The line came to him as he was sitting in with Lou, Lux balanced on his lap as Lou brushed out his hair. Lux was saying something, chattering as she shifted around and tried to braid part of his hair. The hand you put your heart in, he thought as he carefully pulled Lux away. Where was that from? Had he heard it somewhere before?
“Lux, love, stop bothering Harry,” Lou said. “Go play with Josh or Sandy.”
Lux slid off Harry’s lap obediently and scampered from the room. Harry closed his eyes and leaned into Lou’s hands as she worked one of her mysterious elixirs through his hair. I’ll never be the hand you put your heart in. That was a lyric, he realized. Something new.
He jotted it down in his phone before they went on and then pushed it from his mind as he joined Niall and Liam at the entrance to the stage. Louis was running late; he had been on the phone with Bree last Harry heard.
“I wonder if I’ll ever stop being nervous,” Niall muttered. His knuckles were white on the neck of his guitar. Harry rubbed the back of his neck until Niall sighed and loosened up his grip. “Thanks.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Louis called, jogging over to them. He was wearing his black muscle tee today, and Harry had to look away from the flash of skin over his ribs. “Sonogram today.”
“Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl yet?” Liam asked, nudging him and grinning. “Or twins?”
“Fuck, I hope not,” Louis said.
“I think it’s early to put gender constraints on Tomlinson Jr.,” Harry said, grinning when Louis made a face. “We don’t know what Louis’s kid will want to be.”
“If it’s anything like its dad, the world better watch out,” Niall said. Louis groaned and shoved Niall forward. Harry took a furtive moment to look at Louis’s face, to see how he really looked. Happy, Harry thought. Though he wasn’t as good a judge of that as he had once been.
“All right, enough gossip, lads,” Louis said. “We have a show to put on.”
And with that they got into position and waited to step out into the spotlights.
Harry remembered the snatch of lyric of a few days later when they were on their way to some arena in Canada. He wasn’t actually sure where. He dug out a notebook and a pen to jot it down and stared at it for a bit, humming to himself. After considering the line, he crossed out I’ll and put in I might.
Harry was an instinctive writer, rarely knowing what a song was about until he had finished. But he already knew that this song would be about his shortcomings and his failures as a partner. That he could work with. He began to write, filling the page with scraps of sentences and half-formed ideas for arrangements, and by the time Niall wandered in, he had three pages of scattered notes that might, with work, become a song.
“Whatcha working on?” Niall asked, peering over his shoulder. “New song?”
“Think so,” Harry said. “If I can get it into a usable shape.”
“Let me know if you need a second pair of eyes,” Niall said. He ruffled Harry’s hair. “Has it got a name yet?”
“No,” Harry said. “That’ll come last.”
“Of course.” Niall gave Harry one last pat on the shoulder and slipped away. Harry pressed his thumb over where he’d written, Maybe we’re perfect, and rubbed at it until the ink smeared against his skin.
When it came to writing, Louis and Liam tended to be much more deliberate than Harry. They would decide on a mood or a theme, and then they would start bouncing ideas off each other. Niall was the same, only he tended to write alone for a bit first before turning to them or Dougie and Tom for help getting the pieces to work together. Harry’s brain didn’t work like that. His ideas seemed to need to sprawl out across as much space as possible, until he could work out what was important and what was chaff.
He thought he knew what he was trying to say in this song. He just wasn’t sure if he knew how to say it.
Harry dithered over the song for a week or so before he gave in and decided to ask Louis for help. Louis looked surprised when Harry asked, which was fair, since they didn’t really write together unless it was with the whole band, but he came back with Harry into the lounge. Harry had started jotting down chords too, the beginning of what might be a melody, but he wanted to have the lyrics close to settled before he took it to Julian.
Louis picked up Harry’s notebook and started reading. Harry waited, hands pressed between his knees, watching Louis’s eyes scan back and forth. When he got to the bottom of the first page, he looked up at Harry.
“This is about Taylor,” he said.
“Yeah,” Harry said. “Not just her, but yeah.”
“It’s a bit more—” Louis waved his hand vaguely. “Than ‘Where Do Broken Hearts Go,’ yeah?”
“Sadder?” Harry asked.
“Not exactly.” Louis flipped the page and kept reading. After a moment, he sat down next to Harry and glanced over. “This could be really good, Harry.”
“You think?” Harry asked. “It’s kind of a mess right now.”
“But there’s something in here.” Louis tapped where Harry had written, maybe we’re perfect. “That could work.”
“Show me,” Harry said.
“This is your song, I don’t want to—”
Harry handed his pen to Louis and gestured for him to turn to a fresh sheet of paper. “I asked you for your help.”
Louis looked at him, then started flipping back through Harry’s notes, occasionally turning back to the blank sheet to write something down. Harry watched his face, the slight furrow of Louis’s brow and the way he bit his lip as he thought. He rarely got the opportunity to study Louis like this anymore, to catalogue his face. Used to be he could have drawn Louis with his eyes closed. He used to know every line of him.
“Stop staring at me,” Louis said without glancing over. “You’re putting me off.”
And there it was. The line they had drawn between them of their own volition. Even in private Harry was wary of pushing too hard against the boundaries they had put up; it was easier to keep their distance in public if they did it in private, too. Harry didn’t particularly feel like listening to Louis, though, so he leaned back, stretching his arms over the back of the couch, and continued to watch him.
“You’re so bloody weird,” Louis muttered, then he said, “Take a look at this, then,” and passed the notebook over.
When I first saw you across the room I could tell you were curious, he saw, and he wanted to laugh, because it sounded a bit like Saw you there and I thought, oh my god, look at that face. But maybe that was the point, a bit. To be in dialogue with what Taylor had written, even if it wasn’t that song in particular.
“You’re thinking this for a verse?” Harry asked, skimming.
“Or a pre-chorus. I don’t think it’s catchy enough for a chorus.” Louis shrugged. “Of course we haven’t taken it to Julian, so who knows what’ll happen once he works his magic.”
“Yeah,” Harry said. He was already starting to see the shape of it, how he might be able to use some of the lines he had written down to form a chorus. “Thanks, Lou.”
“What is it about, if it isn’t just about Taylor?” Louis asked, getting to his feet. “Or who, rather?”
Harry shrugged. “It’s more about—acknowledging my faults, I suppose. My part in our break-up, and a warning, almost.”
“A warning?” Louis laughed. “For what?”
“That I’m not, you know, perfect,” Harry said. “That things won’t be perfect, or that they can’t be.”
“That’s deep,” Louis said. “Don’t be ridiculous, though. You’re a dream. Every mum would love for their daughter to bring you home.”
“Oh yeah, with my long hair and tattoos,” Harry said, rolling his eyes.
Louis snorted. “Better than me, mate,” he said. “Right, let me know if you need any other help. It’s going to be good, Harry.” He squeezed Harry’s shoulder lightly, hand lingering for a moment. Harry reached up to take Louis’s hand, but he was gone before Harry could touch him.
The song really wasn’t about Taylor specifically, but it was about her and Harry, and everything that had happened since. The first time he met Taylor, they were introduced at a party in New York after the band had arrived for their first US tour. She looked sleek and untouchable, her hair pulled up and her lipstick intimidatingly bright. None of that had ever stopped Harry before, though, and he didn’t let it stop him then. After they were introduced, he smiled and edged closer. She didn’t move away from him, and her smile had turned less feigned and more intrigued.
Everything about being with Taylor was exhilarating. She was so vibrant and full of life, full of ideas, curious and whimsical, and Harry sometimes struggled to keep up with her. He liked that. The last time he had felt that out of step was with Caroline, and that had been more from the circumstances than anything else. Taylor wanted it all; she wanted to get every morsel out of being Taylor Swift, from the clothes to the boys to the fans. She loved it, and what was more, she loved him.
For a while, it had been perfect, even when they had to come up with increasingly ludicrous ways to avoid the paparazzi. Their PR teams loved it. Two young musicians, cute and fashionable, both on the verge of new projects, Taylor with her album and Harry with the band’s tour and Take Me Home. It was a perfect storm, their PR kept saying. It could only do them good.
Once, they had been trapped in Taylor’s hotel room, and she had started crying in frustration when her security team came to tell her there wasn’t a safe way out. It was still early in One Direction’s life, not as chaotic as it became within the year, and Harry didn’t have quite the same experience. But he hugged her and said, “Well, we can make our own fun up here.”
“I wish we didn’t have to,” she said, but she let him kiss her and wipe her face dry. They ordered room service and stayed in bed all day, and maybe it would have been nice if it had been the once. But it had happened so many times after that, them hiding in hotel rooms or Taylor sneaking them away to hideaways she knew about. In some ways it had been exciting; yet by the time they broke up, Harry was exhausted and disillusioned.
They didn’t talk much anymore. Harry often regretted that, but in the weeks after they broke up, it had been easier not to call, and that had turned into a habit. There were times he missed her thoughtful take on problems that he was having, the way her completely different life experiences informed her decisions. He could use that when he found himself looking at Louis for too long with something uncomfortably like desire.
