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The Same Ground

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It’s not as though Louis thought they were going to stay together, or anything. They’re only 18 years old, for fuck’s sake; he doesn’t even know what he’s going to do after graduation. Right now, there’s no such thing as a sure thing. The economy, or whatever.

He’d expected a breakup, but he figured it would be something easy, something that would leave them in a position to put it down for a few months and pick up where they left off when either of them was back in town for Christmas or for Thanksgiving or for the surprisingly popular Halloween parade that brought people back to Delmont each year. Louis had prepared himself for that.

What he hadn’t expected, and what he wished he’d prepared himself for, was catching Harry in a lie that involved too much alcohol and a drunk girl Louis had never seen before at a last-day-of-finals party on a school night. 

That night was bad for everyone, not just for the two of them, because the jungle juice didn’t taste like alcohol at all and people were playing beer pong with it, for fuck’s sake, and the motel room they’d rented out was trashed and the cops had come, too, around four in the morning, and they’d all had their names written down on a pad of paper. Louis had no idea what they’d do with their names. Probably nothing. At the time he’d been sobered up by seeing Harry’s flushed cheeks and the slightly amused look on his face when he realized that Louis had caught him.

It just didn’t seem right that a three year old friendship and a three week old actual relationship would be threatened in a motel room that reeked of beer, and that it would boil down to a girl whose name neither of them could remember. She deserved better than a sloppy kiss from his ex-boyfriend. Louis knew those kisses were still better than most people at their best, so that hadn’t nipped his jealousy. He was jealous. He’s still jealous.

They were official for three weeks. He lost count of how many times Harry had marveled at the way their relationship worked out. I’ve never had a boyfriend before. Or a girlfriend, he would say. How’s it feel to be the first?

At the time Louis had found it endearing; he’d been possessive over the title, even, knowing that he was the first and only to pin him down.

He was more than a conquest, though. He was Louis’ best friend. He was wealthier and taller, more magnetic and more confident than Louis imagined he’d ever be. They were inseparable.

“It’s fine,” he says the next morning. Harry stands before him looking dumbfounded and guilty and a little sweaty, probably because he just puked in a trashcan outside of the motel. “We were probably gonna break up anyway, weren’t we?”

“What?” His shock is palpable, but he tries to mask it when he sees Louis’ face and understands that he meant it. “I mean, I dunno, I hadn’t really thought about what would happen—“

“Okay,” Louis cuts him off, holding out his hand and starting to walk away. “So you haven’t thought about it at all? Not even once? Not even when you went with me to pick up my cap and fucking gown?”

“I wasn’t worried about it. That’s not why I did that last night, I honestly can’t even remember it—” 

“Well then it works out, doesn’t it? ‘Cause now we don’t need to talk about it.” Maybe he’s angrier than he realized. Maybe he’s just hungover.

People are starting to shuffle down the outdoor stairwell from the motel, fumbling for car keys, wondering aloud if McDonald’s is still doing breakfast. Louis feels uncomfortable when he realizes people might’ve heard them arguing, or that people might’ve seen Harry hooking up with someone else last night. He doesn’t want anyone to ask him about it, so he turns to leave because he’s not sure what else to do and they have nowhere to go. He knows without even hearing half of Harry’s explanation that he won’t believe it or won’t understand it and he’d just rather this be the end of the discussion.

He’s graduating in two days. There are things he has to deal with between then and now and none of them involve having it out with his ex-boyfriend, or whatever, in a parking lot at eight in the morning in front of 20 of his classmates.

“Guess I’ll see you later,” Louis says with a shrug. He wishes he had a car to drive off in, something more dramatic than walking around the corner and three blocks east to his own house.

It feels anticlimactic, if this is the end of their relationship. He walks away thinking that there has to be more to it than that and hoping without much hope that Harry will jog after him and present a solution to their problems.

Louis frowns when he feels his eyes stinging and keeps his head down on the walk home. 

Harry stops by on the morning of Louis’ graduation. It’s been two days since they’ve seen each other; two days since they broke up. 

“Do you think we’ll get back together?” Harry asks. He’s sitting on the edge of Louis’ bed with his ankles crossed. He looks concerned, but still relaxed. Louis doesn’t know if he’s ever seen him any other way. He looks young—sometimes Louis is reminded of just how young he is and how many more years he has before he has to deal with the things Louis is dealing with right now. He’s so safe in his cocoon of high school and the only thing he’ll need to worry about in the next few months is being on time for cross country practice and picking up hours at the ice cream stand.

“I don’t know. Do you think we should?”

“I want to. I mean, I know you’re leaving in August, but.” Harry shrugs. “Are you mad at me?”

Louis is leaning against his dresser, facing Harry, but he looks down at the question. He’s embarrassed about how mad he was and how jealous he still is. “I just thought it wasn’t like that,” he says to the floor. “I thought that’s why we said we were together.”

“I know, that’s why I feel so bad. You know I don’t ever want to hurt you.”

“You keep saying that, but you still did it.”

“I know, but like—I think you’re the most incredible person,” Harry says, all earnest now, so bright-eyed and honest. “I never really thought about having a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend. But I just want to be with you.”

Louis says nothing. He looks up at Harry again and wrinkles his nose, which is as good as an invitation. Harry stands up and walks toward him and rests his hands on his hips. It’s only been two days, but this already feels better.

“What about August?” Louis asks.

“What about August?”

“It’s when I leave,” he reminds him, “for school. Across the country.”

Harry shrugs. “Doesn’t matter right now, does it?” He kisses him and Louis tries not to smile. “I already told my mom you were coming with us to the cabin this summer.”

“You did?”

“Can you come?”

They’ve never talked about it before, but Louis already feels better because they have something to look forward to, and a week with Harry means a week where he won’t need to talk to his mom about college stuff and majors and buying twin-XL sheets. “Sure.”

