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the forecast is
we kiss goodbye and never hello
all kisses are then parting kisses
- saul williams

 

*

 

Louis reads the New York Times book review on the tube sometimes. He'll never read the books being reviewed, but he always likes to read about them. He always likes to understand, in some small way, the effect something like a piece of fiction can have on even the most cynical.

There was one that stuck with him, years later – a famous American author wrote a memoir, ostensibly about her husband's sudden, catastrophic death, but it was really about their marriage, their life together, how wonderful it was even when it wasn't wonderful, how memories make the bittersweet more sweet with just a hint of the sting. How lives together create fullness, create an entity that makes loss more stark.

The review said essentially that, too, something about how – Louis remembers this in a paraphrase, it was ages ago – her story of loss wove a portrait describing just how much she had lost.

Mourning has become a private, westernised thing. Mourners are congratulated on how well they're coping, how their pain isn't noticeable. Those who have lost are supposed to act as though they haven't, and that accomplishment is a source of pride, in society's eyes.

And Louis is doing fine, just fine, because Louis is not a writer. Louis cannot fill two hundred pages with elegant prose, detailing his loss in a way that comes across beautiful, heartrending. What Louis lost has moved into a flat a short walk away, and what Louis has lost doesn't – shouldn't – compare to forty years of marriage, ended suddenly with a heart attack at the dinner table. This is what Louis reminds himself.

Louis could fill sixteen volume sets with screams, sure, but that's not the western way. Society doesn't like that.

So Louis is just fine.

 

*

 

The first time it happens, it's March 22nd. A month and three days later. It's a book, a book Louis would never read, normally, because Louis has to be coaxed into reading books at the best of times and he definitely judges books by their covers and this book is old, old, old in an ugly way. An ugly old paperback with a shitty cheap reprint cover and yellowed pages.

But it's not Louis's book and there's only one other option, so Louis reads it.

There's an old chair in the open living room-slash-dining room-slash-kitchen, and it's from university, back when they barely had enough money to have a tin of beans for tea, much less furniture. Harry had found it outside an old block of flats down the road from the old block of flats they were living in and he'd gotten Liam's help lugging it back to their shitty one room flat. He'd called Louis from the kerb, and he'd said, I've found a chair, it's great, it'll go perfect with our decor, and Louis had laughed, looking up from his textbooks for the first time in what seemed like years, and said, Darling, if it doesn't match the drapes or the Italian tiling, there will be hell to pay.

It's Louis's favourite place to sit, all these years later. He thinks he can still smell the dirty Manchester streets, the chill of that winter, the chill of all the winters, where one or the other or both curled up on this chair and watched shitty panel shows until the leaking faucets and the rattling windows became a hazy, subconscious blur, and they could stumble off to sleep.

Louis remembers in one flat, Harry tied a string around the faucet, so the drip would gracefully slide down into the drain, and they could sleep.

Now this old armchair has seen more than Louis is totally comfortable with, so he covers it with throw blankets and decorative pillows and he laughs at it, it's ugliness, it's ill-fit in their – his – flat. It's still Louis's favourite place to sit, all these years later.

He's got the shitty paperback resting on his thigh and his eyes drop closed for a moment. The heating is up and he's got fat wool socks on but there's a chill wormed deep in his chest. Walking pneumonia, he tells everyone.

He opens the cracked spine. The book smells like old dust and so many other people's homes.

Pages later, a line: What I mean is, I love winter, and when you really love something, then it loves you back, in whatever way it has to love.

It's underlined in a spidery scrawl. Louis sits up a bit, snaps out of the daze he sunk in – he really doesn't read anymore – and he blinks. Stares at the words. There's a note in the margin. he'll get there.

Louis licks his lips, dog-ears the page, and keeps reading.

There are more lines, shakily underlined, and Louis feels his throat closing, because he knows exactly when Harry read this book last. He knows exactly why he found this book pushed under the sofa. He knows exactly why Harry was reading this on the sofa instead of their bed.

Sarcasm... the protest of those who are weak.

There's no harm in taking aim, even if the target was a dream.

Louis dog-ears them all, stands up shakily, pours himself a neat scotch, and goes to bed. He has work tomorrow. There's no time. There's never been enough time.

 

*

 

"Mr. Tomlinson?" Nicola says, hesitant, from his doorway.

Louis looks up from the file he's been halfheartedly marking over for the past two hours. His eyes are gritty. Not enough sleep, too much walking pneumonia, all the usual excuses. He smiles, almost, raises an eyebrow.

"A call for you on line two," she says.

Louis takes a deep breath, says, "Anyone I need to be wary of?" Nicola has this irritating habit of never alerting him of who's actually on the line, and it's backed him into many woefully under-prepared corners.

She shakes her head. "Mr. Malik." She backs out of the room, closing the door with a quiet click.

Louis picks up the phone, hits the blinking red button, and says, "I'm a busy man, mate." He's wary anyway, despite Nicola's throwaway assurance.

There's a scoff across the airwaves. "Yeah, we've all got the fuckin' memo, Lou. You're coming out tonight."

Louis rolls his eyes. "Details. I need to make an informed decision."

"Oh, fuck off," Zayn says. "Who the fuck are you, an informed decision. Once you take the stick out of your fuckin' arse, you might even remember how much fun you used to be."

"Yeah," Louis says absently, attention drifting back to the case in front of him. "I've heard that before."

Zayn sighs. "Come on, Lou, we all feel like we haven't seen you in weeks. Come out with us. It won't be mad, I promise. Just a handful of us and some pints and some footie. It's a European week."

Closing his eyes momentarily, Louis takes in a long breath. "I'm a divorce lawyer, Zayner. I know how these things go."

Zayn's voice becomes steely, cold. "Too fuckin' bad I ain't ever been divorced, then, mate. I'm not playing by your shitty rules. None of us are. You are coming out with us. We'll be at the Counting House at eight. Don't do this."

"Who's we?" Louis asks, and it comes out timid.

"All of us," Zayn responds after a moment, but it's softer. "Lou, he said he's alright with it. He said you guys were gonna be friends. Don't disappear. It'll break his heart."

Louis wants to laugh, loudly and insanely. Wants to laugh as he shoves his head into an oven. Break his heart, the fucking nerve. How dare he, how dare Zayn, how dare they all throw this guilt at him.

He swallows. "Yeah, fine. I'll see you tonight." He hangs up without saying goodbye.

It's one thirty in the afternoon. He has six and a half hours to bury himself in work.

 

*

 

The Counting House is familiar, an old place on Cornhill by Niall and Cher's flat. They go there all the time, or they did. Well, Louis did. With them. Before.

But it's not really a case of before and after, is it? Four months since the promotion to partner, three months since the row in front of his mother, two months since Harry started sleeping on the sofa, one month since Harry decided they should be friends. A month. Louis has had a month to cope with his entire life being suddenly square-rooted.

He ducks into an old doorway a block down from the pub. Lighting a clandestine cigarette, he breathes in, out, deeply. Hopes it sinks into the suit he didn't have a chance to change out of. Hope it sinks into his skin, his hair. Hopes – and hates himself for hoping – that Harry will notice. Harry hates cigarettes. Harry used to hide those fucking How To Quit! How To Save Your Life! pamphlets around Zayn and Perrie's flat, until Perrie took him aside and told him as kindly as possible to mind his own fucking business.

Louis always liked Perrie.

It's seven minutes after eight. He has about eight more minutes until he gets a phone call from someone, asking him where he is, threatening him, begging him. He scrolls through twitter, the last resort. Harry didn't unfollow Louis, after, so Louis didn't unfollow Harry. He didn't want to be that guy. He just doesn't check it anymore. Doesn't want to see Harry's fabulous new life, flatting with Liam, being single and young for the first time in eight years. Doesn't want Harry to know how pathetic Louis is. Doesn't want Harry to glean any semblance of knowledge that the past month of his life has involved microwaved dinners – when he remembers, work, and sleep. Doesn't want Harry to know the only person he's seen since is Greg, because Greg is the only person who is Louis's friend. The only person Louis ever kept separate from LouisandHarry.

@zaynmalik: lads night! buckle up aha @Harry_Styles @ljPAYNE @niallhoran @Louis_Tomlinson

Right. Okay.

He can do this.

He drops the cigarette butt on the sidewalk, glancing around furtively as if his mum will pop out and yell at him for littering, and straightens up. He fixes his hair in a shop window, and strides through the door.

He can fucking do this.

Liam's talking when Louis finds their table with his eyes. He's still standing at the door, unsure. There are four chairs around their table, and Louis knows that's not a problem, fuck, all he has to do is grab another one and scoot it up to the head, but. It's that fucking symbolism. He shouldn't be here. There's no room for him here. Liam and Harry are sitting next to each other, backs to the door, and Niall's cheeks are already red from laughter and the empty pint glasses. Zayn's smiling, eyes half-moons above his cheeks.

Harry's wearing a light blue button up that Louis bought him six months ago.

He's seconds away from turning around, from texting Zayn to say he doesn't feel up to it, too burnt out from the working week. He's seconds away, but Niall sees him.

"OI! LOUIS!" comes the shout, and then all four faces are turned his way. Liam's eyes light up, Zayn's face relaxes into approval, Niall's already up and barreling toward him, arms open. Harry's face blanks out, briefly, before settling into a tight smile. Niall wraps Louis up into a hug before Louis can think about anything else.

"So fuckin' glad to see you, mate," Niall bellows into Louis's ear, arms around his shoulders, smile pressed into Louis's cheek. "Missed you, don't ever disappear like that again."

Louis hugs him back, tighter than he means to, hopes Niall's already too pissed to notice. "Missed you too, Nialler," he whispers.

Niall slaps him on the back a few times before pulling away. He grabs Louis by the cheeks – "Let me look at you!" – and shakes him by the shoulders. "So fuckin' good to see you," he says, quieter now, smile smaller.

Louis ducks his head, licks his lips, and nods. "Lemme get a pint and I'll join you guys. Grab me a chair, yeah?"

When he gets back to the table, the seating plan shifted. Zayn pats the open seat next to him, across from Liam, and Niall's on the end, next to Louis's seat. It's quiet when he sits down. He takes a long drink. This is what he was fucking worried about, wasn't it? Part of it, at least. No one knows what to say to him; no one knows what to say to him and Harry.

"So," he says, smiling wryly at the table. "How are you guys?" He does not look at Harry.

Niall jumps in. "My fuckin' boss, mate, I tell you what, it's like he has no concept of what's fucking possible for humans to do, right, like, he'll tell me I need to have a report in by Friday, which is fine, right, but then two hours later, he'll come in and ask me how it's coming, how far I am, right? And let me tell you what, mate, it's eleven in the morning on a Monday. How far do you fuckin' think I am, right?" He shakes his head and takes a long pull of his beer. "Fuckin' bosses."

Louis laughs a little. "Oi, I'm a boss."

Niall rolls his eyes. "Yeah, well, I'd thank you to remember the little people from up on your pedestal."

Liam laughs. "What've you been up to, Lou? Haven't seen you in ages," he says.

Louis doesn't look at Harry. He says, "Oh, you know. Been working a lot. It's been a busy month at the firm. Lots of post-holiday divorces." He does not look at Harry.

The table goes quiet, briefly, until Zayn says, "Hey, Lou, you'll never guess who I saw the other day."

Louis turns to him, eyebrows raised.

"Ed fuckin' Sheeran!" Zayn says. "He was just outside the shop last week and I was like, shit, I know that fuckin' ginger, don't I? And I went outside to say hey, and we ended up chillin' for a few hours. Good bloke, that one. He's living in Hammersmith now, says London's too expensive, but he'd love to grab a few pints. Almost invited him along tonight, but figured, y'know, next time."

Louis listens quietly and draws a sun in the condensation of his pintglass. "Ed was a good laugh," he says. "What's he up to? Still playing music?"

Ed lived on Harry and Louis's couch for two months in their first flat in London. He was a trainwreck to live with and their flat smelled of weed for ages, but he made up for it with his enormous personality and even bigger heart. He was a good friend, Louis remembers. He always wished he and Harry kept in better touch with him.

"Yeah," Harry says. "Yeah, still playing music. Still floating around. You know Ed." It's the first thing Harry's said since Louis arrived.

