The first time Louis dies, it’s in front of twenty thousand people.
The five of them are onstage, half-way through a particularly energetic rendition of Live While We’re Young (and the irony is not lost on them later, that’s for certain). It’s the last night of the English Leg of their third world tour, and they’re playing The O2 in London. Louis is looking out at the crowd, his four best friends in the whole world beside him, and thinking about how goddamn lucky he is.
It starts as a pain in his neck, sharp and acute and so startling that it makes him yelp out a little in surprise. It spreads quickly down his back, leaving a trail of pain until he’s doubled over, gasping for breath. Then the pain hits his chest and it’s tight, so tight and it hurts more than anything he’s ever felt before and then his vision is clouding with darkness and he’s falling face first off the edge of the stage and into the front row, an arena-full of screams still echoing in his ears as everything goes black.
It was heart failure, they would find out later. Sort of like an aneurysm, really, lying undetected for years until bam, out of nowhere it hits you.
The first time Louis is brought back to life, it’s in front of twenty thousand people. There isn’t time to evacuate the building before the paramedics rush on to the stage, because Louis isn’t breathing, Louis doesn’t have a pulse. The boys crowd around him, the crew and the band too, so that no one can see him. The paramedic pumps his chest, hands splayed out flat against his inked skin, over and over again. He breathes into Louis’ mouth, calm and calculated, and everything is in slow motion until suddenly Louis is breathing by himself and the relief floods over them all so fast that it drowns them.
Harry is sick. He manages to wait until Louis is loaded up onto the stretcher and into the ambulance, and then he can’t hold it back anymore and it’s rushing up inside him and spilling out of his mouth in bitter, acrid waves. He drops down to the floor, weak and shaking and with a face wet from tears and gives up on trying to hold it together because it’s Louis, his best friend in the whole world and he was dead. Harry saw him. He saw him limp and lifeless and it hurt more than he ever thought was possible.
Harry is sick until his throat is raw and the sobs have turned to hiccups and then he sits back on the cold concrete. The others come forward then, Niall and Zayn and Liam, and they wrap him up in their arms and hold him tight, hold on to each other, because it was their Louis and he died and all the media training and elocution lessons and strict schedules and rulings never prepared them for this.
Harry is still shivering, but not because he’s cold. He’s shivering because for the first time ever he’s picturing a life without Louis beside him, and that terrifies him more than anything in the world, that awakens something deep inside him that he hadn’t even known existed at all. So he clings on to the other boys and let’s their own fear anchor him back to earth, the blue lights of the ambulance blinking brightly in the distance as they disappeared.
The hospital room is crammed full. Louis’ family is there, and his girlfriend Eleanor, and all the boys and Paul, all crowded into the tiny space. Louis is in a bed in the middle of the room. He’s tucked up in the sheets and he looks so small and fragile and Harry has always loved him, really, but not in this way. Not in the if you go I go, I can’t live without you sort of way.
Because that’s how it is. That’s how he feels. That’s what went through his mind when he saw them resuscitating him on the stage – I can’t exist without him.
He loves Niall and he loves Liam and he loves Zayn. He loves them all to pieces, he really does. But they aren’t a part of him the same way Louis is. Because Louis is very much a part of him, has been since the very day they met back on the X-Factor five years ago and he wormed his way into Harry’s heart, filling up every space, every nook and cranny that Harry had left in his life.
Louis is a part of Harry. Louis is the best part of Harry, and Louis doesn’t even know. Harry didn’t even know until today, but now Harry does and now everything makes so much sense. So Louis has to be okay, doesn’t he? So that Harry can share his epiphany with him, so Harry can say I love you, Louis, but I think I might be in love with you too.
Harry is ready to say it. It’s been five years coming and Harry has no trouble accepting it because it’s just so obvious now. He’s ready and waiting as the medication wears off, restless with excitement and nerves because Louis died but he’s alive and he’s going to be okay and everything will fall into place. Harry is so ready for what comes next.
But then Louis opens his eyes and wakes up and the first person he reaches for is Eleanor. Eleanor, his girlfriend of four years. Eleanor who is most definitely not him. He reaches for Eleanor, and so Harry swallows whatever it is he thinks he might be feeling down and is just grateful that he is alive at all.
