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It is midnight, and Louis has been twenty for eleven seconds. 

He stares up at the ceiling for a moment, away from the little red numbers of his digital clock before turning to his phone instead.

MAAAAAATE, the first text of the day reads, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!! SEE YOU WHEN YOU GET BACK, WE’RE EXCITED TO HAVE YOU FOR CHRISTMAS!!  LOVE YOU LOU

He taps out a reply to Stan quickly – there has been an unspoken rule since they were eleven that they will, under all and any circumstances, stay up till midnight on birthdays, and turns over with a smile. He’s excited to go home; it’s been so, so long. He’ll spend the morning with whoever pops over and leave at lunch, be back for Christmas Eve/birthday dinner and stay till New Year’s Eve. Then he and Harry are throwing their much-anticipated party, of course, and Louis’ just a little bit more excited for that. Possibly.

He has been twenty for thirty-eight seconds when his door creaks open slowly, and he doesn’t need to flick a light on, doesn’t need to look up, to know who it is.

His heart gives a little pull. Distant, dull, but still, somewhat overwhelmingly, ever-present.

“Happy birthday,” Harry giggles, shutting the door behind him. All Louis can hear is his breath and the soft pad of his feet as he comes over; it is completely dark. A horn beeps out on the street, a wolf whistle and a crash of glass follow, but all Louis can hear is this.

It’s the moment he’s been dreading – but really, waiting for – and his pulse shoots up higher than the crack on his ceiling.

“Thanks,” he whispers as Harry perches himself on the bed, knees tucked up to his chin. There is no need to whisper, no one else is here. But it’s night, Louis thinks, and more than that, it’s them, so it’s a whisper.

Harry’s smiling in the dark, Louis can feel it. There’s a buzz around him; always is really, but tonight it’s Louis’ buzz, and he likes that. Harry wriggles up till he’s sat next to him – Louis’ leant back on the headboard now, trying to make out Harry’s face in the dark, his body warm and his breath hot as he laughs into Louis’ neck.

“You want your present now or later?” he asks. Louis huffs out a laugh, closes his eyes for a minute as Harry nips at his ear, quick, feather light, but there.

“You’re gonna get me arrested, Jesus,” he says, “aren’t you about twelve?”

“Shut up,” Harry murmurs, lips ghosting over Louis’ jaw, “now or later?”

Louis smiles.

“You know it’s not even been my birthday for two minutes,” he points out, breath careful and even, hands itching to reach out and touch him, “you’re a little overeager, occasionally, has anyone ever told you that?”

Harry pulls back for a moment. Louis imagines he winks. 

“Yeah, well, sue me,” he says, “I’m working with limited time.”

His lips brush over Louis’ at that, light and barely there, but then so much more. Louis stutters, his hand has found itself cupping Harry’s jaw, fingers looped in his hair.

“H,” he says, breathes, “we shouldn’t.”

“Don’t care,” Harry replies, quick and simple, like he’s been expecting it, “do you? It’s just once, Lou. Promise. It’s your birthday.”

Except it’s not just once, of course. It’s the first time in a long time, granted – April, Louis thinks, April or May – but it’s not once. It’s everything. It’ll leave him wrecked and distant and sad, just sad, for weeks. Always does. Always has, since he was eighteen.

But that’s okay, he thinks. Maybe that’s okay. He misses Harry so much. He’s never been his, but he still misses him. He’s never not around – they tour together, live together, experience all of this together – but he still misses him.

Harry darts back in, lips a little more insistent, and Louis turns for a moment.

“Harry,” he whispers, “Harry, we have—“

“Don’t care,” he says, “do you?”

And no, Louis supposes, he doesn’t. He never has. If he ever cared, in the slightest, if his head was ever screwed on tight enough to know that this is something that shouldn’t be happening, well, they wouldn’t be here in the first place.

So he kisses him back, and he’ll deal with the rest later.

Happy birthday, he thinks, and then there’s not much more in his head.

**

It is midnight, and Louis has been twenty-seven for sixteen seconds.

He smiles, sways a little on the spot and laughs as the shot courses down his throat, everyone cheering and downing their own, someone in his bathroom throwing up, glasses and bottles clinking at the toast. He rolls his eyes, blows a kiss up to Stan on the chair he’s just managing to stay standing on.

“So happy birthday, Louis fuckin’ Tomlinson,” Stan says grandly, with a laugh, “may your night be fun and your hangover unbearable.”

Louis laughs, lolls back against Zayn with a cheer and all the people here – friends, cousins, sisters, people he’s met along the way – join him, yell their messy congratulations again. They down another shot, and the collective wince goes up for the second time.

“You’re twenty-seven!” a voice yells from behind him, and Louis doesn’t need to turn around to know it’s Niall, cheeks a little pink, blood more alcohol than plasma at this point, and positively bouncing. “Twenty-fuckin’-seven! Hang on another three sixty five, man, don’t want you chucking a Cobain.”

Louis snorts, stands up and gratefully accepts the hand thrown over his shoulder, the little tap of Niall’s longneck against his glass.

“You’re dumb,” he says, “you my Courtney Love, then?”

“Oi!” Zayn says, staring at them both reproachfully from where he’s leant on the back of the couch. Out of the corner of his eye, Louis catches Stan chatting up one of the girls on their old management team, and he can’t help but snort, “who the fuck does that make me?”

Louis cocks his head so it rests against Niall’s for a little, eyes Zayn thoughtfully before the shots catch up to him and his brain goes nicely fuzzy for a minute.

“I dunno,” he declares, “this is too confusing. Get me a refill?” he asks with the nicest smile he can muster, and Zayn just rolls his eyes, snatches Louis’ glass off him and stalks off.

“It’s my birthday!” Louis calls after him, and Zayn just flips him off.

Niall laughs happily, finishes his beer and smacks a kiss to Louis’ cheek.

“I’m your Courtney Love,” he confirms, “blonde, and all.”

Louis smiles at that, eyes flicking up to Niall’s decidedly brunette hair. Niall’s not been blonde for years, but still likes to play the part now and again. He winks at Louis, hugs him in tight for a second and smiles, that big stupid grin that’s been a staple in Louis’ life for almost a decade now (and God, it’s the first time in his life he’s felt old, as that thought crosses his mind.)

“Hey,” he says all of a sudden, “where’s—“

“Lou!”

Speak of the Devil, Louis thinks as Liam shouts over the noise of the room and walks over, unwinding his scarf and dumping it along with his coat on the couch, and he shall appear.

“You made it!” Louis yells, smiling as Liam comes over, grinning like a madman.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” he says, Louis giving him a sloppy-at-best hug, “sorry, got caught up at Dani’s family Christmas thing. Bloody nightmare,” he mumbles, “anyway. You having a good night?”

Louis nods, smiles as Liam and Niall give each other a hug hello. It’s so incredibly odd still, that they even have to say hello, that it’s possible they’ve gone enough time without seeing each other to warrant a proper greeting. After so many years of it being nothing but each other, it still hits Louis in a funny sort of way that their circles have grown now, there isn’t just the one. Which is fine, Louis supposes, it’s not bad, just different.

“C’mon, you’re too sober,” Niall shouts in Liam’s face, “m’gonna make you a drink. Be back in a sec, Lou,” he says, and they melt away into the crowd, just as Zayn comes back over.

“Here,” he says, endeared disdain present as ever. Louis smirks as he takes his drink, and Zayn ignores it, just throws an arm round his shoulders.

Louis is tired, all of a sudden. He rests his head on Zayn, looks around at all the people gathered here. All these people, just for him. Stan and his other friends from school and his mum, somewhere; his sisters, who’re old enough to be here and drinking now, more or less. People he’s bumped into on the way, managers-come-friends, PR people who’ve actually proven to be great regular people, exes he’s on speaking terms with, kids who’ve grown up. And fuck, he thinks, fuck, Niall and Liam and Zayn, always Zayn, because Stan will always be his best mate but Zayn’s his best friend, and he thinks there’s a difference, now. The three of them who understand better than anyone all of this, the last ten-odd years, every bump and knot of it all.

They’re here, for him, because despite it all, every odd stacked against them, it’s never gone too long without a phone call or a coffee.

And Louis should be grateful for that. Louis is grateful for that, really, he is.

But. And there’s always a but, there’s been a but in Louis’ life since he was eighteen years old, and this far on, in the back of Louis’ brain, he’s still there.

Except he’s not, of course. He’s fucking absent, he’s been absent for two years, and Louis doesn’t let it hurt too often but tonight, tonight it hurts, because Louis is drunk and Louis is turning twenty-seven and he remembers lying in bed as the clock ticked over from 11:59 to 12:00 all those years ago and thinking, I don’t know where I’ll be, what I’ll be doing, but I know he’ll he there.

And he’s not. Louis is in his very nice North London apartment with everyone he loves in the world bar one. So suddenly, quite out of the blue, he feels so, so tired.

Zayn rests his head on Louis’ for a moment, watching the party carry on around them.

“I’m sorry he’s not here,” he says quietly, so quiet that over the rabble Louis almost misses it. His heart seems to clench at that, though, too big for his chest all of a sudden, and he almost laughs. Because hasn’t that always been the way, hasn’t that been the feeling that’s followed him around for all this time, and here it is again, a world away and still not far enough.

Because Harry is not here, and at the end of it all, when his guests have left and his place is messy, and Zayn is passed out on his couch with promises of cleaning up later, that will be what Louis remembers. It’s what he’ll remember when he wakes up and when he opens the table of gifts across the room and when he reads through the endless texts tomorrow will bring. It’s what he’ll remember when he finds out from a tabloid on his mum’s coffee table that Harry spent a wild Christmas Eve with a group of tall beautiful people that Louis doesn’t know, got trashed in a club streets away from Louis’ place and drove back to Cheshire the next day and didn’t so much as give him a call.

He doesn’t let it hurt often. He does let it sit, though, just below the surface, a little scratch on his heart.

“Me too,” he murmurs, eyes growing tired, body delivering the grand ultimatum of more alcohol or bed, “me too.”

**

They’ve still got all the money in the world, all the big nights and bigger houses, all the people at their doors with singles and album deals and promises of more, they still have all of that, and they will forever. The only thing they’ve burnt through is each other.

Harry and Liam sing, Niall and Zayn write and produce, Louis does TV, events, the big shiny shows that need him for what he’s good at, crowds, charm, laughs. They’re lacklustre at best, despite the protests, despite the but you’d be so good, full time, if only you just gave a little more, because they don’t care, not really. It’s filler, an appearance here and there to stop them going insane, and the funny part is that they’re happy, mostly. It’s comfortable and easy and fine, because it’s play more than work and that’s the way it’s always been, so they can deal with it, fall asleep a little drunk and a little content. There’s always a stranger willing to accompany them home, sometimes a girlfriend, a boyfriend; there’s always more of everything and not once have they felt that breaking up two and a half years ago, now, was a bad thing.

They still have everything they did before; more, even, because royalties flow thick and fast, just like the champagne and the late nights and the booked out clubs, hotels, parties, and the only thing they’ve burnt through is each other.

Or, really, more to the point, the only thing Louis has burnt through is Harry.

Because he still sees the others, as often possible; they’ve been the only ones who’ve intuitively understood since they were all barely legal and sometimes all the company, all the lights, can’t ever make up for that, the feeling that there is someone else who feels intrinsically similar. So they will always be there, but in twos or threes now, because four is so distinctly not five, and five is off the table.

Has been, really, since so I’m kind of seeing this girl.

They’d caught up once. Clear day, both back in London after a few months at home for Louis, overseas for Harry. Clear day, small café, nervous heartbeat, because six years is a long, long time for something so big to be so ignored, and now, maybe, it doesn’t have to be.

But Harry had sat down and picked at a raspberry muffin and looked at him with so much guilt in his eyes, so much laced in his tone, and said it. So I’m kind of seeing this girl, and whatever Louis had definitely not thought or certainly not considered or absolutely not entertained the idea of had come to a clean-cut end; surgical precision, and then they had too.

Because fading is easier than watching on and reining in the angry jealousy, and radio silence is far less exhausting than all of the looks and all of the eyes-cast-downward sadness that had crept up on them in the last few years. Without the obligation to stand together, laugh together, be in each other’s presence, it was justeasier, maybe more numb but far less tiring, to just fade out, slowly. Less painful, marginally, then dragging up everything between them after keeping it quiet for no reason other than self-inflicted loyalty, a belief in something bigger, a belief that if it happened, other, more important (quantatively), things could not. He suspects maybe it’s fear, avoidance, an inability to articulate all the things that had sat between them for so long, but then again he’s not sure. He’s not really been sure of much for a while.

Louis calls it inertia, because it’s nicer than saying it was a few too many years of hot breaths and quick guilty fucks in the dark for anything to really progress, it’s more palatable than saying it was too many boys and girls in their beds and quite genuinely, for a time, in their hearts, albeit never as strongly, never as fuckingnecessarily as each other, to suddenly hope things could change.

So inertia it is. It works for Louis, vaguely; on some level it’s enough. He spent many a night on the road jetlagged and awake thinking about Harry Styles, and if that has continued – if that will continue – way past the last sale of a single or concert ticket, well, that’s his to hold onto.

**

It is a Saturday night in mid-March and it’s hardly the shock of the new millennium but it’s fucking freezing. Even as he takes a much-begged-for drag of Zayn’s cigarette in the car (the window is down, sue him), heater going full blast, he’s shivering wildly.

He should’ve bought a fucking coat.

“I hate you,” he informs Niall, unadorned, “like, a lot. I hate you a lot.”

Niall just rolls his eyes.

“I mean it,” Louis protests blankly, “it’s about three degrees above zero Kelvin and I’m going to an art show.”

Niall takes no notice, kicks him in the shin and spits his gum out as the car pulls up.

“Yeah, right,” he says, totally unfazed by Louis’ histrionics as per usual, “because a gallery full of pretentious hipster boys that you can hatefuck in the bathroom is really something I’ve got to convince you to get off your arse for.”

Louis is halfway through contriving a thoroughly lacerating retort when the car unlocks, and before he can speak, Zayn puts a hand on his shoulder and slaps them both as he opens the door.

“S’enough,” he says dryly, and they step out onto the street.

There are no photographers tonight; this isn’t an event, as such. This is Niall’s girlfriend’s exhibition opening, and like the true heroes of the modern world that they are, Louis and Zayn have agreed to attend the first showing of the night. He assumes Liam, and Harry, will be here for the second. There is an unwritten rule, of sorts – and God, add it to the list of unwritten rules between the five of them – that should events require them both to show up, one will be invited early and the other late. They know when to clear out – or at least Louis assumes Harry does too, because they never bump into each other, not since that fleeting coffee two years ago – and, well. This is it. Louis and Zayn here for the first show, Liam and Harry for the second.

Add it to the list, he thinks vaguely, taking a glass of champagne off a circulating silver tray as they breeze in, things to feel vaguely and continuously guilty about.

“C’mon,” Zayn murmurs in his ear as Niall makes it through the crowd to be front and centre for the toast, “let’s get cultured.”

It’s a weird show. Louis’ never known much about art; he’d rather bury himself alive than spend hours buying paintings, but it’s nice. Alice’s always been talented, Louis remembers seeing her paint in Niall’s apartment once, and it’s sort of amazingly majestic in this room. It’s all big swooping brushstrokes and huge canvases and shapes, and he can feel the essence of art-wanker settling over his skin as he thinks it, but whatever. He’s here as moral support and to mop up as much of the open bar as he can, so he may as well play the part.

He’s halfway round the room, having bumped into a couple of people here and there, when he feels a presence a little too close; the sort of presence he prides himself on being able to pick out a mile away.

“Sorry,” the guy says, voice that cookie cutter pitch of hesitant and a little impressed, “are you Louis Tomlinson?”

