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hoping this cold blue water scrubs me clean and spits me out again

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It starts with the headaches.

Which isn't so unusual, really — they're on break, technically, but it's still weeks on end of being shuttled from one place to another with interviewers gabbing in their ears, repeating the same goddamned questions over and over and fucking over and it's so exhausting Louis thinks he might explode if one more person asks how his relationship is going.

Fine, he answers. Great, even. It really is. Just not with Eleanor.

They don't need to know that, though.

And they don't, but they still keep asking, and three weeks into promo Louis truly feels like his head is going to explode, like his brain is pulsing right against his skull. It's horrible and no matter how many cigarettes he smokes or pain pills and glasses of water and tea he swallows it doesn't let up; the pain subsides some but never truly goes away.

It's frustrating, but not alarming. Not yet. 

 

 

Home, Louis thinks. Home. He just can't wait to get home, where he can kick off his jeans and curl up under the covers and close his eyes and sleep for an hour or maybe ten until his brain is fully rested and not feeling like it's about to bust through his skull. But for now he's trapped in the back of a car with Harry and a driver who apparently doesn't understand that silence is golden.

If he were in a better mood, Louis might just engage him in conversation, talking excitedly and laughing at his poor excuses for jokes but right now he's just not in the mood, and Harry notices. Of course he does. Harry notices everything. 

"Your head again, hm?" Harry mumbles, lips pressed to Louis' temple. Louis just nods weakly, making a soft whining noise and cuddling into Harry's side. His head is still throbbing, but with his face buried in Harry's stupid, expensive leather jacket, it's a little better because all he can smell is Harry, all warm and familiar and home. God, he can't wait to get home. 

They arrive at their flat just as Louis has started dozing. Harry thanks the driver, quick and polite - always so professional, he is - before looping a hand over Louis' shoulder and tugging him towards the door, urging him to be quick. Nobody knows where this flat is, but there's always been the chance of someone catching sight of them and following them home. Their drivers are usually good about making sure they aren't followed, looping around the neighborhood until any hangers-on are hopelessly confused, but Harry likes to be sure, anyway.

Louis toes off his shoes as soon as he's through the front door, making a beeline for the couch and burying his face in a terribly tacky and uncomfortable decorative pillow. He feels the couch dip slightly under Harry's weight as he sits down next to him, warm hand on his back, smoothing down his shirt and Louis feels all the tension leave his body, turning to give Harry a grateful smile.

Harry grins back, all dimples and teeth, patting his lap invitingly and Louis loves him so much he could die as he crawls over and rests his head in Harry's warm lap. Harry's hands are on him before he's even gotten settled, fingers stroking through his hair and scratching his scalp lightly. Louis hums appreciatively, nuzzling into Harry's hand. 

"Good, boo?" Harry asks gently, fingers pressing lightly on his temple and Louis manages a soft uh-huh before he drifts off, wrapped up in Harry's touch and scent and it almost scares him to think he'll never be as happy as he is when he's in Harry's arms. 

 

 

When he wakes up, the sky outside the window is dark, his head is still in Harry's lap, The Notebook is playing on the television, and he has to puke.

It's, like. His head is throbbing, pain no longer dull but sharp and clawing at every inch of him, and he can feel it, can feel it crawling up his throat and he doesn't even have time to give Harry a fair warning before he jerks himself away, staggering towards the hallway bathroom and he knows he won't make it to the toilet so he aims for the sink, instead, spewing breakfast and lunch and the really good iced tea he'd been drinking in the car into the pretty marble sink with the shiny silver faucet. 

He barely has time to recover before he hears Harry's footsteps approaching, socked feet on carpet and then a large hand is on his back, heat seeping through his shirt and coming to curl around his spine like a napping cat. 

"Hey," Harry says gently, moving closer so his hip is bumping Louis' waist, smoothing back the sweaty fringe from Louis' forehead and Louis is still gasping, out of breath, knuckles white as he clutches the edge of the counter. The pain is a little better now, reduced to a dull ache, like his head is being very, very slowly squeezed by a vice instead of, say, crushed under the weight of an anvil. "Babe," he tries again, fingers gently tugging at his bicep. "What can I do?"

When he can finally breathe again, nausea still coming and going in waves, Louis croaks out, "Water. Please." Harry is nodding, out the door and clomping on down the hall towards the kitchen before Louis can press his back against the wall, sliding to sit on the cool tiled floor. It feels wonderful against his burning skin and he shifts so he can lay down, pressing his temple and he has to bite back a groan of relief, eyes slipping shut. It's so nice. It'd probably be nicer if it weren't the tile in their guest bathroom, but he's going to take what he can get.

He's so lost in the feeling of the freezing tiles soothing his throbbing head that he doesn't even Harry coming back down the hallway until he's at Louis' side, panic-stricken voice slicing through the quiet like a knife and Louis jerks up, only to find Harry with one hand clutching a glass of ice water, the other pressed over his chest like he's nearly had a heart attack.

"Sorry," Louis mumbles, embarrassed, but not too embarrassed to pry the glass from Harry's hand and take an almost painfully large gulp of water. "Just resting. Felt nice on my head."

Harry's eyes are wide, still coming down from the fright of finding his boyfriend lying motionless on the bathroom floor, but he cracks a tiny smile anyway. "You goof," he mutters, fingers smoothing across Louis' forehead. Checking for a fever, Louis realizes, practically swooning at the gesture. 

"You don't feel warm," Harry says finally, standing and extending a hand to Louis, pulling him up and promptly sweeping him off his feet, gathering him up in his arms. 

"Harry," he protests weakly, slamming tiny fists against Harry's broad chest in vain. "Let me down."

Harry just grins, that little shit, and carries him up the stairs, depositing him gently onto their shared bed like he's precious cargo before crawling onto the bed next to him, lying on his belly and kicking his legs up, crossing and uncrossing them like a child. It's ridiculously endearing and Louis kind of wants to kiss him.

"Harry," Louis repeats, rolling over so as to get some distance from his favorite boy in the world. "'M sick. Gonna get you all germy."

Harry chuckles fondly, rolling over so he's just as close to Louis as when he started. "Don't care. Gonna take care of you, boo." He rests a warm hand on Louis' belly and his stomach flutters when he realizes yet again just how large Harry's hands are, covering almost the entire span of his torso. Harry notices too, murmuring a fond, "So little. My little Lou."

And, yeah. Louis could get used to this. 

 

 

What he hasn't gotten used to, however, is the constant vomiting. Emphasis on constant. It's been just over a week since he first emptied the contents of his stomach into the sink in the downstairs bathroom, but it's just getting worse. It feels like every time he's puked his guts and then some into the toilet there's another brick weighing down his stomach, bile burning his throat. Eventually, he gives in and drags a pillow and blanket into the bathroom he shares with Harry and camps out in the tub.

When Harry finds him there, cocooned in blankets in the porcelain tub, half-asleep and drooling just a bit, he does two things. First, he laughs. Second, he scoops Louis up and before Louis can even protest he's in the fucking doctor's office with Harry's fingers tracing patterns on the back of his hand, feeling more nauseous than he ever did in his little bath fort. 

But it's nothing. The doctor checks his vitals, asks about his symptoms, tells him to get lots of rest, drink lots of fluids and take some Advil. That's it.

Louis' glare on the way home nearly burns a hole in the back of Harry's head.

 

It's been four days of following the doctor's orders to an exact t, but the pain is Louis' head is worse than ever, like his brain is going to come oozing out his ears any second. Harry nearly laughs till he cries at the analogy, but still follows the outburst with a, "Sorry, baby. Here, let me help," and resumes massaging Louis' scalp with gentle fingers. It helps more than Louis cares to admit, but the second Harry's fingers are gone the pain seems to triple, so extreme at times he sees stars. 

"Gonna make you another doctor's appointment in the morning," Harry mumbles later that evening when they're curled up under the covers, seeing how long they can procrastinate until Harry has to go make them something to eat. "Hate seeing you like this."

"Me too," Louis grumbles, burying his face in a pillow and trying to ignore the tears prickling at his eyes because it fucking hurts, dammit, and no matter how much Tylenol he swallows it never ceases and he's never experienced pain this bad for such an extended period of time and he just wants it to stop.

"Want me to make dinner now?" Harry suggests, propping himself up on his elbows, hair falling into his eyes and the sight makes Louis bite back a grin, shaking his head to the best of his ability without further upsetting his pounding head. 

"In a little bit," he says, knocking Harry's elbows out from underneath him so Harry falls back onto the bed with a quiet oof. "Just stay here a while."

A while turns out to be something like half an hour in which Louis drifts in and out of consciousness while Harry cuddles him from behind. Then, without warning he's saying, "Gonna make dinner now, boo," and before Louis can protest he's gone and Louis is cold and alone.

The pain in his head is still very much present, but has let up a bit, so naturally he gets up very, very slowly and follows Harry downstairs to the kitchen where he's rattling around in the cupboard, looking for something. His face lights up adorably when he finds the gleaming silver spot he's apparently been looking for, setting it in the stove and fiddling with the knobs before becoming aware of Louis' presence.

"You should rest," he says simply, and it should sound demanding but this is Harry and it ends up sounding more like a suggestion. Louis shakes his head — oops, too fast, wincing as a fresh bolt of pain strikes his skull and he stumbles forward into Harry's embrace.

"Wanna stay with you and pick up on your magnificent culinary skills," he mumbles into Harry's shirt, lower lip jutting out in a pout and he knows Harry can't say no to that.

He's right. Harry grins, always so fond, reaching to absently swipe a few stray strands of hair from his face. "Okay. Right now this culinary master needs to take a wee, so." He gives Louis a terribly goofy, endearing look before trotting off awkwardly down the hall, and Louis can't help the giggle that escapes his lips because he loves Harry, can't imagine ever loving anyone half as much as he loves Harry.

Feeling cheeky, he peers into the pot on the stove and, finding it empty, leans against the counter, striking a ridiculous pose and waiting for Harry to return.

 

 

It's footsteps coming down the hall and the giddy, nervous feeling he gets around Harry even after all this time and he's expecting Harry to chuckle something like You're ridiculous and maybe fuck him against the wall if he's lucky, which he almost always is.

Except not this time, because Harry's eyes are warm and friendly but upon further inspection go wide with what Louis identifies as panic; later, he realizes maybe it was fear.

"Lou!" And just like that Harry is across the room, yanking him away from the stove and shoving his left hand under the tap, and, oh. The skin of his palm is puckered and colored an angry pink. That's usually a thing somebody would notice, Louis notes mentally, pursing his lips with his brow furrowing in confusion. Even now, it should hurt, but it doesn't. Not really. A little bit, but the pain is so distant it's hard to tell if it even belongs to him. 