Harry doesn’t think about being in love with Louis.
The rest of the tour is on hold indefinitely and Harry has moved back in with Louis because Louis is still very weak and vulnerable and needs help around the home. Harry looks after him and tends to his every need and continues with press for the band and concentrates on getting Louis healthy again and keeping his spirits up whenever they start to droop down.
Harry is constantly busy, and as a result Harry doesn’t think about being in love with Louis.
Except he does. All the time.
The second time Louis dies, it’s in Harry’s arms.
They’re at Louis’ flat, playing video games and chilling out. It’s been four difficult months of eating properly and exercising regularly and taking a whole handful of pills twice a day, but Louis is doing well.
Louis was doing well, anyway.
There is no trigger this time. No particular bout of exertion, no stress or panic or anything else. Louis knows, though, the second it starts. He knows the feeling that starts deep inside his chest and spreads outwards. He recognises the pain, the tightness.
He doesn’t say anything much, despite the fact that there are a million words on the very tip of his tongue ready to be shared, secrets ready to be told. Instead he just mumbles Harry and reaches out for him until his fingers close around the smooth skin of his arm.
Harry knows too. Harry knows the second he hears his name, the second he looks into Louis’ eyes and sees them filling with panic. Harry knows and Harry has been dreading this – so Harry has prepared for this, too. Harry has learnt CPR and Harry has the emergency services on speed-dial, just in case.
He rings them now, fingers shaking as he grips hold of his phone. They talk him through what to do as they dispatch the ambulance, but Harry is barely listening because Harry knows what to do. Harry knows to lay Louis’s wilting body down across his lap and press down on just the right space on his chest. Harry knows to tilt back his head back and lift up his chin, Harry knows to pinch his nostrils shut with two fingers, Harry knows to cover Louis’ mouth with his own and Harry knows how to breathe just slowly enough to fill up Louis’ chest. Harry knows all that and so he does all that, but by the time the ambulance arrives Louis’ pulse has still slowed right down to nothing but silence.
They give Louis a new heart.
His old one was too broken, they said. Damaged beyond repair. The thought makes Harry want to cry.
They open up his chest and they take out the old heart and put in a new one and that should be that, Harry thinks. But it’s not. Because they don’t know whether Louis is strong enough for the heart or whether the heart it strong enough for Louis and even if they are compatible, even if they are a good match, it will only be a temporary fix because Louis’ old heart wasn’t the real problem.
Louis doesn’t wake up.
Harry and the other three boys sit by his bed and wait for him to open his eyes, for him to sit up and grin at them goofily as if nothing ever went awry. He doesn’t, though.
Harry doesn’t like the machines they have him hooked up to. Doesn’t like the fact that they are the one thing standing between Louis and death. That they are the one thing keeping his heart beating right now. He doesn’t like the way they beep or the way they glow in the darkness when everyone else goes home to rest and it’s just him and Louis left in the room.
Please don’t let him die, Harry prays every night at the foot of Louis’ bed, his hands clutched together. Please don’t let him go before I tell him how I feel. I swear I’ll tell him how I feel if you just give him back to me.
It’s not Harry’s fault, they tell him. In fact, if it weren’t for Harry being so prepared, Louis wouldn’t be alive at all. Harry tries to hold on to that when the nights are and long and lonely and his dreams are filled with death.
Harry tries to hold on to it, he really does, but it doesn’t stop him jolting upright in the middle of the night with clammy skin and a racing heart.
He can’t forget the feel of Louis in his arms, a dead weight, heavy and lifeless.
Louis wakes up.
It’s been nearly three whole weeks and everyone is close to losing hope but then he wakes up. And he’s not himself and he’s pale and his blue eyes are blank but he reaches for Harry, small cold hands folding themselves in big warm ones. It’s almost another week before he can speak fully, and even then he’s dazed a lot and he keeps on forgetting things but he knows who Harry is and so everything is near to perfect, really, because he’s alive and that’s all Harry ever needed.
Louis breaks up with Eleanor.
Harry tries not to be too happy about it, because Louis is upset, but deep down he is ecstatic.
