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 "Stillness rushes everywhere. It is awake. 

It knows him and it cares nothing–

yet to be known is not nothing."

–from Plainwater: Essays and Poetry

by Anne Carson


  
It’s not always easy to tell the difference between being awake and dreaming.

His eyes open wide in the dark, pupils expanding so rapidly he can almost feel the stretch. There’s a flicker of light splashed on the ceiling, and he nearly panics before he mentally connects it to his phone lying lit up on the bedside table. It’s 3:41, and there’s a Twitter alert on the screen. Nothing unusual.

Experimentally, Louis shifts his fingers. When they twitch, he flexes his toes. They respond appropriately and he breathes a sigh of relief. Trepidation mostly drained, he sits up in his bed, scanning the dark corners of his room as well as he can with just the light from his phone’s home screen. He’s learned not to use the flashlight.

Everything looks fine. The shadows all appear to be where they’re meant to be, no sign of a heavier blackness where it doesn’t belong, nothing moving on the walls, snaking across the corners of his vision.

His heart’s still hammering, but there’s not much to be done about that. He swings his legs over the edge of the bed, heaving himself up and stumbling to the door. Opening the door is always a gamble, but he can’t shut his eyes against the possibilities of what might be waiting on the other side. Don’t use a flashlight, don’t close your eyes. He twists the knob, forcing his eyes wider to peer out into the even darker hallway. No extra shadows. Nothing moving.

The bathroom is only one door down so he feels his way along the hall with one hand to the wall. Before turning on the bathroom light, he reaches around blindly, feeling for the sink, then the tap. The water rushes on and he sticks a hand under the flow, waiting for it to heat up. Once it’s so scalding his skin is screaming, he lets it run for a few moments, long enough for steam to rise and coat the mirror above the sink with a thick layer of condensation.

The mirror was the hardest lesson to learn. No flashlight, don’t close your eyes, don’t ever look in the mirror.

When he’s satisfied the mirror’s covered, he flips the switch on the wall, fighting not to blink in the blinding fluorescent light. His eyes water, sandy-dry since he hasn’t shut them since he woke up. It’s a necessary precaution, but it’s difficult to fight his body’s natural need to blink.

He pisses quickly, mechanically shaking off and pulling his shorts back up. The mirror is mostly still steamed up, but he doesn’t risk it, turning the bathroom light off while keeping his gaze firmly fixed into the dark of the hall.

Shadows all in place. Nothing moving. No sounds besides his own footsteps muffled by the carpet.

Louis shuts his bedroom door behind him with a soft click, taking a final watery-eyed look around the room. It’s even darker now, his phone asleep on the bedside table, but as far as he can tell there’s nothing present that shouldn’t be.

He falls back into bed, squirming under the comforter and pulling it up tight around his ears, wide eyes scanning the room one last time, the last time for real this time, last time. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing moving. He finally lets himself blink, pressing his face into the pillow and taking a deep breath while his eyes sting and well up with relief.

“That was really good.”

Louis’ eyes snap open. The lilting voice is close, amused and soft and right up against the back of his neck. The words brush his skin, too-warm, sending the hair on his nape prickling up, goosebumps flashing over his whole body.

“You nearly got me that time,” the dark behind Louis admits. The voice is so solid it’s like it has its own face- like Louis can see the wide-stretched lips smiling and the teeth glinting in the shadows. Like he can see it even though it’s behind him. Even though it’s nothing.

Though he knows there’s no point, Louis tries frantically to move his arms, his legs, anything. Tries to open his mouth. It’s all useless, body pinned down by the dark. All he can do is stare at the far wall of his room and listen to his heart pounding in his chest.

The dark behind him laughs, a quiet sound, and the mattress at Louis’ back dips under the weight of nothing at all.


 “Do you ever think about hurting yourself?”

“No.”

“Do you think about hurting other people?”

“No.”

“Do you see or hear things that aren’t there?”

The therapist’s office is always cold. Louis never, ever remembers to bring a jacket even though he always ends up chafing his own arms raw for warmth, teeth chattering. It’s the flowers on the desk, probably. When he pictures Dr. Watson's office, he always remembers the vase of bright flowers on the desk. It seems impossible they could survive in a room so cold.

“Yes,” Louis says, rubbing his palms over the thighs of his jeans. Sweating, even though he’s covered in goosebumps.

Dr. Watson looks up from her paperwork finally, eyes zeroing in on him across the wide expanse of her shiny oak desk. “Still?” Her voice has a strange quality he can never quite grasp- like she’s interested and doesn’t care a bit, all at once. Like she very much wants to know what he has to say but also couldn’t care less whether he says I’m feeling a bit bad versus You know, funny you should ask, I literally killed someone on the walk here today.

“Yes,” he repeats, shrugging uncomfortably. Not like there’s much he can do about it other than come here and let her play around in his head once every few weeks.

She balances her pen between her fingers, giving him a shrewd look over the brightly colored flowers. “The same hallucinations?”

The same. That’s arguable. They’re a bit different every time, but always...

There’s always a common theme. Hard to get into all that in these short sessions though, so Louis shrugs, grimacing. “Close enough.”

“I’d like to try you on something new,” she decides, scribbling across her notepad. Her brow’s furrowed, like it isn’t something she’s particularly keen on doing. “Wean yourself off the current pills before you start these- down to one a day, then every other day, you know the drill. Check back in a month and if it’s still happening, we’ll just have to find a new plan of attack.” Dr. Watson tears off his prescription from her notepad, holding it out across the desk. When he reaches for it, she snatches it away, waiting until he looks her directly in the eye. “And if you have any problems-”

“I'll call you,” Louis finishes for her, rolling his eyes. He really likes her, is the thing. She’s a great doctor, probably, but there’s only so much she can do about whatever’s gone off the rails in his head. And so far “only so much” has basically translated to “nothing.”