Louis preens, a little, because while it was annoying and overwhelming before, it’s kind of nice now, a little further down the track. To absolutely nobody’s surprise, he kind of enjoys the attention. He turns with a smile, and God is he glad he did, because this guy is gorgeous.

He’s tanned and six feet tall, give or take, white shirt done up all the way and perfectly pressed blazer sitting on his broad shoulders and what Louis imagines to be truly lovely arms like he was born wearing it. Pretentious hipster boys that you can hatefuck in the bathroom, he thinks, and he remembers to get Niall a particularly good birthday present this year.

“Yeah,” he says, smile genuine as he runs a hand through his hair, “yeah, I am. How are you?”

He shakes the guy’s hand, charm cranked up to eleven, because if it’s literally the last thing he gets to do with his time on Earth he’s going to sleep with this annoyingly good looking creature. He’s younger than Louis, maybe a couple of years, eyes sparkly chocolate and raking over him unashamedly, and Louis feels like he’s just pulled a jackpot on a slot machine.

“Good,” the guy says, a little flustered, and Louis loves that, “I’m Logan, by the way.”

Louis really, seriously, has to fight to suppress an eye roll, because of fucking course he’s got a name like Logan, stood in an East London gallery on a Saturday night.

“Well nice to meet you, Logan,” he replies, let’s his smile linger for a moment, and he really does hope the blush taking over this guy’s face doesn’t kill him before he has the time to fuck Louis in what he assumes is a nice annex somewhere in the halls of this place.

“You too,” he says, seeming to regain some control, “I, umm. My sister was a huge fan, you know, I heard your fucking records day in day out.”

Original, Louis thinks, before he remembers he’s trying to be amicable here, so he gives a laugh like it’s the first time he’s ever heard it.

“Just your sister?” he asks, eyebrow raised, “no offence, mate, but the fact you knew my name without any prompting’s kind of a giveaway.”

There’s a flurry of some sort over at the door as Logan laughs, sort of stumbles his way around an endearing admittance of how he kind of had a poster or two and whatever else. Louis is the image of attentive interest, just distracted momentarily by the sudden movement at the front of the room.

“I mean, you know,” Logan says, smirk as lovely as Louis suspected it would be, “you were pretty hot shit in your day.”

Louis turns back to him with his full attention for a moment, ignores the rising sound of the room.

“Excuse you,” he says pointedly, mouth dropped in an accusing O, “are you insinuating I’m past my prime?”

Logan raises an eyebrow, gives a tilt of his head.

“Well, you know, up until five minutes ago I’d be inclined to say yes,” he says, “but it turns out you’re looking pretty good.”

The gallery is growing louder, people arriving in droves just in time for the toast, and Louis gives him a cocky sort of look right back, lips lingering on his glass for a moment as he takes a sip of his drink.

“Damn straight,” he says, “do you even know how long it takes to look this good without a stylist?”

He laughs at that, big and a little overwhelmed. “Not really,” he admits, “why don’t you tell me?”

And as Louis opens his mouth to reply, dragging his eyes away from the door and back to the guy in front of him, three things happen at once.

The first is that the lights of the gallery dim slightly, and in their place comes the illumination of the makeshift platform in front of them, where Alice and the owner of the gallery take the stage.

The second; a spoon chimes against a champagne flute, sending the whole room gradually silent, awaiting the toast and obligatory round of applause to follow.

And then there’s the third, just as the lights dim, just as the glass chimes. And that is Louis’ stomach hitting the floor, blood draining from his face, as out of the corner of his eye he glances back towards the glass entrance of the gallery, still rustling and loud with hushed, late voices.

Because, passing his coat off to one of the staff on the door, smile appreciative and achingly genuine and hand resting low on the back of a tall blonde girl by his side, is Harry.

Just like that.

Just there.

Just the third of so many things happening in this room, just another guest and just another face, and yet. There he is.

And before Louis can take a breath, hide his face or slip out into the night or just disappear, will himself away, Harry looks up, eyes bright and excited and doing the rounds of the room, searching for someone he knows. The blonde whispers in his ear, making him smile and laugh quietly, and then his gaze is a matter of degrees away and before Louis can stop it, move, run, it’s too late.

They see each other, same moment, same room, same stare, and like the beat of Louis’ heart and the voice in his head saying get out, like the blink of his eyes and seemingly like this whole room, suburb, city; the smile freezes on Harry’s face. And then it drops.

And for a fraction of a second, it’s total, total calm. Transcendental, almost, hovering somewhere above them, because this is the first time in so long and for those moments where their brains are playing catch up it’s like they could exist here forever.

Like a crack of lighting, applause rips through the air, probably delicate and refined but wildfire to Louis. Because then it drops, all of it, Harry’s eyes on him as his girl whispers in his ear, lips ever so slightly parted, light dim and speech droning on in the background, two years, Louis thinks, and then he feels like he’s going to be sick.

He turns away, breath ragged, eyes trained towards the front.

“Is that Harry?” Logan whispers in his ear, bending down slightly, and Louis closes his eyes, bites his cheek and tries to count his heart back into regularity, “you know, you read all that stuff in the papers, about how the two of you never talk, but—“

“I have to go,” Louis says suddenly, voice a fraction too loud and garnering him three or four disparaging looks. He clears his throat, shuts his eyes for another moment.

“Sorry,” he smiles, forces himself to smile at this perplexed stranger in front of him, “have yourself a nice night, yeah?”

It’s as he turns to go and throw his drink on the nearest stable surface, that the lights go up again and the chatter returns. It’s as the lights go up, panic rising in his chest, propelling him towards the door, any door, as fast as he can, that he hears it.

“Oh my God! Haz, oh my God, is that Louis?”

And it’s when he flicks his head up, eyes just a little wild and drink not quite disposed of, that he sees the girl on Harry’s arm pulling him over, smile excited and flippantly outraged, so obviously unaware of what she’s about to do. Harry looks like something’s stuck in his throat; a protest, maybe, an excuse that he can’t get out.

Which is how, on a cold Saturday in mid-March, Louis finds himself face to face with Harry, and a stranger looking between them expectantly.

And Jesus, Jesus Christ, no, because he can’t do this.

“Hi.”

It’s all Harry says. Seconds of utter silence, wide eyes and frozen expressions, then hi. Just hi, that’s all. Louis tugs his rolled sleeves down, fingers making such a concerted effort to keep hold of his glass that it nearly cracks under his grip.

“Hi,” he says, voice faint and absent and off, he can tell, because the blonde’s eyebrows furrow, like she knows something here is wrong.

“Hi,” Harry says again, almost breathy, before he shakes his head, “sorry. I. Hi. How…how are you?”

Fucked, Louis thinks. Because what a question, how insignificant and trite, but then again, what else is there. And hasn’t that always been the problem, for all those years and all those frantic nights and heavy, sad days, and this is so, so much.

“Okay,” he says, eyes still locked together, as though they’re furiously trying to read each other, figure out what’s at play here, “fine, you know.”

There’s a pause.

Then, finally, “How are you?”

Harry nods, swallows sharply. Maybe Louis imagines it, but his hands seem shaky. He’s here, Louis thinks, right here.

“Good,” he answer, eyes flicking round the room, and Louis does the same. Almost immediately, he sees Zayn, eyes wide and absolutely frozen as he watches on. He makes to come over, Louis thinks, but can’t get through the crowd, and then he’s pulled up by someone who wants a chat and he can’t escape. Louis can feel his eyes now, so smiles, makes an effort to not look like everything’s crashing around him. Around them, maybe. Whatever.

“Oh,” Harry says quickly, flustered, “sorry, this is Laura. Laura, this is Lou…” he cuts himself off for a moment, blinks, “Louis. This is Louis.”

“I know,” she says with a smile, shaking his hand, “it’s so nice to finally meet you. We see Zayn around so much, you know, and Niall, he’s around every other day and…”

Louis is sure she keeps talking, but he can’t hear it, can’t hear anything. He smiles in all the right places but his eyes are on Harry, and this is so terrifyingly familiar, the feeling in his head and his chest and his stomach, and he doesn’t know what to do.

“Do you want a drink?” she asks, turning to Harry. He blinks at her, like he’s just woken up from a nap, disoriented and confused.

“Hm?” he drops his head to hear her properly, like it’s going to help him focus, “sorry, s’loud.”

“Drink?” she asks, a little louder, “I’ll let you two catch up.”

He closes his eyes; Louis can see it despite the way his hair falls across his face, the little furrow of his brow like he’s trying to centre himself.

“No, I’m okay,” he says, “thanks, though. See you in a minute?”

“Yeah,” she says, wary, almost, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek, “yeah, of course.”

She drifts off, throwing a cautionary look over her shoulder that hits Louis in that spot he’s not felt for so long, and like something a little too bright, he has no choice but to look back at Harry.

And fuck, but he’s not sticking around for that.

“I should get going,” he says, “I…I didn’t know, you know, that you—“

“Yeah,” Harry says quickly, “no, sure, I know, I was early because—“

“It’s okay,” Louis interjects, “really, don’t worry about it, I’m just. I should go.”

Harry nods, watches as Louis puts his glass on the tray of a passing waiter. It’s so quiet, so loud, so surface but running deeper, so panicky but so calm. Louis runs a hand through his hair, shoots him one last smile, and he’s not sure who it’s meant to reassure.

“I’ll see you,” he says, “have a good night, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Harry says, and he lets out the smallest of laughs, “it was great…” He stops, trails off for a moment, like every word is difficult. Finally, he looks up.

“It was great seeing you,” he says softly.

Louis doesn’t know why he does it. Maybe because bye is too hard to say after so long, maybe it’s instinct, maybe something he doesn’t even know. But for the smallest of moments, he rests his right hand on Harry’s left arm, squeezes it, then lets go.

And God, does that weigh him down.

“You too,” he says quietly, and with that, he pushes past him, face a second from crumbling.

“Lou?”

He stops, recentres himself, and wheels around at his name, jittery all over. Harry has turned to watch him go, word seeming to have slipped his lips before he could stop it.

“Yeah?”

Louis can hear his own breath escaping in ragged little pants, trying to keep up with his heart.

“You look good,” he says finally.

And Louis wants to reply, more than anything. He wants to drag Harry into a corner and he wants to sit there with a bottle of wine and top buttons lazily undone and he wants to say tell me everything, wants to hear about every forgettable single and show and trip, wants to hear how his family’s doing, his friends, what his new team’s like, if he misses the band, what he’s been up to for so long. Wants to know about every stupid car he’s bought, every house, every fucking latte. He wants nothing more than to sit down and know it all, because he’s always wanted it all from Harry and it’s almost frightening how after five minutes of nothing but bare civility that so obviously hasn’t changed.

But then Laura is combing back through the crowd with a cocktail; Zayn and Liam, who also apparently arrived early, are making distressed eyes at each other across the room, and it’s just. Too much, or something. Everything and everyone and all of this; that Louis hasn’t done for years.

So instead of that, instead of getting it all, he smiles, shakily, and pushes his way past coat check and into the bathroom.

Seven minutes later, Louis leaves. He’s not sure if Harry notices. He really tries to stay, doesn’t want to be the first one to crack, doesn’t want to let this get the better of him, because it shouldn’t, it has no earthly reason to. But he just can’t. Can’t deal with the looks and the wide, horror-filled eyes of those even vaguely in the loop at the idea this has happened, here, tonight. Can’t deal with his sheer presence in the room, the weight of it, the pounding in his head because he’s here he’s here he’s here, by something as simple as a mismanagement of schedules, he’s here.

Louis’ never known how to deal with Harry, not really, not at their closest and happiest and most secure has he ever been able to come to terms with the way Harry nestles into his life. Two years after the last exchange between them, and it grips Louis so tightly that he feels that cold, distant echo all over again.

So it takes seven minutes, in the end, citing a headache to anyone who asks and pushing past Zayn’s frantic, murmured pleas of wait, Lou, I’ll come with you, for Louis to find himself falling out onto the street with a gasp. He leans back against the display window of the shop next door for a minute, one, two, three, four,focuses on counting the cracks on the footpath or the breath in his lungs rather than him, there, before hailing down a cab, footsteps quiet in the damp street as he gets inside and slams the door shut.

It is a cold Saturday night in mid-March that Harry reenters his life, and more importantly, Louis will come to learn, it is a cold Saturday night in mid-March that he doesn’t just completely vanish again.

**

The thing is, of course, Louis is a great liar.

It doesn’t matter that he’s not fine, because he will tell everyone who dare ask that he is, and for the most part, they’ll believe him. He’ll tell them it’s not a big deal and that it was nice to see Harry and that he’s proud of him and whatever else he needs to say to convince them he’s doing okay. And either they’ll believe him or become too uncomfortable to press the point, and either of those two options works for Louis. He’s not really fazed by people whispering behind closed doors anymore; if anything, that’s an upside of growing up on the cover of every gossip rag in the country.

There’s only one person, really, who knows him well enough to ignore every last word of reassurance he gives, and God is he grateful for that, because he’s not really together enough to say it otherwise.

After two days of silence, there’s a knock at his door, and Louis knows who it is. It’s the same hand that had knocked after Harry’s fleetingly rumoured engagement last year, it’s the same hand that had knocked on the first birthday Harry didn’t call, and it’s the hand that will continue to knock every time Louis’ feeling entirely overwhelmed and still acting like the paragon of calm he so desperately wishes he was.

And when he opens the door, in his pyjamas and an old sweatshirt at midday, he’s entirely unsurprised to see Zayn there, eyebrow raised suspiciously but face soft, and most importantly, understanding.

“Hey,” he says gently, “I’m gonna do that thing now where I barge in and pretend I’m here to play FIFA with you because your TV’s bigger than mine. That okay?”

Louis snorts, drops his head onto Zayn’s chest for a moment before standing up, closing the door behind him as he dumps his headphones and wallet on the sideboard.

“Yeah,” Louis says, “that’s fine.”

They get as far as the EA screen before Zayn switches the TV off.

“So,” he says evenly, prodding Louis’ knee with his foot. It’s all he says, face carefully expectant. Louis rolls his eyes and flops down on the couch so he’s looking up at the ceiling, almost calmly white.

“So,” he replies, “I can’t imagine what you’re here for, you know.”

Zayn prods him a little harder for that, and he chances half a smile, starts counting the flecks of grey in the paint to make himself breathe a little easier.

So, how was he?” Zayn asks gently, and Louis can’t help but snort, because this is so, so ridiculous.

“Well you tell me,” he shoots back, coolly, “I saw him for all of five minutes. You see him like, once a week, don’t you? To play fucking backgammon or get high or whatever it is you—“

“—Louis,” Zayn interrupts quietly.

“—You know, for two pretty good looking people you get up to some weird shit. I’d know, the Mirror said it and everyth—“

“—Louis—“

“—I don’t get why everyone’s so hell bent on asking me how he was, you know, because literally every single other person on the planet sees him more often than—“

“—Louis.”

What?”

The room falls very, very quiet. Louis remains motionless, looks up at the ceiling, flash of annoyance at losing control quickly circling him before dispersing. Fuck, he thinks, not for the first time over the last few days, fuck.

“How was he, Lou?” Zayn asks again, just as measured as before, and Louis laughs, dry and sad.

“I dunno,” he says, begrudgingly, “tall.”

“Tall?” Zayn says, smile in his voice, “that’s all you got for me?”

Louis kicks out at him, connects with his leg, he assumes.

“Talk to me,” Zayn murmurs, “s’okay, or whatever.”

And Louis’ so, so tired. Zayn might not get it, but he’s better than everyone else. So fuck it, really, yeah. He’ll talk to him. He’ll try, anyway.

“You know,” Louis says carefully, nails digging into his palm, “this is gonna sound stupid, and whatever, but it’s your own fault, because you came over here.”

He pauses, sighs, tone dropping a little.

“It was…” he says quietly, “it was exactly the fucking same, you know. He was…it’s been two years. And he was just there. He’s exactly the same.”

