you."

Louis stayed quiet, biting his lip. Harry was right -- sleeping with other people, nameless faces in toilet stalls and wrecked flats hadn't helped the slightest bit. It had been satisfying for a short moment, but in the end, Louis had always compared them to Harry and it had never been enough. His heart had still hurt -- they had never smelt like Harry, had never tasted sweet enough, had never moaned in just the right way or touched Louis with fingers that knew every inch of his body.

"And then, before I had realised it, I got over it without finding someone else." Harry shrugged. "It's not that I didn't want to have sex. I just never found the right person who was worth it."

Bringing their laced hands up to his mouth, Louis pressed a kiss to the back of Harry's hand. His heart felt a little too big for his chest, and he was afraid it would swell more and break his ribs, suffocate him.

"I love you," Louis said, staring straight into Harry's eyes.

Harry smiled slightly. "That's why I've slept with you."

"It doesn't matter, okay? I don’t care how much experience you have." Louis ignored Harry's attempt at lightening the mood. Harry had probably broken his own rule two nights ago when he had lost control over a bloody handjob. "That’s not what matters. There's no way you wouldn't please me, or that I'd be disappointed, or anything like that. Get that idea out of your head."

Harry exhaled shakily, nodding.

"I meant it when I said I just want to make you feel good," Louis added. "It's just between us. You and I, okay?"

Without an answer, Harry pulled Louis back in, burying his hand in Louis' hair and meeting his lips in a heated kiss. Harry's tongue curled around his before Louis could even catch his breath, so he moaned into Harry's mouth, sucking on his bottom lip.

Harry's hand slid up Louis' thigh until his fingers met the hem of Louis' pants. He brushed them over Louis' crotch before he hooked one finger under the waistline and tugged gently. Louis latched onto Harry's neck, sucking on his pulse point, then he drew back and lifted his hips so Harry could shove the pants down.

Rolling off Harry, Louis got rid of them and pushed the duvet off the bed at the same time. To his surprise, Harry aligned their bodies in an instant, shoving his leg between Louis', his thigh pressing against Louis' cock. He attached his lips to Louis' collarbone and started to leave a mark of his own. Louis trailed his fingers over Harry's back, pressing against the bruises he had left there.

For a moment, Harry looked at Louis' face, licking his own lips before he detached himself from Louis and scooted down on him, lips trailing their path to Louis' navel. Louis dropped his head back to the pillow, trying to get a hold of himself and calm down -- or else he would be the one to ruin this.

Harry carefully licked the head of Louis' cock, tentatively, fingers curling around the base. Louis groaned, gripping the sheets tightly. When Harry's mouth enveloped him, wet heat taking him in, Louis arched up, just a little, allowing himself to jerk his hips in rhythm with the bobbing of Harry's head.

It felt oddly familiar. Harry seemed a little insecure, but eager at the same time. He took in as much of Louis as he could, sucking gently and paying attention to the head -- apparently he hadn’t forgotten how Louis liked his blowjobs. His tongue pressed against Louis’ cock, just a hint of teeth scratching along the sensitive skin, making Louis lose control of himself.

Harry managed a few minutes before he pulled off, breathing heavily, spit and precome glistening on his lips and chin. He wiped it with one hand and looked at Louis from half-lidded eyes. Just when he wanted to duck back down, Louis stopped him with one hand and beckoned him to come closer.

"Come here, babe," Louis said softly, tugging on Harry's arm.

Harry obliged without protest, slid up on Louis' body and closed his eyes when he dived into another kiss. Louis tasted himself on Harry's tongue, and the thought was strangely intimate. He was still holding Harry's arm and used it to steady himself when he sat up and leaned against the headboard.

For a while, they stayed like that, Harry draped over Louis, their legs tangled and hands caressing each other's skin. The only sounds that filled the room were the wet noises of their kisses and occasional moans.

"Sit up," Louis instructed then, tugging on Harry's arm again. His gaze fell onto the tattoo and Louis briefly leaned in to brush a kiss over it, lingering for a second. He caught Harry's look and smiled softly, resting his other hand on Harry's hip. "Straddle my chest."

Harry did as he was told, eyes going dark when he realised what Louis had in mind. He positioned his knees on either side of Louis' chest and waited for Louis to make himself comfortable, one hand playing with Louis' hair.

Harry tilted his head back, hips rutting forwards when Louis pumped his cock a few times. With one slick move, Louis licked along it once, coaxing a drawn-out moan from Harry. He stilled with his lips at the tip of Harry's cock.

"At your pace, love," he murmured, kissing the tip, precome smearing over his lips. "Just use me."

Harry didn't have to be told twice. His hand twisted in Louis' hair, fingers gripping the strands firmly and he pulled Louis' head towards his hips, his cock sinking between Louis' lips. Louis closed his eyes, taking it, enjoying the sensation of Harry's cock swelling on his tongue, as well as Harry letting go, losing himself in thrusting into Louis' mouth.

To steady himself, Louis brought up his hands and gripped Harry's thighs, holding on tightly while he stretched his jaw and suppressed his gag reflexes as Harry's cock hit the back of his throat. He breathed through his nose, running his tongue along the underside of Harry's cock and was rewarded with a deep moan and nails scraping along the back of his neck.

"Louis," Harry sighed, head falling forwards so his chin met his chest and his curls fell over his eyes. He bit his lip and brought a hand down to cup Louis' jaw and thumb at the corner of his mouth. He looked in actual awe. "Gotta stop."

With a noise that sounded obscene in his own ears, Louis swallowed and tried to catch his breath. "You sure?"

Harry nodded, blinking slowly. "I don't want to have to wait a week or more," he said, still slightly out of breath.

Louis licked his lips, and sat up straight, so Harry straddled his hips, his erection poking into Louis' belly. Shifting and wiggling his hips, Louis adjusted until his own cock rubbed against Harry's arse, making both of them shiver.

"You could do me," Louis offered. "If you want to."

Harry nodded briefly before he leaned in and kissed Louis again. He circled his hips, trying to get some friction and reaching behind himself to grab Louis' cock.

"I want to," he agreed. "I definitely want to fuck you, Lou."

Louis wasn't sure how he held back, how he didn't just come from the sound of those words alone. He closed his eyes and licked Harry's bottom lip.

"Wanna feel you, though," Harry added after another kiss, hips moving in slow circles. "And when you're gone tomorrow, I want to wake up and still be able to feel you."

Louis groaned and rested his forehead against Harry's shoulder, trying not to explode. "Fuck, Haz, you can't just say things like that."

Harry only hummed, apparently too caught up in rutting against Louis. He kissed the top of Louis' head, though, acknowledging his comment in a way.

In one slick motion, Louis reversed their roles, pressing Harry into the mattress. Harry licked his lips, watching Louis patiently and arching against him immediately. Louis ground his hips down, getting some delicious friction from that and saw Harry's eyes glaze over and lips fall open in tiny gasps. With one hand he reached over to his bedside table and opened the top drawer, blindly rummaging through it for lube and condoms.

He coated his fingers in lube and scooted down between Harry's legs, instructing him to open them wide, angling them, before he placed one of the pillows beneath Harry's hips. Tentatively, he rubbed one finger over the rim, watching Harry's reaction. Harry bit his lip and pushed forwards.

Moaning, Harry lifted his hips, pressing against Louis' finger. "Lou, please-- just, please."

Louis nudged the tip of his finger inside, containing his urge to go too fast without a thought -- he wanted to feel Harry fuck himself on Louis' fingers. Closing his eyes, Louis turned his head, his lips pressing against Harry's knee.

"Are we a little desperate?" he asked, pushing his finger inside up to his knuckle. "Gagging for it?"

Harry heaved out a breath, squirming, and his hand reached out, grabbing nothing but thin air. Louis lifted his hand to lace his fingers with Harry's, to give him something to hold on to. Relaxing into the mattress, Harry moved his hips in rhythm with Louis' finger, his own fingers pressing against the back of Louis' hand.

Louis took his time, twisted his finger deep inside Harry. He attached his lips to Harry's thigh, sucking bruises into the pale, soft skin -- it was distracting enough for Harry that it only elicited a small gasp from him when Louis added a second finger.

Harry started to touch himself when Louis spread his fingers, stretching Harry open. He seemed to lose it, hips stuttering frantically, and a lovely blush covered his face and chest. Louis kept moving his fingers slowly, making sure he hit Harry's prostate, brushing it with each thrust of his fingers to get a drawn-out moan from Harry.

Louis caressed his thumb over Harry's balls, pulling out his fingers, only to push right back in with three. Harry went lax, completely limp, and Louis shifted back up to see his face. He kept his fingers buried deep inside of Harry while he kissed their laced hands, watching Harry's face.

"Come on, baby," he murmured. "Come."

Harry shook his head, his breathing shallow and laboured. He dropped his hand from his cock and precome dripped over his stomach. "Want your cock," he choked out, reaching up his smeared hand and ran it through Louis' hair, gripping the strands tightly.

Louis nodded before he leaned in and kissed Harry once more. He was leaking against Harry's hip, his cock painfully neglected, hard and throbbing. He eased some of the urgency by rutting against Harry, gasping into Harry's mouth.

"Condom," Louis murmured, reaching behind Harry to grab one from the bedside table.

Harry frowned up at him, looking slightly confused.

It hit Louis in that moment that, of course, they had never used condoms -- they had both been each other's firsts, so there really hadn't been a need for protection. It was still the same for Harry.

"I'll have to get a check-up," Louis said, trying to tear open the package.

Harry seemed to ponder that for a moment before he took the wrapping from Louis’ slick hands and opened it for him. Dropping the foil, Harry stared up into Louis' face, gripping his cock with firm fingers. Louis closed his eyes when Harry rolled the condom on -- just having Harry touch him felt like heaven.

It would feel even better in a moment when he pushed into Harry's warmth.

Louis reached out for the lube and squeezed some onto the tip of his cock. He let Harry spread it with his fingers, coating him completely.

"Want me now?" Louis asked, lazily rocking into Harry's fist.

Harry nodded, gaze fixed on Louis' cock. He swallowed thickly as he laid back down and arched up slightly, sticky fingers resting on Louis' thighs.

Slowly, Louis lined up with Harry's hole, nudged it with the head of his cock twice to give Harry some time to get used to it before he pushed in carefully. Harry's stomach muscles clenched and he whined quietly.

"Love, we can--"

"Don't go so fucking slow," Harry bit out, pushing against Louis.

Gasping, Louis pressed his fingers into Harry's skin, keeping his hips still. He licked his lips and waited for Harry to meet his gaze, then he slammed forwards, pushing deep into Harry. Harry arched off the bed and lifted his hands, running his fingers through his own hair while gasping out tiny, wrecked moans.

Louis lifted one of Harry's legs, draping it over his own shoulder to get a better angle and thrust into Harry as deeply as possible. He watched Harry's eyes roll, lashes fluttering. He clenched around Louis, but he wasn't as tight as Louis had expected.

"Lou," Harry whined, tensing. His eyes opened and he reached for his cock again. "Harder," he demanded. "Wanna feel you tomorrow."

Louis batted Harry’s hand away, curling his fingers around Harry's cock. He jerked Harry off in rhythm with his thrusts, fast and hard until Harry spilled all over his own chest. With a loud moan, verging on a scream, Harry shuddered through it, his hips losing their pace.

Louis kept thrusting into him, merciless even when Harry went lax and pliant beneath him. He kept pushing in deep, coaxing whines and hissings from Harry by stroking his oversensitive cock. It took a look at Harry's face, seeing his fucked-out expression to push Louis over the edge. He bit his lip hard to hold back a groan and buried himself deep inside of Harry, stilling completely when he came.

Louis needed a moment before he was able to take in anything at all. He opened his eyes and saw Harry beneath him, lips wet and pink, breathing still laboured. Carefully, Louis removed Harry's leg from his shoulder, but kept kneeling between his legs. He removed the condom, tied it up and mindlessly dropped it next to the bed before he leaned forwards and pressed a kiss just beneath Harry's stomach. The muscles beneath Louis' lips fluttered, but Harry didn't move a single inch.

Slowly, Louis moved up, kissing along Harry's abs. He glanced up to check if Harry was watching, and when Louis saw his eyes following Louis' every move, he licked up the come on Harry's sternum and chest, gathering the bitter taste on his tongue.

Harry's eyes were fixed on Louis' lips when Louis reached his face, and he went a little cross-eyed. Louis smiled and leaned in, sealing Harry's lips with a kiss. He grinned against Harry's mouth at Harry's surprised moan when he found Louis hadn't swallowed a single drop. Harry just kissed him even harder, tongue pushing eagerly into Louis' mouth.

"Disgusting," Harry commented after the kiss. His eyes were bright and looking greatly satisfied, though.

“As if.” Louis plopped down by his side, sighing in content. "You're into that stuff."

"Maybe," Harry answered cheekily, turning to Louis.

Coming down, Louis absently stroked his hand up and down Harry's back, letting Harry curl up against him and bury his face against Louis' neck. He closed his eyes and licked his lips, tasting a hint of blood.

"I've missed this most," Harry announced quietly, gently sucking on Louis' neck.

"I'm not gonna comment on how you make out that sex was the best part of what we had," Louis answered, smirking to himself. "But only because you didn't have sex for more than three years."

Harry pinched Louis' waist and made him wince. "Fuck off. I don't mean the sex."

"What do you mean then?" Louis asked, frowning.

"This," Harry answered, smoothing his thumb over the skin he had just pinched. "Cuddling you after sex."

"Could you maybe not say that after we've just spent--" He turned his head to look at the alarm clock on his bedside table. "--more than an hour having sex?"

Harry chuckled, sliding on top of Louis again. "If it means so much to you -- I missed that too."

Louis gave his bum a friendly clap. "What exactly?"

"Making love," Harry answered with a grin that softened around the edges when their eyes met.

"You're a hopeless sap," Louis answered, his voice thick, and he had to swallow around a lump in his throat. This was the closest Harry had come yet. "No one calls it that."

"Hm," Harry hummed and lowered his head to Louis' chest. "That's what it is with you, though."

Louis knew that Harry had to be able to hear his heart stumble, skip a beat and jump back into motion with rapid speed.

"How would you know?" Louis asked, trying to keep their light banter up. "You can't exactly compare, can you?"

Harry lifted his head, frowning at Louis. "I don't need to compare this to know that it feels special to me."

Louis lifted one hand to brush it through Harry's messy curls. "I just don't want you to say it when you're maybe not completely certain about it."

"I haven't said it yet, though," Harry replied, resting his chin on Louis' chest and keeping his eyes trained on Louis's face.

"It was kinda implied," Louis argued.

"When?" Harry wanted to know, smirking a little. "When we had sex? Or when I called it making love?"

"Both," Louis breathed, cupping Harry's cheek and brushing one thumb over his jaw.  

Harry was quiet for a moment, just looking at Louis. Then he suddenly asked, "When do you have to leave?"

Confused, Louis glanced at the alarm clock on his bedside table. It was almost two in the afternoon. Time was going by so quickly, and they had spent way too much of it sleeping. Louis could have used it to talk to Harry a little more, to get him to say what Louis wanted to hear, instead of having him just hint at it and leaving Louis on the edge.

So Harry wouldn't say it. It was okay -- Louis hadn't expected to hear it anytime soon. He would adjust to Harry's pace.

"The flight's at seven," he answered.

Humming, Harry rolled off Louis and stretched leisurely. Louis kept his gaze trained on Harry's bum, on the wetness between his thighs. He wondered what it would be like to slide right back in later -- if it would go smooth, if Harry would still be stretched and open for Louis.

And this was bad -- Louis wanted too much too fast.

"We should shower," Harry said, turning to Louis. "I definitely need a shower."