It was strange to feel like that about someone he knew as well as Louis. He had watched Louis grow over the years, had watched him become sharper, more defensive, had watched him shatter in the aftermath of his breakup with Eleanor, had watched him duel with the warring emotions of joy and fear when Bree told him she was pregnant. In all that time, it seemed odd Harry had only realized now that he wanted Louis. But there it was anyway.
Longing had crept up on him, and there were times he wasn’t sure if he were simply missing Louis’s friendship, or if it truly were something more. And then Louis would smile, or touch Harry’s shoulder in passing, or fall into him while drunk, and Harry would be hit with the force of his desire. Louis was gorgeous, of course, that wasn’t precisely news, so if it were just wanting to sleep with him that would be one thing. But that wasn’t all Harry wanted. It was seeing Louis’s vulnerabilities and failures laid bare that made Harry love him more than his faux-flirtatious, brash façade ever had.
Harry liked imperfections. They were reassuring. He studied his own, when he was aware of them, and he embraced the imperfections of others. There was no shame in that, and that was what he wanted to write about. That was he wanted, on some level, Louis to understand.
The day Taylor and Harry ended, they spent the day curled up on the couch of their rented cabin in the mountains. They both knew it was over; neither of them had said it, but after Harry crashed their snowmobile and after they ended up sitting two seats apart in the emergency room, they knew. Harry had started crying as they stitched up the cut on his chin. Not because it hurt, though it did, but because he had hoped so much. They had made it this far, they had dealt with the paps and the rumours and the constant scrutiny and then this had to happen, as if to prove how tenuous it all was. Taylor had cried too, and that was how Harry knew she had realized the same thing.
Harry could map out the places on his body where the people he loved had left their mark, some deeper and more lasting, others pale and thin but no less memorable for that. There were the tattoos for his sister, for his friends; the scar on his chin from the crash with Taylor. Harder to pick out were the places they had marked his soul. He had been scarred, more than once, had been broken and left. He had, more often than not, done the leaving; but that didn’t mean that it hadn’t mattered or hurt. And Taylor, well, she had left more of an impression than he thought even she knew.
They had sex one last time, and Taylor kept her eyes open, one hand holding onto Harry’s necklace. Afterward, they laid there together, and Taylor pressed her fingers lightly to the stitches in Harry’s chin. Her hand was icy cold, and he flinched slightly under the touch.
“Sorry,” she whispered. “Does it hurt?”
“Not so much anymore,” he said. He took her hand in his. The shape of it was familiar by now, but where it had once been comforting, it was instead heart-breaking. He knew they would never do this again. They would never again lie like this, his cheek pressed to her hair, breathing in the sweet floral scent of her shampoo. She would never tuck her face against his neck like this; she would never settle into his arms like she belonged there.
“Do you think it’ll leave a scar?” Taylor asked.
“Might,” Harry said. “They said it could.”
“Is it weird to say I’m glad for it?” She turned her head to look up at him. She was so beautiful: perfect, and distant, and so passionate. And so beyond him.
“No,” he said. “You marked me. It’s right you leave something behind.”
“Don’t,” she said, and she was crying again, silent tears that fell down her cheek, dripped to her collarbone. He raised his hand to her face and carefully rubbed the dampness away. She closed her eyes and pressed into his touch.
“We had a good run, didn’t we?” he asked.
“The best,” she said.
He had never felt like this before; he had never felt like his heart was about to burst from his chest with love, and break at the same time. “I really love you,” he said. “I really do.”
“I know. And I love you. But that isn’t always enough, is it?” Taylor tilted her head up. Her mascara was running. Later, she would disappear into the bathroom to put herself back together until she was picture-perfect. It used to be she’d never let him see her like this, at anything less than her best. He loved her all the more for knowing her flaws, but she was right. It wouldn’t be enough.
“Look at us,” Harry said. “Proper messes, aren’t we?”
“Disasters,” Taylor agreed. “Kiss me?”
He smiled, tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, and complied.
Later, when he was trying to explain to his mum, to Louis, to Nick why they had broken up, he found it hard to articulate. “It was like, the entire time, we were walking on a tightrope,” he said to Louis over the phone. “And when you reach the end, it’s like a big sigh of relief, but it’s still such a long way down, and you don’t feel safe.”
“But you love her,” Louis said.
“Yeah,” Harry said. “But love isn’t supposed to make you feel like that. It isn't supposed to break you, or weaken you, or—terrify you. You shouldn’t have to feel like there’s nowhere to go.”
“Are you okay?” Louis asked, voice crackling down the line. “Are you upset?”
“Of course I am,” Harry said. He hesitated before admitting, “But I’m relieved, too.”
Harry didn’t remember falling in love with Louis. In the past, he’d always had that first pull towards someone, the moment of attraction that sparked into something more. He had, of course, liked Louis from the beginning, had craved his attention and his respect, but there had never been that moment of yes, you. Instead it crept on slowly. First Harry missed Louis, more than usual. He would hear Louis and Liam laughing together in the lounge, or see Louis and Zayn sneaking off for a smoke, and feel a sudden stab of possessiveness. That used to be his time. They used to be the close ones.
Then Harry started to seek him out, spending more time with him when he could. Louis seemed nonplussed by this, but he didn’t tell Harry to stop. When Zayn walked away, the rest of them had grown closer together, as if to seal up the hole Zayn left behind. Maybe that was what had really set it off. Suddenly they were relying on each other even more. Suddenly they were all trying to be more open with each other.
And then one day, Harry looked up and realized that Louis was beautiful. That he wanted to make Louis smile like he used to. Perhaps that had always been there. Harry didn’t know.
He had been keeping that secret to himself for a while now. He wasn’t sure what to do about it, but there was part of him that felt like he shouldn’t keep it hidden. Secrets like that could fester. He knew, though, that Louis wasn’t likely to fall swooning into his arms at the admission. So he buried himself in performing and writing and hanging out with his friends and doing everything he could not to think about Louis.
It wasn’t working that well.
Harry wrestled with the bit Louis had written for the next few days, adding his own thoughts and coming up with what could be a chorus. Julian caught him at it and asked if he needed help, but Harry wasn’t ready to give it up yet. He was possessive about his songs, and he didn’t like to give them to producers until he had run through his thoughts and knew his meaning wouldn’t get mangled. After reaching another mental impasse, he took his notebook back to Louis and asked him to take another look.
“Are you sure?” Louis asked, frowning at him. When Harry nodded, he sighed and excused himself from Liam, who was looking interested and maybe mildly offended that Harry hadn’t asked him. Harry gave him an apologetic smile and went with Louis to have a seat in the Harry’s dressing room.
Louis read through Harry’s pages again, tapping his pen absently against his knee. “It’s getting a bit dark here, don’t you think?” he said, tapping his pen against where Harry wrote, We’re perfect apart. “Not really what you’re getting at.”
“It’s just brainstorming,” Harry said. “You know how I work.”
“That’s why I’m curious as to why you’re asking me for help,” Louis said. “You usually like to write alone at this stage.”
“Yeah,” Harry said. “But this needed—something. And you’re the only one who gets what I’m talking about, I think. Liam is in his own little bubble, and Niall’s been really good at keeping people out of his business. But you and me, we know what it is to—”
“To fail at love,” Louis said when Harry couldn’t finish. “To be not quite enough to be worth all the rest of it.” His mouth twisted up in an unhappy smile. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right about that.”
“And I think it’s one we could use,” Harry said. “Most of the stuff I write, you know, it isn’t really One Direction. But this one could be, if you help.”
“All the songs you write are sad,” Louis said. “Or, maybe not sad, but not our usual.”
“Yeah,” Harry said. “Look, this doesn’t have to be a break up song. I’d rather it isn’t, actually. It’s a love song. It’s, you know, take me as I am with all my flaws. It’s, I’ll take a few stolen moments with you if that’s all I can have.”
Louis squints up at him thoughtfully. “That’s good,” he says. He bends over the notebook and starts writing. “I like that.”
“Isn’t it so messed up that just because we’re singers, people care about who we’re dating?” Harry asked after a few minutes of silence, save for the scratch of Louis’s pen across paper. He pressed his hands between his knees. “And if we’re good or how we are with them. It’s like, I don’t know. It makes it impossible.”
“Yeah,” Louis said, not looking up. “And they always have their own theories about what’s really going on, no matter how upfront we are. Makes you wonder what the point is in being honest.”
“I wish we could still be—” Harry hesitated, because friends wasn’t precisely the truth. “Close. I wish we were still close.”
“We are,” Louis said. “We practically live on top of each other.”
“Not like we were when we first met,” Harry said. “I know we grew up and all, and then there were the fans and everything they were saying about you and Eleanor, but it—I hate it.”
“I know,” Louis said after a moment, looking up. “I wish we hadn’t had to. You know you’re one of my best mates, Harry.”