It’s silent for a moment after that. Zayn rests back on the arm of the couch, feet kind of lazily tangled with Louis’, and he makes a small noise of agreement. Louis’ never understood why Zayn can make him say more with a couple of weighted utterances of his name than most people can after hours and hours, but he’s never thought too much about it.

“Yeah,” Zayn says, “I know.”

“I didn’t expect, like, a huge fucking change, or whatever,” Louis continues, words deliberately slow, “but it’s just. The hair and the girls and the fucking smile, you know. I just. I don’t know what to do with that. He’s the same.”

“S’it good or bad same?” he asks, and trust fucking Zayn, to know exactly what to ask to make him pause, think. Because is it good or bad same, that’s the question Louis’ been artfully avoiding for some time now. Good, maybe, that he’s always going to be somewhat of a constant, that the Harry Louis thinks about when he allows himself is the same Harry that exists now, but bad, because Louis doesn’t feel the same after all of this. Doesn’t feel, look, sound the same, he doesn’t think. And how is it possible that all of this has bypassed Harry, that nothing’s touched him enough to change him even a little bit when for Louis, it’s all felt momentous.

“I don’t know,” he murmurs, “it’s…just there.”

Zayn doesn’t push that point, just nods.

“So are you gonna see him again?”

Louis smiles, sadly, to himself, but he supposes Zayn sees it.

“No,” he murmurs, “no, I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

And that’s one that stumps Louis, for a moment. Because it’s never been something he’s known how to articulate; there’s only one person who really understands why and he doesn’t need it laid out in words. He just needs a look or a touch or a furrowed brow or a trite smile; or needed, Louis supposes, because it’s not like he really knows him anymore. But then he does, of course, and that’s when it all gets too much, too big, too overwhelming, so he closes his eyes and wills his brain to calm down, stop rushing him with thoughts all larger than the last.

Louis bites his lip, slowly, thoughtfully, coiling away from it all somehow.

“Because it hurts,” he says finally, quietly, “it just. It hurts, you know.”

And he knows it’s okay to say, that Zayn won’t pull him in for an unnecessary hug or coo at him with all the false pity in the world. He gets it better than most, he gets everything better than most. He just nods, reaches for Louis’ hand resting on the back of the couch and squeezes it for a second.

“Lou,” he says gently, “I’m just telling you this so you’re, like, in the loop or whatever. But he’s going to Cordo’s party on Saturday.”

Louis sits up at that, eyes wide like something from a comic book.

What?”

Zayn shrugs, carefully. “He said…he thought it’d be okay, you know. Because you saw each other the other night.”

Sat up, where Zayn can see him, where it’s not a holy silence between him and the ceiling, Louis’ measured, calmer. He swallows, smiles, runs a hand through his hair where it’s all stuck up at the back.

“Well,” he says slowly, “bit of a leading question then, wasn’t it, are you gonna see him again?

Zayn laughs, courteously more than anything, and looks him right in the eye.

“I can tell him, y’know, not to, I’m sure he won’t—“

“It’s fine,” Louis says, “it’s okay.”

Zayn pauses for a moment, as though he’s unsure if he should say the next part.

“You just said it hurts,” he says carefully, “are you sure?”

And that, more than anything, makes Louis want to laugh, uproariously, bitterly, exhaustedly. It hurt for years, he thinks, six hours won’t kill me.

“It’s fine,” he nods, with a hint of finality that they both recognise, “c’mon. My TV’s bigger than yours, remember, we have to play FIFA.”

With a split second pause, and a decision that clearly says that’s enough for today, Zayn shrugs, flicks the TV back on.

“You’re on, Tommo,” he says, and for the first time since he arrived, Louis takes a deep breath and refocuses himself.

***

He doesn’t go to the party to see Harry. He goes, in the end, because it’s Saturday night and he doesn’t want to be alone and he’s already said he’d go. He goes because not going would be such a sign, would make everyone worry, and he doesn’t want to do that to them again, least of all to Zayn. It’s a big party, anyway. He can make an appearance and leave and not even lay eyes on him, just like every other event they’ve managed to avoid each other at.

He doesn’t go to see Harry. If, somewhere in the back of his mind, he has a morbid sort of interest in running into him, that’s a different story. Fuck knows he’s in too deep already, after one fleeting and halted conversation, so he may as well just dig himself deeper.

James’ place is amazing, centre of the city, one of those apartments that Louis assumes you get given as a prize for figuring out adulthood, because he’s never understood how someone has themselves together enough to live in a place so coordinated and well-kept otherwise. He doesn’t even live here, unless he has to be in London, but it’s beautiful, and Louis remembers the handful of nights he’s spent here for no other reason than it’s one of the most beautiful views of the city he’s ever seen.

When Harry walks in, Louis’ been there about half an hour, talking with Niall and the seemingly never-ending group of people he attaches himself to with all the ease in the world. When Harry walks in, Louis’ holding a big ridiculous girly cocktail in one hand and talking to a girl who’s been living in Israel for the last six months. When Harry walks in, Louis can’t even pretend he didn’t situate himself in this position, with this group of people, just so his eyes could slide over to the door every few seconds, and when Harry walks in, he’s maybe starting to regret it – standing here, coming to this party in the first place, going to the gallery last week – because God.

It’s not even marginally easier to deal with the second time round, and Louis knew he was coming this time. But it’s just, it’s all of him. It’s the way he tries so sweetly to not be the biggest person in the room, the way he’s tried since he was a kid. He’s never understood that inexplicable pull that people have towards him and Louis sees it written over him so clearly, still; the way he shakes his hair out, hangs his own coat, blinks a little perplexedly at the constant buzz surrounding him. People notice as soon as he enters the room; and he always looks so happily overwhelmed at that idea; tonight is no different. He takes a drink with a thank you, locking eyes with the waiter and giving him a smile, and Louis just thinks, who else. Because Louis’ never known anyone like that, and fuck, he’s met a few people in his time.

He tries to listen, really, he does; tries to engage and laugh and tell the right jokes in the right places. But he’s stuck on the boy across the room, so frustratingly close and yet so impenetrably far away, and in the end, that drowns everything else out to background noise.

With a murmured excuse, promises of see you in five, I just need a fag, he slips out onto the balcony, air blissfully cool and quiet around him as he closes the door. He sees Niall’s eyes on him, warily, so he pulls his lighter out of his pocket and raises his eyebrows, I’m okay, he hopes they say, really, don’t worry.

Because he doesn’t want the high drama. Doesn’t want Niall slipping his hand into his pocket and texting Zayn balcony, doesn’t want Liam offering, sweetly and kind of reluctantly, to take him out and get him drunk, doesn’t want any of it, not this time. He’s done it to them before and he had resolved, then, not to do it again. He just needs some air.

It’s just as he realises with a muttered fuck that he doesn’t actually have a cigarette on him – he’s a half-hearted social smoker at best, and forward thinking isn’t his forte – that the door slides open again.

And when he turns, it is to a deer-in-the-headlights expression, wide and unblinking green eyes; it is, of course, to Harry.

“Shit,” Harry says, “sorry, I just. Needed some air, you know. I. I can go.”

Louis should nod curtly, let him close the door and go back inside. Louis should smile and say have a good night, and probably, Louis should leave. But Louis should do a lot of things; should call home more, see his friends outside the band and this whole world more often, should do his laundry. Louis should sleep more and work out and actually date more. And two years ago, Louis should’ve tried more, shouldn’t’ve let it get here.

So fuck it, he thinks, and opens his mouth.

“No,” he says gently, “no, it’s okay.”

He nods him over, and with a second’s hesitation, Harry steps outside, closing the door behind him. He shivers a little against the cold, before he sees the lighter in Louis’ hand and smirks.

“You smoke now?” he asks, face soft, and Louis just snorts.

“Not really,” he says, “I dunno. I don’t think I have the dedication to make it a habit.”

Harry laughs, so Louis does too, and after a moment it settles into silence. Louis’ head feels light, or something, up so high.

The door slides back open with a scrape, and they both jump, Harry breathing out a little shit.

“Can I offer you a drink?” the waiter asks, and Louis smiles, drops his head to where his arms are leant on the railing. There’s never a moment without interruption, not even now. Harry turns to the door, walks over, because he’s always been the patient one, the one who can swallow and smile and pull it together a little easier, and it’s almost terrifying how simply they slip back into old habits and old reliances. Louis closes his eyes for a moment to regain what control he can; looking out over the city he thinks, it should be so easy.

“Just a champagne and orange,” Harry says, “oh. No, two, actually.”

Louis hears him take them from the tray, thanks the guy again before the door closes. He comes back over, holds one out for Louis.

“Figured you’d still be partial to one,” Harry says with a small smile, “sorry if, you know—“

“No,” Louis says quickly, “no, that’s good, thanks.”

Harry turns, arms rested like Louis’; glasses, hands, dangling over the edge.

“’S a nice night,” Harry says after a moment, just to fill the silence, Louis thinks, “I’ve always liked this place.”

“Best part of the James Corden monopoly on London real estate,” Louis says with a smile, and Harry laughs. Softly, gently, almost warily. It feels tired. Louis’ tired. He supposes Harry is, too, can see it, feel it instinctively, but he laughs nonetheless.

“Right,” he smiles, “I haven’t been here since—“

He cuts himself off; halting, unsure, and God, is it painful. Because Louis remembers when they were last here together too; when James had thrown them a party for their end-of-second-tour wrap, and Jesus. Louis remembers that night so well, beer slightly warm and eyes completely over-tired, Harry sleepy in the corner. He wonders if they went home together that night. Maybe, he supposes. They went home together on a lot of nights like that. Streets cold and hearts lonely and heads desperate; probably, he thinks, they did.

And they’re both thinking the exact same thing right now, he’s sure of it.

He comes to, Harry’s eyes trained on him. Louis doesn’t know what he’s going to say next. But he seems heavy with something, tied down, and when he speaks it’s like he can’t shut it down any longer.

“I fucking loved that band, you know.”

It comes out of the blue, as he looks up at the sky. Louis’ chest feels tight, and he leans his forearms on the wrought iron surrounding the balcony, looks down, closes his eyes for a moment. It’s never been a friendship of formality, not with the two of them. There’s room in his life for small talk with everyone else; with Harry, it’s never been necessary. Even now, apparently, almost strangers, and there’s no real need for a preamble.

“Yeah,” he says, “yeah. Me too.”

“I mean,” Harry continues, turning to look at him; Louis doesn’t look back but he can feel it, “I loved it. The fucking noise of it all, you know? I loved the shitty songs and the travel and the fucking people. The five of us, being, like, on the move all the time. I loved it. I loved—“

He cuts himself off there, and Louis snaps his head up, locks eyes with him for a second. His expression is full, brimming with something Louis knows but doesn’t, understands but can’t articulate, and as though he can sense that, Harry drops his head, huffs out a small laugh.

“Everything’s hard now,” he says softly, “it’s weird.”

“It was hard then, too,” Louis points out, taking a sip of his drink. Harry laughs again, not quite happy, elbow brushing Louis’.

“Yeah. I know,” he says, “but I was so excited, when it ended. To go and do something else for a while.”

Louis bites his lip at that; nods, small and bare.

“But everything got sort of fucked up,” Harry continues, and Louis freezes, “it…everything got so small.”

But so big, Louis thinks, so, so big.

“Do you ever…” Harry starts, and Louis closes his eyes for a second, to try and compose himself for whatever Harry’s going to throw at him here, so many years later. He smiles then, out over the city, distant lights illuminate him for a moment. “Do you ever wish we’d stayed?”

And Louis wonders what that means, briefly. Who does he mean, where does he mean, because they didn’t go anywhere, not really. They’ve been in the same city this whole time. And yet this is, somehow, the first time they’ve locked eyes with each other, had a conversation with each other, in two years; another first that seems to be a desperate attempt to counteract whatever last sits between them.

“I don’t know,” Louis says finally, “I don’t—“

“Lou?”

Lou. Louis swallows.

“Yeah?”

“I missed you,” Harry says softly. And in an act of well, of what Louis doesn’t know, but in an act that is undeniably them, Harry brushes a cool finger over his cheek, turns his head slowly so their eyes lock, burn with whatever this is. “I missed you so much.”

Louis can feel his breath now, intermingled with the breeze and the bubbles in his head. He’s so close, hands and lips and those eyes that say, I’m sorry, just maybe that’s what he means, and Louis’ head is so blank and so full all at once.

“I,” Louis starts, words melting away as Harry drops his head with a smile for a moment, cheeks burning pink, “I missed you t—“

“Harry! Come and have a drink!”

The door to the balcony slides open all of a sudden, scrape against the frame sending them both jumping. Harry’s hand draws back, Louis’ heart skyrockets, and the music pulses out of the room like it’s been looking for an escape.

It’s Laura, of course, and Louis closes his eyes, turns back to look over the balcony and regain some control.

“Yeah, babe,” Harry says, and Louis can see the hand that was running down his cheek a moment ago shaking a little. He smiles, Louis imagines, the one that doesn’t quite reach his eyes but looks pretty enough that no one notices, “just be a sec, yeah?”

“Okay,” she says, “hurry, or the Moet’ll run out.”

The door closes again, and it’s silent, save for the sound of the street and the music pulsing dully out into the air.

“Lou—“

“You should go,” Louis says suddenly, heart in his throat, “go have a drink with her.”

Harry looks at him, lips pressed together, like he’s trying to stop something spilling out. For a moment, fleeting, Louis wants to hit him; fucking say it, he wants to yell,just say it.

But he doesn’t, because this is what they do, and this is them, and this is how it is. This is why they stayed away for so long, because this is so, so much worse than the absence, this is a presence so tantalizingly close yet so far away and Louis needs him gone, because he can’t do this, the skirting around and the quiet words and eventual pull back.

“Louis, I—“

“Haz,” he says quietly, name familiar and foreign on his tongue all at once. He smiles, forcefully, and in an act of finality squeezes his hand for a second. “It was nice to see you.”

And I missed you too, he thinks, for all of it.

Harry just drops his head, thumb brushing over Louis’ fingers before he pulls away, gently.

“Yeah,” he says, soft, “yeah, okay.”

And then he’s gone, back in the throng, pouring champagne into outstretched glasses and giving a victorious swig from the bottle before laughing and leading a drunken toast, and Louis, well, out in the dark and the cool air and wrapped up in the loneliness of it all, can’t help smiling. Retrospective, melancholy, but a smile nonetheless. And he thinks that probably says more than he’d like it to.

**

Louis is stumbling drunk when he leaves two hours later, giving James a sloppy hug as he makes his exit, almost taking off with a glass still in his hand. He hails a cab down and falls into it, head spinning, everything moving around him a little slowly, too liquid for him to make much sense of it all. And he’s glad, he’s glad everything is hazy and numb, because tomorrow he’ll wake up and it won’t be, so he’ll take this now. The quiet, the melancholy quashed by cocktails, the way he can’t focus on anything but the city’s reflection in the window and his breath misting up the glass.

It’s better like this, and maybe if he gets home and has a couple more drinks he won’t have to remember any of it, the balcony, the air, the Lou, the I missed you, theCome have a drink!, the touches and the wrought iron, any of it. Maybe if he drinks himself under the table he can forget it all, and right now, it’s his best option.

He jams his key in the lock and gets inside third try, hip colliding with the wall as he turns into the kitchen and reaches blindly for both the light switch and the bottle of vodka on the counter. The couch, like a mirage in the distance, is his next goal, and he makes it, collapses heavily and winces as he takes a swig from the bottle, letting it fill the silence and the cold of his apartment for him.

I missed you so muchDo you ever wish we’d stayed, I loved that fucking band so much, I loved it, I loved—

And Louis has another drink, because he’s not going to think about what that meant, any of it, the little cut at the end like he’d stopped himself from saying anything more. He won’t do it. He can’t.

So he has another, and another, and another, and Louis’ drunk a lot but not usually this necessarily, and just as those edges start to blur for good, he thinks he hears his bell ring.