Louis hummed and sat up, scratching his stomach. He watched Harry turn around confusedly, looking from one door to the other. Louis had a bathroom right next to his bedroom and one downstairs, but obviously, Harry didn't know.

"Is that a bathroom behind that door?" he asked, looking at Louis over his shoulder. "Or am I gonna make a fool of myself walking into your dressing room or something?"

Louis grinned and stood up, touching Harry's waist. "It's a secret spy room, actually."

Rolling his eyes, Harry went ahead, approaching the door. "A room like that would obviously have a hidden door, too."

Grinning, Louis followed him, his eyes roaming over Harry's back and the bruises that were blooming there. He reached out to press a finger against one and felt Harry freeze, keening under Louis' touch.

"This flat is proper posh," Harry commented, standing in the centre of Louis' bathroom. "I think that bathtub alone is bigger than my bathroom."

"I think so, yeah," Louis agreed, winding his arms around Harry's waist and pressing a kiss to his shoulder. "We could have a bath if you want to."

Harry shook his head, hands gripping Louis'. "Not really up for a swim. Shower's fine."

Louis stepped forwards, turning a few knobs and steam instantly filled the room. "I could wash your hair."

"You're a bit too small for that," Harry pointed out, coming closer.

As if on cue, Louis felt a smirk spread over his face. "Not if you get on your knees."

+++

Harry felt completely relaxed when Louis stopped the car in front of his flat.

They had heated up the Italian food earlier, eating on Louis' sofa and watching some telly. Louis had been curled up against Harry's side, his whole body tucked under Harry's arm. It had been quiet and peaceful after they had relieved most of the sexual tension that had kept them on the edge for so long.

Their late lunch had still ended in them ignoring the programme on telly and turning to each other, snogging lazily. Harry had pressed Louis down into the sofa cushions, covering him with his body, kissing him until both of them had felt raw and Louis had rutted up against Harry.

Time had been too short, though, so they had kept it at snogging.

Louis had insisted on dropping Harry off on his way to the airport instead of calling him a taxi. He had said he wanted to spend as much time as possible with Harry before they were apart for at least a week.

"Text me where you'll be next Monday, yeah?" Louis asked now after they had sat in silence for a minute.

"I told you," Harry reminded him. "I'll be in Glasgow."

"I'll forget," Louis said. "I can barely remember my own schedule. How would I remember yours on top of that?"

Harry rolled his eyes, holding back a grin. "Yeah, right. I'll text you."

"Okay." Louis kept drumming his fingers against the steering wheel. "Good."

"So," Harry said, drawing the word out a little. He watched Louis nervously glance at him. "I think I should get going. You’ve got a plane to catch."

"I'd much rather stay," Louis told him, shrugging a little.

Harry leaned in, bringing his lips close to Louis' ear. "It's just a week," he reminded Louis, waiting for Louis to turn his face to him. "But I'll miss you too."

Louis smiled bitterly before he closed the gap between their lips and kissed Harry sweetly.

"Text me about everything else too," Louis demanded, dropping his forehead to Harry's shoulder. "I wanna know every detail."

Harry nodded and then he drew back. He took Louis' hand and put his own watch onto the palm, smiling at Louis. "Think of me."

Louis closed his fingers around the soft leather and returned the smile. "Thanks, babe."

Harry leaned in for one more kiss, just a short peck, and when he opened the passenger door to get out of the car, he hesitated, because-- that was not all he had to say. He turned back to Louis, opening his mouth.

"Don't," Louis said calmly. He shook his head, lifting a hand. "Don't say it now."

"But--"

"No," Louis protested. "I wanna spread you out and coax it out of you again and again, make you feel nothing else but me , when you say it for the first time."

Harry swallowed thickly.

"Say it then," Louis suggested. "Say it when we have a little more time."

"You know it anyway, don't you?" Harry asked quietly.

Louis nodded, smiling slightly. "It will still make a difference to hear it from you."

"I'll say it then," Harry promised. "I'll say it over and over again when we have a little more time."

Louis' gaze became slightly unfocussed and he licked his lips, nodding abruptly.

"Have a good trip, Lou," Harry said, stepping back.

Louis lifted his hand, fingers still fisted around the watch. "I'll think of you."

Harry closed the door and buried his hands in his pockets, watching Louis drive off. The car got smaller and smaller in the distance, and Harry took a deep breath.

He would miss Louis; of course he would. It was hard separating again when they had just been united after such a long time. Yet Harry would be busy, would travel different cities, see new places and faces every day.

Even if he did miss Louis, this was Harry's life, everything he had always worked for. He'd somehow manage to combine both. He was determined to work hard to keep up both aspects of his life. It wouldn’t be easy, with both of them so focussed on their careers. From now on, he would probably spend many days like this one -- taking in as much as possible from Louis, having him for a few days at most before at least one of them would have to leave indefinitely.

One thing was certain -- he had a long week ahead.

+++

Louis didn’t switch on his mobile until he was sat in the back of the black car that had been waiting for him at the airport in New York. He knew he had to check at least twitter to see if anyone had caught up on where he had been for the past two days. Their fans always found out their flight connections, so they had definitely found out about Louis going to Heathrow instead of New York.

He had a message from Niall, though, that he decided to open and read first.

Will get in touch with your management tomorrow. Let me know how much the press is allowed to know -- speculations are wild.

Louis frowned and closed WhatsApp, opening Twitter and searching his own name. What came up were a range of tweets about him and Harry, and images that explained Niall's message. They showed Harry getting out of the taxi, rain making the picture a little blurry. Others were taken of Harry passing the security in front of the building Louis lived in without even being stopped. There was another bunch of them getting into Louis' car together from earlier that evening. Louis hadn't even noticed the paparazzo.

The tweets were about Harry arriving late at Louis' all by himself, and that he hadn't come back out of the building until they had left together in the morning.

With Harry being out, those definitely fueled speculation. Of course Louis could always deny it by saying they were just friends. That was a lie he didn't want to tell, though. Not with Harry, not again.

Won't comment on it for the time being. They'll stop speculating in a few days , he answered Niall. Thanks for the heads up, though. x

When he reached the hotel, he pocketed his mobile again and got out of the car. Alberto carried his bag, guiding Louis to reception to pick up his room key. Only when they were in the lift did he pull his phone back out, texting Liam and Zayn that he had arrived.

They showed up barely ten minutes later, both grinning madly.

"Look at you," Liam cooed, pressing a finger against Louis' cheek as he came into the room. "You look proper happy."

Louis frowned, glancing at Zayn who just answered him with a nod.

"I assume a certain Harry Styles is responsible for that look on your face," Zayn commented. He sat down on Louis' bed. "We've seen the pictures."

Taking a deep breath, Louis dropped his arms to his side, leaning against the big armchair next to him. He watched Zayn shifting onto the bed, crossing his legs and Liam standing next to it, looking at Louis expectantly.

"I got him back," Louis said quietly.

"We figured," Liam pointed out.

Louis smiled slightly. "It's still a little rocky. But we want to work on it."

“I’m glad,” Liam told him, sitting down next to Zayn and gripping the remote control for the TV. “Honestly, I couldn’t have taken another day of you moping about Harry.”

“I wasn’t moping,” Louis protested.

"Yes, you were," Zayn argued and flopped back onto the cushions layered in front of the headboard.

At that moment, Louis' phone buzzed with a new message and he gripped it, unlocking the screen to find it was from Harry.

Just got up. It's way too early... You got my jumper and my watch, but I didn't get anything from you to take with me. It's not very fair, is it? .xx

Louis smiled, instantly typing out a reply.

Don't say I did a bad job of fucking you

He added a naughty looking emoticon for good measure.

That doesn't count. I want something that smells of you too.

Another message from Harry came in right after, consisting of two emoticons, a hedgehog and sad face. Louis didn’t understand the connection.

It was good enough at the time... , Louis typed. He glanced at the watch around his wrist and added, only a week. I'll get you something to keep then .

Harry's reply didn't take a minute.

I'm gonna give you something to keep, too. xx

Maybe Louis would strangle Harry instead. There was only one thing Harry could mean -- the words he hadn’t been allowed to say yet. Handling Harry’s honest affection, that somewhat innocent attitude towards voicing his feelings wasn't exactly easy for Louis. He couldn't say those things as easily, couldn't jump out on Harry like that.

Harry was something else, a riddle and at the same time an open book, charming and flirty and at the same time shy and loyal -- who wouldn't long to spend just a minute in the presence of that lovely boy?

Louis swallowed thickly, dropping his mobile to the chair. The words Niall had said so quietly were loud in Louis' head and kept replaying over and over.

That was exactly what it was about -- who wouldn’t want Harry ?

"Harry got the offer first," Louis said out loud, staring at Liam and Zayn.

Zayn slowly turned his face back to Louis, looking at him with a frown. "Did he just text you that?"

Louis laughed a little, running a hand over his face.

He had been so preoccupied fixing things with Harry that he had pushed this issue to the back of his mind. Facing Liam and Zayn now dug it all up again, made him realise that this wasn't his rightful place. It had always been Harry's to begin with.

"No," he answered. "Niall told me, actually."

"Niall?" Liam asked, muting the telly. "When did you see him?"

Louis shrugged. "I went to him first, because... like-- I didn't know what to make of New Year, and I thought Harry was with bloody Nick Grimshaw anyway. I figured Niall would know what to do. He knows Harry best, after all."

"And instead of helping you out, he dropped a bomb like that?" Zayn sat up.

"Harry would never have," Louis murmured. "If Niall hadn't told me, I would have never found out about it."

"I take it Harry refused the offer," Liam stated quietly.

Louis nodded. Silence stretched between them for a long moment.

"Well, that's shit," Zayn pointed out. "Were they aware that you'd question your whole life after finding out about that?"

Looking up, Louis saw both Zayn and Liam sit close on the bed. Liam seemed worried and Zayn looked upset.

"I was only their second choice," was all Louis could say.

"All of us were probably their seventh and eighth choices, Lou," Liam pointed out. "It's not like they cast the first three guys who took the chance. You know how many people came down for the auditions."

Louis shrugged.

"So they asked Harry first," Zayn added. "What if he had done it? I don't think he would have fit with us. He's a solo artist, Louis -- and from what I've gathered, he has always been."

"He's so much better than---"

"He wouldn't have been good enough for us," Liam cut in harshly. He seemed to realise, quickly adding in a softer voice, "Don't get me wrong. He's lovely. You know I like him, and he's immensely talented. But this, Lou? This is something only the three of us could do."

Louis blinked at them, something inside him feeling heavy and dull, making it hard to move.

"Escapade wouldn't have worked with anyone else than the three of us, Louis." Zayn shifted on the bed, patting the sheets next to him. "You're right where you're meant to be."

Strolling over, Louis hesitated for a moment before he curled up on the bed next to Zayn. Liam switched the telly back on, but Louis didn't really take in what was showing.

"Thanks," Louis mumbled, resting his head against Zayn's shoulder.

Zayn just squeezed his thigh and Liam said, "Nothing to thank us for." Then Liam reached over and tapped a finger against Louis’ left wrist. “Nice watch, by the way.”

Grinning, Louis tucked his arm against his chest, shrugging at them. “It’s Harry’s.”

“Figured,” Zayn stated and let Liam snuggle against his other side. “You’ve always been a hopeless sap.”

Louis thought of what it had been like waking up next to Harry. He thought of Harry's lips on his own and Harry's eyes going bright and a soft smile gracing his lips. He thought of a red scarf and snow, of rain and moving on.

“Maybe,” he answered quietly.

Images of what Harry had looked like on stage, the red flush high on his cheeks and the blinding smile, his overwhelming stage presence flooded his mind. For a moment, Louis tried to imagine himself right up there with Harry, but just the thought felt wrong. Harry was meant to take the stage alone, was meant to do his own thing.

When Zayn's cheek rested heavy against the top of Louis' head and he exchanged a quick grin with Liam, he knew that Zayn was right. These two boys were meant to be by his side -- none of them would have come this far without one another.

All of them were exactly where they were meant to be.

+++

"Harry, hurry up a bit," Niall said, rushing ahead to the big door at the end of the corridor. "A car is parked outside. Get in asap."

Harry adjusted his jacket, burying his hands in the pockets. "We're done here for today, aren't we? What's the rush?"

They were in a radio station in Edinburgh, and had just finished an interview on the evening programme. Nothing in particular was different from the other days Harry had spent promoting his first single on local radio stations.

In two hours, Harry would give a short gig in a small club in the city centre. He still had to do his sound check -- Niall had reminded him at least ten times by now.

"They said more than a hundred fans have already gathered outside," Niall informed him, looking over his shoulder. "No one's been actually prepared for anything like this. I didn't think so many fans would show up."

Harry stopped, blinking. "A hundred?"

"No idea where they came from," Niall commented. "But they are here, and we don't have any security."

"They didn't come to kill me, Niall," Harry reminded him.

"They've come to get a piece of you." Niall put a hand to the door handle and turned. "Okay. Don't stop for pictures. Just head straight to the car and get in. Got that?"

Harry nodded briefly and then went past Niall outside. Sudden noise -- deafening screams -- hit him and Harry noticed the crowds of girls on both sides. The radio station's security staff had put up barriers. Harry stopped in his tracks, Niall bumping into his back. He turned left and took the hand of a girl who was reaching for him.

"Harry," Niall said, voice keen.

Ignoring it, Harry tilted his head and smiled for the girl's camera. It quickly turned into him taking photos with the other ones, signing pictures of himself and giving hugs. He talked to some of the girls, too, and thanked them for showing up.

"Harry, we really have to leave now," Niall said from behind him, gripping his arm.

"Alright," Harry answered. He turned and waved at the girls, heading towards the car with Niall in tow.

"You're irresponsible," Niall complained once they sat in the back of the car. "I told you not to stop."

"They came and waited out there in the cold just for me, Niall," Harry argued. "The least I could do was stop and say thank you."

"I'm not saying it's wrong." Niall got out his mobile when it started ringing. "But we weren't prepared, and that could have been dangerous."

Niall answered his phone, talking to someone about the upcoming gig, apparently, so Harry turned and got out his own mobile.

He had a new message from Perrie, informing him that her latest fashion show had gone well. He typed out a quick reply before he opened his chat with Louis. Their last interaction had been almost two days ago -- sweet goodnight wishes from Louis.

Playing Edinburgh tonight, am a bit nervous. You know when you'll be in Glasgow tomorrow?

He pocketed his phone again, feeling light-headed from the thought of seeing Louis the next day, and turned back to Niall.

"Everything at the club is set," Niall informed him. "We'll do a soundcheck for an hour, maybe. You have another hour to--" he stopped, frowning a little. "To relax, I guess."

"Fine," Harry answered, shrugging. "Are we heading to Glasgow afterwards or in the morning?"

"Tomorrow morning," Niall said, leaning back and crossing his arms. "I booked a hotel for the night."

Harry hummed, nodding his head. They stayed silent for the rest of the ride, Niall temporarily leaning against Harry, his head resting on Harry's shoulder.

"Have you talked to Babs about Manchester?" Harry asked.

"Yeah, she's coming up that weekend," Niall said. "I haven't scheduled anything for your birthday. Thought we could visit our families that day."

"My mum will be thrilled." Harry patted Niall's thigh.

"You'll get a big birthday party when we're back in London." Niall's voice was quiet, the way it got before he fell asleep. "Louis has rented a club already."

Frowning, Harry sat up, looking at Niall. "What?"

Niall shrugged. "He said he wants to proper celebrate your birthday and asked when you're off. So we scheduled a date for a party."

"Why am I only finding out about this now?"

"I thought Louis would have told you," Niall defended himself, lifting his head looking caught. "Shit, maybe it was a surprise."

"He's not gonna throw me an expensive birthday party," Harry stated, pulling out his mobile again. He saw he already had an answer from Louis to his previous message.