“Or call emergency services. And then call me,” she says sternly, but she’s fond of him so she breaks, laughing a little. “You’re holding up very well, all things considered. I’m quite proud of you.”

Louis’ face twists into a very unflattering grimace. “I’ll put that on my next job application. Really impressed my shrink. Top marks at the psych ward.”

Her mouth tightens into a thin line, and he pops up out of his chair before she can give him another lecture on treating himself more kindly. Louis gives her a cheeky grin, reaching over the desk and plucking his prescription from her hand before hurrying out the door.

“One month!” she calls after him, balling up a blank prescription paper and lobbing it at his back.


 

The few weeks of trickling out the old medication are hell. Louis doesn’t speak to anyone - isn’t even sure where his phone is, honestly. Hallucinations aside, his brain does a nose-dive, moods bouncing so erratically that he can’t even trust himself to cook a meal or shave. He resorts to Top Ramen when he remembers to eat at all and feels so lethargic and sluggish that he ends up pissing in empty soda bottles in his room instead of dragging himself to the toilet.

Hallucinations aside, is, of course, a ballsy thing to say. Whatever weak resistance the old medicine had offered comes crashing down catastrophically, and he spends the first unmedicated day facedown in the carpet of his living room, breathing open-mouthed and staring at nothing, unable to focus on anything but the phantom weight pressing his spine down into the floor. If it talks to him, he can’t pull an individual voice out of all the other chaos banging around in his head, but maybe that’s for the best.

He doesn’t call Dr. Watson and he lives anyway. He makes it the two weeks, then he manages to pull himself together enough to stagger into the kitchen, empty stomach and aching head wailing in protest while he searches for the new medication bottle in the middle of the shitstorm that’s accumulated while he’s been out of commission.

The new pills are small.

He laughs, actually, the first time he pops open the orange bottle and tips the lot of them into his palm. They’re hardly the size of mini M&M’s. Smaller than his sisters’ fingernails when they were babies.

Then he takes one. Feels nothing. Takes another the next day. Nothing. Takes another-

The dreams- the nightmares, the hallucinations, the whatever- stop. Mercifully, wonderfully stop.

Briefly, tauntingly stop.

It’s always like that. Whatever new pills he's given work for a few days, and then they don’t. He’s up to four a day on these now, Dr. Watson giving him a grim, determined nod of her head every time she ups the dose. Maybe, eventually, the effect will be permanent, but as it stands-

“Even more?”

Louis’ frozen, eyes half-lidded as he stares into the dark of his own bedroom. The sheets are bunched uncomfortably beneath him, like he’d been thrashing before he woke up. He almost wouldn’t mind the dark whispering against the back of his neck if he could just fix his fucking sheets.

The pill bottle he keeps on his bedside table rattles behind him. “You know, I worry about what these will do to you in the long run. All these medications - the side-effects are always worse than whatever you’re trying to run away from.” The dark hums, thoughtful, and Louis can hear the bottle turning gently, like someone’s reading the label. “Liver failure. Increased risk of suicide. Hair loss, well, Jesus, that’s where you’ve got to draw the line.”

A gentle pressure on the back of Louis’ scalp, right above his nape, like a single finger dragging against the grain of his hair.

“I’m very fond of your hair, you know. It’d be a shame to lose it to - how do you even pronounce this-”

Stop, Louis thinks, because he can’t do anything else. His stomach’s churning, a hot, sick feeling that has everything to do with what is or isn’t touching him.

“Well that’s no fun,” the dark says, sounding put out. It withdraws anyway, no hint of its presence besides the dip in the mattress, the feel of something heavy and present and just out of sight.

Louis stays trapped, staring motionless at the wall long after the weight holding him down disappears in the creeping dawn light.


 

It stops again for a few days. The four-a-day seems to do its job, and though Louis still feels bone-weary and he’s developed a worrying tremor in his hands- he can at least sleep. At least he can wake up in the middle of the night, alone, and be actually, truthfully alone. Small kindnesses.

He even manages to call in to the antique shop where he works odd hours when he can manage, asks about getting back on the rotation and taking some shifts. Niall sounds genuinely glad to hear from him, even invites him out for a drink to catch up. Says he’d gotten worried when Louis dropped off the face of the earth.

“Yeah, well, you know,” Louis says, laughing a little hollowly and not offering anything else. Niall, bless him, isn’t a pusher.

“So you’ll come in tomorrow, say noon?” He can hear Niall tapping away at his keyboard on the other end, presumably adding Louis back on to their laughable employee schedule. There’re only three employees at the best of times and two of them live above the shop, so the schedule’s got more to do with Niall’s impeccable, some might say compulsive, sense of order than with necessity.

When Louis lays down to sleep that night, setting an alarm for the first time in over a month, he’s almost convinced things are really looking up.

When he wakes up a few hours later, sweating and pinned to the mattress, he realizes very quickly that he was horribly, laughably naive.

There’s no dark. There’s no invisible weight on the edge of his bed. He wishes it was as easy as all that.

There’s someone above him, knees pinning Louis’ hips still and big hands pressing his wrists into the pillow above his head. It looks like a young man with eerily translucent green eyes, a grin that splits his whole face the way the laughter’s been splitting the dark at Louis’ back for months. Its bare arms and torso are littered with a shifting, writhing jigsaw of ink, like tattoos that won't stay still long enough for Louis' brain to process. 

“This is much more fun,” it says brightly, squeezing Louis’ wrists experimentally. The voice is as familiar as the feeling of trapped helplessness, the jackrabbiting pace of Louis’ heart.

And it’s different from the way the dark normally holds Louis hostage, but he knows, in the skin and bones of himself, that this is exactly the same, that he’s finally seeing the face of what’s been tormenting him for months.