“I know.” This was the moment, if Harry wanted to take it. He bit the side of his finger, then forced himself to say, “It’s funny, isn’t it.” He smiled; he had gotten good at smiling when he didn’t mean it. “It was only after all that that I fell for you.”
Louis stared at him with narrowed eyes, pen stilled in his hand. Harry never knew how to read him when he was like this. All it meant was that Louis was thinking, but that could mean anything. He could be coming up with something cutting, he could be plotting a prank. He could, even, be thinking of something sincere to say.
“Yeah?” he said finally.
“Yeah.” Harry shifted so his legs were tucked up underneath him and picked at the hole over his knee so he didn’t have to look at Louis. “I really didn’t, before.”
“You know I don’t,” Louis said, and he broke off. When he spoke again, after an impossibly long silence, his voice was shaky. “I’m sorry, Haz.”
“I know,” Harry said to his hands. “It’s just a crush. I’ll be fine.”
“I can’t,” Louis said, so quietly Harry had to strain to hear him over the noise of the bus. “Even if I felt the same, I can’t. I just can’t.”
“I know,” Harry said again. “I know, okay? Love doesn’t make anything magically work. I know that.”
“I do love you, Haz,” Louis said. “You’re like my brother. I don’t know what I’d do—these last few years have sucked, okay? I didn’t want to hurt you, and I know you didn’t want to hurt me or Eleanor, and I appreciate it, Harry, I really appreciate everything you did to make it easier. But—”
“It’s okay,” Harry said. He got to his feet and reached out to touch Louis’s arm before thinking the better of it. Louis didn’t quite flinch away, but Harry saw the relief in his eyes when Harry didn’t make contact. “I’m going to have a kip in the green room.”
“I’ll work on this verse,” Louis said. He didn’t meet Harry’s gaze. “I think I have an idea. Catch you in the morning?”
“Yeah.” Harry lingered for a moment at the door, looking back at the soft swoop of Louis’s hair across his forehead. He ached to kiss away the tired lines at the corners of Louis’s eyes, to soothe the restlessness from his fingers, but he knew his place. He knew that Louis didn’t want or need that. So he left as Louis’s pen dashed across the paper.
Louis returned the notebook to Harry two days later, now with three pages of extra writing. “I put together some options,” he said without looking at Harry. He looked tired, his face pale and his hand a little unsteady. He seemed to be tired a lot lately. Harry didn’t know if it was stress or drinking or anxiety, or some combination of the three keeping him up. Louis didn’t confide that kind of thing in him. In anyone, really.
“Thanks,” Harry said, taking the notebook. He flipped through it as Louis stood there, rubbing one foot against the opposite calf, then switching. A few lines stuck out to him—I can be the one you love sometimes, we can live here in the moment—as things he’d sketched on the previous pages. It needed some tweaking, because not all of the lines scanned, but that was what brainstorming with Julian was for.
“This is great,” Harry said. “We should send this to some people, see if they can help us clean it up.”
“If you say so,” Louis said. He scratched at the back of his neck, gaze darting up to Harry’s and then away again. “Look, about what you said the other day—”
“Forget it,” Harry said. “Please.”
Louis finally met Harry’s eyes, and whatever he saw seemed to either satisfy him or at least calm him. “All right,” he said. “It’s gonna be a good song, Harry.”
“Maybe even perfect,” Harry said, starting to smile. Louis, who had written that at the top as a potential title, groaned loudly and threw his pen at Harry before walking away.
“That was terrible, Styles!” he called over his shoulder, and Harry, grinning, went to type up the lyrics on his laptop so they could have them for email.
The thing about song writing was that it was done by committee. Sure, some people wrote the lyrics and music themselves, but even they usually had the input of a friend or a producer to help tweak it one way or another. When it came to Harry and his band, none of them had proper musical training, and their lyrics were usually in need of shaping, so their songs sometimes ended up going through to five, six people before returning to them.
“Perfect”—since it had never gotten a different title even after floating through four other songwriters—came back as a little more optimistic, a little more charming than the original draft, but Harry liked it, and so, to his surprise, did Louis. They sat down with Julian when the lyrics were nailed down and started playing with the different arrangements that had been suggested. This was the part that Liam and Niall really loved, whereas Louis and Harry tended to immerse themselves in the words. But it was fun to play around singing different versions of the melody and deciding which one fit the best.
And Harry had fun writing with Louis, who was still the same irrepressible mischief-maker that he had been when Harry first met him. Half the time he couldn’t sit still, getting up and messing with Julian’s board or writing on Niall’s cue sheets, and the other half of the time he was insanely focused, incredibly critical of everything they tried. And it worked.
When the first demo was ready to play for Liam and Niall, they all gathered in Julian’s hotel room to listen. Liam looked thoughtful the entire time, while Niall kept glancing between Harry and Louis like he was trying to figure something out. Harry twisted his hands together in his lap, reminding himself that if it were a terrible song, it wouldn’t have gotten this far. Still, this was the part he liked the least about writing songs for the band; it was nerve-wracking waiting for their opinion.
“Fuck, that’s good,” Niall said as soon as the recording ended. “That should be one of the singles for sure.”
“Yeah,” Liam said, already pulling the lyrics toward him and starting to write down some notes. “I like it a lot. Harry, you should take the chorus.”
“Why?” Harry asked. “I thought we could share it.”
“Maybe the second half, but it’s your song, really,” Liam said, glancing at Louis. “I know Lou helped, but—you should have it, Harry.”
“Yeah,” Louis said, speaking up for the first time since Liam and Niall came in the room. “This is yours.”
“Okay,” Harry said after a moment. “Should we give it a bit of a try then, all four of us?”
Harry met Louis’s eyes as he was singing, and felt a thrill down his spine when he realized Louis had been watching him. Louis smiled and mouthed, Good job.
The tour wound on, and the album recording sessions went later and later as they worked out harmonies, listened to Julian’s different mixes, talked about track order. They were all growing worn at the edges, a combination of mental and physical exhaustion. Harry found it difficult to find the time to eat properly, resorting to smoothies or bullet coffee when he wasn’t grazing on food in the green room at whatever stadium they were playing. Louis was up seemingly at all hours, going out with Niall, writing with Liam, or on the phone with his family or Bree.
There were times Harry kept turning expecting to see Zayn. Harry wanted to talk to him, wanted to get his input. If he had still been around, it might have been him he had gone to for help with the song rather than Louis, because Zayn got it. He and Perrie’s relationship had been so heavily scrutinized that Harry couldn’t understand how they could stand it for that long. Maybe that was why it had all fallen apart, in the end.
He texted Zayn sometimes; but after the first five remained unanswered save for, I need time, sent at half three in the morning England time, Harry let it go. At some point, Zayn would come back to them, as a friend if nothing else, and until then Harry would have to accept that. Even if it hurt.
They decided, as the end of their North American dates approached, that they would take a break after the album was released and they had fulfilled all their commitments. “I’m gonna go home and not do anything for days,” Niall said after the band meeting ended and Louis had wandered off to find something to eat. Niall sounded utterly thrilled at the prospect. Harry was pretty sure he’d go mental if he did that.
“So if you’re doing that, Louis’s got the baby and the label stuff, I’m going to do some production and music, then what about you, Harry?” Liam asked, smiling. “Anything wild up your sleeve?”
“Might do something with all those songs I have written,” Harry said. “Maybe spend some time in LA.”
“Don’t be a stranger,” Liam teased gently. “You know we all miss you when you’re so far away.”
Sometimes it was easier, Harry didn’t say. People in England had expectations for him. He had a hundred different obligations when he was home, between his friends and his family and the band. In LA, people always wanted to take him places and show him things, but it wasn’t anything he had to do. And as much as he was a known quantity there, he could usually walk down the street without being mobbed by fans or paparazzi.
“Yeah,” Harry said. “I’m sure my mum and Gemma would want to see me.” He smiled and poked Liam in the side. “You’ll be begging me to go back to LA before long.”
“Never,” Liam said.
Harry had to pull him into a hug for that, and then Niall was piling on, and Harry loved these boys so much it hurt a bit. They needed a break, they all knew that. Still, they had been his entire life for the last five years.
“I’ll miss you,” he said into Liam’s shoulder, and Liam laughed wetly, hand tightening on Harry’s waist.
At the end of tour party in Ottawa, Harry got pleasantly buzzed with the band and Dan, hanging off of him and thanking him about a hundred times for coming with them. “Dude,” Dan said, pulling Harry away, “you let me tag along. Not the other way around.”
“But I love you,” Harry tried to explain. Dan was such a good friend, he thought. He squeezed Dan’s cheeks and beamed at him. “You write songs with me.”
“Yeah,” Dan said, starting to grin. “I do. Dude, you’re wasted.”
“Not wasted,” Harry said. “Bit pissed is all. The band doesn’t really write songs with me. Louis did, though.”
