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Not Just Three Small Words

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The sun is breaking on the horizon, hovering over the ocean in a brilliant explosion of yellows, oranges, blues, and greens. Mornings like this are the reason Harry moved to Los Angeles, really. When he used to visit on holiday with his family, every morning felt like a fresh start, like something beautiful no matter how the night before had ended. At the time, he longed for it, that refreshing tranquility.

He wonders when his own aura, the dull grays and whitewashed hues, became stronger than the vibrancy of nature. The stunning colors seem muted now, filtered through a fogged and dirty prism that Harry can't seem to scrub clean. As he sits on the deck, strumming an old guitar lazily, pointlessly, he wonders if a trip home might do it. Possibly a new friend could help. Maybe he should get a dog. Coffee might be a better starting point.

It's becoming a bit of a routine, this life of his. Wake up, wonder how he got here, shower and walk to the coffee shop up the street, contemplate some more, head home and mull it over awhile longer, call a few friends and pretend not to think about it while he gets spectacularly pissed, pass out and wait for the reset. He'll press all of the same buttons, run the exact same course in the exact same way, tomorrow as well.

There's a man on the boulevard who stands on a corner and shouts about judgment and the apocalypse for hours as though it's his mission. Harry supposes that it is. On mornings when the weather and everything else is perfect, Harry thinks about that man, about his everlasting fire. He screams about brimstone and damnation, but Harry wonders if it's not a bit more simple than he's making it out to be.

This is eternal torment, he thinks as he drinks his coffee and ambles past a few touristy shops on his way back home. This is hell, the constant reminder of loose ends that will never be tied off, too much pride to make things right, too much fear of making them even more wrong. This is the forever struggle, wishing it would end but hoping that it won't.

-

"I think you should take it a half step higher after the bridge," she says, tying her hair into a colossal knot of curls atop her head.

Glancing at his fingers on the strings of the battered, second-hand guitar, Harry furrows his brow and does as she suggests. He used to think he knew how to write music - fuck knows he's penned enough lyrics in his twenty-three years, stacks of leather-bound journals full of his innermost thoughts and feelings to show for it - but when he met her, he realized he didn't know shit. The slightest shift, one chord progression or key change, makes everything better. He thinks she must see music the way painters see portraits and mathematicians see equations.

Her voice is clear, smooth as silk, but the whiskey she's been drinking tonight catches in her throat on the key change, giving her a rasp that throws Harry into another time, another place, and causes his fingers to stutter on the strings.

Without warning, the face grins so brightly in his mind that he has to close his eyes against the memory. It doesn't help, of course. Louis' eyes are still shining across the campfire, his smile splitting his lovely face right in two as he sings along with the strum of Niall's guitar. Plain White T's, if Harry remembers correctly. He always remembers correctly.

"Time for a break?" she asks, interrupting the memory.

Harry blinks, shakes his head and sets the guitar at his side on the deck. "Yeah, I think maybe," he concedes, slipping into the house to grab another drink.

It never seems to matter if he's in the middle of a perfectly normal, boring day or an important open mic gig or at a dinner party with friends. Louis' memory always shows up at the most random and somehow inopportune moments, shattering whatever semblance of forward progress Harry's convinced himself he's making.

He fills a cup far too big for the kind of straight alcohol he's drinking now, but sets it to the side and allows himself a moment, just one.

In his mind, Louis is so young, so impossibly sweet and obnoxious all at once. His skin is a golden brown, and his eyes literally seem to sparkle and shine with mischief and a joy that Harry's never actually seen glowing out of another human being. Harry had invited Niall and Liam to his parents' bungalow for the weekend, so excited that his mum had agreed to let them have it all to themselves. Liam invited Zayn, a boy he'd only known for a few weeks, but that hardly mattered to Harry. Nothing else mattered at all when Zayn brought his mate Louis, though. Nothing else ever mattered again.

Her arms are warms when they wind around Harry's middle, her face pressed into the hair curling around the base of his neck. "You wanna hang it up until tomorrow?" she whispers against his ear.

They shouldn't. There's another open mic in three days and Harry needs new material. If he's ever going to pursue the music career he said he was moving to Los Angeles to pursue, he should keep working at it. He has to learn to power through these blocks, these damn brick walls in his brain that keep fucking his momentum into the ground. He has to write more than a chorus and a bridge, can't keep stopping to drink himself stupid and forget the pain.

"Suppose we could do," he says.