Harry is quiet as he holds Louis' hand under the water for what seems like days but is most likely just a few minutes, eyes downcast and this stupid look of concern on his face that kind of makes Louis want to cry but all he can do it stare at his rapidly reddening hand and wonder why he didn't feel it — surely he should have felt something, right? It's surprising, because Louis certainly isn't known for his high pain tolerance and even someone like Harry who could probably be whipped across his bare back and tread on with his tongue between his teeth would surely notice something like that.

After a few minutes, Harry turns off the tap. "Stay here," he instructs Louis, voice soft but firm, and the second he leaves the room Louis has his back pressed against the cabinets, feeling his legs give out as he sinks to the tile, staring in awe at the blistering burn on his hand. This is a dream. It has to be a dream. He doesn't know what's happening and he's not so much afraid as he is completely bewildered. It feels suddenly like he's trying to look at the world through a haze.

Harry returns holding gauze bandages that Louis didn't even know they had, but with a tiny smirk on his face he realizes Harry must have an entire first aid kit stashed somewhere, just in case. He's painfully gentle, crouching down and wrapping around the burn gently, from Louis' wrist to his knuckles, secure but not tight enough to irritate the skin there. Once he's done, he cuts off the excess and places it on the counter, eyes still trained on Louis' face.

"Why did you do that?" he asks simply, voice less suspicious and more concerned.

Louis frowns, blinking at him. "Do what?"

"You burned yourself, love." 

"Oh," Louis laughs a little, trying to lighten the mood because Harry thinks he did it on purpose. "No, I just...didn't notice."

Harry cocks his head a little, clearly confused. "What do you mean you didn't notice?"

Louis doesn't know how to explain, because the more he thinks about it the crazier it sounds. "I didn't notice. I didn't feel it. I didn't even realize it was happening until you pulled me away." He chews his lip, and as he watches Harry's face darken, he almost wishes he had done it on purpose. 

 

 

Harry drags him kicking and screaming to the hospital after that. Not just the regular, ho-hum doctor's office, but the goddamned ER and Louis has never been more embarrassed, because he's just tired and under the weather and Harry is making a big fuss out nothing and oh, god, he hates needles and hospitals and doctors, hates people touching him and pressing cold metal to his skin and making him breathe in out in out so consciously, and by the time it's his turn to be checked he's nearly in tears.

The nurse takes his blood pressure and heart rate and temperature and she doesn't look worried, not in the slightest, which only further confirms for Louis what he already knows; he's fine, just ill. 

It's all fine and dandy, as Louis explains with crossed arms the headaches and the vomiting and the doctor (who identified himself as Dr. Ben Allen but Louis doesn't care because all doctors are the same) nods, posture loose and open as he jots down notes on a clipboard. He seems about ready to prescribe Louis some painkillers and a few days of bed rest and lots of fluids when Harry interrupts, rather rudely if Louis has a say. 

"The burn," Harry says simply, eyes dark and he's not looking at Louis but at the floor, playing absentmindedly with the rings on his fingers. "You forgot about the burn."

Louis shoots him a glare, suddenly all too aware of the gauze wrapped around his hand and he fights the urge to hide it behind his back.

The doctor raises his eyebrows at Louis. "What burn?"

Louis holds out his wrapped hand miserably, wrist limp and he fucking hates Harry, he really does. He just wants to go home and this is undoubtedly going to keep them here at least another twenty minutes. "Burned my hand on the stove. No big deal."

Harry's head snaps up. "But you didn't feel it. That's a big deal. Isn't it?" He turns towards the doctor, eyes wide and pleading and Louis feels guilty for ever being angry at somebody so lovely and concerned for his well-being, huffing out a sigh. 

The doctor looks confused, so Louis quickly jumps in to explain before Harry can. "I was leaning against the stove and I guess it was burning my hand and I didn't notice until Harry said something and I saw it. Like, it didn't hurt," he explains, feeling his gut sink because there's something wrong with him, because who the hell doesn't feel something like that? 

No. He's tired. Just tired and overworked and in need of a really long rest.

The doctor nods, eyes looking a little clouded over, like he's deep in thought. "I'm going to have a nurse come in and go through a few quick neurological tests with you. Nothing fancy, just the stuff you used to do in the nurse's office in secondary school." His smile is warm, comforting, and Louis nods, sighing. He's so tired, and it's late and he just wants to cuddle up with Harry under the covers and maybe watch late-night cartoons until he falls asleep.

So the nurse comes in and the doctor was right, it is exactly what they used to do in secondary school every year or so. She's friendly and chipper, like she's had too much caffeine (she must have to, with a job like this, Louis thinks bitterly). He has to do stupid things like follow her finger with his eyes and walk across the room, heel-to-toe in a straight line and he feels so stupid and childish with Harry sitting in a chair in the corner, watching him. 

Finally, the nurse thanks him and pats him gingerly on the back and then she's gone and finally Dr. Allen comes back, just as Louis is sure he's going to pass out on the linoleum. 

Dr. Allen is still smiling, but this time it's small and tight and Louis feels a rush of panic before forcing himself to think rationally. The doctor is probably tired, too. That's why. Nothing's wrong. He's okay. He gets to go home now and tomorrow he'll wake up, warm in Harry's arms and have Harry make him pancakes, maybe, if his stomach will let him.

It's quiet for almost a full minute, the only sound coming from the soft, constant tick tick tick of the clock mounted on the wall by the door.

"I'd like to run a few tests," he says finally. "Just standard procedure. An MRI and a CT scan, most likely. They won't take long, I assure you, and then you can be on your way."

"Fine. Just wanna get it over with," Louis snaps. He's pouting now, truly a petulant child with eyes glistening with tears because he's so damn tired.

Dr. Allen looks a little taken aback by Louis' sharp response, but nods. "Alright, then. Let's get on with it."

 

 

"The results of the tests will take a couple of days at most," Dr. Allen says when they're all finally done, and Louis is truly half asleep. "We'll let you know."

Louis is too sleepy to say anything, so Harry steps in for him, shaking his hand firmly. "Thank you, Doctor." 

Tired as he is, Louis doesn't miss the way Harry's eyes flicker towards him, the darkest he's ever seen them and burning wild with fear.

 

 

They never actually use the word cancer. Or maybe they do, but that isn't until they've already used the word glioblastoma, grade four which is somehow a thousand times worse as they stare blankly at the light box on the wall, displaying Louis' MRI results and he's certainly no expert but the white mass invading his frontal lobe isn't supposed to be there and his entire body is shaking, mind racing because it all makes sense. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Louis doesn't even have time to react before Harry is blurting out a shaky, "So what are the options?" His hand tightens instinctively around Louis'. 

Not many, it turns out, because Louis has cancer and it's of the incurable, brain-eating variety and fuck, when did it get so cold in here? He can't stop shaking and the whole world is spinning. Dr. Allen is still talking, tight, grim smile on his face and Louis wants to punch it off because he's using words like bad, but not hopeless except it is hopeless because, well. He can have them poke around in his head and feed him drugs through plastic tubing but the gist of this entire conversation is that he's going to die

"They were supposed to be just headaches," he whimpers helplessly, wanting to disappear when Harry lets out this little choking sob next to him, hand curling around Louis' arm and tugging him close but Louis tugs back. He doesn't want anyone to touch him. His skin itches, like he needs to shed it all and start anew. He wants to sink into the ground and disappear into the very core of the earth, to become part of the soil and rock and grass, to exist everywhere and nowhere simultaneously.

Instead, he stands up slowly and says, very quietly, "I think I need to puke," before walking out of the room and stumbling down the clean white hospital hallway to the bathrooms, locking himself in a stall and clutching the porcelain basin with shaking hands. He doesn't puke, though - just sits there, body heaving but never quite enough to get him to empty the contents of his stomach and god, he wishes he could because dread is coiling in his stomach like rope and he presses his forehead to the toilet seat. 

It's gross, but he doesn't care. It feels suddenly like all the life has drained out of him and he sits there, limp and emotionless for a long, long time until Harry is pounding on the door, begging him to let him in. His voice is loud and broken and Louis can tell he's been crying. It feels like the entire world is falling away around him and when he finally opens the door, shaking like a leaf, he collapses into Harry's arms.

"'S gonna be okay," Harry whispers into his temple, smearing tears into his hair. Louis isn't convinced, but he follows Harry back to Dr. Allen's office anyway because what the fuck else is he supposed to do?

Once they're settled back in the uncomfortable plastic chairs and Harry has pulled Louis' chair so close he's nearly in Harry's lap, the doctor smiles professionally. Louis wonders how many people he's had to tell they were dying. He's probably had lots of practice, from the look on his face, but the guilty look in his eyes betrays him. Louis' stomach churns violently.

"So, treatment," Dr. Allen begins again, folding his hands on top of the stack of papers on his desk. "The most common path is surgery; we can get a better look at it and remove a good portion of the tumor that way, though how much we're able to remove is hard to determine at the moment."

Louis doesn't want to hear it. Harry is listening raptly, though, and Louis almost expects him to whip out a pen and start taking notes. The thought makes him want to cry. He drifts in and out of the conversation, all too aware of the knobs of his spine pressing against the cold back of the chair and that his left sock has slipped off his heel, leaving his foot cold and uncomfortable. Drifting back to the present, he tries desperately to tune back into what the doctor is saying. "...chemotherapy is always an option," Dr. Allen says, lips pursed, and Louis' heart is in his throat. "Unfortunately, it has proved in the past to have very little effect on the life expectancy or even the comfort of brain tumor patients." 

There's a low, guttural moan then and it takes Louis a moment to realize he's the one making it.

"Again, Louis," Dr. Allen says, and Louis flinches because up until now he's only been addressed as Mr. Tomlinson. "It's all up to you."

"Can I..." Louis begins, feeling the ache in his tummy grow and come crawling up his throat, like it's going to pop out and glue his mouth shut before he can finish but he pushes on, desperate to get the words out. "Can I have a few days to think about it?" 

The doctor nods. "Absolutely. However - as is with all forms of brain cancer - time is of the essence." Louis knows he's seen and heard this a hundred times before. How many dead people does this guy know? Louis wonders. How many death sentences has he given out? 

"Do you want to talk about it?" Harry asks on the car ride home, eyes rimmed red, chewing his lip worriedly, and reaches out to rest his hand over Louis'. Louis tugs away, almost instinctively, but the look of hurt on Harry's face is enough to make him rethink it.