Maybe Harry did keep in touch with Ed.

Louis looks over at Harry. "Good," he says. His mouth is dry and his muscles are tight, as if they're not talking about some guy they used to know in another life. "Good to hear. He's talented."

Harry nods, and the table's quiet again.

Liam breaks it, finally, by saying, "You wanna know what I wanna know, lads? Maybe you can help me with this – I wanna know why, whenever I take a girl home, I never hear from them again. I mean, once in awhile, I'm fine with that, but like, every bleeding time? It's making me think I'm bad in bed, or summat."

Zayn and Niall burst into laughter, and Niall just says, "Maybe you are, mate."

They banter for awhile, and Louis drains his pint, excusing himself quietly. He gets to the loo and splashes some water on his face, staring at himself in the mirror. He looks thinner, maybe, and that's not really something he's wont to complain about, but he also thinks he looks older. His eyes are sunken and he's got a swipe of purple under each of them. His lips are chapped. His hair is dull.

He looks like hell, really.

The door opens behind him, and Louis glances back in the mirror.

Harry's standing there, hands in his pockets, looking through the mirror into his eyes.

"Hi," Harry says.

Louis glances away, down at his hands, to shut off the water. "Hey," he says back.

They met in a bathroom. Louis's last year of Upper Sixth. Louis was escaping general studies and Harry was taking a break during a biology test. Harry had come up to him at the sink where he was examining his hair in the mirror and said, casually, Do you know where the lobsters keep their teeth?

In their stomach, apparently. Louis hadn't known that.

Harry's walked up next to Louis, now. He leans his hip against the sink. "I, um. I'm glad you came out tonight," he says. "I've missed you."

Louis swallows, looking up at Harry's face. His eyes are sad, but his face is calm. He doesn't look like hell; he's never looked like hell. His hair is clean, shiny, falling over his forehead. His eyes are bright, rested. He looks good. He always looks good.

Louis is so, so, so in love with him.

"Yeah, well," Louis starts. "I've, um–"

"–Been busy, I know," Harry finishes. "I've heard." The sharpness of the very end is back and Louis can't do this tonight, again, ever.

He gave up so much when Harry left, and the only part he doesn't miss, doesn't ache to have back, is Harry's constant disappointment.

"Yeah," Louis says. "I should go. It's late." He turns to grab a paper towel. He can still feel Harry's eyes on him.

"It's nine thirty."

Louis turns around, fixes a smile on his face, tilts his head to the side, and looks up at Harry through his eyelashes. "I'm sure you kids will find something to do once granddad's gone home," he says.

Harry's expression tightens, falls, and his hands go back into the pockets of his jeans. Louis's eyes follow his hands, and those are the jeans with the weak seam on the inner left thigh. They're soft, though, and they stretch perfectly, and Harry's loved them for three years. He got them on sale at AllSaints and refuses to give them up, because on sale at AllSaints means fuck-all to the working class. On one Boxing Day up at Louis's mum's house, Harry and Lottie were wrestling for the remote, because Harry wanted to watch the football and Lottie wanted to watch who the fuck knows what, and the seam on the inner left thigh split open.

Louis's mum stitched them back up, rolling her eyes at Harry standing sheepishly in his pants, and she'd said, I'll never understand you kids and your too-small clothing. In my day, we kept things a surprise. Louis had needed to leave the room, he was laughing so hard.

"We want you here," Harry says, and Louis snaps back to the here, the now. "I want you here. I miss you so much sometimes, it's like–"

Louis cuts him off. "I'll come out more. I will. Tell Zayn to text me, or whatever."

Harry's still for a moment, before nodding. Louis nods back and walks to the door. He pauses with his hand on the latch. "I found a book of yours," he says, speaking to the floor. "A Separate Peace. I'll, um. I'll drop it by once I'm done."

There's a small sigh from behind him. "Okay," Harry says, almost a whisper. "See you."

Louis doesn't look back. He walks out back towards their table with his head high, his chin up. He stops and smiles down at the lads and says, "I've missed you guys a lot. I've got to head out now, but I promise I'll see you more."

They protest, they beg him to stay, and Louis laughs it off, shaking his head, citing early mornings, work, walking pneumonia, lack of sleep, he's an old man. "I'll see you soon," he promises, as he slides on his jacket and waves goodbye.

Harry's still in the loo when Louis leaves. Good, he thinks. He doesn't need another goodbye.

 

*

 

Another underlined line.

I began to know that each morning reasserted the problems of the night before, that sleep suspended all but changed nothing, that you couldn't make yourself over between dawn and dusk.

The problems started with Louis's promotion, which at first didn't overly concern him. He didn't have many constants in his life, but from the time he was twenty, he'd had Harry in his bed and everything seemed a little less painful. He was creeping up on twenty-eight when the promotion came, and it was a dream, almost. A salary over a wage; a salary that could keep them in their spacious flat, give them enough to squirrel away for a house in the future, let them relax a little. Louis saw it as such a blessing, saw it as so lucky. He'd been working so hard at this firm for years, putting so much time, extra time, overtime, into his job, and it had paid off. He'd come home, already drunk, falling into Harry, talking over himself with the good news.

Harry had been happy for him, for them, at first. It'd been fine, great, and when Louis's first paycheque came, he'd bought a bottle of Bollinger's and sucked it from the dips of Harry's hips, before spreading himself out on their bed and letting Harry open him up with his tongue.

And then the more demanding hours came into play – the early mornings, the late nights, the weekends. Louis was tired, snappish, overworked. Louis lost sight of his life outside of his fucking job. Louis lost sight of Harry.

And Harry noticed.

The fighting began the last week of November, Louis thinks. Small stuff, really. Louis missing Niall and Cher's party. Louis missing pub crawls. Then not-so-small stuff. Louis missing Harry's studio opening. Louis missing dinner when Gemma was in town. Louis forgetting to buy a birthday present for Gemma's two year old daughter. Louis coming home late the night they were meant to drive up to Holmes Chapel for an early Christmas dinner.

They held on. Well, Harry held on. For two more months, Louis knows Harry was holding on as tightly as he could to something silken, twisting, intangible.

And Louis can't blame Harry for letting go. He can't blame Harry for wanting something more, something they used to have. He can't blame Harry for wanting a boyfriend, not a salary. He knows Harry loves him, still, will always love him. Louis has to tell himself this, has to tell himself Harry loves the Louis who got sacked from his M&S job for bunking off early the day Harry passed his drive test. Harry loves the Louis who'd skip class because he wasn't done sucking Harry off.

Harry loves Louis, Louis knows. He doesn't love who Louis has become.

Everything has to evolve or else it perishes, the next underlined phrase.

 

*

 

Louis has Saturday and Sunday off. It's borderline unheard of, the past few months. He floats out of the office on Friday, waving a cursory goodbye to Nicola, and stops in the local for a drink. He orders a Bloody Mary and pulls out the battered old paperback he's rarely let go of since he discovered it. He has four pages left.

Two pages left.

One page left.

Half a page left, and a body slides onto the stool next to him. Louis doesn't look up, but can tell from proximity that it's a man, he's tall, and he's ordering a whiskey sour.

Louis sticks his finger on his page and looks up with a smile. "Greg fuckin' James," he says.

Greg grins at him, throws an arm around his shoulders. "Louis fuckin' Tomlinson, speak of the bloody devil. Just telling my coworker about your work on the Richardson case, yeah? You've got a quick brain, my friend, hope I'm never on the wrong side of it."

Louis laughs, shakes his head. "How've you been? Meant to give you a text last week, but time gets away from me, you know."

"I know, mate, believe me. I've been good! Taken every free moment I can to try to find someone to sleep with me. This bloody town, I swear. How are you, though? You're not lookin' too hot." Greg's peering at him, eyebrows drawn together. "Drink more," he advises.

Louis rolls his eyes. "Cheers."

Laughing, Greg says, "You know what I mean. What are you reading? Fuck, look at you, all intellectual. I'm lucky if I fuckin' remember to bring the paper in."

"Ah." Louis grimaces, flips the book over. "It's um. One of Harry's that he, uh. Left at the flat. He likes, you know. Annotating." He sounds pathetic, even to his own ears. Fuck.

Greg's face softens immediately, and he says, quieter, "Oh, Lou."

Louis waves him off, dredging up a sardonic smile from somewhere. "It's stupid, you know. I'm fine."

"Yeah," Greg says. "Also, you know, it's fine if you're not. You were with him, what, ten years?"

Louis shrugs, doesn't bother to correct him. It feels like ten years. It feels like his whole bloody life. He doesn't know how to be single. He doesn't feel single.

He wonders if Harry feels single. He wonders if Harry's out shagging girls, boys, both at the same time. He wonders if Harry regrets spending his entire life, from the moment he was legal until he was twenty-six, shagging the same person.

Louis blinks himself back to Greg, who's still looking at him with the soft edge of pity. "I'm fine," he reaffirms. "Totally fine. My job's, y'know, my boyfriend. Or whatever."

"Sure," Greg says lightly. "Well, if you ever need a distraction or a night out or anything, you know my number."

Louis clinks his glass with Greg's, nodding. "I gotta finish this book and drop it off at Harry's. Wanna buy me another drink?"

Greg laughs. "Shit, babe, I'll buy you as many as you need."

It ends with one more underlining: emerge from a protective cloud of vagueness only to meet it, the horror, face to face, just as he had always feared, and so give up the struggle absolutely.

Louis closes the book, finishes his drink, and slides off the stool. He gives Greg a hug and steels himself as if for war; a war he no longer has any energy for.

 

*

 

Liam's flat is close to Louis's. Or, Liam and Harry's flat, as it is now. It's a fifteen minute walk, close enough for a few drinks, but far enough that they don't go to the same Sainsbury's. Convenient, considering, Louis thinks.

The fourth floor address in a building with no lift gives Louis's thighs a strain and his brain enough time to work itself into overdrive. He's clutching the shitty paperback, with the slopping penciled in 25p on the endpaper from Harry's favourite bookshop off the high street.

Harry would not miss this book. Harry probably did not notice he'd left it. There is no reason for Louis to go out of his way to return it like this.

There's no logical, objective reason for Louis to being doing this, except for how Louis misses Harry so much his chest feels caved in and his muscles feel like sand. Louis spends so much of his day being objective, logical, that his need to see Harry makes his hands shake.

He knocks on the door with a shaking fist and tries to control his breathing. He stopped at home, first, so the Louis who's knocking on Harry's new door isn't the Louis that Harry isn't in love with. The Louis knocking on Harry's door is in an old jumper and soft jeans, worn Vans, and wrapped in a shawl of vulnerability.

The door opens and the Harry Louis will never not love is standing there, eyes wide. "Lou," he says.

"Hi," Louis says back. "Hi."

Harry blinks for a moment and steps back, opening the door wider. "Come in."

The telly is on and there's a blanket on the couch, a cup of tea on the coffee table, a book flipped over next to it, holding Harry's place. "Am I interrupting anything?" he asks.

Harry gives him a wan grin. "No, just having a quiet night. Come in. 8 Out Of 10 Cats just started."

Louis nods and slips his shoes off. He follows Harry to the couch and curls on the other side, tucking his legs underneath him. Harry turns the volume down, tilting his head toward Louis. "What's up, Lou?" His eyes drift down to the paperback Louis is clutching in both his hands.

"Oh," Louis says. "I, um. This is yours. I read it before giving it back to you, sorry, um. For the delay."

Harrys face softens into something almost like sadness. "You could have kept it."

Louis shrugs. "It's yours. I thought you'd want it back. If you don't, um, I can go. Sorry for just dropping by." He laughs a little. "I just–"

"It's fine. I'm glad you did," Harry says. "Lou."

Louis looks at him.

"I'm glad you did," Harry says again, more forcefully.

Louis nods, blinks, hands him the book. "I read it," Louis says, almost desperately. He wants to tell Harry he read it and he understood; he understood the messages Harry left him in the margins, the underlines, the subtext. He wants to tell Harry he felt the same as Gene, he felt like he let them fall out of the tree, breaking apart, fading away. He wants to tell Harry he felt protected with him, ensconced in the safety of their, god, their love, as though it's 1942 and he can't feel the world being torn apart around them. He wants Harry to understand that he read the book.