She turns him around, presses his drink into his hand and a kiss to his chin. "We never get anything done when you’re like this anyway. Let me help you relax a little, yeah?" she advises, her fingers dancing down his bare chest and along the edges of his belt.

"Yeah, alright,” he agrees, dropping his own kiss onto the top of her head. “Love you," he says, apropos of nothing other than the fact that she accepts him for what he is, for what he can't bring himself to be yet.

She doesn't respond, instead gripping his wrist and leading him toward the bedroom.

It's probably because she doesn't believe him, seems like nobody does when he says those words, but it doesn't make them less true. His mum taught him, when he was too young to understand it, that everyone needs to hear it. She said that there were hundreds of kinds of love and that everyone needs all different kinds, even if they think they don't or that they're fine without them. Gemma was the one who taught him that he should only say it if he means it, that love is too big a thing to lie about.

Harry always means it, in one of a hundred different ways, when he says it. Always.

-

Zayn flies out sometimes, spends a week on Harry's couch, and pointedly does not mention Louis. He'll start to, but always catches himself right before he says the name, like Harry is glass and Louis' name is the sledgehammer that will break him. Harry doesn't have the heart, or the courage, to tell Zayn that he's already been shattered. He can't grind the glass into a finer dust than it already is.

They hit a club on a Tuesday night, stumbling home earlier than they used to, falling into Harry's bed like a couple of exhausted puppies.

The sky is hazy, air heat-drenched and suffocating, when Harry awakes to find Zayn on the deck late the next morning. From the pile in the ashtray, he assumes Zayn's been up for awhile already.

"Sleep well?" he asks dryly, dropping into the other chair and scrubbing his hands over his face as though it might help clear some of the fog.

Zayn just snorts, shakes his head, and takes another drag. "Niall misses you," he finally says.

He doesn't mean Niall. Niall is here as much as Zayn is, maybe more, but Harry shrugs and plays along. "Niall knows where I am."

It's stupid. It's so fucking stupid. He's twenty-three years old and he's running himself around in circles to avoid the only person he's ever really wanted to be with just because Louis didn't want him back.

The therapist he saw for about a month, the one he ended up dating instead of listening to, told him that it was a sign of immaturity, fleeing the country and attempting to settle somewhere else rather than seeking closure from the situation. It's telling, Harry thinks now, that that's what ended their brief relationship, his referring to Louis as a situation rather than a person.

"Maybe he doesn't think he's welcome," Zayn says. At least he's dropping the Niall pretense now.

They've never talked about it. None of the other lads, the ones who knew them when, have ever had the balls to bring it up. Harry's never really wanted to know their opinion, to know for sure that they've chosen sides with the one who stayed, with Louis.

Now that Zayn is willing to open the gate, Harry figures he might as well drive the tank through. He's already obliterated one relationship. Why not two?

"He's the one who said no, Zayn, not me. I asked him to come with me, he said no. I told him I loved him, he said no."

Even now, a year after the fact, it hurts. The words cause a physical ache in his throat, a stinging behind his eyes, that Harry doesn't want to hold back anymore.

He remembers it so clearly, the way Louis stared at him, mouth gaping open and eyes squeezed so tightly shut, his head shaking and his fists clenched like he wished he could punch the words back into Harry's mouth. "Love doesn’t mean the same thing to you that it does to me, Harry. I can't."

"What does that even mean?" he asks, suddenly so angry at the memories, all of them, at every version of Louis that he remembers from the last seven years. "I was his fuck buddy? He loved my body but not me? What does it mean, love doesn’t mean the same thing? I don't understand it, Zayn, and it's making me absolutely mental!"

He remembers the way Louis would look at him, as though no one else existed on the planet, let alone the room they were in. Harry's jokes were so ridiculous, so awful, and Louis would laugh so loudly, so genuinely, while stroking Harry's cheek and muttering, "you're daft," as though he meant exactly the opposite. He cuddled Harry like he was the only one who mattered, even though Niall gave better hugs and Liam was more docile, allowing Louis to climb all over him like some kind of lump. He always chose Harry anyway. Louis always chose Harry, always loved him, and Harry knows that. He fucking knows that it was real, but Louis says it wasn't and it doesn't make sense.

Zayn watches him for an infuriatingly long time, long enough that Harry nearly thinks of heading back inside. "You bloody well know it wasn't about fucking," he finally says, taking another drag from yet another cigarette. "He would have done anything for you."

