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i think i love you better now

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It's the night they win their first Grammy, and they all get appropriately and spectacularly drunk, especially Louis. And it's Harry who has to drag him back to their hotel suite and deposit him inside, turning to lock the door again while he falls over furniture in the dark and giggles every time he does and rambles on about all kinds of things that don't make sense like how they should fly to Vegas and get married.

"I meant it, you know," he says when Harry finally turns on the lights and he stumbles over to drop onto the couch with a groan.

"Meant what?" Harry asks.

"Back on the X Factor, when I said I'd marry you."

"What? Louis…" He's not really paying attention, loosening his bowtie at the same time.

"I mean, you'd be a great husband. I can see it. You'd make me breakfast and give me foot massages and clean up after me…"

"I do all of that already," Harry points out, eyebrows raised.

"See? Exactly. We're practically married already."

Sometimes Harry thinks of himself as more like the parent of an unruly ten year old, only bigger and hence, even messier. But he can see the similarities, he guesses. Although it's always been hard to define his and Louis' relationship. Hard to put a word on it. So he's never really tried.

"So, what's your point?"

"We should get married."

"I feel like your girlfriend might have something to say about that."

"No, I don't mean now," he says, looking at Harry like he's an idiot, which he feels particularly insulted by at that exact moment because Louis is the one making absolutely no sense (or less sense than he usually does, anyway). "I mean, like, ten years from now. If we're not already married."

"Are you serious?" He's not sure if he really should be asking, because if it's a joke, Louis would take the piss out of him forever for falling for it. And if it's not…if it's not, maybe he should know that without having to ask.

"Yeah, Harry, I'm dead serious." And he sounds like he means it completely. His moments of true earnestness are rare enough that Harry can always detect them.

"Oh, okay then." His composure is more out of suppressed shock than anything else.

"You'll do it?" He looks at him expectantly, blinking a few times, almost out of surprise.

Harry nods, and he smiles properly.

"So do we seal it in blood or…?"

*

When he wakes up, with the worst headache of all time, Twitter's apparently exploding.

Because Louis had drunk-tweeted: Harry and I made a marriage pact :)

When he goes outside and finds him sitting on the couch, Louis just shrugs, says, "So what exactly happened last night?"

Harry just stares at him before he says, "No idea."

*

It's quickly forgotten. They've tweeted enough ridiculous things that everyone thinks it's just another innocent joke. Even Eleanor calls Louis to tell him she thinks it's hilarious.

Niall doesn't let it go for a while, because it's what he does. Liam just rolls his eyes when he sees them, and Louis shrugs at him, like he's been doing every time it's brought up (and it's strange, that he hasn't said more about it, because it's Louis and he thinks everything he does is a riot even the things he can't remember doing). Zayn gets his casually-annoyed look, the one he gets when he's thinking everyone in the world are idiots, particular the people he had the misfortune to be in a band with.

Harry doesn't say much about it either, but he remembers everything.

*

And it probably wouldn't matter at all, but then it's ten years later, and neither of them are in a relationship.

Harry thinks about it a lot, in the weeks leading up to his thirtieth birthday. (And maybe they hadn't sealed in it blood, but after all the action had died down, Harry had found the pants he was wearing that night and in the pocket was a slip of paper with both their signatures scribbled on it along with some other words he can't really make out (even if they are in his handwriting). And maybe he's kept it in his wallet for a decade, along with a picture of his mum, and the band back in Spain, and one of them holding a golden gramophone, and one of him and Louis alone the first day in their flat.)

He thinks about that too, that he's thirty years old, and all of this started nearly fifteen years ago. It's not that there weren't important things before that too, but maybe his life really started with an audition, and four other people in the same position, and maybe a boy with blue eyes and a really nice smile who asked for his autograph.

It started with him, and it ended with him. With them.

*

When the band splits up, it's hard to figure out who he even is without them, much less what to do.

They go back to the bungalow, and it feels wrong somehow, like some terribly clichéd movie or something, trying to force symmetry. A symmetry that shouldn't exist. Because they started here, they became One Direction here, and it feels like they're tainting those memories. Because it wasn't supposed to happen. Not like this. Not at all.