Would a kiss make you feel less nervous? xx

Harry frowned at it, deciding not to answer right now. He could discuss the party with Louis when they met the next day.

The car pulled to a stop and Niall put a hand on Harry's arm, looking through the window first.

"Niall, honestly..." Harry rolled his eyes.

"Yes, okay. Someone has to worry about you, if you don't worry about yourself." Niall poked Harry's ribs. "I'll be the one who'll have to explain to Louis why you didn't make it back to him in one piece."

"And you wouldn't want Louis to be angry with you," Harry pointed out.

"I really wouldn't." Niall opened the door and waited for Harry to follow.

They were at the back entrance of the club, but Harry could hear loud chatter from around a corner. Inside, they were led to the stage and Harry was handed his guitar by a technician, ready to start soundcheck right away.

"You guys are a bit late, aren't you?"

Harry stopped, freezing before he turned and spotted Louis at one of the tables in the back, a cup of tea in front of him.

"Niall said you'd be here by five. It's almost half six." Louis shook his head, then he winked at Harry.

"I--" Harry blinked, giving the guitar back to the man next to him. "I thought you were coming tomorrow?"

Louis shrugged, standing up. "I took an earlier flight and came straight here instead. Not okay?"

"More than okay," Harry corrected him and crossed the room until he stopped right in front of Louis.

Louis looked up at him, hands behind his back, eyes bright and hopeful. There were shadows beneath them, but they didn't make him look any less beautiful. Harry glanced around, pressing his lips together. He wanted to kiss Louis, wanted to embrace him and hold him close, breathe Louis in.

They hadn't talked about any of this, though. Louis wasn't out, after all.

"Can I, like--" Harry glanced behind him again. "Kiss you here?"

Louis' grin was quick. "I'm actually offended that you haven't yet."

Harry breathed out, exhaling quickly to suck in another breath before slotting his lips against Louis'. His hands framed the sides of Louis' neck, tongues meeting in a slow, lazy kiss. Louis wound his arms around Harry's torso, getting to his toes and pressing in close.

"Alright, lads," Niall said from behind them, sounding amused. "Get a room."

Harry decided to ignore him and trailed his lips up Louis' cheek instead, let Louis burrow his face against Harry's neck. They stayed like that for a moment, just holding on to each other.

"I gotta hurry up with soundcheck," Harry mumbled into Louis' hair.

Louis nodded, stepping back. He winked. "I'll watch from the sidelines."

"Are you gonna stay for the gig?" Harry kept his hand on Louis' jaw.

"'Course. I'll stay with you lot until you leave for Manchester."

Beaming, Harry leaned in again, pecking Louis' lips once more. "That means three days."

"Exactly," Louis confirmed. He sat back down, gesturing at the stage. "Get going. The sooner you finish this up, the sooner I'll get you to myself."

Harry turned and hurried back, taking his guitar. When he was in front of his microphone and Niall gave him a thumbs-up to start, he looked back at Louis with a broad grin.

Louis rolled his eyes -- and Harry knew that he probably expected it, had seen through Harry already. Harry couldn't hold it in, though.

"Rululu," he sang into the microphone, watching Louis burst into giggles.

+++

Careful not to be seen, Louis had stayed backstage, watching Harry from behind a black curtain when the gig had finally started. The club was crowded -- mostly girls, but Louis had been able to make out quite a number of blokes among them too.

Harry hadn't even been that nervous before the gig. Still, Louis had kissed him gently, cradling his cheek and holding Harry's gaze until he had breathed calmly and evenly. With a wink, Louis had sent Harry out on stage.

It had been good; Harry had seemed perfectly in his element on stage, singing with a clear voice, talking cheekily and thanking the crowd politely before he had gone off stage. Louis had awaited him, opening his arms immediately to catch Harry and hold him close.

They were sitting in a small backstage room now, Niall handing out food that had been delivered a while ago. Harry had draped himself over the sofa across from Louis, legs sprawled out over the cushions, his shirt unbuttoned to his navel and the skinny jeans leaving nothing to anyone' s imagination.

Louis felt torn between wanting to rip the clothes off Harry's body and wanting to wrap him up in a blanket, maybe, covering Harry's body completely.

"How are Zayn and Liam?" Niall asked, sitting down next to Louis.

"Great," Louis answered. "New York was wicked. We worked with a few amazing songwriters."

Niall hummed. "Babs said Perrie's working a late shift tonight, by the way. In case you want to proceed with--- you know. That plan."

From the corner of his eye, Louis saw Harry perk up. "What plan?"

"Nothing," Louis said quickly.

Harry frowned, putting down his plate. "What are two you up to?"

"Zayn wants to pick Perrie up from work," Niall answered, munching on a piece of bread. "It doesn't concern you, Harry."

"I hope it’s not because you--"

"No," Louis cut in, shaking his head. "I didn't ask him to, if that's what you think."

"So," Harry noted, blinking. "He really likes her?"

Louis shrugged. "He fancies her, yeah. Says she's really cute and, you know, just a lovely girl."

"He's nicer than Colin," Niall commented.

"Who's Colin?" Louis inquired.

"Perrie's ex," Harry explained, voice quiet. "He cheated on her. Broke her heart."

Louis held Harry's look for a moment. "Sounds bad."

"She deserves someone who's honest with her," Harry went on. "Someone who's nice and treats her right."

"You don't think Zayn's, like--" Louis pulled a face, gesturing with one hand. "Playing with her."

Harry shrugged. "I'm saying that if he is, I'll make him regret it."

Louis turned to Niall, frowning. "What exactly is it with those two?"

"Dunno, mate," Niall answered. "Harry's been head over heels for Perrie from day one."

"I'm just looking after her," Harry corrected him.

"You're not in love with her?" Louis wanted to know, eying Harry sceptically. He had seen that Perrie and Harry were especially close, and Harry had told Louis a few things. Harry shared a bed with Perrie sometimes, and she kissed him on the mouth and wore Harry's clothes, looking cute and as though she wore her boyfriend's clothes.

Louis wanted to wear Harry's clothes.

"I think we both know that you're the only one I'm in love with." Harry said it calmly, tone indifferent.

Niall turned to Louis, blinking, and Louis' mouth fell open in a gape.

Glancing up, Harry winked, obviously holding back a grin from spreading over his face.

"You little shit!" Louis hissed. "That's not how you confess love to someone, Harold."

"Did you want me to wait for it to snow?" Harry asked cheekily, fully smirking now.

"Rain and a candlelight dinner would have been sufficient," Louis informed him dryly.

"You guys are the worst," Niall pointed out and turned to Louis. "You did not do that, did you?"

A blush spread in Louis' cheeks, making them feel warm.

Harry glanced at Niall before his grin grew wider. "Maybe."

Louis got up and shoved Harry's legs off the sofa to sit next to him. "You're the worst."

"You love me," Harry shot back immediately.

"Maybe," Louis answered this time around.

"Maybe," Harry said back, leaning closer.

"Stop," Niall interfered loudly, throwing a piece of bread that hit Louis on the head. "Pull yourselves together, you animals! The car will be here in a few. Save it for the bedroom."

Harry giggled, lowering his head and squeezing Louis' thigh. Louis wanted to move in closer and straddle Harry, pin him to the sofa and kiss the living daylights out of him. Unfortunately, Niall was still watching them suspiciously, eyes narrowed.

It was probably for the best, anyway. Louis wanted to have time to properly drown in the feeling and make Harry repeat it countless of times.

It wasn't easy when Niall took his eyes off them and turned to one of the technicians who informed him that all equipment was stored away for the trip to Glasgow. Harry latched onto Louis' neck within a second, hand moving up on Louis' thigh.

He only let go when they were told a car had arrived to take them to the hotel.

Louis found himself in exactly the same position again just a few minutes later, as soon as they were in the back of the car. He could see Niall roll his eyes, mumbling something under his breath in the passenger seat. It was hard to care, though, when Harry was mouthing over Louis' neck, his finger circling Louis' crotch.

Everything that mattered was Harry quietly whispering "Love you" into Louis' ear.

+++

Harry had set his alarm early.

They were going to leave for Glasgow at eight, and he still wanted some alone time with Louis -- some time to actually talk. Last night, they had let actions talk, and Harry liked how he could still feel it all over his body, could still distinctively taste Louis on his tongue. His skin was sticky and bruised, his hair a mess and all of his limbs loose.

Louis groaned when Harry's alarm went off again. "No," he whined.

Harry laughed gently and nuzzled in closer, rubbing his nose against Louis' shoulder. He grabbed his mobile and switched off the alarm. Then he typed a quick message to Niall, informing him that they wouldn't be down for breakfast.

"Louis," Harry murmured quietly, trailing his fingers over Louis' side. "Don't fall asleep again."

Louis growled and lifted the duvet, tugging it up over Harry's head.

Giggling, Harry wrapped himself around Louis, tangling their legs and pressing his face against Louis' neck. The skin was soft and warm, tasting salty sweat. Harry allowed himself a minute of drowning in Louis' warmth, in the silence of the room and Louis' quiet breathing.

"I can't believe you woke me before six," Louis mumbled sleepily.

"I'll have to share you for the rest of the day," Harry pointed out.

"Wrong direction," Louis warned him. "That sounds a bit possessive, love."

Harry pinched Louis' waist, feeling him tense up a bit. "That's not what I meant." He tugged at the duvet until he had it pushed to his shoulders and could breathe in some fresh air. "I just don't know how to act around you in public."

Louis rolled to his back, groaning again. "It's too early for this."

"Are people allowed to know you're here?" Harry asked, ignoring Louis' complaint.

"They'll find out anyway. Probably did already," Louis added and ran a hand through his hair.

Harry hummed quietly. "I'm not doing that again, Lou."

He felt Louis freeze, muscles going tight beneath his still sleep-warm skin.

"I'm not going to go back to hiding," Harry went on. "That didn't work well for us last time."

"I'm not saying I want to hide," Louis pointed out quietly.

"You act like it, though." Harry shifted closer. "We'll have to figure something out."

Louis turned over, pressing close against Harry's side, fingers tangling in Harry's hair. "I want to get it right," he whispered. "I don't want to fuck it up again."

Harry smiled gently. "I know."

"Give me a bit of time, yeah?" Louis asked, a pleading look in his eyes.

"'Course," Harry answered immediately, gripping Louis' wrist reassuringly.

"I'll talk to Zayn and Liam and see what we can do." Louis shrugged slightly.

"So, it's just friends for the public image until then." It wasn't a question -- there was no other option in there.

Louis averted his gaze, biting his lip.

Harry knew he should put up a fight. They had to be careful not to end up at a point where they had been before -- it could go downhill very fast from there. Louis looked so torn and earnest about it, though, and Harry knew that this issue wouldn't be resolved in one conversation on one early morning.

As long as they were on the same page about it, they would find a way to make it work.

"We'll figure it out," Harry murmured, kissing Louis' forehead.

For a while, they lay in silence, just holding each other, hands gently caressing naked skin. Harry closed his eyes again and sighed quietly, inhaling Louis' scent and absorbing his warmth.

"I thought we could probably order room service," Harry said then, aware that otherwise they'd fall asleep again.

"Breakfast in bed?" Louis asked.

"Maybe a shower before that."

Louis hummed. "Can we, like--" he stopped, nuzzling his face against Harry's chest. "Just stay like this for maybe another ten minutes? Just like this?"

Harry rested his hand at the back of Louis' neck. "Sure."

Louis didn't fall back asleep. Instead, his fingers kept trailing Harry's spine -- up and down, in a constant rhythm. He breathed evenly, lips shaping soundless words against Harry's skin, and Harry caught every single one of them.

Love you , and Happy and Forever .

"Maybe," Harry murmured into their comfortable silence.

Louis' lips stopped moving and he lifted his head slightly, eyes locking with Harry's when he slowly shook his head.

"Must be."

---

 

Chapter Text

"Baby Blue?"

Harry groaned, burying his face in the pillow. His room was still dark and Louis' voice sounded tinny over the phone.

For a moment, Harry had considered not picking up, but when he had forced one eye open and had seen Louis' ID flash over the screen, he had answered the call. It could have been something really important after all.

He couldn't help but regret it -- Louis had actually just called to chat, apparently.

"It's five in the morning, Lou."

"Morning, though," Louis pointed out, sounding way too awake for Harry's likings. "Not night."

"Too early," Harry protested.

"I got your email," Louis stated. "A few days ago, actually, but I could only open the file you sent today."

"I figured." Rolling onto his back, Harry forced his eyes open. "You didn't have to call straight away, you know. A text would have been sufficient."

"You wrote a song about me and called it Baby Blue , Harry." Louis pronounced the title as if it would get his message across any more clearly.

Harry had no idea what the message was.

"And?"

"Baby Blue?!" Louis repeated, tone incredulous.

"You've got blue eyes," Harry told him, sitting up and leaning against the headboard. " And you're my baby."

"Fuck off. I'm not. You're my baby," Louis huffed.

"I think my song states otherwise." Harry smirked to himself, stretching lazily.

Louis was quiet for a moment and Harry expected him to come up with another argument. Instead, Louis' voice sounded a little doubtful when he spoke again.

"I thought you didn't write songs about me?"

Harry took a deep breath. "I'm not writing about you being a dick," he answered, fidgeting the duvet with his free hand. "I'm writing about what makes me happy -- and you just so happen to do exactly that."

"You're too much," Louis groaned, and Harry could hear it in his voice that Louis was blushing. "I can't handle you."

Laughing, Harry tilted his head back, closing his eyes. "You don't have to handle me. You're my baby, remember?"

Louis snorted. "You're bonkers."

"You know what rhymes with Baby Blue?"

"No," Louis answered, sounding confused. Then he gasped before Harry could answer. " No , Harry!"

"Baby Blue. Rululu," Harry sang happily, repeating it over and over.

"Stop it!" Louis laughed, shrieking a little at the other end of the line. "You're not gonna record a song like that."

"I totally am," Harry informed him. "My producers love it. Great sing-along potential."

"I'm not allowing that," Louis protested. "It's embarrassing."

"So is 'the sun turns your tears into pure gold', Louis," Harry argued. "And you weren't too embarrassed to write that ."

"I did not--"

"I read it in your little notebook." Harry looked at the pocket-sized leather book on his bedside table. "You forgot it."

"I did not allow you to read the stuff in there!" Louis actually growled.

Harry hummed. "You didn't tell me not to look inside, either. They're all sad," he added then, lowering his voice. "They made me sad."

"I'm not-- I didn't mean--" Louis stopped, and Harry heard him inhale. "They're pretty old."

"Hm," Harry hummed. "I'm glad you decided not to record any of them."

"No one's ever seen those," Louis explained. "They were meant only for me."

Harry hesitated, pondering the implication behind Louis' words. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay," Louis answered, sounding unconcerned. "You're not everyone else."

Harry's heart fluttered at that, just a little. "Right. I'm your baby, I heard."

"Exactly." A smile lingered in Louis' tone, a soft lilt to it.

For a moment, comfortable silence stretched between them. Harry closed his eyes again, licking his lips. He imagined Louis next to him, his body warm and covered by one of Harry's t-shirts. Harry wouldn't take it off, would just shove his hand beneath the fabric to touch Louis' skin.

"Hey, Lou," he murmured. "What are you wearing?"

"Oh my God, Harry," Louis gasped. "It only starts like that in porn."

"You got the message, didn't you?" Harry inquired.

"I won't have phone sex with you."

Harry slid his hand beneath the duvet. "You already do."

Hissing, Louis seemed to move, a muffled noise in the background. "Stop touching yourself."

"You woke me from a really lovely dream," Harry argued, sighing a little at the relief of his own touch. "The least you can do is make up for it."

"What kind of dream?" Louis wanted to know.