He thinks he does, because at that moment he’s dropping a glass in the sink and doesn’t hear it properly. But then it goes again, thirty seconds later, and he makes his way to the intercom, hip hitting the wall for a second time.

Fuck,” he mutters, before pressing the buzzer, “yeah?”

There’s no answer.

“Yeah?” he says again, and then he hears it, the rustle and uncomfortable little cough.

“Louis?”

He cocks his head, unsure if he should answer. Paps, maybe, but unlikely. It’s three in the morning, no one’s been that dedicated to hunting him down for some years now.

“Yeah?”

“’S me. I…fuck, I’m…I dunno why I’m here. Can I come up?”

Louis freezes where he’s standing. Because no, that’s not a photographer. That’s Harry.

He stands a little straighter, leans his head on the wall and closes his eyes. The static buzzes back at him, consistent and niggling.

“Why?” he asks, voice raspy after a night out.

There’s a silence, and for a moment he thinks Harry might’ve gone, but he hears a scuff of shoes, movement, seconds later.

“I miss you,” he says quietly, into the night, always dark, always a whisper, “I just. I wanna see you.”

And Louis doesn’t say anything else; there was only ever going to be one answer and there’s not much point keeping him out on the front step. So he hits the button, lets Harry up, and in act that defies any sense of self-preservation he holds dear, he pulls the front door open, and waits.

**

Harry’s flushed when he comes up, top button undone, blazer disheveled. His cheeks are red, hair messy, but his eyes, his eyes are bright.

He is stopped just outside Louis’ apartment, looking in like he’s not sure he’s been granted permission to enter.

“Hi,” he croaks.

“How’d you know where I live?” Louis asks, first thing to fall off his tongue.

Harry’s face scrunches up at that, breath a little heavy. He still hasn’t crossed the threshold. He smiles, hurt.

“You…you bought it when…before…” he says, words slurred and jumbled, “we came to the opening with you, remember?”

And shit, Louis supposes, yeah, they did. On a break from tour, and his Mum had mailed him the cut out from the paper, and he’d made Liam and Harry come and see it with him.

“Right,” he says, a little dizzy, “what a Saturday, huh.”

“Sunday.”

“What?”

Harry blinks, stares at him with conviction filled, elusive eyes. “It was a Sunday.”

And if there was ever a moment to realise that perhaps it wasn’t all in his head, that maybe Harry’s held him as close as he has Harry all these years, if there was ever a sign, it’s now, this, here. Three in the morning, Harry outside his door two years later, alcohol clouding his hands and his head and that, there, it was a Sunday.

Bullseye, Louis thinks out of nowhere, really, bullseye.

They look at each other, properly, for the first time. Without the music and the drinks and the people circling them, without the artifice of it all. After a few seconds, Harry finally steps inside, closes the door behind him with a quiet click and leans against it, hands behind his back, eyes blinking and brow furrowed, pained.

And Louis doesn’t know what to do other than look back. His hair’s a little different, tips of new tattoos visible from underneath his collar and rolled sleeves, others missing, changed, reinvented. And he’s not the same, Louis realises, he was wrong before. He’s grown up. Not in a working-nine-to-five-pint-at-the-end-of-the-day sort of way, it’s more subtle than that, but it’s visible. His expression is harder, here and there, eyes a little darker. Louis is seeing him for the first time in two years and it’s too much, but he can’t seem to find anything to do except stare back.

“Do you remember that time we were in Germany?”

Louis’ eyes lock onto Harry’s at that, words cutting the silence, jagged. It’s deliberate, slow, like he’s been thinking for a while. Louis doesn’t know what to say, never has really, but he doesn’t know how to conceal it with Harry.

“What,” he replies slowly, wryly, defence mechanism 101, “first or seventh time?”

Harry smiles, drops his head and shakes his hair out for a moment.

“It was summer, I think. I’m not sure. We were on a roof.”

“Bit morbid, Haz.”

Harry’s brow furrows again at that, and Louis’ willing to bet it’s for the same reason his stomach is in knots. It’s so easy. It’s so, so terrifyingly easy between the two of them, two years on, two hearts later.

“We were on a roof, and, and you were really happy.”

“A German roof?”

Harry nods, swallows.

“Yeah. And I asked you why, because, y’know, we were all kinda tired from the flight. And you were just so happy.”

He pauses, like he’s waiting for Louis to understand, to remember, to show him he wants to hear it.

“And did I say something wonderfully enlightened?” he asks, jokingly but not, light but not, off the cuff but not.

Harry nods, looks up at him again.

“You told me that you liked being up high enough that people couldn’t get to you,” he says quietly. His eyes flick over to Louis’ window, tops of buildings just visible from the vantage point. Louis’ heart stutters, head swimming, and eyes solely on Harry’s.

Harry walks forward a few steps at that, into the dim light of the room, looks around as though Louis’ changes in interior design over the last two years might tell him something, reveal something that he can use. He smiles a little at the photo Louis has framed of the five of them, something Lou or one of the others took the night of their last show. It’s the only piece of the band he has on display. Harry huffs out a little laugh, and it hits Louis right in the chest.

“Harry, what are you—“

“I miss you,” he says suddenly, into the dark, not airy and delicate like last time, but rough, laden with alcohol and everything else, scratched up now, “you just disappeared,” he almost snarls, “where the fuck did you—“

“I’m not doing this,” Louis says quietly, harsh, and he thinks he might throw up, stars in his head growing louder. He looks round the room wildly for a second, at Harry in his living room, decides he needs to get out.

“You need to go,” he says quickly, pushing up off the couch he’s leant on. Everything is rushed, heavy, he can’t be here, “I need—“

“Wait,” Harry says, “no, I’m sorry, okay. I’m sorry.”

Louis swallows.

“What do you want,” he says hoarsely, “what the fuck do you want?

Because you have it all, he wants to say, whatever you need from me, you’ve already got.

And before – the surface, the quips and the pace and the jibes – maybe that’ll always be easy, sure. But Louis knows, now, that this will always be hard, and painful, and frustratingly circular until they either die trying or give up. Again.

Harry comes forward once more, like he’s trying to reassure him, make him stay. He stops right in front of Louis, inches from where he’s leaning back on the couch. His breath is sweet, sickly, almost, and Louis has to close his eyes for a moment, because he’s dizzy with it, so much in one night when it’s been so little for so long. Harry’s tanned, Louis notices for no reason, skin stark against the white of his shirt and the black of his blazer, maybe he’s been away. He’s tanned and his eyes are electric, tonight, hair everywhere. He’s so close. Louis swallows, lets out a long breath, and he sees the way Harry’s eyes watch his throat, his mouth, his eyes, just for a second. Louis’ pulse shoots up; he could reach out and touch him, and that’s so much.

“You’re so…” Harry starts, leaning down so his voice is all for Louis, breath hot. He twists a finger round Louis’ shirt, teeth grazing his ear, almost pressed into him now. “You’re so—“

“No,” Louis says quietly, body betraying him, neck arching and hand fisting in Harry’s hair for a moment as he trails his teeth, his tongue, to his collarbone, “Harry, you—“

“I don’t care,” he says suddenly, pulling away, looking Louis right in the eye. His hands have found Louis’ hips now, fingers kneading into them, hitting the bruise from the wall minutes ago. His hands are cold against Louis’ hot skin, pull him closer effortlessly, and Louis closes his eyes, drops his gaze, tries to stop his head from saying no while everything else is saying yes. “I don’t care. Do you?”

Louis laughs, breathless, into Harry’s chest, because he may as well be eighteen all over again. For a moment, they’re frozen like that; Harry’s hands holding him close, against his chest, and unguarded, Louis thinks I missed you too. It’s so quiet. Heavy with it, aching with it, and Louis can’t do that, not now, not ever, but not now.

“No,” he says suddenly, lifting his head until his forehead is pressed to Harry’s “no, I don’t.”

Harry’s fingers burn into his skin, and when, finally, he seals their lips together, Louis closes his eyes and lets himself fall into it. Because he knows, now, that whatever this is, however it leaves him when the cold sun emerges in the morning, is better than nothing. Harry’s breath is shaky, his hands desperate, and without breaking away Louis leads him down the hall and pushes him through the door to his room, Harry’s hands on his waist and lips ghosting over his jaw.

Louis doesn’t bother turning on the light, just kicks the door shut and pulls Harry down with him.

**

Louis doesn’t really remember Harry leaving, but he supposes he must’ve, because he wakes in an empty bed, hungover and no sign of him anywhere.

On Thursday, Louis goes out with his friends from home and when he gets in, hours later, hot and flushed and a little agitated, he texts Harry. He doesn’t know why, but it’s like he can’t stop, like he drinks now to have an excuse to talk to him, reach out. He hasn’t seen him since he left Saturday night, and he can’t do anything, talk to anyone, without Harry being his whole thought process.

So he texts him, and he comes over, and they talk in abstracts and Louis’ nails dig into his back, breath hot on his neck, and then he leaves, because there’s nothing else left. The click of the door follows his footsteps.
And then again, and again, and again.

Louis wakes up hungover and sore and bleary a lot, now. He wakes up exclusively alone. He wakes up with hazy memories of hours before; of conversations that on the surface are safe but underneath are lurching, dangerous.

Where do you keep all the plaques and shit, Harry asks one night, Louis in his lap, messy, eyes distant, hands everywhere.

Basement, Louis says shortly, voice cracking on the last syllable as Harry kisses him, rough, fast.

Why?

Gets in the way up here. He bites down on Harry’s shoulder; tastes sweat. Clutter, you know.

And then they’ll lose it and one of them will leave and everything is left unfinished, unsaid, a hint or a look or a silence, and anything left to latch onto is drowned out by curling toes and arched backs; clutter, you know.

Because it’s the only way they know how to be, and it’s the only way this can work.

Louis doesn’t talk to anyone else, not really; other people can say a thousand word that pale in comparison to a sentence from Harry – do you remember Germany; you wore that shirt when you were like, eighteen, Lou; I got asked in an interview once who kept all the Brits, guess it was you, huh. Louis is shocking company with anyone else and even worse on his own, because it’s so fast and so much and so unthinking, so entirely not what he wants but all he can get, so he takes it, and holds onto it with everything he’s got.

I’m fine, he tells Liam when he calls, seriously, no, I’m doing shit all, I’m exhausted. Say hi to Dani for me. Okay. Yeah, I promise, I’m fine. Okay. See you soon, mate.

Harry does X Factor one night, one of his old singles for what is apparently alumni week. Louis watches on TV, smiles, because the song is shit and he knows it, but he looks so, so happy. Little smile lighting up his eyes, tongue flicking out for a moment as he sweeps his hair back, laughing a little shyly into the microphone as the cheers go up. For a second, Louis almost feels like he’s up there next to him, searing heat and racing hearts, feels like he could turn to his left and smile at him as the lights go down. Tumble backstage with Niall jumping about three metres in the air and Zayn laughing at a sign in the crowd, Liam bringing up the rear with an arm looped over both he and Harry’s shoulders.

Then it cuts to commercial, and Louis sips his beer and shakes his head, slightly.

Harry texts him three hours later, comes over and bounces around on that post-show high Louis knows like he knows his own mother. For a moment, it might be the night things change, it becomes filled with the promise of more than a shag in the dark and a conversation too hushed to mean anything concrete. And then Harry tugs him in by his wrist, fingers wrapped all the way round, and pulls his shirt up over his head, and whatever Louis thought was there is not.

Except it is, of course, because flashes of it are everywhere, in the way Harry takes his wrist and the way he touches his waist and the way he mouths at the dip of his collarbone. You’re fucking gorgeous, he says one night, rough and strained in Louis’ ear, and Louis almost snarls at it, because it’s not fair, and as he wonders how many people Harry’s told that to in the last two years, he comes, hard, and his brain is wiped mercifully blank.

They don’t talk. Not about anything big, not about what sits behind all of this, not about why they grab for each other so desperately every chance they get because it’s something, after so long, something to hold onto. They don’t talk about before and they don’t talk about what’s next, except when they slip up. When Harry sees those stupid fucking Harry and Louis bears in the back of his wardrobe, when Harry tells him about helping his sister set up the bunk beds for her kids and Louis says, yeah, well, you’d know how to manouvre a bunk bed before he can stop himself. And then there are the eyes and then there’s the distance that they so frantically seek to close, so Harry pulls him in by his wrist and they don’t talk a lot after that.

There’s the night Louis says, as Harry tugs on his hair and kisses him hard, where’s your hi tattoo, and Harry pulls back, says quietly, it faded. 

And there’s the night they’re in Harry’s bed, when Louis wraps his legs round his waist and pulls him closer, and Harry breathes I love you; unthinking, lost in the heat of it. He doesn’t say a word afterwards, not when he rolls off Louis, not when he leaves, not for a week until he comes round next and says nice day today, huh? His eyes say leave it, let’s forget about it, so Louis does. Sort of.

That one, that one Louis’ sure they’ll never talk about, because he can barely think about it without his pulse racketing round his brain like it’s trying to get out. Maybe it was a trick of all the sounds around him; breath and skin and sheets, but the thing is, Louis knows it wasn’t. The thing is, of course, that Louis knows what Harry sounds like when he says I love you. 

Louis is an absolute fucking mess, because every day he waits for the night, and every night he doesn’t see him he waits again. It’s one huge, elaborate waiting game, maybe, only Louis doesn’t know what he’s playing for. More of the same and more of the elusiveness and more of all of this, and sometimes that’s so terrifyingly despondent, so perpetually grey, that the fear beats in time with his heart.

And four weeks later when his phone rings for the fiftieth time, Zayn’s name flashing up on screen, he finally answers it, because he doesn’t know what to do anymore.

“Hi,” he says croakily, vacant, “hi.”

“Jesus Christ,” Zayn spits, half angry and half utter relief that has the guilt crashing over Louis in waves, “what the hell is happening, Lou, I’m losing my fucking mind over here.”

“I don’t know,” he says, “I don’t know, and, and, Zayn, I don’t know.”

“Hey,” Zayn says quickly, “hey, it’s okay. I’m sorry I’m not there.”

Louis pauses at that, head focusing wholly on something other than this for the first time in what feels like weeks.

“Where are you?” he asks, “’Ve you and Pez eloped, or something?”

Zayn laughs, says something inaudible to someone he’s no doubt with.

“I’m in LA,” he says, “told you, Lou, I’m doing some stuff over here this month. But it’s okay, I’ve got a few minutes. What’s up?”

And Louis swallows at that, closes his eyes, because it hits him, then. Everyone else has moved on. Zayn’s producing in LA and Niall’s using all the ideas he had bottled up for so many years to help out the next pretty young popstars, Liam’s releasing his second solo album, and Harry and Louis are stuck here. Louis’ stuck back two years ago, eight years ago – eighteen and mooneyed over Harry Styles, twenty-one and heartbroken over Harry Styles, twenty-four and carefully avoidant of anything concerning Harry Styles, and now here, this.

“Nothing,” he says quickly, “I’ll…I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

“Lou—“

“Good luck with it,” he says, “really, you deserve it. Good luck with all of it.”

Louis, don’t—“

He hangs up with a click, and just as he’s about to toss his phone in the corner, it buzzes.

Hey, okay if I come over tonight? 10ish? .x

He freezes, words flashing up on his screen like a challenge, like a joke, because there’s never going to be a different answer than the one flying off his fingers right now.

Sure, he says, see you then.

And in writing, it almost looks sane.

**

All Louis is sure of is that Harry’s mouth is on his dick and his hair is threaded through his fingers, and in these few moments that exist between them, that’s enough. These are the moments he has come to rely on, now, as some sort of proof that Harry can still be all his (or as much his as he ever was), and he takes them blindingly.

“Shit,” he breathes, tasting the tequila on his own tongue, or maybe it’s from Harry’s, he’s too hazy to remember as his hips roll up, “shit, H.”

