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Louis exhales a puff of smoke through the window and then shuts it, trapping in warm air from the bubbling radiator beneath the sill. He presses his forehead against the cold glass and stares down at the street, resting his fingers on the radiator to heat them up.

Baltimore in the winter is hardly redeeming; it seems dirtier, more dingy than Louis already thinks it does. His and Harry's apartment is typical of the area—large and underpriced and wedged up against a vacant building that was beautiful once. The city is a dream for the former art students that inhabit much of it, though. Its charm is often described as gritty and newcomers either love it or hate it. It took six years, but he’s is starting to resent it, and he pretends he doesn’t know why.

It's three in the morning and Louis is watching TV and getting high and dreading his seven am shift at the coffee shop near his apartment. He sells his photos on the wall behind the bar, huge black and white prints with his name signed in the bottom right corner. It makes it feel less like his degree was useless, though staring up at them while he pulls espresso is somewhat depressing, if he really thinks about it.

It's a Saturday, so Harry's still out, and Louis wants to be. He needs to be up early for work which is the reason he didn’t go out, but probably sitting in and staying up until three can’t be that much better than going out and getting drunk until three. Either way he’s left with four hours of sleep.

He walks away from the window and picks up an open bag of tortilla chips from the coffee table. The place is a mess when Louis is left to his own devices even for a few hours at a time, but Harry never complains, just like Louis never complains that Harry brings home someone different almost every night. It’s inevitable, so he’s not surprised when there’s a thump in the corridor outside of his apartment.

There are footsteps and a fervent "shhh" comes from behind the door. Louis shoves his hand into the depths of the bag of chips that are mostly sharp crumbs and shovels a handful into his mouth.

There’s no right way to prepare himself for one of a series of people Harry could be coming home with, but eating will at least make him appear busy, he thinks. He’s a little too high. He wishes he wasn’t in the living room, but the door swings open, and it’s too late to skitter off into the kitchen, and anyway he feels frozen and strange enough that he could almost laugh at himself.

They might have been trying to be quiet, but Harry bangs into the room with a giggle loud enough to wake up the neighbors. Louis shakes the bag of chips around and lifts his head in a nod, eyeing the girl next to Harry. Half of her head is buzzed and the other tumbles down in long waves that might have been purple at one point, but the color has faded to something close to grey. She definitely goes to MICA. She might be 19.

“Sorry,” Harry says immediately, and Louis watches him curl his fingers around the back of her neck. Her eyes are soft, she’s drunk, and she’s fingering the belt loop on Harry’s jeans. Louis needs to not notice these things, but he can’t ever stop himself, not when his attention is always so accidentally hyper-focused on Harry’s everything.

“Why are you sorry?” He chucks the empty bag back onto the coffee table and flicks on the light in the kitchen after he walks by them.

“This is Kaley,” Harry calls after him.

“Hi Kaley,” Louis says to the inside of the fridge. Harry always does this; he introduces them, like it’ll make a difference, like he has something to prove. Louis moves things around and acts as though he has something to look for and that he’s not just trying to see as little as possible of Harry and Kaley.

“That’s Louis,” Harry slurs, “My roommate.”

When Louis peeks his head above the refrigerator door to see her reaction, he doesn’t miss her rather impressive eye-roll, but he ignores it. He’s too high to call her out on it, can’t bring himself to care enough about her shitty attitude when all three of them know why she’s there in the first place, no matter how polite Harry’s being.

He’s so genuinely friendly that people often think he’s putting on an act, and Louis isn’t sure he has the right to be the one who explains to every other person how and why Harry is better than the way he treats himself and the way others treat him.

Louis has never seen Harry’s manners as part of an act, not even during their first meeting when Harry was a poorly dressed freshman and Louis was a loud-mouthed junior. They were fast friends, and as far as either of them can remember, they never discussed how or why or when they would move in together, but they did that summer, and they’ve been in the same apartment since.

Harry’s a junior, now, freshly 21 years old, and Louis is a year out of college, trying to figure out why he’s still in Baltimore. Things have changed since that first summer, when everything was somewhat magical, when the chemistry between them could’ve been bottled and they only had eyes for each other.

“Come on,” he hears, and it’s Kaley’s voice, high-pitched and impatient because Harry’s undoubtedly touching her, teasing her with his fingers around her neck while Louis picks up a container of expired sour cream and puts it back down again.

“Goodnight, Louis,” Harry calls out, sound cheerful.

Louis shuts the fridge too hard and sighs as he leans back up against it. The bowl he smoked was supposed to make him tired, but he just feels hungry and anxious and bothered by the monotony of his Saturday nights, because no matter how long he stays out, Harry is always the last one home, and seeing him this way is unavoidable.

--

When Louis comes home from his shift at noon the next day, Kaley’s on the couch, wrapped in a fitted sheet that she circles tighter around her chest when she sees Louis open the door. She doesn’t offer more than a nod before she looks back down at her phone and tucks a piece of lavender hair behind her ear.

“Hi,” Louis says to no one in particular, just because he feels like he ought to. It’s his apartment, anyway. He throws his keys onto the coffee table and unbuttons his pea coat as he walks toward the kitchen, where he can see Harry in briefs, holding two plates when he nearly collides with Louis.

“Are you hungry?” he asks, holding one out to him. “Can eat mine, if you want.”

“No, you eat,” Louis says, pushing it back to him. “Bob Eddie bought me a croissant.”

Harry looks delighted. “Bob Eddie’s in town?”

And for a second, at least, Louis forgets about the half naked girl on the couch and breaks into a satisfied grin, because Harry reacted just as Louis predicted.

Bob Eddie is the owner of the coffee shop where Louis works, and he also happens to be the owner of an adult toy store, and he refuses to be known as anything other than Bob Eddie even though everyone agrees that can’t be his real name. He’s very strange, and he loves Louis. He buys him food when he’s in the neighborhood, and often burdens him with strange gifts – art he finds at a street fair, black and white four by fives of his cat; and, once, a leather whip, which now hangs on the wall behind the couch.

“Yeah,” Louis grins, draping his coat over the back of a chair, “and he literally had a fucking trunk full of lube. He made me go out and look at it before I clocked out.”

Harry laughs so hard he comes close to dropping the plates, and he’s still chuckling even when Kaley clears her throat.

That’s that, then.

Louis leans against the wall and watches the scene he’s witnessed a thousand times over, it seems, just with different people, different sexes, different ages. Harry offers her a plate and cranes over her, silently requesting a kiss with his lips pursed, and she returns it with a pinch to his cheek and pretends she doesn’t notice him going in for one more as she digs into her eggs and toast. It would all look very domestic if Louis wasn’t positive that she’d be gone within an hour, having been well fed and well fucked and out before Harry could get her number.

Louis excuses himself and heads to his bedroom as Harry settles in beside Kaley on the couch. He can hear him launch into an explanation in his raspy morning voice, but he doesn’t bother to fill in the gaps of the story; Harry doesn’t need him to do that.

Sleep seems like a good idea, then. November weather makes him tired. Sundays make him tired, too, but he’ll find any excuse to get high and take a nap, lately.

Hours later, Louis shuffles out of his room and finds Harry alone on the couch, sleeping, the very portrait of a Sunday afternoon. Winter light streams over his chest and a thin blanket is tangled up around his legs, and some record is spinning on the turntable in the corner, but Louis doesn’t recognize the song. He wishes he had film in his camera; Harry was always the simplest subject to shoot because he can’t take a bad photo and he’s always doing something strange with his face or his mouth or his hands, but Louis doesn’t do that anymore, really, and he labels the thought fleeting and lets it go.

Harry stirs when the wood floors groan under Louis’ feet and blinks each of his eyes at different times, slow and accepting and undeniably lovely.

“Kaley went home?” Louis asks, perching on the edge of the couch. There’s a packed bowl and a lighter on the coffee table and Harry nods to it. Louis picks it up, sparks the lighter, and inhales.

“Mhm,” Harry says, stretching his arm over head. The sheet isn’t covering his bare chest at all. Louis stares until he sees the fresh bite mark on his collarbone, and then he looks away, holding out his hand to offer him the bowl.

“Matt’s coming over later, though,” Harry adds, and Louis exhales faster than he meant to, smoke coming out in a thick cloud.

“Busy weekend, then,” Louis comments, standing up. Matt is a regular, or that’s how Louis thinks of him, anyway. He’s far too pompous for an assistant professor at a community college, and he calls himself a neo-poet, whatever that means. “Been a while since we’ve seen old Madderall around these parts.”

“Why do you call him that?” Harry asks, plunking the bowl down onto the coffee table. “He doesn’t take Adderrall  anymore.”

Louis snorts. “You sure about that?”

“He’s fun,” Harry shrugs, and that seems to be a good enough reason for Harry to like someone. He genuinely wants to see good in people, and he often does. He gives more chances than Louis can imagine giving, but he’s such a people pleaser that it often backfires, and he has no idea that half the people he sleeps with on a regular basis don’t appreciate a thing about him.

It wasn’t always so bad, but by now Harry doesn’t care at all, and he must know, but he doesn’t let it upset him, so it shouldn’t upset Louis, either.  It’s just how Harry is. It’s what he does. It’s why he’s trying his best to just throw his hands up in the air and say fuck it every time he sees someone roll their eyes at one of Harry’s jokes, or every time Harry offers to loan someone money to buy cigarettes that they have no intention of paying him back for.

If Matt’s going to be there, Louis would rather not be. Kaley is…she was a one-off, probably, but Matt’s presence gets under Louis’ skin in a way that makes him feel embarrassed. It’s jealousy, but he doesn’t want to admit that to himself, and Matt doesn’t really deserve Louis’ jealousy, even though so much of it is focused on him. Louis just doesn’t understand the attraction; then again, he doesn’t understand much about Harry’s relationships, although even that word seems to proper and weighty for what are essentially a shortlist of fuck-buddies comprised almost entirely of assholes.

Louis gathers his keys and slips on his Vans and stands in front of Harry when he buttons up his coat. “I’m gonna go to Zayn’s.”

It’s his standard excuse whenever he needs one, and kind of a joke between him and Zayn, now. He lives an hour away, but Louis needs something to do, and can’t think of a reason why he shouldn’t put on some shitty top 40 and sing his way through the suburbs.

Harry sits up, his hands folded in his lap. “Can you pick up milk on the way home?”

“I’ll buy milk and detergent if you do my laundry.” Louis raises his eyebrows. “Limited time offer, Harry. Won’t last, act now!”

Harry groans, but he’s clearly tickled, and Louis knows he’s won. He settles back into the sofa and touches his lip and his jaw, getting comfortable again, ready to return to his nap once Louis leaves. “I’ll do it tomorrow before class.”

Louis throws him a thumbs up and then walks toward the door, keys jangling. “Right, see you later. Use protection.”

And he shuts the door before he hears Harry’s response, but he definitely hears a drawn-out heyyyyy as he fixes the lock.

--

Louis winds up at Zayn’s for two nights, and because Zayn still uses a fucking flip phone and Louis forgot his charger, he’s more or less cut off from everyone and everything for the majority of his time there.

They mostly play X-box and get high and talk about people from school; what everyone’s doing, sharing stories about old roommates and neighbors that Louis forgets about until he’s around someone who sparks all of those memories at once. Zayn is the best sort of distraction and just the kind of rift in the monotony of his own life that he needs.

Even though they didn’t really do anything, Louis feels rejuvenated when he gets back to Baltimore, despite of the spitting, icy rain that greets him as he parks a block away from his apartment.

Being without a cell phone for thirty six hours has affected Louis’ life so much less than he  ever imagines it will – things still happen, he just doesn’t get a play by play on Instagram. But being without a cell phone also means that he missed every call and text from Harry asking when he would be home, which means he isn’t at all prepared when he walks into his apartment on Tuesday afternoon and finds a girl straddling Harry’s lap on the couch.