Harry reads so many books, though. Harry reads so many books with more profound messages, more direct messages, more applicable messages. Harry reads so much, and Louis wonders if that causes him to lose sight of the mundanely profound. The working man's revelation.

But now Harry's nodding slowly. "I'm glad. It's one of my favourites. Has been since primary."

Louis swallows and smiles, almost. He turns his face back to the TV. It's a rerun from a few years ago, back when England lost out on a Eurocup joyride. A rerun of a topical panel show.

They sit in silence, watching comedians do their job. Comedy is a strange and funny trade, Louis thinks. He used to want to be a comedian. He remembers he used to say, I'd be a great comedian, if only I were funnier, and Harry would roll his eyes, pinch his side, and say, You're the funniest person I know. Funnier than Jack bloody Whitehall, at least, and Louis would bat him away. Getting paid to make jokes, to laugh, to make others laugh. It doesn't sound that different from sex work. The service industry. Comedians, waiters, sex workers – society hates them all, in their own ways.

Harry murmurs, "Is the news as funny five years later?"

Louis blinks. "England's heartbreak always seems funny in retrospect," he says. Jimmy Carr has lost a lot of weight since then.

"As is the way, I've heard."

Louis doesn't reply, but he reaches for the remote to turn up the volume. He wouldn't know.

They sit through the show, halfheartedly chuckling at stale jokes. When the credits run, Harry turns back to Louis and Louis draws in a breath.

"I should go."

Harry sort of nods, almost. "You could stay." He gestures to the telly. Full English is on next.

"I hate Full English," Louis says. Harry knows that.

"I know."

"I should go." He stands, stretches out his legs. Harry watches him. Louis looks down at him, curled up under an old blanket Louis thinks used to belong to Louis's stepdad. Things lost in wars. His eyes wander up to meet Harry's, and Harry holds it for a moment, before looking away, almost smiling, mostly sad.

Sad is such a tired old word, Louis thinks. If Louis ever wrote a book, he'd never use that word. It's a placeholder for things too big to spell out.

"Do you want some tea?" Harry says to the ground, edging around desperation.

Louis licks his lips. He almost wants to laugh but it would come out empty, hollow. "I should get home." He cuts himself off before he says he has work to do. He doesn't, and the reminder of everything work stands for would make Harry's face close into coldness.

Harry just nods, face empty as if he heard the unspoken words anyway. "It was good to see you," he says. "It was good to do this. I, um. I miss you."

Louis feels his jaw tightening, screwing closed. It's not fair. It's not fair. He does laugh a little, now, and it comes out pathetic. "Yeah, I um." Shaking his head, he turns, walks toward the door, and tries to slip on his shoes without untying them.

He hears Harry get up from the couch, the blanket making a muffled thump as it falls to the floor. "Lou, just. Just wait a sec, yeah?"

Resigned, Louis turns to him, looks up to meet his eye, doesn't mask his face.

Harry's hesitant when he reaches out, hand folding over to grasp Louis's elbow.

The elbow: the only place on the body it's acceptable to touch a subordinate, student, or any person with whom intimate physical contact is inappropriate. Harry holds onto Louis's elbow tightly, and it doesn't feel professional in the slightest.

"Are you–" Harry starts, and cuts himself off.

Louis laughs again, empty and hollow this time. "I swear to god, Styles, if you ask me if I'm okay..."

Harry freezes, nods, lets go of Louis's arm. Louis takes a step back, nods too.

"Okay," Harry says. "Okay, I'll see you. Soon, Louis. I'll see you soon."

Louis just nods again, steps out of Harry's flat, and makes it down two flights of stairs before he has to sit down, curl up, and bury his head in his arms.

And it's such a stupid thing to have this breakdown over, isn't it? Because it's about Harry, of course it is, but it's not about the way Harry looks at him now, those shadows of fear and loss and memories in his big eyes, or the way he touches him now, with hesitance and delicacy and worry, or their stilted conversations where they say fuck-all to each other and just expect the fucking subtext to take care of the rest, but it's just. It's just, like.

That was their thing: curling up on their sofa under a blanket, drinking tea, watching stupid, mindless topical comedy. If it was cold – and it seemed to always be cold, and Louis wonders if they just had better things to do, to watch, in the summers, or if because everything is cold now, his memories of warmth have all faded – but if it was cold, they would curl together, Louis in front, always smaller and –

His thoughts are all running together. Louis never knew Harry when Harry was smaller than him. Louis never knew a Harry that couldn't fold him up and tuck him away into Harry's side. Louis never knew a Harry that threw childish tantrums or begged his mum for sweets or slammed his bedroom door against the world. And not knowing an incarnation of Harry scares Louis now more than it ever has. Louis grew up around children; he was always so grateful for how mature Harry was, despite their two year difference. But now it terrifies him, because Harry's going to keep growing up, growing out, evolving, changing, becoming a whole new person, because that's what time does. And Louis won't know him. They may keep this careful veneer of friendship up for months, maybe even years, but they'll never know each other again, because Louis will never be able to handle any more change. He'll never be able to handle Harry dating, or Harry moving away, moving in with a partner, Harry marrying. He'll never be able to go to Harry's wedding, because there's no way he'll ever be able to handle Harry standing across from anyone who's not Louis.

They used to spoon together on their old couch in the dark winter months, under a thick blanket, or – in their leaner years – three thinner blankets, watching dumb comedy, and Louis remembers the soft vibrations of Harry's easy chuckle, remembers the way Harry's huge hand would come up to press against Louis's stomach, holding him close, remembers the way Harry's cheek would press against his own, looking above him at the telly. Remembers the nights they'd fall asleep that way, only to wake up in the hazy hours between midnight and dawn to stumble off to their bed, shivering and half asleep.

What Louis knows about Harry could fill volumes, hundreds of thousands of words, fragments, memories blended together to create this huge, gangly boy who could barely keep his balance on the best of days and Louis feels like every inch of Harry is a memory. The knock of his knees – that weekend at his mum's boyfriend's lakehouse that summer between his second restaurant job and his first internship, where they lay out on the dock and Harry burnt so badly he could barely move, where Louis rubbed aloe all over him, where they were so in love they couldn't even voice it, where they'd fall into the cool water, clutching each other tightly, letting out screams of – of what, happiness? They were happy. Louis was so happy.

He just wants to wrap his hand around Harry's ankle, knowing exactly where to hold it, because his hand could barely reach around half of it, but the soft indents between his ankle bones created perfect beds for his fingertips.

Louis sits on the stairs, two flights down from the first flat Harry's ever had that doesn't include Louis, or their dirty Manc chair, or the framed photo of Jamie Oliver Louis found at a garage sale for 50p; the first flat in a long series of changes that are not going to include Louis.

Harry's going to grow up, going to become a whole new person. He's not going to be defined by his relationship with Louis.

The problem, Louis thinks, is that Louis doesn't know how to define himself without Harry.

 

*

 

It happens again, because of course it does. Because it's impossible to neatly half two lives that had merged together over eight years. So, it happens again, and it happens again on April 16th. Louis thinks he should make a calendar, and x off every time it happens. It could be cyclical, a pattern, like when his mum taught Lottie and Fizzy to mark off the calendar in the kitchen with a small dot every month when they started their period.

Louis has had too many women around him in formative years, if he's considering marking off a calendar in a way comparable to getting his period. It is similar though, because he could look at the calendar in the kitchen and predict the weeks when the already over-emotional teenage girls in his house would collapse into distress. Not to, like, stereotype, really, maybe. Sort of. Anyway. He could keep track of his own emotional distress, or something. Fuck.

Anyway, it's a jumper, this time. Harry has had enough bloody clothing over the years that it's really improbable and unfortunate that Louis can pinpoint the exact time period of this one, but he supposes that's just how his life is going to be. It's dark red, almost a maroon, and Harry got it from a thrift shop up in Manchester. It was the year after Louis finished school, when Harry was still getting through his art history degree. Harry was working at the student gallery, sitting behind a desk and reading through his hours, because who the fuck goes to student galleries? Louis was working full time at that posh Italian restaurant they could never afford to actually eat at. Louis always brought home the leftover specials when he could, and sometimes the cook would sneak him extra lasagne. The cooks loved him there, Louis isn't sure why. He wasn't an amazing waiter – he got orders wrong with some frequency, dropped plates. But the cooks always babied him a little. He thinks that is maybe the way of people – everyone can always see themselves in other people, somehow. Everyone can relate, in some way. Louis thinks maybe the cooks saw themselves in the boy who counted his tips obsessively, picked up extra shifts, packaged up any available leftovers with obsessive care. The boy who always looked tired.

Louis doesn't miss those days, when he remembers how hard they struggled. How his work clothes came from strokes of luck and persistence at thrift shops, how he had to polish black wingtips that were several years out of style. He doesn't miss how thin Harry always looked, how many layers he had to wear from October to May, to keep from shaking out of his skin. He doesn't miss how powerless he felt, how desperately he felt he was failing to protect Harry.

He remembers finding this jumper the day after he burnt a hole in his last white work shirt, remembers his urgency to find another, because his shift started three hours later. He was flipping through the racks, eyes glazed over with the pointedness of his search, but he remembers his fingers carding over the worn, almost cashmere softness and paused. He tried it on for himself, at first, and the sleeves fell over his hands, the hem down past his hips, and remembers almost smiling, almost relieved, because it'd be perfect for Harry.

It was £4.99, more than Louis would usually let himself spend on clothing at that time, but he wanted to make Harry smile. Always wanted to make Harry smile, always wants to make Harry smile.

He comes across the old jumper, now thinner, holes where Harry's thumbs would nervously poke through, the seam of the hem half undone, in the back of the closet. He's looking for a tie that fell off the rack, and his fingers brush over something so soft, familiar.

It was Harry's fancy jumper at the time, the dark red giving a sense of dressiness to his faded black jeans and worn leather boots, and he always looked so good, always felt so comfortable when Louis would run his hands over his shoulders, proud.

Louis pulls it out from where it's tangled behind trainers he doesn't wear, sinks to the floor and smooths it over his thighs. Harry hasn't worn it in ages, because both of them kept getting paid more and more and they could afford real cashmere, from proper shops, and their fancy clothes turned into blazers and trousers, clean lines and adulthood. He pulls his knees, covered in jumper, up to his face, breathes in. He can almost smell Manchester, their second flat, smaller than the first, closer to downtown, the brick wall view, the third floor hike.

Can almost smell how they'd get home late, tired, have leftover lasagne for tea, tucking in around their small fold-out card table with its Spanish oilcloth covering they'd found somewhere. Can almost smell how Louis would slide his hands up Harry's chest, under the jumper, pushing it up and over his head, ducking his head to press kisses along Harry's collarbone. Can almost smell how it'd get tossed to the floor as Harry's hands closed around Louis's hips and they'd fall onto the bed, the only time they could forget about the lack of heat, their too small, too lumpy bed.

It wasn't perfect, except for how it was.

It's not like he wants to glorify or romanticise their years of having nothing, because it was hard. It wasn't a bohemian adventure in the slightest, it was skipping meals and it was working long hours for little money and it was never going out to be free and young, because all of their freedom and youth was tied up in rent and surviving and bills. But it was so easy to come home to Harry, to forget about anything, to make their own fun, to have their habits and their games, to know it would get better.

It did get better, too. Their last two years, the London years, were so much better. Harry had a job at a proper gallery and Harry could show his paintings in the back room when there wasn't an exhibit booked and Harry could raise his prices because he had serious buyers and Louis was an underling lawyer at a prestigious firm with a steady paycheque and they could go out. They could go out in London, which had always been ridiculously unbelievable to both of them.

Harry used to call London the city of lights, and Louis would wrinkle his nose, slap him gently on the stomach. That's Paris, idiot, he'd say. Harry would just shake his head, Look around, Lou, he'd say. Look at all the lights.

Louis stands up, pulls the jumper over his work shirt, taking care to untuck his collar. He slips on his jacket and grabs his briefcase. He has to hurry; he'll be late to work.

 

*

 

A week later, a week of Louis falling asleep only to wake up tangled in a deep red jumper, Zayn calls the office again.

