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————

“What’re you doing?” Louis’ voice is scratchy and rough and distant through the phone. There’s a rustling sound and then a muffled cough. “Hmm?”

“I’m, um… Nothing.” Harry looks down at his bare legs—he’s worn nothing but boxers and a t-shirt all day—then glances at the backpack that he hasn’t unzipped all weekend, even though his summer school classes started last week. There are empty cereal bowls stacked on the counter and the two-liter bottle of warm Dr. Pepper that he’s been drinking from all evening is on the floor next to his chair, beside a crumpled bag of Cheetos. The ashtray and the baggie of weed sit on top of the algebra book that he hollowed out and turned into his stash box after he couldn’t sell it back last semester, and his camera is still in its bag hanging on the hook by the door. “Haven’t heard from you in a while.”

“Yeah, well, I need to talk to you about something.”

“What’s up?” It’s always a surprise when he hears from Louis, because they only talk on the phone a few times a year, but everytime, as soon as the conversation starts, it feels like they talk every day.

They’ve never really texted regularly, maybe because they’ve never been able to have a brief conversation, even in writing, and email has always been easier, especially while they’re both in school and they’re both working. It's not the best though, because sooner or later one of them will forget to respond to an email and they'll fall out of touch.

Part of Harry hates that, hates the distance and the toll it’s taken on their friendship, but part of him is too wrapped up in his own life to care. It’s almost like they both forget that the other one exists until one of them picks up the phone or types out a long, rambling email.

“What would you think if I moved back home?”

“For real? That’d be awesome.” Harry shifts forward in his seat, takes the last drag off his cigarette, and stubs it out in the ashtray. He sits back into the cushion and pulls a knee up to his chest, settling in for a long conversation. “When? Like, are you going to transfer here for fall semester?”

“I’m done with school, H. I graduated in May.”

“What the fuck? Seriously? Why didn’t you tell me?” It’s so unfair. Louis probably busted ass to get there, and Harry did slack off over the first two years, then change his major. It’s just that they started college at the same time, and though he’s buckled down and even takes summer classes, Harry still has another year before he graduates.

“Dunno. Last semester was fucking crazy. I took like a semester and a half of classes in one go. Moved in with my parents to save money. Didn’t really, um… didn’t have a social life at all.”

Harry smirks. Louis’ boyfriend has always been jealous of anything that takes Louis’ time away from him. Including Harry. “Bet Eric didn’t like that much.”

“Yeah, well, he, um…” Louis clears his throat. “We broke up in October.”

“What? You guys were together for like… years.” Not that they’re in constant contact, but it feels odd not to be in on the important things in Louis’ life. He could’ve at least sent an email to let him know. He lowers his voice a little bit and says, “I talked to you on your birthday.”

“Sorry. I just… I don’t know, really. He wasn’t on my mind, I guess? You didn’t ask about him and I didn’t think about him when we were talking and… yeah…”

“Shit, Lou. I’m sorry. What happened? I mean… You don’t have to tell me. Unless you want to.”

“Maybe another time? I’d rather, um… So you think you’d want to hang out if I moved back to town?”

“Fuck yeah. I haven’t seen you in so long. It’s been almost two years. Remember the last time you visited and you just showed up at the restaurant in the middle of my shift?”

Louis chuckles quietly and Harry can almost see his smug, closed mouth smile and satisfied nod. “Yeah, you almost knocked over the wine rack.”

“Well, you fucking appeared out of nowhere like, Hey, Harry. I thought I was hallucinating. You didn’t even tell me you were coming to visit.”

“It’s fun to surprise you.”

“Yeah, well… So when are you moving back? Do you need me to help you find a place to stay? You can sleep on my couch if you want. This place is tiny though. I’m living in a shithole studio apartment.”

“No, I… I don’t need a place. Remember my grandparents house? Down near the amusement park? It’s where I stayed last time I came to visit.”

“Yeah, yeah. Of course.”

“Right, so… What’re you doing?” Louis asks again.

“Nothing.” Harry leans forward and picks up the half-smoked joint from his ashtray and starts searching for his lighter. “Just was gonna smoke and watch some TV.”

“Come get me.”

“Huh?”

“Come pick me up.”

“What? Where are you?” Harry asks.

“I just told you.”