"A tropical island, white sand and a turquoise sea, the sun shining hot from a blue sky," Harry described, closing his eyes. "I was naked and a very fit bloke was kissing me, laid me out on the hot sand, his skin tasting of salt and sun. And I was actually just blowing him at the shore, waves rolling over our bodies when I got dragged out of that pretty nice dream."

Louis didn't answer.

"You were there, too," Harry added for good measure, grinning a little.

When Louis still didn't say anything, Harry was about to take it back, apologise for making things awkward, and find a way to end the call without sounding like a complete fool. But Louis spoke up a second before Harry could.

"I guess there's no use in asking what you're wearing," Louis pointed out. "Since you're in bed."

"Always naked in bed," Harry answered promptly.

Louis hummed. "I appreciate that kind of efficiency."

"I'm not sleeping naked just to be at your service at any time, you know," Harry corrected him.

"Well, Harry," Louis said calmly, voice dropping low. "You were talking about a blowjob?"

Harry laughed a little, rolling his eyes. "Of course that's the only bit you remember."

"Care to describe it in a bit more detail?" Louis asked.

Harry closed his eyes again, fingers curling around his cock and mind wandering back to a place where Louis was right beside him.

He was happy to oblige.

+++

"I don't like this," Louis said, frowning at what was happening in front of him.

Liam turned from the bar, looking over his shoulder. "What?"

"This," Louis repeated, gesturing to the dance floor.

"Lou," Liam said calmly, handing him another beer. "It's his birthday."

"It was his birthday almost two months ago," Louis argued.

"You insisted on throwing him a party nevertheless."

"And he's supposed to be thanking me with kisses, and staying by my side for the whole night."

Liam laughed a little. "He's supposed to enjoy it and have fun."

Louis frowned, keeping his eyes trained on Harry dancing. There were three -- three -- guys surrounding him. They weren’t actually touching him, but Louis didn't like the way they looked at Harry. He liked it even less when one of them leaned in and talked into Harry's ear. The slightly taken aback expression on Harry's face, the way his cheeks flushed and the flustered look in his eyes were enough of an indication for Louis that Harry had just received a sexual offer.

"Look at that arse trying to chat him up," Louis snarled. "Does he really think he'd have a chance?"

"You know that it's your own fault you have to watch him being approached by other blokes?" Liam inquired.

"I can't just go over there and tell them to fuck off, now can I?" Louis rolled his eyes.

"You actually could," Liam corrected him. "He's out, Lou. It's all up to you."

Deciding not to answer, Louis took a swig of his beer. He wasn't drunk enough for this, definitely not drunk enough. Turning, he saw Zayn and Perrie dancing close in a corner, Zayn's hand firm on her hip. Louis averted his gaze when they sank into a kiss. He tried not to look at Harry again and searched the room for Niall. He was still where Louis had seen him last, sitting at a table and talking to Ed.

His attention was drawn to the door when a group of people came in. He spotted Aiden, and waved him over with one hand.

"Hey," Aiden greeted them, hugging Liam briefly. "Sorry we're so late."

"No problem, mate," Louis assured him and got to his toes to hug him, too. "I'm glad you could make it."

Aiden held him for a moment, fingers sprawled over Louis' back. "It's good to see you."

Before Louis could answer, he felt an arm come around his waist, gently tugging him back. He knew it was Harry before his back even slid against the body behind him.

"Aiden," Harry said, voice a little too cool. He tugged Louis to his side, standing close. Louis felt every single muscle inside his body tense up, eyes instantly scanning their surroundings for potential onlookers.

"Nice to see you," Harry added, hand sliding down Louis' waist.

Aiden looked bemused. "Is it?"

Harry kept his hand on Louis' hip, and Louis saw him blush in response to Aiden's words. With one slick move, Louis brought some distance between them, gently removing Harry's hand. He caught Liam's look and tried to ignore the accusation in it.

"I see you've made some progress since we last met," Aiden noted, gesturing for the bartender.

"Not too much, though," Liam commented.

Louis shot him a warning look before he turned to Harry. The hurt expression on his face made Louis' heart sink. "Haz?"

"Did you just push me away?" Harry asked, a crease forming between his eyebrows.

Feeling guilty, Louis bit his lip, reaching out to touch Harry's waist. Harry jolted away, then he turned without so much as a glare at Louis, and disappeared into the crowd.

Louis stared after him, trying to process what had just happened.

"Lou," Liam pressed, hand coming to rest on Louis' arm. "Get going."

"What?" Louis turned to him, seeing Liam's worried expression.

"You're such an idiot," Aiden commented.

Before Louis could say anything about that -- and he had a lot to say about it -- Liam spoke up again.

"It's Aiden , Louis," he pointed out. "Of course Harry wouldn't be exactly chill about it."

"I'm not a disease, you know," Aiden interrupted.

Liam glanced at him with an apologetic smile, then he turned back to Louis. "It's hard enough as it is, hiding your relationship," Liam went on. "But having to watch you with one of your exes? Can't exactly blame him for staking his claim."

"Aiden is not my ex," Louis protested.

"What does that matter to Harry?" Aiden inquired, taking his glass from the counter. "We had sex, Louis, and he knows we did. Pushing him away in front of me would definitely send the wrong signal."

"He knows--"

"Does he?" Liam cut in, lifting a brow. "Don't just stay here, Lou. Do something about it."

Louis ran a hand over his face before he downed the last bit of his drink in one go. "I can't do that in front of all these people here, Li," he protested.

"If you don't do anything , you'll lose him sooner rather than later," Aiden threw in.

Swallowing thickly, Louis raised his head and scanned the room for Harry. He spotted him on the other side of the room, standing with a group of friends, a shot glass between his thumb and forefinger. Nick Grimshaw of all people stood next to him, face close to Harry's and a bottle of vodka in his hand.

Louis was there in a matter of seconds. He only realised it when he brought his hand up to take the shot glass from Harry's fingers.

"I think you’ve had enough," he pointed out.

Harry frowned at him, taking the bottle from Nick and bringing it up to his lips. "It's my party."

Nick raised his brows, looking at Louis questioningly.

"Haz," Louis said, watching him take a swipe from the bottle. "Come on, let's talk."

"I think you've said everything."

Harry turned away, and before Louis could say anymore, a group of people joined them -- all of them people Louis had never seen before.

"Hey, Harry," one of the guys said, and Louis recognised him as the bloke who had hit on Harry earlier on the dance floor. "Wanna do some body shots?"

Louis' stomach twisted at the thought of it, and he saw Harry's eyes go wide for a moment. His gaze darted to Louis, and Louis knew Harry was about to do something stupid when he clenched his jaw and stubbornly tilted his chin.

"Why not?" Harry asked, setting down the bottle.

"Alright, popstar," Nick interfered, draping an arm around Harry's shoulders and pulling him away from the bloke. "Don't get ahead of yourself."

"Don't spoil the fun, Grimmy," the bloke complained. "Just because you already got a piece of him. It's my turn now."

Louis felt sick -- his stomach flipped, and something disgusting crawled up his throat. He saw the shock on Harry’s face, pure horror, and all Louis wanted was to punch that bloke and tell Harry that he was more, so much more than just a nice fuck for the night.

"That's enough," he spat out and grabbed Harry's wrist, pulling him out of their circle. "You're coming with me now."

It lit a small spark of reassurance in Louis' chest that Harry didn't put up a fight. He let Louis drag him across the dance floor and through a door that read "Staff Only". Louis walked down a cramped corridor and just as he had hoped, the door at the end led outside into a small yard.

"What the fuck, Harry?" he asked once they were alone and let go of Harry's wrist, turning to him.

"Are you asking?" Harry shot back.

"That guy talked about you as if you were a piece of meat," Louis reminded him. "That's fucking disgusting. And you shouldn't encourage his illusions of having a chance with you."

"Doesn't he?" Harry raised a brow, crossing his arms. "What am I gonna tell him, Louis? Sorry, I'm not exactly available? But no, I don't have a boyfriend?"

"That wasn't a problem for you in the past four years, was it?"

Harry's expression darkened. "Fuck you. Just because I didn't have sex, doesn't mean I didn't flirt with guys, or snogged them or--"

"I don't wanna know," Louis cut in, raising a hand. "I had my fair share having to watch it tonight."

"What?" Harry asked, stepping closer. "You get to be jealous, but I don't?"

"Aiden is a fucking friend, Harry!"

" Fucking friend, indeed," Harry immediately picked it up, twisting Louis' words. "You used to shag him."

"I'm not anymore," Louis pointed out.

Harry laughed dryly, shaking his head. "He didn't know that, though, did he? You hadn't even told him about us."

"Should I have sent him a text?" Louis kicked an empty can, burying his hands in his pockets. "By the way, Aiden, in case you were wondering if we'd end up in bed next time we meet up for songwriting. I have a boyfriend now, so it won't happen."

"Well, if that's the only way to make him understand that you're not available anymore," Harry pointed out, shrugging. "Instead, you made him believe you still were."

"I haven't even talked to him since my bloody birthday party!" Louis threw his hands up in annoyance. "What is it that you want from me, Harry?"

"I want to tell the guys hitting on me that I can't go home with them because I have a boyfriend," Harry answered, his voice suddenly sounding a lot thinner. "I want to dance with you, and not just watch you from afar. I want to kiss you after everyone's sang Happy Birthday around that huge cake, because I know you organised it."

Louis stared at Harry for a second, just stared into his eyes, knowing that all of it was what he wanted himself. Of course he wanted that. He just didn’t want the hassle before they could get there.

Louis was scared, bloody scared of what he had ahead of him.

"You fucking told me that we wouldn't do this again," Harry choked out, gesturing at Louis. "But you're not doing anything about it."

"Do you want me to go in there and announce to everyone that I'm gay, or what?" Louis inquired, shoving his hands back into his pockets.

"Actually, yes," Harry answered, voice barely a whisper. "That's what I want."

"Well, that won't fucking happen."

Louis saw Harry's face fall, knew that he sounded like a dick and shouldn't be so bloody impulsive. Harry stepped back, shoulders slumping and eyes looking hurt.

Fuck, this had come out wrong. Louis wanted to take it back, apologise for making it seem like he didn’t want to work on their relationship, and make Harry understand just what exactly it was that Louis couldn’t do.

He couldn’t just go in there and tell everyone -- Louis was bloody scared of that.

Before he could say anything to make up for it, Harry beat him to it.

"I’ve got a body shots offer to take up inside," he said coolly, but his eyes betrayed him.

"As if you'd do that," Louis stated, reaching out to touch Harry's wrist. He thought that his voice trembling gave him away. He didn’t even want to imagine Harry going back there and let that disgusting bloke from earlier touch him.

"Watch me," Harry threatened, pulling away. "And don't you dare manipulate me with your stupid thing for my wrist."

Because I adore it , was what Harry didn't say, Louis knew that much. He curled his fingers into a fist, refraining from reaching for Harry again.

"I really can't--"

"I guess you've made your point clear enough, Louis," Harry cut into Louis's words. He shook his head, averting his gaze from Louis' face. "I don't think I want to hear any more of it."

With that, he turned and went back inside, leaving Louis behind.

Louis felt too weak to follow .

+++

Harry woke up from his mobile ringing next to his head. His head felt heavy and swollen, his throat raw, and the melody playing was way too loud in his ears. Grabbing the device, he peeked one eye open, just to see Louis' name flash on the screen. Harry pressed Decline and dropped the mobile back to the pillow.

Turning around, he took the bottle of water he had positioned next to his bed before going to sleep. The flat had been empty when he had come home, his room tidy and his bed neatly made. Harry had expected to spend the night at Louis' after the party, to stay with him for a few days before Louis was off to Australia for the first leg of Escapade's world tour.

Sighing, Harry listened to his mobile buzz with new messages every few seconds. He opened his eyes again and grabbed the device, unlocking the screen.

Baby, come on pick up .

Please talk to me .

I'm sorry. Don't ignore me!

It rang again, and with a frown, Harry declined it once more. His heart beat wildly when it started ringing again just seconds later. A new message popped up after Harry had declined that one, too.

Harry don't do this

Without hesitating for a second, Harry switched his mobile off, releasing his breath once silence settled back in around him.

He looked up when the door to his room opened and Perrie came in, hair a little messy and eyes looking tired. She remained standing by the door, seeming a little confused.

"What are you doing here?" she wanted to know. "Thought you were staying with Louis?"

Harry put his mobile on the bedside table and shrugged. "What about you?" he asked instead of answering her question. "I was sure you'd end up at Zayn's?"

Perrie crossed her legs and lowered her gaze.

"Hey," Harry mumbled, scooting over and patting his mattress, gesturing for Perrie to join him. "What's wrong?"

She hesitated for only a moment before she sat down on the bed, tucking her feet beneath herself. "I don't wanna be a one-night stand, I guess," she answered.

Harry watched her, the traces of eyeliner around her eyes that hadn't completely come off, the messy hair, boxer shorts and an oversized t-shirt hanging off her shoulders. He had grown so used to having her around, knew so much about her -- her mind, her habits, her heart.

"Is that what he wants?" Harry asked.

Perrie shrugged, winding her arms around her middle. "I don't know. I think the problem is that I'm a fan."

Harry frowned. "Is it?"

"How many groupies do you think he's slept with?" Her voice was very quiet. "I'm probably just another one in the line of fans throwing themselves at him."

"You're not exactly throwing yourself at him," Harry argued. "Louis said Zayn proper fancies you."

She shrugged, running a hand through her hair. "For how long will he, though? He has plenty girls to pick from."

"I don't think he's like that, Pez," Harry pointed out. "I had a feeling he was quite serious about you."

"Well, he's certainly not anymore," Perrie replied. "Not after I didn't go home with him last night."

Harry reached out to touch her knee. "If that's the case, he's really not worth it anyway."

Perrie nodded stiffly and leaned her shoulder against the headboard. She looked exhausted, as if she hadn't slept much, so Harry lifted his duvet to spread it over her legs. She smiled slightly in response.

"So why was your phone ringing so early this morning?" she wanted to know after a while spent in comfortable silence.

"Louis," Harry answered.

"I thought you guys left early?"

" I left early," Harry corrected her. "I wasn't really in the mood to party."

She frowned, fidgeting with the duvet. "Why? It was a good party, wasn't it?"

"I got into a fight with Louis." Saying it out loud suddenly made it feel very real. Harry had no idea where they stood after this. He had no idea where he stood after last night.

"What are you fighting about?"

Harry rolled onto his back, staring at the ceiling. "He said we wouldn't hide this time around. And yet, all he does is hide."

Perrie touched his hair, gently playing with the locks. "What do you mean?"  

"When his ex shows up and hugs him longer than necessary--" Harry choked on the memory, fingers still itching to pull Louis away from Aiden. "No one can exactly blame me for getting a bit jealous, right?"

"Seems only natural to me," Perrie agreed.

"He pushed me away, Pez," Harry murmured. "I just put my arm around him to make sure Aiden got the message, and Louis got all uncomfortable and twitchy."

"Well, you were in a room full of people, and he's not out, is he?" Perrie asked, soothing Harry's nerves by lightly scratching her nails over his scalp.

"That's the problem," Harry stated. "He said he won't come out."

Perrie's hand stopped. "What?"

"I said he'll have to come out if we want to make this work, and he said it won't happen." Repeating it felt just as painful as it had hearing the words from Louis in a dirty, dark back yard of a night club.

"He's not learned a thing, has he?"

Harry shook his head. "I don't know what he's so afraid of. He's not alone in this."

"Zayn and Liam seem supportive of it too," Perrie added. "And he knows how fucked up the tabloids are. It shouldn't matter anymore."

Sighing, Harry closed his eyes. "Look at us being teenage girls, crying over boys."

Perrie laughed gently and shifted to lie down next to him. "What are you gonna do about it?"