Obviously not anything. "That's bullshit. He let me walk away. He fucking watched me walk away and never said a goddamn word."

"Let you," Zayn says with a derisive chuckle. "Fuck you, Harry, if you think anybody lets you do anything. Ya know, everyone always says me and Lou do whatever we want, don't listen to shit from anyone else. We corrupted Liam, that's what you all say, but none of us has ever done a fucking thing we didn't want to do, so don't you dare fucking pin all of this on Louis, on any of us. You already had a plane ticket. You were moving, whether any of us liked it or not. You had this great musical dream and you are fucking kidding yourself if you think Louis let you walk away, if a goddamn word would have changed anything."

"He could have come with me! He could have said yes!"

"Exactly," Zayn says as though Harry has just proven his point for him.

"What the fuck does that mean?" Harry asks, rage bubbling beneath the surface, begging him to punch something, to make anything hurt worse than he is right now.

Instead of answering, Zayn stands and shakes his head. He stamps his cigarette into the ashtray and smoothes his hands over his hair. "Ask the person who can answer your fucking questions for a change."

Harry screams, primal and meaningless, as Zayn heads back into the house.

-

They're at the bar just outside the security line, Zayn's plane leaving in less than an hour. Though he's walked away loads in his lifetime, Harry has yet to figure out how to say goodbye.

"I'm the one getting on a plane," Zayn remarks when Harry orders another drink. Off of Harry's raised eyebrow, Zayn shrugs. "You have to drive home," is his response, but it's clear he meant to say something else.

"I'll be fine," Harry assures him. "I'm good at this now."

Another snort. A little chuckle, condescending and worried all at once. If Harry didn't love Zayn so much, he would hate him thoroughly.

They sit in relative silence, sharing occasional small talk in between, until Zayn's flight is called for boarding. He stands, throwing a bill on the table, and then grabs his bag while holding an arm out for Harry.

"Love you," Harry mutters into Zayn's shoulder.

"Love you, too, babe," Zayn whispers, full of affection as his hand trails over Harry's shoulder. When he pulls back, his eyes are more serious than Harry has ever seen them. "You’ll figure it out. I know you will." His fingers card through Harry's curls and then he tugs, smiling just a bit, genuine and soft. "A few less of these," he nods to the empty glasses on the table, "few more of these," he adds with a tap to Harry's temple.

"Kay, mum," Harry teases, but he doesn't let go of Zayn's shirt. "Come back soon, yeah?"

Zayn's eyes are wet when he kisses Harry's forehead. "You, too," are his final words before he turns and walks toward security.

Harry watches until Zayn is up to the line before he turns to dig his keys from his pocket. He stops to buy an overpriced water from a machine before beginning a slow trek to the car park, drowning the buzz from his head before he drives himself home.

*

The club was too loud, too pulsating and polished for Harry's liking. He went for her, this girl sleeping so peacefully beside him now, her dark hair splashed like a glossy slick around her pillow and his. He's done a lot of things for her in the last couple of weeks, things he wouldn't care to do otherwise, but she's frenetic and familiar, leaves him little time to wallow or worry.

Dawn is just beginning to break over the ocean when he eases the door back and steps onto the deck. His fingers itch for his guitar, but it would disrupt the sleepy silence of the early morning, so he settles for scribbling lyrics and ideas in his journal instead.

Zayn's parting advice always seems to seep in when Harry gives himself a second to stop moving these days - less drinking, more thinking. For as much as this new friend he’s found loves a big night out, she's not a big fan of alcohol so Harry is heeding that part of the mantra by default. It’s the thinking part he’s still scared to face, if he’s honest.

He does it anyway and, after an hour alone with his thoughts, his journal page looks a bit mad. It started with one word - love - scribbled at the top in a shaky script that barely even looks like Harry's handwriting. He's looked up definitions on his phone - (n) a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person. and (v) to have a profoundly tender, passionate affection for - along with commentary words like derivative and obvious and waste of time. He's jotted an urban dictionary definition - nature's way of tricking people into reproducing - with a strange sketch of an eye roll. There are quotes - Love is giving someone the power to destroy you, and trusting them not to. - and a bigger, weirder sketch of a heart with a dagger stabbed through the top.

There is anger and affection and pain bleeding all over the page and Harry's fingers tremble as he flips it to start a new one. He might as well crash and burn while he’s internalizing his feelings.