“You’re here? In town? Are you shitting me?”

“Nope. Come get me. Bring your weed.”

“Holy shit. Okay. Fuck. You asshole! I can’t believe… I’ll be there in like… It’ll take me like a half hour to get to you. What do you want to do?”

“Nothing. Just want to hang out. Haven’t seen you in forever.”

Harry rushes around trying to get ready to go pick up Louis. Just in case they end up back at his apartment, he pushes his dirty dishes off the counter and into the sink which he hastily fills with hot water and a squirt of body wash (he makes a mental note to swipe some dish detergent from work on his next closing shift). Then he crawls on the floor beside his bed in search of his shoes, spins in circles as he looks for his jeans which he finds shoved down into the crack between the cushions of his two-seater sofa, and brushes his teeth while he kicks all of his dirty laundry and everything else that’s on the floor under his bed.

His shirt is filthy, with grease stains and Cheeto dust all down the front, so he yanks it off, sniffs his pits, and swipes some extra deodorant on. After rifling through his pile of cleanish laundry, he finds a black t-shirt that doesn’t smell and tugs it over his head. He grabs the half-smoked joint from his ashtray and rolls another one, then slips them inside his pack of cigarettes beside his lighter. Right before he walks out the door, he remembers Louis’ eyes always turn red when he smokes, so he digs through his junk drawer until he finds some eye drops, then he runs outside, slamming the door behind him.

It’s Saturday night and the whole downtown area near the amusement park is fucking packed with tourists. Plus, Harry’s still a little bit high, so it takes him longer to get there. He can see Louis sitting on the front step, and pulls up in his truck, half in the gravel driveway and half in the road, but it doesn’t really matter because the tires are still rolling to a stop when Louis opens the door. After climbing into the passenger seat, Louis leans across to punch Harry in the arm and pull him into a hug.

“Hey,” Louis says and finally shuts the door. He fastens his seatbelt, drops his seat back, and throws his feet up on the dash as if Harry sees him on a daily basis and he doesn’t need time to adjust to the fact that Louis has like… a beard, sort of. At least the beginnings of one. And hair longer than Harry’s ever seen it. It’s actually brushing the collar of his shirt. He looks like, well, a man. It’s very strange.

Louis pulls him out of his thoughts and asks, “Where are you taking me?”

“Um… Dunno.” Harry stares at Louis until the cabin light dims, then pulls back onto the road and sits at the stop sign for a moment, trying to decide where to go. He reaches for his cigarettes in the cup holder and tosses them into Louis’ lap. “Couple of joints in there.”

Louis lights one and cracks the window, smoking it like it’s a cigarette and not passing it over until Harry pointedly clears his throat and holds his hand out.

They ride around, taking the side roads and driving through neighborhoods instead of taking the highway, since they’re talking and have no real destination.

Harry glances over at Louis, still in awe of his ability to grow facial hair, and asks, “You gonna tell me what happened with Eric?”

Louis sighs heavily and Harry can feel him staring at him. “Yeah, um… I don’t know, really. He was always, like, jealous. And I mean jealous of everything.”

“I know. He never even liked me.”

“I… Yeah. He didn’t.” Out of the corner of his eye, Harry sees Louis’ hand moving toward him just before he tugs on one of his short curls. It makes Harry smile and reminds him of middle school, and the first time he tried to grow his hair out long, when Louis used to call him ‘Curly’. “I just got tired of it. Don’t know why I stayed with him for so long. Probably easier than breaking up with him, I guess. But fall semester I was so busy, like, I had zero time. And I was doing my student teaching and he was just… It was too much. Got to the point where I couldn’t stand to be around him. So, I ended it.”

“Good, then. I mean… Sorry. I didn’t…” Harry sighs, frustrated with himself, and looks over to make sure Louis doesn’t seem angry. And he doesn’t. He’s smiling like he knows Harry’s struggling not to shove his foot in his mouth. “You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“So, like, why are you here?” Harry asks and immediately starts giggling because the question sounds rude to his own ears, but he knows Louis won’t take it that way.

Still, Louis flicks his ear and huffs a little before answering, “Grandpa’s, um… old? He’s not doing so great living alone, so, like…”

“I’m sorry, Lou.” Harry reaches over and squeezes Louis’ shoulder. “That sucks.”