He’s close, and Harry knows it, one hand on Louis’ cock while the other works over his own, quickening as Louis comes apart under his tongue. Louis tries to arch up into the heat of Harry’s mouth, and is met with resistance, Harry’s fingers digging into his side for a moment, marks, Louis hopes, maybe it’ll leave marks. Harry pulls off for a moment, swirls his tongue messily round the head of Louis’ dick before taking him back down all in one go, and it’s too much for Louis.

“Harry,” he moans, writhing against the sheets, nails scratching his scalp, but Harry doesn’t pull back, and with a final tug of his hair Louis comes, hard, Harry’s eyes brimming with tears as he swallows around Louis’ dick and comes seconds later.

It’s always quick, hot, rushed, because it’s how they did this before and it’s the only way they know how to continue. Harry pants for a moment, head resting on Louis’ thigh before he pulls himself up, knelt between Louis’ legs, flushed prettily and eyes sleepy.

Louis expects him to blink back into the real world before standing, shakily, pulling his clothes on and whispering a night, Lou, into the dark, slipping out through a crack in the door. But he doesn’t, remains unmoving and just looking, looking at Louis like he has nowhere else to go.

And then he leans forward, all of a sudden, like it’s on a surge of adrenaline, and kisses him.

It’s not anything – tired, messy, limbs all tangled, skin sticky – but it’s the first time they’ve done this in so long without the charge behind it, rough and needy. It’s almost light, Louis thinks, as Harry’s lips break away for a second before he ducks back in; with anyone else it would be good morning or you look nice in that shirt orI’m really glad you’re here; he’s not sure what it means with Harry, but it’s undeniably light.

Harry settles next to him for a while, both of them looking up at the ceiling, hair splayed together across pillows. He pulls the sheet up over them half-heartedly, air growing cool once again as energy is replaced with a relaxed haze, a desire to be close, and Louis’ heart almost feels faster now than it did moments ago.

“’M so tired,” Harry says, almost slurs. His eyes are open, but heavily, and Louis wants nothing more than to curl into him, hand sitting on his chest, Harry’s head resting on his as they drift off.

He clears his throat a little, nods.

“Big day?” Louis asks, oddly calm, oddly normal, and Harry just snorts.

“Oh, yeah,” he drawls, “fuckin’ huge. Woke up at half ten, went to the gym, had a latte. Action packed.”

Louis laughs, just for a moment, let’s himself and let’s them, really, have this one.

“You do know you lead the life of a middle class mother of two, don’t you? ” Louis asks, and Harry laughs back, happiness overlapping in an infinitesimally fast second. Louis gestures to his suspiciously-capri-looking trousers on the floor. “Pants and all,” he says.

“Something like that,” Harry replies with a grin, head turned now and eyes on Louis’, “I do yoga, and everything.”

Louis’ cheek is pressed to the pillow as he looks over at Harry in vague disdain, lying on his side and shifting slightly to get comfortable. There’s a sense of permanency right now, however fleeting it might be. He shakes his head as best he can, pushes Harry’s face away gently.

“Of course you do,” he mutters, “do you know how appalled that group of trainers who kicked our arses for all those years would be?”

Harry rolls his eyes, bats Louis off and turns to lie on his side too, heads almost pressed together and legs accidentally tangled in the movement. Louis’ stomach swoops; it feels big, somehow, then again almost everything with Harry does.

“I’m pretty sure they were always appalled by us,” Harry says, “if you discount the times we turned up hungover and overtired and jetlagged, I reckon we only actually trained about twice.”

Louis smiles, feels Harry’s foot drag lazily along his ankle.

“Well lucky for some of us,” he says primly, “we have enough self control to stay in shape without a gym’s worth of trainers to do it for us.”

Harry’s jaw drops, hand swatting at Louis’ hip, a little lower than necessary, curling around the dip of his lower back.

“What’s that s’posed to mean?” he laughs, leaning in for a second and pressing his lips to Louis’, “you calling me fat?”

Louis pauses, as though he’s considering his answer.

“Unmotivated, maybe,” he says smugly, and is met with Harry rolling them over till he’s hovering over him, eyes wicked and outraged all at once.

“What!” Louis laughs, struggling under Harry’s weight, “I’m just saying, man, you filled out a little on, like, every tour.”

Harry laughs, good-naturedly shocked, and reaches behind him to slap Louis’ thigh. Louis takes it as his opportunity to gain a bit of leverage, moving quickly until they’re reversed, Harry flat on the mattress and Louis in his lap, hair messy and flopping into his eyes.

And it is there that the few moments of simplicity fall away, turn into something more. It’s always a lingering touch, look, moment, that does it, and tonight it’s this; eyes locked and skin hot. They’re moments they’ve always tried to get rid of before; a laugh or a distraction or something, anything, to stop them enduring, growing louder and heavier. Louis’ heart quickens under Harry’s gaze. He could grind down now, rock his hips just right and get him off lazily, easily, neatly avoid whatever this is. But he doesn’t want to, right now. Doesn’t want to feel alone in his own bed with the person he knows best in the world, and Harry seems to be on the same page. When the question comes, Louis’ almost expecting it.

“Do you mind if I stay?” he asks quietly, and Louis closes his eyes, feels the way Harry’s fingers press into his skin, gentle but secure, and knows he wants nothing more than to tangle himself up in Harry’s limbs and fall asleep.

“No,” he says, equally as quiet, legs sliding together almost instinctively as Louis gets off him, tiredness rolling over them, or maybe it’s the thickness in the room, now, “no, s’okay.”

Minutes later, settled together (together, Louis thinks, what a word), Harry’s face in his hair, breathing in sync, Harry says it.

“Missed this part,” he whispers, and maybe he thinks Louis’ asleep, maybe he doesn’t, but the words are there, “g’night, Lou.”

And for the first time in weeks, Louis falls asleep with his heart steady.

**

Harry is at his dining table with a mug of coffee and an old paper when he gets up. He’s fully dressed, strangely enough, and Louis ignores the fact it’s in his clothes, probably taken from a drawer in the spare room. His back is to Louis, shoulders strong and lightly tanned in an old singlet, hair soft and messy.

Louis’ chest tugs, stomach twists, and he has to fight to keep his expression totally neutral. But here, in the warm morning light, smell of coffee filling the room instead of cheap liquor, air clean and decidedly not heavy, it’s almost normal. It could almost be, we went out for dinner and went to a bar afterwards and danced to crappy eighties songs and then we walked home and made out on the couch and then he stayed over and now—

“Morning,” Harry says, turning with a smile, and all of that kind of goes to shit. His smile is tired, a little concerned, apologetic. Sorry, it says, I didn’t want to leave, maybe.

“Hey,” Louis says, “you sleep okay?”

He walks over to the table, sits down opposite Harry. He’s got two pieces of toast cut into triangles, eating slowly and kind of thoughtfully as he reads a story with the headline Advancements In Elephant Breeding Programs See Success. Louis huffs out a little laugh, drops his head for a moment, because he’s so much and he doesn’t even realise it.

“Yeah, great, actually. Thanks, you know,” he says carefully, eyes flicking up to meet Louis’ for a second, “for letting me stay, or whatever.”

Louis waves him off, stands as quickly as he sat down and walks to the kitchen instead, flicks the kettle on. Harry’s fingers drum idly on the table, and something about the whole image of him, sat there in Louis’ clothes with Louis’ newspaper eating Louis’ food, is so hard to look away from. There were always moments where, however short-lived, Louis could see with startling clarity the way Harry would just slip into his life, should they let it happen. Now, here, Louis thinks, is one of them, and it takes him entirely by surprise.

He swallows, blinks, and sets about making his tea, not concentrating on the oddly easy silence, the soft morning daze of it all. It’s suddenly devoid of the long, lingering stares and painful eyes; it’s calmer in the daylight, hushed. Louis glances over at him again, ducks his head and smiles when his eyes unexpectedly meet Harry’s.

Harry’s chair scrapes back, and he yawns a little as he comes over, mug and plate empty. He smiles, ducks around Louis to get to the dishwasher and peers out the window, hands splayed on the counter.

“Nice day,” he murmurs, and Louis cradles his tea, just watches him, “you doing anything?”

Louis shakes his head noncommittally, shrugs. “I think I have a meeting,” he says vaguely, “I don’t know, someone usually calls an hour before I’m due anywhere.”

Harry laughs, looks over his shoulder at Louis for a moment before turning away from the window, back to the room.

“I should probably get going,” he says, and Louis just nods, leaves his tea on the counter and follows him to the hallway. Harry yawns again, scratches his neck before running a hand through his hair, shaking it out, and Louis wants to exist here forever.

“Sure,” he says instead, “tell the parking guy you were with me, he won’t charge you the overnight fee.”

Harry turns back to him as he tugs his jumper on, eyebrow raised.

“Friends in high places, Lou?” he asks, and Louis laughs.

“Something like that.”

And then Harry seems to pause, bites his lip like he’s considering if he should say whatever’s on his tongue or not.

“I can come over tonight, if you want,” he says, and Louis realises it’s the first time he’s asked in person. He goes to say, yeah, sure, really he does, but it sticks in his throat. Something stops him.

“Yeah, I…” Harry turns to grab his bag, and Louis doesn’t know what it is running through his veins right now, but he feels invincible for the smallest of seconds, “H, wait. I…do you wanna. I don’t know. Get dinner? Or. Or something? You know. Before.”

He doesn’t know why he says it. The light, he thinks, it’s the light, because there are suddenly no shadows to hide behind, no alcohol in his bloodstream, and his head it a little too clear. It’s light, and it fills him with something other than hopelessness.

He doesn’t know why he says it, but God he wishes he hadn’t.

“I…Lou,” Harry says, careful, heavy, “you know I can’t do that.”

Louis freezes, closes his eyes for a moment. Absolute stillness, and right there, right now, it may as well be the dead of night.

“Okay,” he says, when really he wants to say fuck you, you coward, and he wants to hit him, but mostly he just wants to take it back, “no, sure.”

“Louis—“

“Harry, leave it, it’s—“

“Louis,” Harry says again, “it’s not…it’s just. You know. I can’t.”

And suddenly – maybe it’s the light, maybe it’s all the weeks of this, but really years of it – suddenly that’s not good enough for Louis. Suddenly that makes him angry.

“Why not?” he asks, accusatory, “dinner too much of a commitment for you? You can come here and fuck my brains out every other night but a fucking penne—“

“Lou,” Harry interrupts, so low and unsure that Louis stops in surprise, “it’s…you know it’s not that. It’s just, Laura, you know, and…”

Louis assumes he keeps talking, assumes because he has no idea, because he wouldn’t know, because all he hears is Laura Laura Laura.

So I’m kind of seeing this girl, he thinks, and here we are again.

“What the fuck,” he says slowly, unsure, uncaring of what he’s interrupting, “are you talking about?”

Harry stops, bites his lip.

“Laura?” he ventures, “you met her, at, at the opening and at James’ and—“

“I don’t believe it,” he says, voice rough, “I don’t fucking believe it.”

There’s a weighted pause, knotted with tension. Harry doesn’t say a word, just stares at him with wary eyes, a touch menacing, like he’s waiting for him to dare press it.

“You’re still seeing her?” Louis asks, blunt, and there the line between before this conversation and after it is drawn.

“Well yeah,” Harry says, and Louis knows that face, the guilt, it’s the face that he sported once or twice himself years ago and Harry, too; it’s the expression that followed them shadily out of many a hotel room, “yeah, I am.”

And suddenly, everything in his head is balanced very, very precariously; knife-edge.

“Fuck,” he says quietly, “I don’t…Harry. How the fuck could you? Are you fucking serious here, Jesus Christ, you’re still seeing her and coming here and shagging me four times a week? How the fuck could you—“

“Oh shut the fuck up.”

It rips through whatever atmosphere has descended, unclean, torn. For Harry to yell like that is rare, Louis knows it, knows somehow that hasn’t changed after all this time. He seems shocked himself, although not apologetic, he’s snarling almost, angry.

“Wha—“

“Don’t pretend,” Harry says, deathly quiet, “that this is some sort of qualm for you, Louis.”

Louis has to take a moment, reels at that, because suddenly this isn’t talking in abstracts and this isn’t here, now, this is before, and they don’t do this. They don’t talk about before, on their drunkest, most miserable nights, they don’t talk about before, and now here it is.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

Harry blinks, even and harsh.

“I don’t know where your head is,” he says, barely a growl, “but we’ve done this once or twice before, in case you’re forgotten. I didn’t think your fucking moral compass would’ve changed course so much in a couple of years.”

And there, after all these weeks, all the sad, messy darkness and desperate touches, there it is. Bait, Louis thinks, square one, the clearest fuck you and most obvious don’t think I don’t remember of them all.

“We’re not doing this,” Louis says hoarsely, shaking his head, rubbing his eyes for a second, “just get out, Harry, we’re not—“

“Really?” Harry asks, voice a little louder, “because you know what, it kind of seems like we’re doing this.”

“I said get out,” Louis says, pulse panicked and eyes wild, he knows it, can feel it, “I should’ve made you go weeks ago, Harry, get the fuck out.”

But no, he thinks, no, no, no, don’t leave, because I can’t do another two years of silence.

But get out he says again and again, louder, and maybe this is it, the ultimate eventuality with not knowing what you want, the final split in two.

“No,” Harry says, final, “don’t fucking kick me out like this is some one night stand bullshit, Louis. I’m not the greater population of six-foot-something body-of-a-fucking-footballer London, you prick, don’t treat me like that.”

Louis laughs; it’s mean, bitter.

“Well you know, typically, if you’re trying to convince someone they’re more than a disposable shag to you, you don’t date someone else while you’re fucking them.”

Harry, who has been pacing for a minute or so now, rounds on him, eyes angry, lip turned up in a jeer.

“It was never a problem before,” he snarls, “or have you forgotten, hm, have you forgotten—“

“That’s enough,” Louis says, almost a threat, “don’t be a cunt, Harry, don’t fucking drag all of that—“

“All of that?” Harry asks, disbelieving, “that? Do you mean, oh, I don’t know, the six years we fucking spent without a week apart before you just fucking left, Louis? That what you mean?”

The tension is rough, snapping, oscillating in a way Louis can’t predict. There’s so much halting, so much stop-start, because this is the one thing they never did. Louis bites his lip and looks away, because of all the times he’s seen this play out in his head, all the scenarios and circumstances and words he could possibly imagine on his worst nights, it was never so harsh, it was never in the light, exposed, like this.

“You know something?” he says finally, quiet again, but nasty, “your little fucking victim card is wearing pretty thin. Don’t fucking pretend like I was the one who tapped out, Harry, don’t—“

“—You never called!” Harry yells, “you never sent me a fucking text. You just disappeared. What do you want me to call it? What am I meant to think?”

And Louis, really, takes a lot of things lying down. Has done for his whole career, shit from his family for not being home enough, shit from people he’s dated that he’s home too much, shit from fans and shit from producers and labels and whoever. He takes almost all of it, largely without complaint, and that’s because he likes to choose his battles.

This, this is one of them.

“You can go fuck yourself,” he says, low and angry and for a second, more than tired and sad and pained, it’s white hot now, burning, “because you know what, Harry? You were the one who fucking left, and went to fucking New York to record your goddamned solo record three seconds after the band—“

“That’s get nothing to do with anything, you know that, Christ, you’re so fucking frustrating. What, you want me to apologise for not going home and spending six months bumming around with my fucking high school friends?”

“You know it’s not that,” Louis spits, “you fucking know it.”

"Then what is it?” he asks, like he’s waiting, just waiting for Louis to lie again, to dodge it again, “tell me, because this is bullshit.

And no one is easier to make rise to a challenge than Louis.