This time he writes Louis at the top of the page and begins the process anew, allowing himself to think like he hasn't in months, to remember and feel and document it in words he's sure no one will ever see or hear, words that have to get out before he loses the courage and shoves them all back into their carefully locked box.

Some of it is cliche - beautiful and loud and funny and more caring than you let on - and some is soppy as all fuck. Some things he remembers vividly - that time we re-enacted Titanic at the beach, your fingers digging into my hips when i shouted, "i'm flying, jack!", the vibration of your laughter around my cock when i smacked my hand a bit too hard against the foggy window later and bruised my thumb - and some are more vague, like snippets of films he saw when he was a child, a nostalgic sense of warmth without a true, identifiable source.

fearless, he writes, good and bad coming together in one word. you always told me what you thought, whether i wanted to hear it or not. It brings a lyric to mind and he flips the page to jot it along the side margin. honest to a fault, the faults were always mine. That leads to a tangent of sorts: mine. you were mine. the dream was mine. everything was mine. me.

Harry freezes, his pen hovering over the paper as a chill races down his spine. He could attribute it to the wind, but the wind sounds a lot like Zayn, whispering, "you've never once done anything you didn't want to do," against his skin.

He's frantically scribbling, me. it was always about me. that was the problem, wasn't it? there was nothing you wouldn't do for me. there was nothing i wouldn't do for me. who was left to do anything for you? saying no was you doing something for you. you let me leave for you. i made it about me. there was never any room for us, was there?

The sob of realization pierces the silence, ugly and echoing in the call of the seagulls near the water. It fades as Harry falls back in his chair, hands covering his face before another punches into the morning and dances away on the wind.

His hands are still shaking when he grapples for his phone, finds Louis' name among his contacts, and begins to tap the message, I still love, before he stops again. He can't say it. He's said it a million times, a hundred ways, but he doesn't mean it this time. He doesn't mean it the way he needs to mean it.

Instead, he deletes the message and turns back to his journal, mindlessly chasing thoughts that circle like the gulls overhead without stopping or settling: i didn't try to understand because i didn't want to. i love music and nature and kittens, along with the freedom of living a world away and beautiful people with beautiful bodies. i love sex and alcohol and feeling good and forgetting. i love them because they don't love me back, don't expect anything of me, not not like you did. that's what you meant, though, isn't it? we don't love each other in the same way. when i said i loved you, i meant more than most of those things, but maybe it wasn't enough. maybe it's still not. i love my mum and my sister and the other lads no more or less than i love you, but maybe less. maybe just differently. maybe i thought i figured it all out, and i'm just realizing that i don't know anything at all.

Her fingers are cold but her body is sleep-warmed when she presses against his back. The sun is beginning to ascend, burning off the early chill, and Harry shivers under her touch.

"Whatcha doin'?" she asks, so simply naive to the epiphany he's experiencing.

He just hums as she kisses his ear. He can write his thoughts but they don’t make sense, they’re nothing yet.

"I'm hungry. Let’s do something. Your house is boring."

He doesn't want to. For the first time since he left home, since he fooled himself into thinking he could leave it all behind and start over, he's afraid he'll forget.

"Go on then," he says.

She's beautiful, even when she pouts, but it's not enough. The rush of warmth he feels when she bats her eyelashes isn't love, it's affection. There's a difference.

On their first date, she told him that she's kind of an airhead sometimes - giggled and flipped her hair like it was a huge joke, and Harry smiled because it was cute and he likes cute a lot - but she senses the shift. Her eyes clear into something serious, something understanding, when she asks, "Will you be here when I get back?"

He glances at the page and then back to her. "I don't know. Maybe not."

-

He sent the text days ago, just before he drifted off to sleep after hours spent writing new songs that feel exciting, inspired. I'm so fucking sorry.

It's never forgotten, sitting unanswered in his sent messages, but Harry doesn't let it consume him. It's a step, forward motion, progress.

As he plays an open mic, chats with an agent at the bar, flirts with the waiter at a posh restaurant, watches the sun rise, and walks to the coffee shop up the street, he thinks of the text but reminds himself that the road stretches on forever both directions. He can only travel his own path while waiting for Louis to do the same.

-

His new agent films one of his sets at a dive bar in West Hollywood. It was a good set, Harry thinks, and it gets a modest number of hits within a few days. He tweets it to his two hundred followers, mostly acquaintances he's made here and a few people who come to his shows. It's weird to think of them as fans, but Harry supposes that's what they are.