Harry thought about it for a moment, about the way Louis had looked at him last night, and how he had whispered sweet things into Harry's ear the night before that. He wouldn't just give up on them, not yet.

"I guess I just need a bit of time to make up my mind."

Perrie hummed and gripped his hand, tangling their fingers.

+++

Louis hung up after being redirected to the answering machine for the tenth time. Harry didn't pick up, didn't answer text messages and kept ignoring all of Louis' attempts to reach him.

He sighed before he lifted his hand and knocked on the door.

Perrie opened, dressed in tracksuit bottoms and a jumper, hair tied in a bun and some chocolate bar in her hand.

"Louis," she greeted him coldly.

"Can we skip that part?" Louis asked. "I just need to talk to him."

"Well," Perrie said, leaning against the doorframe and calmly chewing her candy. "Can I ask you one thing?"

Louis sighed. "Yeah, go ahead."

"Do you remember how I told you not to fuck it up again?" She crossed her arms, giving him a stern look. "And you told me you'd be stupid to?"

"Look, it's not what it seems like. I was drunk and angry," Louis explained. "A few things came out wrong."

"He told me not to let you in," Perrie informed him.

"Come on, Perrie." Louis decided that at this point, he wasn't above begging.

Perrie shook her head. "Sorry, Louis, but it's not my decision." She craned her neck around, looking behind herself. "Nope. He says no."

Louis frowned, burying his hands in the pockets of his jacket. Knowing that Harry was just there, yet out of Louis' reach wasn't helping at all. His fingers tingled with the urge to push Perrie out of the way and storm inside to get to Harry and make him listen to Louis.

Harry wouldn't appreciate such actions, wouldn't appreciate Louis losing his temper. He was the one settling Louis, was the reason Louis fought his temper down and kept a clear head. Harry was anchoring him, steadily holding him in place and keeping Louis grounded.

"I'll be waiting outside," Louis announced loudly, over Perrie's head.  "I'm not leaving, Haz."

Perrie gave him a long look, before she stepped back and closed the door. Louis kept staring at the wood, hoping for a sign, maybe for Harry to change his mind and open the door. Nothing happened, though, so Louis turned and took the stairs, leaving the building.

He went to the footie pitch behind the house and looked up at Harry's window, seeing that the curtains were closed. Apparently, Harry used every possible method to keep Louis out.

Louis picked up the discarded ball that some kids had most likely forgotten last time they had played here. He kicked it gently, running a few loops before he aimed at the goal and sent the ball flying into the net between the poles.

It bounced off the wall and back to Louis. He looked up at the billboard behind the goal, a colourful picture showing bits and pieces of photos and paintings, graphics and graffiti. Be strong. Be yourself , it read in bold letters, and something inside Louis ached.

He turned his head and kept playing, practicing his technique and skills, until the sun had long set behind the tall buildings, the sky dark and empty above him.

"Go home, Louis," he heard Harry say then and turned around.

Harry stood at his window, leaning against the frame with his arms crossed and a frown on his face.

"I'm sorry," Louis said, deciding that he'd better squeeze in whatever he could before Harry shut him out again. "I was a dick. And I didn't mean it."

"You did," Harry argued.

He was right. That didn't mean it was something bad, though. Louis only needed Harry to understand that too. "You got it wrong, though, Harry. I didn't mean to--"

"I just don't see this going anywhere," Harry interrupted him, voice almost too quiet to carry over to Louis. "I don't see us going anywhere like this, Louis."

Louis' heart dropped, he could hear the dull sound in his chest, the echo in his ears. His foot slid from the ball, he noticed it rolling away, and his knees felt a little weak.

"Go home, Lou," Harry repeated, and he turned, closing his window. Louis kept his eyes fixed on the glass, saw Harry behind it, slowly moving away.

He had fucked it up again -- was losing Harry again. How had that happened? How could it have happened when Louis had sworn to get it right this time?

Slowly, Louis made his feet move, dragging himself off the pitch. He glanced back to Harry's window, but couldn't see anything else but darkness behind the glass.

The answers didn't come.

+++

"I called Jade and Jesy, too," Perrie said, looking at a crumpled paper in her hands. "And Niall gave me Cara's number. Apparently, she's a friend from uni."

Harry hummed, looking over her shoulder. "Should I call her up?"

"If you would." Perrie handed him the paper and put on her jacket. She turned and checked the bar again, moved an ashtray slightly to the right before she nodded and made for the door.

"Niall's really gonna surprise her, hm?" Harry mused, following Perrie. "Babs has no idea, has she?"

"Not at all. She thinks they'll have a quiet one, or that he'll take her out for dinner."

"Getting a law degree doesn't happen every day," Harry pointed out. "He's so proud of her."

Perrie went outside, holding the door for Harry. "He couldn't shut up about it. It's really cute."

Harry hummed in agreement, going over the list of people they had to call to invite for the party Niall had planned for Barbara. Perrie locked the door, and when she turned around, she suddenly grabbed Harry's arm.

Looking up, Harry moved his gaze from Perrie to to the point she was staring at ahead.

Zayn was standing a few metres away. He had his hands buried in the pockets of his jacket and a cigarette between his lips. Harry imagined that his own surprised expression was mirroring the one displayed on Zayn’s face.

"I-- um," Zayn mumbled, removing the cigarette and dropping it. "I didn't know you were picking Perrie up today."

It hadn't been planned -- Harry had initially been supposed to be at Louis', after all. "I came for a pint," he said instead, trying to sound nonchalant.

"Well, it's probably good I'm meeting you here," Zayn stated after a moment. "I thought I'd talk to Perrie first, but I guess this works just as well."

"If you came to--"

"Louis's really not taking it well, Harry," Zayn just went on. "He's a right mess about you breaking up with him."

Harry froze, everything inside him coming to a halt. Perrie gripped his arm tighter.

"Break-up?" they repeated in unison.

Zayn shrugged. "He hasn’t really talked about it. Just said you broke up with him, and then he kinda--"

"What an idiot," Harry hissed, setting off.

"Haz, wait!" Perrie yelled. "Where are you going?"

Harry turned for a moment. "Guess you guys need some alone time, anyway," he pointed out, gesturing at them. "I'll try to get some sense into Louis' thick head."

Zayn looked confused, and Perrie started beaming, giving him a thumbs-up.

Harry turned and dashed down the street to the nearest tube station.

+++

Louis felt strangely thrown back to the day he had come out to his mother.

Just like that day two years ago, they were sitting in her kitchen, the light low and the tea tasting better than any tea in the world. Louis had tried a lot of teas, and he was sure his mother had some special ingredients for hers.

It had helped him coming out to her back then, and it helped him telling her about what he was about to do now. He couldn't take the steps he was about to take without his mother being in on the plan.

"So, Harry, hm?" she asked after Louis had told her that he planned to come out publicly.

Louis felt himself blush, his cheeks turning warm. "Why do you think--"

"I read the articles, Lou," Jay pointed out. "All of a sudden, he's back in your life, coming on tour with you, being seen with you every week." She shrugged. "He's always been very special to you, hasn't he?"

Looking up, Louis sought out his mother's gaze. He wanted to look her in the eye saying it. "He--" A deep breath. "We were a couple. He was my first boyfriend."

Jay smiled, moving her cup between her hands. "I figured you didn't read comic books in that tree house."

Another hot flush made Louis' cheeks burn. "Mum!"

Giggling, she reached out to touch his hand. "Why didn't you bring him ‘round? I'd like to see him again."

Louis shrugged, lowering his gaze. "We fought."

Jay kept quiet, and Louis decided to sip his tea again before he went on.

"I may have made it look like I don't want to come out." He murmured the words, feeling ashamed having to say them out loud. He had hurt Harry. "Even though I promised him that I wouldn't hide anymore."

"Hm," Jay hummed. Her hand was still reassuringly resting on top of Louis'. "And you think you owe Harry a coming out?"

Louis looked up abruptly, blinking. "No, not Harry."

"It does sound like that, baby," Jay commented. "If you're not doing it for yourself, you shouldn't be doing it at all."

"But Harry --"

"If he can't be patient with you, it's not worth it," Jay cut him short. "I trust you to take that step for yourself, Louis. Make your own decision. And if you're not ready for a big coming out, then don't do it. Not for anyone."

Breathing out shakily, Louis kept staring at her.

She was right. Of course, she was right -- his mother was always right.

"I don't want that," Louis answered, his voice sounding dull in his own ears.

Squeezing his hand, Jay nodded. "That's okay."

"No." Louis shook his head. "I want to hold Harry's hand, Mum. I want to be seen with him, and I want people to know that he's mine."

Jay frowned slightly. "Well, love, in that case you'll have to change something, I'm afraid."

"It doesn't have to be a big coming out, right? I just need to be honest with myself," Louis realised. "It's not for anyone else out there. It's for me." Standing up, Louis put down his mug before he rounded the table and pulled his mother into a tight hug. "I gotta talk to him. He has no idea what it is I want."

Jay held him closely, fingers caressing Louis' back. "I'm sure he'll understand once you've explained it to him."

"Thanks, Mum," Louis mumbled, kissing her cheek.

Jay pulled back, brushing the hair from his face. "Bring him with you next time, yes?"

Louis nodded. "Promise."

+++

Upon arriving at Louis' flat, Harry found all windows dark, no sign of Louis still being awake. For a moment, Harry pondered calling him, but then he rang the bell nonetheless. When Louis didn't answer the door, Harry tried again.

It was only midnight, surely Louis couldn't have been asleep for long -- if he was asleep at all. Harry pulled out his mobile, calling Louis on speed-dial. After several rings, he was redirected to the answering machine, and Harry frowned.

He got out his keychain from his pocket, looking at the key Louis had given him just a few days ago. It was cold in Harry's palm, feeling foreign on his skin.

Using it now wouldn't be okay. Louis had given it to Harry to use it while he was staying at Louis' place. But Harry wasn't staying with Louis right now. He had never used it before, and using it for the first time when they were fighting didn't sit right with Harry.

He rang the bell again instead, but still didn't receive an answer.

Maybe Louis wasn't home yet. It didn't seem like anyone was inside, after all.

With the chain in his hand, Harry sat down next to the door, playing with the keys.

He could wait.

+++

Louis felt dead on his feet when he got out of his car. His limbs felt stiff and his brain so groggy, he was surprised he hadn't caused an accident.

Grabbing his bag from the passenger seat, he yawned and then locked the car. The path up to the building was illuminated with tiny lamps, so Louis followed them blindly. He fumbled out his keys -- and froze when he saw Harry crouching on the floor.

His head was tilted back and his eyes closed. He was breathing evenly, arms wound around his middle and knees angled awkwardly. He wore a beanie and a light coat. His skin shone pale in the artificial light of the corridor, his dark lashes a stark contrast.

That was Harry in front of his door -- Louis couldn't quite believe his eyes.

His fingers went numb and the keys dropped to the floor, a dull noise echoing off the walls -- Harry's eyes opened and his head snapped around. For a moment, they were just staring at each other, gazes locked, and none of them dared to even breathe.

"Your neighbour probably thinks I'm a crazy fan," Harry said then, voice rough.

Louis picked up his keys and shuffled over, leaning against the wall right next to Harry. "I'm pretty sure they know who you are."

Harry looked up, eyes wide and glassy. He looked as tired as Louis felt. "Where have you been?"

Sighing, Louis slid down, his back to the wall, until he was crouched right next to Harry. "My mum's."

They sat in silence for a moment and Louis soaked in every bit of warmth. Even if they were used to being apart a lot, this had been different. When they were separated, they were never really apart -- this time, though, they had been apart in every possible way.

"You're such an idiot," Harry murmured after a while and lifted his arm to sling it around Louis' shoulders and pull him in. His lips came to press against Louis' temple, his body so warm and firm, and Louis had missed him so much. With a sigh, Louis nuzzled against Harry, hand resting on Harry's stomach, lips pressed to his neck. "I'd tell you if I were to break up with you, you know."

Louis shuddered out a breath, closing his eyes. "It sounded pretty definite."

"Well, Lou, we gotta work on it," Harry mumbled into Louis' hair. "It really can't go on like this."

"I wasn't saying that it has to," Louis argued, holding on tighter. The fabric of Harry's jumper was soft, feeling silky against Louis' fingers.

"Nothing's gonna change if you don't--"

“It’s easy for you, Harry.” Louis tried to make his voice sound louder -- he felt suffocated by his own feelings. “You never had to come out like this.”

Louis could hear the frown in Harry’s voice when he spoke. “I did, Lou. My family didn’t just magically know one morning.”

“That’s not what I mean.” Louis shook his head slightly, his cheek rubbing against Harry’s jumper. He thought of his mother, and of how she had said that she trusted him to make the right decision and that Harry would understand.

Louis had made this decision for himself.

“What do you mean?” Harry asked after a moment, and Louis realised that he had got lost in his head.

“Coming out to your family,” Louis murmured. “I’m out to my mum, and that was different. It’s still a private thing, Harry. Having to announce it to the whole wide world is different. I’m coming out on a stage, with the whole world watching and judging. And it’ll never just affect my life. It’s about you, as well, and Liam and Zayn -- I don’t want to do anything bad for the band.”

“But Liam and Zayn are okay with it, aren’t they?”

“That doesn’t mean they are really prepared for the impact.” Louis sighed, shrugging slightly. “I have a lot of decisions to make, and consider so many factors -- you, my family, the band, my friends, my contracts, the press…”

Voicing all of it out loud, stirred up a feeling of fear in Louis, a realisation of what lay ahead of him and how little prepared he really was.

“I know,” Harry agreed, winding one arm tighter around Louis’ waist. “But you’re not doing it by yourself.”

Louis was quiet for a beat. “I don’t doubt that you’ll be by my side through all of it.”

“But?” Harry asked.

“I need to do it for myself.” Louis breathed heavily. “I can’t do this for you .”

“I thought that you wanted it, Lou,” Harry protested. “You said you didn’t want to hide this time around.”

"I didn't mean that I don't want to come out, Harry," Louis cut in before it would escalate again.

"You did," Harry protested. "And, I mean, I don't wanna push you or anything, but--" he fell silent, breath warm against Louis' skin when he sighed.

"But you do," Louis murmured. "You do push me."

"Louis..." Harry nuzzled closer, fingers curling around Louis' shoulder.

"You expect a grand gesture, Harry, and I can't," Louis choked out, trying to make Harry understand it. "I can't do that. I don't want to do that."

Harry pulled back, and Louis held on tighter, afraid to lose him again. He glanced up and saw Harry frown. "What do you mean?"  

"I talked to Liam and Zayn, and to our management," Louis explained, keeping his gaze fixed on Harry's chest. "Like-- Liam makes jokes about articles in OK Magazine and my management setting up interviews with questions being asked that would lead to a big coming out."

Harry was quiet, his thumb steadily stroking along the back of Louis' neck.

"I don't want that," Louis finally managed to say. "It's not what I want to do, who I want to be."

"But, Lou," Harry murmured. "How is this going to work, if you don't come out?"

"You don't get it, Harry." Louis lifted his head, searching Harry's gaze. "I'm not saying I don't want to come out. I just don't want it to be a big deal. Can't we just be casual about it? Do our thing without having to explain it to anyone?”

Harry blinked at him in confusion.

“I don't wanna go on stage and announce that I'm in love with a boy and dedicate a sappy song to you in front of thousands of people,” Louis told him, desperate for Harry to see his point. “I don't wanna give a lengthy interview in a magazine about how I figured myself out, and I don't wanna sit through telly interviews that take the focus off our music and onto my sexuality."

Harry breathed out slowly, framing Louis' face. "That's not what I'm asking of you, Louis."

"Can't we just be ourselves and let them figure it out?" Louis asked, searching Harry's face. "They're speculating about my private life as it is. I don't care if they speculate some more."