"Not really," he mumbles, pressing his nose against the glass and slipping his hand back into Harry's. A beat of silence, then, "What about the band?"

"Fuck the band," Harry snaps and Louis almost laughs at how very unlike himself Harry sounds right now. "Sorry," he adds quickly, eyes apologetic and a little embarrassed. "It's just, you know. You're more important."

"That doesn't even make sense," Louis snorts, rolling his eyes. "They're not going to like that." He doesn't need to specify who they are. Harry knows.

Squeezing Louis' hand, Harry says, "We'll figure it out."

 

 

 Louis does a lot of research, scrolling through articles on his phone or the computer from the minute he wakes up to early hours of the morning, light from the screen hurting his eyes and certainly doing nothing to help the pain in his head.

Not like anything is really going to help at this point.

And the doctor was right - there's not a lot they can do. There are medications he can take to help with the tumor swelling and they can remove some of the tumor but even if they remove most of it he's still going to die; removing it is only going to buy him an extra year or so, if he's lucky. A year of radiation and chemo and constant hospital visits he doesn't want it, doesn't want any of this. He wants to see his brothers and sisters grow up, wants to buy a house with Harry, wants to be allowed to hold his hand on the street. He wants to go on tour again next year, wants to travel more, he wants so much and there's just no time for it all, even with treatment. 

The average survival length for glioblasoma patients without treatment is four months. Maybe five. 

It scares Louis when his weary brain whispers, that's more than enough

He's just so tired, is the thing. 

 

 

It's two days, six hours, twenty two minutes and twelve seconds when Louis makes his decision. 

It hits him right in the chest like a bolt of lightning and he sits bolt upright in bed. Harry wakes up immediately, reaching out for him.

"What's wrong, boo?" he asks, voice hoarse from sleep and cracking with concern. It makes Louis sad that he knows he's going to have to get used to it.

But looking at Harry's tired eyes, he knows now isn't the best time to tell him. Maybe it'll be better to tell him in the morning, when light is warming his face and his brain isn't so muddled with thoughts and pain - so much pain. So instead he just lays back down, cuddling into Harry's chest and mumbling, "Nothing, love. Just a bad dream is all. Back to sleep now, you."

If Harry notices how badly he's shaking, he doesn't say anything.

 

 

 "So," he begins quietly, so quietly he's not even sure Harry's heard him, but Harry's head jerks towards him almost immediately. "I, um. I think I decided."

Harry's posture visibly stiffens and he mutes the tv, turning so he can look at Louis head-on. "Okay," he says, nodding jerkily and, shit, this is going to be harder than he'd hoped. 

And all at once, Louis can't do it.

He's not used to crying so much but now it feels like there's an endless supply of tears waiting to come raining down his cheeks because he can't fucking do this. He doesn't want to die, but he's going to die anyway, and he doesn't want them poking around in his head but if they don't he'll probably die sooner but he doesn't want to live longer if it means he's going to be bedridden for months on end, sleeping his days away and waking up not knowing where he is, but if he tells Harry the truth it's going to kill him, because he knows Harry wants him to try. Harry wants to exhaust every single possibility, and if he had it his way he'd let them poke around in Louis' brain and pump him full of poison if it meant keeping him alive, and Louis knows he means well, but. Harry's not the one with the cancer.

"Hey, hey, c'mon now," Harry soothes, rubbing circles on Louis' back with his hand. 

"Harry," he gasps, peeking out through his eyelashes that are heavy and dripping with tears, "Harry, I don't want them poking around in my head."

"Lou," Harry murmurs sympathetically, fingers carding through his hair, clutching at him like he's scared Louis is just going to fade away. "Baby, I know you're scared b-"

"No, Harry," he cries, clutching Harry's shoulders and pushing himself up so he can look Harry in the eyes. "No."

Harry is shaking, eyes glassy as he looks at Louis helplessly. "What do mean, Lou?"

"I mean I don't want them poking around in my head, or feeding me drugs through a tube or any of it, I don't because it's going to get bad no matter what Harry, and I'm not sure I want to be around when that happens." Louis exhales shakily.

"Lou," Harry whispers, blinking in disbelief. "Are you...do you want to die?"

Louis shakes his head quickly. "Of course I don't, but I'm going to anyway, Harry, don't you understand? And I'm so scared but I don't want to like...I don't want to suffer...more than I have to. Fuck. I don't know if that makes sense but I just. I don't know, Harry, I don't and I'm sorry." His words are only little gasps at this point before Harry grabs his chin and kisses him, hard, like they're running out of time. And, well. They are.

"I'm sorry," Louis whimpers when Harry pulls away, cheeks flushed prettily. "I love you so much, and I'm sorry, and I understand if you don't want to stay."

Harry's brow furrows in confusion. "What do you mean, if I don't want to stay?" His face crumbles as the realization dawns on him. "Oh, baby," he sighs, gathering Louis up in his arms. "You know I'd never leave. Would never fucking leave you, not ever."

Louis is on the brink of a panic attack, desperately trying to convey his point to Harry. "You do realize it's going to get bad, right? It's going to get bad, Haz. I'm going to get really, really bad and you're gonna have to...like, care for me and it's going to be horrible." His voice is barely a whisper.

"Do you really think I would leave now, of all times?" Harry looks wounded. "Don't care, Lou. Gonna take care with you. Gonna stay with you. Forever, okay? I promised you forever and I meant it."

"You mean that now, but you're going to regret it," Louis protests shakily.

Harry just pulls Louis close, kissing his hair. "You're so brave, baby. I love you so much. You're so brave, Lou."

Louis blinks, confused. "You're not mad?"

Harry shakes his head, taking both Louis' wrists in one hand and holding them down. "'M not mad. Scared, yeah. Not mad, though." He closes his eyes, pressing their foreheads together. He's still shaking a little. "Really scared."

"Me, too," Louis says in a tiny voice, eyelashes fluttering against Harry's cheek. 

They stay like that for a while, foreheads pressed together in the silence, breathing each other's air.

 

 

It's a Tuesday when the other boys find out.

"Do you want to tell them?" Harry asks softly, knocking their knees together and Louis bites his lip, thinking. He doesn't think he can.

Finally, Louis shakes his head because he doesn't trust his voice. Liam, Niall, and Zayn stare at him worriedly from the couch. The couch is more of a love seat and is really too small for all three of them to be sitting on it, but they don't mind. He knows they'd make him and Harry come sit as well if he hadn't insisted sitting with Harry instead. He thinks if he gets any closer to them he'll break. 

"Okay. So me?" Harry clarifies, tilting Louis' chin up so he can look him in the eyes. Louis merely nods, almost positive he's about to be sick again and pressing his face into Harry's shoulder. 

Harry takes a long, deep breath, taking Louis' hand in his before saying simply, "Louis is sick."

And then they're all talking at once. What kind of sick? Is he going to be okay? Has he seen a doctor yet? Does he need to go to the hospital? Is he not going to be able to come to America for promo? Is it serious? Louis almost rolls his eyes, wants to say Of course it's serious, you idiots. He doesn't, though, because they don't need that right now.

"'M dying," he squeaks out pathetically, immediately reaching for Harry and putting his face in his lap, thinking that if he just stays here until they leave he can avoid the worst of it - their ugly, horrified expressions, the pity in their eyes. He doesn't want pity. It's embarrassing. 

And he can hear everyone talking at once but his brain refuses to turn their words into anything but rambling, and all at once their hands are on him, stroking his face and running through his hair and tugging him up to look at them and Liam is first, wrapping Louis tight in his arms and Louis is reaching around to hug him back, feeling safe and very, very sad suddenly as Niall reaches under Liam's arms to pull Louis close and Zayn waits patiently behind them, not wanting to overwhelm him and fuck, Louis loves them. 

He feels warm and happy and loved, so, so loved as Zayn pulls him into a hug, rubbing his back and whispering nonsense into his ear and he's pretty sure Niall is holding his hand. Fuck, he's not ready to leave his boys.

 Not now, not ever

 

 

One Direction goes on a hiatus after the release of their new album. It's a video, only about a minute long, and they're all smiling to the point where it's painful, giving thumbs up and promising We'll be back soon. The status of next year's tour is still unknown.

"You should go, you know," Louis tells them quietly, head resting in Harry's lap. They're all sitting cross-legged on the carpet in front of Louis and Harry. "Do the tour. And music. More music."

They all come to the unanimous decision that no, they won't be doing any of that. 

"Not without you," Harry says roughly, voice deathly low. "Never without you."

Louis feels like crying, because they can't just end One Direction just like that because of him. They're supposed to go out with a bang, not a whimper. They can't just cancel the tour, because so many people are looking forward to it and they're all looking forward to it and oh god, people are going to be so angry and he can't stand the thought of letting so many people down.

"The band doesn't have to die when I do," Louis whispers, sniffling and wiping his nose with his sleeve, and just like that Niall is jumping up to wrap his arms around him, pressing his face into Louis' back.

"You are the band," Niall insists, smiling a little. "We're brothers. A team, and we're not playing without you."

 

 

 The headaches are getting worse. 

Louis smiles through it, pretends not to notice. After their interview with Ellen, he collapses into Harry's arms backstage, pain practically immobilizing him. He falls asleep in Harry's lap on the way back to the hotel.

He cries that night when his hands are shaking so badly he can't even press the damn elevator button. He's so used to being able to fix things, patch them up and make them good as new and fuck, he can't fix this.

Louis spends all of his time in America gazing at the landscapes of everywhere he goes, memorizing faces and places because he knows he's probably never going to get to come back.

Despite everything, he's going to miss it. 

 

 

It's a Sunday afternoon, sleet is falling steadily just outside the windows, and they're still in bed. Louis sits cross-legged on the mattress, braiding and unbraiding Harry's hair, fingers slipping through his dark curls. Bruce is curled up at his side, tail thumping against his leg. Harry's playing an album by one of his terrible indie bands over the speaker on the dresser. It's kind of nice. 

Letting go of Harry's hair for a moment, Louis presses his face into the back of Harry's neck, flushed with heat even in this chilly November weather. 

"What about kids?" he asks after a long time. Harry's posture straightens a little, and Louis smiles grimly. It's not like he expected any less. 

"Lou," he croaks, turning halfway and Louis can already see that his eyes are glassy. "Don't."

And normally Louis would just drop the conversation there, whispering I'm sorry over and over again into Harry's skin and sucking an apology bruise onto the side of his neck before going back to playing with his hair, but instead he just sits on his shaking hands, bites his lip and tries again. "But, like...you know, if we were. To have kids, I mean. Names. I know we've discussed them, but I need to know. And, like, which one would be head over heels for you and which one I'd corrupt and take out for ice cream after tea. Please, Harry. I just. It's stupid, but," Louis pauses, fiddling with the sleeves of his - Harry's - jumper and attempting to gauge Harry's expression. "I just feel like it's something I want to know, before. You know." His voice isn't any higher than a whisper by the last word, but he's still proud.