“She’ll let us stay in the same room.” Harry waggles his eyebrows, brushes their lips together again. “She thinks we’re friends.”

— 

Harry’s the last person he says goodbye to on the day before he has to fly to Portland. This isn’t the way he wanted it—he wanted Harry to spend the day packing with him—but Harry had cross country practice and he comes over at 10:30 at night with a bag of McDonald’s.

“Do you mind if I eat this here?” He sits down in the middle of Louis’ bedroom floor and starts unpacking his dinner. “‘m starving.”

There’s something that infuriates Louis about watching him there, sitting cross-legged on the wood floor and eating dinner like this night is no different than any other night, like this isn’t the last night they have.

Louis lets him in eat in silence and then clears his throat.

Harry looks up, then around the room. There’s sauce from his Big Mac on the corner of his mouth. “Looks so empty in here.” 

“Feels weird.” Louis’ voice sounds small. He’s been on the verge of nervous tears all day. It hadn’t really hit him until this morning that he was leaving everything he’d ever known and somehow, in the midst of it all, leaving Harry seems less painful than leaving his creaky bed and his quiet street for a place he’s never been.

“Want a fry?” Harry shakes the red container, but drops it when he sees the look on Louis’ face. “Are you okay, dude?”

Louis clears his throat and frowns and shrugs. “Just nervous, I guess.”

“About that Niall guy?”

“No, not about him,” Louis says, scratching his cheek. Niall is his assigned roommate. He seems harmless and fun—the least of Louis’ worries.

A few minutes pass. Harry licks each one of his fingers and folds up the bag and places it in the trash bin and then walks over to the bed as if they have all the time in the world. He sits down next to Louis. “Can I stay over tonight?”

Louis just looks at him. “You weren’t even here all day.”

Harry kisses his shoulder. “So can I?”

— 

The next morning isn’t great. Louis is too anxious about the flight and the move and about finding his way to campus once he lands and about the myriad of new things he’s going to have to deal with later that day. Harry is a helping hand, moving heavy pieces of luggage into the trunk of the car, and they can’t steal a minute away from his mom, so their goodbye is just an unfulfilling hug. Later, Louis wishes he would’ve tried a little harder to get Harry alone.

It’s so dumb, but the thing Louis keeps thinking about after they break up is that they never really properly fucked.

Looking back now, he sees that it was the kind of bullshit thought only an 18 year old would have, because now when he remembers the two of them he thinks about Harry being bright-eyed and a good but messy kisser, and he thinks about how after he’d gone skiing with his family for five days Harry had been waiting in his bedroom for him and he’d kissed him without even saying hello first, and he thinks about how he saw Harry cry when he broke his arm after climbing a tree and how Harry hadn’t even been embarrassed about it, and how he’d accepted all of Louis’ condolences in a way that made Louis feel useful and important not just to Harry but in general. It made him want to help people. He really believed that he could be the one to keep Harry, if anyone could ever keep Harry.

He sees now that people weren’t to be kept, and that if anyone was meant to roam, it was Harry.

They didn’t even need to be in a relationship to have a really good relationship, which was why it took so long for them to come around to the idea of them being a real thing with a real title. What they had was real, so why did they need to slap a label on it?

Nothing really changed once they were boyfriends except that Harry wrote Louis a note one time and left it in his locker like they’d seen people doing in movies. It mostly talked about how bored he was in Physics, and at the end he tacked on a compliment, nonchalant, much like he did in real life: “You look super hot today. I wanted to attack you in front of Mr. Schultz. Are you going out for lunch? I think I want a tuna sandwich. Love YOU! - H”

The love thing wasn’t new. They’d been saying that for years. The only difference was that they stopped adding bro to the end of it.

He’ll miss his company. He’ll miss him showing up unannounced with a cup of over-sugared coffee from the convenience store. They had a routine, and it was the first semblance of a real relationship that Louis’ ever known. They built a world of their own within a world that was ruled by everyone else; their parents and teachers, even their siblings and daily responsibilities and mowing the lawn and folding the laundry and none of that mattered, did it, because at the end of it all there’d be a text from Harry and there’d be a promise that he’d come over and there’d be a million ways to get each other off, so many they hadn’t even tried before they broke up for good. ….

— 

September 2010

It’s difficult to gauge the importance and the impact of his relationship with Harry until he starts to date other people in the first wildly busy few weeks of college.

His freshman year is nothing like he’d expected it to be; it’s better and more relaxed and so easy to meet new people that all of his June-to-August nerves seem, in retrospect, completely ridiculous. There’s a sense of relief mixed in with the thrill of all of these new faces, then. That alone makes him more up for whatever, more willing to say yes every time his roommate asks him if he wants to go to yet another party.

And Niall makes it easy. Everyone knows him or knows of him, and more than that they genuinely really like him. Louis understands why. He’s the life of the party even when he’s sober and, with a phone full of contacts in fraternities and friends old enough to buy them booze, the best parties just don’t happen without him.

These parties are breeding grounds for hookups in dorm rooms that reek of beer. Every time Louis dares to hook up with someone, he’s interrupted by a roommate barging in to puke in the garbage can or to break them up, talking about how they had class the next morning and sending a red-faced Louis out of the room with a half-hard dick. 

In truth, he doesn’t really hook up with that many people, and none of the experiences are memorable enough to stick. Not until Luke. 

— 

May 2011

Louis flies home two days after his last final at the end of his freshman year of college. Luke is staying in Portland to work at his friend’s food truck until school starts back up again and Louis was promised a spot to crash if he decided to stay, too, but he didn’t. Spending summer anywhere other than Pittsburgh seems like sacrilege to him. Portland is beautiful in July, they all say, but Louis misses his mom and he misses the girls and he misses the grittiness of his hometown and its shiny-sided diners and its craggy hills and the lack of fancy coffee shops.

He needs to give himself a couple of months to miss the west coast. He imagines it’ll take much less than that for him to miss Luke.