They make eye contact, and then Louis says “Oh,” and looks quickly at the floor before he has time to decipher Harry’s expression.

He heads straight for his bedroom, where he can shut out what he’s just seen and charge his phone and trawl the internet until he dies, maybe, or until he finds a new roommate, one that he doesn’t have a jealousy complex with, one that won’t ruin his sleep.

It’s late when he hears Harry switch off the hall light, and then there’s a soft knock on his door before it opens.

“Could’ve waited for me to answer,” Louis says, not looking up from his laptop.

“Sorry,” Harry mutters, walking toward the bed. “What’ve you been doing?”

Louis shuts his laptop and looks at him with his hands crossed over the top of it. “Applied to some jobs. Talked to my mom.”

Harry nods and licks his lips, then swallows hard. There’s something in his expression that Louis recognizes, something he hasn’t seen for months. It’s not usually directed at him. Harry takes the laptop from Louis’ thighs and places it on the floor, then crawls up the bed.

“What are you doing?” Louis protests. His instinct is to back himself up against his pillows as he watches Harry’s body, his necklaces dangling, a curl falling over his eyebrow.

“Let me sleep here,” he mumbles, settling down beside Louis, nosing his shoulder and pressing his mouth against the fabric of Louis’ sleeve.

“Harry.”

“C’mon, Lou, you never let me anymore.”

Harry sounds tired, and Louis wonders what the fuck he’s been doing for the last two days, wonders who’s been here, wonders if they let him sleep. Sometimes he feels sorry for him, and it’s that thought – it’s pity – that makes him curl his arm around Harry’s shoulders, fingers squeezing light over his bicep. It doesn’t take much to pacify him, and Harry is all but purring even under the minimal affection.

He’s like this with everyone, Louis reminds himself. It’s not just him.

This wasn’t a rarity, before; they used to do this a lot before Harry started saying yes to everyone who looked at him the right way. It’s in Louis’ nature to touch, to jokingly force a cuddle until it turns into an actual cuddle. But Harry spread himself too thin and it eventually cheapened what Louis thought was something special, and it’s stupid and a little possessive of Louis, yeah, but their affection was what raised eyebrows and set them apart and it was what made him really love living with him. Like, all those moments he could wake up to Harry crawling into his bed on a Saturday morning and opening his laptop on the nightstand to play Hey Arnold on Netflix while they dozed in and out of sleep. On those mornings, Louis swore he had the whole world right there in his bedroom.

But now – he doesn’t like it, really. Not anymore. He doesn’t want it like this.

Harry’s already passed out, his body loose and heavy like his batteries finally just died altogether. Louis gets up, and the bed squeaks under his weight shifting. There’s no use trying to be quiet when he knows Harry won’t stir, but he still tiptoes to the door. He flicks the light off on the way out and then curls up on the couch under a thin sheet and focuses on his breathing. He tries not to think about how fucked up it is that after two nights spent away he’s still not sleeping in his own bed, and he tries not to imagine Harry’s hands on that girl’s ass every time he shuts his eyes and inevitably thinks, right here, that happened right here, but he sort of can’t help that, either.

Eventually he dozes off, and then he’s waking up to Harry dropping his phone on his chest.

“Alarm went off,” Harry croaks. “How long’ve you been out here?”

“Only an hour or so,” Louis lies. “Couldn’t sleep.”

Harry seems satisfied by that answer, and Louis will remind himself later that he really, really only has himself to blame when it comes to all of his Harry-related problems, because given the ample opportunities he has to tell him why he’s angry or hurt or annoyed, he’s instantly silenced by that furrowed brow, potentially-hurt Harry Look in his direction and it’s hopeless, then, to try and get a point across.

“I’ve got class,” Harry says, his words breaking into a yawn by the end. He brushes his fingers through Louis’ hair and moseys toward the bathroom.

--

Louis officially meets Liam on the last Wednesday in November, the same day the coffee shop starts rolling out their Christmas-colored cups.

He’s met Liam before, though – he’s come in every day during the morning rush for the last week, ordered an Americano, and then did a terrible job of winking at whoever helped him, whether it was Louis or Samantha or Priya or Edgar.

Everyone’s sort of tickled by him, but Louis just wants to tease him for dumping seven Splendas into his coffee when he knows for a fact that he’s in town for some kind of fitness conference – he’s a personal trainer, they’ve learned.

Louis is cleaning up a spill near the table that holds the milk and sugars when he bumps into Liam’s arm and points at his cup. “That can’t be good for you.”

“Oh, it’s definitely not,” he agrees, ripping open another yellow packet. “But, like, I figure I’m allowed to have one thing, right? Even superheroes have a vice.”

Louis raises his eyebrows. “Are you comparing sucralose to kryptonite?”

“I was hoping for a Batman comparison, but Batman doesn’t really have a weakness, does he? Ha!” Liam chuckles at his own observation and his eyes go all squinty, and Louis pulls a face, because is it possible for someone to really…be like that?

He resumes mopping while Liam takes a tentative sip of his Americano, then reaches for another packet of Splenda. Louis turns to return the mop and get back to work, which is when Liam speaks up again.

“What time are you off today?”

Louis looks at him, immediately suspicious. He really needs to stop doing that if he’s going to do things like make friends and meet new people, ever. “Not until three. Why?”

“Well, I’m…it’s my last night here, and I was thinking of going to a bar just to…just to find some company, if you want to meet up there?” Liam’s eyebrows are very large and turned up hopefully, and Louis smirks, at which Liam seems to panic. “I mean, sorry, you really don’t have to if you’re. I don’t know. Busy, or whatever.” He laughs nervously.

“No, I’m not,” Louis says, dropping the mop back into the bucket. “I’m not busy at all.”

He should feel nervous, shouldn’t he? Isn’t that how these things work? A handsome man dressed in head-to-toe Adidas is asking him to have a drink, and Louis ought to feel excited or he ought to feel anything, but mostly he’s just doing to say he did it.

That’s sort of the idea Louis has in his head when they leave the bar, too. They start heading back to Louis’ without much discussion on the matter. Liam loosens up a lot when he’s drunk, apparently, and he’s waving to everyone as they walk, laughing at absolutely nothing and occasionally booping Louis on the nose and then giving him a rather surprisingly rough squeeze on the back of his neck. He is so far from cool and he’s so, so far from the usual string of former art students that frequent his and Harry’s apartment, but that’s kind of why Louis wants to get him alone, just to see what he’s about.

“D’you live by yourself?” he asks, giving another gentle squeeze to Louis’ shoulder as Louis tries to find his keys, feeling shaky. Liam’s hand on him is insistent and calming, but Louis is worried that Harry’s home, and he hates himself for even caring about what Harry might think considering he’s positive Harry doesn’t have doubting thoughts, not even a single one, when he fiddles with the lock with a future hookup standing beside him.

“No,” Louis grunts, finally getting the door unlocked. “I have a roommate, but he’s probably not--”

“Hiii.” And there’s Harry on the couch, waving and smiling wide enough to reveal his dimple. The TV is on and there’s a notebook on his lap; it’s a school night, technically, but he actually looks pleased, which Louis doesn’t even want to consider. He grabs Liam by his bicep and starts to drag him in the direction of the bedroom.

What would Harry do? Louis thinks, and the answer is tough to swallow, and he hates himself for making it about that—but of course it’s about that, because if Harry weren’t in the picture he wouldn’t feel so desperate to get his hands on someone else, wouldn’t feel like he was losing some game that they aren’t even playing. He needs to prove that he can do it, that he’s not holding out for Harry at all, and even if it’s a total cop-out to do it with someone who’s leaving in six hours, Louis still thinks it has to count for something.

They kiss against the closed door of Louis’ bedroom, so fast and desperate that they can hardly breathe. It’s messy; Liam is so drunk he’s swaying on his feet, his tongue all over the place, but they both seem willing and happy and Liam has his thigh wedged between Louis’ legs and he’s pushing forward, his breathing labored.

“You alright?” Louis asks, more as a rhetorical question than anything else, and he’s already going in for another kiss, but Liam shakes his head.

“I feel,” he says, and Louis can see it in his eyes, shakes his head and breathes, “Oh god,” and then backs up right in time, and at least Liam has the decency to sprint in the direction of the kitchen so he can be sick in the kitchen sink and not on the floor.

Harry cleans it up, because of course he does, and Louis wants to die when he sees those rubber gloves come out from the cupboard under the sink. He peels off his shirt before he gets to work, looking too hot for his own good, all of it too confusing for Louis to deal with when he’s got a drunk personal trainer on his hands, apologizing so profusely that his words have started to lose meaning.

He puts Liam in a cab while Harry starts to clean, and he thinks that, if Liam ever comes back to Baltimore, they might actually make good friends as long as Liam can get over the fact that he puked in Louis’ sink. He throws in one last, “I’m so sorry,” and Louis assures him one last time that that it’s not a big deal before he shuts the door and sends him off with a wave.

It’s literally only because it’s cold outside that Louis goes back upstairs, because if the night were any warmer he would walk and walk until maybe he could leap into the harbor and try to pretend that his attempt at a one night stand didn’t fail so horribly and loudly.

The apartment smells clean, like lemon and basil. Harry has his phone in his palm, texting someone, but he puts it down when he sees Louis and ignores the series of vibrations that sound a few seconds later. Harry’s face is full of genuine concern, the tiny line between his eyebrows drawn deep as he eyes Louis. “Is he okay?”

“Harry, you shouldn’t have, like – I would’ve dealt with…all of that.” Louis waves his hand in the direction of the sink, which is glistening, the yellow rubber gloves lying dripping across the faucet.

Harry chuckles, annoyingly. “It’s honestly fine, dude.”

“It’s not.” Louis sighs scrubs his hand over his face, shaking his head. “I’m tired, okay, and I think I’ve had enough excitement for one night.” He starts to shuffle toward the bedroom, but he only takes a step. Harry’s still staring at him, still not wearing a shirt, and Louis ignores it. “Thanks again for doing that. I owe you. I’m doing the laundry until the end of time, I swear.”

Harry bites his lip, and Louis swears his eyes flit down to his mouth for a second. This is the part where they’re both supposed to excuse themselves, but Louis can’t seem to. There are words on Harry’s face that Louis can’t make out because he’s just staring at him, a penetrating gaze that makes Louis feel stripped naked, makes his mouth feel dry.

“What?” he whispers, and he backs up to the wall when Harry takes a step toward him.

“You were really gonna, like. You wanted to fuck him, didn’t you?” It’s impossible to listen to him say those words when Harry is just a few inches away from Louis, his body littered with scribbled-on tattoos, his breath minty, his expression soft and focused only on Louis’ lips. Louis can’t remember the last time they kissed, but he remembers how it felt; it’s hard to forget, but he has, once or twice. Not for very long.

Louis shrugs, going for nonchalance. “Yeah, I did.”

Harry’s mouth twitches. “D’you wanna?”

“Do I want to?”

“Yeah,” Harry frowns, like his suggestion is reasonable. “I mean, we could. If you still wanted someone.”

And Harry just – he could not miss the fucking point more if he tried, honestly. Louis is frustrated but mostly he feels angry, which is unexpected, and he doesn’t even mean to do it, but he presses both hands up against Harry’s bare chest and shoves him back. “Fuck off.”

“What?” Harry looks confused and maybe a little hurt, shaking his head and throwing his arms out at his sides. “Isn’t it what you wanted? Like, you brought him back here so you could suck his dick or something, didn’t you, so what’s the difference if it’s you and me?”

“Are you fucking – are you actually serious?” Louis laughs. He’s too pissed off to even go into all the reasons why Harry is so far off from the mark, can’t even begin to delve into all the ways in which he just doesn’t get it, but he doesn’t know that Harry deserves an explanation, anyway, not if he thinks of himself along the same lines as a one night stand. “No, Harry.”