Harry sits quietly for a long time, almost eerily still as he gazes out the window at the storm beyond, storm clouds grey and kraken-cruel. Finally, so quietly Louis' sleepy brain almost doesn't pick it up, he says, "You would manage to corrupt them, wouldn't you?" The corners of his lips quirk up slightly.

Louis nods, almost too enthusiastic. "Of course I would. And you'd be the parent who fucking blends up spinach and puts it in brownies, and we'd all compliment you on how good they are because we love you too much to crush your dreams like that." This earns a small chuckle from Harry, much to Louis' delight. "But then afterwards I'd take them out for sundaes with extra whipped cream and fudge and they'd come home with ice cream all over their faces but they'd never tell you the truth, because I'm the cool parent." He grins devilishly, wrapping his arms around Harry and tugging him back, back, back until they're lying side by side, shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip.

"We'd get another dog, maybe. Or a cat. Name it Felix," Harry says, closing his eyes and smiling fondly. "God, the kids would love you. I mean, they'd love me too, but they'd fucking adore you, Lou."

Louis can't contain his grin, tucking his face into Harry's shoulder. It takes him a little while to calm down the giddiness he's got growing in his belly, heart fluttering. "They'd love you, though," he says finally. "Whenever they were sad or scared they'd go to you first. You'd be the one up the second they would start crying in the middle of the night, all ready to rock them and sing them back to sleep with your terrible indie music." The words don't come out like he'd intended them to - it's getting harder to find the words he's looking for, but he can't let Harry know that.

Harry moves so he's lying on his side, leaning on his elbow and facing Louis, grinning like mad. "I guess I would. God," he laughs, tipping his face towards the ceiling fan. "It would be chaos. All the time. We'd need a bigger house. Like...way bigger."

"Of course," Louis agrees. "How else would we be able to fit in all that chaos?" He purses his lips, thinking. "And the holidays. The holidays would be the best. The whole house would be covered in tinsel and lights and the kids would make those tacky reindeer with googly eyes and paper clips and we'd buy Santa hats for all the animals in the house."

"And we'd have a tree, a big one. Even bigger than the one we have now," Harry says, eyes a little glazed like he's somewhere else. "And even then it'd be a struggle to fit everyone around it."

Louis nods happily. "Yeah, of course. And of course we'd have to invite the boys. And Perrie and Sophia and your mum and Gem and Robin and all of my family, too. All the girls." He smiles but feels tears prickling at his eyes when he pictures all his sisters and his two little brothers crowded around a tree, Harry's arm around him with a plethora of curly-haired, giggling children practically hanging off of them with the boys looking on fondly.

Harry notices immediately, and tries to steer the conversation away from that particular topic. "And on Halloween you'd be the one to go all out. All those bloody expensive animatronics to scare the shit out of all the trick or treaters." 

Louis feels like his heart is going to burst, and he also feels really tired all of a sudden, eyelids heavy and he struggles to keep them open. "Mhm," he hums, feeling sleepy and happy as he snuggles deeper under the down comforters, shuffling to get closer to Harry until their chests are pressed flush together. Harry runs a hand through Louis' hair affectionately and Louis sighs happily, letting his eyes fall all the way shut, mumbling, "Keep talking."

Harry shifts so he can tuck Louis' head under his chin, hands wrapped protectively around his waist, and keep talking he does. "And of course you'd be raising them, too, so they wouldn't turn out to be ridiculous klutzes like me. You'd probably teach them all to skateboard with Zayn, wouldn't you, boo?" Louis merely makes a tiny noise of agreement, face buried in Harry's chest. 

"You'd be such a good dad. Fuck, Lou. So fucking good." Harry sniffles a little before continuing, voice coming out raw and it makes Louis want to cry, too.

Harry is still talking but Louis is already drifting off, visions of curly-haired, green-eyed little children lingering in his mind and if Harry's ramblings get cut off with a soft, sudden choking sob, Louis just squeezes his eyes shut tighter and pretends not to notice.

 

 

Louis is used to telling Harry everything, pressing the words into Harry's jaw or whimpering them into his mouth or crying them into his shoulder when he's embarrassed or sad or scared. There are, of course, some things Harry doesn't know, like that on that rare occasions he's awake before Harry he likes to stare at Harry's face, eyes closed and lips parted and sometimes he cries, too, because Harry is so wonderful and Louis doesn't know what force on earth decided he ever deserved someone so lovely and understanding and patient.

There are more, a few, but they're relatively unimportant things except now he's got a big secret hovering right over his heart like a butterfly, wings fluttering angrily and it's that he's starting to lose his words. 

He can't... he can't explain it, because it doesn't make sense but sometimes, he'll be in the middle of a story and somehow he'll just forget as in he cannot physically nor mentally get his tongue to wrap itself around the next word and it's fucking scary. Like, he'll be telling a story about the twins or something he watched while Harry was away or a stupid joke Niall told him when he'll forget the word play or watch or even funny and he'll cut himself short, ducking his head as panic creeps up his spine and then Harry will say something that jogs his memory and he'll be able to finish his story in one piece. 

It's okay. Like the doctors said - bad, but not hopeless. He repeats the words to himself over and over in his head every night until they blur together and he nearly forgets them altogether.

Staring at Harry's sleeping face, all he can think is please don't let me forget you, too.

 

 

Eventually, Harry notices. Harry notices everything. 

"Harry," Louis says sharply, voice slightly panicked in a way it usually isn't. "Can't find the...the...for the car."

Harry's brow furrows as he turns to look at him, lips curving downwards into a confused frown. "Huh, baby?"

Louis hands shake as he tries to imitate the act of putting keys in the ignition. "Can't find them," he blurts, feeling more embarrassed than anything else. 

"You mean the keys?" Harry asks, voice dripping with concern. 

"Keys," Louis repeats, relief flooding through him so fast he thinks he might pass out. "Yeah. Keys." The word feels just as familiar as it always has, rolling easily off his tongue and he almost wants to laugh.

Harry doesn't say anything, but he doesn't have to. 

The look on his face tells Louis everything he needs to know. 

 

 

Harry makes him a list on his phone, a little list titled Words for Lou :), all filled with words Louis has been forgetting most frequently but the list seems to be growing exponentially with every passing day, and it's a little hard to keep up. 

"Did you remember to feed the...the-" Louis pauses, brow crinkling in concentration as he licks his lips and Harry feels a tidal wave of grief come crashing over him as Louis stands there, eyes narrowing even further, hands curling into tiny little fists as he struggles to find the word he's looking for.

Wrapping his arms tightly around Louis' shoulders and pressing a kiss to the top of his head that he can only hope is comforting, Harry murmurs, "The dog, love?" 

Louis turns into Harry's embrace and buries his face in Harry's collarbones and Harry feels his heart sink down to his knees when he feels wetness pooling there.

"Hey," he says gently, snaking a hand between Louis' chest and his and grasping Louis' chin, forcing him to meet his eyes. Louis' eyes are glossy and rimmed red and he looks so pathetic and hopeless it's got tears prickling at Harry's own eyes. But he won't cry - not now, because this time Louis needs him to be the strong one. And he will be. 

"Baby," he murmurs, walking slowly backwards until his back thumps against the wall and tugging Louis with him, sinking down to the floor so Louis can rest in the space between his legs. It's only a minute or two until Louis' sniffles stop completely, but the sensation of helplessness remains. "S'okay," he says, grabbing one of Louis' hands - so teeny tiny, he's always been; it's one of Harry's favorite things - and traces the lines of his palm until Louis has fully calmed down and is sitting upright, picking at the carpet with his free hand.

"Feel so stupid," Louis mutters, cheeks flushing as he ducks his head, almost shamefully. "All the time."

"No." Harry nearly growls it, voice going harsh in a way it normally doesn't with Louis. Louis' head snaps up at the tone in his voice, looking more than a little startled but Harry just doesn't care, because he doesn't know what to do and he fucking hates feeling helpless like this. He wants to press Louis into their mattress and whisper into his skin all the words that are running through his mind but they've got places to go and there's just no time. There never is, and his stomach lurches because they're running out of fucking time and he has so much he needs to say.

Instead, he just pulls Louis close so their faces are level, noses brushing. Their breathing is almost humorously noisy in the still, quiet of the flat. "You're not stupid," Harry insists firmly, hands holding Louis' face in place so he can't squirm away. "Never stupid, baby. Don't like hearing you say things like that." Louis' gaze lowers and Harry knows he's going to start crying again, so he kisses him before he can.

It's only a chaste brush of lips, but it's enough. 

 

 

"You don't get it," Louis snaps, whirling on him one night when Harry is trying to cuddle him out of feeling sad for forgetting the word plant. Plant, for Christ's sake. "You don't know what it's like to wake up and forget the stupidest damn things, like where your toothbrush is or which door it is to our room."

His lower lip trembles and he bites down on it, hard. He isn't sad, he is angry and he wants Harry so badly to understand but he can't fucking make him understand and it's not fair to try but it feels like he's stumbling through an endless expanse of moonless night alone and if that isn't the most goddamned terrifying thing, he's not sure what is.

"Babe," Harry says gently, eyes glittering and Louis knows he's going to cry. "I know. I'm sorry. I just, fuck. Wish there was something I could do. I don't know what to do or how to help and I feel fucking helpless and I hate it, Lou-"

"I don't want this," Louis cries suddenly, cutting Harry off and he feels like he's going to collapse, he's shaking so bad. "Gonna...forget...everything. You know that, right? That this is minor compared to how bad it's gonna get? Not gonna be able to sing or even fucking talk, Harry," he whimpers. "I don't want to forget you."

He barely has time to process his own sobs before Harry is engulfing him, arms wrapping tight tight tight around him, fingers digging into his back. Louis has quiet sobs wracking his body and from the way he's shaking he know Harry's started to cry, too. 

"I'm sorry," Louis whispers, wiping his eyes on Harry's shirt. "I know you're trying. You're perfect. I'm sorry I said anything."

He never brings it up again.

 

 

Harry walks in on Louis snuggled under the covers with his knees to his chest, frantically scribbling onto a piece of notebook paper before pausing, tapping his chin with the pen, and going back to writing.

"What're you doing?" Harry asks, nudging teasingly at Louis' legs. Louis just narrows his eyes and sticks his tongue out at him, eyes still trained on the paper in front of him.