"I guess they will figure it soon enough," Harry agreed.

"I'd rather have it that way than making a big deal out of it," Louis murmured, flexing his fingers over Harry's waist. "I don't want to have to lie about it, and I promise I won't. Up until now I’ve managed to duck all those questions about my love life. I don't see why that should change."

Harry smiled slightly. "It doesn't have to. We can just do it at our own pace."

"Yeah?" Louis breathed out.

Harry lowered his forehead to Louis', his arms slung around Louis' shoulders. "Of course."

Louis closed the gap between their lips, caught Harry's relieved sigh when he opened his mouth to deepen their kiss. The feeling pulled him under, spread through his whole body and into every cell, all of his senses focussing on Harry.

"Thanks," Louis murmured afterwards, lips still moving against Harry's.

Harry slightly shook his head, then he brushed a few stray strands from Louis' face. "I missed you, babe."

"Missed you, too," Louis said back and nuzzled into Harry's warmth. Harry pulled him close to his chest, moving one leg, so Louis could slot one of his between Harry's.

"We should go inside," Harry suggested, hand absently stroking Louis' back.

Louis closed his eyes. "In a minute."

+++

"Yes, Harry, I got it," Aiden groaned after Harry had kissed Louis for the third time.

They were at Barbara's surprise party, this time in a rented room. It was in the basement of a huge hotel, but other than that Niall had insisted on organising everything else by himself. He had asked a friend to play music, everyone had brought food and drinks, and Perrie and a bunch of her friends had helped him to decorate the room nicely.

The best thing about it, though, was that he and Louis had shown up as a couple. Hand in hand, and Louis had carried the salad Harry had made while Harry had held a big bouquet of sunny flowers. They had ended up separated after a while, but that had been okay -- Harry had always known where Louis was, and sometimes their gazes had locked and they had winked at each other from across the room.

When Aiden had shown up, Louis had hugged him still as tightly as last time, but afterwards, he had tucked himself against Harry's side. Aiden had looked amused, and Harry had kissed Louis, just for good measure.

"He's a bit silly," Louis commented now, sneakily squeezing Harry's butt.

"Is he?" Zayn asked, raising a brow. "You turn into a literal caveman when the name Nick Grimshaw is mentioned."

Niall laughed, pounding his fist onto the counter a few times. "He hates him so much."

"Nick is a good friend," Harry protested, frowning at Louis.

"He's your ex," Louis pointed out.

"Not really," Harry said, shrugging. "We just, kinda--"

"Had the same relationship Louis and I had," Aiden finished the sentence.

Harry glared at him.

"Alright, why don't we drop the topic?" Liam asked, turning back around to them with a tray full of shot glasses. "Let's drink to Babs instead."

"Great idea!" Niall reached out an arm to pull her from the group of people standing next to them and against his side. "Let's drink to my wonderful girlfriend."

She laughed and took the glass from him, pressing a kiss to his cheek.

"Where's Perrie?" Harry asked, holding two glasses.

"She wanted to get some more of the soup," Zayn told him, looking around for her.

Louis spotted her a second later, Ed by her side as they approached them. They were laughing about something, both a bowl in one hand and a spoon in the other.

"Hey!" Louis yelled. "Hurry up, you lazy folks!"

Ed flipped him off, and when they reached them, he hip checked Louis, making him bump into Harry who immediately spilled both shots he held. It poured over his front, the t-shirt he wore beneath the blue shirt he had left unbuttoned.

"Oops," Harry said, looking down his chest.

Louis reached out to touch his arm, and quietly, without anyone noticing, he got to his toes and brought his lips to Harry's ear. "Hi."

Harry chuckled, tilting his head a little to press his lips to Louis'.

"I'd apologise," Ed pointed out, putting down his empty bowl on the counter. "But I feel like it's you soppy lot owing me an apology."

Liam just sighed and filled the glasses again while Louis helped Harry dab paper tissues over his chest to dry his t-shirt off. "You say it, mate."

"Don't we know it?" Aiden asked, handing out a glass each to Ed and Zayn.

Harry decided to ignore them and instead took his refilled glass. Perrie already held one by now, grinning at him with a wink.

"To Babs!" Niall shouted over their heads.

All of them followed suit, raising their glasses in a toast before they downed the burning liquid. Harry shuddered, pressing his lips together.

When he looked up, he saw Perrie smile up at Zayn before he kissed her forehead. Liam watched them with a fond smile on his lips, Aiden and Ed were already refilling the glasses, and Barbara was saying something to Niall that made his eyes shine just that tiny bit brighter.

Louis squeezed Harry's waist, waiting for Harry to turn his head and look at him. "Good?"

Harry pulled Louis just that tiny bit closer, averting his look back to their friends. "Perfect."

+++

Louis woke up to the quiet sound of waves gently rocking beneath him. The sheets were cool under his skin, the air in the room sticky and humid. There was some other sound that Louis couldn't identify, something besides the quiet waves and Harry's constant breathing.

Keeping his eyes closed, Louis thought of the past few days, of how every single day had felt like a day spent in paradise.

It was October, and Escapade had just finished the American leg of their world tour. Harry had been on a small club tour in the UK, and his first album was set to be released in December. Before his tour had started, Harry had joined Escapade for a few weeks, bringing Perrie along. The tabloids had literally exploded.

Zayn and Perrie had been a good distraction, but the media had been circling the mystery around Harry and Louis since April. There had been articles about Harry saying he was in a relationship, but not stating with who. Then, the media had picked up on Harry spending every free minute with Louis, and a lot of rubbish had been published about Harry neglecting his boyfriend to spend time with Louis instead.

Harry had not taken that well, so the next time they had gone out for dinner, Louis had kept their fingers tangled after helping Harry out of the car.

The reaction had been immense.

A week later, Louis had given green light for the "Who is single" question being asked when they were on Ellen. Louis had not raised his hand.

With that, speculations had gone wild, and the whole internet had exploded with theories and evidence posted by their fans. Niall had called Louis one early morning, screaming at him through the line. When Louis had reminded him of how he had been very much on board with the plan in the first place, how he had been emotional over Louis taking that step, Niall had calmed down again.

"But, fuck," Niall had complained. "It's a shitload of work to fence off those media guys."

With Harry joining Escapade on tour, they had pretty much confirmed it without saying anything. Louis knew that soon, he would have to take the last step, and make an official, public announcement. As it was now, it wouldn't have quite the impact anymore, though, and with Harry by his side, he felt ready to do it.

Before that, though, all media outlets were going to be focussed on the mystery blonde who had arrived with Harry and had been seen boarding the plane with Zayn. That distraction had given Louis and Harry some time off the radar, so Louis had surprised Harry with tickets to Bora Bora when Harry had come back from his tour. They had left that very night -- three days ago.

Louis grinned slightly when Harry's body slid up against his, warm skin covering his. Harry kissed his shoulder, hand trailing down Louis' spine.

"It's raining," he murmured, voice muffled against Louis' skin.

Frowning, Louis opened his eyes and saw the raindrops hitting the wood of the small patio outside their hut. It was built on poles near the shore, in the sea, so they were completely isolated. They had a little boat to row from their hut to the beach, but they rarely used it.

"I thought it never rained in Bora Bora," Harry commented quietly, a cheeky tilt to his tone that threw Louis back in time for a moment -- to an afternoon in his childhood bedroom on a rainy autumn day and Harry’s lips tasting of Louis .

For a while, they stayed like that, listening to the waves and the rain in comfortable silence.

"Wanna go for a swim?" Louis asked after a while.

"It's raining," Harry repeated.

"Who cares?" Louis turned his head around, looking at Harry. "Does it really matter?"

Harry smiled, his curls a mess, eyes bright and intense green. He tangled his fingers with Louis', laced them firmly and Louis' gaze fell to the anchor inked into the skin of Harry's wrist. It lined up nicely with the rope he had tattooed around his own.

Louis raised their hands to press a kiss just beneath Harry’s palm and catch a heartbeat, then he dragged Harry out of bed. They were both stumbling, laughing and holding on to each other to keep from falling over in their rush.

When they dashed outside, Louis noticed that despite the downpour the sky was still blue, rain falling from an empty space, as if it came out of nowhere. The drops were cool on his skin, and when they jumped at the same time, Louis felt like he was floating in that sky, weightless and free.

He held on to Harry's hand tightly, felt Harry squeezing back before they submerged into the water, blue and green collapsing over their heads. For a moment, it felt like sea and sky were one, and Louis forgot which it was that enveloped him.

When they resurfaced, though, emerging with a gasp, the rain hitting their soaked heads, and their gazes immediately locking, Louis knew exactly where he was.

Harry's hand was still in his.

--- FIN ---



Listen to "Baby Blue" here. The awesome tommosloueh wrote it just for this fic :) ♥

Chapter Text

 

"Sneaking in your girlfriends or boyfriends is always such a pain in the arse," Paul complained, waiting for Louis to hop out of the van.

Liam and Zayn stood next to him, both taking off their jackets. The change of weather was still a shock sometimes, but mostly, they had all grown used to it. It had been chilly in New York, cloudy and rainy; LA was hot and humid.

An excited feeling spread from Louis' chest, his fingers tingling, itching. "What do you mean?"

"What I said," Paul answered, leading them out of the garage to a lift that would most certainly take them up the lobby of the hotel. He turned to Louis when they were all inside. "And your boy is the worst. He never listens to what I say."

"And his fans track his every move," Liam added from Louis' right, obviously speaking from experience. "So it's not just our fans you've got to sneak him away from."

Paul nodded with a huff and pressed a button.

"Who is it?" Zayn asked, sounding just as hopeful as Louis felt.

"Not gonna ruin the surprise," Paul said with a wink.

Did that mean Harry was here? Louis shifted his weight from one leg to the other, the need to move itching in his every nerve. He couldn't be here. His first solo tour had only just ended yesterday -- today? Louis got confused with the time zones. In any case, Harry was supposed to go straight back to the studio after finishing his tour.

Maybe Harry had managed to take a day or two off? It was just like him to make it a surprise instead of warning Louis beforehand.

Just like that one time when Louis had come home from a promo trip to Asia and Harry had been supposed to be in Spain. Instead, a homemade meal had awaited Louis, as well as a very naked Harry, only covered by an apron around his hips.

When the doors of the lift slid open, Paul went ahead, checking if everything was clear, then he gestured for them to follow.

Louis knew it wasn't Harry the moment Zayn froze next to him -- just for a second, but he came to a halt, his feet stopping. Then he dashed past Louis into the lobby.

Perrie turned at just the right moment to notice them before she was pulled in by Zayn, his arms winding around her shoulders and holding her close. She buried her face against his neck, hands coming up to grab his shoulders.

Liam and Louis stood back for a minute, giving them a bit of time while Paul organised their room keys. Louis looked away, focussing on that, watching the receptionist handing Paul papers to sign.

"Hey, Perrie," Liam said then and Louis turned his attention back to them. Liam was just hugging her. "What a surprise to see you."

"It was really hard not to tell anyone," Perrie giggled, hugging Liam back. Then she turned to Louis. "Lou, hey, come here."

Louis smiled at her and went for a hug, too, but Perrie framed his face and pressed a warm kiss to his lips.

"Why does he get a kiss before me?" Zayn complained.

"It's from Harry," Perrie explained, not letting go of Louis. She smiled gently. "He sends all his love."

"You two are idiots," Louis commented and drew her in for a hug anyways. He turned his face into her hair, mumbling "thanks" quietly.

"Okay, boys, got your keys," Paul announced from behind them. "Let's go up."

"How was the show, Perrie?" Liam asked, when they moved back to the lift.

Zayn took Perrie's hand, and they stayed close together, even though Perrie's attention was on Liam. "Oh, great! I got an offer, actually, from a shop in London. They sell exclusive fashion and they want one of my lines."

"Congrats," Liam and Louis both said.

Zayn smiled proudly, and Louis suspected that it wasn't new information to him. They chatted on for a bit, standing in the corridor, then they received their keys from Paul. Louis wished the others a good night before he made his way to his room. His bags had already been dropped off in the room, neatly standing in front of the huge bed.

He had stopped counting the days since he had last seen Harry. It was too long ago, anyway. With both of them maintaining a career in the music industry, it wasn't exactly easy. They barely managed to schedule any time off together. Of course Louis went to wherever in the world Harry was when he had a few days or weeks off, and the other way around, but it just wasn't the same.

Louis needed his days off to see his family too, and to catch up with friends, to get a some rest from the constant travelling. He just needed time to be home, in their flat in London, sleep in his own bed and stay in all day, watching silly telly and sleeping all afternoon.

And of course it wasn’t different for Harry when he had some time off.

Louis and Harry had been together for more than two years now, had moved in together a year ago, but Louis couldn't only remember two times that they had actually been home together. Once was last year between Christmas and New Year, the other time had been just before this trip. A whole three days shared between the two of them in their flat.

They had spent most of that time in between the sheets.

Thinking about those days, about Harry's skin and Harry's smile in the morning and how his hair smelled after a day of Louis messing it up with his hands, Louis stepped into the shower. He took his time, shampooing his hair and scrubbing his skin with soap, the warm spray soothing his skin a little.

When he lay in bed later, silky sheets and covers enveloping him, he called Harry -- first number on speed dial -- and ran a hand through his wet hair.

"Lou," Harry greeted after the third ring. "Shouldn't you be sleeping?"

"Can't," Louis answered, closing his eyes, the persistent throbbing behind his temples calming down a bit. "Tell me about the tour?"

Harry was quiet for a second, and Louis thought that most likely he knew why Louis was calling, knew the reason Louis couldn't sleep.

"Had the last gig yesterday," Harry said then. There were noises in the background, so Louis assumed Harry was in a car. "It was amazing, Lou. I played the O2 by myself!"

Louis smiled, nuzzling his cheek into the pillow. "I'm not surprised, babe." He didn’t say how disappointed he was that he couldn’t have been there.

"Ed came, and we played Another Story together," Harry kept on talking. Louis thought of the song Harry and Ed had written and recorded together, becoming immensely popular amongst Harry's fans. "And Perrie came, of course. Babs couldn't make it, but she was there for the party afterwards. Nick--"

"I called you so you'd tell me nice things, Haz," Louis complained upon the mention of that name.

Harry chuckled, apparently not taking it seriously. "Nick brought his friends and the team from his show. There were so many, and everyone wanted a photo. Also, Aiden says hello."

"Aiden was there?" Louis asked, opening his eyes. "At your show?"

"Said he couldn't possibly miss out on the best newcomer of the year," Harry explained. "He actually said a lot of nice things."

Rolling his eyes, Louis bit his tongue to hold back a snarky comment. "Sounds like you had fun."

"Lots," Harry agreed, tone chipper. "How about you? How is-- New York?"

"Just arrived in LA," Louis corrected him. "It's okay. A bit hot. Perrie came to surprise Zayn."

Another silent moment, then Harry murmured, "I know."

"Hey," Louis immediately said, feeling bad. "No, not that, baby. I didn't mean it like that."

"I really wish I could be there with you, you know?" Harry admitted quietly. "I miss you."

"I miss you, too," Louis replied, running a hand over his face. God, this got harder with every second. "Quite a lot."

"Are you in bed?" Harry asked suddenly.

"Not gonna have phone sex with you again."

Harry laughed gently. "I'm in a car, Louis. I'm asking because you said earlier that you can't sleep."

Louis released a breath, knowing what Harry was hinting at. He decided to be honest. "I just realised that I'd really like to have you beside me. It's been months since I last kissed you."

"forty-one days," Harry pointed out immediately.

"Too long," Louis murmured. "It's been going on like this for too long."

It had never been different. Louis knew that Harry thought the same. From the moment they had decided to give it another shot -- to build a relationship, a proper one this time around -- it had been like this.