“How is it any different?” Harry asks, and he looks like he’s begging to know, now, which is – that’s different. He knows Louis has a real answer, and that alone is enough to make Louis go stubborn and sour, it’s enough to make him want to keep answers from Harry just because he’s playing a game, now, one that Louis didn’t agree to play. “Tell me, Lou. Why is it different?”

 “You don’t think it is?” Louis sounds resigned, and calmer than he feels.

Harry shakes his head, and his eyes are wild, unreadable and red-rimmed. “No. I don’t think so at all.”

He’s lying, and Louis is too much of a coward to call him out on it. He can hardly breathe let alone speak, and he just licks his lips and starts to back up until he tears his eyes from Harry’s and walks away without saying another word. He slams his door and for the first time ever, he wishes, desperately, genuinely wishes, that he lived by himself.

-

It takes a few days.

Harry leaves, and doesn’t come home until Saturday morning. Louis doesn’t ask where he went, and they don’t talk about what happened on Wednesday night. Neither of them mentions Liam. They talk about the electric bill and the new neighbors and about getting a new showerhead. They talk about roommate stuff, and eventually things go back to the closest they can get to normal.

It doesn’t mean that Louis is at all okay with what happened, or that Harry’s obliviousness doesn’t get under his skin. The frustrating part is everything that they’re not saying, and Louis is too proud to accuse Harry of something that involves him. They’re friends above all else, and that’s just how Harry treats his friends, isn’t it?

It’s not different, he tells himself, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. It just sucks, is all. It sucks to be placed into the ranks of Harry’s potential hook-ups, and it hurts a lot, and it hurts that Harry doesn’t get it. That he doesn’t get it to the point where he could suggest getting off with each other would be as normal as bringing home Kaley or Matt or the guy across the street or the girl he meets at Brewer’s Art a few times a month.

There aren’t many situations where the two of them can’t find a middle ground, but Louis doesn’t see an end to this one. As long as they’re living together, he doesn’t see how it could get better.

-

It’s not the worst birthday of the year—that would be the day of Christmas—but it’s still not easy to round up a group of friends to party on the eve of a family-oriented holiday. Most of them are out of town or getting drunk with their uncles and fighting back tears during It’s a Wonderful Life, and it’s not like Louis can blame them.

He’s always envied the people born in the summer, or in a month like August, where there are no real holidays and a birthday celebration is actually a celebration and isn’t riddled with Christmas lights and red and green decorations. He’s learned not to expect much more than family oriented festivities when it comes to his birthday, and he’s an adult – he’s almost in his mid-20s, so why should he care if anyone acknowledges him with beer and cake?

It’s why the surprise goes over so well.

Work is crazy in December, and Louis swears it’s because something about the sight of their little red-and-green cups make everyone want a hot drink with a ton of sugar in it. It’s kind of fun, though, because he actually does love the holidays, and even the Christmas music hasn’t made him want to die yet. But there are still two weeks left until the big day, still plenty of time to make Louis go ape if he hears “Santa Baby” one more fucking time.

It’s a beautiful day, actually; cold and sunny, the kind of weather that reminds Louis of playing football in the yard after school, doing yardwork for his mom, chopping down a Christmas tree with his grandfather. He’s in a good mood by the end of his shift, feels calm, feels ready to go home and take off his Vans and get high and maybe treat himself to Thai. It’s dark outside as he locks up the door of the cafe, and his phone rings as he waves goodbye to his coworker, Edgar, who walks home in the opposite direction.

The screen says Harry, and Louis frowns. He normally texts, unless he needs something specific. “Yeah?”

“Are you on your way home?”

“I’m just leaving now, yeah,” Louis switches his phone to the other ear and bunches up his shoulders against the chill. He can smell coffee on himself, and the smell of someone’s fireplace burning somewhere on the block.

“I locked myself out.” There’s a laugh in his voice, and Louis grins. “I’m just waiting outside. I’ll see you soon, okay?”

And he does. Harry is on the stoop, underdressed for the weather but actually quite dressed-up – he’s in skinny, skinny jeans and a white t-shirt and a suit jacket that fits him perfectly. Louis reaches for his keys and looks him up and down.

“Going somewhere?”

Harry pushes a hand through his curls and shrugs. “Maybe later. Just thought I’d look smart today, d’you like it?” He grabs his own lapels and stands up straighter, and Louis wrinkles his nose and shakes his head no, and Harry knows him well enough to know that it means yes, of course he does.

He has no idea how Harry makes up the flight of stairs without breaking, and Louis really should’ve been more suspicious considering Harry’s more fidgety than usual, touching his hair and hovering close as he waits for Louis to unlock the door.

It all seems so obvious once he opens it and there’s a chorus of Surprise! shouted back at his face. It’s one of those purely blissful moments that can’t be created or bottled or asked for, and Louis finds himself turning to look at Harry first, because he knows that it’s all down to him. Harry slings his arms around his shoulders and starts hopping up and down.

“I did it!” he shouts, and people start to applaud, all of them obviously familiar with what a terrible secret-keeper he is.

There are so many people in his apartment, and all of them seem elated to be there. They’ve obviously been drinking for some time, which is good, because it’s not awkward at all when Louis makes his rounds. Someone turns on music so it feels like a proper party – although it already did, what with the string of lights hanging from the ceiling and the Happy Birthday marquee that hangs between the windows. There are Disney princesses all over the letters, and when Louis raises his eyebrows at Harry, he only shrugs. “They were the only ones left at Party City.”

It just makes it better, honestly. Zayn came, too, and he can’t even give Louis a hug because he’s offering a shot of Jaeger to him as a greeting.

“Dude!” Louis says, taking the shot from his fingers. “I’m so surprised you actually drove here. Now I know what it takes to get you out of the house.”

“Harry was very persistent,” Zayn shrugs, and Louis feels a rush of affection for them both. Harry and Zayn haven’t met more than once or twice, but there’s nothing Louis appreciates more than people he loves becoming friends because of him. He smiles wide, clapping Zayn on the shoulder and clinking the tiny plastic shot glasses together.

“Let’s get fucked.”

-

There’s a karaoke machine, and Harry sings, he belts, “Nobody Does It Better” by Carly Simon like it’s the easiest thing in the world, and Louis is drunk enough to be floored. Harry’s such a natural performer and Louis can’t take it, sometimes, when he lets himself be as good as he really is rather than making his voice sound pitchy and terrible when they all go out for karaoke. He lives his entire life so deprecatingly, dumbing himself down for his company in almost every situation, and it’s nice to hear him sing loud and dance out the lyrics in such a charmingly terrible fashion that everyone in the room is hooked by the time it’s over.

Louis claps the loudest, but no one notices. He’s drunk and he’s getting a little maudlin, admittedly, but it feels like something has been fixed between them, and that Harry throwing the party for him is a big step in mending what broke a few weeks back.

Louis takes the mic next and he sings Natalie Imbruglia loud enough to mask any imperfections. During the last chorus, everyone is shouting along with him, clapping and punching the air. Harry pulls him into a bone-crushing hug and whispers something unintelligible into his ear, and Louis is pulled away from him too quickly before he can ask what he said.

People didn’t bring gifts, but they brought alcohol and the ugliest ice cream cake Louis has ever seen. “It was on sale,” Harry explains, brushing up against Louis’ side as he starts to cut into it.

“Why’s there a turkey on it?” Louis tries to sound affronted, but he can’t stop laughing, and neither can Harry. He feeds him a bite of it straight from the knife, and Louis gets orange frosting all over is lips, humming appreciatively as he swallows it down.

“Good?”

Louis thumbs the corner of his mouth, nods. “Doesn’t taste like turkey, at least.”

Harry giggles in between sucking frosting from the tips of his fingers, which is absolutely just cruel and distracting and on purpose, probably. He cocks his head to the side – cute, Louis thinks instinctively – and narrows his eyebrows. “Sorry, I should’ve asked you if you wanted--?” He holds his fingers out to Louis’ mouth and brushes his frosted thumb over his bottom lip and down his chin, cackling because he got away with it, and then he scurries off to the bathroom before Louis can retaliate. He’s whisked away after a second, anyway, because someone brought him a Christmas-themed piñata, and it’s his turn to whack it with a ruler stick.

It’s the most thrown-together birthday party Louis has ever had, and it’s also probably the best.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a group of people passing around a joint in Louis’ bedroom with the window wide open, and he initially goes in to complain about wasting the heat, but in minutes he’s sat down at the edge of his bed, aiming smoke out the window and laughing at a story his neighbor is telling about the opera singer that lives above them.

“Where’s Zayn?” he asks, and no one says anything, but only because no one in the room knows who Zayn is, actually. “I’m going to find Zayn,” Louis announces, using everyone’s thighs as leverage to guide himself off of the bed when he gets up. “Shut the window when you’re done! Love you!”

“Love you!” Everyone calls, and Louis is happy, really, and he feels loved, and he feels calm because his apartment is a wreck and people are screaming throughout it – and, okay, he’s stoned and also drunk, but the entire atmosphere is how he imagines it would feel all the time if just one or two things were different.

In the living room he finds his and Zayn’s mutual friend, Lara, and hangs over her shoulders, hugging her from behind. She leans back into him and gives his arms a squeeze. “What’s up?”

“Have you seen Zayn? You smell good.”

She laughs and turns around, pointing behind Louis. “I saw him walk over there, like, a half hour ago. But Louissss,” she whines, shaking his shoulders. “You’re old nowwww.”

“I know,” Louis shakes his head, hugging her, and he’s very drunk, and everything feels very slow, and it feels nice to cling to everyone – like, if Harry were around, he might hug him, too, and he might not even think about it. His bones feel like they might melt if Lara keeps hugging him. But Zayn. Zayn came to Baltimore and Louis needs to spend time with him. Drunken determination cannot be reasoned with. “I gotta find Zayn, alright? Do you need another drink? Anything?”

Lara laughs, shakes her head. “No, go ahead,” she says, convincing him by hold up her full red cup.

His scavenger hunt is interrupted by hugs and awful dance moves and a persuasive girl he’s never met who convinces him that he needs another shot. For minutes at a time Louis forgets what he was supposed to be doing, but then he remembers Zayn, he loves Zayn, he’s got to find him, and he excuses himself with a rather patronizing pat to the girl’s shoulder as he heads toward the hallway.

The closet is empty, but he wasn’t really expecting Zayn to be in there, and when Louis opens Harry’s door, it’s really more of a routine, as well.

But there he is – there’s Zayn, and then Louis sees Harry, too. The lights are off except for Harry’s ninety-dollar candle lit and glowing on the nightstand – Louis notices that first. The light it casts is dim, but bright enough to make out shapes.

Harry and Zayn are together, somehow. Louis is too drunk and it’s far too dark for him to see which parts of them are connected and how, exactly. A moment passes before either of them notice that they aren’t alone, and it’s about the same time that Harry pulls his hand up and Louis sees now that it had been down the front of Zayn’s jeans, before. Before Louis interrupted.

“Are you,” Louis says, and feels every happy thing he’s experienced in the last two hours slip out of him all at once. It takes his breath away. “What’re you—“

“No,” Zayn actually laughs, backing up from Harry and brushing his hand over his mouth like he can’t believe what he’d just been doing. “God, I’m fucked up, I need another drink, Lou, come on.”

There’s no real guilt in his voice, only drunken amusement. He and Harry have met once or twice before, and the running joke that Zayn is in on is that Harry sleeps with anything that moves. It’s about the extent of what he knows about him, other than what he’s seen on Facebook or stories that Louis has told. It’s probably why Zayn’s first response to being caught is just to laugh because, to him, it’s just funny. Funny that he’s gotten roped into it, a story they’ll all groan about over brunch the next morning.

But Louis is stunned, and he feels something awful and thick in his throat. It’s gone so tight and dry that it hurts, and he can’t think of a thing to say, so he turns to leave. Harry calls after him, and there’s laughter in his voice, too. He doesn’t even know what he’s doing, exactly,  when he walks out and just keeps going down stairs, into the basement with the coin-op laundry machines, where it’s ice cold and smells like fabric softener.