"Come out tonight," he says, greetings fallen by the wayside, apparently.

Louis stares out his wall of windows, across the skyline. He has a brilliant view in this new executive office. "Okay," he says.

Zayn's quiet, briefly. Surprised, Louis thinks. "Good," he says finally. "Good. Eight?"

"Sure," Louis says. "See you there."

"Yeah." Zayn's quiet again, breathing softly across the line. "You all good, Lou?" he says, after a moment.

"Sure," Louis says again. "Busy, you know. Fine."

They're quiet again, and Louis hates this part. He doesn't know much about the personal side of the end of relationships, but he's seen movies, television shows. He used to read, too. He knows how it goes. He's a lawyer, specialising in the end of relationships. He knows how to calmly, coolly divide assets. He knows how to do paperwork and reach amicable, fair endings. He knows the professional side of the end of relationships.

Zayn says, "We're your friends too, Lou. I know it's, like, weird with Liam living with Harry and all, but like. At least me and Niall, you know? We're always here for you, to get a drink or hang out or, just. Talk to, you know? Have you been talking to anyone?"

"I'm really busy, Zayner," Louis says quietly. "I should go."

Zayn sighs. "Okay," he mutters. "Just keep that in mind. You're scaring us. This isn't you, you know? You're not quiet or shut in or reclusive or... sad. This isn't you."

"Okay," Louis says back. "I'll see you tonight." He waits a moment, for Zayn to say anything else, and then gives him a quiet goodbye, hanging up slowly.

Zayn doesn't know Louis, though, he thinks. Zayn doesn't know this Louis, because Louis doesn't even know this Louis, this Louis without Harry. The last time Louis was without Harry was when Louis was a shithead kid living with his mum and sisters, angry and confused and frustrated at life, trying to make up for an absent father, trying to get through school, trying to understand why nothing fit right: his clothes, his life, his shitty lack of interest in whatever girl sat next to him in class.

Zayn knows the Louis who was comfortable in his skin, his life. Comfortable with his boy, the boy who knew him inside out, who centered him and kept him from becoming too much of everything.

The day Harry left was a Tuesday, Louis remembers exactly. It was early morning, maybe five, and the sun was far from rising. It was one of those cold winter mornings where everything took ages to warm up. The kettle was on, and Louis stepped out of the shower into the fogged up bathroom. They were lucky, they were well-off enough to afford a flat with an ensuite bathroom, two sinks and tiled floors and a large, glassed-in shower.

Harry was sitting on the counter when Louis stepped out, and they hadn’t had a conversation in days. Harry was fully dressed, hair curling in the steamy air, waiting for Louis.

Louis knew, is the thing. Louis knew immediately. Knew before Harry opened his mouth to say, I can’t live like this. Knew even when Harry was repeating over and over, I love you so much I love you so much I love you so much. He knew as he numbly got dressed for work, Harry sitting on the bed behind him, voice clawing desperately at the air between them, Louis, I love you so much I can’t bear to watch this happen I can’t live with this shadow of you I miss you.

He had straightened his tie, walked into the kitchen, poured two cups of tea through habit. Harry followed him, Say something, Lou, please, for the love of god, don’t let this happen, Harry fit his big hands around Louis’s hips, fingers slipping on the threadcount of his work trousers, Don’t let me leave, Louis, don’t let this happen.

He turned Louis around to face him, tilted his chin up to meet Harry’s eyes, dilated, scared, spilling over. Don’t let this happen. Louis remembers resting his forehead on the join of Harry’s neck and shoulder, his favourite place to hide. His fingers were shaking, coming up to tangle in Harry’s hair. Louis had said, I’ll never forget how to love you, and Harry pulled back, then, cupping his Louis’s jaw in his hands. They were both crying, by that point, standing in their too big, too posh kitchen that opened into a tidy, modern living room, with big bayed windows. They’d come so far from what they knew. Harry had nodded, had looked at the ceiling, blinking furiously.

He’d said, finally, after minutes of holding each other, minutes that each felt like their own separate goodbye, he’d said, I’ll be at Liam’s. If you need me. Anything. If you need anything from me.

Louis hadn’t known how to put it into words, how to say I always need you in any sort of coherent way. He’d just nodded, wiped his eyes on the back of his thumb, and stepped away, turning to stare down at his tea.

Harry had left then, slipped on his old Chelsea boots and walked to the door, pausing with his hand on the handle. I need you to be my friend, at least. I don’t... I don’t remember myself without you.

Without thinking, Louis had dropped his tea on the floor, didn’t hear the tinkling of china on tile, and ran toward Harry, socks slipping on the hardwood. He’d clutched him by the shoulders, the back of his neck, his hair, and pulled him in for a desperate, raw kiss. I love you so much, he’d said, and watched Harry leave.

So now, he makes it through the day, trying to find a balance within himself. Tries to remember how to be someone he’s never had to be before. Tries to be okay with himself. At seven thirty, Nicola knocks lightly on his door. “I’m taking off, boss,” she says through the wood.

“Okay,” he says back, glancing at the clock. He won’t have time to change. He’ll be showing up, again, as the Louis Harry doesn’t know, with his suit and pressed shirts. He smokes a cigarette on the walk to the tube, and another once he gets off. He’ll have to get his suit dry-cleaned, he thinks absently, watching his shadow in the orange of the streetlamp.

He’s wearing the jumper again, accidentally. Accidentally in the sense he didn’t mean to put it on the day he’d see Harry, not accidentally in the sense he didn’t know exactly what he was doing as he slid it over his head that morning.

It’s half eight when he gets to the pub and Zayn’s already texted a vaguely threatening where u at. As he walks in, he spots them immediately in a corner booth, this time, enough space for all five. He walks over, shrugging out of his jacket, smiling as real as he can. Niall immediately slides over to give Louis space to sit down, and Liam hooks his ankle around Louis’s, smiling big. Zayn’s arm reaches around Niall’s shoulders to give Louis’s neck a quick squeeze.

Louis looks up, then, to meet Harry’s eyes, to give him a quick grin or something, but Harry’s just staring at him, eyes tracing over the jumper Louis is wearing, with the worn-out sleeves pushed over his wrists and the too-long hem tucked neatly around his belt. His eyes trail over Louis’s torso before climbing up to his face, and when he meets Louis’s eyes, he looks wrecked, almost.

Zayn, Liam, and Niall talk around them. They talk about their days and their jobs and their partners, or, in Liam’s case, their lack of partners. They talk about weather and their summer plans, and Louis just stares into his beer, hand clasped around it tightly, even as the cold numbs his fingers, because he can’t look at Harry. And Harry, Harry’s just letting the conversation swirl around him, alternating between staring out across the pub and then back at Louis.

“I’m going to step outside for a sec, excuse me,” Louis murmurs at a lull in the conversation, and he gives Niall’s shoulder a perfunctory squeeze, before slipping out of the booth and out into the chill of the evening.

Within a minute, the door opens behind him, and Harry steps out. Louis shakes his head, shakes out a cigarette, shakes in the wind.

“Hey,” Harry says, after a moment.

“Hey,” Louis mutters as he tries to light the fag. Harry steps up, takes the lighter from him, cups his hands around the cigarette and Louis breathes in, catching the end in a orange glow. Harry steps back.

“Didn’t know you smoked,” Harry says with a hint of sarcasm.

Louis exhales, tilts his face away from Harry. “It’s a new thing.”

“Yeah.” Harry leans against the building, staring at Louis, who wanders to the middle of the sidewalk, looking down the street. “Old jumper, though.”

Flicking the ash into the gutter, Louis turns back to face him. “Didn’t realise I was going to see you tonight,” is all he says.

Harry nods, closes his eyes. Doesn’t say anything.

Louis feels itchy in the silence, unsure. “I’ll wash it and bring it over,” he offers.

Opening his eyes, Harry looks at him. “Lou...” he says, trailing into a sigh. He looks away again, down the block.

The silence carries on until it’s unbearable, and Louis stubs out his cigarette with the heel of his shoe. He wraps his arms around his middle and walks toward the door. He stops short, and turns back around, looks at the join of Harry’s neck and his shoulder, at the faint outline of his collarbone through his thin jumper, at his windy hair. “I don’t know how not to disappoint you anymore, H. I’m flying blind here.”

Harry looks up, then, alarmed, but Louis opens the door and with a burst of warmth, he’s inside.

 

*

 

Louis doesn’t wash the jumper, though. He knows he should, but he just likes the idea that Harry will have something that maybe smells like Louis. He likes the idea that maybe Harry will notice. He looks it over before folding it, making sure there are no stains or obvious signs of wear, and then he tucks it under his arm, pulls on his favourite fur-lined denim jacket, and sets off for Harry-and-Liam’s.

It’s around eight in the evening and the sky is mercifully clear, but the temperature is dropping steadily and drastically. Too drastically for April, Louis thinks. He shoves his hands deeper into his pockets and quickens his step.

The four flights of stairs warm him up, though, and when he’s knocking on Harry’s door, he finds himself fighting for his breath. Pathetic, pathetic, winter, walking pneumonia, pathetic. He hopes Liam’s not home. He wants to keep these stupid, awkward exchanges between him and Harry, however ridiculous and far-fetched that is. Harry probably told Liam, anyway. Liam probably got home and Harry probably said something like, My pathetic ex-boyfriend dropped off an old book tonight just because he wanted to see me, how sad is that? and Liam probably laughed and Harry probably laughed and then they called their harem of women to come over and they had dirty animal sex all over the flat.

Most likely, anyway.

He knocks quietly, unsure now if he even wants Harry to answer. He could just leave it on the doormat for someone to find. He could set it down right now and be out of sight before anyone even—

The door opens, and Harry’s standing there. He looks tired. “Lou,” he says in a soft voice. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Louis says. “I have your jumper.” He holds it out into the no-man’s-land between their bodies, the space no one knows how to broach anymore.

Harry stares at it, then up at Louis, then steps back. “Come in,” he says. “I was just making tea.”

Louis follows him to the kitchen, tripping over his stupid feet. “It’s Friday, I thought you’d be out,” he babbles, “I thought I’d just drop it off, I don’t wanna disturb you, I can go.”

Harry turns toward him and hands off a cup of tea. He gives Louis a small smile. “Have a seat. I’m not doing anything.”

“Oh.” Louis backs up until he falls into a chair at the dining room table. He looks around; he’s been in Liam’s apartment hundreds of times, but it feels different now. It’s not just Liam’s anymore. He tries to think of what to say. “This reminds me of our flat—”

“By the station,” Harry supplies. “Yeah.”

“Yeah,” Louis says to his tea. “That was a good place.”

Harry takes a deep breath. “Lou,” he says, “why are you here?”

Louis looks up, eyes wide, cheeks flushing immediately. “Oh,” he says, and pauses. When Harry doesn’t say anything, Louis gets an awful, slimy coldness in his stomach. “I can go. I’m sorry. Just, y’know, wanted to give you the jumper back. You’re right, this is stupid. I’ll go.” He stands, forgets to set down his tea, and the hot tea sloshes over the sides onto his fingers. “Fuck!” he says. “Fuck.” Walking quickly to the kitchen, he sets the cup down in the sink and runs cold water over his hands.

He’s so pathetic, honestly, what was he thinking? He keeps his head bent over his hands, letting the water run over them until the ecological guilt kicks in. His eyes are burning and he’s humiliated. He feels small and sad and tired and he just wants someone to give him a hug. He just wants someone to hold him.

As if on cue, Harry comes up behind Louis and gently pulls him away from the sink, using his big hands to guide Louis, turning him around and wrapping his arms around him. “Hey,” Harry murmurs. “Hey, Lou, c’mere.” He pulls Louis toward him and Louis folds instantly, burying his face into the join of shoulder and neck, as if no time has passed at all.

“I’m sorry,” Louis whispers. “I’m trying so hard.”

Harry’s hands are sweeping up and down Louis’s back, from his neck down to the curve of his arse, pulling him in and holding him close. “Hey, hey, hey, it’s okay,” Harry whispers into his hair.

Louis just closes his eyes and lets himself have this, just for a moment, lets himself melt into Harry, lets himself forget. His eyes are still burning, sharp needlepricks of tears behind his eyelids, and his breath hitches as they start to slide through his eyelashes.