“Well, you have different styles,” Dan said. “You all right, Harry?”
“I’m gonna get some water,” Harry announced, standing up and making his wobbly way over to the bar. He downed about three glasses of water before he started to feel a bit more like himself, and by then he was remembering that he should probably go get some sleep if he wanted to be remotely human the next day. He kissed everyone goodbye, gave Caroline and Aino double kisses, and left with Dale in tow to mind any fans. Once in his hotel room, he showered, drank a lot more water, and crawled into bed with the intention of sleeping straight through to the morning.
Of course, that meant that at quarter past two, there was a loud, obnoxious knocking at his door.
Harry blinked sightlessly up at the ceiling as the knocking persisted, came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a dream, and hauled himself upright to investigate. When he looked through the peephole, he saw the familiar mess of Louis’s hair, and he opened up, frowning.
“Louis, what on earth—”
“I’ve been thinking,” Louis said. His voice was loud. Harry could smell the alcohol on his breath. “About what you said.”
“About what I said when?” Harry asked, opening the door to let Louis inside. “You’ll have to be a bit more specific.”
Louis stumbled inside, kicking off his shoes and wrestling with his jacket before Harry stopped him and unzipped it for him. “Thanks,” Louis muttered, throwing the jacket haphazardly in the direction of the dresser. “I was thinking about how you said you’re in love with me.”
“Oh,” Harry said. “I thought we weren’t going to talk about it.”
“That isn’t fair, though,” Louis said, getting up into Harry’s space. Once, he would have been able to properly crowd Harry, but Harry’s growth spurt between ages eighteen and twenty had meant that Harry practically towered over him now. Louis had to tilt his head up to glare at him. Harry tried not to find that weirdly endearing. “What if I want to talk about it?”
“You said that you couldn’t, like, reciprocate,” Harry said. “So what is there to talk about?”
“I didn’t say I couldn’t, I said I didn’t,” Louis said. He prodded Harry in the sternum. It hurt a surprising amount. “What I don’t get is why.”
“Why I like you?”
“No, obviously I’m amazing,” Louis said, though his gaze slid away at that and Harry knew that Louis was probably mentally cataloguing all the faults he was aware of in a self-hating spiral. “I mean why tell me at all?”
Harry sighed and started pushing Louis toward the bed so he might eventually be able to go back to sleep. “I dunno. I suppose I just wanted to keep this from being, like, an anchor. If you give voice to something, it helps you let it go, isn’t that how it works? That’s why we write songs.”
“So you don’t want to be in love with me,” Louis said. He actually sounded a little hurt. Harry gave him an extra shove, frowning, and sat on the bed.
“Lou,” he said, exasperated, “you don’t return my feelings, so yes, it would be nice not to—”
Louis kissed him.
For an awful moment, Harry kissed back. Then the tang of alcohol registered, and he remembered that Louis was far, far too drunk for this, and he reeled back, shaking his head. Louis tried to follow, but Harry held out his hand to stop him.
“Louis,” he said, “I don’t want you to be angry with me in the morning.”
“I wouldn’t,” Louis said.
“You would.” Harry moved past him to take some of the pillows off the bed, then started yanking off the duvet. “Take the bed.”
“Where are you going to sleep?” Louis asked, then nodded as Harry pointed at the floor. “Oh.”
“Go to sleep, Louis,” Harry said tiredly, and he curled up in the nest of blankets and pillows on the floor, and went, slowly, back to sleep.
Harry woke in the morning to the sound of Louis retching in the ensuite. Harry dragged himself up, rubbing at his face before going to stand in the doorway and trying not to gag at the smell of sick. After a moment, he took a glass, filled it up at the tap and went to sit at the edge of the bath. When Louis surfaced, his hair sticking to his sweaty forehead, he was pale and drawn, and he accepted the glass of water gratefully.
“Morning,” Harry said, reaching out to rest his hand on Louis’s shoulder. “Feeling a bit peaky, are we?”
“Fuck you,” Louis said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “How are you not ill?”
“I take care of myself.” Harry was not the best caretaker of people when they were ill, but he made himself move Louis’s hair away from his forehead. “Do you want any brekkie?”
“Fuck no,” Louis said. “I want a shower.”
“I’ll grab you something to wear,” Harry said. He rose to his feet and padded from the room. From his bag he pulled a pair of trackies he suspected were Liam’s and a loose shirt for Louis to wear. Louis thanked him in an undertone and then slammed the door to the ensuite in Harry’s face. Harry decided not to take it personally.
Louis emerged from his shower looking better and much more human. With his hair slicked away from his face, he looked otherworldly, his sharp, lovely features on full display. From the first time Harry saw him, he’d been struck by Louis’s appearance and how different he looked. Almost ethereal in the right light. It still took his breath away at times to see Louis like this, eyes downcast, face harshly lit by the bathroom lights.
“Thanks,” Louis said after a beat, looking at the mess of blankets and pillows on the floor. “You didn’t have to give me the bed.”
“You were pissed,” Harry said. “I wasn’t going to make you sleep on the floor.”
“And you didn’t want to share,” Louis said. His eyes flick up to Harry. “You didn’t want to make me uncomfortable in the morning.”
“No,” Harry said. “Do you remember kissing me?”
Louis ran a hand through his hair, wincing. “Yeah. I’m sorry about that. I shouldn’t have done that to you.”
Harry nodded, reaching up twist his own hair into a bun. Lou would probably say it wasn’t as nice as what she could do, but oh well. “So why did you?”
“I don’t know,” Louis said. “God, I don’t know, Haz. I’m so mixed up inside right now.” He wrapped his arms around himself “I hate this. I don’t like to think that, I don’t know, that there’s something I missed.”
“What did you miss?” Harry asked, frowning.
“You,” Louis said. “Being in love with me. Shouldn’t I have known?”
“I’ve been doing my best not to let you know,” Harry said, starting to smile despite himself. Of course Louis felt like that; he hated being left on the outside. “You should be surprised I told you at all.”
“If we hadn’t written the song, would you have?” Louis was shaking like a leaf now, and Harry didn’t feel remotely like smiling anymore. “How long would you have gone without telling me, Harry?”
“I don’t know,” Harry said. He turned away from Louis to start packing up his bag, but then Louis was taking his wrist, pulling him back. “Louis.”
“We can’t do this,” Louis said. His jaw was set combatively, waiting for Harry to push back. “We can’t hide shit like this from each other, Harry, that’s how—that’s what happened with Zayn, he didn’t tell us what was bothering him and we couldn’t help him.”
“I’m not going to leave the band because I’m in love with you,” Harry said, gently prying Louis’s hand off him. “I haven’t yet, have I?’
“It’s the little things that build up,” Louis said. “Isn’t it? One by one, until you can’t stand the sight of me.”
“Not everything is fixable.” Harry hesitantly put his arm around Louis’s shoulders, then pulled him in when Louis didn’t flinch away. “Zayn did what he had to do.”
“He left us,” Louis said, reaching up to grab at Harry’s shirt. “How could he do that?”
Harry rested his chin atop Louis’s head and didn’t know how to answer; he couldn’t answer. If he knew, perhaps he could have stopped it. More likely not. “I won’t leave you,” Harry said quietly. “You’re one of my best mates and I love you. No matter what else, I do love you as a friend.”
“Hasn’t stopped people before,” Louis said, barely audible. He carefully wraps his arms around Harry’s waist, fingers digging into Harry’s back. Harry could do nothing else but hold on until Louis stopped shaking like he was about to fall apart.
After that, things eased between them. Louis and Harry had been inching back towards closer—and more public—friendship already, but now Louis seemed to relax more around Harry. Harry wondered if Louis had subconsciously known that Harry was keeping something back, or if it was just that Louis was reassured by understanding Harry. Niall and Liam brightened with them, Niall in particular, and as the year wound on toward the album release, they found themselves getting along better than they had in ages.
“I’m going to miss this,” Liam said late one day after a seemingly endless number of interviews. He looked tired, and he was on his fourth disgustingly sugary tea. Louis was curled up next to him eating chips and looking like a smug but tired cat. Harry pet his hair absently on his way to grab an apple, and couldn’t help the thrill of delight that went through him when Louis beamed up at him.
“Miss this?” Louis asked Liam in disbelief. “Sitting around the same room all day and answering the same five questions a million times?”
“It is kind of fun when we dare each other to give better answers,” Niall said from where he was perusing the snack table. “But Louis’s right, Liam. Who would say this is fun?”
“I didn’t say it was fun, I said I’m going to miss it,” Liam said. “It’s boring, sure, but it’s a full day with you lads. What’s not to love?”
“Oh, Liam,” Harry said, cupping his face and batting his eyelashes. “You charmer.”
“Shut it,” Liam said, stealing one of Louis’s chips and bunging it at Harry—“Oi!” Louis said indignantly—before settling back. “You’re all my family, you know that. I’m looking forward to having a break, but it’ll be weird not seeing you every day.”