My heart isn’t whole, he tells Harry forlornly one night. It’s not fair to give her my shitty broken heart when she could have someone else’s whole one.
Harry just holds him tight and they curl around each other as they settle down to watch late night television, just the two of them because that’s all they ever needed. Louis is small pressed up against him, smaller than ever before, smaller even than when they first met. He’s small and fragile and more than a little lost, and Harry has never loved him more. So Harry will protect him, Harry will bear the brunt of the world for him so that Louis doesn’t have to. Harry will make sure Louis never wants for anything, because Harry will give Louis everything he ever needs.
Louis knows that and Louis is grateful for that. What Louis doesn’t know though is that he is everything that Harry wants and needs.
Louis doesn’t know that Harry will take any part of Louis’ heart that he can get, regardless of whether it is broken or damaged or not whole.
Christmas comes and goes. Harry stays glued to Louis’ side over the whole holiday. He travels up to Doncaster with him to see his family and tries to blend into the background until Jay declares him a part of the family and he is dragged into the celebrations.
They’re back at the flat in time for New Years. It’s just the two of them, and they sit outside on the balcony with a box of quality streets with the telly on low in the living room so that they can hear the countdown. They watch the fireworks as they erupt over London; it’s beautiful, absolutely breath-taking, and for the first time in months Louis feels truly, completely alive.
It fades though, along with the sparks, until all that’s left is a faint smudge of feeling, a blur of gold across an inky sky.
“Happy New Year Harry,” he says softly, so just Harry can hear. “Let’s hope I make it to the end of this one.”
And Harry laughs and punches him in the arm and hands him over the box of chocolates, all the while rambling about all the things he wants to achieve in the next three hundred and sixty five days. Because Louis is messing around, obviously, Louis is joking.
Louis just bites down hard on the insides of his cheeks to stop himself from welling up.
Louis isn’t himself.
He hasn’t been himself for a long time, back since that night at the O2 where his world fell to pieces. Louis has already been given a second chance, and a third chance and he knows he doesn’t deserve anymore. He knows next time his heart gives up on him, that will be it.
Louis has felt even less like himself since they took away his heart. Because a heart is essential, a heart holds all your secrets, all your hopes and dreams and they just took it.
Louis knows they took it because it was broken. Louis knows that if he still had his own heart inside his chest right now then it wouldn’t be beating. Louis is glad that his heart is beating still because he is still so young and he still has so much to do and say and feel and think – but the beat isn’t the same, the beat isn’t familiar. It’s off-tempo, a little too strong and a little too loud, an awkward thudding that resonates through his chest. He doesn’t like his new heart even though he knows it saved his life. It feels wrong inside him.
Louis thinks about love a lot now. He thinks about how much he loves his family and his friends. He thinks about how much he loved singing and how he’ll probably never be able to do that again, not in the same way. He thinks about how much he loves his four best friends in the entire world – caring Liam, effervescent Niall, wild-card Zayn. And Harry. Harry Edward Styles who knows Louis better than Louis knows himself, who holds him tight and loves him unconditionally without reason. Louis loves Harry unconditionally too, every inch of him, every dimpled smile and dark curl. Louis loves Harry as much as he loves his family, because Harry is his family.
That worries Louis – how much he loves Harry.
Because Harry deserves the best kind of love, and Louis is loving Harry with all he has but what if that’s not enough? What if Louis’ new heart doesn’t have the capacity to love the younger boy the way he deserves?
Harry deserves it all and Louis wishes he could be the one to give it to him. But Louis has nothing left to give except a borrowed heart with an irregular beat and a whole lifetime of hopes and dreams and wishes that were stolen right out of his chest without his permission.
Harry half hopes that one day he’ll fall out of love with Louis, because that would be so much easier than pretending all the time. But Harry doesn’t fall out of love – in fact, he just falls a little bit harder every day – and somehow that’s still okay too. But the pretending really is exhausting, so the fact that Harry manages to keep his secret for a whole nine and a half months before he breaks is award-worthy, he thinks.