“Hey,” Harry whispers again, taking a step back. Louis’s hands immediately come up to his face, wiping at his eyes, and he tries to laugh a little, laugh it off.

“Sorry,” he says. “Sorry. Long day.”

Harry studies him for a moment, and then reaches out again, running his hands up Louis’s arms until he can grasp his wrists. Harry’s fingers wrap around them easily, and Louis feels himself pulled forward, out of the kitchen and into the living room. Harry leads them to the couch and falls backwards onto it, tugging Louis down with him, until they’re laying together, Louis’s head on Harry’s chest, and Harry’s arms wrapped fully around him.

Tilting his head down, Harry presses a kiss to Louis’s forehead, hair, cheekbones. “Get some sleep, babe, okay? Just sleep for awhile.” Reaching to the back of the couch, he pulls Louis’s stepdad’s old blanket down, spreading it out on top of both of them. “I’ll be here when you wake up,” he says.

Louis doesn’t think he makes any noise, eyes already pulling shut as Harry’s strong, familiar heartbeat pulses in his ear. The last thing he feels are Harry’s lips, again, brushing across his forehead.

 

*

 

At two am, Louis wakes up, disoriented. The flat is dark, but there’s a streetlamp just outside the window, casting shadows through a vaguely familiar living room. Underneath Louis, there’s a very familiar body.

Louis closes his eyes again, briefly, and takes a deep breath. Sitting up as evenly as he can, he tries to slip off the couch without waking Harry. He gets half his arse off, before Harry’s arms tighten around him, and an unconscious noise of protest is let out into his ear. Louis stills, waits. Harry always takes a minute to wake up, and chances are he won’t wake up. Louis listens closely to Harry’s breathing, waiting for it to even out again.

“Lou,” comes a raspy whisper. No luck then.

Louis wriggles the rest of himself off the couch, falling to the floor on his knees. Harry’s sitting up now, reaching out to him in a way that seems unconscious. “Where’re you going?” Harry whispers.

Louis closes his eyes. Sitting up on his knees, he cards a hand through Harry’s hair, pulling him forward so their foreheads can knock together gently. “I gotta get home,” he says. “I... thank you. For tonight. For being nice.”

Harry’s breath hitches and one of his hands wraps around the back of Louis’s neck, keeping him pressed close. “I’m so tired of letting you go,” he says in barely a whisper.

It’s like the air’s been punched out of Louis’s chest, his diaphragm contracts and the only sound he can make is a gasping little sob. He tightens his fingers in Harry’s hair and brushes their noses together, their lips barely a breath away from touching. “Harry,” he breathes.

They stay like that for a few more moments, or hours, or... Louis doesn’t know, but they share their air, holding on so tightly, until Louis swallows and finally, finally lets go.

"I have to go," he says, standing.

Harry stares up at him, eyes wide and lips slightly parted. He asks, "Why?" and it's simultaneously both a threat and a plead.

Louis closes his eyes. "Harry."

"Okay," Harry whispers, sagging back against the couch. Louis stands there for a moment longer, looking down at him. Harry takes a deep breath and reaches out his hand, silently asking for Louis's. Louis touches his fingertips to Harry's, linking them slightly.

"I'll see you soon," Louis says.

Harry just nods and watches him leave.

Walking home sober at half two in the morning is not nearly as pleasant or warm as Louis remembers from stumbling home from Liam's with his arms wrapped around Harry.

On nights like that, nights when Louis had too much to drink and just enough petulance to plop down on the cement, refusing to walk another step, Harry would roll his eyes to the sky and crouch down, back to Louis, arms slightly spread in invitation. Louis would clamber up onto Harry's back and yell dumb shit, dumb American shit he'd heard in movies: ride 'em, cowboy! giddyup! and Harry would frantically shush him, because they were out late, late, late and their neighbourhood is so quiet. He'd carry Louis the rest of the way home, into the lift, and to their bedroom, carefully dumping him on the bed and helping Louis slide out of his trousers and jumper.

Now, Louis lets himself into his building and take the stairs, because he needs to feel something instead of the overwhelming emptiness of his chest, his life. He unlocks his flat and tosses his jacket on the hook by the door, drops his keys in the bowl, and crawls into bed, hugging his arms around his middle.

He thinks about his executive office, the one with the view. He thinks about having someone direct his calls. He thinks about his pricey, empty flat. His large paycheque with no one to spend it on. He wonders if it's worth it.

 

*

 

Louis wakes up late on Sunday, late enough that the watery, thin winter sun is shining on his bed, heating him uncomfortably under his two duvets. He groans, stretches, and rolls around, trying to get comfortable, before giving up and padding into the kitchen to make some tea.

It's only through sheer determination that Louis doesn't pull two mugs down from the cupboard.

Halfway through his tea and halfway through mindless flipping through the culture section of the Times, there's a knock on his door. Furrowing his brow, Louis pushes himself back from the table and walks over to the door. "Yeah?" he says, gruff.

"Open the fuck up, mate, I know you have bacon," comes the reply.

Louis grins and unlocks the door, pulling it open only to be crushed into a massive hug. "Good to see you, Nialler," Louis manages through a mouthful of yellow hair.

Niall pulls back, beaming, giving Louis playful slaps on his cheeks. "You're a bloody recluse, mate, I figured the only way to see you was an ambush."

Louis laughs, shakes his head. "Come in, yeah, I might have some bacon."

Niall bounds into the kitchen, setting himself up at the bar immediately. Louis rounds the island and starts digging in his freezer. He mutters, "I'm sure I had some–"

"Hey, Lou," Niall says, all teasing gone from his voice, "let's chat."

Of course. Louis sighs, leans his forehead against a bag of very, very frozen chicken breast. "What's up, Niall?" he asks, lightly.

He hears the stool scrape back from the counter and the pad of feet rounding toward him. He doesn't move from the open freezer. Niall's arms come and wrap around him, tugging him away from the chicken breast. "Hey, Lou, c'mon. It's cool, right? We're mates. Good mates, I'd say. Closer than I expected we'd ever be."

Louis arches an eyebrow. "Yeah? Why's that? Too much man for you, Horan?"

"Oh yeah, baby," Niall says, smirking, dropping his hand to squeeze Louis's arse. Louis squeaks and jumps a little. Niall laughs. "Nah, I just mean, like, you two were always in your own little world, you know, and we always, like..." Niall trails off, studying Louis's face. "Hey, c'mere, Lou," he says, instead of finishing, and wraps his arms tighter around Louis's shoulder.

Louis huffs out a sigh and hugs Niall back. "I'm fine."

"Yeah," Niall says. "No, you're not. Let's have a cuddle and talk, okay?"

"Ugh." Louis pulls back and smiles, a little shakily, up at Niall, ruffling his hair. "Yeah, okay, whatever."

"I know you're too tight to pay for therapy anyway," Niall says, winking. He grabs Louis's hand, apparently abandoning the bacon, and tugs him into the living room. Pushing some decorative pillows off the couch, Niall falls back into it and tugs Louis down into his lap.

Louis rolls his eyes. "I don't know how I feel about this, mate."

Niall just laughs. "You need a proper cuddle."

And, well, yeah, alright, Louis can't argue with that. He slides off Niall's lap into the space between Niall and the back of the couch, tangling their legs together and Niall wraps his arms around Louis, tucking Louis's head beneath his chin.

"You start, then," Louis says, eyes falling shut involuntarily.

There's a pause, and Niall's hand starts stroking down Louis's arm. "Alright," he says, soft, "well, I guess I heard you spent the night over at Harry and Liam's? Let's start there and work backwards, or non-linear, if you prefer."

Louis tenses. "Where'd you hear that?" he asks.

"Liam."

"And where'd Liam hear?" Louis can feel his heartbeat quickening. He doesn't know what Harry's saying about him, how Harry's interpreting Louis's behaviour. Louis knows he's pathetic, but he'd rather not have Harry see through him that easily.

But, if there's one person in the entire world who could, it'd be Harry. He just... fuck. He hopes Harry wouldn't use that against him. Logically, he knows Harry, and he knows Harry would never, ever purposefully hurt him, even now. A small part of Louis thinks, especially now, but the crippling insecurity of waking up alone, of being alone shakes through him. He doesn't know anything anymore.

Niall's fingers reach up to card through Louis's hair, scratching his scalp. "He said he got home late that night, saw you two on the couch. He mentioned it to Harry, but Harry kept pretty silent about it. Harry's been keeping pretty silent about a lot, I think."

"What do you mean?" Louis asks, tense.

"I mean, like," Niall pauses, thinking. "I think... Liam explained this to me a bit, because he sees more of him than we do, but like. I think he's kind of waiting? I think... well, Liam thinks that he maybe sees this as, like, a hurdle for you two to get over."

Louis lets out a long breath. "Is he... is he seeing anyone?"

Niall sits up a little, staring down at Louis. "Shit, Lou, are you listening to me?"

Shrugging, Louis toys with Niall's shirt, brushing his finger over the raised Derby County logo.

"No, Louis," Niall says, frustrated, "he's not seeing anyone, christ. Even if, despite what I just said, he really saw this as over, he was with you for eight years. It's gonna take a bit more than two months to get over that."

Louis doesn't know what to say, so he chuckles a little, weakly. "Yeah, what's the rule? You're allowed, what, half the time of the relationship before you have to move on? So I've got four years."

Niall's quiet, but Louis can almost hear his eye-roll. "Tell me what you've been thinking about."

"What I've been thinking about," Louis repeats. "I've been thinking about making it through the fucking day so I can go back to sleep, Niall, what the fuck else is there to think about?"

"Lou."

"Yeah." Louis sighs. "I don't know. I just. I just miss him, I don't know. I don't know, like, what to do without him. I don't know who I am without him. And that sounds terrible, right? Pathetic? Like, what the fuck, am I Bella bleeding Swan? And half of me thinks that's unhealthy, you know? I'm twenty eight years old, and I've been with Harry since I was twenty, loved him since I was eighteen – which is creepy as fuck, when you factor in the fact he was sixteen, and now I'm just. I just feel like I'm this lonely, sad, half-person. I never really grew up without him."

"Yeah," Niall says, slowly, "but you guys grew up so much together. It's not like you two led this sheltered little life, you know? You were kind of thrown into adulthood, and yeah, you had Harry through all that, but it's not like you coasted through it. You worked hard for a long, long time to get where you are."

There's a loose thread in the stitching of Niall's shirt, and it takes everything within Louis not to tug on it. Niall'd never forgive him. "We all know I know how to go to work, Nialler. That's kind of the bloody problem, isn't it?"

"Ah. Go on."

Niall is taking his self-appointed therapy role with gravitas, Louis thinks. He buries his face in Niall's shoulder, hiding for a moment. "It's like, I don't know. I think I was so scared for so long, that it's become habit, you know?"

"Scared of what?"

"I don't know," Louis mutters. "Being poor? My family was poor growing up and Harry and I were so poor for so long, like, shit, if something was only three days out of date it was a fuckin' feast, you know? All through uni and after, for a few years, everything was so hard, so I just. I just wanted to make sure we'd never have to go through that again. I just wanted to, like, take care of him?" He looks up at Niall, pleading for him to understand.

Niall hums, petting down Louis's back. "You realise he's a grown up, right? Like, I get that because you guys were so young at the beginning, you sort of felt you had that role, but, shit, Lou, he's twenty-six. He makes good money. He sold a piece the other day, did you know that? For fifteen hundred quid. On top of his paycheque for actually showing up."

"That's fantastic," Louis whispers. His fingertips are itching to grab Harry, now, moreso than usual, pull him in, because that means so much to him. His paintings mean so much to him. "I'm happy for him."

"Yeah," Niall says. "Yeah, it's brilliant. But you get what I mean, right? He's not in uni anymore, y'know? He's not, like, relying on anyone else financially. He's got that part sorted. He loves you, Lou, not how big your paycheque is or how big your flat is or how soon you guys can afford a house or fancy dinners and holidays. He wants you."

"I feel like I've forgotten how to be me," Louis mutters. "And isn't that fucking humiliating."