“You can talk, you know,” the thing says, reaching up to poke at Louis’ cheek with an all-too-real finger. 

Can is debatable. Physically, it might be a possibility, but everything in Louis’ head seems to have poured itself out into forming this one very real, very vivid nightmare.

The thing’s nose wrinkles and it sits back, letting go of Louis’ hands and settling its weight more firmly onto his hips. “That’s rude, calling me a nightmare. I’ve hardly done anything to you at all. Besides, if you're going to call me anything, I prefer Harry.” It smiles, all teeth and dimples, twirling a loose brown curl around one finger. 

“Leave me alone,” Louis croaks, squeezing his eyes shut, surprised that he can even manage that. “Go away.”

“Silly.” The voice is amused, soft and deep, unsettlingly even. Louis opens his eyes again, half-hoping the thing will be gone and half-dreading he'll be staring up at nothing same as always. “Nowhere for me to go but right back in here-” It taps at Louis’ temple, gentle, but he flinches anyway, gritting his teeth. “Anyway, I warned you about those pills, didn’t I? The side effects are always worse than whatever you’re running from- that’s what I said. I know you remember.” It sounds smug, and that sends a race of chills up Louis spine.

“Now, let’s get back to sleep. Big day for you tomorrow- back to work after all this time.” The weight shifts off of Louis, rolling off onto the mattress beside him so the bed dips, tipping him against the too-solid body. It feels like real living skin, meat and muscle, and it even smells like a real body, the slight tang of sweat that's just different enough for Louis to be able to tell it isn't his own.

Louis doesn’t sleep. He listens to the body beside him hum little nonsense songs, and he stares at the ceiling when the thing reaches out to touch his hair, whispering, at least you’ve still got this, right? Things could always be worse.


 

In the morning, Louis can’t pinpoint the exact moment it leaves, but one minute it’s there and the next he’s alone. He stays there for a moment, exhausted, every muscle in his body screaming from staying tensed all night. He could go back to sleep, but it’s risky.

Now would be a good time to call Dr. Watson, but in the light of the morning filtering through his curtains he manages to convince himself that it wasn’t so different, really, from the way the hallucinations have always been.

He showers and spends a long time staring at the water running down his wrists, almost like if he looks hard enough he can still see the hands that held him down, like there'll be marks left behind. He shaves, even, and manages to work through some of the dishes that have piled up in the sink. Throws a load of laundry in the wash and puts on clean jeans and a t-shirt with no stains and only a few wrinkles.

At half-past ten, Louis steps out of his apartment and locks up behind himself. It’s only a twenty minute drive to the antique shop and he’ll be ridiculously early, but the longer he stays in the quiet, empty space of his home, the more it feels like there are eyes on his back.

It's been a while since he's driven anywhere besides the doctor's office or the grocery store late at night when it was empty. Even the sunlight filtering through his car's dirty windshield feels new, and he rolls down his windows before pulling out onto the road. 

He forgets to turn the radio on and ends up letting his mind drift while he navigates the streets on autopilot. The streets are relatively empty, everything looks a little surreal because of it.

“You used to sleep naked.”

It's broad daylight. Louis’ idling at an intersection. His ears have been ringing for ten minutes and now he supposes he knows why. He doesn't even have to look at the passenger seat, can make out the shape of the thing - Harry - from the corner of his eye.

“Would it help,” Harry asks, propping his chin on the arm he’s resting out the passenger-side window, “if I told you I’m all in your head?”

Louis’ grip on the steering wheel tightens while he keeps his eyes firmly ahead on the sunny street, the light hanging red as sin on the line above. “I know that,” he says. He wonders if he looks crazy to other people driving, if anyone will look over and see him talking to himself. Maybe they’ll just assume he’s using bluetooth or something.

“Mmmm,” Harry hums, and Louis hates how he can tell Harry’s smirking just from the lilt in his voice when he speaks. “You don’t though. Know how I know that?”

“No,” Louis grits out through his clenched teeth.

“Because I’m all in your head!” Harry laughs like it’s the funniest thing anyone’s ever said. It's an obnoxious sound, so loud that Louis thinks, a little desperately, that it has to be real somehow.

The light changes and Louis slams his foot on the gas so hard the car lurches, threatening to stall out before jumping forward a few feet and settling into gear.

“But really,” Harry goes on, “I hope you haven’t started wearing pants to bed on my account.” His mouth quirks up, because, ostensibly, they both know that’s exactly what Louis did. “I’m just, you know, part of your brain. A weird, unhinged part maybe, but part of it all the same.”

Louis rolls his eyes, flipping on his blinker and edging into the turn lane when the antique shop comes into view. “Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”

He can’t really distinguish the exact moment Harry disappears but it feels like a weight leaves his chest.

Niall's sitting out on the front step of the shop when Louis pulls up. The store is actually an old mint-colored Victorian-style home, built by Niall's however-many-greats grandfather when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. The antiques inside are like that, too- mostly just stuff the many generations of Horans left behind when they died off. Louis has always had a sneaking suspicion that everyone's salaries have a lot more to do with the myths about the Horan's gold-rush fortune than any business the shop actually does. 

He's glad Harry's gone, though, glad he can toss an arm around Niall's shoulder and let himself feel normal while Niall drags him inside and cracks open a beer for each of them. 

"You look like hell," Niall observes, neither here nor there about it. 

"Look better today than I have in a bit," Louis admits, shrugging. 

"Ah, well." Niall grins, reaching out to press two fingers softly against Louis' collarbones. "It is what it is, right?"

Louis blinks, cheeks flooding with what feels like embarrassingly visible warmth. He tips his beer back quickly, hoping that'll hide the worst of it. "Right," he says, after he manages to swallow and only choke a little. "So, where's Liam?"