Each day of those nine months is an achievement and yet each day Harry wakes up with the same dread that this will be the end, this will be the day that Louis dies again and doesn’t come back. Harry can’t stand the thought of that anymore, not for one day longer. Harry can’t stand the thought of sitting next to Louis’ hospital bed and realising that he had two chances to tell him how he felt and that he blew them both. Harry can’t stand the thought that he might not get another and that every day might be Louis’ last.
“I love you,” Harry announces out of the blue. “And not just in the usual way, either. I mean I really, truly love you.”
Louis just blinks at him. “You what?”
“I love you,” Harry says again, careful and slow and enunciated. “Fully, completely and with all I have, I love you.”
“I just want you to know,” he says. “Just in case I forget to reign it in one day and it comes as a surprise. I think you’re wonderful and I think you’re amazing and I think you’re beautiful , and you’re also my best friend in the entire world and I love you.”
Louis’ eyes are wide, his shoulders stiff. He looks at Harry with a mixture of wariness and curiosity. “Harry, I…I don’t know what you want me to do?” he says eventually.
“Nothing,” Harry sighs. “I don’t want you to do anything. I just wanted you to know. I just didn’t want to wake up one day and hate myself because I never took the chance to say it out loud.”
“Oh,” Louis says, and he gets it now. Of course he gets it. Because everything in his life now is temporary, even if he’s the only one willing to consider it. Everything is temporary and so he has to seize every single day. He has to say what he wants and do what he wants because who knows if he’ll ever have the chance to regret it?
Harry wants Louis. Harry doesn’t want anything from Louis, though, and that is confusing. Harry just wants him to know how much he cares and he wants him to know now because tomorrow might just be too late.
Louis knows how he should feel. He should feel flattered and maybe a little uncomfortable – but he doesn’t feel that at all and so he is confused. Because there are many different types of love, he knows that, he’s just never considered what category they fell into. Now Louis does and Louis feels warm all over and he doesn’t know what that means, but Harry has already changed the conversation and so he doesn’t have time to dwell on it.
One Direction isn't a band without Louis - they all agree on that, even if Harry is the one who actually broaches the subject. Louis isn't strong enough, his heart can't cope with all the dancing and the energy and the singing and if his heart wasn't already broken he thinks it would break all over again at the realisation. Still, Louis knows it’s coming. He's known it since he came to in the hospital after the first time his heart gave up.
Simon calls a meeting. He asks them all what they want to do, what the future is for the band. It's a no-brainer. One Direction walk out of the office on an indefinite hiatus.
Louis cries that night. He tries to hide it, tries to muffle it in his pillow but then the sniffles turn to sobs and he can't hold it back because everything has turned to shit and he's alive and that should be enough but it's not is it, not when he doesn't feel alive at all. He feels like he's just coasting, like he's lost his grip on the real world and now he's just falling down, down, down, because he can't sing and he can't perform and he can't be One Direction and so what is left?
Harry wakes up. Partly because he hears Louis' crying, but mostly because he's become a light sleeper these past months in case Louis needs him in the middle of the night, in case he needs him right now this second and one minute could end up being one minute too late.
Harry goes to him. Harry doesn't say anything as he slides under the covers beside him and holds the smaller boy flush against him, doesn't anything as he lets Louis sob into his chest until he's stopped shaking. He doesn't need to say a word, because he knows. He knows that Louis heart broke that night in front if twenty thousand people and he knows that it hasn't stopped breaking since, even though it's still beating, still keeping him alive.
They align so perfectly, like they are meant for each other, and it's not quite the way Harry wishes they could be but it is how Louis needs them to be and so that is enough. Harry hates sharing a bed but that night he does it for Louis. He stays and watches over him, his very own guardian angel, until the sun comes up and starts streaming through the curtains and Louis smiles up at him sleepily, still warm and pliant from sleep.
After that, they never sleep apart.
Louis needs Harry in a basic, raw, fundamental way that he doesn't really understand. He needs to know Harry is there, needs to feel Harry beside him because that is the only thing left in the world that grounds him. Harry is his anchor and when Harry isn't there Louis feels lost, like his feet don't quite touch the ground and he can't quite catch his breath.