"What do you mean? You still, y'know, like the football. You like going out, dancing, having fun. You're going through some shit right now, Lou, but that doesn't mean you're not you, or that you won't be again."

Louis scrubs a hand over his face. "Everything I liked to do, I liked to do with Harry."

"Bollocks," Niall snorts. "Harry's rubbish at the football."

Cracking a wan smile, Louis swats at Niall's chest weakly, before saying, "Well, yeah, fair."

"See? C'mon, Lou. You're being too hard on yourself, I think."

Now, Louis scoffs, and pushes away from Niall to sit up, looking down at him. "I don't think so, actually, because it's my fault Harry left. He begged me, Niall. He begged me not to let him go and I fucking went to work anyway. I just. I knew it too. I knew it was coming, y'know? He'd been sleeping on the couch for a month. I can't believe he stood for it that long."

Niall just looks at him, nodding for him to continue. Louis closes his eyes and leans his head back onto the couch. "I didn't do anything to stop it. I'd just. I couldn't think about it; about, I don't know. What does he want? For me to quit? I just can't help being scared, thinking about our shitty, roach-infested flats in bad parts of town. About never being able to have proper dinners. Having a bottle of cheap wine once a week as a bloody celebration."

"Lou," Niall says, softly. "You know he doesn't want you to quit. He just wants your relationship to be a priority, not, like, part of the job. I mean, okay, I haven't talked to him and I'm positive he'd never, ever say this, and I can't say he'd even think about it like this, but maybe he felt like you thought you felt like you had to make a lot of money to keep him happy? And, like, have you ever met Harry? When I met you two, you were sharing cheap happy hour drinks and smuggling flasks into pubs and you were so, so happy."

Louis closes his eyes and curls back down into Niall's arms. He's quiet for a few moments, until he whispers, "I don't wanna talk about this anymore, Ni, okay?"

Niall drops a kiss to the top of Louis's head and pulls him in tightly. "Yep, yeah, you did great, you're so great, Lou, we love you so much, we just want you guys to be happy. Let's watch the fuckin' football. QPR and City's on now."

"Fuckin' City," Louis mutters, reaching across Niall for the remote. "Oil money versus steel money. C'mon, you Hoops."

"Atta boy," Niall says, grinning.

 

*

 

The third time it happens, it's that afternoon. Niall left after the match, demanding a bacon roll and a cup of tea before giving Louis another long hug, whispering, "Just think about it all, yeah?"

Just think about it. Yeah, Niall, Louis thinks, sure. He's tidying the kitchen for the first time in what feels like ages, tossing stale bread and questionable cheese, lining up the cereal boxes, and a piece of paper flutters to the ground.

Bending down to pick it up, Louis freezes halfway, recognising the spidery scrawl. It's a piece of paper, torn from one of Harry's notebooks. Louis steels himself and picks it up, leaning against the granite to read it.

Half of it is a list: milk - skim or lou will slaughter me, yohgurt with probiotics, tomatoes, mozzarella ??? double check, basil, that apple shampoo louis swears by (think it has green lettering???), toothpaste, some flowers maybe orchids lou likes orchids

It cuts off there, and Louis's stomach clenches. He remembers that day, it was about two weeks after the promotion, and he'd come home later than he'd expected, around eight thirty, he thinks. Harry'd been waiting for him, smiling, and there'd been candles lit on the dining table, next to a vase full of orchids. Harry had made dinner, homemade thin-crust pizza with caprese salad on the side and a nice bottle of wine. Louis had said, Shit, H, you haven't got to wine and dine me anymore, I'm a sure thing, and Harry had ducked his head, laughed, said, You're working too hard, Lou, you deserve it. Take some time for yourself.

Louis had smiled, soft, and pulled him in for a kiss that turned heated within seconds, ended with Louis pushed against the fridge, Harry's hands everywhere, breathless, until Harry had pulled back, eyes hazy. Dinner'll get cold, he'd said, tugging Louis to the table and pulling out his chair for him. M'lady.

Trying to hide his smile with a wrinkled nose, Louis swatted at him, then pulled him in for another kiss. I love you so much, Louis said, then, and again, after his first bite, and again, halfway through the meal, and again when they were finished. Harry slipped into Louis's lap and kissed him hard. I love you more, Harry muttered against his lips.

Impossible, Louis would always say to that. He still thinks it now. Impossible.

They'd made love that night, the way they did most nights, before the fighting started, before Louis got too tired to fight, much less fuck. But Louis remembers that night vividly, because it was slow and sweet and strong, Harry above him, kissing him, never stopping. He'd press kisses to Louis's eyelids, jawline, neck, collarbones, hands fitting tightly over Louis's hips, holding them together as he moved inside him with a steady rhythm, until Louis was gasping, eyes tearing up with how good it was, how good it always was. What was so fucking phenomenal is that, after eight years together, it was still fun, it was still exciting and good and Louis can't believe it, really. It's not like he ever had much to compare it to, and he and Harry weren't particularly kinky, but they'd have little games: they'd see how many times they could come, could get it up, before they'd pass out. They'd keep score, jokingly, needling each other about stamina. They'd draw it out to the breaking point, until they had to come together. Or, conversely, they'd tease each other mercilessly until one came in a shuddering mess, sticky and sated, and the other could choose what they did next.

Even on the rushed, tired, quiet nights, it was always lovely. It was always careful and tender and familiar, in the good way. It was knowing each other so well, so intimately, that there were never insecurities, never questions. It was Harry knowing exactly the moment Louis was ready, it was Louis knowing exactly how to twist his hips up exactly the way Harry loved, it was the perfect amount of tease and satisfaction.

Before Harry left, that last month was the longest they'd ever gone without sharing a bed, much less having sex, and that month was full of so much tension: anger, hurt, and frustration, on top of every time their hands would brush over the kettle, or they'd bump into each other coming out of the loo, and Harry's hands would automatically find Louis's hips, and it was something, even if it was so very little.

It was more than Louis has now.

There are more scribbles on the page, skipped almost down all the way, and at first Louis thinks it's one of Harry's freewrites. He always likes to sketch out his thoughts for his paintings and Louis is always fascinated by them, because they're so abstract, something about forest fires meeting Topshop meeting Louis's eyelashes meeting the polar bear exhibit at the London Zoo. He scans the words, and they become familiar, somehow, itching at the back of his brain.

i will love you till the end of time i would wait a million years promise you'll remember that you're mine baby can you see through the tears love you more than those bitches before say you'll remember say you'll remember oh baby oh i will love you till the end of time. It's lightly scribbled out, as if Harry realised how ridiculous he was.

Louis stares down at the lines, and he wants to scoff, because, like, Lana Del Rey, Harry? Really? But it hits him like a punch in the throat, because if Harry wrote that on the same day he made that dinner, that wonderful day, that means Harry already felt it. Already felt their distance, so much longer than Louis did.

Underneath that, there's a little bit more hurried scrawl: our shadowy conversations mostly take place in our heads because you're just out of reach and i'm at the bottom of the pool and sometimes i still smell chlorine there are cool tiles under my fingertips fluorescent lights under my eyelids bitter water under my tongue i don't want to worry you but i don't think i can breathe anymore and i finally am ––

It cuts off. Louis stares for a moment, heart in his throat, and then springs into motion. He doesn't bother changing out of his trackies or one of Harry's old soft v-necks, he just grabs a jacket and shoves his feet in whatever shoes are closest, barely remembering his keys.

He takes the route to Liam's at a jog, hands clenched around the paper, probably smudging the ink with the nervous dampness of his palms. The four flights of stairs dig deep into his thighs and his nerves are shot by the time he's outside of the door to their flat. He doesn't bother to catch his breath before knocking, a quick rhythm to match the pounding of his heart.

Liam pulls the door open, looking rumpled and still half-asleep. "Lou!" he says, surprised, and maybe pleased, Louis thinks.

Louis takes a deep breath, trying to steady himself. "Hey, Li, um," he says, glancing past Liam into the flat. "Is Harry here?"

Liam's face falls a little, and he bites his lip. "Ah, shit, I'm sorry, Lou, you just missed him. He left about a half hour ago."

Louis's stomach goes cold, possibilities of where he could have gone immediately running through his head. Is he on a date, is he out meeting other, better people, where is he where is he. "Um. Do you happen to know where I could find him?"

"Oh, yeah!" Liam's face clears and he smiles. "I think he went to the studio? He said he was feeling creative today. Selling–"

"–Always does that, yeah," Louis finishes. "Okay, thanks, Li, I'm sorry I can't chat, but I'll see you soon, yeah? Love you, always." He's turned down toward the stairwell even as Liam's calling out his own goodbye.

The studio is two tube stops away and Louis takes them in a daze, reading and rereading the stupid paper that Harry's probably forgotten completely about. He takes the short flight of stairs two at a time, ringing the buzzer with his hands still shaking.

It takes a moment, but Harry's voice comes through the intercom with focused gravel, a hint of irritation at being interrupted. "Yeah?"

"Harry, um. It's Louis. Can we talk? I'm sorry for bothering you."

There's another pause, but Harry's voice comes back, softer, more patient. "Course, yeah, c'mon in." Louis is buzzed in before Harry's done speaking.

The halls are white, sterile, white floors, white walls, but the huge paintings create a sense of the infinite as Louis walks down. He doesn't have the time or attention to stare, but he knows which ones are Harry's without even turning his head.

Harry is waiting for him in the doorway, leaning against the jam with his hands tucked in his pockets, hair messy. "Hey," he says, cautious.

Louis just looks at him, and then presses up onto his tiptoes to give him a quick peck on the cheek. "Hi. I'm so sorry to, like, bother you here."

Harry looks surprised at the contact, but a hint more relaxed, open. "Lou, it's fine. I'll always have time for you."

"Yeah," Louis says, looking away, past Harry, to the easel set up against the wall, plastic sheets over the floor, the wall. There are splashes of colour across the canvas – more abstract than Harry's usual style, but gorgeous all the same. "That's looking amazing, H."

Glancing back and stepping more into the room, Harry studies it briefly. "Thank you, yeah. Trying something, I guess."

Louis nods, swallows. The paper's still crumpled in his hand, and he's suddenly at a loss for words, every sense of urgency fled from him.

"Um, so," Harry says, tentative. "What can I do for you, Lou?"

"I..." Louis shifts his weight from foot to foot. "This is yours. It was at the flat," he says in a rush, shoving the paper out to Harry.

Harry takes it slowly, looking up at Louis, brow furrowed. He unfolds it and scans over the words. His face tightens and then falls, and he sighs. Looking back up at Louis, he says, "What's this about?" quietly.

Louis opens his mouth and then closes it without a sound. Harry just keeps looking at him, green eyes wide and face open. Louis bites his lip. "I just. I'm just–" he stops, and plays with the sleeve of his jacket, fingers slipping over the denim. "I don't know how this happened to me," he whispers finally, looking everywhere but Harry. "I don't know how I let you slip away from me."

Harry flinches back and he walks backwards until he hits the white wall, sliding down to bring his knees up to his chest. "Louis..." he says.

Louis continues, in for a penny in for a pound, "I just. I was so focused on giving us a life that I saw as, like, ideal, that I lost sight of us. I lost sight of you," he says, looking over at Harry. "And, Harry, I'm so, so sorry for that. I'm so sorry I let you go. There's never been a day I've not wanted to swallow the last few months back up and start again. I'm so sorry if I, for even one second, made you feel any less important to me than you are."

His words are echoing eerily through the mostly empty room, and Harry's just staring at him, wide-eyed. Louis takes another breath and lets it out. "I just. I don't like life without you and I am so sorry for being so fucking stupid, for taking you for granted, for treating you as a given, as a perk. It's never, ever something I would have conceived of happening to me, to us."

Harry makes a small noise and reaches his hand out to Louis. Taking a deep breath, Louis steps forward, links their fingers together. "You're the best, most important thing to have ever happened to me, Harry."

Taking their linked fingers, Harry pulls a little, tugging Louis closer, knocking into his folded knees. Louis takes the hint and sinks to the ground in front of him, running his free hand down Harry's thigh. "Please say something," he says quietly, focusing on the thin fabric stretched over Harry's kneecaps.