“Yeah,” agreed Niall after a pause. He slid over to Harry, leaning into him. “He’s right.”
Harry tugged Niall into his side and hugged him. “Yeah,” he said. He looked at his boys, for a moment not seeing them as they were but as they had been, Liam with his wild curls, Louis with his softer features and clean-shaven cheeks, Niall pink and cherubic, and Zayn, beautiful and quiet and wryly funny. “It’s been a good five years.”
“This is getting a bit depressing, lads,” Louis said with forced cheer. He clambered up to prop his elbows on the back of the couch, peering at them. “Are you going to be miserable all day or can we have a bit of fun?”
“Oh no,” Liam said in a doomed tone of voice. Louis smirked, winking at Harry. Harry ducked his head to hide his laugh, and Niall buried his chuckle in Harry’s arm.
Several hours later, Harry was face-down in Liam’s suitcase, laughing hysterically as Louis sorted Liam’s socks out in a rainbow around him before methodically pairing them incorrectly. Liam was off on the phone with Sophia, which had been a tactical error on his part, in Harry’s opinion. Niall was sitting in the corner taking pictures of them and laughing. Harry didn’t want to know.
“We’ve got to think of something else,” Louis said imperiously, tugging at a strand of Harry’s hair. “Haz, any good ideas?”
Harry rolled over so he was facing up and tilted his head back until he could see Louis’s face. “Well, he’s on his mobile, so we can’t do anything with that,” he said. “Maybe his laptop?”
“He’s got a password, though,” Niall said, looking up.
“How hard could that be to figure it out?” Louis scoffed. He rummaged around in Liam’s backpack and pulled out his Macbook. “Ten quid says it’s something like SophiaILoveYou.”
“You’re on,” Niall said. He got to his feet and came to sit on the bed next to Louis. Harry sat up, intending to join them, but spotted a familiar-looking box under one of Liam’s shirts. He reached in and grinned when he saw it was, in fact, a rather large package of condoms.
“You do that,” he said to them. “I’ve got other corn to pop.”
“Whatever,” Louis said, flapping his hand. Harry took the condoms with him into the bathroom and started ripping the foils open before sticking them under the tap.
Niall came to investigate what he was doing when Harry was about halfway through the box. He whistled when he saw the small pile of condom water balloons in the bathtub and said, “This is going better than Louis’s plan.”
“That is because I am brilliant,” Harry said, tying off the latest condom. “Put this in the tub?”
With Niall to help, Harry made short work of the rest of the package. When they were through, they stood over the bathtub to survey their work. Niall nodded after a moment, took out his phone, and snapped a picture. “Legend,” he said. “Liam’s gonna piss himself.”
“It is good, isn’t it?” Harry put his hands on his hips and gazed over the condom-filled bathtub with pride. “Although I suppose if Liam ends up knocking up Sophia, it’ll be our fault.”
“Eh, babies are fun,” Niall said. He slung his arm around Harry’s waist. “Let’s go check up on Tommo.”
Louis was still hunched over Liam’s computer, looking distinctly annoyed now. “I’ve tried every combination of Liam and Sophia’s names that I can think of,” he said when Harry and Niall sit on either side of him. “I’ve tried their birthdays and their anniversary, and I’ve tried their dog’s name.”
“What about his mum’s birthday?” Niall suggested.
“I don’t know Karen’s birthday,” Louis said huffily. “I was going to text her but I thought it’d be rude to ask her the year.”
“Maybe a bit,” Harry agreed. “Not the kind of thing you can ask casually.”
“Wait,” Niall said, poking Harry in the back. “Listen.”
They all fell silent. Liam’s voice was just audible, muffled by the door but obviously just outside it. Louis swore, slammed the laptop shut, and shoved it back into Liam’s bag before gesturing for Harry to close up the suitcase. “Quick!” he hissed.
Harry had just gotten it zipped up when the door opened and Liam came in, phone in his hand. He paused, squinting at them suspiciously. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Niall said. He faked a yawn, stretching his arms out. “I’m knackered. See you in the morning.”
“All right,” Liam said, still clearly suspicious. “Night.”
Harry glared at Niall as he slipped out the door, grinning hugely the moment he was out of Liam’s line of sight. That was what he had planned on saying, the bastard. He chanced a look at Louis and saw that his mouth was pressed tight like he was trying very hard not to blurt out what they had done. Harry grabbed Louis’s wrist and started towing him toward the door. “Well, we’d better go too,” he said brightly. “You go to sleep.”
“Yeah, I reckon I need a shower,” Liam said, rubbing at his face. He went to the bathroom door as Harry redoubled his efforts to get Louis out of the room. “Good night, Harry, Louis.”
“Yeah!” Harry said. He yanked Louis harder and hissed, “Come on.”
“What did you do?” Louis asked as Harry opened the door and started pushing Louis through it. “Harry!”
“Oh my god!” came Liam’s anguished cry from inside the ensuite. “Louis!”
“Go!” Harry said, and he took off down the hall toward his room, Louis hot on his heels. Harry fumbled out his key and dashed inside his room. Louis followed him in, and they slammed the door shut behind them. Harry collapsed against the wall, giggling, as Louis bent over double with his hands on his knees.
“What did you do?” Louis asked again when he regained his breath. “If I’m going to be blamed for it, I ought to know.”
“I filled all his condoms with water and put them in the bathtub,” Harry said, grinning.
Louis stared up at him, then slowly started to smile. “That’s wicked,” he said. He pushed up on his toes and kissed Harry, just at the side of his mouth. Harry froze. After an impossibly long moment, Louis stepped back. His face was flushed, and he didn’t meet Harry’s gaze.
“Louis,” Harry said quietly. “You can’t—not if you don’t mean it.”
Louis nodded. “I know,” he said. “Sorry.” He wrapped his arms around himself and smiled wryly. “I’m well good at fucking this up, aren’t I?”
“Hey,” Harry said. “Don’t do that. Rules are you can’t talk about yourself like that, okay?”
“Since when?” Louis asked.
“Since now,” Harry said. He reached out to rub Louis’s shoulder. “That’s the person I love you’re insulting, after all.”
It was supposed to be a joke, but from the anguished look Louis turned on him, it wasn’t successful. “I’m not trying to be such a bastard,” he said. “I’d never hurt you, Haz.”
“I know,” Harry said. “You’re good like that.” He opened the door again. “But you should know that you don’t have to give yourself to me to get me to stay. That isn’t how it works, it isn’t a quid pro quo.”
“What’s with the Latin?” Louis asked crossly.
“You don’t owe me yourself,” Harry said. “I love you, but I don’t expect anything. And it’s not on you to keep me around. It isn’t your responsibility to keep us all together.”
“Good,” Louis said, “because I’ve mucked that up already if it was.” He stood in the doorway for a moment. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “I don’t know why I keep doing that.”
“Maybe you should think about it,” Harry said, abruptly exhausted and fed up. “Good night, Louis.” He shut the door before Louis could say anything else, and he took himself to bed.
End of tour was always chaotic, a mess of future plans and exhaustion. This year was further complicated by dealing with the album release and their plans for the break in March, and by the fact that Louis was back to avoiding being alone with Harry, though he was refreshingly subtle about it.
In Ireland, they were hit with a double whammy of group food poisoning right after Liam and Sophia broke up over the phone. Liam got the worst of the food poisoning, too; he was still sick after the rest of them had recovered, in and out of the bathroom while they set up for the show. Liam kept insisting he was fine to perform only to break down sobbing when he tried to sing and realized how wrecked his voice was from being sick all day. Harry sighed and bundled Liam up into a hug, petting his hair as Niall went to fetch Sam and Louis made Liam a cup of tea.
“We’re going to have to cancel,” Harry said. Liam felt really hot; maybe it was a stomach flu and not food poisoning for him. “You can’t go on like this.”
“We can’t cancel!” Liam said, voice thick. “People have been looking forward to it. It’ll break their hearts.” His voice cracked and he pushed his face into Harry’s chest. Harry was going to have to be sure this shirt got in the wash.
“Reschedule, then,” Harry said soothingly. “Liam, we have to. We can’t go on without you.”
“Sure you can,” Liam said wetly. “We can’t disappoint them.”
“They’ll be disappointed if you aren’t there,” Harry said. He looked up to Louis for help, and Louis nodded. “See, Louis agrees.”
“Haz is right, Liam,” Louis said, bringing the mug of tea over. “I put a fuckload of sugar in, so it had better be enough.”
“Thanks,” Liam said, taking it. “Are you sure you can’t go on without me?”
“Absolutely not,” Louis said. He sat down on Liam’s other side and pinched his thigh. “You’re our backbone, Payno.”
Niall came back in then and said, “I told Sam to reschedule the show.” He settled in beside Harry and snuggled in until Harry put his arm around his shoulders. “You should go to bed, Liam. Get some sleep.”
Liam groaned, inhaling the steam from his mug. “I don’t want to. It’s lonely in there.”