"Tell me," Harry whines, slithering coyly up next to Louis and nudging at his hip with his nose.

Louis sighs, capping his pen and folding up the paper into a tiny square, holding it firmly in his hand. "A letter," he says simply.

Harry waggles his eyebrows playfully. "To who? Your one true love? Are you cheatin' on me, boo?" He reaches out to tickle Louis' sides and his heart soars when Louis gives in and squeals, curling in on himself.

"Harry, stop," he pleads through his laughter, trying in vain to swat Harry's hands away. Harry doesn't stop though, because Louis' laugh is music to his ears and he wants to listen to it all night long. His hands still, though, when they graze over Louis' ribs, the shocking jut of his hipbone. He knows why - Louis' appetite has been nonexistent lately but it's still terrifying, realizing just how tiny he is. 

"So tiny," he murmurs sadly, fingers curling around Louis' bicep and even he's surprised when he can fit his entire arm in the loop between his thumb and forefinger. 

"Always been tiny," Louis retaliates, pulling the covers higher over himself like he's trying to hide. 

"Not like this," Harry whispers, turning his sad eyes to meet Louis' gaze. Louis' cheeks are flushed, like he's almost embarrassed.

"It's a letter for you," he says softly, nose crinkling the way it does when he thinks something is funny, and Harry stills. "The paper."

"For me?"

Louis nods, rolling onto his tummy. "For you."

"Do I get to read it?"

"Mmm," Louis hums, eyes fluttering shut and he peeks out at Harry playfully, grinning. "Not yet. S'not done yet."

"Soon?"

"Yeah," Louis says, face almost unreadable. "Maybe."

 

 

Louis finishes his letter to Harry the next morning while Harry is making him eggs, even though his stomach is in knots and he doubts he'll be able to eat much. He finishes off the letter with a flourish before capping his pen. There's an air of finality to it as he neatly folds the letter and sticks it into the empty envelope he's got sitting in front of him, the one he made Harry scour the entire flat for. 

He makes sure to make devious eye contact with Harry the entire time he's licking the envelope — he knows he's over-licked it when it won't even seal properly, so he makes Harry find him another, which he seals with not nearly as much tongue swiping. He scribbles something quickly on the front of it, too quick for Harry to get a chance to look, and shoves it deep in the pocket of his sweatshirt.

"Do I get to read it now?" Harry asks from where he's standing by the stove, bare-chested with his pajama bottoms riding low on his hips as he concentrates on frying the sizzling bacon in the pan in front of him.

"No," Louis says simply, suddenly feeling very tired, mostly because of the cancer and all, but also because he doesn't want to have this conversation.

Harry frowns, turning to narrow his eyes at him, one hand still holding the spatula. "You said it was for me."

"It is for you. But you don't get to read it now."

"When do I get to read it, then?" 

"Like, um. After," Louis mumbles, fidgeting in his chair as he feels Harry's gaze on him harden. He hears the sound of the burner being turned off, spatula being put back on the counter, Harry's footsteps approaching and he squeezes his eyes shut tight because he really, really doesn't want to have this conversation right now, or maybe ever. 

"After what, Lou?" Harry asks, voice dangerously low.

"You know what." It comes out harsher than he intended. He can't help it. His head is starting to throb and he fights the urge to close his eyes again. 

"Lou." Harry's voice is gentle now, watery, like he's going to cry. Or maybe he's already crying; Louis can't bring himself to look at his face. They've both been doing a lot of crying lately. Louis doesn't like it.

"I, just," Louis sputters, wracking his brain for the words he's looking for. "Wanted to, like, give you something. Of me. That's...me, in a way, if that makes sense. So you can have it...when I'm, um. When I'm not me anymore, I guess." He brings a hand up to rub at his eye and it comes away wet. He doesn't know when he started crying but all he knows now is that he is crying and he's pretty sure Harry is, too, and he can't stop.  

"Oh, Lou," he whispers, and he's aiming for his mouth but ends up kissing his cheekbone instead. Close enough. "Okay," he says finally, looking resigned. "I'll wait to read it, then. Until...after." The look on his face makes Louis' heart ache. The look of understand and resignation and sadness because he understands now and that's all Louis has ever wanted from him but seeing it now just makes him want to disappear.

Soon, he thinks. Soon. 

 

 

Turns out that his soon is coming sooner than expected when he's in the shower one morning, washing his hair with Harry's apple-scented shampoo and the world in front of him blurs, a jolt of pain hitting him so badly he doubles over, clutching at his stomach and he barely has time to yell for Harry before his entire lower half goes numb and the world in front of him spins into blackness.

 

 

Harry finds him on his side in the shower in a pool of blood from the gash on his head, eyes slightly open, skin flushed and he's shaking violently, lips parted like he's going to say something but he's not, just releasing this little breathy gasps and Harry is at his side at once, begging, "Lou, Lou, c'mon, stay with me. Come back to me, sweetheart." He continues chanting even as he's frantically trying to explain to the 911 operator what's happened.

"My boyfriend passed out in the shower and he's bleeding and shaking and fuck, there's blood everywhere, please send somebody now!" He runs his shaking fingers through Louis' damp hair. When he pulls his hand away it's covered in Louis' blood and he nearly loses it right there but he can't, not now. Not yet.

"Louis," he repeats desperately, pressing his fingers to Louis' pulse point on his neck and his mouth to Louis', breathing, trying to give him air, trying to help him breathe, for Christ's sake.

By the time the paramedics show up, though, Louis' shaking has ceased and he's stopped responding altogether.

Harry has to pull over on his way to the hospital, trailing after he ambulance - he stumbles out onto the damp grass on the side of the road and empties a mouthful of stomach bile onto the soil. 

 

 

A seizure, the doctors tell him. Bad, but common with glioblastoma patients. Harry wants to be sick again. 

When Louis wakes up, he is screaming in pain, clutching at his head with shaking fingers and grabbing the nurse's hand and begging, "Please make it stop, please make it stop, just make it stop."

So they cut into his scalp, taking Louis' desperate cries as permission. They're able to remove some of the tumor, but not enough. Not nearly enough. It's bad, they say, shaking their heads and gazing sadly at Harry when he breaks down in the waiting room, head in his hands. Really fucking bad.

He only cries harder when he gets to see Louis, looking so small and tired in his hospital bed, patch of hair missing and angry stitches where they sliced into his head, poked around in his brain. He has to be escorted out until he can compose himself. When he finally does, Louis won't talk, but Harry doesn't need him to. He just sits in the chair by his bed, matching his fingers into the shapes of Louis' tattoos.

Jay and the whole crew are there by the next morning, crowding around Louis and his sisters are crying, crying, crying and when the twins crawl onto the bed next to them Louis just quietly strokes their hair, murmuring, "It's okay. I'm okay. Don't worry about me. I'm okay." Jay has to leave the room and Harry follows her, enveloping her in a tight hug because he gets it.

"I know," he whispers, Jay's face pressed into his shoulder, staining his coat with mascara tears, "I'm scared, too."

The boys come visit, too, piling into a couple of chairs near Louis' bed and talking to him excitedly, quickly, and it breaks Harry's heart when Louis merely looks up at them, blinking and lost and so, so confused. Harry tries to repeat what the doctors told him to them, that they need to slow it down, that Louis' brain isn't working at fully capacity right now and it's going to start taking him a little while to understand people so they need to just slow it down so as to not overwhelm him.

They nod grimly, and the way they talk to him after that is so heartbreakingly gentle that Harry has to leave the room.

Louis gets to come home five days later. A few pictures of him leaving the hospital, Harry's beanie on his head covering the worst of his scars, make it into the tabloids, but it's passed off as a minor incident, a stomach bug. It's clear from the glazed look in Louis' eyes and his hollowed cheeks that this isn't the case, but most people don't question it. An influx of Get well soon! :) tweets are posted, all tagging @Louis_Tomlinson, and it makes Harry's skin crawl.

Somehow, when Louis walks through the door, guided by Harry's warm hand on the small of his back, and whimpers Just wanna go back to bed, Haz, Harry knows things will never be quite the same again. 

The clock ticks on the wall. He shivers.

 

 

Harry spends a lot of time doing research, and each search turns up more horrors about Louis' worsening condition - more seizures, sleeping 18 hours a day, hallucinating, unable to eat or drink or even swallow, forgetting things that happened just hours ago. He can't believe this is happening, and it's happening to Louis, of all people - the sun of his existence, light of his life, the love of his life, his favorite boy in the world.

When one night Louis can't stop throwing up and he's shaking so bad Harry worries he's going to have another seizure, Louis buries his tear-stained face in Harry's chest and cries, "Just want it to stop, just want it to be over now."

"I know, boo, I know you do, I'm sorry," Harry babbles, hands stroking Louis' hair as he mentally prepares for the next vomiting episode. 

It only occurs to Harry later, after he's cleaned and sanitized the entire bathroom, when they're curled up in bed as the sun begins to rise, turning the whole world purple, that maybe Louis' just want it to be over now means something different than what he'd originally interpreted it as, and he clutches the smaller boy closer.

He won't let him go. Not without a fight.

 

 

"Stay," Harry whispers desperately, pressing his lips to Louis' temple like he can somehow ease the pain that's blooming there, but he can't make the pain stop and no matter how hard he tries he can't make Louis stay.

"Wish I could," Louis whispers back, pressing himself closer to Harry, leaning into his touch. 

Harry wonders if he holds Louis close enough, he can keep him forever. He promised Louis a long time ago that he'd always protect him. Always, except he always thought that would be protection from something physically, tangible, except now this thing killing Louis is a part of him and all Harry can fucking do is sit back and watch as his boy gets worse and worse.

He's so scared, because it's the first time he's made a promise to Louis that he's realized he can't keep. 

 

 

Louis' quiet lately. Not because he's shy or anything — it just takes him a little longer to process words and it's even more draining for him to speak in complete sentences all the time. He still talks, sure, but a majority of his communication most days is via smiles and nods and head shakes. He's been using their thumbs-up signal recently, too.

Harry doesn't mind. Sure, it's weird not having Louis' sweet little voice filling up the halls, always an uncontrollable ball of energy, but. He's still soft and cuddly and cheeky and here, and that's all that matters. 

He starts off every morning by asking Louis, "What color are you today, boo?" 

It's a system they've come up with, like traffic lights, because three colors are easier for Louis to keep track of than individual emotions. 