Louis grew more and more tired of it.

"Are you going home right now?" Louis asked into the ensuing silence.

Harry hesitated for a moment, but when he answered, Louis could hear a smile in his voice. "Yes."

"Good." Louis closed his eyes again.

"Go to sleep, love," Harry murmured. "Get some proper rest. I'll text you in the morning, okay?"

"Okay," Louis answered. "Love you, Haz."

"Love you too," Harry replied. "Sleep tight."

Louis hung up, putting his mobile away. He thought he could feel Harry embrace him, like the touch of a ghost, brushing over his back. He imagined feeling Harry's heart beating in time with his own.

Somewhere across the globe it certainly did.

+++

Harry looked out of the window, seeing the city lights flash in brilliant, bright colours. He still held his mobile in one hand, the conversation with Louis replaying on his mind.

It was different, so very different from how they had been when they had been kids. They had been attached by the hip in those days, never spending even a day apart. The co-dependency was gone, both of them had been very careful about not falling back into that pattern.

Not depending so much on each other didn't mean it made their time apart easier, though. Harry missed Louis with every fibre of his being.

He turned his mobile in his hand and pressed a button. The screen lit up with a picture of him and Louis, taken around Christmas in Doncaster. They both looked caught, surprised, one of Louis' hands in Harry's hair, a smidge of dough on Louis' nose. Harry had convinced Louis to help him bake, and it had ended in a right kitchen fight, topped off by some heated snogging.

Jay had taken the picture after she had caught them at that very last part.

The car came to a halt, and Harry looked up, finding that the lights had changed. He opened the door, thanking the driver, and left the car. The garage was lit by a dim light, the air humid.

Paul was already taking Harry's bag from the trunk of the car.

"Hi," Harry greeted him and was greeted back with a hug.

"Told you this would work much better," Paul said, releasing Harry. "Did everything go all right?"

Harry nodded. "Not a single fan."

"They know that Perrie often travels with you," Paul commented. "So they wouldn't expect you guys to arrive separately."

"It's much more entertaining with her, though," Harry argued, pouting a little. "And I would have been here two hours earlier."

Paul rolled his eyes. "Can't believe I got up in the middle of the night for a bugger like you."

Harry went ahead to the lift, feeling excited all of a sudden. Seeing Paul had suddenly made him realise that he was really, really going to see Louis in a few minutes.

"I have to check in first," Harry said once the lift was in motion.

Paul frowned. "You're staying in Louis' room."

"Of course," Harry answered, shuffling his feet and watching the numbers change on the display above the door. "But it'd be illegal to just stay in his room, right? I booked one."

"Great, Harry," Paul noted drily. "The fans will find out you're here within seconds."

The lift stopped and the doors opened. Harry took his bag and went ahead to reception. "I'm not that stupid," he commented with a look over his shoulder. Paul stayed close to him, one hand on the counter, his body shielding Harry's from the huge front door.

"Harry Tomlinson," Harry told the receptionist who immediately went to work on his computer, checking Harry in.

"You're not serious," Paul groaned.

"Fans won't check for that name, will they?"

"They won't think you're dumb enough to use that name, no," Paul agreed.

"I admit I was tempted to use a Disney name," Harry mused, signing a paper. "But the risk of being found out was higher with that."

Paul snorted, taking the key the receptionist put on the counter. Harry wished the guy a good night and hurried back to the lift.

"I a bit of a hurry?" Paul asked and his voice tingled amusement. He pulled a key from his chest pocket. "There you go."

Harry took it, looking at it for a moment. "Thanks for helping me organise this, Paul," he said then, smiling up at the man.

"No problem, kiddo," Paul answered, walking ahead when they reached the right floor. "Louis's been a bit down lately. I guess he could use your company."

"A bit down?" Harry repeated.

Paul turned in front of a door, laughing a little. "Now, now. don't look like that. I think he just misses you."

"I missed him, too," Harry answered immediately, glancing at the door.

"Well then." Paul winked. "We're leaving at nine, so make sure he's up and ready to go."

"Too early," Harry complained, but rolled his eyes at the expression on Paul's face. "I won't keep him."

"Good boy," Paul praised him. "Have a good night," he added before he turned and opened the door across from Louis'.

Harry fiddled with the key in his hand and carefully unlocked the door, sneaking into the room as quietly as possible. It was dark, the curtains closed, and Harry needed a moment to adjust his eyes to the dark. He dropped his bag by the door, taking off his shoes.

After a moment, he could make out Louis' frame on the bed. He lay on the left side, tangled in the duvet, his face turned away from Harry.

Quietly and carefully, Harry stripped off his clothes, folding them up and putting them on a chair. Naked, he tiptoed to the bed and lifted the duvet a little, sliding underneath. He shifted closer to Louis' body, pulling him in.

It did feel like coming home.

Louis' body was warm, his skin smooth and although he smelled of a different soap, he still smelled like himself. Harry closed his eyes and slowly released his breath, pressing his nose against the back of Louis' neck.

Louis stirred slightly in his sleep, and when he turned, Harry expected him to droopily blink at him. Instead, Louis turned with a little sigh and burrowed against Harry's chest, one arm sliding around Harry's waist. Smiling, Harry spread his legs a little, shifting, so Louis' leg fell between his, their limbs tangling comfortably.

With a hand on Louis' back, and his lips pressed to Louis' hair, Harry murmured "Rululu" softly. Louis' nose rubbed against Harry's collarbone when he slightly shook his head in his sleep.

Harry smiled, feeling Louis' heart beat in time with his own before he fell asleep.

+++

Louis' alarm went off loudly, dragging him from a sweet dream.

He had been home, and Harry had been next to him, right there in Louis' arms. They had just lain on their bed, Harry had gently rubbed his hand over Louis' back, mumbling sweet nothings into his hair. It had felt warm and peaceful and Louis wanted to litter Harry's chest with kisses and caresses.

His alarm kept ringing annoyingly, so Louis reached a hand out to grab his phone and switch it off. His body pressed closer against Harry's, which---

Louis' eyes flew open and he stared at Harry in front of him, eyes closed, lips slightly parted -- he hadn't woken up yet.

Carefully, Louis reached over Harry's body to get to his phone. Harry seemed to take it as an invitation to cuddle closer against Louis, nuzzling his face against Louis' neck. Louis spine tingled, the feeling so familiar but so unexpected, it made his breath hitch a little.

Harry was in his bed.

Out of nowhere, Harry had appeared next to Louis, and if this was still a dream Louis didn't want to wake up. He switched off the alarm and stayed right where he was; half on top of Harry, their chests pressed close together, Harry's face tucked against his neck.

Louis tilted his face a little, pressing lingering kisses to Harry's hair, his hands gently running up Harry's sides. The little sigh, warm and wet against Louis' neck was enough to make Louis close his eyes to hold back tears.

"Baby," Louis murmured quietly, shifting to frame Harry's face. "Harry."

Harry groaned and slung an arm around Louis' waist.

"Are you a dream?" Louis whispered, running a thumb over Harry's bottom lip.

"Call me dream boy," Harry answered, voice raspy. He still hadn't opened his eyes.

Louis smiled, leaning in to nip Harry's lip, a soft close-mouthed kiss. Harry lifted his other arm, pulling Louis completely on top of him in an embrace.

"How did you come here?" Louis asked, rubbing his nose against Harry's chin. A hint of stubble scratched him, but Louis couldn't be less bothered.

"Plane, car, Paul." Harry ran one hand up into Louis' hair.

"I thought you couldn't come?"

Harry shrugged. "I'm meeting a few people to record songs today. Gonna go back with you guys on Sunday."

"I can't believe you went behind my back like that," Louis mumbled, pinching Harry's side.

"Don't pretend like you're not happy to see me," Harry pointed out, rolling his hips slightly.

Louis gasped and lowered his head, lips finding Harry's collarbone. "Really happy," he replied, gently sucking.

Harry hummed in appreciation, hands wandering over Louis' back. "Happy days?"

Louis lifted his head again, grinning. "Happy days," he agreed.

+++

Harry opened his eyes, pretending he hadn't been falling back asleep when Louis came out of the bathroom later. He blinked lazily, lying unabashedly naked and sprawled out in the middle of the bed.

Louis had a towel around his hips and another one in his hands. With a smile, he sat down on the edge of the bed and leaned in to kiss Harry's shoulder. He gently ran the damp towel over Harry's stomach, cleaning up the traces of them getting each other off.

"Hm," Harry hummed in agreement, running a hand into Louis' hair. "How many times did I tell you to dry your hair before you go to bed?"

Louis grinned. "Didn't think you were going to see it."

Harry hissed a little when Louis ran the towel over his thighs, gently dabbing the skin. "You look like a stray dog."

"Haven't been straying," Louis answered, pressing another kiss to Harry's lips before he got up.

"I would hope not," Harry shot back, curling up on the sheets. He watched Louis dropping his towel and putting on underwear and a pair of jeans. "Anyway," he added after a moment, "you still look good."

Louis picked up Harry's t-shirt from the chair, pulling it over his head. It was a little wide on the shoulders, and loose around the waist, but made him look just that tad more attractive.

"Trying my best," Louis commented, picking up the towels.

"That looks a bit big on you," Harry commented when Louis disappeared into the bathroom again.

"It's fashionable, Harold." Louis came back, a smug smirk on his face. "It's called the boyfriend look."

Laughing, Harry rolled onto his back, reaching a hand out for Louis. Just when Louis had laced their fingers, bending over to meet Harry's pursed lips in a kiss, a knock at the door made him stop.

"No," Harry complained, tugging at Louis' hand.

Louis smiled, coming down for a quick peck, then he moved away, letting go of Harry. "Better cover yourself up a bit, baby."

Harry obliged reluctantly, pulling the duvet up over his hips.

"Morning, Lou," Liam greeted when Louis had opened the door. "Ready to go?"

"As good as," Louis answered, turning to go back into the room.

"We're going to--" Liam froze, staring at Louis' bed, mouth gaping open. "Louis, Harry's in your bed."

Louis clutched his chest, mock-appalled. "Oh my God, where did he come from?"

Harry giggled, Liam huffed.

"That was a bit unexpected," Liam commented, rubbing his neck. "Um, hi, Harry."

"Hi, Liam," Harry greeted back. "Good to see you."

"Good to see you ," Liam answered. "Louis' been a little shit lately."

"I haven't," Louis immediately threw in, grabbing his wallet and phone.

"Yeah, you have." Liam waved at Harry. "See you later, Harry."

"See you." Harry watched him go out, leaving the door open. Then he turned his attention to Louis, sitting up.

"He's exaggerating," Louis said, shrugging. "I haven't really been---"

"I missed you, too," Harry cut in, smiling slightly. "It's okay."

Louis let go of his breath and closed the gap between them, hands framing Harry's face. They kissed languidly, slowly, no intention behind it but to reassure each other. Harry sighed into the kiss, tentatively drawing back.

"See you tonight, yeah?" Louis asked against Harry's lips.

"Booked a table," Harry told him, not yet opening his eyes. "Gonna take you out."

"Can't wait," Louis replied and Harry felt him smiling.

Their lips parted and Louis curled his fingers around Harry's wrist, gently brushing the anchor tattoo, before he pressed a kiss over the pulse point. Harry opened his eyes and smiled, bringing his other hand up to caress Louis' cheek.

"Louis," Liam yelled from outside. "We really need to leave."

With a wink, Louis drew back, letting go of Harry. He put on his shoes and turned again at the door, blowing Harry a kiss, then he was gone.

Harry sighed and fell back into the sheets, catching up on some more sleep before he had to leave as well.

+++

"Look at that," Perrie giggled, shifting closer to shove her phone under Harry's nose.

Harry dropped his toast on his plate, leaning in to read the open article on Sugarscape.

It was early in the morning, but they had made time to have breakfast together -- all five of them -- before they respectively had to start work. Perrie was going to meet some designers, Escapade were booked for interviews all day, and Harry had another day at the studio ahead of him.

"Secretly married? Harry Tomlinson checks into Hotel in LA," he read out.

"What?" Louis asked from his right, snatching the phone from Perrie. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Harry bit his lip. "I have no idea how they found out."

"It's true?!" Louis gaped at him, blinking in confusion.

"Let me read," Perrie demanded, taking her mobile back. She cleared her voice, then read out the article. "Our whole team weeps today. Half because it seems that Harry Angelic Curls Styles is officially off the market forever, the other half because they lost all their money in the Tomlinson-Styles bet. For two years we had this bet going: Who would be the one to change his name when they got married? It seems to be official as of today: Harry Styles has checked into The Grand Giant Hotel in LA under the name Harry Tomlinson." She paused, looking up with a smirk. "The name's all in capitals."

Harry blushed, glancing at Louis.

"What a coincidence it's the hotel his hubby hub boyfriend Escapader Louis Tomlinson had checked into only a few hours earlier," Perrie read on. "Did they get engaged? Married? We would like to know very much what has happened. When? Where? How? Who popped the question and why couldn’t Harry just do it on stage during his final gig a few nights ago? We would have appreciated being involved in a massive proposal, banners in the sky, Harry coming on stage on a white horse and handing out heart-shaped cupcakes for everyone. Um, yes… What did happen for sure was Luigi taking his Hario out to a fancy private dinner last night. They were not too shy to hold hands and sneak kisses when they stopped to buy ice cream for dessert on their way home. Where other couples are attached at the hips, Loubear seems to be attached to his boyfriend’s wrist. We have a 500 page photo album in the office of Louis kissing Harry's wrist, gushing over the cute gesture first thing in morning, even before we have coffee. We're adding the one from yesterday with a happy sigh, wishing that someday we will find a love like theirs. What do you think? Did these two tie the knot? Check out the pictures of their cute date below and let us know what you think in the comments."

Harry felt all eyes on him when Perrie lowered her mobile. He kept his gaze trained on his plate. "I took you out for that dinner, actually," he commented in lieu of a better thing to say.

Louis burst into giggles, patting his hand on Harry's thigh. "They think we got married, Haz."

"Did you?" Zayn asked, holding a glass of juice. "I mean... Harry Tomlinson?"

"I thought they'd find out I was here right away if I checked in under my name," Harry explained, shrugging. He saw the amused smile on Liam's face, Perrie's fond expression, while Zayn looked pretty indifferent. "Maybe I should have picked a more random name."

Louis leaned closer, resting an arm over the back of Harry's chair. "At least it's settled that you will take my name."

"Excuse me?" Harry frowned, turning to Louis. "That's not settled at all."

"Did you check in under Harry Tomlinson?" Louis asked, raising a brow. "Or not?"

"I couldn't check in under Louis Styles, now, could I?" Harry argued.

"He would probably have liked that just as much," Zayn commented from across the table.

Harry and Louis grinned at each other and Louis tilted his head, giving Harry a sweet kiss, tasting of jam and tea.

"Can I throw an engagement party for you guys?" Perrie asked, sounding hopeful. "I always wanted to plan an engagement party."

"But we're not engaged," Harry argued.

"You've been engaged since that time Harry joined us on tour as our supporting act," Liam threw in. He glanced up from mixing his scrambled eggs with beans. "Which, you're welcome."

"When exactly?" Zayn wanted to know, frowning. "I don't think I remember them being happy together for even a minute during that time."

Liam shrugged. "It's one of those love-hate relationships with them."

"It's really not," Perrie piped up. "They're disgustingly sweet, and were even then."

"I demand to be properly asked," Louis joked, voice quiet, so only Harry could hear him. He buried his face against Harry's shoulder. "I don't accept you checking into a hotel under my name as a proposal."

Harry turned his face, kissing Louis' temple. "It wasn't meant as that."

Louis looked up, looking into Harry's eyes. "You sure about that?"

A smile tugged up the corners of Harry's mouth and he didn't even try to hide it. "Maybe a little."  