Luke had promised to visit, anyway. Whether or not he’ll actually make his way to Pennsylvania from Portland is yet to be seen, but his family comes from the sort of money Louis can’t relate to, the sort where nothing is too difficult or impossible because they can afford to give Luke everything that he wants. And if he wants to see Louis in a few weeks, they’ll send him there. Luke promised him this.

“So are you still seeing that boy?” his mom asks carefully after two days at home, which is an impressive amount of time. 

Louis knows that Harry is home only because he sees him tagged in a photo on Instagram. He looks more or less the same, but the photo is dark and taken from a strange angle. 

Harry sends him a text after Louis has been home for eight days. He’d been sitting on the porch swing and listening to his sisters play in the front yard when his phone vibrated on his belly. He’s both surprised and not at all surprised to see that Harry has sent him a text first, and that it gets straight to the point:

Can you come over tonight? 

Louis frowns. He wants to just say yes, but Luke comes to mind; he wouldn’t want to make him uncomfortable. Would hanging out with Harry make him uncomfortable? He’s never had an ex like Harry before. He’s never really had an ex before.

what’s going on tonight? Louis sends back, feeling hopeful that maybe it won’t just be the two of them sitting on the nubby sofa in Harry’s basement, pretending they don’t have a history.

Movie night I have a projector in the yard! Harry texts back, and then another: Won’t just be us two. You can invite people

Louis almost laughs out loud. Lol. Who would I invite that won’t already be there

Don’t you have a boy, Harry writes, followed by three red heart emojis, tacked on to keep it lighthearted. 

Well, it isn’t as though he’s attempted to keep that a secret, but it’s still strange to read it coming from Harry. He feels oddly guilty when he writes back, yes. He’s in Portland still

He waits. He watches his phone screen and watches as Harry appears to type and erase and type and erase several times more before his next message comes up.

See you at 8. 

-

It’s the longest Louis has ever gone without seeing Harry since they’ve met. The absence was the easy part, but the hours leading up to seeing him again for the first time are agony. Is it nerves? Should this matter? He texts Luke to see what he’s doing, but he’s working, and he can’t really explain why he needs to talk to him without explaining that he’s going to see his ex-boyfriend.

The night is cool so Louis walks to Harry’s, hoping the entire way there that the extra time he spent walking rather than driving will mean he isn’t the first person to arrive. His heart starts to pound when he sees the lights on in the front of Harry’s house. Being at home with his family had been comfort enough, but the walk to Harry’s house is something he’s done so many times that it’s almost ritualistic to do it again. He’s missed it.

The sound of a film score drifts toward him as Louis gets closer. He swings open the squeaky chain-link gate and sees four heads turn around at once, each of them silhouetted by the screen projected in front of them. Louis takes them in and sees Liam, Sophia, Jeff, and then Harry on the end. Harry stands up first and Louis’ stomach clenches as he walks toward him, smiling so wide that it hurts, then all nerves forgotten as he lets Harry pull him into a hug.

“Hey, dude,” Louis says, and Harry laughs for no reason, but Louis does, too. He’s just happy, he thinks. There are familiar faces and then there’s Harry’s face, which is always a little something different and more remarkable. It grips him; it always has.

“We just started,” Harry says, walking back to his spot on a blanket on the grass beside Jeff. The rest of them wave, and Louis gives a round of high fives, easier than hugs and less uncomfortable. He barely knows Jeff, but Jeff looks like he really knows Harry. They laugh as they reach their hand into a bag of chips at the same time, like it’s a unique inside joke and not something that happens to everyone on a daily basis. But Louis knows how Harry can make things seem special and significant just by making eye contact at the right time, and he understands as he watches them that their history is far from ancient. Not like Louis and Harry’s.

They’re all teenagers and so there are no coolers for the beer; it all just sits with the plastic rings still hooking them together, sweating condensation onto the grass in front of the blankets. Louis takes a can and then sits at the end beside Liam even though he’d rather be next to Harry. 

It’s a little awkward at first. They’re watching Pirates of the Caribbean and they’ve all seen it so many times that none of them need to be sitting there watching it as intently as they are for the first fifteen minutes. Maybe it’s the beer that loosens them up or maybe it’s just that Liam is the most talkative person Louis has ever met, but after a while the two of them are shooting the shit like old times and talking like it hasn’t been nearly a year since they’ve had an exchange outside of liking each others’ photos on Instagram.

Jeff gets up to use the bathroom and Louis’ is less subtle than he means to be when he glances over to see what Harry might do now that he’s without his current partner in crime. Louis doesn’t know why he’s assumed that Jeff is the only thing keeping them from talking. He doesn’t know when he became so easily convinced that his and Harry’s history is flimsy enough to become undone because of one awkward night.

Harry sees him looking and within a few seconds he’s on his feet and brushing grass from the backs of his jean shorts as he walks over to Louis and sits right next to him, then steals a sip of Louis’ beer.

“Get your own,” Louis says, but he’s already starting to smile.

“When’d you get back?” Harry asks.

“Like...a week ago. Boredom is starting to set in.”

Harry looks around with a smirk and then shrugs, like get used to it. “Wasn’t boring when you lived here.”

A lie. But also not really a lie. They kept each other entertained, but it already feels different between them. Louis wrinkles his nose. “I’m sure you had plenty of fun without me.”

“Crying every night isn’t very fun,” Harry deadpans, and Louis whacks him on the knee with a loose fist, laughing easily.

“Yeah, you were so broken up about me leaving it took you a month to text me when I got there.” Louis gives him a look, daring him to challenge that, but Harry just blinks slowly and shrugs a shoulder and then points to a firefly lit up right next to Louis’ head.

“This is the first time I’ve seen them all year,” he marvels, eyes wide and dreamy, and Louis knows he’s already lost him to his previous train of thought. Harry looks right at him, tilts his head to the side. “They came back because of you.”