Green is a good day, when Louis is alert and in the mood for company and cartoons and maybe even pancakes. Yellow means okay. Yellow means, "I'm okay, but I might not be later," or vice versa. On yellow days, Louis is a little slower; it takes him a little longer to speak, a little longer to process Harry's words. Yellow means no company and quiet music and cuddles and lots of tea. Sometimes, on yellow days, Harry reads to him, keeping his voice low and even, fingers tangled with Louis'.

Red is a bad day — red is when the pain in Louis' head is almost unbearable, it's radio silence and Louis taking as long as ten minutes to answer a single question, or sometimes not at all. Red is Harry spooning ice chips into Louis' mouth because he can't handle anything else. Red is Louis clutching onto Harry like he's a lifeline, like he's the only thing keeping Louis here. 

Today is a red day. Harry can tell right off the bat, because it takes nearly twenty minutes to get Louis awake and somewhat responsive, and even then his eyes are fluttering like he's physically incapable of keeping them open and it makes Harry's heart aches, how terribly weak he looks.

By early evening, though, after the sky has shifted from blue to pink to purple, Louis' red has dimmed to yellow. Harry can tell; Louis is much more alert, he has the energy to walk to the toilet by himself (Harry escorts him anyway, despite Louis' weak protests that he's not a childHarry.) He's cuddlier, too, snuggling up closer to Harry when he reaches out to run a hand through Louis' hair.

Louis lays on his side, eyes trained on Harry's. Harry gazes back, unflinching — he knows from the look in Louis' eyes that he's truly here, really looking at Harry. Just observing, like he's trying to remember every detail of Harry's face. Harry doesn't mind, though; after all, he's doing the same.

Feeling a sudden surge of affection, Harry smiles gently, placing a hand on Louis' forearm to make sure Louis is present, grounded, and holds out his other hand in a tiny wave, waggling his fingers. Hi, I love you. Warmth spills into his gut when Louis nods — he saw, he's here, he's here with me, Harry's relieved mind chants over and over again — and gives Harry a little thumbs up, corners of his mouth quirking up and he doesn't have to speak for Harry to know what it means.

I know. I love you, too.

 

 

Harry wakes up unreasonably early the next morning, and at first he's completely ready to dive back under the covers and go back to sleep until he realizes today is Louis' birthday and his heart leaps, only to sink back when his eyes fall on the sleeping boy next to him, looking exhausted even in sleep, purpled half moons under his closed eyes and cheekbones so sharp they could cut glass. 

He runs a hand experimentally down Louis' warm side, fingers lingering a touch too long on Louis' ribs, so prominent even through his shirt that Harry has to fight to swallow back his panic. 

"Lou," he murmurs, sinking down to be level with Louis and nosing at his cheek, running gentle hands down Louis' sides and back. "It's your birthday, baby. C'mon, wake up." 

It takes nearly five minutes and quite a bit of coaxing but Louis' eyelashes finally flutter as he peeks out at Harry, nose crinkling a little and Harry bites back a grin, reaching out to cup his jaw. "There you are," he practically coos, their noses brushing as Louis' fluttering lashes slow as he comes to. "There's my boy. It's your birthday, boo."

"Birthday," Louis repeats carefully.

"That's right," Harry says with a nod, stroking Louis' cheekbone with his fingers. "Happy birthday, darling." His eyes linger on Louis' face as it dawns on him that this is going to be Louis' last birthday and he can the lump forming in his throat, but that thought makes him sad and he doesn't want to be sad on Louis' birthday, so he pushes the thought away and turns his attention to the sweet little thing in front of him, all curled up in fleece blankets, looking like a sleepy little child, hair sticking out in all directions. "What color are you today?"

Louis brushes his chapped lips together, contemplating this. "Green," he says finally, but with an upward inflection like he's just looking for whatever is going to make Harry happy.

"Are you sure, babe?" Harry asks, brow furrowing in concern.

"'M sure," Louis says simply, wrinkling his nose and narrowing his eyes as if to say, How dare you doubt me

Harry's mind drifts back to Louis' last birthday, where he'd woken up to a very squirmy and happy Louis, who had, upon learning Harry was awake, whispered excitedly in his ear, "Guess whose birthday it is? Mine! Guess who said they'd make me chocolate chip pancakes? You did!" and spent a good ten minutes trying to drag a very sleepy Harry out of bed. They'd wound up on the floor, Harry pressing happy birthday kisses to Louis' mouth, the column of his throat and his sternum before eating him out in the wintry sunshine pouring in through the window.

Harry knows Louis is a little too fragile at the moment for that kind of roughhousing, but it doesn't keep him from pressing soft kisses to Louis' mouth, both of his cheeks, the tip of his nose, whispering, "Love you, love you, love you," over and over again.

"Love you, too," Louis answers, voice bright and clear and, yeah. It's a green day.

 

 

They spend Louis' birthday tangled up on the couch watching Christmas specials, all of Louis' favorites. Harry bakes gingerbread cookies. Louis won't eat any, he can't, but he likes the smell and he likes watching Harry bake, so. 

"Got you a present." Harry tells him later that night, pulling off his shirt and closing his fingers around the object in his hand. 

Louis' mouth pops open a little, cheeks turning bright red and Harry doubles over with laughter. "Oh, sweetheart," he chuckles, fingers smoothing Louis' fringe out of the way. "Not like that. Here, look," he explains, turning around and pointing to the inking on the back of his neck.

Louis frowns, looking confused at the sloping black lines. It's okay, though - Harry expected him to be confused. 

"This," Harry says, clearing his throat and taking Louis' hand to press it to the tattoo, the one that still stings a little, being so new, "is your heartbeat."

Louis' frown gradually dissipates and he blinks at Harry, staring for a long time and his eyes are getting really, really glassy and oh, he's going to cry and Harry leans down to peck his lips and nose at his jaw, murmuring, "Baby, don't cry. Don't be sad."

"'M not sad," Louis says at once, voice sharp. "'M happy." 

And, fuck. Now Harry's crying, too. He can't keep the stupid, happy grin off his face as he holds out the silver chain in the palm of his hand. Louis peers at it curiously, wiping at his eyes furiously with the back of his hand.

Hanging from the silver chain is a tiny silver paper airplane and, next to that, a circle with another set of curving lines, sloping like mountains. "And this," Harry says, gently slipping the chain over Louis' head, "is my heartbeat."

"Oh," Louis says softly, fingers reaching to touch the charms, now lying snugly against his chest. 

"Do you like it?" Harry asks hopefully, and he barely has time to register what's happening before Louis is launching himself at him, and they're a tangle of limbs and tears and Louis is crying, "Yes, yes, love it, love you, thank you thank you thank you."

Harry's heart swells. With Louis in his arms, he feels like he can do anything.

 

 

They fuck, because Louis is feeling better than he has in a long time and he's begging for it, grinding down on Harry's crotch and tugging at his shirt, pressing his face into Harry's chest and whimpering desperately. The charms hanging from his neck make a soft jingling sound, like sleigh bells.

So, Harry gives in after making Louis promise to please tell me to stop if you get too tired.

"So pretty," Harry murmurs, hands running through the hair at the base of Louis' scalp, soft and thin and he feels like he's going to go insane if he can't touch Louis one more time. "You're so pretty, baby. Always so pretty for me. Love you so much."

Harry knows he's saying too much, too fast for Louis to completely understand, but Louis doesn't seem to mind. He just arches up into Harry's touch, whimpering, "Yes, yes, more." 

Harry feels an ache deep in his heart, because here, propped up above Louis who's squirming and writhing beneath him, gasping sharply when Harry bites at his lip and tilting his head back to expose his throat to Harry like he's just begging for mark him up, it feels like everything might be okay. Or, at the very least, he can pretend. 

Louis' been so tired lately, but tonight he's got enough to wrap his arms around Harry's neck, holding himself up while Harry thrusts into him a little too roughly, nipping at his ear with his hand on his cock and it's all over so fast Harry wants to cry, collapsing back on the couch with Louis in his arms, all limp and warm and pliant.

"Happy birthday, baby," Harry mumbles, voice thick with exhaustion and he's too happy to feel anything else right now. "Love you. Love you so much." Louis just hums, nuzzling at Harry's chest with his nose and closing his eyes. 

They fall asleep on the couch, basking in the warm glow of Christmas tree lights and the sound of Frank Sinatra singing have yourself a merry little Christmas.

 

 

Christmas is a red day. Harry's heart is in his throat the entire fifteen minutes it takes to get Louis to respond to him, thinking about how he's so used to Louis crawling all over him and squealing, "It's Christmas, it's Christmas, Harry, come on, get up!"

Louis is so weak, is the thing, and Harry wonders if their endeavors the previous night tired him out even more. Probably. His stomach is in knots the entire time, as he makes the Facetime call to Jay and the girls, who unfortunately cannot make it due to the dreadful snow pileup but promise they'll be by to visit before New Year's. Please hurry, Harry thinks but doesn't say anything. Louis can barely say anything, either, and his sisters don't understand this which just makes them talk faster, more overexcited and Louis looks so overwhelmed Harry thinks he might cry.

They spend their Christmas day lying on the couch, watching more Christmas specials. Louis sleeps through most of them. Harry sings Christmas tunes to him all afternoon, but he knows most of them are lost on Louis, who drifts in and out of consciousness every half hour or so.

Harry is a little disappointed - well, he's a lot disappointed, actually, but he doesn't want to admit it to himself because frankly, it sounds a bit selfish.

He just wished their last Christmas together would be happier, is all. 

 

 

Last year, they spent New Year's Eve drunk off their asses, hiding in the dark corners, anywhere out of sight to cop a quick feel and when it struck midnight they had crashed their glasses together and Louis had mumbled, "To another lovely year with my favorite boy."

"The fourth New Year's we've spent together," Harry had laughed, pressing a sloppy, drunk kiss to Louis' chin. "The fourth of many, many more to come."

This year, they spend it in their flat in almost complete silence. The other boys are here, too, and Sophia, because they can't just not invite her. For Christ's sake, she's got Liam absolutely whipped. They're all squished together on the couch, Louis resting across all of their laps and it's nice, having them all here for this. 

They're all touching him in some way - Liam's got his arms crossed over Louis' ankles, Zayn is fiddling with the hem of his sweater and tracing little patterns onto Louis' hipbone that make the smaller boy giggle and swat his hand away. Niall has one of Louis' hands in his own, playing with his fingers and periodically making him flip Harry the bird. And Louis' head is in Harry's lap, with Harry carding his hand gently through his hair, grinning sheepishly whenever Louis gets tired and presses his face into Harry's stomach, just to the left of his butterfly tattoo. 

When the clock strikes midnight they all cheer, Liam pulling Sophia in for a kiss and Niall trying to hug everyone at once. Louis sits up slowly, blinking at Harry, confused.