“Yeah… It just worked out that my mom was able to get a job here at the hospital working night shift in labor and delivery, so now my dad’s trying to get on as a long-term sub at the high school.”

“What about you?” Harry asks.

“What about me?” Louis returns.

“You know what I mean. What are you doing? Like… You’ve got your degree. Elementary Ed., right?”

“Yeah. I’m, um… I don’t know. Was planning to go to grad school, but now I’m not sure. It’s so much money. And like, I’m not sure I even want to teach anymore.”

Harry actually gasps a little because Louis has always wanted to be a teacher. Even when they were like, twelve. It feels like he’s upset the balance of the universe. “Really?”

“I, um… You know I minored in music? Piano?”

“I… think so? That seems familiar. Did I make fun of you when you told me?”

“Yes.”

“Sounds about right.”

“Well, so, like… I’m in a band.”

Harry’s midway through an inhale, which is unfortunate because as soon as Louis says that, Harry snorts involuntarily, but his mouth’s partly open and the roach is right there loosely held between the tips of his index finger and thumb and he just… sucks it straight into his mouth, burns the shit out of his tongue, and swallows it before he can even ask Louis how many times that line got him laid.

Louis reaches over and steadies the wheel while Harry coughs and laughs and pours water into his mouth from a bottle that’s been rolling around the floorboard on the passenger side of his truck for at least a couple of weeks. When he can finally breathe properly, he blinks away the tears and wipes his eyes with the neck of his t-shirt, then leans back against the headrest as he takes over the steering wheel and Louis relaxes back in his seat.

“So, a band?” Harry asks and can’t hold back a snicker.

“Yeah, like sort of pop punk. And like, I’ve been writing songs and stuff.”

“You play piano in a pop punk band?”

“No.” And Harry can hear Louis’ eyes rolling. “I sing.”

“Do you really?” Harry looks over and Louis is rubbing his knuckle through the condensation from where the air conditioner blows on the window. “That’s cool, man. So, like, your band’s gonna be famous, right?”

“Nah, we broke up. Nobody was really serious about it anyway and half the band graduated, so…”

“So…”

“So, I don’t know. I have to get a job here and like, I’d like to try the music thing.”

“Yeah? That’s amazing, Lou. I can’t wait to be able to tell people I was like, your first fan. I knew you when and all that.”

“Shut up.”

“I’m serious.”

“Yeah?”

“You know it, man. I wouldn’t lie to you. Just don’t forget me when you’re famous.”

They drive around for the rest of the night, until they run out of cigarettes and Louis falls asleep while Harry’s in the middle of telling him about his eventual plans to move to New York or L.A.

————

The private dining room in the back of the restaurant is closed, so Harry’s hiding out in there. It’s a Tuesday and Harry has an exam tomorrow afternoon, and he left the door cracked enough that he can see his section while he studies, but he’s having trouble concentrating. Louis is coming over after he gets off work, so they can hang out and maybe go to the bar down the street for a few drinks.

It’s slow all night, he has one table at a time, which allows him to keep studying, but doesn’t occupy his mind enough. He’s horny, is the thing, and his right hand is no longer cutting it. It’s been months since he’s gotten laid, like, it’s creeping up on a year, and Harry’s starting to worry that he’s forgotten how sex works when there’s another person involved.

And it’s not just that. He misses dating. Having a girlfriend. He’s been so fucking busy with school and working almost every hour that he’s not in class, that it’s been impossible to date anyway, but now it’s summer, and he’s only taking two classes, which means he has enough free time to actually devote some of it to someone else. And… he has an idea who he’d like that someone to be.

By the end of the night, he’s mentally exhausted from trying to study, trying to actually give his tables the best service he can, and trying to work up the courage to do something about his sex drought.

While he cleans up and counts his tips, he tries to come up with a line or like, a way to approach the subject, that doesn’t make him want to puke on his shoes, but it doesn’t work. Because every single way the conversation goes in his imagination, it always ends the same way, with Harry blushing and stuttering and wishing the ground would swallow him whole.

“Hey,” Louis says as he slides into the booth next to Harry. He looks tired and his smile doesn’t really reach his eyes. “How was your night?”