"Lou," Harry whispers, voice broken. "I love you so much. I don't think there will ever be a day where I don't love you. I don't need money, you know? I don't need a nice, respectable flat with a nice, proper boyfriend. I just need a roof over my head and you with me, laughing, not looking tired, not looking like you dread waking up every day. I just need you happy."

Louis slumps over, resting his forehead on the worn denim he was just studying. Harry untangles their fingers and brings his hands up to curl into Louis's hair. He lifts Louis's head and stares into his eyes. "I just need you to be happy and healthy, and all of that forever shit, you know? I don't want to be the only good thing in your life; I want to just be part of it, a contributing factor."

Closing his eyes, Louis leans forward more, until Harry spreads his legs and Louis has the space to burrow in, hide his face in the join of Harry's neck and shoulder. "We are good together, right?" Louis asks, muffled. "We're not Bella and Edward, right?"

Harry freezes, hands still on Louis's back, and he lets out a sharp, surprised burst of laughter. "Fuck, Lou," he says, shaking his head, cheek bumping into Louis's. "You're ridiculous." He holds Louis to him, tightly, for a little longer, before speaking again. "I know what you mean, though, and I've kind of been thinking lately, you know, were we healthy? And you know what, Lou?" He nudges Louis a little, wanting Louis's eyes.

Louis looks up, shifting back onto his bum so their legs are twined together, but their faces are across from each other.

Harry continues, then, "I'm miserable without you, yeah, and I think we rely on each other for a lot, but we're not, like. I don't think it's in an unhealthy way. I just think we're, like, meant for each other, in whatever way that works. I think that we fit together. You know? A football team isn't a codependent, unhealthy relationship, right? But if there's no goalkeeper, it'll all fall to shit. We have fun together, we're our best together. And I don't think that's something we need to fix, you know? The good parts of us are so, so good."

There's no air in this fucking sterile room, Louis thinks wildly, staring into Harry's eyes. There's no fucking air. Louis chokes on a laugh, face crumpling, and suddenly he's crying and maybe laughing too but he can't tell. "You're so fucking profound, Styles," he mumbles, curling his body back into Harry's, kissing the warmth of his neck. "You're so good."

Harry sighs into his hair, pulling him closer. “I’ve missed you so much,” Harry mutters redundantly.

Sitting back on his heels after a few moments of closeness, Louis wipes at his eyes and looks up at Harry. Harry’s smiling at him, his own cheeks wet, so Louis reaches over to wipe at them, too. They laugh into the space between them, and then it’s quiet again, Louis’s thumb still stroking over Harry’s cheek.

He looks down, laughs at himself, and says, “Hey, Harry?”

Harry just squeezes his hand in response, so Louis takes a deep breath. “Would you want to go out for dinner sometime?”

 

*

 

They settle on Tuesday night, and Louis is determined to do this properly, much to Harry’s bemusement. Louis gets home from work early, takes a shower, and styles his hair perfectly. He pulls on some old green trousers he hasn’t worn in years, huffing out a sigh of relief when they fit over his thighs, hips, arse. Digging around for a soft white scoopneck teeshirt, he carefully pulls it over his head, so as not to muss up his hair, and decides on a casual blazer over it all, in navy, with rolled up sleeves. He studies himself in the mirror and decides, yeah, okay. He’d probably shag himself, even now, all twenty-eight and aged.

He finds some white keds at the back of his closet, slipping them over his bare feet, and sits on the edge of his bed to roll up his trousers round his ankles. He looks younger than he thinks he has in years; he feels younger than he has in years. Glancing around his room, he scoops up all his rejected outfits and shoves them in the still half-empty closet, before eyeing the bed critically. He throws off the duvets and strips the sheets, shoving them all in the laundry basket. If — if — Harry sleeps over, Louis doesn’t want him sleeping in two months of self-pity. He finds their soft maroon sheets in the hall closet and spreads them out over the mattress, silently hoping, hoping, hoping.

At a quarter to seven, Louis gives his flat one more quick tidy — he’s bordering on anal-retentive, actually — and locks the door, stepping out onto the street in the direction of Liam and Harry’s. The air is brisk and there’s a slight breeze, staining Louis’s cheeks pink, but he can’t stop bloody smiling.

When he finally gets to the door, his hands are shaking, but this time with anticipation, excitement. He knocks and steps back, bouncing on the balls of his feet. He shoves his jittery hands in his pocket and waits.

It only takes a moment, and then the door’s opening, and Harry’s standing there, long and lean, smiling down at Louis.

“Hi,” Louis chokes out through his smile. “You look good.” He does, too. He’s in faded black jeans and that dark maroon jumper, under a black leather jacket. Louis wants to cry, he looks so good.

Harry ducks his head and grins at his shoes, old Chelsea boots, toes knocking together. “You do too, Lou. You always look good.”

Louis wants to do this properly, he wants to take Harry out, make Harry feel special, give him that first date feeling they never actually had in the midst of all their teenage hormones, but for the moment, he can’t resist. He steps up to Harry’s body, straightens the collar of his jacket, and tugs him down to kiss him softly on the mouth. When he lets go, he looks up at Harry and smiles again, shyer. “Hi.”

Harry’s eyes are bright and his smile is closed, red, and so happy. He fits his big hands around Louis’s waist. “Hi,” he whispers, pressing their foreheads together.

Trying to keep ahold of himself, Louis steps back and clears his throat, straightening up. Harry watches him, amused, and Louis gives him a stern look. “Now, Harold, I’m gonna wine and dine you proper, you hear?”

“Hit me with your best shot, Mr. Tomlinson,” Harry replies, winking, turning to lock the flat behind him.

They walk down the hall together and Louis tentatively brushes the back of his hand against Harry’s, staring straight ahead, but he can sense Harry’s smile as he tangles their fingers together.

Louis has reservations at an Italian restaurant in South Kensington, and it’s mostly a pizzeria, but Harry snorts when they get off the tube. “My date’s a posh boy,” he says, squeezing Louis’s hand. Louis rolls his eyes and thanks god it’s Tuesday, so the restaurant is quiet, and their table is in an almost private little corner.

Stepping ahead of Harry, he makes sure he gets there first, pulling out Harry’s chair and winking at him lewdly. “M’lady,” he drawls.

“Ah,” Harry says, smiling over at Louis as he takes a seat, “A true posh boy knows it’s my lady.”

Louis widens his eyes across the table. “You caught me, I’m just a poor northerner, trying to impress in big bad London.”

Harry laughs, shakes his head, and reaches across the table for Louis’s hand, which he gives willingly. Sobering slightly, Harry strokes his thumb over the Louis’s palm. He says, “How are you, Lou? Really, how are you?”

Louis stares at the menu in front of him until the words start to blur. “Better now,” he finally says. “Better. I...” He laughs a little, and looks up and out the windows onto the street. “It was hard, but I’m not gonna fuck it up again.” Looking back to Harry, he smiles tightly, shrugs. “It was a learning process, I guess.” He squeezes Harry’s hand.

Harry’s quiet for a moment before he says, “You’re taking too much of the guilt here, Lou. I could have — I should have — been better at talking it out with you, explaining what I was feeling. I shouldn’t have left you alone like that, when I knew you were already struggling.”

Rubbing his free hand over his face, Louis says, “I should have been home more, so you could have had a chance.”

Harry takes a deep breath, and Louis cuts him off with a small smile and another squeeze of his hand. “We have a long time to talk about all this, hopefully,” he says. “Let’s just enjoy tonight, yeah?”

Deflating, Harry blows out the breath and grins across the table at Louis, nudging their feet together. “Yeah, Tommo, you gotta wow me with your smooth moves,” he says, winking.

Louis just arches an eyebrow down at his menu and toes off his shoe under the table, sliding his bare foot up Harry’s leg, obscured by the tablecloth. The only sign that Harry’s noticed is his white-knuckled grip on his own menu.

After dinner, Louis slips his hand back into Harry’s — and his foot back into his shoe — and tugs him down the street to a quiet pub. He sits Harry down in a booth and comes back with two pints. Harry smirks at him. “Is this where the wining comes into play?”

“Oi, are you implying my motives are anything other than pure?” Louis drops his mouth open, the picture of offense.

Harry laughs, shaking his hair back from his face. “I would never. I’m sure you’re of the utmost virtue.”

Louis winks at him and takes a showy pull of beer and then licks his lips, waggling his eyebrows. Harry rolls his eyes, all fondness. “You’re ridiculous,” he says. Louis smiles at him, small and genuine.

They spend a few moments quietly drinking, taking in the atmosphere, and then Louis says, has to say, “Hey, H?”

Harry looks over at him. “Yeah?”

“Were you... are you okay? I know we’ve, like, sort of talked about it, but. I mean,” and Louis stops, laughs a little self-deprecatingly. “You’ve only ever, y’know, been with me. And I don’t want to trap you back into something just because it’s familiar, or I’m where you feel comfortable, you know? If you have, like, shit, I dunno, wild oats to sow, or something...”

Harry’s already rolling his eyes and stepping on Louis’s feet under the table. “Shut up,” he says, voice warm. “You’re all I need, baby.”

Louis wrinkles his nose and kicks his foot out to catch Harry’s leg. “It’s a valid concern.”

“Nah,” Harry says, taking another sip of beer. “And anyway, if, in twenty years or something, we’re itching for some spice, I’m sure Niall would be able and willing.”

It’s a near thing, but Louis does avoid spilling his pint all over his lap. “You want to fuck Niall?” he exclaims, voice cracking.

Shooting Louis a dry look, Harry says, “In a threesome.” The duh is unspoken. “You’d be in the middle. A Louis sandwich.”

Louis snorts. “White meat, white bread.”

Harry pulls a face. “Yeah, okay. We’ll find something spicier.”

“You’re so dumb,” Louis says. “I love you.”

He’s not sure if that’s too early in this; he’s not sure of the rules. They’ve said it more times than Louis could count in a lifetime, but for all intents and purposes, tonight was meant to be a first date. Louis hasn’t been on many first dates, but he’s vaguely sure dropping the l-bomb is frowned upon.

Harry, though, just looks pleased — loose and warm and relaxed across the table from Louis, and Louis wants to touch. He swallows, mouth dry despite the beer, and says, “Hey, Harry? You wined and dined enough to come home with me?”

That’s another undefined rule, there. Harry’s lived with him since Harry moved out of his mum’s house, coming home with Louis was always a given. But now it’s different. Now Harry has a different flat, and coming home with Louis means, well, what it’s always meant, but less, because Harry doesn’t live there anymore. Harry’s coming to Louis’s home, but Harry’s not coming home.

Yet, Louis thinks, with a burst of wild hope.

The sound of Harry’s voice snaps Louis back from his nervous internalising. “Oi, what kind of boy do you think I am, putting out on the first date?”

Louis laughs and stands up, throws a pound on the table and tugs Harry up. “Why don’t you show me what kind of boy you are, Styles?” he whispers into Harry’s ear.

Harry doesn’t respond, he just swallows and fits a hand dangerously low on Louis’s back.

 

*

 

The nerves don’t kick back in until Louis is unlocking the door to his flat, Harry a tall, familiar presence behind him. Glancing back at him, he quirks his lips up, says, “What if I’ve lost all my technique?”

Harry’s eyes darken and he steps up closer, moulding his body to Louis’s back, hands coming up to Louis’s stomach, pulling him in. He presses his mouth to Louis’s ear, whispers, “I don’t think it’s possible for you to lose your technique, love.”

Louis shudders and fumbles the door open, turning round in the foyer to tug Harry down into a rough kiss. Eyes slipping closed fast, Harry pulls him in, backing up to hit the wall, shaking one of Harry’s first paintings, still hanging on the wall. One of Harry’s hands cups the back of Louis’s neck and the other has dropped down to the center of his arse, pulling him up and in, fingers insistent.

Louis can barely breathe with it, spreading his thighs to straddle one of Harry’s, grinding down, already embarrassingly close to hard. Harry’s tongue is so good, knows Louis’s mouth so well; the slide is perfect and in the middle of it all, in the middle of his uncomfortably quick boner and in the middle of how wonderful it is to touch Harry again, Louis gets overwhelmed. He pulls back, falling off his toes and onto his heels, causing Harry’s hand to slide back up to his lower back. Harry looks down at him, eyes dark, but concerned.