"It's New Year's, baby," Harry whispers, grinning and pressing their foreheads together. "Happy New Year, Lou. I lo-"

But Louis' lips cut him off, hot and insistent, before he can finish.

 

 

Besides Harry, Zayn is Louis' favorite.

He loves Niall and Liam, he does, but it feels like they're always too wound up, even when they're gentle, and on anything that isn't a Very Good Day it's hard for Louis to deal with.

Zayn, though, he loves, and he's the only non-family member besides Harry he can see on yellow days (red days are for Harry and Harry only, and sometimes not even then - mostly he just shuts down and when he's awake he stares at the wall like Harry isn't even in the room.)

Zayn is gentle and sweet, always greeting Louis with a, "Hey, babes." There's a lot of cuddling involved but Zayn tells him stories, too, murmuring remember when... and not getting frustrated when Louis doesn't, which is often. Harry can't help but feel a twinge of jealousy, because he's read about glioblastoma patients pushing close friends and family away if they feel their business with them is done, and Harry is terrified that one day Louis is going to decide he's just done with Harry.

The doctors assure him that it's very unlikely - Harry is his primary caregiver, his lover, his best friend. He will, most likely, continue to identify Harry until the very end.

But Zayn doesn't treat Louis like he's dying, and hard as he tries Harry just can't do that.

 

 

Two weeks, three days and four hours into the New Year, Louis has another seizure. It's worse, because Harry witnesses the whole thing, pressing desperate kisses to Louis' forehead as he begs him, "Just keep breathing, c'mon, darling, I've got you, stay with me a little longer," after it's over and Louis is crying and delirious.

Up until now, Harry's always seen a little spark of hope in Louis' eye, but when Louis reaches out to him from his hospital bed, tucking his face into Harry's arm and begs, "Please just take me home. Please, Harry, just wanna go home," Harry can almost see the light in his eyes go out, burning and flickering like a candle before collapsing into ash and smoke. 

 

 

He doesn't leave Louis alone anymore after that. Mostly he's with him, but if he's not it has to be someone he trusts. One of the other boys, if it's a shorter period of time. Or Jay. Nobody else, though, and even with the aforementioned people Harry feels waves of panic washing over him the entire time he's out, from the second he walks out the door to the second he gets to see Louis' face again. 

Louis gets sad when he leaves. Harry does too, but he has arrangements to make, hospital bills to pay, doctors to question, so he picks up the charms hanging from the silver chain around Louis' neck and kisses them.

"Now my love will be with you even when I'm not, and it'll keep you warm until I'm back," he promises. Louis nods, believing every word.

And when Harry is out and worried, mind always chanting Louis Louis Louis is Louis okay is he awake or asleep is he eating is he happy does he miss me, he presses his fingers to Louis' heartbeat on his neck.

It's not a perfect solution, but it helps.

 

 

"How is he?" is the first thing out of Harry's mouth after he's said hello to Niall, making a beeline for the chair where Louis is curled up like a cat, presumably asleep and crouching down in front of him.

"He's been out of it for a little over an hour," Niall says sadly, fingers brushing along Louis' arm doing nothing to rouse him. "Good until then, though. We watched Step Brothers and cuddled a bit. I told him I wouldn't tell you about the kissing if he didn't." Niall grins cheekily, holding up his hands defensively, as if to say, just kidding, please don't kill me. "He kept talking about you before, though. Think he wanted you."

"'Course he wants me," Harry says, cupping Louis' cheeks. "I'm his favorite. Right, sweetheart?"

Louis makes a soft, pathetic whining noise as he peeks out at Harry through his lashes, nuzzling into Harry's hand like a kitten.

"Hey, darling," Harry greets him, kneeling down because it's easier for Louis to concentrate if Harry is level with him. Louis' eyes are glassy, and he wipes absently at his nose with the sleeve of his jumper.

"Do I get a goodbye hug?" Niall teases as he gets up to go, looking fairly flustered when Louis laughs and tugs him down and wraps his arms around him, planting a friendly kiss on his cheek. "Bye, Lou." He gives Harry a hug on the way out, giving him the standard, Call me if you need anything.

When Harry returns to where Louis is sitting, Louis looks like he's about to cry, lower lip trembling and Harry wonders absently if he was feeling like this the entire time he was gone, just holding it in.

"Harry," Louis whispers, sounding raspy and sad and Harry makes a mental note not to leave the room until Louis is feeling okay again. 

"Yeah, babe. I'm here." Harry frowns, examining Louis' eyes carefully to make sure he's actually here. "I think you're yellow right now. Is that right?"

Louis nods once. "Sad," he whimpers before burying his face in Harry's arm, and Harry scoops him up, pulling the blankets off the chair before he sits down with Louis in his lap, arranging the blankets around him neatly. 

"Why are you sad?" Harry asks, fully prepared to get nothing in response. Louis is like that lately; unable to fathom how, why, even what.

So he's more than a little surprised when Louis blinks at him and mumbles, "Missed you." He's fidgeting with the necklace Harry got him for his birthday, holding it so tight like he's scared it's going to disappear.

Harry's heart is truly in his throat now. "Oh, baby," he croons, pressing a kiss to Louis' forehead. He can't stop kissing him nowadays, can't stop touching him, can't stop assuring Louis that he loves, loves, loves him to the moon and back. "Missed you, too. Missed you more, in fact. Way more." 

Louis bites his lip and shakes his head. "Not possible."

It's the most responsive he's been in a few days, and Harry wants to take full advantage of it. "Are you hungry?"

Louis shakes his head. Harry sighs. Good things never did come easy. 

"Okay, let's try this again. If I make soup, will you try to eat some?"

Louis nods this time, pursing his lips and gazing absently at the wall. Eating is hard, lately - he's never ever hungry and always so, so tired and the doctors have told Harry this is normal as time goes on, which Harry knows is code for as we get closer to the end but it's still terrifying, watching Louis look like he's going to waste away into nothingness.

Louis manages several spoonfuls of soup that night, snuggled up with Harry in bed while they watch Anchorman. Louis falls asleep halfway through, breathing soft and even but Harry keeps his ear pressed to his chest the entire night long, eventually drifting off to the even lull of Louis' heart, the same one that's inked into the back of his neck. It's a good night.

It's one of the last good nights he'll have.

 

 

Harry likes sing to him, likes to tell Louis stories. Louis likes being read to, but he likes it more when Harry just talks, because his voice is always quiet and he never speaks too fast for Louis to understand. Mostly, though, Louis just likes to listen, and it's weird because Louis is usually the one talking, filling the room with his presence but things are different now and Harry gets that and it's good. It's okay.

"Do you remember these?" Harry asks him one morning, fingers brushing against Louis' rope tattoo as he moves to point to the anchor on his own wrist.

Louis purses his lips, eyes narrowing and tongue poking out a little as he concentrates, trying to find the memory from wherever it's buried deep in his brain. Finally, with a look of hopelessness and defeat, he shakes his head, eyes getting glassier by the minute.

"It's okay," Harry assures him quickly, stroking his cheek, even though it feels like. "Just means that I'm your anchor. Just like you're the compass that guides me," he explains slowly, pressing his fingers gently to Louis' compass. Louis gazes at it curiously, as if he doesn't even know how it got there. He looks frustrated when he gazes up at Harry, glassy eyes seeming to say I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I can't remember, I'm so so so sorry.

Harry just holds him close and whispers, "It's okay. It's okay, Lou. It's just a bunch of ink, anyway. What's important is that I love you, okay, and you love me too, right?"

Louis nods quickly, pressing his cold palm to Harry's chest. Of course I love you, the gesture says. Harry kisses his cold little nose and lets him rest, waiting until he's sure Louis is asleep to let his face relax and crumble.

He really doesn't want Louis to see him cry.

 

 

Harry knows it's coming. It's been coming for a long time and frankly, he's gotten more time with Louis than he ever thought he'd get since the day he was diagnosed, and he should be grateful but instead he's just angry, angry because he doesn't want to lose Louis and angry because Louis can't remember a damn thing anymore and one of these days he's going to wake up and forgot Harry's name and that's going to be it, Harry thinks. That's going to be the last straw, and he can't deal with Louis dying not knowing who he is, not remembering every detail, every night they've spent tangled up together, every morning making heart eyes at each other over breakfast, every show with adrenaline pumping through their veins and love in their hearts, and.

Fuck. Harry can't do this. Fuck. 

 

 

Louis is alive on Harry's birthday. Harry can't believe it, and he sort of feels like the luckiest person on the planet.

"Didn't...didn't get you anything," Louis says sadly, clutching the paper airplane and heartbeat charms tightly to his chest. His eyes are apologetic and almost embarrassed.

Harry almost crushes him with his hug, whispering, "You're here. You're here with me, Lou. That's the best present I could've ever asked for."

And it is.  

 

 

Louis' eyelashes flutter. He thought he was tired, and he was. But this time, sleep doesn't take him immediately. It's strange. 

Harry's voice catches him off guard - it sounds harsh and broken and tired. He's not used to hearing Harry like that. Peeking out through his lashes he spots Harry sitting in the corner of the room, face illuminated in the dim light of the desk lamp, phone pressed to his ear, head down.

"Fuck, I don't know. He's getting really bad. Like, worse than usual. He's having a lot of trouble understanding the things I'm saying and he won't eat or drink anything. Fuck, it could be tonight. It's like he's just barely hanging in there." A pregnant pause, then, "Fuck, no. I'm not ready. I'm really not. I'm scared to sleep, because I don't want to...miss it. I'm scared that I'm gonna doze off and when I wake up he's going to be gone. I don't want him to be...like, alone. When it happens, you know? Just want him to be okay."

It's certainly not a conversation he would be having if he knew Louis were awake, and somehow that just makes it even worse.

He doesn't want to die, except that he does.

But the thought makes him sad, so he just rolls over and squeezes his leaking eyes shut tight tight tight, brain imploding and exploding over and over again and he just wants it to be over. 

He hopes Harry can sleep tonight. 

 

 

They're on the couch, watching Big Brother reruns as hour-old, half empty cups of tea sit on the coffee table in front of them, cold and abandoned. Louis is curled in Harry's lap, head pillowed by Harry's chest and the big blue fleece blanket he's cocooned in. Neither of them are watching the tv, not really - Louis is drifting in and out periodically, long eyelashes fluttering against the blanket. He's so tired. Harry is watching him more than anything else, one of Louis' tiny hands in his larger ones, smoothing along his skin and cupping it in hopes of providing some kind of warmth.