The subject change works wonders, Niall lighting up and yelling for Liam at the top of his lungs. That's followed by a series of bangs from the second floor, then loud, quick footsteps stumbling down the stairs, and then there's Liam. His shirt is sweated-through and he smells like an entire gym but Louis hugs him anyway, thankful when Niall steers the conversation away from Liam asking where Louis' been.

It's nice to be back at work, nice to feel normal and human and have people to talk to. It's worth the way his stomach drops when he leaves for the night and finds Harry sitting in the passenger seat of his car, like he'd never left.

"Have fun at work?" he asks, a teasing something in his voice that puts Louis on edge right away. 

Louis decides to ignore him, like maybe that'll make it go away. 

"Niall, though? Really?" Harry scoffs out a tiny, derisive laugh. "Setting yourself up for failure there, aren't you? Not that that's anything new for you-"

It never ends. When Louis gets home, Harry follows him up the stairs to his apartment, mumbling the whole time. He disappears for a bit while Louis fixes himself box tacos for dinner, then traipses into the bathroom while Louis is brushing his teeth.

Louis goes stiff, staring hard at the white porcelain sink so he won't accidentally catch sight of the mirror. 

"Are you still upset about that?" Harry asks, sounding amused from where he's leaning against the door jamb. "It was just the one time."

"Once was plenty," Louis mutters around his toothbrush, too distracted to realize he's broken his rule of not talking back until Harry makes a triumphant noise behind him. It takes Louis by surprise and he looks up before he can stop himself, glancing over his own shoulder in the mirror and catching Harry's-

Well, not Harry's eyes. The gaping emptiness where eyes would be, the hollow black-red caves in their place, deeper than a skull should be, and bigger, somehow, like everything's distorted- like he might fall into them, if the world tipped on its side-

Louis tears his own eyes away, dropping his toothbrush and locking his palms over his face before he catches sight of himself in the mirror, too. His breathing's gone ragged, panicked, and his heart stutters in his chest like it might just give up and stop altogether.

Warmth presses up against his back, soft curls brush the side of his face, and he feels Harry's chin drop on his shoulder, can feel him smiling so wide that his cheek bulges against Louis' neck. "Sorry," he sings, not sounding very sorry at all. "Couldn't resist."

Louis spends the rest of the evening covering up every reflective surface in his home, duct-taping towels over mirrors and taking down pictures with glass frames while Harry follows a few steps behind, humming.


 

In some ways, things go surprisingly well after that. Louis works, does his best to ignore Harry hanging out in the corner of his vision while he helps customers or chats with Niall and Liam. He sees Dr. Watson, tells her that the hallucinations still aren't gone, but she's so impressed with his other progress- cleaning his house, going back to work, hanging out with people- that she decides it's best to give the medicine a bit longer, see if things don't even out. Louis lets her have that, because as unsettling as Harry is, he can't deny the rest of his life seems to be slowly improving. For the most part.

But if Harry’s started appearing in the middle of the day, Louis probably shouldn’t be surprised when other old problems start rearing their ugly heads, too. 

He’s jerked off roughly nine times since he woke up at four in the morning. It’s barely twelve hours later now and he’s shivery-shaky hot, spread-eagled across his sweat-soaked sheets. It hurts, his entire body trembling like an exposed nerve, but he can’t fucking stop.

Even when he fists his hands in the twisted blankets, chewing the inside of his cheek so hard it stings metallic, something in the pit of his stomach burns, wound tight as a newly coiled spring.

It is, he knows now after talking to Dr. Watson, a compulsive behavior. Another sign that something’s fallen off kilter inside his head. It used to be a much bigger problem, before the medicine. She'd called it hypersexuality, said it was just something that happened sometimes to people with brains like his. 

That doesn’t help, though. Knowing it’s just in his head doesn’t stop the fevered flush from covering his skin, doesn’t stop his hips from rolling up into nothing. He couldn’t even come the last two times he touched himself, had to tear his hand away from the raw-stung swollen head of his dick so he wouldn’t cry from it, though it feels as if he might cry anyway, just from the fucking frustration.

If he could just come one more time-

But that’s always the fucking game. One more time and this’ll wear off. One more time and he’ll be able to crawl out of bed and go to work, walk around in the real world like anyone else. It’s never just one more time. Even as he thinks it, he loosens his grip on the sheets, gritting his teeth against the ache in his gut, his groin, everywhere.

“If you want help, all you’ve got to do is ask.”

Curses, of course, multiply like snakes.

Louis opens his eyes, nearly blinded even by the bleary late afternoon light, and Harry’s right there, his gaze lucid green and steady, barely an inch from Louis’ face. He wonders how he didn’t feel the mattress dip with Harry appearing above him with his forearms braced on either side of Louis’ head, but weirder things have happened, probably. To him. Just today.

The breath Louis drags in is shaky, tinged with the phantom heat from Harry’s mouth. “If I dreamed you up to get myself off, I’d have made you more attractive.”

Harry pulls back just far enough to look more fully at Louis’ face, lips spreading into a wide cattish smile, all teeth. “You’ve really got to stop embarrassing yourself by trying to lie to me.”

Maybe, if Louis’ entire body wasn’t already covered head-to-toe in a day-long flush, he’d burn a bit at that. As it is, he just turns his face to the side, pressing his cheek against a cool spot on the sheets and staring at the blank wall of his room. “Not sure what’s left to be embarrassed about,” he says, and he’s dizzyingly relieved when Harry lets that lie slide.

“I could help,” Harry offers again, nudging Louis’ hips with his knees, holding him in like parentheses. He's hard to pull into focus sometimes, like how Louis can't always remember what Harry was wearing last time he showed up or how long his hair was. Now, though, he's almost painfully sharp and clear. Even the tattoos stay mostly in place, and Louis stares curiously at the black scribbles covering Harry's forearm where it crosses his line of sight. 