More videos follow. The crowds at his shows grow slowly, but noticeably, and Harry thinks maybe it's okay to pride himself on finally realizing this dream of his, of finally wedging his foot into the door of this impossible industry, of actually doing what he claimed to be setting out to do in the first place.

After a particularly raucous night in the same West Hollywood bar, he comes off stage to find a text message from Liam. Brooooo! We're soooo proudddd! There's a picture attached.

There is a crowd chanting his name, a guy with a blonde quiff is waiting to buy him a drink at the bar, but Harry is paralyzed to this place in the back hallway, his eyes refusing to focus on the mash of faces pressed into the shot. Liam is holding the camera in front, eyes wide and smile wider. Niall is pressed against his cheek, one of his thumbs barely peeking into the corner of the shot. Zayn's eyes sparkle like a goddamn Disney prince over Niall's shoulder, and then there's Louis.

It's only half of his face, the rest obstructed by Liam's giant head, but the one eye Harry can see is bright and happy. The corner of his lip is curled into a smile, just past the curve of Liam's ear. He seems more reserved than he was a year ago, but he's there. That means something.

He pockets his phone and wades back into the fray, accepting congratulations and the drink he promised the kid with the quiff before the show even started, but his mind is a million miles away. Thousands, really. Back home with his friends, all of them, who are proud of him. He's proud of himself, and that feels okay, too.

-

He signs his first record deal - it's a small label, independent but highly credible - at three o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon.

By the time he leaves the offices at four, there is a text awaiting him from Zayn. Flying in to celebrate Saturday. Be ready to drink yourself into a coma.

Harry responds with, Bring everyone and hopes that Zayn knows what he really means. In case he doesn't, Harry sends another text - Wish you were here - to Louis, along with a picture of his brand new recording contract.

-

The flight is delayed, ensuring that Zayn won't make it for the beginning of Harry's set on Saturday night. He's disappointed, but he pushes on because that's what he's learning to do these days, keep moving forward.

The stage is lit a bit too brightly, making it impossible to see the crowd, but Harry can hear them so he assumes that it's going alright. He pours everything into every song, playing each one as though it's the first that Zayn will hear when he walks in, he and anyone who may have chosen to come with him on this celebration trip.

Niall is the first person he hears when he steps off the stage - "Get off, ya wanker! That's my Harry I gotta see!" - and he sees Liam's head above the others.

"Get in!" Harry shouts over the din, laughing as Zayn and Niall reach him at the same time. Liam piles on and Harry can hardly breathe by the time they finally break apart, still climbing over each other like schoolyard boys.

But when they pull back and he sees Louis standing there, just smiling like a proud parent, bearded with his hair pulled back from his face in a headband, all of the breath Harry just got back rushes right back into the ether, leaving his heart hammering against his ribs even as the backstage commotion pounds around them.

It barely lasts a second before Louis is shouting louder than any of the others and launching himself at Harry like a missile. Harry stumbles to catch him, wrapping his arms so tightly around Louis' waist he fears they may be permanently molded together.

"You're like a bloody fucking rock star, aren’t you?," Louis whispers against his neck, causing Harry to bark a laugh so nostalgic that he nearly cries. "Squishing me a bit, love," he adds, wiggling a bit to free himself from Harry's grasp.

Over Louis' shoulder, he can hear Zayn telling someone to fuck off, preserving this moment too long in the making, but Harry can't tear his eyes away from Louis' smile to thank him.

Louis' hand ghosts over the plane of Harry's cheek as he catches his own lip between his teeth. "You owe me a drink, you knob," he finally says, voice as soft as his fingers.

"Yeah," Harry agrees, slipping his arm around Louis' waist before turning to the rest of his friends. "Let's start there."

-

The sun is already starting to peek over the horizon by the time they get back to Harry's, too drunk and sleepy to fight over beds and instead falling into a giant heap on the guest room floor.

Harry allows himself a second to appreciate that they're here, all of them, and then slips out of the room and closes the door softly behind him. Though his bones are exhausted, he's too wired to sleep. Instead, he grabs a juice box from the refrigerator and lets himself out onto the deck, where it seems he spends all of his time lately.

Normally, he tries to play it cool after a gig, allowing people to buy him drinks and pretending not to be as excited as they are from the show he's just put on. It seems like the appropriate rock star persona or something, but having his mates around destroyed that facade as though it never existed tonight. It was like being home again, eighteen and out with the lads, laughing at Liam and Niall, cuddling with Zayn, doing whatever Louis told him to just because he's Louis.