So Harry stays by his side, and he is everything that Louis needs, whether its just a calming presence or hand on the flat of his back or a smile whenever Louis looks his way. Louis is more grateful than he can put into words because when Harry is there he isn't just existing anymore, he's actually living - even if it’s only half-way.
Harry doesn't even have to tell her and she knows already. She says she’s suspected it right from their x-factor days, when Harry was in awe of Louis and Louis was Harry’s sun. Still, it’s nice that someone else knows, someone who can murmur words of encouragement down the phone when he’s feeling particularly low.
She knows how difficult it is for Harry to love Louis so wholly when Louis can’t love him back, but she doesn’t sugar-coat it and promise him everything will work out fine because they both know that that is unlikely when Louis has a broken heart and every day is a blessing.
She tells Harry to hold on, though. She tells him that she knows without a doubt that Louis loves him to pieces and that all he needs is time to figure out just how much.
Harry gets that, and Harry will never be anything other than endlessly patient with him, it’s just…well. Harry isn’t sure how much time they have left.
Harry is patient still and Harry waits and slowly but surely Louis starts to understand that brief, small touches are not enough when Louis wants all of Harry.
Summer blends into Autumn and Autumn melts into Winter, taking with it the leaves from the trees and replacing them with a soft downy blanket of snow.
Louis and Harry love each other wholly and unconditionally and they know that, they just haven’t said it out loud. Harry doesn’t want to rush something that has to take time, and Louis is still too unsure, too unwilling to hand his life over to the younger even more than he already has.
Louis knows that’s stupid, deep down, because Harry has owned all he has to offer for months, if not years.
In the end its Louis who makes the first move. They’re curled up in Louis’ bed one morning with their mugs of tea and an old black and white film on the screen. Louis has a hospital appointment later in the day, just a check-up, just so that they can do some tests to see how his replacement heart is faring.
Louis isn’t nervous, much, because the last year has been peppered with appointments and so far he has been just fine. Still, he isn’t much looking forward to it, even though he knows Harry will come and hold his hand and reassure him because that’s how Harry is.
Harry forgets that Louis’ heart isn’t whole sometimes. Because Louis is still Louis, Louis has grown back into himself. Louis still laughs and smiles and jokes around and Harry wants to forget it, really. Harry doesn’t want the past to be a constant dark shadow on their future.
Louis doesn’t forget. Louis is constantly aware, always reminded, always thinking about it.
Sometimes at night Louis wakes up suddenly and he doesn’t know why until he feels his heart fluttering in his chest, off-beat and irregular and something is just not quite right. Those are the nights where he remembers and he can’t forget, no matter how hard he wants to. Those are the nights where Louis lies awake beside Harry, staring up at the ceiling and concentrating on just breathing, in and out, in and out, in and out.
He’s not thinking about it now though, not when Harry is pressed up against him and he’s warm and safe and content and the tea is just sweet enough and the winter sun is coming through the window. He’s not thinking about much at all, actually, except how nice Harry’s profile looks from this angle, how his eyelashes brush across his cheeks and his jaw is so defined and how his lips are so pink.
Louis wants to kiss him.
He’s thought that before, on occasion, but he’s always brushed it off, swallowed it down, refused to accept it. He doesn’t want to keep denying it, though. He’s sick of waiting, sick of pretending like he doesn’t want Harry because he does. He wants him so bad it actually hurts.
“Louis?” Harry says warily and Louis meets his eyes. “Everything alright?”
And Harry is worried because Louis has been staring, and Harry thinks that something is wrong but nothing is wrong and everything is so, so right because finally Louis knows and he can’t believe that it’s taken all these years to hit him.
“Everything is perfect,” he says. He raises a hand to Harry’s face, cups his jaw, brushes the skin with the pad of his thumb, and Harry just smiles down at him.
Louis is sick of waiting.
Louis hooks his arms gently around Harry’s neck and lowers his face down ever-so-slowly until he’s right in front of Louis. Harry looks at him questioningly, not wary, just confused. Louis’ eyes flicker down to his lips and then back up to his green eyes and then suddenly Harry gets it, Harry understands.
“Louis,” he says, all throaty.