“Umm… It was okay.” Harry bites his lip and picks at the label on his half-empty beer. “Got some studying done at least.”

Louis hums and slowly slides his beer over until it knocks into Harry’s. “There’s a show this weekend. Like four bands or something. Wanna go?”

Harry nods and nudges their shoulders together. They finish their beer in relative silence, then Harry grabs their bottles, climbs out of the booth and waits for Louis to follow him outside.

The bar on the corner has a pool table upstairs, and there’s just enough time to smoke a cigarette before they reach the door. Two cheap draft beers and they’re on the way up the narrow staircase to the game room, which is deserted.

While Louis racks the balls, Harry checks the selection of old, wobbly pool cues until he finds one that’s closer to level than the others so they can share it.

“You alright, man?” Harry asks while he rolls the cue ball around. “You’re quiet tonight.”

Louis nods once, crosses his arms, and leans back against the wall, but then he says, “Think my grandpa’s dying. Like...”

The pool cue clatters to the floor and Harry crosses the room in an instant, stepping between Louis’ legs and wrapping his arms tight around him. “Lou, I’m so sorry.”

Louis wriggles to get his arms uncrossed, then loops them around Harry’s waist. “I don’t mean… I mean, he’s not like… dying today. I just…” He pauses to take a deep, shaky breath. “He’s not well, like, at all. He doesn’t always know who I am and it… sucks.”

“I don’t know if there’s anything I can say or like, do?” Harry doesn’t loosen his grip, but he pulls his head back enough to see Louis’ face. “But, anything, okay? Like, I can bring food from the restaurant if no one’s up to cooking or just… Whatever you need.”

Louis nods and blinks away the tears that collected in his eyes, then clears his throat. “Break ’em, Styles.”

Harry steps back and finds the cue on the floor. It’s not the night for him to lay all of his personal shit on Louis. Maybe another day.

————

It’s always dark when they hang out. Not that it matters or anything. It’s because they both work evenings and Harry has his summer school classes in the middle of the day and they both tend to sleep as late as they can in the mornings, but they both have the night off.

They show up early because Harry offered to photograph the bands and the bar in exchange for the cover charge and free beer, plus Louis is hoping to meet some fellow musicians and maybe make some connections and find some people to jam with or write with or eventually, possibly join a band with. The only musicians there are the ones in the opening band who’re too busy unloading their van and setting up their amps and mics and whatever else over in the corner that they’re plugging in and testing out.

The stage isn’t really a stage, it’s more of a platform about six inches higher than the floor, so the bands will be eye level and up close, which will be awesome for photographs, so Harry takes some test shots so he can adjust his camera to the neon bar lights in the otherwise dark room. He’s squatting down in front of the lead guitar player, taking some pictures from below, when Louis nudges his shoulder and squats down next to him, a beer in each hand.

“Hey,” Louis says, and Harry can’t hear him, but can easily read his lips over the music. He leans in closer until his breath tickles Harry’s ear. “Thirsty? Wanna go smoke?”

Harry takes a beer and stands up, letting his camera hang around his neck, and leads Louis through the bar, down the dark hallway, past the dingy restrooms, and out the back door into the alleyway. They step away from the door and lean against the wall, standing shoulder to shoulder.

Louis turns his head towards Harry, then rotates his entire body so that he’s leaning one shoulder on the wall. “Should be a good show. Four bands, I think?” He flicks his hair off his face with his fingers and tugs on the longer part in the back and Harry grins at the familiarity of the motions. He wants to reach out and tuck the one stray piece that won’t stay back behind Louis’ ear, but if he did that than Louis wouldn’t ask, “You got a headband or something in the truck?”

Harry shakes his head and shoves his hand in the pocket of his baggy denim shorts, pulls a thin headband out and lays it on top of Louis’ head like a crown. “Knew you’d need one. Your hair’s always in your eyes. It’s long.”

Louis’ eye flicker up to meet Harry’s as he grabs the headband and tugs it over his head, then he looks down while he pulls it up over his forehead and adjusts it. “You think it’s too long?”

“Nah, I like it. Goes with your scruff. You look like… I don’t know.” Harry shrugs, unsure of what to say. He looks good and his hair looks soft, but that’s… weird. “You fit in around here, I guess.”