“You okay?” he asks, careful.

Louis doesn’t know how to answer, he can only nod, but he presses back in to tuck his face into Harry’s neck. His hands curl up around Harry’s shoulder, and he just holds on. Harry lets out a long breath, and wraps his arms around Louis’s back, keeping him close.

“Hey,” Harry whispers. “I love you.”

Letting out a watery laugh, Louis nods. “Sorry, sorry. Just...” he trails off, but Harry nods, cups his jaw gently.

“Let’s go to bed, yeah?”

Louis bites down on a little smile and takes Harry’s hand leading him down the hall. They get just outside the room, and Louis steps up again to give Harry a kiss. He darts away before Harry can gain any leverage, and kicks off his shoes, sliding out of his blazer. Just in trousers and a thin teeshirt now, he studies Harry, still standing by the door, hands folded behind his back like a choirboy. Louis’s eyes narrow. Not tonight.

“Come here,” he says, low, insistent. Harry licks his lips and ducks his head, but walks toward Louis. Spreading his hands out over Harry’s chest, he slides them under the jacket, pushing it off his shoulders and dropping it to the ground. The dark red jumper is soft against his palms, just like it’s always been, warm and familiar. Harry. Louis has had way too much time to think about that fucking jumper, and right now he just wants it on the floor. Harry must sense his urgency, because he chuckles a little, reaching behind him to pull it over his head, and tossing it away. Louis runs his hands over the miles of pale, smooth skin in front of him, almost breathless to touch him again. Harry’s collarbones are raised in stark relief, the dim shadowy light from the street throwing contrast around the room. Louis touches them almost reverently, drops a kiss on the line of both.

Harry hands are cinched around the dip of Louis’s waist, now, fingers tugging at his teeshirt, pushing it up. Louis huffs out a breath at being interrupted, but raises his arms, lets Harry take it off him. When it’s in a puddle on the floor, Louis drops his arms to wrap around Harry’s neck, pulling him into another kiss. They sigh into it, pressed together from where Louis is pushed up onto his tiptoes until their lips, and Harry starts walking backwards, falling down onto the bed. His hands brace against Louis’s waist, absorbing the impact, and Louis crawls up over him, spreading his knees until he’s straddling Harry’s waist.

Harry arches an eyebrow, hands heavy as they press down on Louis’s skin, sliding until they wrap around his arse through his trousers. “You’ve too many clothes on, love,” he mouths against Louis’s neck.

“Mm,” Louis sounds, circling his hips against the line of Harry’s cock, pressing up between Louis’s legs, up against Harry’s flies. His own cock is pushing out against his own flies, and Louis rolls his hips forward, pressing them together, as he leans down to suck a line up Harry’s throat. “What’re you gonna do about it?”

With a harsh breath, Harry sits up, stomach muscles bunching, wraps one arm tightly around Louis’s back and the other grips his thigh, and he rolls them over until Louis is on his back, staring up at Harry, breathless, legs open around the slender line of Harry’s hips. Ducking his head, the ends of Harry’s curls brush against Louis’s nipples, as Harry kisses a line down Louis’s sternum to his stomach. He rests his forehead just above Louis’s bellybutton and takes a deep breath, sighing onto the soft skin just above the line of his trousers. Louis shifts his hips, impatient. Chuckling slightly, Harry’s long fingers come up to his flies, tugging them open, and then he sits up on his knees, raising Louis’s hips with both his hands, as Louis tries to wriggle out of the trousers.

“Haven’t worn these in a few years, have you?” Harry asks, voice teasing.

Louis flushes. “Shut the fuck up,” he grumbles, and Harry laughs, helping him pull them down his thighs.

“You’re so sexy,” Harry murmurs, peppering kisses up his legs, between them where it’s softest. Louis just rolls his eyes — Harry’s never mastered dirty talk, has never had to, because Harry can just give one look and it’s dirtier than any words he could say. Louis pushes himself up to his elbows, looking down his body to Harry, still between his legs. “Take off your trousers, Styles,” he says, commanding.

Harry arches an eyebrow. “Yes, sir.” Obediently, he stands up at the foot of the bed and slides his black jeans down his thighs, kicking them off his ankles into the pile of jumper and jacket. He stands there, in tiny black briefs, looking down at Louis, as if awaiting further instruction.

Louis just smiles at him, big and goofy, until Harry’s laughing, tugging down his pants, and Louis is too, tossing them off the side of the bed and holding his hands out for Harry to come back down to him, his big body the best blanket Louis has ever known.

“How do you wanna do this?” Harry asks against Louis’s throat, sucking small marks against the sharp lines.

Louis tries to control his breathing, but his back is already arching and his fingers are already clenching and, just, god. They have forever, the rest of their lives to take it slow, to tease, to foreplay; right now he just wants Harry inside him, wants to feel him again. He says as much, nowhere near as coherent, but he thinks a step above pointing and grunting. Harry just laughs, nods, kisses him again, again, again, and reaches into the nightstand for the lube, untouched since the last time they did this.

Harry crawls back down between Louis’s legs and folds him up, Louis’s thighs pressed against his chest. “Hold,” he says, quirking an eyebrow. Louis smirks, filthy. Harry bites down on his smile, and uncaps the lube, movements slow and exaggerated, faux-sexy cheesy porno-moves from the ‘70s and Louis laughs, squirms. Faux-sexual and cheesy work on him, maybe, when it’s Harry.

Once his fingers are slicked up, Harry’s face falls into concentration, leaning back over Louis and kissing him softly, his fingers tracing his hole, spreading lube over it before working one in. He’s so slow, tender, cautious, and Louis wants to scream. Instead, he rolls his hips up into it, meeting Harry’s gentle thrust with a less gentle one of his own and Harry lets out a breathless laugh, eyes trained where his finger is pressed into Louis. “Patience, babe,” Harry says.

“You can stuff your patience,” Louis gets out and Harry lets out a sharp bark of laughter, sliding in another finger, working him open around it.

It’s been awhile; three months, maybe, but all it feels is good and right and Louis is so hard and gagging for it. His fingers clench and unclench around Harry’s shoulders, sliding up into his hair, pulling him down for another kiss, desperate and pleading.

“Okay, okay,” Harry gasps. “Okay, babe, hold on.” He slides his fingers out and Louis whines at the loss, hooking his ankles around the small of Harry’s back, keeping him close. Harry’s eyes flutter shut as he works lube around his cock, so hard it looks painful — Louis can relate, purpled at the head. “Okay,” he says again, breath coming heavily as he leans back over Louis on one arm, guiding his cock to press against Louis with the other.

As he works himself in, Louis feels his mouth drop open, his eyes slam shut. His back arches up off the mattress in a curve a yoga instructor would be proud of, and his mind whites out.

“Fuck,” Harry breathes, and he shifts his hips up against Louis’s, bottoming out. He pushes up onto his knees, taking care to reach a hand under Louis’s back, keeping him steady. Louis slides his thighs up higher around Harry’s waist, and pulls him back down.

“Stay close,” Louis whispers, voice shot. Harry makes a small noise and nods frantically, sweaty curls brushing over Louis’s cheeks. He starts moving in earnest then, rocking his hips in and out in a fluid motion and Louis’s brain short circuits.

They’re held so close together, not an inch of space between them, that Louis’s dick is sliding up against Harry’s stomach, made solid with inches of muscle and Louis whines in the back of his throat, pushing himself up tighter against it, because it’s so close to being enough. As if reading his mind, Harry wraps his arms around Louis and pulls him up until he’s spread across Harry’s lap. Not for the first time, Louis’s mind is blown at Harry’s sheer strength, at how this Harry is so far from the boy he met in a school bathroom all those years ago. This Harry is a man, and Louis has watched him grow up in so many different ways, and Louis is so, so proud of him.

“I love you,” Louis gasps, biting down on Harry’s shoulder. Harry just groans in response, hips moving in short thrusts up into Louis, as Louis circles his own down and forward, pushing against Harry’s abs.

“Oh, god, Lou,” Harry gets out. “I’m close, fuck.” Louis just closes his eyes and nods, pushing his protesting thighs as far as they’ll go, rocking up and down, breath coming in short, punchy gasps. It all happens at once: Harry lets out a long, low breath, tinged with a moan, and Louis just pants oh god oh god oh god and just as Louis feels Harry pulse inside him, Louis’s cock jerks and he’s coming into the sweat-slick press of their bodies. Harry’s arms are wrapped around him fully, one arm reaching across his whole back to brush his ribs, and the other curled up, cradling the back of his head. Louis’s arms are wrapped under Harry’s, clutching at the back of his shoulders, nails biting into his skin.

They hold each other there for a moment, until Harry sucks in a breath and gently lays Louis back down across the pillows and rolls to the side, curling around Louis. He drops a quick kiss on Louis’s shoulder and then slides off the bed and into the ensuite. Louis listens to him wet a flannel and wipe himself off. He lopes out of the bathroom then, flipping off the light and turning on the light on his side of the bed, leaning over Louis and gently wiping off his stomach, between his legs. Once clean, he spreads a huge hand over Louis’s stomach and lays on his side, looking up at Louis’s profile.

“Hey,” he says.

Louis smiles, a small private smile. “Hi.”

“I love you.”

“I love you more,” Louis says.

Harry breathes out a tired laugh, shakes his head. “Never want to let you go again.”

Louis wriggles down the bed and onto his side, so his eyes are perfectly aligned with Harry’s. “Never gonna let you,” he says.

Harry brushes his thumb over Louis’s hipbone and leans in to press a chaste kiss against his mouth. “Been looking forward to sleeping with you,” he says. At Louis’s cheeky eyebrow waggle, Harry rolls his eyes. “Proper sleeping. Need you like a teddy bear.”

Louis huffs, but rolls over so his back is to Harry. Once Harry’s wrapped his arms around him, tucked his knees behind Louis’s knees, and buried his nose in Louis’s hair, Louis says, quiet, “Had to have two duvets on this bed without you.”

Harry kisses him behind his ear. “Throw it out, burn it, I don’t care. You don’t need it anymore.”

 

*

 

They decide not to tell anyone, for awhile, just to get used to it. It’s tricky, because Harry lives with Liam, and while Louis isn’t entirely sure that Liam would notice if Harry just stopped being around, Harry assures him he would. So they keep it to themselves and Harry sleeps over most nights, but not all, and Louis loves it and hates it.

Some days it feels like they’ve just rewound back to October, back before everything went to hell, but some days, when Harry leaves, it feels just like March, hell all over again.

After many discussions over many cups of tea — both Harry and Louis make tea when they’re anxious — Louis approached his seniors at the firm with a plan about taking a reduction in hours, having him home by five on weekdays, with Saturdays and Sundays off. Louis spoke to Greg over drinks, and they worked it out in a way where Greg takes up the slack Louis dropped, resulting in an averaged-out half-promotion for both of them.

So now, Louis comes home with a fractionally smaller salary, but with better hours, and a smile on his face, just in time to help Harry with dinner and with time to laze around and watch stupid comedy shows, or go for walks, or get stupid drunk on Fridays.

This Friday, two weeks after their first date, Louis and Harry finally decide to tell the lads. Louis pushed the decision when he got home from work, because Zayn had called him that afternoon at work, demanding he come out. Louis had agreed, easily, and Zayn rung off sounding suspicious.

“H,” Louis says, dropping his keys in the bowl. “We’ve got to tell them. I think we’re both comfortable enough, and shit, Zayn’s honestly got me on a fuckin’ suicide watch.”

Harry laughs. “Yeah, no, I agree. Liam told me that my next piece had better be a masterpiece if I was sleeping at the studio so often.”

Louis grinned over at him. “It won’t be weird. It was probably weirder for them, before. Or after, I mean. Wait. I mean—”

“Yeah, got it.” Harry drops a kiss on Louis’s lips. “Shall we?”

They stroll to the tube and enjoy the slight warmth and beginning of the spring sunlight. Harry has Louis’s hand folded into his own and their entwined fingers knock between their hips. Louis squeezes on every third step and Harry has a small grin playing on his lips.

Louis loves this boy so much it scares him to even think about.

 

*

 

your kiss
is a shallow grave

i am coming back
- saul williams