It’s so quiet that Louis’ breathing sounds loud to his own ears. He’s breathing heavy and he feels crazy.

There’s a girl from his building taking her underwear out of the dryer one by one, dropping them into a white bag on the floor. Louis leans up against the dirty wall and faces her, his chest heaving.

“Is it your birthday?” She smiles at him and nods to the necklace someone gave him. There’s a medallion at the bottom of it with a picture of Cinderella, and underneath it says Birthday Princess.

“It’s my birthday party,” Louis slurs. “Yes.”

“Why aren’t you there?”

Louis rolls his head to the side and shuts his eyes. He feels exhausted and drunk and unreasonable, and it’s his party, and he can’t be the first one to leave it. It’s just that all he can see behind his eyelids is the hazy scene from Harry’s bedroom, and he wants to believe he was imagining most of it – maybe the door wasn’t actually shut, maybe they were just talking, maybe Harry’s hand wasn’t groping Zayn’s dick.

“I’m fine,” is what he says, and then he gets up, and it’s his fucking party so he can’t be sad, but he can definitely be more drunk.

But, like, no. He shouldn’t have to reason with himself because he’s obviously the minority. If his two best friends thought it was okay to grope each other at Louis’ birthday party, it must be something Louis is doing to make them think that. And that’s on Louis – he can take that blame.

When he goes back inside, it’s even louder than before, and no one seems to have noticed that he took a ten minute respite in the basement. Someone turned off the lights and it seems to have inspired people to dance, like actually dance. Harry’s  dragging the coffee table away from the center of the living room when he looks up and sees Louis, and he starts to walk toward him, a few inches taller than everyone else around him, his eyes zeroing in on Louis’.

He places his hand on the side of Louis’ neck when he leans in to talk against his ear. “You okay?”

Louis cocks his head to the side, and he actually laughs, though nothing is funny, it’s the furthest thing from funny. “Fuck you,” he shouts over the music, very calmly, considering. He doesn’t need to be angry right now, and he can do ice cold better than anyone else he knows; he can be frigid, if he wants to be, and he feels it happening. It’s very easy. It’s too easy.

“What?”

“Zayn?” Louis asks, brushing Harry’s hand away from his shoulder. “Really?”

“I thought you’d be happy about it.” Harry looks confused and he swallows hard, shaking his head. “You love Zayn.”

If Louis weren’t already drunk, he would swear someone slipped him something, because he can barely comprehend Harry’s words. “It’s fine, man,” he tells him, and then he flicks his feelings off like a switch and turns around to dance again.

Zayn and Harry are just two human beings in a party full of people who are all there to see Louis. He can do without them. He throws his arms up into the air and calls out, “Heyyyy!” and the group responds in kind, gathering him with open arms into the middle of the group so they can all jump and scream to Bombs Over Baghdad until they’re hoarse.

Someone passes around a bottle of champagne and Louis drinks from it until his head spins, and they jump until the floor shakes, and Louis doesn’t remember a thing after that.

--

The morning is rough. Some kind soul has put Louis into bed, and they’ve also placed a trash bin right next to it in case of emergency. That has Harry written all over it, and when Louis stumbles out from the duvet and wraps it around his shoulders, he isn’t at all surprised to see Harry half-naked in those fucking yellow gloves again, humming to himself as he mops up something that Louis can only guess was puke on the floor outside of the bathroom.

“Morning,” Harry drawls, his voice all raspy, his face puffy like a pillow. Even from a distance Louis can see that he’s shivering from the wind blowing in through the drafty window next to him, and he imagines going over and wrapping the blanket around him. On another morning, maybe. Not this morning.

“Why are you up?”

“Had to let some people out about a half hour ago,” Harry explains, and hiccups. “Think I might still be drunk.”

“You look terrible,” Louis says.

“Well, I slept on the floor, so.”

“Why?”

Harry shrugs and leans the mop up against the wall. “These three girls needed a place to sleep. Zayn was on the couch. Floor for me.” He chuckles, like it’s funny, but it makes sense now why his shoulders are even more hunched than usual. “Didn’t think you’d want me to sleep in your bed with you.”

Louis looks at Harry, then, and licks his lips. “No,” he lies, because even in spite of last night, he still wants him. “Probably not.”

“Yeah,” Harry murmurs, scratching his cheek, looking indifferent.

Louis looks down at the floor. “Thank you,” he says, pointing to the spot Harry was just mopping. He looks back up at him, and figures he ought to thank him for the party, too, but he can’t seem to say it.

“Did you have fun last night?”

“Certainly looks like I did,” Louis says, looking around the wrecked living room. “It was really fun, yeah. Mostly. I mean…yeah, no. It was good.”

Except for the part where you were going to fuck Zayn, is what he should say, but he looks steadily at Harry and thinks that part is probably obvious enough.

“Zayn drove home this morning,” Harry says, crossing his arms over his chest, covering up the butterfly between his ribs and thumbing over one of his nipples, which are distractingly hard and dark against his milky skin. Louis is staring, waiting for Harry to continue, to explain, or anything. “I can talk about this later, if you want,” he starts, his voice so croaky and deep that it’s sinful. “But it seemed like you were, like, pissed off. But I just wanted you to know that nothing happened.”

“Nothing happened because I walked in and found you before anything could happen,” Louis clarifies, his voice slow and deliberate and probably a bit condescending. “So that’s a little different.”

“Right, but Louis,” Harry continues, scratching down his chest, leaving red marks where his nails were. He’s frustrated, and he’s obviously thought about what he wants to say. Louis is too hungover to deal with this, honestly, but he won’t be able to go back to sleep at this point, so he might as well get it over with. “You never, like. I mean, do you…are you and Zayn…is that why you didn’t want me to?”

“Me and Zayn? Are we like – no, no, Harry. I don’t even…no. Not like that.” Harry is so fucking, fucking oblivious, and Louis sees that telling him the truth is not going to happen this morning, so he gears himself up to lie. A lie is safe. A lie isn’t scary at all. “I just…I know how you get with people, and Zayn’s my good friend, you know, so I just. Wasn’t expecting that.”

“How I get with people?” Harry sits on the couch opposite where Louis is standing, his briefs riding up on his thighs, broad shoulders hunched as he rests his elbows on his knees. He looks fuckable and gorgeous even when his face looks like a stuffed cushion, and Louis curls the blanket around his shoulders, trying to focus.

“Like, I mean, Zayn was in one relationship for four years,” Louis explains, shrugging. “He’s not the type to like, do what you do. With people. The casual thing. That’s not how he is.”

“And he’s told you that before.”

Louis balks. “I know him well enough, Harry, I don’t think I’m wrong.”

For someone as honest as Harry, he really, really does keep his emotions under wraps. Louis knows him better than anyone and he can barely tell how he’s feeling half the time, and he sort of envies that, the fact that Harry doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve the same way Louis does. It must be nice; it must give him some freedom, like wearing an invisibility cloak, or something.

He doesn’t say anything for a minute, but there’s something weighty in his gaze. Louis tries to look uninterested, but Harry keeps staring. “Want to get a bagel?”

Sweet relief. Louis nods and lets the duvet drop on the sofa, shivering as the air hits his bare skin. He’s only in boxers, and he doesn’t even want to know who helped him undress the night before. He’ll ask at breakfast. “Give me five minutes, okay?”

“Look at that,” Harry calls from the couch as Louis heads back into his bedroom. “The best ass in Baltimore.”

Louis snorts. It’s not a new title, by any means, and it’s one he wouldn’t say he likes, necessarily, but he does flush under the knowledge that Harry’s still looking, even if it’s only when Louis isn’t.

--

Somehow, things are normal again. It doesn’t mean they’re great, or that they’re better, but they’re normal, and Louis can withstand anything as long as it’s better than worse.

Anthony starts coming around after Christmas. He’s older and taller than Harry with a beard and full sleeves of colorful tattoos. He doesn’t look people in the eye when he speaks to them and he’s supposed to be important in Baltimore’s Music Scene, says Harry, but there’s something about him that Louis just doesn’t like, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that he has all of Harry’s attention for longer than one night at a time.

But Anthony doesn’t come alone. There are people – friends of Anthony, Louis guesses, who wind up in their apartment until late at night, lounging on their sofa like they pay half the rent, smoking weed with the windows down and picking through the stacks of records Harry keeps in crates against the walls of the living room. Louis indulges them all, at first; he doesn’t mind company if it’s good company. Two of the girls Anthony brings over are in an electro-pop group and look the part, and they’re nice enough, albeit a little distracted, and several years older than even Louis.

He’s washing dishes in the kitchen one night when Anthony and Harry disappear to his bedroom for a mysterious fifteen minutes, leaving the girls – Louis doesn’t even know their names – on the couch to wait for them to finish…whatever it is they’re doing. As soon as Anthony’s not in the room, they immediately start to talk about him.

“When did he say he was leaving?”

“Not soon enough,” the other replies, sounding bored, which is understandable. “He told us he was going to buy us drinks, didn’t he? I didn’t think we’d wind up here.”

“Is that kid even old enough to go to a bar, though?”

They both laugh at that, and Louis turns off the sink water. They could be saying worse about Harry than making fun of his age, but there’s something in their tone that pisses him off.

The lack of noise seems to remind them that they aren’t technically alone, which, good, because it’s rude to talk about someone when you’re visiting in their living room, even if they’re in a somewhat uncomfortable position while they wait for Harry and Anthony to reappear.

“Can I get you girls anything?” Louis calls, then pokes his head through the door with his hands dripping wet. He looks pointedly between them. “A beer, maybe? You’re old enough to drink, right?”

One of the girls plays it cool; the other seems to realize that he could hear them, and she looks sympathetic. They both offer a “no, thank you,” and Louis gives them his best fake smile, shakes the excess water from his hands, and sincerely hopes he made them feel small.

--

Anthony stops bringing friends soon after the new year, which is good because Louis no longer feels obligated to come home from work and entertain anyone, but also it makes it feel more personal, like he’s there just for Harry. Before, his friends acted as a sort of buffer for their visits, like they were all hanging out together, and even though that’s never what it really was, it helped Louis cope, at least.

They order Chinese food, the three of them, and Louis watches shitty television too loud in the living room despite the repeated eye rolls he receives from Anthony.

“Not a fan of The Bachelorette, Anthony?” Louis asks around a mouthful of lo mein.

His expression doesn’t change, and he doesn’t look at Louis. “I actually don’t have TV at all. I don’t like being exposed to commercials. I think it’s extremely harmful.”

Now it’s Louis’ turn to roll his eyes. “Extremely,” Louis repeats. Harry snorts, and Louis definitely doesn’t stare when Anthony whispers something in Harry’s ear and excuses himself to the bedroom.

Harry stays put and makes a grabby hand for the lo mein. Louis hands it to him without taking his eyes from the TV.

“You don’t like him?” Harry asks, and Louis sees the white box in his periphery. It’s only then that he looks at Harry, cupping the take out box in his palm and shaking his head, confused.

“This guy? It doesn’t matter, anyway, she’s definitely not going to choose—“

“No, you don’t like Anthony, do you.” It’s not really a question, and Louis knows he wasn’t trying to hide it, exactly, but he still doesn’t expect Harry to point it out so bluntly.

“Well,” Louis starts. “No, actually. I don’t. I mean, do you? Honestly? And do not even say—“

“He’s fun,” Harry says, and Louis barks out a, “No!” And they both laugh, because it’s a joke, now, how Harry explains away the assholes he keeps as company.

“Whatever,” he mumbles, sticking the fork back into the carton. “He is fun. He knows a lot of people.”

It still isn’t a great reason, at least it wouldn’t be for Louis, but he bites his tongue. Things have been better between them – they’ve been steady, and he doesn’t want to fight about it.