Louis’ stomach twists and he flattens his mouth out into a sort of grimace he only uses when he’s trying hard not to smile. “Ugh,” he mutters, rolls his eyes, and Harry grins because he knows he won.

Jeff comes back out and Louis pretends to be interested in the movie so he won’t look disappointed when Harry gets up to sit beside him again. That’s what they’re doing now. This is the new normal for him and Harry. 

He pulls out his phone. There’s a text from Luke and Louis remembers that he doesn’t have a void to fill, after all. 

May 2012

“There are way too many people here,” Harry says, voice slurring, but he sounds happy about it.

He isn’t wrong. The back door is crowded with people standing with red cups in their hands and someone’s got YouTube playing a Yellowcard song on the TV so loud everyone has to yell over the sound. Louis backs up against the wall to let a group of girls pass by as they all hold hands on the way to the bathroom, looking as though they could care less about anyone else there except for each other.

That’s sort of how he feels about Harry, actually. Louis takes sip of his drink and ignores the vibration of his phone in his pocket. 

“Kick ‘em out,” Louis says, and they both laugh, trying to imagine that. It feels like high school, or like how parties in high school would have felt if anyone was old enough to buy alcohol or experienced enough not to puke after their second beer.

It also feels like home, but the sort of home that people try to escape. We could leave this town and run forever, the guy from Yellowcard whines, and that’s exactly what he means.

“You won’t shotgun this beer with me,” someone says, and Louis looks around and starts to laugh when he sees Harry’s cousin Matt slinging an arm over Harry’s shoulder. 

Louis backs up a step. He has no interest in shotgunning anything; he’s pretty drunk already and Harry is, too, but he still takes the bait and hands Louis his current drink to hold while him and Matt count to three and go for it.

The night gets worse from there. Or better, depending on how you look at it.

Harry gets spectacularly drunk. Apparently he’s just broken up with someone and he won’t admit that it’s Jeff except Jeff isn’t there so Louis assumes it must be, and he has big plans to get him to tell the truth by the end of the night, but Harry is impossible. He’s not avoiding Louis at all but he’s so hard to pin down, and then once they start to talk for real, Louis gets so distracted by how hilarious Harry is being that they just start to laugh, instead. It’s a comfort that Louis has only slightly replicated with people at school—namely Niall, but even that is different.

The party just doesn’t die down. More people show up right when Louis starts to think it might be finally end, but he doesn’t actually want it to.

Luke keeps texting him, too, but Louis’ phone is on 1%. Whatever anecdote or love note he sends will have to wait until the morning.

An hour passes since the shotgun interlude; maybe it’s more than that. Louis doesn’t know what day or time it is but the party is still loud and packed and everyone seems to be at the same level of shitfaced. Louis is just a hair more sober than Harry is, which is enough to attempt to talk sense into him.

“You don’t need a shower, dude,” Louis says when Harry starts to take his shirt off in the living room, insisting that he’s got too much beer on him and he feels “gross.”

“I do!” Harry laughs, unbuttoning his jeans. “Move out of the way. I have Axe body wash.”

“Tool,” Louis tells him, following him to the bathroom. “Did you rob the boy’s locker room at PHS?”

Harry laughs so hard he snorts and almost knocks his head into the doorjamb to the bathroom. There’s a guy inside looking like he might’ve just puked and he walks out when he sees Harry turn on the shower. Harry is still wearing slim black jeans, but they’re all unbuttoned and the weight of his belt makes the fly hang low enough to show the waistband at the front and the bit of dark hair disappearing in a trail beneath it. 

Louis’ eyes are glazed over and he realizes belatedly, drunkenly, that he has been staring. Harry has become sort of a spectacle; the door is wide open and there are people laughing as he steps into the shower in his briefs and lets the water soak him through, singing Whitney Houston loudly and loving the attention. The curtain is wide open, water spilling all over the tiles.

“Excuse me, I’m trying to shower here,” Harry mock-complains when a few people try to step in with him. Louis frowns; he doesn’t like that other people have done the thing he wishes he would have done first, and that they’re treating Harry as though he’s their spectacle and not the one Louis feels he has expressly claimed as his own.

And he hasn’t, of course. He can’t be mad, but he’s still standing there scowling at the edge of the bath, getting splashed and ignored. 

Louis decides with drunk reasoning that he’s had enough, and he turns off the bathroom lights as he walks out, smiles at the shrieks that follow him down the hallway. He pulls out his phone with a new intention of finding a charger so that he has enough battery to talk to to Luke, to tell him that he loves him, that he misses him, but then he hears a thud and turns around.

People are laughing, at least, so maybe no one’s hurt. Louis would know Harry’s voice out of anywhere and he can hear him laughing. When Louis walks back in, it looks about as bad as he’d expected: the shower curtain has been ripped off and there are five people piled into the bath tub. Harry is at the bottom, flailing. By some miracle he does see Louis and starts to call out for him, thrusting his hand up. 

Louis helps him out and throws a towel at him once he’s on his feet. 

Harry wipes off his face and looks at Louis. “Why are you still wearing that?” He points to Louis’ shirt, which is white and completely soaked through, heavy and hanging down at his hips.

“You don’t smell like Axe,” Louis says, wringing out his shirt and gazing at Harry’s lips, red and shiny, forgetting what he said as soon as it was out of his mouth.

“Do I have a bruise?” Harry asks. 

“Where?”

He spins around and pulls down his soaking wet briefs to reveal an ass cheek sporting an impressive fresh bruise. Louis snorts and laughs and backhands Harry right over the darkest part of it. Someone laughs nearby and Harry does, too, tugging the soaked material up and then tying his towel around his waist so he can stumble out.

“Dude, why did you let me get in the shower?” Harry asks, sounding more amused than regretful. He has one hand on Louis’ shoulder, using him to keep balance as they walk in the hallway.