It is, by leaps and light years, the best night he's had in ages.

The door snicks open and whispers shut as Louis lets himself onto the deck and eases into the chair beside Harry. He doesn't say anything, just lights a cigarette and blows the first plume of smoke into the air.

"You must be knackered," Harry predicts when it becomes clear that Louis isn't going to speak.

With a shrug, he says, "Jet lag," as though that answers everything.

They're both speechless after that, so much to say and no words to be found. It's not awkward, exactly the opposite, but still strange. Louis has never been one to let even a comfortable silence go undisturbed.

"You're not the only one, ya know," he finally says, waiting until Harry looks toward him in confusion to add, "Who fucked up. We both did. Loads."

Harry shrugs and then nods. "Suppose so. But I think we were supposed to, a bit anyway." He's given this a lot of thought as of late, more than he probably should, and written songs about it quite by accident as well. "We were children," he adds, as though they're so grown and wise now. "We were meant to be reckless and stupid for a bit. It’s, like the only way to learn how not to be, I think."

"You're still full of so much shit, aren't you?" Louis asks with a tender smile and a chuckle.

"Probably," Harry concedes. "People pay me to put my shit to music now, though," he adds with a proud, cheeky grin.

Louis nods, his eyes focused on the darkness in the distance. "What I said before, when you left," he starts, clearing his ragged throat and stalling a bit before he goes on. "You should know that I wanted to go with you, so so badly, but I couldn't. My mum needed me. The girls still needed me and I couldn't just leave them like that. Not even for you. It was never because I didn't love you. I think I've told myself that it was better if you thought I didn't, that it would be easier or something, but it's rubbish. I did love you. I do love you. I probably always will, but they needed me more than you did."

"It's alright," Harry says, reaching across the table to find Louis' hand in the darkness. "Wouldn't have believed you even if you did tell me, would I? Thought I was the center of everyone's world back then." He snorts, a bit like Zayn he thinks, and squeezes Louis' chilled fingers until they start to warm. "Took me awhile to figure out it doesn't work like that."

Louis turns his hand, lacing his fingers through Harry's. "Think it maybe took me longer to figure out it's okay if it does revolve around me sometimes? It's okay to want things for myself."

"You figured out it was alright? Or did you wait for Jay to tell you it was alright?" Harry teases, holding tight to Louis' hand even though he's not trying to get away.

"My mum is a saint, thank you, Harold," Louis responds, holding his head high and his voice haughty. "Wouldn't be here now if it wasn't for her telling me to, what was it?" He tilts his head and then smiles, pitching his voice a bit higher as he mimicks his mother, "Get your stubborn fucking arse off me sofa and over to LA, tell Harry that you've been a tit, and don't come home until you can smile again."

"If only it were as easy as all that," Harry says wistfully, imagining Jay standing over Louis with her hands on her hips, so done with all of Louis' bullshit. He can see that as clearly as he's seen anything else in his mind over the year and a half. "Just starting back up where we left off."

They're not the same people they were then, though. Haven't been for awhile now, Harry figures.

"Well, yes," Louis agrees with a familiar, self-important nod. "Except where we left off was a fucking mess, Harry. If we picked up there, we'd be miserable twat heads again."

Harry's laughter is sudden and uncontainable, a remnant of a happiness that used to spill out around Louis without permission, a thrill of joy that he's long since learned to reign in and hold tight. The feeling in his chest, his throat, as it bubbles over now is indescribable, even for someone who loves words the way Harry does.

"I can't leave now anyway," he says, resigned but less desperate in the truth than he's been in the past.

There was a time when he'd have thought that their love could move whatever mountain jumped into their path, that nothing was so important as that all-consuming concept. He’s learning that he was wrong to expect it to, and he has commitments now, responsibilities that transcend just loving Louis an awful lot. Even if Louis wanted to try again, even though Harry can admit he still does, he can't pack up and head home.

Louis presses his cigarette into the tray between them and turns his full attention to Harry. "What if I said I could? If there was a way that we could try it again, from where we are now, not from where we fucked it all up like wankers, would you want to?"

"Yes," Harry answers immediately, because he's spent too long circling his feelings and not nearly enough time declaring them, questioning them without just admitting that they exist, owning them, and he's tired. And also because Louis looks small and scared and vulnerable. Louis should never look anything but fully confident, at least in Harry's feelings for him.