Harry and Louis exchanged glances. “Well,” Harry said slowly, “we might be able to help with that.”
They ended up squeezed in together on Liam’s hotel bed, Liam in the middle. Niall had his leg thrown over Liam’s to keep from rolling off the edge, and Louis and Harry were pressed up tight along the other side. The TV was tuned to a channel showing football, though Harry didn’t know what game, and Liam and Louis were whispering to each other quietly. Occasionally Harry heard the snatch of a name—Sophia, or Eleanor, or Bree—and he knew better than to intrude. Liam was a hopeless romantic, and he fell in love quickly and deeply. He always believed his relationships would survive the chaos of their lives; Harry went into most of his knowing how they would fail.
When it came to talking to Liam about love, Harry and Niall always left the job to Louis, who understood Liam in ways Harry never would. Though he was a cynic, Louis was at his heart as much a romantic as Liam. When he fell, he fell hard. It had been over a year since he and Eleanor split, and Harry still sometimes saw the cracks of it in Louis’s smile. Harry had gone to Louis for the song because of that; because Louis knew the pain of failure. Liam would blame himself, of course, but his reaction to relationships ending was always try again; try better. Harry and Louis’s reaction was more: of course.
It wasn’t that Harry didn’t want to find a relationship that worked, or that he didn’t love the people he had been with. He simply knew his faults, and there was some part of him that was always weighing the possibilities. That was something he and Taylor had understood, though he knew she thought he didn’t consider consequences as much as she did. But he thought about them all the time.
Liam fell asleep a little after ten, having exhausted himself. Louis rolled over onto his back, jostling Harry, and sighed, throwing his arm over his eyes. “God,” he said. “I really thought they’d be the ones to make it. I hoped—they were proof, you know? That it was possible.”
Harry slipped his hand into Louis’s and squeezed before letting go. “We’re young still,” he said. “It won’t always be like this.”
“This year,” Niall said from Liam’s other side, keeping his voice low. “There’ll finally be time.” He reached across Liam’s hips to rest his hand on Louis’s belly. “There’s someone out there for you, Lou.”
Louis lifted his arm, and he met Harry’s eyes. “Yeah,” he said. There was something in his expression Harry couldn’t read, and Harry had spent the last five years analysing Louis’s expressions. “I suppose there must be.”
“That’s the spirit,” Niall said. “And for you, Haz, but I think you already knew that.”
Harry smiled and pressed his forehead against Louis’s shoulder. “Thank you, though, Nialler.”
A moment later, Louis’s hand found Harry’s again. His palm was a little clammy, and he held on a bit too tight, but Harry didn’t say anything. He bit the inside of his lip and closed his eyes.
The last night of the tour was emotional. It always was, but there was a sense of finality to it this time that they never had before. Harry gave it his all on stage, absorbing every moment of it: the heat of the spotlights, the rush of performing, the music thrumming through his bones. When, at the end of the night, they began hugging as they always did, he hugged Liam tight, gripped Niall’s hand, and looked to Louis. There was a brief hesitation—they had never hesitated like that before—and then Louis shrugged as if to say fuck it.
The screams rocketed up noticeably the moment Louis shrugged. For a moment his expression flickered, and Harry was about to stop, but then Louis came in for the hug. Harry smiled, squeezing Louis tight, and thought, There we go.
The first time they had ever hugged was way before judges’ houses, back before they’d known how important they would be to each other’s lives. Louis had been the cool older lad, the one who was always joking and playing off like he didn’t care. But he did care; Harry saw that when he performed. Before they went on, when he was shaking with nerves and suppressing the urge to vomit, Louis came over to tell Harry good luck, that he was sure to get through. They took a picture together, beaming at the camera—or, well, Harry was, Louis was sticking out his tongue—and then Louis hugged him, the way an older brother might.
“You’ll be fine,” he said. “Even if you don’t get through this time, you will next year.”
He had sounded so sure. That was what Harry remembered later, when Simon put them together in the band. Louis was sure of him. Louis believed in him. To Harry at sixteen, that had been the greatest gift anyone had ever given him.
Harry freely admitted now that he had been a little obsessed with Louis when they first started. They all had been, even Liam and Zayn who tried not to show it as much. He was older, and he was cool, and he had a strange but definitive sense of style. He didn’t seem to care what anyone thought, and he was brash and funny and so, so honest. Louis, for his part, had blossomed under the attention, especially Harry’s; he seemed to take pride in Harry’s admiration for him.
Harry only realized later that this was because Louis was as desperate for approval and validation as he was. That Louis was funny and brash and honest, but he was also proud and needy and lonely. He was flawed, chipped in some ways, and he was perfect. And Harry loved him for it.
Louis stepped back. In the stage lights, his eyes shone suspiciously bright, but Harry didn’t say anything. He felt much the same: full up with feeling.
They gathered in for a group hug at the end, and Liam looked as though he might start properly blubbing, which Louis was sure to tease him about later, only he looked emotional as well. Proper sad sacks they’d become in their old age.
As they left the stage, Louis snagged Harry’s hand and said, “When we get back to the hotel, can I come round to yours?”
Harry raised his eyebrows. “Yeah,” he said after a moment. “Sure. Is something the matter?”
“No,” Louis said, “I don’t think so.” He smiled, and it looked real. “We’ll see, I guess.”
That was ominous enough that Harry frowned after him, but he pushed it from his mind in the post-concert madness. By the time he got back to his room, he’d half-forgotten Louis’s request, but he had only been inside for long enough to change out of his clothes when Louis knocked.
“Hey,” Harry said, letting him in. Louis took in his mostly-naked state, snorted, and closed the door behind him. “What’s going on?”
“I’ve been thinking a lot,” Louis said. Harry opened his mouth to make a joke, but Louis held up his hand to stave him off. “I think I’ve been kissing you mostly because I’m afraid of losing you.”
“I’d worked that out, funny enough,” Harry said. Louis shushed him.
“It’s mostly because of that,” Louis said. “It’s also because—well, because I want to kiss you.” He tilted his chin up defiantly. “If that’s all right with you.”
“If that’s—” Harry shook his head incredulously. “Louis, I can’t do this if it’s just you, I don’t know, getting it out of your system, or if it’s just because I want you.”
“It isn’t,” Louis said. “I’ve been thinking about it, like I said.” His gaze slid down Harry’s chest, then jerked up almost guiltily. That, more than anything, convinced Harry that Louis wasn’t faking his desire. “Can we, just for tonight, pretend we aren’t ourselves?”
Harry hesitated before pushing some of Louis’s hair back from his face, then trailed his hand down to rest against Louis’s throat. Louis swallowed, eyes huge. He looked desperate, and as Harry stared down at him, he licked his lips. “Please,” he said, and at that Harry groaned and pulled Louis into him.
Louis was as pushy as Harry might have imagined., if he had allowed himself to think much on what Louis would be like in bed. He shoved Harry up against the wall, fingers digging into Harry’s biceps, and he kissed like it was a fight. Harry gave as good as he got, hitching Louis closer until Louis’s dick was pressed against Harry’s thigh. Louis’s breath caught in his throat, and Harry ducked his head to press his mouth to Louis’s pulse.
“Can’t leave marks,” Louis reminded him, already sounding breathless. Harry dropped his hands to Louis’s arse and squeezed; Louis moaned and tilted his head back to give Harry a better angle.
When Harry got them to the bed and Louis had stripped down to his pants, tossing everything in the vague direction of Harry’s suitcase, Louis abruptly became shy, eyes downcast as Harry took him in. He had seen Louis naked many times before, and nothing about it was new. Still, Harry felt he’d probably never be able to get his fill of this, Louis bare and flushed. Harry cupped Louis’s cheek, kissed the side of his mouth, his cheek, his eyelids, until Louis finally looked at him.
“Hey,” Harry said. “If you’re uncomfortable, we can stop.”
“I’m not,” Louis said. He guided Harry’s hand to the front of his briefs to rest over his dick. “I promise. This is all just a bit new.”
“That can be fun,” Harry said, tracing his fingers along Louis’s length. Louis shivered, mouth going slack. “Tell me what you want.”
Louis swallowed. “Touch me?” he suggested. Harry kissed him for that and eased down Louis’s briefs until he could get his hand around Louis’s dick, beautifully flushed and perfect in Harry’s hand. Louis’s hand caught in Harry’s hair, pulling as he arched into the touch. Harry swallowed a startled moan, filing away that thought for later—Louis pulling at his hair as Harry sucked him, oh, that was a thought—and focused instead on bringing Louis off. It was a bit dry, but when Harry offered to go dig out some lube, Louis shook his head frantically.
“I like it like this,” he said, cheeks pinking up again.
So Harry wanked him off roughly, kissing his slack mouth until Louis’s hand tightened in Harry’s hair once again, and then he was coming, surprisingly silent. Harry stroked him through it, cradling Louis to his chest, until Louis moaned quietly and pushed Harry’s hand away.