“It was your idea!” Louis squawks. Harry stops them both and shoves Louis back against the wall and makes his breath catch. “Hey—” 

“Want to go to bed?” Harry asks, sounding innocent enough, except he keeps licking his lips and staring down at Louis’, which isn’t subtle. It’s also not acceptable. 

“You’re so drunk,” Louis says, like he isn’t, too. He wrestles Harry’s hands off of him and presses both hands to his back to force him down the hall and into his bedroom. “I’m putting you to bed.”

Harry yawns and almost trips, stopping himself with his hand on the wall. “I’m not ready for bed.”

“Yes, you are.”

You’re tired.”

Dark bedroom, soft rug beneath his feet, the familiar smell of Harry’s laundry and cologne hitting him as they walk inside. Louis pushes Harry down onto the edge of the bed. Harry looks up at him and blinks slowly, looks at Louis like he’s just seen him for the first time in months.

“Get in,” Harry says, like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Louis’ gut twists and he’s not drunk enough or stupid enough to make a mistake like that. Yes he is. He’s not going to, though. He doesn’t want to. He reminds himself that he doesn’t want to.

“Nope,” Louis pushes Harry’s shoulder back. He goes down easy and rolls onto his side, already starting to drift off. 

“Is Jeff still here?” Harry murmurs with his eyes closed. He won’t remember this tomorrow. “Go get Jeff, please.”

Louis tugs the sheet over Harry’s damp lower half. “He wasn’t here.”

He can see the moment he falls asleep and he can see the opportunity pass to ask him exactly what happened. Louis indulges himself and brushes the hair back from Harry’s cheek. Then he leaves him alone, in search of an empty bedroom or a couch and an outlet. He has to tell Luke goodnight. 

May 2013

How is it that, despite spending most of his year in Portland, these summers back in Pittsburgh feel the longest? How is it that he manages to squeeze in more meaningful interactions here than he ever does when he’s at college?

There’s something about being surrounded by things that feel like his that bring out a side of him that doesn’t exist on the west coast. You can’t go home again, they say, except Louis has found that isn’t entirely true. Going home is like his retreat. Going home has become more and more necessary than it ever was when he was a freshman. Now he can’t wait, and he savors every day and every stretch of boredom because he knows, soon enough, he’ll fly back west and he’ll have to work and study and live in the library and that this is the last time he’ll do it at all. He’s a senior. When the fuck did that happen?

— 

“Are you kidding?” Louis switches his phone from one ear to the other and leans his elbow on the handle of the lawnmower.

“I wish I was kidding.” Luke’s reedy voice barely holds a note of regret on the other end. “Alice got sick so I need to take all of her shifts.”

“But you already bought the plane tickets,” Louis attempts to reason, incredulous. “Just tell them you’re going. Tough shit.”

“That’s some stupid fucking advice,” Luke snaps. “I don’t want to get fired. This is my job.”

“It’s your job for, like, five minutes before you get hired at Microsoft, or whatever.” Luke graduated last year; he’s on his way to a good job, if his family’s connections pull through.

“So? I still can’t just quit—”

“But you bought nonrefundable tickets!”

Luke sighs. Louis knows what’s coming and he resents it already. “My dad—”

“Yeah, got it, your dad could buy the entire airline.”

“Would you stop?” Luke sounds angry, and it’s the first time Lous’ felt bad. “It’s not my fault.”

“It just sounds like bullshit. You’ve never been here. In three years, you’ve never been here. My mom thinks you’re fake.”

“I have to go,” Luke says, sounding fed up, adopting that condescending tone he uses when he talks down to Louis this way. “Call me back when you realize how insane you’re being.”

And then he hangs up, and Louis throws his phone across the yard. It doesn’t even feel good. He stomps over to pluck it out of the pile of mowed grass where it landed and storms back inside, shoves his phone between the couch cushions, and doesn’t retrieve it for four days. 

Louis’ mom pops another piece of popcorn in her mouth and then offers the bag to Louis. “Does this mean you broke up?” 

“No,” Louis says quickly. He looks away. “I don’t think so.”

“Did you talk to him, sweetie?”

“No.” 

“He hasn’t called?”

“I’ve had my phone off.”

His mom stops chewing. “Honey,” she begins, “Don’t you think that’s a little…”

“Oh, so you’re taking his side?” Louis flicks a piece of popcorn across the counter at her and starts to walk away, not interested in listening to anything at all that might seem as though Luke was in the right.

“You know I’m not,” she says, following after him with the bag in her hand. “I’m just saying. If you’re not going to turn on your phone, maybe you should get out of the house.”

“I mowed the lawn today.”

She gives him a not what I meant look, pauses, and then: “Where’s Harry?”

— 

It’s not until he’s next to him that Louis realizes he and Harry have only spent two or three days together since he’s been home. They do text a lot; inside jokes and anecdotes like I just saw Mr. Schwarz at the hardware store and pictures of funny vandalized signs.

Chalk it up to being busy or to Harry being hard to find, but the real reason is one he doesn’t want to admit: that he feels guilty spending more time with him than Luke, which is hilarious now.

Harry asks, “What should we do?”

They’re side by side on the front step, elbows on knees, watching cars drive by. Louis doesn’t know what to do.

“What time is it?” Harry asks, nudging Louis on the shoulder.

“Seven-twenty-four.” Louis looks left and Harry is looking back at him. He smiles and shrugs, like, yes, I’ve been here the entire time you’ve been staring at your phone and wondering if Luke would text.

“I’m sorry,” Louis says, sighing. He shoves his phone into Harry’s hand.

“Don’t be.” Harry pockets his phone and slaps Louis on the shoulder. “Let’s go for a drive.”

He doesn’t ask where, because Harry won’t tell him. He’s a little different now; a little quieter, as if he’s finally embracing that mystique he’s always had. Sometimes it works and he holds things close to the chest and other times he has the face of five year old at his own birthday party, every emotion splashed out across those big features without a single mystery attached.