“You’re not real,” Louis reminds him, scrubbing his palms against the sheets, sticky with sweat and spit and everything else. He's had dreams about things like this- real, proper dreams, back when he had dreams and not hallucinations. Dreams about people touching him, holding him down, offering him whatever he wants, anything at all- 

Harry hums, shifting up onto one arm so he can drop his other hand to Louis’ jaw- and it’s still shocking, how solid he is, how inexplicably real he feels. “That’s not a no.”

And it’s not, really. Because what could it hurt, giving in to him? At worst, it’s a joke Louis’ subconsciously playing on himself, and he’ll just stay on edge a bit longer. At best, he comes, please, again, fuck. It’s not like there’s a playbook for dealing with whatever Harry is, a set of rules- whatever you do, don’t let your hallucinations jerk you off.

“Okay,” Louis says, twisting his face away from Harry’s hand and rolling his eyes up to the ceiling. “Okay.”

Harry doesn't seem surprised that Louis gives in, which only reinforces what he keeps telling Louis and what Louis keeps telling himself- that Harry's all in his head. 

It's stupid, but the first thing Louis thinks when he feels Harry's mouth around him is that he isn't sure what to do with his hands. He's never tried to touch Harry on purpose and he's a little worried that if he tries now he'll disappear. His brain scatters in a million directions, wondering for the billionth time how Harry can feel so real, how Louis can so clearly feel spit sliding down his cock if there's no one there

"You're thinking too much," Harry says, voice deeper and throaty in a way that makes Louis' stomach tense. 

He looks away from the ceiling, finally, down to where Harry's bent over him. His hair seems wilder than usual, long enough to tickle the thin skin in the crook between Louis' groin and thigh. His mouth splits into a too-wide smile when he notices Louis looking, lips a shocking, busted red that Louis can't tear his eyes away from. 

He's uncomfortably aware of his own dick, heavy where it rests against his stomach, and his teeth itch with how much he wants to just come and get it over with. 

Harry snorts, lips curling into a disdainful smirk. "Romantic. I'm sure Niall will appreciate-"

"Just shut the fuck up and suck my dick, god," Louis snaps, reaching out to push at Harry's chest. His fingers meet warm, solid skin, and he blinks at the point of contact, mouth open. 

"Don't think about it too hard or your brain might explode out your head," Harry warns, rolling his eyes before he drops his mouth back to Louis' dick, dragging his lips up the underside, sucking at the pulsing vein until Louis has to gasp and try to pull his hips away. It makes Harry laugh, and Louis isn't sure why until he tries to move again and can't, body locked down, pinned in a way that's far too familiar. 

"Faster this way," Harry says, breath ghosting over Louis' stomach, making his muscles tremble. 

It is faster, because Louis can't stop anything. Sore as he is, achy and shivery and everything else- he thinks hazily that he's glad Harry paralyzed him with his mouth open so he can breathe as heavily as he needs, even though the noises that come out are embarrassing. And he can't physically look away- stuck watching Harry tongue and suck at him and do everything but actually put Louis' dick properly in his mouth.

When he finally comes, it's all over his own stomach, chest heaving and an unflattering whine tearing from his throat because Harry pulls away at the last second, sitting back on his heels and just watching, smug, while Louis twitches through it. 

"Bastard," Louis gasps, tension seeping out of him as he catches his breath, body going lax and heavy. He tries not to look at the exposed expanse of Harry's skin, the coil of his muscles and slope of his shoulders, nipples dark and distractingly hard-

He closes his eyes quickly, willing Harry away before his body can get going again. Harry doesn't leave, of course, but when Louis opens his eyes again Harry's at least clothed in sweatpants that look suspiciously like Louis' favorite pair, sitting at the foot of Louis' bed and watching him curiously.

"It helped, didn't it?" he asks, making a crude jerkoff motion with one big hand. His lips still look raw. 

Louis sits up, taking inventory of his body, his head. He's exhausted, sure, but his whole body feels loose, easy. The burning ache in his stomach is gone, or so muffled it can't beat out how tired he is. He doesn't bother answering Harry, because Harry apparently already knows whatever he knows. Instead, he stands shakily, walking to the bathroom and counting out his pills. 

"What if we make a deal?" Harry says, sitting suddenly on the counter in front of Louis, his thighs bracketing Louis' hips. 

Louis looks away from him, ducking around to get a mouthful of water from the tap. Before he can toss the pills back, Harry grabs his wrist- harder than necessary. 

"What are you-"

"If you stop taking the pills, I'll leave you alone during the day," Harry offers, gripping Louis' chin in his free hand and forcing him not to look away. Harry's eyes are intense, brows hawkish, mouth a thin, flat line. "That's my deal."

Louis flexes his wrist in Harry's grip, testing. His bones grind under the pressure and he winces, raking his eyes over Harry's face, pulse jumping. "Why?"

"Because," Harry says, like that's an answer. 

Louis' palm is sweating so much it feels like the pills might dissolve in his hand. "I can't do that. I can't just stop taking them." He's been doing this long enough to know what can happen if he just stops taking the medicine. 

"Three, then," Harry says, smiling and rubbing his thumb against Louis' wrist. "Just do three for now."

Louis stalls, thinking about what that might do. He thinks about being able to go a day at work without getting distracted by Harry's presence, not having to lie to Niall about what he keeps looking at over his shoulder. "You won't show up during the day at all?" he asks, frowning. "Like, ever?"

"As long as you don't want me there," Harry agrees, which Louis realizes isn't quite a yes. 

But it's just one less pill. 

"Okay," Louis decides, letting Harry pry open his palm and pluck one of the pills out, dropping it on the counter behind him. He swallows the other three, unsettled by Harry's undivided attention, the way he watches Louis' throat bob when he swallows. 