“You were seeing someone,” he says, quiet and maybe a little defeated but vitriolic to the last, “you fucking walked in there and you were already gone, Harry. What did you want me to do? Come and fucking meet your girl and third wheel your fucking dates and smile all nice whenever you looked my way? Because you know what? I did that shit, for six years, Harry. And—“

“—So did I.”

Louis pauses, thrown, so caught up in the words falling from his own lips that he’s not quite expecting to hear anyone else, not expecting that from Harry.

“What?

“So did I. I did all that too, you know, I was fucking there too, and—“

“Then what the fuck?” Louis yells, smile disbelieving and hurt, choke of laughter raw and twisted, “what the fuck was that? So I’m kind of seeing this girl, what the fuck? Why didn’t you…shit, Harry, why didn’t you stop for five seconds before flinging yourself into another fucking borderline okay relationship and just—“

“What?” Harry spits, his turn to be angry this time, “what the fuck did you want, hm? Me to ride up on my white fucking horse and tell you what, exactly? What could I have possibly said, that wouldn’t have sent you running, and wouldn’t have been too much, or too little, or not right, and why was it down to me in the first pl—“

“Shut up,” Louis says, and there’s an edge to his tone that not even he’s fully aware of, because he can deal with having no one to blame, but he can’t blame himself, not anymore, “just shut up.”

He feels so, so incredibly overwhelmed, so torn between wanting to punch Harry in the face, or kiss him, or punch the nearest impenetrable surface, or kiss the nearest available decent looking boy, just to get it out of his system, all of it, all of this bullshit he’s never known how to deal with. His heart is stampeding, erratic, head pounding, and the silence sits on him with more weight than the world.

Harry stops pacing, breath a little ragged, eyes tired. He blinks, slowly, like it’s all been a bad dream, like they can go back. Except they can’t, of course, because the unspoken rule has always been don’t say a word, and now they have, and now it’s ruined.

He takes a deep, shuddery breath, and draws his eyes back up to Louis, one hand on his hip and one in his hair.

“Am…” Harry starts, voice cracked and dry, “am I going to see you tonight?”

And what an absurd question, how laughably simple, Louis thinks, what a thing to come from the rubble. He can’t even find it within himself to dart round it, to be gentle, careful, quiet. It’s too late for that now.

“Are you still going to be someone else’s boyfriend tonight?” he says bluntly.

Harry closes his eyes, bites his lip, like he’s trying to get away.

Louis knows the feeling.

“I can’t just…Louis,” he says, finally, eyes opening like he’s squinting at the sun, “I…yeah, alright. Probably.”

And Louis’ heart fucking sinks like a stone along the water; skimming once, twice, maybe even three times, but there’s only ever one destination, and that’s down, murky river bed all his.

“Then no,” he says quietly, locking eyes with him, and this is maybe the hardest thing he’s ever done, “we’re not…we’re not kids anymore Harry, we’re not on the road, we’re not…” He pauses. Harry doesn’t need the lecture. Because somewhere along the line, Louis’ maybe forgotten he’s not the only one who gets this, lives this. Harry does too.  He doesn’t need the lecture. “We can’t do this anymore,” he settles on saying, and he hopes Harry gets it, on some level, that level they’ve always connected on.

Harry nods, picks up his bag tossed so carelessly in the hall hours ago, when this was all simpler, but more complex too; Louis doesn’t know. He’s so tired.

“Lou?” he asks carefully, inches from the door handle.

Don’t go, Louis wants to say, please, please, don’t go.

“Yeah?”

“Am I going to see you at all, after this?”

And God it’s unfair, that these answers have to be Louis’, that this question has to be Louis’, just like the rest of it this is so, so unfair. It’s unfair that this is it, that this is the grand fucking ultimatum, a Wednesday morning with Louis’ flat smelling like coffee and last night’s tequila. It’s unfair that this is the end and it’s also, unfair, really, that from the beginning, there was probably never going to be any other option but the long goodbye. The faint tendrils of conviction were always going to burn out, at some point. Louis had once thought they’d done so years ago, somewhere between tours and albums, and until recently he was convinced it was that day in the café, so I’m kind of seeing this girl. But it’s now. It’s now, and here he is, Harry at his door and no way to stop him, stop this, because it’s been his life for so many years and he’s never known how to control it.

“Maybe it’s…” Louis starts, eyes on the floor before he forces them up, because they at least owe each other this much this time, something definitive, something that says goodbye, it’s been fun. The words are like lead on his tongue.

“Maybe it’s just time we grew up. You know?”

And it comes out so, so gently. Achingly, surprisingly so; an antidote to everything before. Even to his own ears, it’s undeniably gentle, soft; it’s fading, he realises. Soft, painless as possible.

“Yeah,” Harry says, voice equally as faint, “yeah. Okay.”

He turns to go, pulls the door open and steps over the threshold, into the corridor. And suddenly Louis’ heart is too big for his chest, words too big for his mouth, thoughts too big for his head, and he just. Needs this, or something, one more selfish moment, one more act of utter desperate recklessness that he can sear into his brain, look back on when he needs it.

It’s been the long goodbye, and this is its termination point.

“Harry?”

“Yeah?”

Inertia, Louis calls it, and on some level, it’s enough.

“Bye.”

“Bye, Lou,” he says, sad and maybe a little choked, and then he’s gone.


**

A return to silence means a retreat back to unpredictable, wild fluctuation.

It’s absolute isolation or an all out spiral, they’ve always have been the only two options for a post-Harry Louis. And after four days of the former, the latter kicks in with all the raging intensity of a matador in a ring, red flag held high.

Louis’ barely in the door of his apartment before he’s pushed up against the wall, eyes of this stranger an inch away raking over him. He’s good looking, vaguely, it hadn’t really taken anything more than a wink and a laugh and a bitten lip to get him interested, and now here he is, stubble grazing over Louis’ face as he kisses him, jamming Louis against the wall.

Louis was a little drunk when he left home, a lot drunk by the time he’d spent an hour at the bar, and now he’s completely gone, lips lazy and hands uncoordinated as he pulls this guy – and what’s his name, Louis doesn’t even know, forward by his belt loops. He groans at that, shoves a leg in between Louis’ and attaches himself to Louis’ neck, teeth sending goosebumps down Louis’ body.

And then Louis turns to look into his front room, and suddenly he’s not paying attention to this anymore, to this guy and this moment and the bruises being sucked into his skin, because in the haze of his mind he recognises this light, and, oh. 

Louis’ only thinking about one thing, two sentences, three months ago. It was a Sunday, Do you remember that time we were in Germany, and suddenly he can’t do this.

With a grunt, Louis pushes the guy off, breathing hard and looking anywhere but his face. There’s a silence; Jack, his name is Jack, looks confused.

“You okay?” he asks, not really caring about the answer, and why would he. Louis’d all but dragged him here and now it’s like he’s frozen, like his brain won’t work because someone else was once standing in this room, was once wrapped up in this light, once said something inconsequential. It’s so ridiculous, and it’s so frustrating, and he’d sworn, two years ago, that this wouldn’t happen again.

His pants slow down, breath becoming even. He really, really wants to be able to do this; drag him back in by his ratty fucking singlet, pull him down the hall and not let him leave till he’s come twice. He does. And he’s so angry, hot with it, because fuck that if he’s going to let Harry Styles have this one.

But he can’t do it. This room, this light, this flat, maybe it’s this city or this month or this year, he doesn’t know where or when it’s ever going to end, but it is evidently not tonight. He can’t do it.

“Get out,” he says hoarsely, “I’m sorry, I just.” He leans back on the wall, can’t watch this play out in front of him. “You need to go.”

“Are you fucking serious?”

Louis doesn’t open his eyes, feels the ground move slightly under his feet.

“Yeah,” he says loftily, dangerously vacant, “yeah. M’sorry. You need to go.”

With an angry snort and an entirely audible fuck you, his front door is wrenched open, slammed shut. Probably wasn’t a good idea to bring a stranger back tonight, Louis thinks; especially not one who now has ample reason to sell his address and passcode into the building to anyone with the right price.

And he doesn’t even care. Louis sways against the wall for a few more seconds, mouth tasting like someone else’s and head pounding before he stumbles up the hall, collapses into bed fully clothed.

If the Mirror headline’s going to be Louis Tomlinson’s A Shit Shag, at least there’ll be one person out there who’ll know it’s not true.

Not that he’d probably rush to Louis’ defence, he thinks, and before he can think any further he wills himself asleep.

The thing is, this time, nothing works.

Alcohol makes it burn brighter and going home makes him feel isolated, lonely, and his friends seem so surface, all of a sudden. Even Zayn, when he says, well maybe it’s for the best after getting the abridged version from Louis, suddenly doesn’t seem to get it. And that’s terrifying, because Zayn’s always known.

“Seriously, man,” Niall says one night, two weeks later, “I’m a really fucking good wingman. Ask Liam.”

Liam smiles in the booth, clinks his beer with Niall’s.

“To be fair,” he says, “you’ve only helped me pick up once. Since I was like, eighteen.”

Niall rolls his eyes. “Do we really have to go over this again?” he asks, “I totally introduced you and Dani.”

“Think the production crew did that, mate.”

“Yeah, but, like, I did the proper stuff. The oh, hey, Liam’s having trouble with his box step—“

“—We never had a choreographed box step,” Liam says.

Whatever,” Niall sighs, slapping him over the head and turning back to Louis, “point is. I’m a good wingman. Find anyone in this bar, Lou, I’ll make you sound like the second coming of Christ.”

“He is the second coming of Christ,” Zayn says behind Louis, shrugging his coat off as he walks in late, hair a little wrecked. He slaps a kiss on Louis’ cheek and pulls out a chair next to him, slumps down with a sigh.

“Sorry,” he says, “what did I miss?”

Louis rolls his eyes.

“Niall’s trying to make me fuck someone in this hellhole of a bar, Liam’s questioning his wingman skills, and by the looks of things, the christening of the new love nest’s going great guns, hm?” Louis says with a grin, pinching Zayn’s slightly-too-red cheeks. He and Perrie have bought a not-so-subtly-big-enough-for-a-nursery-at-some-stage house about a ten minute walk from here, and needless to say they’ve not seen a lot of Zayn since they moved in.

“Fuck you,” he mutters, flush growing even more pronounced as he loosens his top button, “now who’re we setting you up with?”

And it continues. It’s fine, or whatever, Louis loves them all to death. He can put on the show and pretend he’s doing okay, and he wants to be doing okay, for them more than himself. They make such an effort, all the time, and probably not just for him, and he wishes he could make it better for them. But he can’t, because when the bright smile drops he’s not really okay, and there’s not a lot he can do about it. He’s almost exclusively lonely and almost exclusively sad and almost exclusively playing the same moments over in his head, again and again and again. Any escape is temporary, and all of them ultimately fail. 

**

Louis finds himself in a lot of odd and unknown and unfriendly places. Backrooms of clubs at closing, too-bright bathrooms with pretty people (but never home, because he can’t quite bring himself to do that), parties and basements of people he only knows by the most tenuous of links, because strangers are better than no one and he sometimes feels like if he lets himself go home for too long he’ll never come back. This is what he did the first time and for a while there, he was relatively okay. So maybe he just needs it again, needs this stretch of too-late too-big too-loud nights and days and weeks to stop himself folding in.

(Harry is nowhere to be seen, lost somewhere in the city, maybe even further, Louis supposes. He’s always liked LA, Berlin, Tokyo, Melbourne. He could be anywhere. Louis doesn’t ask and isn’t told and thinks about it so much that it’s like he doesn’t even feel it anymore.)

He will crack, he always does. It’s just a matter of when. Last time, it was a Friday night at a rooftop party in East London, one of Perrie’s friends had thrown it. He’d been plastered on strawberry-something cocktails and someone – he can’t even remember who, now – had said to him haven’t seen Harry round much, d’you know where he’s been? And that was the final beat of the drum for Louis; he’d left without another word and hadn’t resurfaced properly, really, for a month. Rebuilt, sort of, slotted himself back together without Harry, and was okay – okay – after that. Held himself together and dated (half-heartedly, mostly), held down one bordering-on-serious relationship, held on and on and on until he didn’t, because then Harry came back.
And then there’s now, and this time, it’s slightly less glamorous.

He’s driving down the long stretch of the M25 on a Tuesday, coming back from filming a guest spot for the US X Factor. It’s busy, but fast, traffic moving without a hitch, and with the window down and his foot firmly on the accelerator, sun setting as he makes his way back into the city, he feels that sense of freedom tingle down his spine. Of the six years they spent touring, this was a little thing he missed a lot, actually; being able to get away and drive down a long stretch of road to clear his head.

He’s settled in a state of quiet melancholy now, a little too tired for the time being to do much about it, a little too broken to be anything more than softly disappointed. It’s fine. It’s better than last time. He’s settled for the most part; heart rate picking up every now and then, when a memory fills him up for a moment. When he’s at a café and someone orders Harry’s standard vanilla latte and raspberry muffin; when one of their songs comes on in a supermarket; whenever he sees someone in an old band tee that reminds him of warm, drunk nights rolling through America, town after town. But he’s okay. He’s there, he’s not much more and not much less. He’s okay. He lets those moments wash over him, drown him, and then he pulls himself back up as best he can until the next one. If this is his life for the next little while, then so be it. If he rarely crosses the line between not really worth mentioning and kind of awful for a while, then so be it.

So be it, he thinks; maybe a little defeated, but easier, in the end, than anything else. He’d know. He’s tried the rest.

The radio hums in the background as he speeds up a little, casts a glance over his shoulder before switching lanes, and it’s lucky he’s looking back at the road when it happens.

“And that was a bit of a throwback for you, bit of Justin Bieber for your Monday afternoon; it’s quarter to five and you’re on Radio 1. Now, down to business, speaking of throwbacks, we have a special guest – pop royalty, you might say – in the studio. It’s Mr Harry Styles!”

The DJ – Louis doesn’t know his name – gives a round of applause and hits something on the soundboard akin to a crowd.

Louis, on the other hand, just manages to stop himself from slamming his brakes on or veering into a lane of oncoming traffic. He grips the wheel tighter; change it,he thinks, change the fucking station. He doesn’t, of course, because this is something, it’s a connection however tenuous and it’s a connection that’s been gone for weeks. He swallows the lump in his throat and focuses on the road.

“Are you calling me a throwback?” Harry asks incredulously, laughing.

“No! Course not,” the DJ says, already flustered, and God, does Louis get that. He gives a laugh before he continues. “Now, you’re in here with a new single which we’ll get to, but before we do, we were having a bit of a look at the calendar today in the office, and we realised that tomorrow will be three years since your last show with One Direction. Did you know that?”

And that, more maybe than Harry’s voice unexpectedly on his radio, more than a raspberry muffin or a Stones singlet, hits Louis right where it hurts. On his left is an emergency pullover bay, and fuck, he thinks, if this isn’t an emergency, he doesn’t know what is. He pulls in, somewhat recklessly, car purring as his heart threatens to pound itself still, and waits.

He doesn’t think Harry did know that. He certainly didn’t; bad at dates, avoidant, maybe. But the fractional pause, the surprise in Harry’s tone, wariness too, gives it away to Louis. This is a surprise to him, not what he came in to talk about, and Harry’s words just about break Louis in two.

“No,” he says, a little high, “no, I didn’t. Three years, that’s…s’a long time, isn’t it?”

“We’ve been getting calls about it all week,” the DJ presses, “you’re still a big deal to a lot of people, what’s that like, so many years later?”

Louis smiles, defeated, because what else is there to do, and leans back on the headrest. He awaits the response with a sense of hopelessness. He doesn’t expect what comes.

“It’s really, really nice,” Harry says, and it’s soft, “I, um. You know, I don’t think anything’s ever meant more to me than that band, so. It’s really nice, that people still care. It means a lot.”

Louis’ lazy, distant smile drops, turns into a bitten lip and slightly furrowed brow.

“Very introspective for a Monday,” the DJ laughs, “do you still catch up with the other boys?”