"Harry," he mumbles, or at least he does in his head. Harry's eyes are still trained on the window, and it's then that Louis knows that the words never actually left his mouth. Frustrated, he tugs gently on Harry's shirt, and that definitely works because all at once Harry's full attention is on him, fingers pressing against his forehead, smoothing his hair back, cupping his jaw. 

"Hey, boo," he says, enunciating each word so as to make it easier for Louis to understand. He widens his eyes a little and tilts his head, as if to ask, what's up?

Louis closes his eyes again, presses his lips together, searching the mess inside his head for the words. It doesn't take as long as it normally does. A final stroke of luck, perhaps. "Just..." he starts, fingers curling tighter around the fabric of Harry's shirt, head throbbing as he struggles to speak. "Love you." The words are slurred together and very, very quiet, but he can tell from the look on Harry's face that he understands. Weakly, he tips his head up towards Harry and Harry does the rest, pressing his trembling hands to Louis' clammy cheeks and whispering words to him that he doesn't understand, noses brushing and he blinks wearily, trying to muster up a smile of sorts but Harry just chokes out a sob and slots their mouths together.

It feels like home.

The relief he feels, though, after he finally spits out the words is the nicest thing he's felt in months, and he lets his eyes slip shut again with Harry's lips still on his. This is it, this is it, this is it, his mind chants. It's so comforting he almost doesn't feel Harry go rigid beneath him. Almost. Harry is talking, now, but there are too many words, too quick and frantic and Louis is too tired to even try to figure out what they mean. It feels like he's falling down the rabbit hole, the world around him growing darker and darker and it's too exhausting to try to pull himself out even with Harry's help. He just wants to sleep.

Home, he thinks, pressing his face into Harry's chest and breathing in deep. Home.

 

 

It doesn't end with a bang like Harry has been preparing for. It's a whimper and a soft, breathy sigh, Louis' frail chest rising once, twice, three times more and then everything is still, like the earth has stop turning on its axis. 

Somehow, knowing it's coming doesn't make it any less painful. If anything, it makes it worse - like every place Louis has ever touched him is burning, flames licking hungrily at his blistering skin.

It takes him a long, long time to move, and even longer to get himself untangled from Louis because he's trying to be careful. So, so careful - don't wake Louis, don't wake Louis he thinks. His fingers shake as he dials the number - he's got it memorized at this point, he's been ready for weeks - and his voice cracks a little as he explains the situation to the operator.

Louis looks okay, at least - less tired, mouth slack. He looks like a kid again. Harry hopes he's not hurting anymore.

When the paramedics finally come, Harry is running his shaking fingers through Louis' hair, just the way he likes - liked, he reminds himself, feeling another shard of his sanity crumble to the carpet - and it almost feels like normal. Almost.

After they take him away, Harry sits on the edge of the couch, shaking hard and clutching at his knees as it sinks all the way into his very core that he's never going to see Louis ever again and he's put his fist through the drywall before his reason can catch up.

 

 

It's not until two weeks later when he wakes up cold and alone in bed that he remembers the note. The fucking letter.

He nearly dies tripping over his own feet on his way to the dresser, yanking out the envelope and clutching it to his chest desperately, head tilted towards the ceiling and for the first time since Louis died he feels something. Not a good something, but something nonetheless.

His hands are shaking so badly. He's scared to even look at it, scared because this is the last piece of Louis he has. That's untrue, really, because he has all Louis' clothes and pictures and his phone and his everything, but somehow this feels like it, the final nail in the coffin.

Harry's dry expression makes way for a choking sob as his eyes land on the front of the envelope - two crudely drawn stick figure boys, holding hands with a lopsided heart in between them, H + L forever!!!!!!!! scribbled in its center. Next to it is what appears to be the two said stick figures engaging in what Harry can only assume is anal sex and he can't decided whether to laugh or cry harder. Maybe both. 

Before he can remove the contents of the envelope, the doorbell rings.

It takes him a long time to make his way to the door, but when he finally is able to open it after flipping all the locks with shaking fingers, Harry is surprised to find Zayn, Niall and Liam standing there, all with their left sleeves rolled up, grinning like mad and Harry wants to punch them for looking genuinely happy. He can barely remember what a smile feels like on his mouth, what it's like to not have a weight hanging heavy on his heart every second, like if he tries to just breathe for a second it's going to crush him. 

What's so great? he wants to ask, doesn't. When they hold out their arms for him, he gets his answer.

Tattooed on each of their wrists is a tiny L

 

 

It takes Harry a full ten minutes with his face buried in Liam's neck to stop crying and invite them inside. They all sit awkwardly in the sitting room, like they're not quite sure how to function without Louis. Harry understands all too well.

"D'you want us to stay?" Zayn asks in a low, level voice, like he's trying not to scare off a baby deer.

"Yeah," he says quietly, head still wrapping itself around the fact that Louis' note is in his pocket and he hasn't read it yet. "Gotta take a piss first, though."

When he's finally in the bathroom he slams the door shut and presses his back against it, heart going a million miles a minute and he's scared that any second now it's going to just stop.

With shaking fingers, he pulls it from his pocket and slips it from the envelope, unfolding it and smoothing it against his leg. Something small and square slips out - Harry leans down to grab it, lips quirking up the tiniest bit at the picture. It's one he's never seen before, probably something recent from Louis' phone. In it, they're in bed, Harry's chin resting on Louis' chest, lips pressed fondly to his collarbone and Louis is holding the camera out and grinning, all shaggy dark hair and tanned skin and bright eyes and Harry knows at once it's how Louis would want to be remembered. 

Harry,

I'm writing this while you're downstairs washing the dishes and I'm curled up in bed. Our bed. I don't like the thought of leaving it to just be yours - I've always been a greedy bastard, haven't I?

I don't know if you're reading this while I'm still here or if I'm already gone, but I kinda hope it's the latter because the other is just too embarrassing. 

I'm really scared, Harry. And I know you're scared too but I am really, really fucking scared, and the intention of this letter wasn't to make you feel bad or anything but it just dawned on me that I'm writing a letter for you to have after I die, which is going to be soon, I think. And that's scary. But the scariest part isn't dying, exactly. It's leaving you behind. Don't wanna leave you behind to fend for yourself.

I have to say this now, though, because it's too hard to talk to you about in person. Try to move on? Like, I'm not asking you to go out and get laid the second they've lowered my casket into the ground, but. Just don't stay in bed for weeks on end. Or do, if that's going to help. Just make sure to eat and shower and feed Bruce. Don't do anything stupid. Keep in contact with the boys. They love you, you know.  

Before I forget - go give Bruce a cuddle for me, because I love him, too.

You said I was brave, but you're the bravest person I know. I love you, I love you, I love you. I've loved you since the day I met you and I will love you until I die and maybe even after, if there is an after, you know, besides rotting in the ground with maggots crawling out of my eye sockets. Is that too much? Sorry, got a little carried away.

It's just, I can't stop thinking about dying. I'm not scared, except that I am, but I'm curious, because what's after that? Peter Pan was always going off about how dying must be the biggest adventure of all, but I'm not so sure. What if there isn't an after? What then? 

You probably expected this to be some horribly sentimental letter with me expressing my undying love for you, which it will be, but not yet. Oh, and now you just walked in on me writing this. Nice. I'll have to continue again later.

Okay. So it's morning now and I'm going to finish this dumb thing. You're not wearing a shirt and I can see all your dumb tattoos. Here's a secret: I'll tease you for it till my dying day, but the butterfly tattoo is one of my favorites. You look hot, by the way. You're making breakfast. Egg on toast. My favorite. I hope you don't get offended if I don't eat much of it - it's nothing against your cooking, love, I promise. Dying just makes doing other basic things kind of hard. I don't want to die. At least, I think I don't.

I'm gonna miss you so much, though, and you know what? Fuck it, even if there is no after, I'm going to miss you. I'm going to miss you forever and ever and ever and now I'm really kind of sad, because I don't want you to throw your life away after I'm gone.

I love you. I love you. I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you  I love you I LOVE YOU I want to wrap you in a blanket made out of my love. Here, I made you this sweater. It's made out of my tears. Haha! I hope you get the reference. If you don't, my love for you just decreased a little bit. Don't worry. I still love you so much it feels like I'm going to explode with it sometimes. Can't handle how much I love you, didn't know I could love someone this much. 

Thank you. Thank you for changing my life, for teaching me how to love myself and being there for me when I was at my best and my worst. Thank you for putting up with me, thank you for moving in with me, thank you for making me egg on toast every morning, thank you for coming into my life. Thank you for being my home away from home since day one. Thank you for being someone I can trust, someone I can love unconditionally, and someone who loves me unconditionally in return. Because of you, I believe in soulmates. I might guide you, but you keep me anchored. God. We really are a couple of saps, aren't we?

I hope you and the other lads make more music sometime. I know you said you wouldn't without me, but I wouldn't be offended. I hope you sell a million more albums and then some, I hope you go on tour again because I know how much you all love performing, and I hope it reminds you of me. In a good way. Everything reminds me of you. 

If you do fall in love again, as many people do, just do me one favor. Don't let it be Nick. That's literally all I'm asking.

Also, don't cut your hair. Ever. Or do, if that makes you happy. Just want you to be happy. Want you to smile, Harry.  You're a good person, a really good one. You can do a lot of good things for some good people, Harry. You can move mountains, still the seas, change lives. I hope you take advantage of that. 

Maybe I'll see you again, in another life or something, where I'm the waves and you're the shoreline. There's some sappy quote about that, but I can't quite remember it. Look it up, you lazy bum. Maybe I'll see you again, when I've disintegrated and become part of the stars and you have, too, but even then I hope it's not for a long, long time, after you've lived your life in full and traveled and experience everything all over again and then some. After you've become a father and a grandfather and maybe even a great grandfather, with all that dumb health food you like. After you've seen all you've wanted to see and done everything you've ever wished to do and made number one on People's 'Sexiest Men Alive' list. 

I can't wait to hear all about it.

Always in my heart, Styles.

Yours sincerely,

Louis

Harry's not crying, except he is, and he's sad and aching but he's so, so fucking happy. 

Opening the door, he steps out into the hallway. From downstairs, he can hear Niall laughing ridiculously at something and Liam shushing him, Zayn groaning in defeat, the sounds drifting up the stairs and curling around him, dragging him closer. It feels a little like home. A new beginning.

Harry presses his fingers sharply into the imprint of Louis' heartbeat on the back of his neck - like Louis, out of sight but never out of mind. 

With Louis' letter tucked safely in his pocket, Harry turns his face towards the sun and heads downstairs.