Harry beams at him when that's done, loosening his grip on Louis' wrist and leaning in to smack a kiss on his cheek. "Let's get some rest now," he says, and then disappears. 

Louis feels a bit like he's just made a deal with the devil, but he also feels good. Hopeful and not horny out of his fucking mind for the first time all day. He feels good enough that he calls Niall and offers to work the next day.

“Feelin’ better, then?” Niall asks, not accusatory like he thinks Louis’ been skiving off for no reason, but genuinely warm and concerned. Happy to hear from him.

“Yeah,” Louis admits, nodding even though Niall can’t see it. “Loads better. Like new.”

“Glad to hear it. See you tomorrow, Tommo.”

And just like that, Louis’ alone again. Exhausted, dick chafed to hell, but- but okay, after everything. Like he’s gotten a handle on things, however tenuous. He also manages to sleep through the night, no Harry, no paralysis. Nothing but pure, uninterrupted REM, baby. Maybe the deal wasn't so bad.


 

Unfortunately the antique shop is even slower than usual the next day. It’s so slow that Niall taps out, begging off to go see a movie by himself.

“What’s even playing?” Louis asks, genuinely curious. He can’t remember the last time he paid attention to movie adverts or, like, anything.

“No fuckin’ idea,” Niall laughs. “Some girl Zayn knows gave us all free passes to that arthouse cinema down the street, so I never know what the hell’s happening. Love it, though.” His brow furrows suddenly, and he scratches the back of his neck. “I think.”

Louis snorts, grinning, and he waves Niall off when he checks for the billionth time that Louis doesn’t mind manning the shop on his own for a few hours. “I’ve been off the grid for months,” Louis reminds him. “The least I can do is cover you for an afternoon.”

So Niall goes, and the shop goes quiet. It’s eerie, how much a difference his absence makes. Louis gets the same feeling he gets in his own living room sometimes, when Harry isn't visible but he's there anyway. It feels like he's breaking the deal they made, but Louis can't exactly start talking to himself about it in case a customer decides to come in. 

The quiet stretches on for an hour, and Louis' bones start to itch. 

He doesn't realize it at first, just keeps rubbing his hands over his thighs, pawing at the soft bit of his stomach, dragging his fingers over his chest, catching on a nipple every other pass.

He's hard as fuck before he's even caught on. 

It's almost like he can hear Harry laughing at him, like a puff of breath hits the side of his neck. 

"Shit," Louis says to no one in particular, tearing his hands away from his body and rubbing his face instead. Just like that, it's all back at full force, just like yesterday. Maybe even worse. Like if he doesn't come, he'll just fucking die from it. He flexes his hands, gripping the sales counter hard and then letting it go so many times his fingers start to tingle. 

It's not really a question of if he's going to jerk off. From experience, he knows it's more about when. Before his brain went too far off the track he used to bother trying to find people to fuck around with when he got this way, but that got exhausting and hard to do after a while. He wonders, briefly, what he'd do if Niall were here- if he'd ask him to help. 

Probably not.

With knees like jelly he heads to the front door of the shop, switches the OPEN sign to CLOSED FOR LUNCH and locks up. Then he stumbles through the jumbled mess of antiques, slipping into the bathroom and slamming the door shut behind himself.

His whole body burns hot, fingers flexing spasmodically and toes curling inside his worn Vans. Even breathing gets tricky, every exhale threatening to turn into some sort of godawful whimper just because the sound alone might get him off.

Louis trips to the sink, gripping the edges so fiercely he half expects the porcelain to crack under his fingers. The old bolts holding it to the wall groan in protest against his weight, but his legs feel weak and he's not sure he could stand on his own even if he could convince his hands to loosen up.

By the time his head quiets enough to take in anything besides the dull, roaring want twisting through him, he's shaking, breathing open-mouthed and loud. His tongue feels thick and foreign in his mouth. He's still sore from yesterday, but it feels like he'll die here in this outdated antique shop bathroom if he doesn't come in the next five minutes, and then again, and again, and again. 

"You're being a bit loud," Harry says from behind him, no particular inflection. Louis' brain is too jumbled up to figure out whether this counts as breaking their deal, or more importantly, whether he even fucking cares.

He drops to his elbows over the sink, burying his face in his arms. When he groans, "Help," it's muffled, but Harry's just a loose screw in his head anyway so it's not like it really matters. He hears it just fine. 

Harry's hips pressing up against his ass only make it all worse, every nerve in his body zeroing in on that point of contact, screaming about it. It's not a conscious decision to spread his legs, shove his hips back, but he does, gritting his teeth against how fucking good it feels when Harry's hands curl around his waist, pushing his shirt up just far enough to reach bare skin. 

"You're gagging for it," Harry observes, somehow gleeful and subdued all at once. His thumbs rub maddeningly gentle circles over the dimples at the base of Louis' spine and it's distracting enough that Louis can't even get riled up about anything Harry's saying. "I'll make you a deal-"

Foggy as Louis' head is, he balks at that, twitching away from Harry's grasp. Not quite strong enough to break the contact, but- "No more deals," he pants, shaking his head where its still pressed against the sink. "Just fix this."

"One more deal," Harry wheedles, and Louis' knows he's going to give in. The only thing more stubborn than Louis is his own subconscious mind, and he's too fucked up to put up a real fight with it. "No pills."

"No."

Harry makes a small, disappointed noise, grinding his hips against Louis' ass in a way that somehow comes across as regretful. "That's a shame, Lou, because I'd really like to help you. I always want to help you."