Harry’s been out of high school now for a year and Louis still isn’t sure what he’s going to do besides take a handful of credits at community college. He’s been taking religious studies courses and that sounds interesting and very Harry. He’s been volunteering at shelters in Pittsburgh and he’s been buying vintage cameras on eBay with money he makes from working at a coffee shop. His life seems really good, actually. Louis envies its simplicity and he wishes that he wasn’t so hard on himself. Harry makes everything he does seem like enough and he somehow doesn’t lack ambition.

They’re in Harry’s red pickup truck, going nowhere. Louis doesn’t ask and Harry turns up the radio so they can sing along to Tom Petty. Louis feels a little better already.

“When do you start again?” Louis asks. “School.” 

“End of August. I don’t even remember what I’m taking this semester.” Harry stops at a light and glances over at him, toying with his bottom lip as he stares for an uncomfortably long time. “What about you?”

“Three weeks.” Louis sighs and looks away. He doesn’t want to go back and face Luke if things are like this. “Who knows what the fuck’s gonna happen.”

“Are you that worried?”

“Not even about Luke,” Louis says, which is not entirely the truth. “But, you know. My senior year. It’s kind of like...now what?”

“No more essays. That’s what’s in your future.”

“What about you?”

He glances over to look at Harry, the sky changing colors on the window behind his face. He looks really good and Louis doesn’t mind staring at him for a few seconds while he waits for an answer. Something about the way he catches him looking makes Louis’ chest swell; it’s just something they share, a connection that both calms and excites Louis when he remembers how easy it is to be Harry’s friend now.

“I don’t know,” Harry says, but he sounds really happy about that. “I want to travel. That’s what I’m saving up for. There’s this artist retreat in Tulum I really want to go to.”

“Tulum?”

“Mexico. It’s just, like, on a beach. It’s really secluded. I think it might help me just figure it out, you know? Being home is…”

“Boring?”

“It’s a little different than boring. It just feels like...why am I here? Because you’re gone for most of the year and so are the rest of my friends. It’s hard to meet people.”

“Yeah,” Louis says, but he’s a little too distracted by what Harry just said, which is that Harry misses him that much when he’s gone. He never knew. “But you’re friends with everybody.” 

Harry smiles, sheepish. “Yeah, but.” He shrugs and pulls into a gas station, but not up to the pump. 

“Want anything?” Harry unbuckles his seatbelt and looks over, then grins with his dimple and his crinkled eyes, looking delighted. “Wait, let me guess.”

“Okay, but if you forget the M&Ms—” 

The door shuts. Louis looks over to his side to watch Harry pad into the store, the only person dedicated enough to his aesthetic to wear skinny jeans and ankle boots in the summer. He disappears into the store and Louis looks around, wondering where they are. It’s someplace hillier than they live, in a neighborhood Louis doesn’t recognize. From the looks of it, the sun has about fifteen minutes before it sets. If they drive a little over the hill they might be able to see it.

It’s quiet enough to hear Harry’s boots on the blacktop as he walks back to the truck.

“Alright,” he says, resting the plastic bag on his lap. “I got your Sprite, popcorn, cookies—”

“And my M&Ms?”

“And your M&Ms.”

Louis holds his hand out, but Harry doesn’t hand them over. “Can I have some?”

Louis snatches the bag. “Okay,” he says, rips the top off. “But you have to catch them in your mouth.” 

“Okay,” Harry says, “Let me just...I want to go up here first.”

They drive up and over that hill and pull over at an embankment on the side of the road. The sky looks like it’s on fire. 

Harry kills the engine and takes his seatbelt off so he can turn enough to face Louis. “Okay. I’m ready.” 

Louis sends an M&M sailing too high, snickering when it hits Harry directly in the forehead.

“Try it again.” Harry leans in to grab Louis’ arms, positioning him the way he thinks will work best.

“Fine,” Louis says, but he does the same thing, his mouth twitching now to keep from laughing.

Heyyy.” Harry rubs his forehead. “You did that on—”

But Louis’ already looking ahead, where the sky has changed and turned so red it looks like something from a movie or a National Geographic in the 70s. 

“There it is,” Louis says, cutting Harry off.

“Huh?” Harry looks at him, then looks ahead. The sky is so crimson it’s jarring. Louis has to inhale to make room for the deep sigh that wants to escape, the one brought on by the beauty of this and of a good night, finally a good night, and of a week’s worth of anxiety about his relationship that was always so deceptively simple until this summer. He exhales and his eyes are so wide that they start to water a little bit. 

“Wow,” Harry whispers. Louis clutches the M&Ms bag so tight they might just melt in his hand.

“Did you bring us here on purpose?”

Harry looks at Louis and his gaze is so soft that he sort of feels like he’s melting, and then Harry nods. “Mhm.” 

That’s touching, for some reason. That gesture is meaningful and Louis can’t figure out why. Maybe it’s only meaningful when it comes from Harry; probably.

He watches the sky for another minute, and another after that, watching the colors change and snapping a new picture every few minutes.

“This light looks really good on you,” Harry says to his left, and Louis flicks his eyes over at him, then down to his lap.

“If you wanted the M&Ms you could’ve just asked, Harry,” he says, glad the sun is glowing so red that Harry won’t see his flushed cheeks. He hands the bag over to him and Harry maneuvers his hand so that he can pour them into his open palm, and it’s silly that Louis focuses so much on every single place where their fingers touch, and the way Harry cups his around Louis’ to keep it steady.

They eat more and share the Sprite and watch the sky while cars whiz by on their left. The music is off but Louis doesn’t notice the silence at all. He wonders what it would be like if he was single right now. He wonders what this version of Louis and this version of Harry would be like if they tried again. Those thoughts make his pulse race; he never lets his mind wander that far. When he’s in Portland, it’s easier to imagine that he romanticizes his and Harry’s relationship as some inexplicable connection that no one else can ever understand. 