Harry comes to sit beside on the couch, and reaches for one of the fortune cookies on the coffee table. “This one’s for you, okay?” He cracks it open and lets the shell fall to the table, peeling open the small slip of paper and reading aloud. “You have a beautiful smile and a loving nature.”

Though he had every intention to make fun of whatever Harry read out to him, he does smile, and it’s authentic. “Oh, Harold, you really shouldn’t have.”

Harry shrugs. “I mean, that’s actually true, though. Loving nature, Lou. You’ve got one.”

“My heart is black and cold as ice,” Louis deadpans, and reaches for a fortune cookie to read out to Harry. “This one’s for you, too.”

“Hit me.”

Fuck. He starts laughing before he can even read it out, and Harry tries to peek, holding his hand over Louis’ to get a better look. Louis wrestles out of his grip and turns his body away from him, laughing, feeling giddy and embarrassed. “Okay, okay, stop. It says, Stop searching forever. Happiness is just next to you.”

The struggle is over, but Harry keeps his hand on Louis’ wrist, and then plucks the paper out of his fingers to read it over again. He traces a long finger over the words and then smiles, just enough so that his dimple gets deeper, and looks at Louis. Just next to him.

Harry sighs. “Well.”

“Don’t,” Louis says, his voice quiet. Of all the fucking fortune cookies he’s ever had that make absolutely no sense under any context, he had to pick one that was – well, it’s not exactly accurate, but it’s closer to being accurate than anything else could have been.

“Next to you,” Harry repeats, and then nods, almost like he’s saying it only for himself. He folds the piece of paper in half and slips it into the tight pocket at the front of his black skinny jeans. “You do make me happy, Lou. Look at those eyelashes, who could be sad looking at those everyday?”

“Shut up, Harry.” But he’s glad they’re joking, at least; that they could recover from the fortune cookie long enough to rebound into familiar territory.

Harry gets up and stretches his arms high over his head, revealing four inches of a flat tummy and a thin line of hair reaching below his navel. Even when they kissed – and it only happened a few times, and always when they were drunk enough to laugh through it – those parts of Harry had never been his to touch. He was Louis’ best friend, but that didn’t give Louis an allowance to reach under his shirt and explore skin with his fingers, even though he would settle for that, if it ever came to it.

 “I’m gonna,” Harry says, and jerks his head toward the bedroom.

“Right.” He doesn’t want him to.

“Unless you, like,” Harry begins, then shakes his head, starts to walk into the hall. “Never mind. Night, Lou.”

He watches him go. He never watches him open that bedroom door, but this time he can’t look away, and the lingering stare Harry gives him before he shuts it behind him is so strange and unabashed that Louis is shaking by the time he turns around. There’s one more rose left in what is undoubtedly most dramatic rose ceremony ever, according to the voiceover.

He doesn’t know exactly what he and Harry aren’t saying, but his chest feels like it might crush under the weight of it all.

--

“Are you sure you don’t want to come?”

Louis rolls over on the couch. There’s a potato chip stuck to his cheek, which explains the state of his life at the moment. He brushes it off and flicks it away. “I’m still really hungover, dude. No.”

Harry reaches down from behind the couch and pats him twice on the face, then brushes his hair back to press a smacking wet kiss between Louis’ eyebrows.

“Why the fuck—“

“That’s what you get for going out on a Thursday night, Louis.” Harry fixes his coat up the rest of the way. He’s been drinking for an hour already and it shows in the way his eyes are glazed over and the way he’s wobbling even more than usual on two pigeon toed feet.

“Don’t die on your way over,” Louis says, halfhearted. “You can barely walk sober.”

“I’m fine!” Harry protests, but he’s laughing through it. “Watch,” he says, holding out his arms and walking in what he probably believes to be a straight line. Louis laughs, but it makes his headache worse, and he presses his palm into his eyebrows to make it stop. It doesn’t work.

“Okay, just – don’t talk to strangers, okay?”

Harry snorts. “I’m meeting Anthony and everyone there,” he says. “I’ll be fine. It’s ten minutes away.”

Louis faces the TV again and he can hear Harry reaching for his keys on the hook. He grunts out a goodbye and Harry returns it with more enthusiasm, then the door shuts, and Louis is alone to work on getting rid of the hangover he and Niall worked so hard on acquiring the night before. Niall is new to Baltimore, and he’s working part time at the café with Louis. He couldn’t like him more, honestly; he’s so much fun, he’ll talk to anyone, but he won a bunch of money in a law suit regarding his knee and a slippery floor at Game Stop, so he’s big on buying everyone drinks. Louis included.

Normally he wouldn’t have said no to an invite from Harry, even if it was with Anthony and company. Baltimore is so small that he’s bound to know at least one other person in a bar on Friday night, especially in their neighborhood, but he just can’t bring himself to ingest anything alcoholic when he has to be up at six to open the next morning. It doesn’t help that watching Harry kiss anyone might break his resolve entirely.

Three weeks have passed since the fortune cookie incident, and in that time it’s possible that the two of them were overcompensating – trying hard to make each other laugh, doing their best to make sure the other knew they were friends above all else. They’re good at that, at least, and it works for them.

Sometime after Harry leaves, Louis dozes off on the couch and wakes up midway through an episode of The X-Files that he doesn’t remember starting. After he checks his phone for the time – it’s half past 1 – he scrolls through Instagram, thumbing past photos of full pints of beer and martini glasses, people sticking their tongues out for the camera.

And then, oh. There’s Harry. He looks like he’s in a toilet stall, and by the looks of it he doesn’t realize someone’s taking a picture. He looks…not conscious, or not all there, and Louis sits up straighter against the couch, scrolling down. The caption says “FLAGGED!” and has a bunch of laughing-smiley emojis underneath it. Louis feels a seed of anger in the pit of his stomach, but he ignores it for the time being as he scrolls to the top of the feed to refresh it.

There’s already another. It’s Harry again, leaning up against a wall with a drink spilled all down his front. One of his eyes is closed and there’s a guy next to him, pointing at Harry with both of his fingers and a grin on his face, like he’s showing off what a wreck he is. The caption just says, “a mess.”

Yeah, no.

“Absolutely fucking not,” Louis says aloud, throwing the blanket off of his legs. He storms into his bedroom, pulls on a pair of sweats, and doesn’t even bother with a jacket before he grabs his phone, keys, and walks out of the apartment, slamming doors behind him. He’s not thinking, he’s just moving, too heated to feel the January chill as he makes a right, a left, and another right, and finally arrives at the bar, hoping against hope that Harry’s still there.

It’s too late for bouncers to bother hovering by the door, and Louis knows everyone who works there, anyway. He excuses himself through a crowd of smokers crowded around the entrance and then he’s inside, overheated despite the freezing weather. He feels crazy, and he might be, but he’s just about fucking had it with these dickheads. He looks down at his phone to see if there are more pictures, just to make sure they’re still in the same place – and, yeah, there are three more of Harry against the same back wall, these ones just as bad as the others; someone’s sticking a straw up his nose in one, and pinching his cheeks hard in the other.

He just needs to find him, is the thing.The place is really big and it has two floors full of small tables with small candles on top of them shoved in nooks, almost cave-like. The candles are the only light source, and Louis holds up his phone, trying to use it as a torch to give him a sense of direction.

There’s a bright flash, though, on the other side of the lounge. Anthony and his pals are the only ones taking pictures, probably, the only assholes that find it entertaining, and Louis heads over there through thick crowds of people. He’s ridiculously underdressed and he receives more than a handful of strange looks when people notice his baggy sweatpants and his wrinkled white t-shirt, but he’s just looking for Harry, he’s got to find him–

And there he is, finally. He pushes Anthony out of his way and bumps into a girl by accident as he rushes toward the padded bench where Harry is just barely sitting up with his back to an exposed brick wall. He looks even worse in person than he did in the photos, somehow. He’s all limbs flung out, loose and languid in a terrible way, in a scary way. His eyes are red and his mouth is slack and he is so, so fucked up. It’s obvious he doesn’t know where he is and that he’s had too much and, judging by the state of everyone around him, they’ve just been feeding him drinks to see how bad he can get.

“Louis!” Harry slurs, reaching out with both arms, so obviously delighted to see a familiar face that it makes Louis’ heart clench. “You’re here? D’you – wait, Louis, hiiii.”

One of the guys he recognizes from the picture laughs and asks, “Who the fuck is this guy?” to no one in particular.

“Do not fucking talk to me, bro,” Louis spits, grabbing Harry underneath the arms. He’s all dead weight, and Louis could really use some help, but everyone around him can go fuck themselves before he’ll ask one of them.

Anthony appears at Louis’ left, and the look on his face is so insulting to Louis that he nearly drops his grip on Harry just to do something about it.

“Where do you think you’re taking him?” Anthony asks, his expression lightly amused and very sober.

“I’m gonna need you to move, there, buddy,” Louis says, doing his best to sound as patronizing as he possibly can. He wants to punch him squarely in his smug mouth, but Anthony has six inches on him and Louis is using both hands to hold up Harry. Too bad, really.

Anthony doesn’t move. “Did you ask him if he wants to leave?”

Harry is boneless, putting all of his weight on Louis’ shoulders, and he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on around him. “Fuck you,” Louis says calmly, though not without vitriol as he looks at Anthony hard enough to make sure he meets his eyes. “And do not fucking call, either. Don’t come to my apartment. You’re done. Fuck off.”

He looks away, then gets to work. What he said to him isn’t half of what he wants to say, but there’s too much to deal with, and Harry’s his priority. It takes a second to maneuver Harry until they’re in line with the door, but then he just keeps moving and doesn’t look back as he speaks gibberish up against Louis’ ear.

“It’s cold,” Harry manages, frowning when freezing air bites their skin. “Is this m’shirt?” He holds onto the collar so tight that it might actually rip, and Louis comes close to falling down.

“Yes, it’s your shirt. Try and stand up straight, Harry,” he grabs him by the waist, hoisting him as best he can until they’re walking. “Good.”

“It looks nice on you,” Harry tells him, and he actually attempts a wink, at which Louis might laugh if he didn’t look so green in the face.

“Most things do,” he says, “Try to walk, Harry, c’mon.”

He groans. They take a few successful steps.

“I feel bad, Louis,” Harry mumbles, rather suddenly. He slurs out something unintelligible, but Louis figures talking is better than silence, which would be scarier than this, even.

For a few minutes he considers calling an ambulance, but when Harry gets sick in a dumpster a block from the bar, he’s pretty sure that there’s nothing left in his stomach for them to pump if he goes to the emergency room. Louis stays right there with him, a hand on the back of his neck as Harry lets it all out. When he finally finishes, there are tears in his eyes, and he looks confused and pathetic and he smells wretched.

“Louis,” he mumbles, walking into him, and Louis hugs him despite his breath and despite the smell of a thousand spilled drinks down his shirt. “Am I okay?”

No, is the thing. No, he’s not okay. He’s fucked up and his friends are assholes and Louis is sick of it, but he doesn’t say that.

“You’re great,” he says, soothing, running his hand down Harry’s back. His weight feels good and warm and Louis is reminded for the first time since he banged out of his apartment that he didn’t bring a coat with him.

“Can you walk, do you think?” he asks, pulling away from Harry gingerly. Harry nods and sniffles and drags his hand down the side of his face. He looks dazed and pale and just exhausted as they shuffle toward the 711 on the corner, where they duck in so that Louis can buy him a jug of Gatorade. Harry is obedient and strangely calm next to him, almost like he’s been sedated. His arm is wrapped around Louis’ shoulders for support, his breathing even.

There’s nothing jolly about his demeanor now that all traces of his delightful drunkenness are gone – and Harry’s a fun drunk, truly, he can be the life of the party on his best nights. Louis wants to fuck up the assholes that ruined his night for him, who embarrassed him and treated him like shit and laughed at him when he should’ve been drinking water and not another three shots of Jameson. He just looks so, so tired, and Louis keeps an eye on him even when he’s paying the cashier.