“How was that?” Harry asked the top of Louis’s head. He was still achingly hard, but he’d had some practice holding off. It was always better when it was delayed a little. “Good?”
“Yeah.” Louis turned his face up to Harry’s, worrying at his lower lip. “Can I—” He groped for Harry’s cock and squeezed.
“Whatever you want,” Harry said. Louis snorted.
“How kind of you,” he said, sounding more like his usual self. “Gonna help me get these pants off?”
Harry squirmed out of his pants and kicked them off the bed. He would have to remember to pick them up later. “Have at it, then.”
Louis wrapped his hand around Harry and laughed. “I knew you were big, Haz,” he said, running his thumb along the underside. “But this is a bit much.”
Harry shrugged, smiling. “It’s been good to me.”
“Good for you,” Louis corrected. He seemed fascinated by the feeling of Harry in his hand, staring down at it as he stroked slowly, almost tentatively. If Harry didn’t know that Louis was genuinely out of his element, he would have suspected him of being an awful tease. He probably was that, too, Harry admitted to himself.
“Yeah,” Harry said, doing his best not to buck up his hips. “It isn’t going to bite, you know.”
“I might,” Louis said, and he ducked down to bite Harry’s thigh. Harry yelped, his dick twitching in Louis’s hand at the sharp spike of pleasure. Louis’s grip loosened in surprise, and he glanced up at Harry, eyes narrowed. Harry tensed, unsure what Louis was thinking; but then Louis bit him again, and Harry moaned.
“Ahh,” Louis said, sounding incredibly smug. “All right, then.”
Louis wanked Harry off so slowly Harry might have been annoyed, except he accompanied it with bites to the insides of Harry’s thighs and across his hips by Harry’s laurel tattoos. Harry was trembling by the time Louis rose up onto his knees, face like a cat who’d gotten the cream—ha, Harry thought, cream—and began moving his hand faster. Harry came with a startled yelp, his orgasm hitting him suddenly and hard, and Louis smirked as Harry collapsed, panting, against the pillows.
“Fuck,” Harry said, covering his face with his hands. “You absolute bastard.”
“You love it,” Louis said. He pried Harry’s hands away and kissed him firmly. “Good?”
“You know it was,” Harry said. “Fishing for compliments?”
“Maybe a bit.” Louis sprawled out on Harry’s chest like a particularly heavy blanket. “But also asking to befor sure.”
“It was brilliant,” Harry said. He rested his hand on the back of Louis’s neck. “God, this is—” He shook his head, unable to find the words, and brought Louis back down for a kiss. Louis went easily, let Harry roll them over so he was on top, kissing him until Louis’s lips were swollen and his eyes dazed. Harry nuzzled into Louis’s neck; he could already feel the beard burn prickling his lips. “I wish it wasn’t just tonight.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Louis said after a beat. He traced his fingers along the head of one of Harry’s swallows, then dipped down to the moth. “It’s easier to pretend that we aren’t who we are, that this doesn’t mean anything, really. But it could mean something.”
Harry twitched as Louis hit a ticklish spot. “What?”
“I’m saying—not that it’s smart or logical or whatever—but I think I could love you,” Louis said. “And that isn’t about me wanting to keep you. Or it is, but it’s about wanting to keep you for me. Just for me.” He dragged his fingers up, finding each of Harry’s nipples, smiling when Harry frowned at him. “We have this break coming up. You’ll be in LA, you said, and I’ll be in LA, so. We might be able to do something like date, if we’re careful. See how it goes.”
“What about the fans?” Harry asked. “I know it makes you uncomfortable what they say about us.”
Louis sighed and dropped his hand. “I don’t like it when people think they know me,” he said. “They don’t. This doesn’t belong to anyone but us.”
“No,” Harry said. “This is our thing.” He turned them over again so Louis was against his chest and ran his hand up and down Louis’s spine. Louis shivered as Harry reached the dip above his arse and pressed his face into Harry’s ribs. “And it doesn’t have to be anything you’re—we’re—not ready for.”
“I don’t know what I’m ready for,” Louis said into Harry’s skin. “I don’t know what this is yet. Only that I want it.”
“Do we tell the lads?” Harry asked. “We should, shouldn’t we? No secrets. That’s what we agreed.”
“Liam knows,” Louis said. “I told him what I was thinking about.”
“I’ll talk to Niall, then.” Harry stilled his hand over the small of Louis’s back. “I won’t let this come between anything, Louis. No matter what happens. This doesn’t change anything.”
“Of course it does,” Louis said. “I’m starting to think that might not be so terrible, though.” He shifted over so he was straddling Harry’s hips again and bent in to kiss him; and all other conversation was forgotten.
Harry didn’t have a chance to speak with Niall in private for several days after that. When he finally did get him alone, it took him a while to get to the point, and when he finished by saying, “So I suppose we’re dating,” Niall burst out laughing.
“Sorry,” he said. “Sorry, that’s what you were trying to tell me?”
“Yes?” Harry said, confused. “What?”
“You spent the first half of that speech talking about how emotional songwriting is,” Niall said. “Harry.” He embraced him warmly. “Bit of a surprise, mate, but you know I’m properly romantic. I’ll be rooting for you.” He sobered up then, though he was still smiling. “Any idea what you’re going to say to the label or PR?”
“Nothing yet,” Harry said. “We’re going on the break anyway. They don’t need to know, do they?”
“Of course they do,” Niall said, “but I don’t blame you for wanting to keep it to yourselves.” He leaned into Harry, jostling his shoulder playfully. “You look miserable for someone who’s in love.”
“I’m worried I don’t know how to do this,” Harry admitted. “I told Louis it wouldn’t ruin the band, but it could. There are so many ways we could break up, Niall. It’s built on straw.”
“It’s built on fucking steel,” Niall corrected. “You and Louis have known each other for five years. You think Louis doesn’t already know all your weird habits or the things that will drive him mad? He wouldn’t risk the chance of falling in love if he didn’t mean it. You know him, he likes to keep his cards close to the vest on that stuff. He’s already opened more to you than he probably ever did to half his girlfriends.”
Harry tipped forward to rest his forehead on Niall’s shoulder. “God, Niall, I’m fucking bricking it.”
“I know, mate,” Niall said, rubbing Harry’s back soothingly. “That’s how you know it’s worth it.”
Harry remembered something Taylor had said once: that everyone thought love was supposed to be easy, and sometimes it was. But there were some loves you had to fight for, and those were the ones that left the biggest mark. The ending of a relationship wasn’t a failure, she had told him. It was a lesson. “So don’t be afraid to fall in love,” she had teased. That had been on their second date.
If she could see him now, he thought.
Louis was waiting with Liam when they came out of the dressing room. Niall beamed and swept him up in a hug as Liam grinned at Harry, reaching out to thump him on the shoulder. “This is mental, you know that?” Liam said. “You two are mental.” He ruffled Harry’s hair and Harry squawked indignantly, pushing him off.
“Just for that, Payno, I’m making Niall godfather and not you,” Louis said, then took off down the hall, yelling, as Liam made chase. Harry shook his head and slung an arm around Niall’s shoulders.
“What a pair of idiots,” Niall said fondly.
“Hey,” Harry said. “That’s my boyfriend you’re talking about.”
Niall laughed. “I suppose it is.”
The time between the album release and the break seemed to go by in a series of snapshots: stolen moments with Louis between press junkets; Niall laboriously re-teaching Harry the guitar; playing the Live Lounge and going out with Nick after, Louis tagging along in not-so-silent protest; Christmas and New Year’s with the family and Gemma’s new boyfriend; the whirlwind of events leading up to March, from last minute business details to Bree giving birth, and then—
And then Harry was in Los Angeles, standing in the sunlit nursery Louis and Bree had set up, cradling the tiny Adeline in his arms and staring in awe. “God,” he said, astonished. Louis, standing beside him, made a quiet noise of assent. “Louis, she’s your daughter.”
“Yeah,” Louis said, hushed. But he was proud; Harry could hear it in his voice. “Can you believe it?”
Adeline yawned sleepily, showing off her gummy mouth, and blinking those bright blue eyes open. Harry’s breath caught, and his eyes prickled with unexpected, inexplicable tears. “God,” he said again. “How can you stand it?”
“I don’t know,” Louis said. “Every day I think I can’t possibly love her more, and every day I do.”
“It’s incredible,” Harry said. “She’s incredible.”
“Yeah,” Louis said. He rested his cheek against Harry’s shoulder. “She is.”
Harry spent the night there in Louis’s room; and the night after, and the night after that. Bree tolerated his presence graciously, admitting that she appreciated the extra help with the baby. By the end of the month, Harry only went back to his own place to get new clothes or to have a little privacy to write. It was a strange little family they made, and every day Harry was startled by how easy and how wonderful it was to wake up beside Louis. There were times he forgot that once this had seemed impossible. He was grateful he had been wrong.