“You mean it’s not obvious that I just moved here from Kansas?” Louis props his hand on his hip and purposefully flutters his eyelashes.

“Shut up. No. I mean, you’re from here anyway, but like… I don’t know.” Harry shrugs and takes a sip of beer and then a long drag off his cigarette instead of finishing his sentence. He’s not sure what he was trying to say anyway. “Did you talk to Jason about, um… music stuff?”

“Music stuff?” Louis laughs quietly and says, “Yeah, he said I could like, put up an ad or something on the wall by the bathroom, but I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“I don’t know if I want to. It’d be easier if I could like, meet people organically. Maybe later on, when there’re more people here…” Louis shifts his body back until both of his shoulders are resting on the wall and sighs. “Just wish it was easier, I guess. I can’t keep working at a gift shop forever and I don’t know. Teaching is a nine-month commitment. If I sign on with a school here, I’m in that job until next June and like, I just don’t know.”

“What do you know?” Harry knocks their shoulders together and turns his head to look at Louis’ profile while he stares up at the darkening sky. He mutters, “Do you want to like… date?”

Louis’ head whips around and it startles Harry. He watches him intently for a moment, then asks, “What, um… What do you mean?”

“Like, dating. Have you, um… met anyone?”

“No.” Louis shakes his head and takes a drag off his cigarette. “Where would I meet anyone? I’m either at work—and all of our customers are like sixty or older—or I’m with you.”

“Or sleeping.”

“Yeah. Or sleeping. Or taking care of Grandpa.” Louis lets his head fall back again and asks, “What about you? Are you looking for like, a hookup or a girlfriend or something?”

“I, um, well… A girlfriend. Like, I guess I’d settle for a hookup, but that’s not what I want, you know? Depends on what she wants.”

Louis pushes off the wall and looks down, flicking the ash off his cigarette and watching it float away. “There’s a she?”

“Yeah, I mean, like, we’re friends? I just… I don’t know how to like… take it to the next level, I guess.” It’s possible he’s just not good at this sort of thing. Like, he has zero game. He kicks the toe of his sneaker into Louis’ because he’s not sure if Louis is paying attention because he’s just staring at his cigarette.

Louis looks up, bites his lower lip and tilts his head to the side, watching Harry for a moment. He inhales and closes his eyes and says, “I think you—”

The back door to the bar slams open against the brick wall and Jason, the owner, steps outside and says, “Startin’ to fill up. Opening band’s about to go on.”

Harry nods and drops his cigarette, grinds it out with his heel, then follows Jason back inside the bar.

The show is loud, smoky, crowded, and the most fun Harry’s had all summer. He keeps trying to thank Louis for asking him to come, but he can’t hear and people are jumping and pushing and packed together right in front of the stage all night long. Harry manages to wiggle his way to the edge of the stage for some photos, but he ends up taking the majority of the pictures from that night with one hand holding his camera high above his head, clicking the shutter indiscriminately, hoping for the best.

Later, long after they’ve left the bar, and they’re laying sprawled out in the bed of Harry’s truck where he’s parked it at the boat landing, Louis asks, “Are you drunk?”

“Little bit. Not really though.” Harry giggles and pulls his knees up, then sticks his bare feet straight up in the air. “I had fun tonight. Thanks for inviting me.”

“Sure, man. I mean, you got me in for free with your camera. Free beer too, so…”

“Yeah…” Harry sighs and stretches his legs out until his feet hang off the tailgate. “Hey, when are you going to make me that CD?”

“What?”

“You know, the CD you’ve been promising me. You said that you were going to send me some real music or whatever. This was like, five or six years ago probably.”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot.” Louis scratches behind his ear and turns to meet Harry’s eyes. “Shit, I probably would pick completely different music now.”

“When?” Harry presses him. He’s wanted this CD from Louis for a long time and now it’s become almost a running joke. Every time he’s sent him an email or talked to him on the phone over the last few years, he’s brought it up. He’s yet to receive it and he’s pretty sure that Louis is never going to make it anyway.

“I don’t know. Eventually. Don’t worry, I’ll get it to you.”

“Right.” Harry rolls his eyes, positive that Louis will never make this mysterious CD. “Thanks, Lou.”