"Bullshit," Louis spits, lifting himself up to glare over his shoulder, carefully avoiding eye contact with the mirror over the sink. It's the first time he's looked at Harry since he appeared and he struggles to keep his face impassive against how fucking good he looks. Mostly it's just that Louis would like to fuck absolutely anyone right about now, but of course Harry looks like whatever would send Louis directly to his knees. It's unfair, because it's all just Louis doing it to himself. "Bullshit," he repeats, just as acidic despite the waver in his voice. "All you've done is scare the shit out of me for weeks- months, even-"

Harry's brows furrow, his mouth tipping into a pout. He drops his weight against Louis' back, nuzzling his face into Louis' neck, lips hot at his ear when he brings a hand up to grip Louis' jaw- gentle but firm. "I can't help what you do to yourself, can I? I'm just trying to be nice to you." His teeth graze Louis' earlobe and it's enough to bring the simmering omnipresent arousal roaring back. "Let me help you."

It's not even a debate. Every drop of blood in Louis' body is centered between his legs, and every single drop is on fire. Even his bones ache, a dull, pulsing throb of just do something. In the end, he doesn't even have to admit defeat out loud. Harry just knows, grin stretching wide as he presses his bared teeth flat to Louis' neck. 

Back before everything went wrong, Louis had sex with plenty of people, so he knows how it goes- knows how to roll his hips just right to help Harry shimmy his jeans down over his thighs, knows how to zero in his focus on a stray water droplet in the sink so he doesn't have to think too much about the thick fingers sliding between his cheeks, rubbing hot and dry and curious against his hole. 

Everything sets him on fire- all the obvious things like the fingers that come back slick from Harry's mouth, start to press inside so slowly it's infuriating, the sound of his own breath catching in his throat, hoarse already. Then there's the rest of it- the heat of Harry's forehead resting against Louis' spine where he's watching himself finger Louis open, the rough-soft friction of Harry's jeans where they rub against the backs of Louis' thighs. 

There's a sizzling at the base of Louis' spine, an electric wire frayed open, crackling. He has to move, push himself back on Harry's fingers and clench his fists on the sink, chew his lip and twist his spine just to do something because nothing is enough. 

Harry pushes his shirt further up his back until it's all exposed to the cool air of the bathroom, then he presses his lips to the dip of Louis' spine, mumbles, "You're acting like you're possessed."

For all Louis knows, he is. He can't dwell on it, his head too cloudy and his body too fever-hot. "Help," he whines, twisting away from Harry's fingers where they've stayed pressed too long right in the exact worst spot. "You said you'd help."

"I am helping," Harry says calmly, slipping his fingers out easily and leaving a shamefully desperate emptiness behind. Louis' fingers twitch, stretching out to claw at the slippery sink surface before curling back to useless fists. He wants to complain, to yell and beg and whine and threaten to swallow the whole damn bottle of pills the second he gets home if Harry doesn't-

But he does, knuckles dragging against the swell of Louis' ass when he reaches down to undo his own zipper, the sound oddly loud over Louis' panting breaths. When one of Harry's hands drops to spread Louis open, he's shocked at how slick everything feels, surprised somehow that his brain didn't overlook lube in the midst of everything else it's busy making up. 

The push in is uncomfortable in a way that borders the threshold of pain so closely that it might be easier if it just tipped all the way over to that side. As it is, Louis just gasps into his own crossed arms, waiting on edge for a hurt that never actually comes. He shifts his legs apart the best he can, trying to make it easier or faster or anything but this slow, seemingly-endless slide.

When Harry's hipbones finally cradle his ass, Louis nearly melts to the floor from relief. His veins are still twisting, heat curling through his blood and bones in a way that's debilitating, but the full feeling of Harry inside him is almost enough to distract from it. His own dick is still raw, hard but aching and he can't imagine touching it. 

"One more deal," Harry says suddenly, squeezing at the softest bits of Louis' sides, demanding attention. 

"No," Louis snaps, shaking his head and trying to move despite Harry's grip on his waist. "I already-"

"This one's easy," coaxes Harry softly, fitting his chest to Louis' back and speaking against the nape of his neck, breath hot, tickling where it ruffles the fine hairs there. "I just want you to look at me."

It's not what Louis expected, and he blinks, frowning down at the sink. "What? Why?" And how, actually. They're not exactly in a position for loving gazes or whatever the fuck Harry's-

It hits home exactly the moment Harry begins to move, dragging half-way out and holding there, unnaturally still.

The mirror over the sink is an old bronze-edged monstrosity, the kind that's so ancient it's covered in black spots, like the mirror started dissolving over time. The war between the part of Louis screaming for him to keep his head down and the part of him screaming to come is short-lived, and it was never really a fair battle anyway. 

He struggles to get his arms underneath himself, sweaty fingers sliding on the sink-edge when Harry starts rocking into him. The push-pull of it is so mind-numbingly exactly-what-he-wants that his knees shake, eyes threatening to cross every time Harry hits the right angle. 

He doesn't even have time to steel himself- the minute he manages to get himself upright, his eyes jump to the mirror, magnetized to what he can see of Harry behind him- a glimpse of wild curls and a flash of his white t-shirt, his fingers biting into Louis' hips. 

"T-there," Louis stutters, squeezing his eyes shut again, "I looked." His whole body feels like a bowstring ready to snap, a music box wound tighter and tighter with every roll of Harry's hips forcing him up onto his tiptoes. 

"Again," Harry insists, voice strained against Louis' neck.

And what the fuck does it matter at this point, Louis thinks. He can't find it in himself to care about what he might see- anything is better than this tightrope edge, his balls pulsing with an ache that moved past painful five minutes ago. He forces his eyes open, zeroing in on his own reflection this time. 

He wonders if he really looks that fucked out and desperate, figures the answer is probably yes. Doesn't care. "'m looking," he gasps, mouth dropping open into a whine when Harry presses deeper, dropping his chin on Louis' shoulder so they can look at each other in the mirror. 