With a sigh, Louis relaxes into his chair. "Good, because I've accepted a teaching postion at a school here next fall and it would be a bit silly if we were living in the same place and not fucking as much as possible, I think."

Harry manages not to fall out of his chair, but it's a near thing. "Congratulations, Louis. The award for burying the lead as far up your own ass as possible goes to you."

This time, it's Louis laughing, so loudly and proudly that Harry is sure the lads in the house and half of the neighboring houses will waken to wonder what that insane trilling noise is.

He's so goddamn smug when he slips out of his chair and into Harry's, looping his arms around Harry's neck and bringing their foreheads together. "I have missed you ridiculous amounts, love."

Kissing Louis feels like the only option, though he knows their friends are going to have so much to say about this reunion when they wake up in a few hours. Because he couldn't give a shit less how Zayn is going to mock them, or if Niall teases them, and Liam taunts them for taking so long to get their shit together.

He doesn't care because Louis is here, because they're finally on something resembling the same page. Maybe they don't love each other the same way yet. Maybe they never actually will. Maybe that's not the point at all. Maybe they've got to love each other in ways that are compatible, not identical.

Harry doesn't know, but when Louis grinds down into his lap and catches Harry's bottom lip between his teeth, when he whispers, "Take me to bed, yeah?" against his ear, Harry doesn't care at all. It doesn't matter what he doesn't know, what he's still trying to figure out. It matters that he loves Louis, maybe in each of a hundred different ways all at once.

-

Niall, Zayn, and Liam are already awake when Harry finally forces his eyes to open around eleven. He should get up and make them breakfast, he thinks. It would be the right thing for a good host to do and all.

Louis' chest is pressed tight and warm against Harry's back, though. Naked and tight and warm, actually. His breath is a steady rhythm against Harry's shoulder and his fingers rest soft but sure against Harry's stomach. He should get up and make breakfast for his friends, but he really doesn't want to move.

Zayn can cook. He's been here enough to know where things are. They'll be fine. They can get by without him for a few more minutes, or hours, or however long he can manage to keep still inside this room.

Except. “Lou,” he whispers, squeezing his eyes shut. “Louis, wake up,” he adds, nudging an elbow back to hopefully catch Louis' attention.

“Hrmph,” is the only response he gets, muffled by his own hair in Louis' mouth.

“Babe, I need to move,” he says, perhaps a bit more urgently this time.

“Why?” is what he thinks Louis asks. It's hard to tell.

He tries stretching a leg but it doesn't help. “My leg is asleep.”

Unhelpfully, Louis says, “Follow its lead then.” He squeezes his arm tighter around Harry's stomach and nuzzles further into his back, which doesn't actually help anything at all.

“Alright, but you're kind of poking me in the back, as well” he adds, rolling his hips back until Louis' hard cock slips up the small of his back.

Louis' moan in his ear isn't helping Harry much. It's followed by a groan and then Louis moves his hand until his fingers are gripping tight to Harry's hip. “That helped nothing.” He rubs his cock along Harry's crack a couple of times and then fucking moans again, sounding much more alert than he did just moments ago.

“This has got to be the weirdest sex ever,” Harry mutters, turning his face into his pillow and cursing himself for getting harder in spite of his protests.

“You're a rock star now, babe,” Louis reminds him, pausing to bite at Harry's shoulder. “If this is the weirdest sex you've had, we'll have to expand your repertoire.”

“Repertoire?” Harry asks, jumping a little when Louis' dick slips between Harry's thighs. “Did you swallow a dictionary last night while I wasn’t looking?”

Louis' hands are quick, skilled and nimble as he reaches around Harry's hip to grab his cock in a tight fist. “Nope,” he says, his smug little smile evident though Harry can't see it. “Swallowed a whole lot of something while you were looking, though, didn’t I?”

That he did, but it's fucking embarrassing that just recalling the image of Louis with his lips stretched wide around Harry's cock has him shooting off in Louis' hand like he's sixteen again. If Louis asks, he'll pretend it was just the touch of his amazing hands on Harry's skin again. Louis won't believe it, but he loves a good ego boost enough to let it go.

To be fair, it doesn't take Louis much longer. When Harry flexes his legs, Louis curses so loudly that all of the sounds in the rest of the house stop suddenly. He'll worry about facing his friends in a minute because right now, Louis is whimpering into the back of Harry's neck, murmuring something that sounds a lot like missed you.