“You okay?” he keeps asking, and Harry just squeezes his shoulder and says, each time, “I’m great,” which they both know is far from the truth, but it’s so Harry. It’s a mantra, and maybe if Harry keeps saying it he’ll believe it.

When they’re home, Harry brushes his teeth first, and then sits on the sofa and looks very small and very young. He’s sort of crying, just vaguely, almost like he doesn’t even know he’s doing it as a tear trickles down the side of his nose. After Louis pours him a huge glass of Gatorade, he places it on the coffee table and squats in front of Harry.

“Hey,” he says softly, looking up at him. It’s not the time for a conversation of any depth, so he won’t even try, but he can’t let Harry go to sleep so sad. He taps him on the belly. “Arms up.”

Harry nods and raises his arms over head, allowing Louis to tug his black sweater up and off until his milky, tattooed skin is exposed and covered in goosebumps. There’s a blanket behind him on the sofa, and Louis wraps it around Harry’s shoulders, then presses the cup into his hand. “Just a few sips, okay? It’ll help.”

“Ugh,” Harry groans, licking his lips after he swallows, like it hurts him to ingest another drop of anything. “I hate.”

Louis throws one of Harry’s boots over his shoulder, and starts to work on the other. “You hate what?”

“This.” He sounds defeated and shattered and it’s not like Harry, who doesn’t normally let on that things are bad even when they’re at their worst. The cup in his hand is empty now, and he lets it drop to the floor. “This whole fuckin’ night, it’s all…it’s fucked up, Louis.”

There are things Louis wants to tell him and he has more than a few choice words about what kind of ‘friend’ Anthony is, but it’s not the right time. It’s heartbreaking to see him so pitiful, and he wishes there was more he could do, but he can only hope it’ll all be better in the morning. It has to be.

Louis stands up and grabs him by the wrists. “C’mon.”

And fuck it; if Harry gets sick on his floor, it won’t be the first time. He can’t let him go to sleep alone in good conscience, and the thought of leaving him makes Louis feel frantic, like he wouldn’t do it even if it’s what Harry wanted.

“My room,” Louis whispers. It takes a few seconds for Harry to get to his feet, and he sways when he does. They shuffle into the hallway and into Louis’ dark bedroom, lit only by the streetlight out of his window. There’s a pile of clothes at the end of his bed that Louis pushes off before he lets Harry sit down.

“You’re a good friend, Lou,” Harry says, dumbly, and then hiccups. He’s still drunk.

“Thank you, Harold. Lie back.” Louis unbuttons his own jeans and pulls them off, but leaves on his – Harry’s – white t-shirt. He feels odd undressing to get into bed with someone else, but he does it in the interest of comfort, and it’s just Harry, anyway. It doesn’t need to mean anything – it can’t mean anything. Certainly it can’t mean more than Louis leaving the apartment to rescue him from a bad night out.

“No, like,” Harry starts again, pressing his shoulders back into the pillow, “You’re my best friend. Like, you’re one of those, you know, soul mates – you’re just good.”

He sounds like someone’s drunk uncle on a SNL sketch, is the thing, so no matter how much he means what he says, Louis can’t really take him seriously. He’ll forget it all in the morning, Louis is certain – otherwise, if he’d said it on any other night, it would’ve made Louis’ heart stop and start ten times faster.

“You are, too,” he returns. That’s safe. There’s no need to elaborate, and Louis doesn’t know if he can dance around the truth if he starts to elaborate, so he doesn’t. He settles down and tucks a pillow between his neck and shoulder, and he rolls away to face the wall.

Harry’s on him in a matter of seconds, his arms and legs wrapped around Louis’ body like a koala, except he’s six feet long and drunk, so his limbs aren’t proportioned evenly over him and Louis is going to have several body parts gone numb before he wakes up. But Harry’s breath is at his neck and his hand is over Louis’ heart, and he might be drunk, but this—this seems like second nature.

There’s too much cycling through Louis’ head for him to feel properly tired, but he knows Harry needs this and, yeah, he might need it, too. Harry says his name one more time and squeezes him tight, tucks his chin over Louis’ shoulder, and sleeps.

--

There’s snow on the ground when Louis wakes up. The sky has that sort of milky color to it, where there’s no real light getting through and there are still flurries falling lazily in the general direction of the ground, though it seems they’re being blown around too much to stick to anything. There are a few untouched inches, and Louis can’t help that excited feeling in his gut – snow day, he thinks.

As anticipated, his leg is asleep and crushed under the weight of Harry’s. The bed smells like liquor, and when he rolls over in Harry’s arms to check on him, there’s a sheen of sweat on his neck despite the chill of the room. His breathing is even and soft but he makes a quiet noise when he feels Louis start to move, and clasps his palm around his lower back, holding him there.

“You awake, Harry?” He prods him on the neck and Harry shakes his head, keeps his eyes closed.

“I died in my sleep,” he murmurs.

“Can you at least move your leg before I cremate you?”

Harry cracks a smile at that, but he doesn’t open his eyes. He slides his heavy leg off of Louis’ and holds him tighter, like Louis is a teddy bear he’s keeping close to his chest. It feels good, is the thing, or Louis might try to fight his way out of it. But his room his quiet and Harry did not in fact die in his sleep and he’s too weak to resist anything anymore. It’s all fleeting, but Louis wants it, and he’ll make up for it in the following weeks when Harry inevitably finds someone else to bring home and Louis goes to bed remembering that one morning when he let Harry hold him.

“It snowed,” he says. Harry opens his eyes at that, and Louis didn’t realize how close they were until this second. He doesn’t look out the window behind Louis’ head; he just stares right at him with translucent morning eyes.

“A lot?” He flicks his gaze to Louis’ mouth. He could look and see for himself, and Louis’ heart races when he realizes he chose not to.

“Enough to have a snowball fight and beat you.”

“Hmm.” Harry considers him momentarily, sleepy eyes drifting from Louis’ lips up to his eyes and then to his mouth again. After a moment he lifts his head just an inch to look over Louis’ shoulders and out the window, and when he drops it back down, he noses Louis’ cheek before he rests his head on the pillow again. “Why do you smell good?”

He doesn’t, he’s pretty sure, but he cracks a smile. “Because I didn’t ralph in a dumpster last night, maybe.”

“Heyyy,” Harry drawls. “Low blow.”

“So you remember that?”

“I remember that part. Don’t remember much else.”

Louis nods, but doesn’t say anything. Now might not be the time to tell him or offer any words of wisdom, not when Harry’s tickling the spot below Louis’ spine, just underneath his shirt. It seems like it’s more of a comfort to Harry than it is to Louis, and it’s kind of marvelous, the way he needs to touch people. Being the object of that sort of affection is intoxicating; Louis understands, he’s always understood, why people can’t say no to him. Louis is the only one who ever does, and it’s only because everyone else always says yes.

“You don’t have to tell me,” Harry says, the words almost lazy coupled with the way he’s pressing his fingers down Louis’ spine like he does it every morning, like this isn’t something brand new.

“No,” Louis clears his throat. “I will. I mean, it’s nothing you actually did.” He feels himself get hot and angry at the memory, at the image of Anthony laughing and the look on his friend’s faces in those photos. Showing them to Harry won’t be easy, but he’s not sure how else to make his point. “I’ll show you.”

“There are pictures?” Harry sounds dismayed as Louis climbs over top of him, their chests brushing as he grabs his phone from the table behind Harry and then settles back down into his warm spot in the bed. Harry gathers him close again with a hand on his waist, and Louis swallows hard, trying not to let it get to him, trying to just get this over with before he considers Harry’s big hands and his soft eyes and his attention only on Louis, Louis, Louis.

Instagram is still open, and he queues up the photos for Harry to see, then turns it around and watches his expression change for the worse.

“I’m sorry,” Louis says, because he’s not sure where else to start. “I wanted to fucking kill somebody when I saw them.”

“Fuck.”

“I know. Sorry, here, give it back.” He pries the phone from his fingers, but Harry snatches it back in a second.

“Anthony posted this one,” he murmurs, taking one more look before he locks the screen and drops it between them. “Fuck.”

The look on his face is exactly the one Louis didn’t want to see, but he’s almost relieved that Harry sees the gravity of the situation, that he doesn’t try to brush it off as a laugh. Louis isn’t sure what to say; everything that comes to mind sounds like, ‘I told you so.’

“You told me so,” Harry says, and, well, it’s not at all satisfying coming from his mouth. He lets Louis go and rolls onto his back, folding his hands over his chest as he stares up at the ceiling. “Did one of them ask you to pick me up?”

“That would’ve been the right thing for them to do,” Louis says, sitting up to lean himself against the headboard. Harry’s hair is fanned out across the pillow, and Louis touches a curl, so light he’s not even sure Harry can feel it. “But no. I just saw those pictures and came to get you.”

Harry looks up and over at him. “You did?”

“Yeah, Harry, of course I did. Are you that surprised? Your fucking eyes aren’t even open in half of them.”

“No, I mean, you’re right. It was good for you to do that. I just feel stupid.” Harry sniffs, and Louis really, really doesn’t want him to cry. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“And I’m not trying to tell you what to do or who to hang out with, but you’ve got to start, like – a screening process, or something. Why do you even bother, Harry? Like, what is the thought that goes through your head that makes you say, yeah, definitely Anthony, he seems ‘fun’?”

Harry swallows hard, his expression stony as he stares at the ceiling. “I don’t know. It just seemed like my only option.”

The mood has shifted so dramatically and it’s selfish for Louis to even dare feel disappointed by it, because it’s not like there isn’t a good reason. It’s just that their morning in bed together never stood a chance, and it sucks that it’s devolved into this. The only time he feels comfortable letting Harry touch him is when he’s gone through a crisis; or, worse yet, that the only time Harry really wants to is when he needs him. It’s all fucked, and he shouldn’t be letting his personal feelings about him get involved in it, especially not when Harry doesn’t even realize how he feels—and, yeah, that’s Louis’ fault.

It’s a lot to be half in love with the idea of what Harry could be when, at the same time, he’s also very much just flat-out in love with him, though he’s not even sure why, at this point, or what aspect of Harry he’s latched onto. Maybe it’s something that happened when they first met or maybe it’s a glimmer of hope that he made up in his head. Maybe it’s the way Harry says his name, or looks at him, or maybe Louis just needs to move on, but he doesn’t think he can. It’s gut-wrenching and devastating, how far gone he is, because Harry is so hard to pin down, and he’s never not with someone for more than a day at a time, and that doesn’t leave much room for Louis to do much else than stomp around passive aggressively.

And, the worst question of all, the one Louis hates himself for thinking, is that when Harry can have anyone, why would he want Louis?

He has to stop. He clears his throat. “I know this may come as a shock to you, but you can say no to people.”

Harry sighs. “I know.”

“No, I don’t actually think you do.”

“I do, Louis. You say no to me all the time.”

Shit. “Well, someone needs to.”

Harry rolls onto his elbows and twists his fingers together as he looks up at Louis. He’s loose-limbed and pale in the diffused white light from the window, and Louis feels a sigh bubble up in his chest as their eyes meet. His arm is pressed up against Louis’ thigh, and Harry seems to notice at about the same time Louis does, because he stares at the point of contact for a moment before he starts talking again. “It doesn’t have to be you.”

“I know it doesn’t,” Louis says, his voice breaking on the last word.

“Then why?” Harry asks, sincere curiosity on his face as he looks up to meet Louis’ eyes. “Anthony and all of them are, like…they fucking suck, and I know that now. But they still want to be around me, you know? Or they would pretend they did.”

“But I actually want to be around you,” Louis says, and it comes out before he really has any time to consider that it’s kind of a big admission for him, even though it shouldn’t be. “I don’t know when you think that changed, but it hasn’t.”