His thrusts slow and it's even worse somehow, being able to feel every inch, every twitch. Louis can't even be relieved that there's nothing horrible in the mirror because every single move Harry makes is fucking him up. On the next slow, relentless slide in, Louis comes, shocked by it. His body locks up vice-tight, hips jolting when he shoots against the sink, his own shirt where it's pooled over his stomach. He's still whining through it when he feels Harry's face press between his shoulder blades, hears him groan and feels the unmistakable flex and shiver of him coming inside.

Louis' throat is scratchy and dry when he groans, "Ugh," but Harry just laughs, a bonedeep rumble against Louis' spine. 

"Feel better?" he asks, even though he already knows. 

Louis does his best to straighten himself up, pulling his jeans up with trembling hands and fumbling over the buttons. "Fuck off." He catches sight of his shirt in the mirror, grimacing at the pearly wet patches. Harry hands him a paper towel and he scowls down at his chest while he scrubs away.

"I didn't scare you that time, see? You've got to learn to trust me." 

Louis snaps his head up to glare at Harry, mouth opening to tell him off again, but there's a hideous empty chasm where his face should be-

"Stop!" Louis blinks furiously, and when he looks back, Harry is back to normal, smug as hell. 

"Couldn't resist." He grins, pouting his lips out to blow an exaggerated kiss at Louis in the mirror. "How are you going to explain that to Niall?" he asks, nodding to the growing wet patches on Louis' shirt. "Also might want to clean up the sink."

"Shut the fuck up." Louis hasn't really thought about it. Maybe Niall won't even notice how fucked up he looks. "And go away. We had a deal."

Harry rolls his eyes, tugging sullenly at his bottom lip. And then he's gone. 


 

When Louis leaves the bathroom, Niall's already back, standing at the counter and staring too hard at a boating magazine. His cheeks are patchy red, and Louis feels all the color drain from his own face. 

"How was your movie?" he croaks, cursing how raw his voice sounds.

Niall starts, blinking at him owlishly as he scrubs a hand through his hair. "Uh-" he laughs, uncertain. "You know. It was- I didn't understand what was going on, so I left a little early."

"Oh," Louis says, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, inhumanly aware of the wet patches on his shirt.

"Yeah," Niall agrees, looking back to the boating magazine like it's the most fascinating thing in the world.

"I'm gonna-" Louis jerks his thumb to the front door, already backing slowly towards it. "I'm not feeling super-"

"Yeah, no, definitely," Niall cuts in, nodding frantically. "Feel better, and- like, call me, let me know how you're-"

"Oh, yeah." Louis swallows, throat clicking drily. "Definitely. For sure."

He's halfway home before he lets himself process it, and then he just starts laughing. It's all he can do- he actually has to pull over, flipping on his hazard lights and stopping on the side of the road so he can curl up in a ball, face buried in his knees while he cackles.

When he steps in his apartment, Harry is spread out on the couch, lazily reading a copy of the same boating magazine Niall'd had earlier. 

"You knew he was there," Louis accuses bleakly, dropping his keys on the counter and flopping onto the couch by Harry's head.

Harry blinks at him upside down, face impassive. "If I knew, you knew," he says, shrugging and going back to his magazine.

Louis takes three pills under Harry's watchful eye, collapses into bed exhausted, too tired to care if he wakes up paralyzed.

"If it helps," Harry says- it's too dark in the room for Louis to tell whether Harry's physically there or not, which is oddly nostalgic, "I think he was into it. Which is very conceited of you."

"Shut up," Louis mumbles, rolling his eyes and pressing his face into the pillow. He has an appointment with Dr. Watson in two weeks, and in that time he'll have weaned himself off this medicine almost entirely so he can start whatever new thing she has for him.

Harry makes a displeased sound in the dark, bed dipping as he tips towards Louis, burying his face against Louis' chest. "I thought we were having fun," he whines, petulant.

Louis grunts, mumbles something like, "Sure," and falls asleep.


 

"Do you ever think about hurting yourself?”

“No.”

“Do you think about hurting other people?”

“No.”

“Do you see or hear things that aren’t there?”

Louis can't stop his gaze from jumping over Dr. Watson's shoulder to where Harry is standing at the window, grumpily fiddling with the blinds. 

"Yes," Louis says decisively. Dr. Watson glances over her shoulder, following his line of sight, and then looks back at him with raised eyebrows but doesn't comment.

"And you said you've taken yourself off your current medication as we agreed over the phone." She flips through some pages on her desk, giving Louis time to focus on the stubborn, mulish line of Harry's jaw. "There's a new drug- still in the early stages, but I believe it may help. We'll start you on a very low dose for two weeks- nothing you'll feel. Just have to get it in your bloodstream first." She's speaking mostly to herself, scribbling away. 

Harry looks up suddenly, meeting Louis' eye and sticking his tongue out. It's hard not to return the gesture. 

"So check back in two weeks," Dr. Watson says, handing him the prescription across the desk.

He says his goodbyes, tugging the sleeves of his jacket up so he can shake her hand before he goes. The jacket had been Harry's idea.

You always get cold there. The least you can do is remember to bring a coat for once. 

Louis isn't sure how to feel about Harry doing something helpful, though it's gotten more and more common lately. He's reminded Louis to turn the stove off, to put his laundry in the dryer, to call his mom. Even talked him through the embarrassing process of calling Niall up and haltingly explaining The Incedent, as they've agreed to call it.

In the car on the way home, Harry is uncharacteristically quiet, scowling out the window.

"There's no guarantee it'll get rid of you," Louis points out.

Harry harrumphs, shifting moodily.

"Fuck, for all I know it'll add another one of you. Maybe I'll end up with a dozen people following me around everywhere."

The corner of Harry's mouth curls up, and he mumbles, "You wish."

Louis most decidedly does not wish. He's barely gotten a handle on the one delusion he already has, thanks. But still, he thinks, heaving a sigh of relief when Harry disappears, things could definitely be worse.