After the first month, they split their time a little more evenly between their houses, and even cautiously ventured out into the city, though they had to be careful where they went. Niall teased them over Skype, said, “Why are you bothering going on dates? You’ve practically lived together for five years!” but it was the principle of the thing. Harry felt more like they were a real couple when they went on actual dates, and Louis seemed to feel the same, too. They liked going out and talking, telling each other stories they already knew and talking about Adeline, about song writing, about Liam’s latest mix. Then they could go home, kiss in the doorway, and stumble up to bed, like any other couple. Normal.
In May, Harry and Louis went to a party in Malibu, at a ridiculously gorgeous home that Harry not-so-secretly coveted. It was mostly Hollywood types there, including Harvey Weinstein, who had not given up on his mission to get Harry into a film. Harry was more than a little sceptical. “But maybe if the right part came along,” he had said to Louis the night before.
“Oh, the right part,” Louis had said, tickling Harry’s ribs. “You already sound like a boring actor. What would be the right, Mr Styles?”
“Comedy,” Harry had said.
Louis had burst into laughter, for which Harry smacked him in the face with a pillow.
Louis was distracted early into the party by Adam Levine, darting off to accost him. Harry let him go, already immersed in conversation with a woman who worked on James Corden’s show. He was in the midst of gossiping about James’s baby when he spotted Taylor, standing with Calvin Harris and looking every inch the same impossibly beautiful queen she had seemed when Harry first met her. Harry hadn’t even known she was in LA.
Taylor saw him too; her smile briefly faltered before she rescued it, and she excused herself from Calvin with a hand on his arm and a whisper in his ear. Harry made his apologies to his conversational partner and went to meet her. They embraced, exchanged cheek kisses, and Harry felt more like he was meeting an old classmate than an ex-girlfriend.
“It’s good to see you,” he said for lack of any better opening. “I didn’t know you were in town.”
“Same to you,” she said. “How are you enjoying your break?”
“It’s—” Harry thought about Louis, naked in his bed; about lying out in his back garden together; Adeline crawling through the house and them chasing after her. “It’s been really nice.”
“You needed a break,” Taylor said. “We all do, from time to time.” She paused, gaze sliding away from Harry’s face. Then she readjusted her smile, back to her picture-perfect image. “The album was good. I liked ‘Perfect’.”
“You aren’t just saying that?” Harry asked.
“No, of course not. And God knows I’ve written plenty about you.” Taylor touched the inside of his wrist, right over the pulse point. “It’s a good song.”
“I don’t know if I ever said I was sorry for how things—” Harry started, but Taylor was shaking her head before he could finish.
“No,” she said, “don’t be sorry. What we had was—perfect.” She laughed, and after a moment Harry did too. “Perfect for us. And awful. But important, too.” She lifted her other hand to his chin and tilted his head back gently. Looking for the scar. “You can still see it, a bit.”
“Only in the right light,” Harry said. Her hands were cool, and he could smell the perfume on her wrists, the same one she wore when they were together. He used to press his mouth to the inside of her arm and inhale the smell. Even now, if he caught a whiff of it, he would turn, half-expecting to see her standing there.
“I’m glad,” she said. “That’s what real love does, isn’t it? It leaves a mark, no matter how it ends.”
“You made me really happy,” Harry said. He wasn’t sure she knew that. “Despite everything, I was so happy.”
Taylor dropped her hand and stepped back. “Me too,” she said. For a moment, she lost her poise, biting her lip. “Are you happy now?”
“Yes,” Harry said. Over Taylor’s shoulder, he could see Louis talking animatedly with Adam, their heads bent in close together. “And you?”
Taylor broke into a smile, bright and real. “Yeah,” she said. “I am.”
Harry kissed her cheek goodbye before going to find Louis, who had finally finished talking off Adam Levine’s ear. Harry didn’t put his arm around Louis’s waist, though he wanted to, instead nudging him gently and said, “Taylor’s here.”
“How is that?” Louis asked quietly, turning in toward Harry. Harry didn’t think he’d ever get tired of that, of Louis turning into him again instead of away. “Not too awkward?”
“She likes the song,” Harry said. “I think we’re good.” He rubbed his hand over his heart. “It’s strange, like. Once I thought I’d always love her, you know?”
“We always think that about the people we’re with,” Louis said.
“I still care about her,” Harry said, “but it’s different now.” He chanced wrapping his hand around Louis’s wrist and squeezing. “Do you think that about me?”
“No,” Louis said. “I know I’ll always love you.” He flashed Harry a smile, only slightly tinged with sorrow. “That’ll be the hard part.”
They returned to Harry’s after that and undressed in the dark before Louis pressed Harry into the mattress. Their mouths missed at first, but then Louis found Harry’s lips, and they sank into each other. Louis loved kissing, Harry had discovered. Harry did too, and they could happily spend an hour or more lazily making out on the sofa. Tonight, though, Harry felt the need to reassure Louis. He kept thinking about Louis saying, that’ll be the hard part. Louis, who was waiting for them to fail.
Maybe it would, but Harry was done with defeatism. He held Louis tight as they fucked, Louis riding Harry’s cock with one hand braced on Harry’s chest, the other against the headboard. Harry could just make out Louis’s open mouth, the arch of his neck. Neither of them spoke. The only sounds Louis made were quiet gasps when he bottomed out. Harry gripped Louis’s hips, and he wondered if there would be a mark. Probably not, but it might be nice for Louis to have that. A reminder that Harry loved and wanted him.
Louis’s thighs shook as he ground back on Harry one last time, fingers curling in so his nails scraped at Harry’s chest. “Fuck,” he gasped, voice raw. “Oh, fuck, Harry, could you—”
“Yeah,” Harry breathed, reaching for Louis’s cock. He hardly got his hand on him before Louis was coming over Harry’s fist and chest. Harry bit the inside of his lip hard as he thrust up into Louis, feeling himself tipping over the edge, and he came with a low groan.
They lay there in silence for a while after Louis rolled off him and Harry threw away the condom. After a few minutes, Louis’s hand slipped into Harry’s. Harry laced their fingers together and kissed Louis’s knuckles.
“Hey,” Harry whispered. “I love you.”
Louis snorted, then started to laugh, the bed shaking with the force of it. Harry scowled at the dim outline of Louis’s body as Louis pressed his face into Harry’s arm to muffle his giggles. “I’m trying to be romantic and sincere, Louis,” he said disapprovingly.
“I know,” Louis said through his laughter. He squeezed Harry’s hand. “I know, and that’s—god, I just like you so much. Love you,” he corrected. “I’m terribly fond of you, Harold. It’s very inconvenient.”
“You’re an arsehole,” Harry informed him, but he was smiling now. “See if I ever do anything nice for you again.”
“You’re just so dramatic, Haz,” Louis said. “Ugh, the shower’s so far away. Do you think we’ll be really rank if we don’t shower until the morning?”
Harry was a bit primal in that he really liked the smell of sex, particularly when his partner was still in bed with him. He turned his head so he could bury his face in Louis’s hair and said, “Yes, but I like it.”
“You’re dead weird sometimes,” Louis said. After a moment, he added, almost shyly, “I love you too.”
Harry grinned and rolled onto his side so he could wrap himself around Louis. Louis yelped, protested, “You’re strangling me!” but he didn’t try to get away. Eventually, they fell asleep like that, limbs tangled together and breathing nearly in unison.
In the morning, Harry woke up first, as usual, and went for a run. When he came back, dripping with sweat and feeling awake and loose, Louis was in the kitchen drinking a cup of tea in just his pants and squinting at a notebook. Harry kissed his cheek hello before going to make himself a shake. Louis groaned and said, “You stink.”
“The smell of the virtuous, Louis,” Harry said. He blended himself a shake before sitting down next to Louis at the kitchen island and peering over his shoulder. “What are you working on?”
“A song,” Louis said, trying to cover the page like he was afraid Harry would cheat off him. “Stop, don’t look.”
“Is it about me?” Harry teased, digging his fingers into Louis’s side. “Is it a love song?”
“Might be,” Louis said, starting to go pink. “Fuck off and go take a shower.”
“Make sure Julian puts trumpets on,” Harry said. He kissed Louis’s cheek again, then grinned when Louis turned into him, tilting his face up expectantly. Harry kissed him slowly and thoroughly, feeling a bit smug when Louis sighed and opened his mouth to him. Eventually, Louis bit Harry’s lip playfully, smiled, and shoved him away.
“Shower,” he said firmly. “Then I’ll show you what I’ve got.”
“Right,” Harry said, picking up his glass and chugging as much of his shake as he can stand. “Has it got a title yet?”
“No,” Louis said. “Maybe you can come up with one.”
“It can’t be perfect,” Harry said. He managed to keep a straight face right until Louis got it, and then he ran out of the kitchen as Louis yelled, “You’re a twat, Harry!”
“Love you too!” Harry called, and he sprinted up the stairs to the sound of Louis’s laughter.