“All the time, yeah,” Harry says, “we’re still really close, it’s always nice to see them.”

“All of them? There’s not any Hollywood-type rifts that’ve sprung up? You’re all doing pretty far flung things now, there’s no bad feeling there?”

It’s a long, long pause; Louis feels like he hears slight static for hours, for an imperceptibly long moment.

“All of them,” Harry says, “yeah, of course. They’re the four best people I’ve ever come across, really.”

The DJ doesn’t seem to know what to say at first; Harry’s brand of genuine and random sincerity takes some getting used to, Louis supposes. He gives a funny sort of laugh, clears his throat.

“Well that’s lovely,” he says, a little patronizing, jokingly so, “do you think they’d say the same about you?”

Louis can see the slow blink, the lick of his lips, the glance away, as though Harry’s sitting in front of him.

“I don’t know,” he says slowly, “but I hope so.”

He seems to realise, there, that maybe he’s let too much slip, that he’s on too much of a downer, that he’s there on a promo junket and not a therapy session.

(That he’s not standing in Louis’ doorway at 3am, tired and empty, but Louis doesn’t let that thought linger.)

“I mean,” he says, tone lighter, smirking almost, “I’ve bought them enough drinks along the way, you know, they’d want to.”

They banter back and forth for a few minutes more, and Louis doesn’t move, doesn’t open his eyes, just lets it wash over him, Harry Harry Harry. Still, all these years later, talking to the whole world but with an undercurrent that Louis can’t help but feel is all his.

And it’s so, so pathetic, because for the first time in his life he can’t help but feel like maybe it’s not there, that it’s never been there, that he’s clung for so long onto something that’s disappeared.

“So anyway,” the DJ says, changing tack from whichever tangent Harry’s led him down, ”we thought since you’re here and everything that we’d cut together a bit of a One Direction highlights package to play this afternoon. That sound okay to you?”

Fractional pause, because Louis knows he’s thinking no, but won’t ever say it.

“Sure,” he says instead.

“What was your highlight of the band?” he’s asked, “aside from all the girls and the money and the sold out crowds night after night?”

Louis’ stomach coils at that, lip shooting up into an involuntary snarl, almost. Like he’s nineteen, listening to an interview Harry did for an overseas radio station, like he’s twenty-one, with Harry on the red carpet, like he’s twenty-two and twenty-three and twenty-four.

“I mean, it was all amazing, you know,” Harry says, and Louis’ sure he’s going to leave it there, stock standard response, “but, um. It’s not even like, notable, really. But there was this day we were in Germany…”

Everything grinds to a halt in Louis’ head.

“…And we ran away from our team and went up to this roof. And it was just…” he stops, like he’s looking for words vague enough to be harmless, “…I just remember being really happy, you know. Watching, um. Just seeing people, you know, that you care about being really happy, s’really nice.”

There’s a pause, and a laugh from the DJ and his team, like that’s absurdly sweet. And it is, of course, for 5pm on a popular radio station, it’s ridiculous. For Louis, it’s a little too much like everything.

“Well, welcome to philosophy hour with Harry Styles on Radio 1,” the DJ says, “we’re gonna jump to a song then have a bit of a chat about the new single, you right to stick around, Harry?”

“Of course,” he says, and then the music kicks in, and then Louis switches off so forcefully that the dashboard moves underneath his palm. His breath is heavy and his heart is heavier and he needs to move.

With a shuddery breath filling the silence, he lurches out of the emergency lane and back into the traffic. Horns go up furiously; he barely looks out onto the road as he roars through streaming lanes of cars, but he doesn’t register it. His head is pounding, with all of that, with everything, and suddenly, he needs to make a call.

He picks his phone up, speed dials four, and slams it onto loudspeaker before tossing it onto the passenger seat, breathing hard. It rings once, twice, and then finally, his call is picked up.

“Lou?” Zayn says, “You right?”

Louis doesn’t answer for a moment, eyes closed for a fraction of a second as his hands grip the wheel and he bites his tongue, takes a steadying breath.

“I need you to do me a favour,” he says, voice betraying him. He sounds so distant, unstable.

“Okay,” Zayn says warily, “what’s up?”

“I need you to get my mail. For like, a while, maybe.”

There’s a pause, as though Zayn’s trying to figure out what the fuck’s going on. Zayn’s only ever on the back foot when Louis’ spinning out; now, though, he doesn’t think too much about that.

“Why?” he asks slowly, “Louis, has something—“

“I’m going away,” he says cutting him off, “I’m just. I need to leave. For a bit.”

“Where’re you—“

“I don’t know,” Louis says, laugh shaky and scared, maybe, just a little, because it’s never been like this, so heart-stutteringly overwhelming, “I don’t know. I’m just gonna go. Tomorrow, probably.”

Zayn’s silent for a long moment.

“Do you want me to come with you?” he asks, and Louis nearly veers his car into the next lane, vision almost blurring with how much he’s fucking feeling, after so many weeks of it being purposefully empty.

“No,” he chokes out, “no. I just need to do this, y’know?”

“Why?”

Because he’s everywhere, Louis thinks, I can’t fucking shake him here.

He bites his lip instead. There’s only been a handful of times in his life where he’s dodged a question from Zayn, fewer still that he’s dodged successfully. This is one of them.

“Love you,” he says, “hold down the fort while I’m gone, yeah?”

“Lou—“

“Don’t,” Louis bites out, before softening, “please. Just don’t.”

He’d close his eyes if he could, just to escape this for a moment. Instead, he takes his turn off back home, breath rattling a little too loudly in the confines of the car.

Zayn is halted, nervous when he speaks.

“Love you too,” he says, a little croaky, tired, and it makes Louis want to slam his brakes on and bang his head against the wheel, because he’s doing it again, “I got you, y’know. Call me when you get to wherever you end up.”

And Louis isn’t even sure where that might be, where a platinum frequent flyer card and the burning desire to get away from this awfully small place, just for a bit, will take him. But when a city of eight million shrinks down to just one, Louis thinks it’s about time to leave. If Harry’s going to be around every street corner, then Louis’ going to find some new streets.

“Yeah,” he says, “I will.”

He hangs up, fingers shaky, and gets himself home.

**

Zayn has called thirteen times and Niall has called six and Liam has called seven and Louis has spoken to no one.

His mother has called too, twice now, and Louis has spoken to no one.

Zayn’s ushering in back up; Louis isn’t interested.

His breath has calmed down when he walks in at half five, his head has not. He stands there, hand in his hair, lost in his own home, and he’s not quite sure what to do. He opens a beer on the side of the counter and leans back on the wall for a moment, motionless save for the occasional swig here and there, frozen in whatever this is.

He’s not sure how long he stands there lost in his head, but there are three empty bottles and another in his hand when he snaps out of it. What he’s been thinking about is a mystery even to him; a haze of cold days and hot nights, young smiles and old habits and tired lines; lines drawn between them and lines etched across their faces so young and lines that mark then and now. For a long time, he’s adrift in the retrospection, moments erratically brought to the forefront of his mind, out of order and blurred round the edges but sharp where it counts; the look he’s trying to remember, the precise words, the eyes or the laugh or the lips. For a long time he stands there and for a long time, for the first time since he left, again, he lets himself languish in it, overcome with how close he was and how far he’s run.

But he comes to, somewhat, with three empty bottles on the counter and another in his hand, and he needs to move. Now, because otherwise he’s going to be stuck here forever. Not against this wall and not in this flat, perhaps not even in this city, but stuck here, unable to break the surface, and he’s not going to let that happen.

He needs to get away and he needs to start now. Small tasks, little tasks; his suitcase is in the basement and it is there he goes first.

When he opens up, he looks only to the right side of his storage space. He does not look to the left, to the boxes with years written on the side in thick black marker; 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, on and onHarry’s writing, because it was Harry who had helped him move between tours, Harry who had cooked him dinner the first night, Harry who had stayed over then, too. Just once, gotta christen it, Lou; cheeky smile and guilty eyes. He does not look at the stack of plaques and the shelf of dusty awards, the handful of CDs and DVDs and merch he gathered on the way. He ignores, totally, the photo albums his mother put together for him, scrapbooks filled with pictures and tour dates and cut outs from the paper; he does not look there, not once.

He looks to the right and he grabs his largest suitcase and locks the door before he gives in to the pull of nostalgia, drowns in a whole different set of memories that he’s just barely managing to keep at bay right now.

By the time it hits midnight he’s acting as messy as he feels, whatever he’s drinking and whatever he’s feeling coming together in an act of solidarity.  Sometimes he’s angry, throwing everything in his wardrobe into his suitcase with a little too much force; sometimes he’s sad, shaky, even teary, once or twice, takes a minute to sit down and bite his thumb nail or close his eyes. The insurmountable presence of this person in his life over the last however-long is finally becoming as clear as it can be to him. Six years in the band, three months in limbo, nearly two years of silence, and now this. It’s so, so much, so completely spanning every achievement and high and low and event in his life, and when he lets himself think about it it’s almost impossible, that it’s been so much and so little all at once.

The photo of the five of them coming off stage hangs opposite where he’s sitting on the couch; for the first time all night it catches his eye. Wembley, three years ago tomorrow. He glances at the clock, it’s 12:03. Three years ago today. There’s not much about that night Louis remembers – it’d been a big one, maybe their biggest – but he does remember that, always has. That moment of the lights going down for the last time, the screams racketing round his head for the last time, so absurdly circular. They’d stood there for a long moment, unbeknownst to the crowd, because they weren’t quite sure where to go. They’d rehearsed it, knew the physical action of walk to the right, but it had felt so, so much bigger than that. Once they left that stage, it was over, and for a few seconds there they’d held on, stood there basking in it for one final moment. Stood there and looked over at each other with a seemingly never ending so, what now, until Louis had nodded and they’d followed him to the right stage door. The bowels of the stadium had almost been alight from the inside, cameras firing off at them in the dark as they walked into the light, backstage, all for the last time.

The photo Louis has hanging is not from the press, not from one of their hired photographers. It’s a shot Lou took, Lou or Caroline, he can’t quite remember now. They’d been front and centre at the show – and not just that night, but at the show, all of it – and managed to sneak a camera in front of everyone else’s. It was the very first shot of them as not One Direction, before the theatrics and the victory lap, and it’s honestly Louis’ favourite picture of the whole six year storm. There’s this undeniable look on their faces, not yet taken with the posturing and bravado that followed that night, that seems childish. Young, really young, young and unsure and excited and nervous, and Louis loves it because it’s exactly how they all looked at the beginning, too. They’re all in orbit around each other, bouncing a little to calm the sheer overwhelming power of the moment, and across the heads of the other three, small but sometimes all that Louis can see, he and Harry lock eyes, the smile on Harry’s face so electric that Louis doesn’t know what to do with it.

He likes that picture because in his head, it’s how they ended up. It’s how they stayed, a unit even without the singles and the charts, it’s that smile on Harry’s face that he likes to imagine following him instead of the sad eyes or the nothingness. That smile instead of so I’m kind of seeing this girl, that smile instead of the quiet, that smile instead of I fucking loved that band, you know. That smile instead of the guilt and that group instead of twos or threes or fours, that picture and that moment instead of all of this, big and loud and empty.

Tonight, for the first time, it no longer creates a fond memory, a distant maybe it’ll be like that. All it makes him feel is cold, somehow, cold and maybe a little too small. For the first time it feels definitively over, every glimmer of maybe or flash of it’s like before is gone. It’s never felt so final before, but tonight it does, it’s gone and now he has to go too.

And as he reaches for his laptop, Madrid his first thought, maybe Vienna, maybe further, Bangkok, as he reaches for his one way ticket away from all of this, there’s a knock at his door.

A knock. And that is what startles him out of his own head properly for the first time all night; it’s a knock. Not a buzz from downstairs, a call from the car park, but knuckles rapping on his door, and it puzzles him enough to let everything else fall away for a moment.

There’s no real reason he doesn’t say who is it before opening up. The drinks, maybe, the dull stuttering of his heart, the confusion in his already fuzzy head over a knock. The tiny bead of hope, somewhere, that someone has come to stop him from doing something stupid and reckless. Whatever it is, he doesn’t pause when he gets to the door. Beer in his right hand, he heaves it open with his left, casting his eyes up carefully, constructed, forcibly relaxed, a thousand other pretences that turn out, a second later, to not even matter.

Because standing in front of him, quite simply, is Harry. And he thinks he could have a thousand walls to his name, Harry will always be able to peer through them with not much more than a glance. It is without a word that Louis realises, of course, that Madrid, that Vienna, that the other side of the world, will never be far enough to escape that. He’s not sure there’s anywhere to run when a look ricochets through him like the synchronised shots of a battalion.

“Lou, I…” he trails off, breath heavy, panting. Closes his eyes for a second, like the immediate panic is gone with Louis’ name. Louis watches, blankly, as he composes himself, looks up again. “Hi.”

“Hi,” he utters without thinking about it, “hi.”

They stare at each other, across all the distance packed into a few feet.

“Can I come in?” Harry asks. The silence, rawness of this moment, scratches at Louis’ heart like a needle on a record. He nods, stands to the side, heavy with this.

“How’d you get here?” he asks, running on autopilot, simple curiosities easier to articulate than why are you here, why are you always here, still.

“Zayn, um,” Harry says, digging around in his pocket, breath not quite settled. Seeming to anticipate the next question on Louis’ tongue, he answers that first. “I, um, cab driver got lost so I ran like, ten blocks. But, um. Zayn. He gave me your spare key. Sorry. You can, y’know, have it back.”

He places it on the sideboard gently, hands maybe a little shaky, Louis isn’t sure. He casts an eye round Louis’ apartment, the empty bottles and the suitcase and the clothes everywhere, before looking back at Louis.

“You going somewhere?” he asks, “because, like, I went to Morocco last summer and it was great, so if, y’know—“

“Why are you here, H?” Louis asks quietly, eyes fluttering shut for a moment as he does so. It sounds like a rip through whatever this is; blunt and tired. Which he is, he supposes. Tired, of all this, the circles and the careful surface tension between them.

But Harry, and maybe it should be unsurprising nine years on, but the way that Harry understands is never anything short of overwhelmingly amazing to Louis, seems to get that. He fiddles with the sleeve of his jumper, bites his lip.

“I,” he starts, “I did an interview today.”

And Louis’ stomach freezes in the knots it’s tying.

“Yeah?” he says faintly.

“Yeah. It was, y’know, it was meant to be something stupid. But, umm,” he says, eyes swimming with it before Louis can stop him, glancing at Louis’ clock, “d’you know how long it’s been?”

Louis doesn’t feign ignorance, doesn’t pretend he hasn’t heard it, that he doesn’t know what Harry’s talking about.

“Three years,” he says quietly, locking gazes with him for a second before looking away, too much, “yeah, no. I got it.”

Harry nods, laughs to himself a little wearily. “I sounded like such a fuckwit,” he says, “I was in there for an hour, or something, and I said about three coherent sentences. You would’ve killed me, Lou.”

Louis doesn’t laugh because he thinks if he does he’ll cry, but he smiles, bites his lip. Harry drops his head, smiles at that himself, and it’s so, so fucking echoey with before. 

“Okay,” Louis says, “look, it’s late, and—“

“Don’t,” Harry says quickly, “don’t, Louis.”

Louis snaps his head up.

“Don’t what?” he asks slowly, “this is—“

“Don’t kick me out.”

He seems to wait for him to agree to that before he continues. Louis gives a small nod, looks resolutely away, but lets him stay.

“It’s been three years,” he says again, “and I realised, y’know, that you weren’t really there for any of it, but you were still the first person I thought of when he said that.”

Louis drops his head at that, eyes closing against his will. All he can hear is his own breath, like it’s trapped against the force of those words.

“And, Jesus, Louis, how the fuck is that possible? How is it that we’ve barely swapped a text and it comes back to you?”