It's Louis, and maybe he should resent him for that, but he doesn't, because he knows that someone had to, he knows it was the right time, and he knows Louis would rather he be the bad guy instead of one of them. It's his way of protecting them. The way he always has. So they won't have to feel that guilt.

And Liam was threatening too (he's married now, expecting a baby, and it's hard being away so much), but Louis had just looked at him, as if to tell him that it didn't have to fall on him, like everything else had, that he was absolved of this last responsibility.

It's not really that much of a big deal, looking back. Louis had just casually brought up that he's been offered some TV presenting job, that he's been thinking about maybe doing some acting again. It's as amicable as these things ever go.

Because they have plans, and they have exciting prospects in all of their futures. Louis with his TV gig, Liam with his family and probably a solo career, Zayn's been getting attention from the R&B scene for ages, Niall…can do whatever he wants, really, because people love Niall and they'll support him no matter what.

Harry…Harry's sort of less certain. And maybe that should be surprising, given his confidence, on stage and in the spotlight for years, how well he's always handled everything thrown at them, but he's always had four other people around him, to give him that confidence. He's always had them relying on him, and maybe that gave him an extra boost, to do better, to be better, for them. Because he wanted to make them proud. He wanted to make Louis proud.

And now he's all alone in this strange, new world. And there's no one spurring him on but himself. No one to believe in him. And for the first time, he thinks maybe he's not strong enough.

He feels like the last few years should have prepared him for this (his life should have), but he only lets himself down.

*

It was tough, at first, but things are finally looking up. Critics have been responding well to his new band's album and they're appealing to One Direction fans, who have grown with them and their sound, and a whole new audience as well. He's really happy with the music they're making and he thinks it shows. He thinks he's happier in general now.

Louis texts him, asking for tickets to his show, prefaced by, "Hey, it's Louis. We were in a band for eight years? You probably don't remember me, seeing as you're a huge fucking rockstar now."

He smiles, and thinks, yeah, he's definitely happier.

*

He invites them all to his birthday party, tells them to clear their schedules, make sure they're in London, because they see way too little of each other these days.

It's a pretty intimate affair, especially considering the wild parties the tabloids write about him throwing all the time. Maybe they've caught on to something real, though, under all the sensationalisation. Because he's hasn't had a relationship in a long time, he hasn't been home in ages, doesn't see a lot of his friends who aren't in the music business, and yeah, maybe he's been throwing himself into his work a little too much. Maybe that's how this whole life works; if you put enough into the music, you don't need to feel anything otherwise. And maybe it's been hard to hold on to anything else for a long while. Maybe it's not worth it.

And he's okay with that, for the most part.

*

Liam leaves early, because it's a school night, he says, apologetically. And that's kind of ridiculous, and they'd make fun of him, but it's kind of a reverent thing at the same time, because they grew up together and they're seeing the results of that right in front of them. Niall has a flight in the morning so he's gone pretty soon after, too.

Zayn sticks around for a while, nursing a beer, and just silently nodding in agreement with whatever Harry and Louis are talking about.

He gives them a strange look when he finally leaves them alone, like he's experiencing déjà vu. Like he's seeing other people in their place, other versions of them maybe, in some other time, some other place. Maybe he thinks they've changed a lot, or haven't changed at all. Maybe he's wondering something he has a million times before, but never said out loud.

Harry thinks he's about to, but he just says, "We should do this again soon," with a knowing smile.

*

Harry has his own case of déjà vu when he and Louis are cleaning up after.

"Are you staying?" Harry says when they sit down on the couch again. It's not really a question, just some mild curiosity.

"I don't know, maybe." He gives a long yawn then, negating his vague response.

"You can take the guest room," Harry says, grinning.

"Fuck, I've turned into an old man. Please promise to shoot me the minute I start going grey."

"Of course. I swear," Harry says, crossing his heart.

"Do you ever - do you ever think about it?" Louis says, his tone a little too serious.

"Think about what?" Harry says distractedly.

"Our pact."

"Oh, our marriage pact? Yeah, that was hilarious. Drove the fangirls mad," Harry answers cautiously.

"I found it, you know."

"Found what?" A part of him knows exactly what he's talking about. Has always known, maybe.

"Our contract. In your wallet."

"What -? How... And it's not a contract; it's two signatures on an old receipt."