Harry looks down at his hands, and Louis tries to breathe, and neither of them last very long before they meet eyes again. Louis just wants him, is the thing, and he’s been keeping himself at arm’s length because he thinks it’s what Harry wants, but he’s sick of not knowing.

“When the thing happened,” Louis starts, staring at his palms. He can do this. He has to do this. “With Liam, I mean. And you-“

“I wanted to,” Harry says, voice quiet and slow as he stares down at his hands. “I was so fucking jealous.”

“You were jealous,” Louis repeats. He was not expecting that. The place where Harry’s arm meets his thigh seems even more pronounced now, but Louis doesn’t move. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“I shouldn’t have asked you like that, but I…” Harry trails off and brings his palm down to circle the spot just above Louis’ knee; he squeezes until his muscle jumps, and then rests his hand there.

“No, you weren’t very slick at all, were you?”

“Shut up, Louis, I’m serious,” Harry frowns, nudging his thigh. “I felt crazy that night.”

“Yeah, well.” His heart is doing somersaults. It’s not how he imagined this conversation to happen, if he let himself imagine it at all. “That was a crazy night.”

They’re silent for a moment, both thinking, Louis wondering a thousand thoughts that all start with what if. Harry clears his throat and gets Louis’ attention, and licks his lips when their eyes meet. Something feels close, within reach, and Louis can’t put his finger on what it is or how they got there, but he’s terrified. He clenches the muscle in his thigh, and Harry squeezes down on it.

“I need to shower,” he says.

Right. Yeah, he does. Harry had a long night and Louis is being selfish, hoping for something more to come out of the morning after a drunken, embarrassing life crisis. “Yeah, alright.”

Harry gets up and uses Louis’ legs to hold onto while he planks over him. For a moment he hovers, his long body stretched out over Louis’, and then he wobbles to his feet. The waistband of his grey briefs is tugged down, revealing an inch or two more of skin than is strictly necessary. Louis bites his lip and watches him go, and the second he leaves, he reaches under the blanket to palm down the altogether confusing hard-on he has just from two seconds of almost-contact with Harry.

He collects himself. He does not jerk off with the door open, but he seriously thinks about it. In the end, he decides he needs to brush the taste of morning out of his mouth so he can start his day, which will consist of nothing, hopefully.

The bathroom door is open, and Louis doesn’t bother to ask before he goes in and runs the water cold enough that it fucks up Harry’s shower temperature when he brushes his teeth. “Woops,” he says, without a trace of guilt. Harry pokes his head out and tries his best to scowl, winds up looking more like a frustrated toddler, and Louis laughs at him as he spits toothpaste from his mouth and then twists off the faucet.

“Let’s get Dunkin,” Louis says, throwing one last look over his shoulder. Harry thrusts his hand out from behind the curtain and gives him a thumbs up.

They layer up. Louis settles on two layers of sweats and a tanktop and a t-shirt and a sweater over that. Harry comes out of his room looking more suave and put together than he has any right to, considering his hangover and the fact that there’s snow on the ground. Louis is digging through the closet for a scarf when Harry comes up behind him and twists one around his neck, pulling him back against his chest as he tucks it into the front of Louis’ peacoat. “Bundle up, chump,” he murmurs, his breath against his ear.

“You’re not the boss of me,” Louis hums, spinning out of Harry’s grasp and flashing him a grin over his shoulder. “Come on, you’re buying me a bagel.”

It’s beautiful outside. The snow isn’t going to last longer than a day, and soon it’ll melt into ugly brown piles at the sides of the road, but right now it’s gorgeous and sparkling and quiet. The cold air is biting, and within a few minutes, Harry’s cheeks and nose and lips are bright pink, but he seems happy, his eyes decidedly alive and awake and all-there.

“Hey,” he says as they cross the street, “There’s my dumpster.”

“D’you want to take a picture in front of it, or something?” Louis starts to pull out his phone, and Harry kicks some snow at him without much effort.

They each get greasy bagel sandwiches and they each get a doughnut – Harry’s chocolate frosted, Louis’ cream filled, which leaves him with white powder all over him that Harry obsessively brushes off on their way out of the fluorescently lit dining area of Dunkin Donuts.

It’s a quiet morning, and  even though there are things weighing on Louis’ mind, he doesn’t want to talk about anything, really. It’s good enough to have Harry’s quiet company, Harry who never makes Louis talk when he doesn’t want to, and Harry who is Louis’ most favorite audience out of anyone when he does choose to speak up.

“Hang on,” he says, stopping on a street corner. “Boot lace is untied.”

Harry stops, like the sweet, gullible fool that he is, and stares up at a bird on a wire, which almost makes Louis feel bad about the handful of snow he balls up and throws at the small patch of bare skin at the base of Harry’s neck, but not really. It hits him and it explodes and Harry’s face is so priceless that even some stranger in a Ravens hoodie covers his mouth and lets out an, “Ooooh!” as he walks by.

“Wonderful,” Harry says, his expression calm. He blinks away the snow from his lashes and then bends down to scoop up as much a snow as possible in his bare hands, then pelts it messily, and after that it’s just a dirty mess of shoving snow down the backs of each others’ collars and calling each other the worst names they can think of. They tussle their way back to the apartment, out of breath and covered in snow, their hats askew and their cheeks pink by the time Louis holds out his hands in hopes for a truce. If there’s a loser, it’s definitely Harry.

“Fuck,” he breathes, bouncing from foot to foot in the stoop to their apartment. “Need some help, butterfingers?”

Louis’ fingers are too cold to feel the keys, and he’s dropped them now three times, which he still doesn’t think warrants being called butterfingers, but. Fine.

“Give me,” Harry says, and Louis huffs out, “No,” but Harry snatches his palms and holds them up to his lips so he can breathe hotly against his fingertips. Louis gives him his very worst look, but he can’t actually complain, because it’s working.

Harry grins and drawls, “Try now.”

“Don’t look so smug.” He gets the key in the lock on the first try.

Inside, they peel off layers of frozen clothing. There’s ice on the sleeves of their shirts, and Harry’s jeans are soaked through. They crowd into the bathroom with arms full of wet, freezing clothes and hang them over the side of the bathtub in some vague hope that they’ll dry at some point within the next day. Harry’s body is damp and cold to the touch when Louis brushes up against him on their way back into the living room, and it’s the closest kalgkla

“Is my sweater in your room?” Louis calls out, digging through his pile of clean-ish clothes on the chair in his room. “The red one?”

“Just come in here,” Harry says. “Wear one of mine, I don’t care.”

“But…the red…” But finding that red sweater isn’t going to happen in the next thirty seconds, but Louis swears to god hypothermia will happen in the next thirty seconds if he doesn’t warm up, so he shuffles into Harry’s room and stands, shoulders hunched, in front of him. “Well?”

Harry turns around, holding an old brown sweater in his hands, but the grin that spreads across his face is so sudden and fond that Louis is taken aback. “What?”

“You’re very cute.”

“No,” Louis protests, reaching for the sweater, “I’m very cold. Give me—“ But he’s cut off when Harry reaches for his wrist and pulls, hard, until their chests bump together, and then wraps his hand around Louis’ back to keep him there, biting his lip and looking right through him. “Just lay down with me.”

“Why would I want to do that?” Louis protests, but he’s already shuffling in the direction Harry’s pulling him, over toward the bed.

“Once upon a time you called me a human space heater,” he reminds him, drawing Louis even closer, nuzzling his cheek, nosing his jaw. “It’ll warm us up. Mutually beneficial, and stuff. People do it in movies all the time.”

“In movies,” Louis repeats, stupidly, just grasping at anything to keep from giving in. He’s about to launch into some distracting story about the time they watched Home Alone 2 and tried to recreate the booby traps to absolute failure, but Harry squeezes his ass, and then Louis caves in.

“Shit,” he whispers, dropping the sweater to the ground so he can tilt his neck back and let Harry touch his lips where he wants. It feels like surrender to close his eyes when Harry’s warm mouth ghosts across the line of his jaw, but Louis is tired of the battle. Harry must feel the resistance give way, because he cradles his hand more purposefully around the side of Louis’ neck and tips his mouth up with a finger on his chin, meeting his eyes.

“Ask me to stop,” he breathes, with absolutely no conviction, “And I will.” Louis’ breath catches and that’s it, he decides, that’s as long as he’s going to wait. He raises up on his toes and kisses him, catching Harry off guard. The memory of their last kiss comes flooding back to Louis when Harry moves his mouth against his, but it’s replaced immediately by this, by right now, by every breath Harry draws from him when he pulls him closer and by specific, almost calculated touches that make Louis’ head spin. He tries his best not to be frantic but it’s almost impossible when he’s overloaded with want, want, want, and with the feeling that this might not happen again, or that if he thinks about it too hard he’ll want to stop himself before he does too much. But with Harry’s hand pressed into his back and his other circling round the side of Louis’ throat, stroking soft and slow as his tongue fights to get past Louis’ teeth, he just lets him. The battle is over, he reminds himself, walking forward until they hit the edge of the bed. He’s done fighting.

Harry’s hands are so sure, practiced like he knows just where he wants to touch him, but also so frantic that he can’t seem to stay in any one place for longer than it a second. They’re both in boxers and the layer might as well be obsolete, the way Louis can feel the line of Harry’s cock against his own, the smallest amount of friction making him shiver. Harry pulls Louis down on top of him and knocks a knee between his legs, his hands on Louis’ hips to keep him steady as he inches back toward the headboard.

“You feel warm,” he says, marveling at him, touching over Louis’ arms and chest and hips and making him flush under the attention.

It’s amazing how much better Louis feels. Even a few kisses seem to have brought forth some unprecedented feeling of clarity, and this – this all makes sense, suddenly. He searches the darkest corners of his mind to find doubts, to find a thread for something to worry about, but each time he teases it out, Harry kisses him again, or he brushes his fingers through Louis’ hair, or he looks at him with such startling honesty that Louis forgets to breathe, forgets everything.

“That’s funny,” Louis murmurs, “Because I’m pretty sure I’m hypothermic.” He rocks his hips down against Harry’s and watches his face to see him react to it. Harry raises an eyebrow and then grabs his ass to guide him down even harder against him. His grip is tight enough to leave marks, and Louis wants him to. “Do that again,” he whispers, and Harry grins, holds him tighter and squeezes, making Louis’ eyes roll back in his head as he falls forward, their foreheads pressed together.

“I’ve been wanting this,” Harry says, and how he can just…admit things like that, Louis will never understand. “You.”

“Yeah?” He breathes, circling his hips to grind down on Harry’s cock, which is obscenely hard and trapped tight underneath his briefs, making Louis itch to touch, to get it out.

“I’d say, yeah, like…everyday, at least. Once a day. Usually more. Fucking distracting, honestly,” Harry murmurs, rolling down the waistband of Louis’ briefs until the head of his cock is poking up from the front. “Can I…?”

And Louis nods, sitting up to let Harry pull them down the rest of the way. Once a day, usually more. The words roll around in his head, making his chest swell with the thought that he might be telling the truth, that there’s a chance he’s not just saying it to appease him.

Louis might be self-conscious at how hard he is if Harry was any less so. The first time he circles a hand around him, Louis has to shut his eyes and bite his lip until it hurts so that he can keep himself together. He’s leaking, though, he can feel it, and Harry brushes his thumb over the head of his dick, then brings it up to his mouth, licking. “Kiss me,” he says, and Louis does, while Harry strokes him tight in his palm and makes a handjob feel like the hottest thing that’s ever happened to him.