"Maybe," Louis said with a wink.

Harry shook his head, the smile making his cheeks ache now. "Must be."

+++

They arrived back in London just in time for the Brit Awards. Louis was still struggling a bit with the jetlag, but he was mostly in good spirits when they left for the red carpet event.

Harry was going to arrive with Niall, and Louis wasn't sure they'd find each other backstage, but Paul had assured Louis that they were going to share a table.

"Louis," someone asked after they had stood in front of a wall being photographed for at least five minutes. "What are your predictions for tonight?"

"We're very honoured to be nominated for three Brits," Louis answered, adjusting his blazer. "It's incredible to be nominated for Group of the Year for the fourth time. The other groups are amazing, though. I think The 1975 will make it."

She pulled the microphone back to her own mouth. "What is it we heard about marriage rumours? Any comments on that?"

"Shouldn't there be an engagement before that?" Louis wanted to know in return.

"You tell me," the interviewer teased him. " Did Harry propose?"

Louis raised his hands. "Do you see any rings?"

"Harry wears a lot of rings, though," she argued.

Louis laughed. "He does. Bloody annoying, those rings. But none of them is an engagement ring, I'm afraid."

"So neither of you popped the question yet?"

"Not yet." Louis smiled kindly and turned to Zayn who was answering questions about his new haircut. He waited patiently, thanking the interviewers, then they walked on to find Liam.

"I think they are both great, to be honest," Liam was just saying when they joined him, the camera moving, probably to get them into the frame. Liam glanced at them. "So, whatever happens, I'll support it."

"Louis, Liam just told us that he thinks you and Harry will definitely tie the knot. Is there anything in the plans?"

Louis grinned at Liam, throwing an arm around his shoulders. "Did he, now? He's quite fond of Harry, yes." He shook his head slightly. "Nothing's planned. We're both busy right now, and things are good the way they are."

"What's the best thing about Harry, then?" the guy asked.

"His love handles," Louis answered immediately, not wasting a single thought.

Liam laughed and Zayn giggled.

The interviewer seemed to find it rather funny, too. "That's clearly not what Zayn and Liam value in him."

"Oh, you meant what's the thing that makes these two like him?" Louis pointed at Zayn and Liam, feeling secure under their fond expressions. "I guess they know that they have no choice but to like him. As long as they're friends with me, they're stuck with him, too."

"We became friends," Zayn said. "Harry introduced me to my missus, and they are still very close friends. I think we all just get along quite well."

Liam nodded.

They ended that interview too, then headed inside the hall to find their table.

"Everyone's talking about you and Harry possibly getting married soon," Liam said. "It's crazy."

"Don't wanna think about what it'll be like once we do get engaged," Louis pointed out.

Zayn smirked. "Why don't you guys just do it, if you're both so sure?"

Louis considered that for a second. "Good question."

"Perrie would be over the moon to plan that engagement party, and the wedding after that."

"For the wedding she will have to come to an arrangement with our mothers and sisters. It won't be pretty," Louis warned him.

Liam laughed and was about to say something when someone tackled him from behind, almost jumping him.

"Hey mates, hey!" Niall greeted them, pulling each of them into a tight hug. "It's good to see you."

"It's always good seeing you, Niall," Liam answered.

"We're already at the table. C'mon." He pointed behind him and Louis could see Harry sitting alone on one of the round tables, talking to a woman.

They followed Niall and Harry didn't break his conversation, only leaned a little closer when Louis touched his shoulder. Louis kept his hands to himself after that, and they caught up with Niall, hearing about Barbara, his new flat, the dog they had bought a few weeks ago and his plans for a trip to Spain in a couple of months.

"Hey," Harry said quietly after a while and Louis turned back to him. He looked good, his hair tied back by a silky grey scarf that matched his shirt. "Good to see you."

"You only saw me this morning, Harold," Louis reminded him.

"You didn't look this posh then," Harry pointed out, gesturing at Louis' outfit.

"Shut it." Louis nudged Harry's waist. "'M not posh."

They fell silent when the lights were lowered, some music coming from the speakers. Louis searched for Harry's hand beneath the table, tangling their fingers when James Corden walked onto stage.

Harry squeezed back, holding on.

+++

Harry's hand had turned sweaty when the first category he was nominated in was announced. Louis could remember the feeling, knew what it felt like. Their first Brits had been four years ago, and Louis had been a bundle of nerves.

Harry had held himself well so far, but now he was clutching Louis' hand, his face a little pale. Louis slid a little closer, their shoulders pressing together. While the nominees for Best Song of the Year were introduced by a short video, Louis brushed his thumb over the back of Harry's hand.

"Baby, it's okay," Louis assured him. "No matter what will happen in a second, everything will be good. I'm here, okay? We'll wake up tomorrow morning, probably with a mean hangover, and I'll force you to make me breakfast." He saw Harry smile at that. "This changes nothing."

Harry stared at him, eyes a bit glassy, lips slightly parted.

"Harry Styles!" Rita Ora announced on stage. "Baby Blue!"

Louis broke into a grin, lifting their hands to press a kiss to Harry's knuckles. Harry was still staring at him, as if he hadn't even heard it.

"You gotta go on stage, love," Louis reminded him.

Harry turned his head, looking to the stage once, then he turned back, eyes awake and wide and wild now. He leaned in and pressed a quick kiss to Louis' lips. A loud "Aww" went through the audience and when Harry got up to go to the stage, Louis grinned at Zayn and Liam before he high-fived Niall.

"Wow," Harry said into the microphone, sounding overwhelmed. Looking overwhelmed, Louis thought as he turned to see him on the big screen.

"Thank you," Harry added, at a loss for words. "This is really very kind. This song means very much a lot to me." He frowned a little, apparently thrown off by his own word choice. "I wanna thank my fans for making this possible. You are so great and I love you. And of course my best friend and manager, Niall, who is here with me tonight. Niall, thanks for everything. I couldn't have done this without you." He looked at the statue in his hands. Niall sobbed a bit from the other side of the table and Liam put an arm around him. "Also, thanks to my family for always supporting me and this career. It means so much to know you’re always on my side."

Louis smiled at that, knowing that that was meant for him, too. He had become Harry's family, as much as his mother, stepdad and sister. He clapped with the rest of the audience, keeping his eyes trained on Harry.

"That song was written for a special someone, so I want to dedicate this award to him." Harry looked up, his eyes finding Louis' and he smiled, so cheeky and yet, so, so lovely. "Thank you for being mine, Rululu. I love you."

Harry jogged off the stage and walked back to the table, cheeks flushed and eyes bright. Louis stood up before Harry had even reached them, and he knew that the cameras were pointed at them, but he couldn't care less. With one slick move, he drew Harry in and kissed him, not too heated, just a firm kiss.

"I love you, too," he whispered.

Harry smiled, nodding quietly, fingers digging into Louis' waist.

"Now, if that wasn't the highlight of the night," James commented from the other side of the room. "Our dear Louis probably won't ever live this down, now that all world knows Harry calls him Rululu."

The audience laughed and Louis tried to bring himself to care, but right now he couldn't.

He would have time to be annoyed about it later.

+++

Harry was tired when he came home, dropping his bags next to the door and stumbling through the entrance hall straight to the kitchen. He felt dead on his feet, having been awake for the past twenty hours. He could have stayed another night in LA, but that would have meant another night without Louis, so he had taken a flight directly after his last interview.

By now, they had a house in LA, and planned to buy one in New York, too. The one in London was still home to Harry, though, the other ones only investments, as well as a nice change from constantly sleeping in hotels.

The house was quiet, and for a moment Harry was afraid that maybe, Louis wasn't even home. When he got into the kitchen, though, the lights were all on, a pile of dishes in the sink, and the smell of burnt toast in the air.

Louis was sitting at the table, his finger moving over his tablet. He looked up when Harry was only a metre away, eyes going wide.

"Harry?"

Harry just fell onto him, arms coming around Louis' neck when he slid into Louis' lap. Louis' hand automatically grabbed his waist.

"Babe, I thought you weren’t coming home until tomorrow morning," he murmured, pressing a kiss to Harry's shoulder.

"Wanted to spend the night here," Harry mumbled, closing his eyes. "Niall's still on his honeymoon, so I got really lonely all by myself."

"Hm," Louis murmured. "Just sent the callboy home, fortunately."

Harry giggled, burying his face against Louis' neck. "Thought I'd catch you in the act."

"Maybe next time." Louis pushed Harry back, just enough to look at his face. He traced his finger over the bags under Harry’s eyes. "Wanna take a bath?"

"Will you wash my hair?" Harry asked, grinning and hoping that it would wipe the worried look from Louis' face.

"Sure," Louis answered easily, dropping a kiss on Harry's nose.

"Will you carry me, too?"

Louis laughed and slid his hands beneath Harry's thighs, lifting him up. Harry felt like an overgrown koala, clutching to Louis, his legs tight around Louis’ waist, arms slung around Louis’ neck. The muscles in Louis' arms strained, Harry could see it. He loved seeing them work.

In the bathroom, Louis carefully sat Harry down on the toilet seat before he turned the taps and water spilt into the huge tub. Harry had chosen it when they had bought the house a year ago, demanding that they needed a big bathtub for bubbly baths together. Louis had not objected.

"Niall sent pictures from Bali earlier," Louis said as he stripped out of his clothes. "Seems like they're having a really good time."

"The wedding was lovely." Harry thought back to the reception a few weeks ago. He had been Niall's best man, in charge of the rings and everything. "They looked so happy."

"They are," Louis commented. "It's only a matter of time until you'll have a baby on tour."

"I'd love that," Harry breathed. "Do you think Babs would allow it?"

"Well, Niall wouldn't allow being away for several months from his child, so she'll have to," Louis said with a bemused smile.

"How are we gonna do it?" Harry mused. "Like, who is gonna take the kids on tour?"

Louis was pouring oils into the water, their scents filling the room, so Harry couldn't see his face. "We can discuss it once it's time."

When Harry had taken off all of his clothes and folded them nicely, he started to take off his accessories. He had cut his hair a while ago, but it was still long enough that he had to tie it back most days.

"Leave that one on," Louis said, resting a hand on Harry's when he went to pull the last ring off.

Harry smiled, turning his hand so their palms touched. "Don't like me taking that one off?"

"I like when it's the only thing you wear." Louis pulled Harry up, drawing him in for a kiss. He ran his thumb over the cool metal on Harry's ring finger, humming into their kiss.

Louis had been the one to propose. Harry had accompanied Escapade to Japan when he had had a few weeks off in January, and it had awoken quite a few memories. Louis had booked a trip to Sapporo after their last concert, as a surprise for Harry.

Of course they had gone back onto the mountain at four in the morning to see the sun rise. However, it had been cloudy that day, a dark sky greeting them with a heavy snowstorm, and they had got lost on their way back. Harry had been so pissed, buried in snow and cold and tired, complaining why they had to make the trip when they had known it would snow heavily anyway.

So Louis had proposed to him right there, in the middle of nowhere, in a fucking snowstorm, their fingers too cold to slip a ring on. Harry loved every second of the memory.

Louis got into the bathtub first and Harry followed, leaning against Louis' chest. Louis pressed a kiss behind Harry's ear, his legs securely caging Harry in. They didn't talk for a while, the only noise in the room was the water splashing quietly with their movements.

Louis washed Harry's hair, his hands gentle and fingers scraping Harry's scalp just the right way. Harry sighed in content and leaned back again when Louis had rinsed all of the shampoo. He draped Louis' arms around his chest and held his hands, laced their fingers.

To this day, holding Louis' hand was still the most intimate touch in Harry's mind. Nothing beat the feeling of Louis' hand in his.

"Hey, babe?" Louis said softly, lips moving against Harry's temple.

Harry was close to falling asleep, the water still hot, Louis' body warm and comfortable against his own. "Hm?"

"We're gonna split up."

Harry's eyes flew open and he sat up to turn to Louis. "Are you breaking up with me in a bathtub?"

Louis smiled slightly, but it didn't reach his eyes. "Not talking about us, silly. I mean the band."

"Oh," Harry said, looking for a better way to reply to that statement. "Why?"

Louis shrugged, slinging an arm around Harry's shoulders to pull him back into his previous position. "We discussed it, and decided that we won't sign another contract at the end of the year."

Harry was quiet for a moment, playing with the ring Louis wore. The one Harry had bought him after the engagement. It had two swallows engraved on its inside, representing the two of them always coming back to each other

"Why didn't you tell me earlier?"

"I wasn't sure what we were going to do," Louis explained. "I wanted to make sure what the boys wanted first, be sure I'm clear with them."

Harry sighed and nodded. "I get it."

"None of us wants to do this for another three years," Louis went on, one finger tracing Harry's stomach, drawing circles. "I never thought I'd do this for the rest of my life."

"That's why you set up the companies," Harry agreed.

"I like the idea of giving other people the chance I received. I'd like to make it easier for them to fulfil their dreams." Louis sighed, and Harry felt his lashes swipe against his temple when Louis closed his eyes. "But it's a bit scary."

Harry lifted Louis' hand, kissing every finger tip. "What's scary?"

"My life will completely change. I won't perform on stage again, and I won't have to deal with fans anymore," Louis mused. "I won't see Zayn and Liam as often."

Staying quiet for a moment, Harry kept playing with Louis' fingers, then he turned his face, enough so he could look at Louis. "It will change, but that's nothing bad. You'll still get to be on stage occasionally, and there will be fans. There will always be fans. Maybe not as many, and they will be less passionate, but they will be there."

"Hm," Louis answered.

"And don't think for a second that it will break your friendship with Liam and Zayn. Nothing ever could. I get that seeing them less will be hard on you, but I'm also convinced that you can see them whenever you want. That they will want to see you as much as possible," Harry added. He waited for Louis to meet his gaze. "Don't doubt that, Lou."

Louis smiled slightly, leaning in to kiss Harry briefly. "You know what else I realised?"

Harry blinked. "What?"

"When we're married and have kids, I don't want to be on tour anymore," Louis murmured. "It wouldn't work, would it? One of us has to be here, make this a home for our children."

"Louis," Harry said sternly, frowning. He sat up and turned around completely. "No. Don't think like that. Don't give up your career because of that. I couldn't take it."

"It's okay, Harry." Louis smiled reassuringly. "I want to."

"But---"

"There's something that's much more important than my career. There was a time when I wanted it so, so bad, when all I wanted was to be on stage and sing." Louis brushed Harry's hair from his face, combing his fingers through the wet strands. "It's not anymore. I want this, every day. I want a set home, a place to return to every night. I want a home , Harry."

"We have a home, don't we?" Harry asked. "You're my home."

"And you're mine, baby," Louis agreed. "But I figured I need a fixed place now. A place that's you and me, and that I can stay at. I will still be travelling a lot, won't have a choice if I take over as CEO of my company, but I want this place to be our set home. The place both of us return to."

Harry would return to wherever Louis was, yet he understood Louis' desire for settlement, for something steady. "Okay," Harry breathed, nodding. "That's okay."

Louis smiled, and Harry pulled him in for a kiss. The water had cooled down a little, Harry's skin tingling with Louis' touch.

"You know that I won't want to be away from my kids for several months either while I'm on tour, right?" Harry asked then, pulling back and frowning, referring back to their earlier conversation.

Louis chuckled, helping Harry to sink back into Louis' arms, comfortably nuzzling against him. "I know. You won't have to be."

"It'll be so great, Lou," Harry breathed, closing his eyes again and imagining their future. "We'll have so much fun being married and parents."

Louis brushed his thumb over the pulse point on Harry's wrist before he laced their fingers, gently entangling them. His lips traced Harry's jaw, leaving sweet kisses, his breath ghosting, tickling Harry’s skin when he spoke.

"Can't wait for it."

---