The thing is that it’s true. No one else can understand it.

When he looks over at Harry, Harry’s already looking at him. He’s got the best stare of anyone Louis has ever met. Louis feels a little undone by it when he’s caught off guard.

“Let’s get out,” Harry says.

They walk up to the railing near the edge of the hill and Harry sits on the edge of it, legs kicked out in front of him, away from the view and facing Louis, instead. 

Louis walks forward until he’s stood a few feet in front of him and looks over Harry’s shoulders at the sky. He tries to seem unbothered by Harry watching him instead of the sunset, but Louis’ never done subtle well and Harry’s more perceptive than he lets on.

“Hey, Lou.”

“Hey, Harry.”

Harry kicks Louis’ sneaker with the tip of his boot and smiles, closed-lipped, just enough to reveal his dimple. “Feel any better now?”

Louis frowns a little, then nods. He looks at Harry. “I do, yeah.”

Harry nods. Louis looks away.

“Lou?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I ask you something else?”

Louis’ heart races. “Yeah.”

“You think you’ll stay with Luke?”

Louis couldn’t answer that question seriously right now and he wonders if Harry already knows that. It’s hard to make out his face when the sky is blazing behind him, so Louis walks forward a little and kicks pebbles beneath his feet, stopping when he’s right in front of Harry’s boots.

“Why?”

“Hmm.” Harry looks contemplative and so fucking beautiful that Louis can hardly remember a time when he didn’t look like this exactly: with his hair long and his jaw this strong and a backdrop that looks like it could be in a landscape calendar.

“I just,” Harry continues, “think about you sometimes.”

Louis swallows. The Sprite is in the truck and he’s never been so thirsty. “What about me?”

Harry shakes his head and sighs and Louis really hopes he hasn’t given up on whatever this train of thought is, so he asks again: “What?”

“Just, like, normal ‘what if’ stuff, you know.” No one is more vague than Harry when he wants to be. It’s probably a good thing in this situation, anyway. This conversation probably shouldn’t progress much further.

“Well,” Louis says, playing it cool, pretending as though his heart isn’t slamming in his chest. “I don’t really feel like thinking about him right now.”

“I’m thinkin’ about how I have to wake up at 5 to open tomorrow,” Harry sighs, rubbing his forehead and standing up to stretch his arms over head. He drops them back down and scratches his belly where his shirt had lifted up, standing closer to Louis than he really needs to be. He places his hand on his shoulder and squeezes, like it’s an old habit he can’t break. He drops his grip quickly and jerks his head toward the truck. “You ready?”

They share the popcorn on the drive back and their conversation is mostly normal again, although Louis can’t stop thinking about Harry thinking about him. He thought that Harry had let him go a long time ago and had every reason to believe that, until tonight.

It’s dark by the time they’re back in their neighborhood. Harry lets his truck idle while Louis unbuckles his seatbelt and makes sure his keys are in and.

“Well,” he says, “Thanks for taking me out tonight.”

“Any time.” Harry looks like he means it. “Still feel alright?”

He doesn’t, really, now that he knows he’ll have to go inside and be alone and think about Luke and about school and his future. Nothing seems secure anymore except for Harry, and even he scares Louis—just for completely different reasons.

Harry undoes his seatbelt, too. “Hey,” he says, “C’mere.”

And he hooks his arm around Louis’ shoulders so he can grab him by the biceps for the second time tonight, running his thumbs along them as he gets a good look at him. He just nods at Louis, like, it’s alright and Louis just nods back, like, it will be, and it’s the most comforted he’s felt in a long time, really, because Harry would never say anything to make Louis feel weak or worse than he already does and by believing in him, Louis already does feel better. He doesn’t pull away, either. It’s been a while since someone’s touched him with this kind of certainty.

“Stop by Karma tomorrow morning,” Harry says, giving Louis a little shake. “Tea on me.”

“It’s a dollar fifty.”

Harry grins, glowing every time Louis fucks with him. He shrugs. “It’s still on me,” he says, and gives Louis a kiss on the cheek.

This would be fine, except that he lingers. Louis moves his face a fraction and he smells Orbit gum and aftershave and lets their lips brush, just a little. His stomach clenches—this is it, he thinks. The first time he’s kissed anyone besides Luke for three years, and it’s Harry Styles.

Harry does what Louis couldn’t: he gives him a real kiss, close-lipped, but real, and god, it’s still hot. They stay locked that way and press harder and inhale and angle their faces just slightly until Louis pulls back with his lips parted and a sinking feeling in his gut that says I want more and I might have just cheated on Luke.

He licks his lips. Harry is a fire hazard, the way he looks at him.

“I gotta, um.” Louis clears his throat. “I’ll come see you in the morning.”

Harry nods. He lets go of Louis’ arms and a muscle in his jaw twitches when he raises his hand to wave. “Night.”

The door shuts. Louis walks. He is able to walk, at least. He realizes when he’s at his door that his cell phone is still in Harry’s pocket, but there’s no way he can turn around right now without kissing him again and he opens the door and doesn’t wave and slams it shut behind him, breathing hard.

“What the fuck?” he asks to an empty room. He licks his lips and tastes gum and shuts his eyes, trying to remember the feeling, trying to figure it out.

The bell on the door clangs as Louis walks into Karma’s. He’s running on four hours of sleep. It’s a barely-bright 6:30 in the morning and there are three people in line and one behind the counter: Harry, in the same outfit he wore the night before except with his hair tied back in a bun and a black apron tied around his waist and a little black nametag that says Harry in capital letters with a banana sticker next to it.

Louis waits in line and catches Harry’s eye every time he steams milk or hands someone their change.

“Good morning,” Harry says when it’s Louis’ turn in line. Louis thinks about their kiss and how stupid-soft his lips were and how careful they’d both been. It’s almost embarrassing now to think about how precious they treated it.