"It was about a week after. I was paying for pizza, didn't have change," he says, and he's smiling. Maybe it's the alcohol (again) or maybe it's not. "You kept it. Do you still have it?"

Harry sighs, before reaching into his pocket, tugging out his wallet and opening it to retrieve the tiny piece of paper.

He lays it down on the coffee table in front of them carefully, like it's something precious.

"You said you didn't remember," he says quietly, looking at him.

"So did you," Louis says accusingly.

"You were drunk - I just thought -"

"I was drunk," Louis cuts him off. "I thought you were just humouring me."

"But you were serious," Harry finishes.

"Yeah. Yes."

"Oh."

"So, what about you? Did you mean it?"

"Louis, I carried that stupid thing around for ten years. What do you think?"

"That maybe you always gave me more credit than I deserved." He's smiling a little sadly, eyes trained downwards.

"Hey, I wouldn't have done any of this without you. We wouldn't -"

"I wouldn't be anything without you either," he confesses, looking up at him now.

Harry just stares right back, boldly, not afraid of letting Louis see every part of him for the first time.

"Why'd you break up with Eleanor?" Because he has to know, he just does, and Louis has always been so frustrating, the way he wouldn't talk about the things that mattered. It was a couple months after the whole marriage pact debacle, and he'd just said, ambiguous as always, "We've been drifting apart for ages, you know that. And she's probably finally tired of the whole ridiculous circus that is our lives." And that was it. He was back to Louis, smiling and joking and being ridiculous, practically the next day. It was almost like nothing had happened. Harry doesn't ever forget though, which is probably his curse to bear.

"Because..." He takes a deep breath before continuing. "Because I knew I couldn't ever really love her properly. And she didn't deserve that."

Louis hasn't really had a real relationship since that either. There were a couple guys, too, after the band had broken up and he'd come out as bisexual but none of them had stuck.

"How'd we end up here?" Harry says, but it's not regretful, just kind of dazed.

"I don't know," Louis says and laughs. "But I guess people never really know what's going to happen to them. No matter how much they plan it."

"I didn't ever plan anything. It all just happened."

"But...are you happy?" It's not the kind of question he ever asks, but he's always known what Harry needed better than anyone else too.

"Sometimes I think I am," Harry says honestly. "Other times...I feel like something's missing."

"Something like what?"

"Like...I don't know." But he does, and he doesn't know if he'll ever have another chance to say it, so he bites his lip and musters the kind of bravery he hasn't felt in years. "Like you, I guess."

Louis makes a sound like he's been holding his breath the entire time. Maybe he has.

"Are you...are you sure?"

"Yeah, yeah, I think - I don't know how to be complete without you." And that's it, that's what he's been struggling to figure out since he met Louis.

"Okay, okay, so we're doing this?" And he looks excited and anxious and so happy all at the same time. He can't stop smiling, and Harry smiles back, contentedly, at him.

Louis grabs both his hands, and his are kind of damp and they're maybe shaking a little, but Harry holds on to them firmly, trying to steady him, trying to steady them both. He feels like this is what he's been waiting for, this is him starting to live again, to be himself, to have everything he's always wanted.

"So, uh, are we just going to run off to Vegas or...?" Louis says, and he can't help flashing his trademark cheeky smile. And Harry just wants to kiss it off his face.

"I think our mums would kill us. Not to mention Niall."

Louis seems to suddenly realise something. "Zayn totally knew this was going to happen, didn't he? That omniscient fucker. He's totally not invited to the wedding."

Harry just laughs.

"How about we leave the wedding planning till the morning?"

"Okay, right."

Harry gets up then, still holding one of his hands.

"You coming?" he says, turning back to look at him.

"I just -" And he looks actually worried for the first time. "What if it doesn't work out?"

Harry considers it for a second, growing serious again.

"Then it doesn't work out. But at least we would've tried."

"Okay," Louis says, nodding.

He pulls himself to his feet, and they just look at each other, standing on the precipice of this huge, new thing, but feeling like they're teenagers again, staring into the unknown but feeling safe because they were doing it together.

Harry leans forward first to kiss him, chaste and soft, and it doesn't feel like the first time at all. It feels like the rest of their lives.