When Louis finally rolls onto his back, blinking at the ceiling and smiling like someone's just gifted him tea and football for life, Harry forgets the mess on his thighs in favor of covering Louis' body with his own and burying his face in Louis' throat. He doesn't say that missed him, too. He doesn't say that he's not going anywhere. Instead, he says, “Love you, Lou,” and leaves one hell of a bite above the tattoo on Louis' collarbone.

“Animal,” Louis cringes, laughing as he lazily swats Harry's back and stretches beneath him, their bodies gliding against each other for only a second before he stops and meets Harry's eye. “I love you, too,” he says with more sincerity than he usually deigns to show anyone. “But I'll give you a dead arm if you don't fetch me a flannel for the cold fucking spunk you just smeared all over me.”

Harry is laughing as he stands, stretching his limbs and casting a short glance at his own thighs. “It's yours to begin with, idiot,” Harry reminds him.

“Yes, but it looks better on you, Harold,” Louis retorts, waving his hand toward the door like he's some sort of prince and Harry is meant to be servicing him. “Don't let Niall in here!” Louis shouts as Harry flings the door open, his bits covered only by the pants he grabbed off the floor but has yet to put on.

The bathroom's only right across the hall. Judging from the voices that have resumed in the rest of the house, Harry figures it's safe to jog about his own house a little naked. They've all seen it anyway.

He quickly wipes himself off, wiggles into the boxers, and promptly runs into Zayn in the hallway on his return trip to the bedroom.

“Did you lads find breakfast?” he asks, probably a bit too cheerful to be natural.

In typical fashion, Zayn snorts and rolls his eyes. Instead of answering, he pats Harry's shoulder and says, “Be good to each other this time, yeah? I can't afford to keep flyin' out here to check on you ever three months.”

Before he can answer, Niall rounds the corner, his hands already raised for double high fives. “Less than twelve hours, yeah? Thanks, mate,” he says, slapping Harry on the back.

“That is a stupid bet! I get half of the money, as I did half the work! Three quarters, really. Harry was practically just lying there,” Louis shouts from behind the bedroom door. When Niall starts to push the door open, Louis' voice goes firm and a bit deeper. “Don't come in here, Niall! I told you to keep him out, Harold. Zayn, make me some tea, or tell Liam to do it. I'm wasting away to nothing in here.”

He knows that he's grinning like an idiot right now, but Harry couldn't be less bothered. In fact, he couldn't be more glad or feel more at home than he does right now, he thinks.

Zayn grumbles as he sets off to make the tea and Niall slaps Harry's ass with a wiggle of his eyebrows before following after Zayn, shouting for Liam.

“What bet?” Harry asks, shutting the door behind him before he tosses the wet flannel at Louis and manages to smack him in the face with it.

Louis growls, but cleans himself quickly and hops out of the bed. “Zayn said that I wouldn't be able to wait until you were off stage to stick my hand into your pants. Niall said it would be longer than that, but before we leave on Tuesday. Liam's an idiot who thought we would wait until I moved back in the fall to get back together.”

If Harry is honest, he'd say that Liam's was probably the safest of the three options. He would have gladly paid out for losing that bet, but he wasn't even sure Louis was coming on this trip, let alone that he'd want anything to do with a naked Harry once he got here, so what does Harry know?

A whole lot of nothing, apparently.

Once they've both managed to dress - Louis in a pair of Harry's oldest sweatpants and a shirt he found on the floor because he can't walk four steps to the guest room for his own clothes, a fact over which Harry is not complaining – Harry grabs Louis' hip and hauls him into a mighty hug. He kisses the top of Louis' head, and then the end of his nose.

“What is this, a romantic comedy? If you're going to kiss me, fucking kiss me,” Louis demands.

Harry just laughs. “I really love you, Lou.”

“Yeah?” Louis asks, his features softening as he tangles his fingers in Harry's sleep-matted curls. “Prove it.”

Even as he's kissing Louis, he thinks that he will prove it. He'll say it in as many ways as he can, express it in songs and in dinners and in little notes left on the bathroom mirror for Louis to find when he stumbles in for a shower every morning. He'll do it text messages and surprise gifts that cost nothing but mean everything and washing Louis' dirty laundry for as long as Louis will let him.

There are so many things Harry doesn't know, so many things he's left to learn about virtually everything. Ironically – or maybe just coincidentally – Louis is moving across an ocean and a continent to be a teacher.