“I think you have my phone?”

“Ah.” Harry tugs it from his back pocket and places it on the counter. “And I owe you a tea.”

“I was promised a tea.”

Harry’s mouth twitches and he jerks his head to the table facing the counter. “I’ll bring it to you.”

Louis sits, his stomach churning. He has to bring it up; they can’t go on pretending last night wasn’t weird or that they didn’t kiss and he feels so guilty when he looks at his phone and sees a few texts from Luke, finally. He wonders if Harry noticed them, especially the one that says, Love you boo. I’m sorry. Call me. 

“For you,” Harry says as he places down a paper cup. It smells like vanilla and honey and like real fall, not the pumpkin spice version of fall.

“What is this?”

“Bourbon vanilla honeybush.”

Louis rolls his eyes. “Jesus Christ.” 

Harry props his chin on his hand and stares, openly and unabashedly, across the table at Louis. His face looks open and awake and so calm it’s almost alarming. “Sleep okay?”

The tea is delicious, but Louis doesn’t mention that. “I slept like shit.”

Harry makes a hmm sound and taps his chin. “Did something happen?”

“I’m still with Luke,” Louis blurts out. His heart feels as though it might jump up his throat and out of his mouth and he gulps just to keep it down.

“Yeah,” Harry says, finally dropping his hand from his chin. It makes his stare a little less serial killer.

“So I wish we hadn’t kissed,” Louis says, shaking his head. He does not know if that’s entirely true.

“Yeah,” Harry says. “Me too.” 

It’s not until he says it that Louis realizes he had been waiting for and expecting Harry to disagree with him.

“Oh.” Louis opens his mouth to speak again and then closes it, looks down at his tea. “Alright. Well, that’s....”

“I think it’s just probably not good for you to do that when you’re fighting with him.” Harry says this so clearly that it sounds rehearsed.

Louis narrows his eyes and forces a humorless laugh. “Where was that relationship advice last night?”

Harry shrugs. “I didn’t think you wanted advice.”

“What did you think, then?”

“I think you just wanted to kiss me.” 

Louis sits in stunned silence for a second, then stands up. “Fuck you.” 

“I just thought it would help you figure things out.”

“So you did that on purpose?”

“Could you keep your voice down, please?”

“No,” Louis says. There’s no one else in the cafe and he’s too heated to keep quiet. “Did you kiss me just to fuck with me, then?”

“You kissed me.”

“Grow the fuck up.” Louis grabs his tea and looks Harry up and down. “You don’t know what’s best for me at all.” 

Harry’s voice is quiet when he replies, his face turned away as if he doesn’t really want Louis to hear him. Feeling fire in his chest, Louis steps closer, challenging him.

“What was that?”

Harry squares his shoulders and looks straight at Louis. He’s not at all embarrassed to say it this time: “I know better than Luke does.”

And what does that mean, exactly? Louis is too pissed off by the implications to be intrigued by what this could possibly mean: that Harry thinks of himself as a better match for him and that he’s thought about this a lot and that he resents Luke, apparently. It’s just too late and too sudden for Louis to consider; he feels embarrassed for thinking their kiss last night was something that just happened and not some strange plan concocted by Harry to prove a point.

“Did you or did you not plan to kiss me last night?”

“I didn’t plan any part of last night,” Harry says. “I just wanted to hang out with you.”

And that’s the shitty part, isn’t it? He did kiss Harry first, and Harry was right: he had just wanted to kiss him, whether or not Louis was ready to admit that to himself. But being called out with cold hard facts had never before made Louis own up to them easily, and he wouldn’t start now.

“I’m gonna go,” he says. He picks up the tea and avoids Harry’s eyes.

“Okay, well—” Harry starts, but a man in a suit walks in and he has to make a dash to get behind the counter in time to take his order. Louis doesn’t spare a final glance back as he walks out and lets the bells slam against the door as he leaves.

It’s the last time he talks to Harry in person for two years.

Everyone told him that his senior year of college was going to be difficult, but Louis is still bowled over. There’s no way to prepare for writing three essays a week while trying to maintain an on-campus job while trying to squeeze in time to see his boyfriend. He takes up smoking just to give himself an excuse to leave the library. He calls his mom twice a week out of desperation. He wonders why he ever bothered with college in the first place. 

The most unexpected aspect of his final year in college is just how tired he’s become of almost everyone there by the time four years are up. After living with and around the same faces for so long, he needs space like he never imagined he would need in his freshman year, when everyone was new and exciting and older than him, when he was fast friends with people who seemingly had everything to offer. Now he’s just exhausted from nights spent in the library and from not having a social life. Now the invites to go to bars seem annoying when all he can do is feel the pressure of studying no matter how many drinks he has.

It’s during the final week of his senior year that he learns about Luke’s job. The job he got as a social worker in Alaska. The job he takes without consulting Louis first.

They’ll try the long distance thing, Luke says. He wants it to work. That’s what he keeps telling Louis: I want this to work. But that doesn’t mean anything, does it? Because if he wanted it to work he wouldn’t have chosen to live in Alaska and he would’ve taken the job he got offered in Pittsburgh.

I want this to work, Luke says, but then he moves the night before Louis graduates and they have an arranged Skype date for the following week. He’s gone from living in his pocket to organizing time to see him on a screen and Louis already knows that it’s over.

He moves back home. He has a degree but he doesn’t have a job and he doesn’t have a boyfriend or any plans to date anyone else.

To his credit, checking Harry’s Instagram is not the first thing he does when he lands in Pennsylvania. He saves that moment for later, when he’s in his childhood bed and when the lights are off and he can indulge himself. It feels like poking a bruise as he taps in Harry’s username. He holds his breath. He’ll see him tomorrow—he’s already thinking about it. Tomorrow he’ll see Harry. He’ll make it right.

He clicks his name. The photos load slowly, one by one. 

Mexico, he learns. Harry is in Mexico.