“Shh,” Louis hushes him and then he leans forward and closes the remaining space between them, covering Harry’s mouth with his. It starts of gentle, as if Harry thinks Louis is made of glass and is easy to break, except he’s not and so Louis shows him by licking into his mouth and biting down on his lip and pulling him closer, closer, closer, because this has been five years in the making and now it’s happening and it’s perfect.
Louis pulls away, panting and flushed and so fucking alive.
“I’m sorry,” he breathes. “I’m so, so sorry.”
Harry just looks at him, his whole body electric, because he never wants Louis to apologise for what just happened, never ever ever. “What for?”
“For taking so long to realise,” he mumbles, and then Harry’s heart is soaring and Louis’ heart is skipping a beat and they’re both surging forward again and closing the space between them.
Harry and Louis are meant for each other.
It’s apparent in the way their bodies fit so perfectly together, in the way that their hands slot like puzzle pieces, in the way their lips mould around each other. Harry has been slowly falling head over heels, but for Louis it’s more like a crash course. All of a sudden everything is Harry, and he can’t remember a time when he didn’t rely on the other boy, when he didn’t light up at the sound of his voice, come alive at his touch.
Harry and Louis are meant for each other. Harry handed over his heart to Louis a long time ago, and now Louis is handing over his own to Harry, bit by broken bit.
At night Harry likes to listen to the sound of Louis’ heartbeat. It’s comforting, in a way, to have his head pressed to Louis’ chest. Badum, badum, badum. Regular and rhythmic and a reminder that Louis is alive, even if it isn’t his own heart inside his chest. Even if it is a borrowed heart, drumming out the rhythm of borrowed time.
They lie there at night, curled up in each other’s arms, and wonder how they ever survived without being what they are now. Harry listens to Louis’ heart and Louis holds him tight and their breathing shallows out as they drift off to sleep. Sometimes it takes seconds, other times minutes, but before long they are in synch – beat to beat, pulse to pulse, always and forever in time.
Louis has scars.
The biggest one is in the centre of his chest, thick and long and still an angry, vivid red. It’s where they cut him open and took away his bad heart and gave him a good one. It’s where they took him apart, made him not-whole. Louis hates that scar. Harry loves it, because it is a reminder of what they have been through and how lucky they are to still be together. He tells Louis this and afterwards Louis doesn’t hate it quite so passionately.
Louis has another scar just under his fringe at the top of his forehead. He got it at the O2 that night, from falling off the stage into the crowd. This one is much smaller and almost completely faded away to white, but Harry manages to find it every time, pressing a soft kiss to it as he tells Louis that he loves him. Every time Louis rises up on his tiptoes and catches Harry’s mouth with his own instead – because Louis’ scars tell stories, sad stories, and he’s sick of them. He wants to make new ones.
He wants to make stories with Harry, and so they do.
Their first time is sweet and slow and careful and it is everything that either of them ever could’ve dreamed of. Harry takes care of Louis like he always does, takes him apart completely until all Louis can feel and think and breathe is Harry.
“I completely and utterly love you,” Harry tell him afterwards. “Always have, always will.”
“Our always aren’t the same,” Louis says. And he doesn’t want to ruin the moment, he doesn’t, but it has to be said because both of them are clinging on to an impossible dream.
Harry frowns at him, raises a hand to sweep back Louis’ fringe out of his blue eyes. “What do you mean?”
“I mean I’m running on borrowed time, Haz,” Louis breathes, his eyelashes suddenly wet with tears. “I should’ve died, twice, and they saved me. They gave me someone else’s heart because mine was so broken and I’m still not fixed. I should’ve died but I’m still here. This isn’t my time, Harry, I’m only borrowing it. And pretty soon it’s going to run out.”
“It’s not,” Harry argues, but it’s a lie and they both know it, and so it hangs heavy in the air.
“I am. So your always and my always aren’t the same. You’ll have a life after me – I probably won’t have one after you.”
“I will love you forever,” Harry growls. “I fucking will, Lou.”
Louis just looks at him, at the ferocity in his eyes and the determination in his face. He sighs a little, shuffles closer to Harry under the cover and buries his face in his chest.
“Okay,” he says then. “Then I love you too.”
“Forever,” he agrees, but he knows deep down that the word has long lost its meaning.