Louis doesn’t know how to answer that, precisely because he does.

“I’ve been told I’m a pretty fun guy,” he says faintly, “maybe that’s it.”

And Harry, always Harry, laughs and tears up at that all at once.

“You’re so ridiculous,” he says, voice cracked and croaky, “I…fuck, Lou, I miss you. And I could tell you that till I’m eighty and I still don’t think you’d get it, but—“

“Harry?”

“What?”

“I get it.”

And that seems to stop him for a moment, like the reminder that Louis needs from time to time, it’s not just me, has hit him too.

“Yeah,” he says finally, “you do, I guess. And that’s bullshit.”

Louis blinks, unpredictable mood of this room taking him once again.

“What?”

“It’s so stupid,” Harry says, “It’s so…” He stops, and Louis can see time rewinding in his head, right back to so I’m kind of seeing this girl.

I only wanted it to be a few weeks,” he says quietly, “just a few weeks to get my head sorted out and figure out how to, y’know, do this, with…with you, I guess. It was six years, you know, and I didn’t know how to just—“

“Yeah,” Louis says, “yeah.”

“But it didn’t work,” Harry says, his voice is a little fast and frantic and rushed, “because I never knew, y’know, how to do all this. With, with you, because you’re the only one it ever had to work with.”

“Harry,” he murmurs, pulse quickening until he can’t distinguish between beats, “don’t—“

“But it’s been three fucking years. And you were right, you know, last time, we’re not…we’re not kids. And I don’t want to do this for another three,” he says, and Louis can feel it, in the way he speaks and stops and stares, that maybe his night’s been similar to his own; his night and his head and his hands, itching to reach out for something not there, “because what happens if we just keep waiting till the next three? Just, just forever. I’m done with it, Lou. I don’t want to do that.”

And Louis can’t hear that. He runs a hand though his hair, walks to the other side of the room before walking back. Harry stands there, fiddling with his sleeve, lip bitten, watching him, and it’s so much.

“What does that mean?” he asks, “what does that mean, you’re done with it?”

Harry is silent for a long moment.

“It means…it means I’m here. I’m here and I’m telling you that this is bullshit.”

Louis closes his eyes. He doesn’t let his heart beat faster and he doesn’t let himself count on the meaning in Harry’s eyes because the thing is, of course, this isn’t the first time they’ve had this conversation; far from it. There were so many desperately hopeful nights littered along the way, maybe none ever with so much intent, but they were there. There’s always a roadblock, in the end, a sad smile and a dwindle back to reality. Louis doesn’t let himself hold onto this. He’s going to Madrid. He’s so tired.

“I fucked up a lot,” Harry says quietly, “and I get that, but you did too.”

Louis doesn’t argue, it’s true.

“But what are we doing, you know? Do you ever think there’s a reason we never really moved on like they did?”
He gestures up to the picture on the wall, and like something out of the backblocks of Louis’ brain, his whole face softens as he does so. Louis knows what he’s looking at. The smile, he thinks, those smiles that followed them the whole way.

“Shit,” he murmurs, like he’s shocked at the look on his own face, immortalized in black and white, “shit.”

“We moved on,” Louis says quietly, “we did. You’re doing your thing and I’m doing mine and—“

“And do you think that’s why we keep coming back here?” Harry asks, refocused all of a sudden, “do you think that’s why after bumping into each other for about ten minutes we ended up back here? Because we’d moved on?”

Louis doesn’t answer that. Doesn’t let himself hold onto this, doesn’t do anything, except ask the question that’s been coming since Harry walked in the door.

“What about Laura?”

Harry looks at him for a long moment, like he’s been expecting it.

 “She ended it,” he says carefully, “month ago, or so.”

“Why?”

Harry smiles ruefully, looks at the floor.

“Said I was too sad for her,” he murmurs, tired, resigned, “said I had to be the saddest rich young person with nothing to do in the world.”

Second saddest, Louis’ thinks. Ball’s in your court, Harry’s eyes seem to be saying in reply. Neither of them speak, not for a long moment. But there is something on Harry’s lips, as he looks around the apartment, at Louis’ whole life about to be reduced to a suitcase and a boarding pass.

“You can’t just run, Louis.”

Louis shakes his head.

“No,” he says, “I have to go. It’s too much here, you know that.” He laughs, for a moment, at all of this. “Look at us.”

“I’m not fucking around about this,” Harry says, “and you’re not either.” He takes a step closer until he could reach out and touch Louis; wrap his fingers round his wrist. “Longest fuck around in the history of the world, if we were.”

Louis doesn’t laugh, doesn’t look at him, doesn’t think about the small smile on his face, the hair in his eyes, his fingers circling round his wrist. Can’t, not for the heartbeat that seems to be rattling his whole body.

“Don’t just leave,” Harry says, voice shaky and unsure, “because…because then it’s another three. Don’t leave.”

And that snaps inside Louis, the size of the sheer choice not leaving gives him. What it would mean, what staying would entail, and he almost can’t breathe around it.

“Why not?” he says roughly, “because what am I meant to do when you decide you don’t want this. Just hang around? I’m not doing that anymore,” he says, shaking his head, “not even...you know. Not even for you.”
Harry closes his eyes, still for the first time tonight.

“I’m not gonna decide that,” he says quietly, and it’s not enough.

“You can’t just say that,” he says, “Jesus, you show up a little high on life because you did a fucking radio show and—“

“Louis.”

What?

Harry doesn’t say anything. The silence circles them, slowly, ominous.

“What’s changed?” Louis asks quietly, “tell me what’s changed.”

Harry swallows, looks at him, about as shaky, wavering, unsure, as Louis feels. He looks so young.

“Nothing,” he says finally, laugh a little cracked, “that’s the whole point, isn’t it? This…all of this, you know, this is the most fucking life-changing thing you’re meant to be able to go through. ‘S’all anyone ever said to us. Remember that?”

Louis thinks it’s rhetorical, but Harry stops, looks at him as though he’s willing him to understand. And Louis does; he’s right. Every tour and sponsorship and single and record and event; this is gonna change everything, this is it, this is the one. He’s right. It’s all anyone ever said to them.

“Yeah,” he says, “yeah, ‘course.”

“And they were right,” Harry says, “everything changed, like, a thousand times. Except, you know.”

He pauses, looks Louis right in the eye, and Louis is too overwhelmed to do anything but look back.

“Except this,” Harry finishes, “and that’s probably kind of a lame thing to say, but. We didn’t say it for, like, a decade, and that didn’t work out so well.”

Louis laughs, and it’s light. It’s past midnight and it’s the same, foreboding dimness as the first night, and the ones after, it’s the same room and air and tops of buildings peeking up from the windowsills. But this time, it’s light, and Harry’s eyes are glinting, almost, and when his fingers brush over Louis’ wrist, it spreads a warmth Louis wasn’t even sure he had in him anymore.

“Stay, yeah?” Harry asks, and Louis doesn’t need time to consider it. Because at the end of it all, it’s the only thing he’s ever wanted him to say.

“You too,” he says, and Harry nods, a four word don’t fuck this up between them now, just the two of them, and that’s so beautifully close that Louis doesn’t know what to do.

He doesn’t need to think much longer; the smile that spreads across Harry’s face is everything really, the one he can feel on his own lips a mirror of it. For a second, he glances at the wall, the photo that’s been there for so many years, promise of it never quite a reality. When he looks back at Harry, he’s almost sure it’s the same smile, and maybe, just perhaps, they’ve made it.

“C’mere,” Harry murmurs, eyes bright, and with not much more than that his hand moves from Louis’ wrist to his waist, pulling him closer until their noses brush. He’s warm and Louis can almost feel the blood racing in his veins, the stutter of his heart, and as he stands there, breath ghosting over Louis’ lips and searching for something in his eyes, Louis knows what he needs to do. He tilts his head up, and with one last small laugh, kisses him.

It’s not as though this is a grand first kiss; it’s one of hundreds between them, in rooms just like this, nights just like this. But this is the first that Louis thinks he might just come out the other side of happier than before, not feeling like drowning in the space between their lips and the cold. It’s the first – or at least the first since the very beginning – that he lets his chest grow with it, lets himself run his hands over Harry’s cheeks and hair and down his side and not think no no no no, don’t do it, don’t make it worse, lets himself tilt into it and feel pure heat, not the accompanying what happens after. Harry’s flushed and warm and has the same miscellany of emotions running through him that Louis does, he’s sure, but for now there is just this, a kiss between smiles and fingers trailing up and down his spine, Harry’s lips tingling and his tongue darting into Louis’ mouth before he breaks away with a laugh, and Louis feels eighteen in the best way possible. Harry mouths at his jaw, slowly, lazily, grins into his hair, and when he lifts his head Louis’ back there with him, pressing a kiss to the corners of his mouth before laying one on him properly, and suddenly the laughs and the teasing are replaced with something different, a sincerity that Louis’ always pushed away before this, but tonight relishes, watches flick across Harry’s face and settle there as he slides a hand under Louis’ shirt.

And as he leads him down the hall, slowly this time, because there is suddenly no rush, Louis thinks that if Harry’s going to be around every street corner, he’s just maybe okay with that.

**

It is not a birthday, a party, an event, when it happens. It’s just a Tuesday morning in October, and Louis comes to with the light streaming in through Harry’s flimsy curtains.

He blinks, bleary and sleepy, sighing a little as the sun hits him, as he wakes properly. He’s got a leg hooked over Harry’s, head on his shoulder, hand on his chest, and Louis smiles a little. Three months later, and he’s not quite over waking up like that. Harry doesn’t move beneath him; it’s only nine judging by the little red numbers of the digital clock on the bedside table, so he presses a kiss to his shoulder and snuggles closer, closes his eyes and is about to drop back off to sleep when Harry lets out a little laugh.

“As cute as you look,” he says quietly, smiling and running a hand through Louis’ hair, “I think like, half my body’s gone numb, so you need to wake up.”

Louis doesn’t move for a second, before laughing into Harry’s shoulder, muffled.

“But you’re really comfy,” he murmurs, tired and slow but sitting up nonetheless. He blinks again, shakes his hair out with a yawn. “You should’ve just pushed me away, you idiot, you don’t have to like, lie there and let me sleep all over you.”

Harry smiles with a shrugs, tugging Louis back down next to him, kissing him quickly.

“Told you,” he says, “you looked cute.”

 “Shut up,” Louis laughs, pushing his face away for a moment before pulling him back and returning his kiss, “you need better curtains, s’why you don’t sleep, you know.”

Harry just rolls his eyes, sits up against the headboard and pulls at Louis’ wrist until he follows begrudgingly, settling himself across Harry’s lap.

“It’s cold up here,” he whines, pressing his forehead against Harry’s with a pout until Harry laughs, kisses it off him. His skin is warm, lips soft and movements lazy, and Louis kind of forgets to complain about the lack of teeth brushing that’s occurred this morning because he still hasn’t grown sick of this, moments that just are,smiles and touches and kisses that can just bewithout the undercurrent that follows.

“Ew,” he says as Harry breaks away, smile a little smug and cringeful so, did I warm you up on his tongue, Louis can tell, “you can’t just shut-up-kiss me whenever I’m complaining, you know.” 

Harry’s smile seems to say I beg to differ, but hedrops it, stretches a little before looking back at Louis, pulling him in a little closer, hands on his back.

“What are we doing today?” he asks, fingers brushing Louis’ hair off his face for a second. Louis shrugs, sighs a little sleepily.

“Well I told your sister we’d be at hers at five—“

“—You’re making plans with my sister now?”

Louis shoots him a look. “She apparently thinks it more likely that I’ll remember the day of our plans,” he says pointedly, and Harry grins in memory of last week’s cock up, nods his concession.

“So we have to do that, and I said we’d take dessert, which means you’ve gotta get busy in the kitchen because I’ll feel bad if we take something store bought.”

“Great, thanks,” Harry says, slapping his arse, and Louis smiles obnoxiously, kisses him quickly.

“You’re welcome,” he says, “and, like, I told Zayn we’d go over there sometime this week and paint the nursery with him, which I know is stupid, because he can afford like, an army of painters, but he said he wanted to do it like his parents did and I didn’t want to, you know, crush all his sentimentality with one…”

Louis keeps talking, nattering away about nothing as he traces a finger idly round the edges of Harry’s tattoos; swallows and hearts and ships and cages and fuckingbutterfly (moth, he almost hears Harry correcting in his head; wanker, he almost hears himself replying), not really minding what he’s saying too much. The sun is warm, along with Harry’s skin, along with the feeling that this brings Louis all of a sudden, and as he keeps talking, Harry lets out another little laugh.

“What?” Louis asks, narrowing his eyes. Harry shakes his head, motions for him to keep going, but Louis just looks at him suspiciously.

“No, seriously,” he says, “do I have something in my teeth, or what?”

“We haven’t eaten anything,” Harry points out, “c’mon, you were saying something.”

“Yeah, and then you laughed at me,” Louis says, smiling in spite of himself and moving close to Harry anyway, “you know that’s considered rude in some places?”

“Really?” Harry smiles, pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth, “I had no idea.”

“Well, now you know,” Louis murmurs back in between the kisses Harry’s stealing, “because I’ll tell you something, I—“

“Lou?”

“Yeah?”

Louis is expecting get up, I’m hungry, or I can’t feel my own legs or could you shut up and maybe do something about the hard on we’re both sporting if you’re gonna stay in my lap; something along those lines. He does not expect the look in Harry’s eyes and the thumb that swipes gently across his cheek, the little smile on his lips.

“I love you,” he says, and everything else kind of falls away.

Because somehow, that’s the first time. Perhaps it’s different, with them – because nearly everything is, of course, they’ve learnt that over the years – perhaps it’s not as necessary to articulate because it’s been so long, so intrinsic to everything that have and have not been for all this time. But it’s the first utterance of those words since that night in Louis’ flat, it’s the first time since stay, yeah, since the proper beginning, and for the longest moment, Louis is utterly silenced. It’s been a slow few months; purposefully, they haven’t rushed anything because all they’ve ever done is rush, and now, now they don’t have to. But here, right now, he’s said it, and the pressure in Louis’ chest is possibly the most overwhelmingly happy thing he’s ever felt.

“I love you too,” he says back, unthinking because thinking isn’t really required when the words have been on his lips for so long. Harry smiles, cups his face in his hands and kisses him properly, pulls him closer and closes his eyes and Louis lets himself fall into it, feel all of this for a moment, because to say he’s been waiting for it would be the most laughable understatement of his lifetime.

Harry breaks away after a second, smile positively alight, looks up at the ceiling and laughs again, bright and sweet.

“Hi,” he says, looking back at Louis, hands on his hips.

“Hi yourself,” Louis says, can hear the dazed surprise in his own voice, “what was that for?”

Harry shrugs, grins like he’s got a secret. “Said I wasn’t allowed to shut-up-kiss you anymore,” he says, “had to up my game.”

Louis’ expression drops into feigned outrage, hits out at him before Harry catches his wrist, kisses his hand quickly.

“I’m kidding, you idiot,” he says, “I dunno. Kinda wanted to say it for a while, you know. We’re good, right?”

Louis laughs, leans his head on Harry’s chest for a second.

“Of course we’re good,” he says quietly, “and you know, just for future reference, I maybe prefer that to a shut-up-kiss.”

Harry smiles, tilts Louis’ chin up and kisses him once more, just because, and it’s still kind of wonderful.

“Good to know,” he says, “now get up, I’m starving.”

Louis does, watches him pad out to the kitchen and start clattering around, hears the TV flick on, Harry’s phone begin buzzing incessantly. He lies there for a second by himself, lets the last few minutes wash over him. It isn’t a birthday, a party, an event; is it just a Tuesday morning in October. And somehow, it’s one of the happiest moments of his life, another hurdle they’ve jumped and survived. And Louis thinks, right then, that he just might want to jump hurdles with Harry forever.