“Roll over?” He prompts after a minute, and it’s more of a question, but he seems to know the answer will be yes, because he flips Louis onto his back and kisses the inside of his knee before he drapes it over his broad shoulders and looks up at him. “The thing about your thighs,” he murmurs, kissing the inside of one of them, working his way up. “Is that they’re fucking amazing, is the thing.” His words are almost lost, muffled against the skin of Louis’ thighs, making him shiver and shake each time he bites and kisses over the same spot and then bites again, harder, until Louis’ skin is stinging and sensitive, and just when he thinks he can’t take it, Harry moves onto another spot, another side, taking his time so painfully that Louis’ cock is twitching and untouched and too-ready by the time Harry puts his mouth on it. He sinks down, too deep for the first go, and makes Louis cry out and clutch his hair.

“Holy shit, Harry, you’re trying to—“

“Want to make you come, yes,” he mumbles, and Louis can hear the grin in his voice, hates him a little for it, but the way he pinches and touches over the kiss-bite marks on his thighs makes him feel oddly cared-for and attended to and it’s Harry, he reminds himself, Harry who can be smug and has slept with half the city, but who is, above all, just Harry. His Harry.

Somehow, his familiarity doesn’t make him any less gorgeous. Louis has never seen him like this, his back undulating as he rolls his hips down onto the bed and gasps for air around Louis’ cock before coming back up and taking a breath. He strokes him slow, eyes wide as he looks up to meet his gaze, his lips shiny red and practically dripping wet.

“Fuck,” Louis gets out, twisting Harry’s hair in his fingers and giving it a tug, to which Harry smirks and licks his lips and gets back to work with a newfound purpose which is, apparently, to make Louis actually explode, because he presses both of his thighs down with his hands and works himself up to a rhythm Louis can’t keep up with, and his orgasm hits him so suddenly he cries out, embarrassed and over-stimulated, spilling out into Harry’s mouth and onto his lips when he has to pull off toward the end.

“Jesus – holy shit, Harry, fuck, fuck, fuck—“ He whispers, a series of words that mean almost nothing as Harry licks over his spent cock one more time, licking softly where he’s sensitive, getting every last drop and sucking a breath between his teeth as he crawls back up toward Louis.

“You’re good,” Harry says, voice raw and so pleased Louis doesn’t know what to do with himself or with that decidedly undeserved compliment. They kiss, filthy and slow, and Harry’s mouth just fits him, it’s perfect, and he practically melts under it. He’s dizzied by it all, even just the knowledge that it happened in the first place. It takes him a second to recover, a moment for Harry to kiss him back down before Louis is reaching for Harry’s hip and giving him a squeeze.

“Back up,” he says, pressing Harry up until he can crawl on top of him.

“Lou, you don’t—like, you don’t need to, um, I just wanted—“

Louis rolls his eyes, because his hand’s around Harry’s dick, hot and heavy in his hand and hard enough that it’s gone nearly purple at the head. There’s no way he’s getting out of it, and Louis thinks idly that he could make him fall apart if he wanted to, but in the interest of giving back what he got, he just wants to see him come, more than anything. He’s big, which Louis knew, but the weight of it and the way Harry positions himself to give Louis a good angle, like he knows, is stupidly, ridiculously hot.

“Shut up,” he says belatedly, sucking a kiss to the side of Harry’s neck, and then another down his sternum, right over a mess of tattoos that Louis can’t keep track of. He gives him a bite on the hipbone, for good measure, teeth scraping rough until Harry’s hips jerk up and his cock bumps against Louis’ chin. It hits him, then, how surreal this feels, and even though he’s already come he still feels sort of feverish and hysterical that it’s actually happening. He strokes Harry idly, dazed as he looks up at his body, stretched taut and buzzing for Louis only.

“Hey,” Harry murmurs, and Louis snaps his eyes up to look at him, grinning. “Don’t rush me,” he says, covering up for being caught staring. He looks down at Harry’s dick, which actually makes his hand look small, and when Harry lifts his hips so that Louis can feel the length of him slide slow through his loose fist, he just, fuck, fine, Harry wins.

None of it is particularly calculated, but Louis gets him wet, first, lowers his mouth as low as he can and makes up for the difference with his palm. Harry’s doing his best to control himself, trying not to buck up into Louis’ waiting mouth, but when he does, once, Louis’ eyes roll back in his head and he hums around him, popping his mouth off so he can swallow spit and precome down with a gulp.

“Christ,” Harry whispers, and Louis looks at him as he starts pumping and licking again, giving him tight, fast strokes. It’s only when he lets his thumb brush under his balls that Harry’s body jerks and twitches and it’s so hot that he does it again, and it’s not much more than a hint at what he could be doing when his fingers so much as graze his hole, but it must be too much for Harry, because he comes hard, groaning loud when it hits him. Louis swallows as much as he can and lets the rest hit his chin, and Harry reaches down and smears it across with the head of his dick, his lips parted as he watches and then sighs, spent, dropping his head back down against the pillow and pulling Louis’ hair to beckon him.

The first thing he thinks, seeing his blissed-out face in the afterglow of his orgasm, is this is how it should be. He should be the one to make him look like that, he thinks, and no one else; no one else deserves it.

Louis swipes his fingers across his chin and sucks them into his mouth, and Harry moans into a kiss, licks into his mouth with fervor as he holds his face in both hands. They start laughing, inexplicably; Louis isn’t sure who started it or why, but it’s just one final release of energy. Harry wraps both arms around Louis’ shoulders and they shiver closer together, smiling into a kiss that lingers for longer than is strictly necessary, like they’re exploring without desperation, now, without any rush whatsoever. It’s lovely.

“Can’t stop kissing you,” Harry says, and he sounds in disbelief. Louis’ lips are numb from it, and he nods, already going in for one more so he can speak up against Harry’s lush, lush mouth.

“Sorry,” he mumbles. “You’re gonna have to in about…” He peeks his head up to look at the time; he’s working a short closing shift, and he’s dreading it. “Twenty minutes.”

Harry whines and holds him tighter, and Louis hides the widest grin he’s ever worn against Harry’s arm because he’s never felt so wanted before without a single word spoken. “Can’t you just…not?”

“What would my excuse be?”

A pause; then, “Gout.”

Louis snorts. “Do you even know what gout is?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Harry whines, pressing a series of kisses to Louis’ jaw, down his neck, frantic and eager and so sweet that Louis can’t take it, can’t even believe it. “You have it. You have gout. It’s very sad.”

And Louis doesn’t want to go, either, and not only because he’s warm and Harry’s holding him and because he could fall asleep in a matter of seconds. He’s afraid, too; scared that when he leaves the apartment, Harry will call up someone in his phone, declare himself cured, and get back to doing what he always does.

“Give me a kiss,” Louis says, trying not to sound resigned. Harry kisses him.

“Okay?”

“Yes,” Louis says, “You cured my gout.” He presses himself up off the bed, disentangling from Harry and ignoring his repeated protests before he can get roped into staying any longer.

Harry walks him to the door once Louis is dressed and bundled and ready to go. It’s a short shift – only three hours and he’ll be home again, and he tries to memorize the way Harry’s face looks when he stares down at him. He put on his briefs again, but he’s still mostly naked, a red mark on his chest that Louis placed there. He reaches out to touch it, and Harry smiles.

“When will you be home?”

“Eight,” Louis answers, tugging down his beanie. He doesn’t ask, will you still be here? But it’s all he can think.

“Okay,” Harry nods, and holds onto Louis’ arm so he can drag him close enough to kiss again and, fuck, Louis is breathless, and he knows Harry can sense it when he pulls back. “See you then.”

“Yeah,” Louis breathes, backing up out of the door. “See you.”

--

Louis spends the first two hours convincing himself that Harry is currently fucking Anthony, or Carrie, or Kaley, or anyone but him. He’s being irrational. He can admit that to himself.

He’s so involved in the latte he’s making that he doesn’t hear his name being called the first three times it’s shouted from behind the counter, and when he turns around on the fourth and loudest, he sees Harry there with a scarf coiled around his neck and the shearling collar of his leather jacket popped up.

“What are you doing?”

“Hi,” Harry laughs, and waves him over. “Came to pick you up.”

“I’m not finished,” Louis says, narrowing his eyebrows, and Harry just shrugs, says, “I wanted to wait for you.”

“You can head out early,” he hears, and turns around to see Edgar looking pointedly between them. “Hi Harry.”

“Hi Edgar,” Harry says, too jovial, and Louis scratches the side of his neck.

“Seriously,” says Edgar, fighting back a smile. “Go ahead.”

On another night, Louis would’ve just stuck around for the extra hours, but his hands are practically itching to get on Harry again, and most importantly Harry is here, he’s in front of him when Louis swore he was balls deep in someone else, which was completely unfounded, but still—he’s here.

He holds open the door for him on the way out, and Louis still hasn’t said a word.

“Awfully quiet,” Harry comments, bumping his shoulder. It’s dark, but they’re under a streetlight on the corner, and Harry stops, so Louis does, too. “What’s up?”

“I don’t really want to tell you,” Louis mumbles, and Harry just grins wide, because he thinks he’s kidding. “No, I’m really just—it’s embarrassing.”

“Well,” Harry shrugs, “Tell me anyway, please?”

Louis sighs. He thinks back to before, in Harry’s room, when he thought – no more fighting. He believed it, then, just as he believed no one else deserved Harry. Those are easy thoughts to remember, but it doesn’t make speaking up any easier.

“I thought you’d be…like, I convinced myself you would have someone over when I got home.”

At that, Harry backs up until he hits the building they’re standing in front of, and seems genuinely perplexed. “What?”

“I don’t know, I just—I assumed, like, that was it.” Louis feels himself start to panic. “Today was it.”

“Wait, you…wait, what?”

“Is it really that hard to understand?” Louis throws his arms out to the side, frustrated and humiliated. “I thought it would be how it always is with you and other people.”

“But you’re not other people, Louis. And I know I said – like, before, with Liam, or whatever, I know what I said, but I’m so fucking sick of trying to distract myself with other people when I’m living with you and you’re the only person I can actually see myself with.”

Louis opens his mouth and looks down at the ground, just to make sure something’s still real, because whatever Harry’s saying is—it doesn’t feel real.

“And,” Harry continues, and surely this is the most words he’s ever said in a row at once, some kind of record for him, “It doesn’t need to be, like, now, or anything, just, at some point, that’s what I want.” Harry’s breath is puffing out between his lips, making him look more ethereal, his nose growing redder and colder the longer they stand outside. “You mean a lot to me, and I don’t think I want to bother with anyone else. Unless—“

“No,” Louis stops him, shaking his head.  He knows he should smile or feel happy or feel anything other than floored, but he’s so stunned that he—he needs a minute. “No, I want it, too. I mean, I want it to be me. But,” and this is the part that scares him, the truth-telling part, “I don’t want to be like Anthony, you know? I’m not doing that. You mean more to me than that.”

It’s so easy to say these things now that he’s started. Harry and Louis talk about everything except for this, and now that they’ve started, Louis can’t bring himself to be afraid. It’s just Harry, after all, and he has everything to gain by being honest with him.

But they’ll have to talk about it later, he thinks. They’ll have to, because Harry’s grin is spreading slowly across his features, and he’s reaching in to draw Louis in close to his chest.

“I wasted so much time,” Harry mumbles, his lips pressed against Louis’ temple. Louis smiles, but it’s hidden against Harry’s scarf, and it’s small and a little sad; because it is sad, thinking about where they could be if they’d acted sooner. Louis won’t soon get over seeing people trample in and out of their apartment, but this is something.

He looks up at Harry. “Even if it’s not me,” Louis says, “You still deserve better.”

The corner of Harry’s mouth turns up in a crooked grin that makes Louis’ heart turn over. “It’s you,” he whispers, leaning in to kiss him once. “And I don’t know if I deserve it, but I want you.”

They kiss there on the corner, eyes squeezed tight on an icy sidewalk and a freezing wind picking up around them. The warmest place in Baltimore is the half-centimeter right between his and Harry’s lips when they both pull back to catch their breath, and that’s when Louis realizes that the wait was worth it all; that being in love with his best friend is the furthest thing from a problem. It is, and always has been, a gift.