They lie there in the back of the truck, watching the sky and the trees swaying overhead. Harry chews on the inside of his cheek, trying to figure out how to ask what he wants to ask, but he can’t help feeling stupid. He’s never been good at giving voice to his emotions and now isn’t any different. Plus it’s late and they’re tired and a bit fucked up.

Louis sits up and Harry watches him pat all of his pockets at least twice, then he finds the bowl and the pack of cigarettes between his legs and he lets out a little laugh. He lights the bowl and waits for Harry to sit up before he passes it over, then he lights them each a cigarette.

Harry decides to just ask. He’s had a crush on the girl for so long, since the beginning of spring semester, and it’s never going to go anywhere if he doesn’t ask. “Hey, Lou?”

Louis hums and bends his legs, pulling them to his chest, wraps his arms around them, and rests his temple on his knees so that Harry is right in his line of sight.

“I need to ask you… Like, I didn’t finish earlier. I guess I want your advice?” Harry stomach is churning, which just makes him feel stupid. He’s twenty-two years old and this is Louis he’s talking to. There’s no reason to be so nervous.

“Go for it, Harold,” Louis murmurs.

“Right, so, um… There’s this girl.”

Louis lifts his head. “Yeah, you said.”

“Sorry, um… She’s cool and like, we hang out and, like, we’re friends. But like… I don’t know how to go about… asking her out.”

Louis sits up a bit and turns to face Harry, quietly watching him for a moment before asking, “Is she nice to you?”

“Yeah.” Harry nods and bites his lower lip.

“I mean… I think you should just go for it, Harry. Tell her how you feel. Ask her to dinner or something.” Louis reaches over and presses his thumb against Harry’s chin, right under his mouth, until Harry releases his lip from his teeth. “Whoever, um… this girl is, she’d be lucky to have you.”

“Thanks, Lou. I’ll, um… think it over.” He’s just gotta work up the nerve. It’s not as though he’s worried she’ll be mean or rude about it if she turns him down. Actually, he thinks she’s into him. He’s just not sure if he really likes her that much.

“Seriously, man. You’re practically perfect. Smart and funny and gorgeous.” Louis scowls at him. “Are you fishing—“

“I’m not! I really do, um… want to ask her out.” Harry shoves Louis’ shoulder and he falls over laughing. “Glad you think I’m pretty though.”

————

Almost a month later, it’s Saturday night and the restaurant is packed. Harry was sweating before they even opened the door for dinner service at five o’clock because he’s still hungover from the night before. Worth it though. His phone’s been vibrating in his pocket all night, Louis is off and wants to get together, but Harry hasn’t had time to respond. He’s finally able to go through his messages after closing, while he sits up at the bar with the other servers and counts his money.

He texts Louis that he’s just too tired and hungover to hang out tonight, but that they should do something soon, and Louis texts back almost immediately, telling Harry to get some rest and that he’ll see him later. Harry smiles at that and bites his lip, then while he’s still looking at it, his phone rings.

“Hey.” Harry grabs his stuff and waves goodbye at his coworkers, then walks outside. “Yeah, it was busy tonight. Mhmm… Meet me at my place in like half an hour?”

There’s just enough time for him to get home, shower, and make sure there’s nothing too disgusting laying around his apartment. He even washed his sheets recently because he spilled beer on them last weekend. Harry bites his lip and reaches over to turn the volume up, rolls his window down, and sings along to the music, riding the high of a good night at work and the anticipation of getting laid again for the second time in as many weeks.

————

Harry yawns and stretches his arms overhead, then stands up, smirking at the slight twinge in the muscles of his legs and back. It’s Wednesday afternoon, but in his defense it was at least three before they fell asleep. Quietly, he showers and dresses and grabs his backpack, then leans over and, careful not to wake her, drops a kiss on her cheek. She mumbles in her sleep and Harry brushes her hair off her forehead before he leaves for class.

There’s a granola bar somewhere in the front pocket of his backpack, so Harry digs around for it while trying to keep an eye on the road. His phone pings, so he stuffs half the granola bar in his mouth, checks his phone, and sees that he’s missed two calls and a handful of texts from Louis, and there’s a voicemail too.

“Hey, um… Sorry to call you like… so early, but I just… It’s important and I need to talk to you, so can you call me? Please?”

He sounds upset, so Harry immediately calls him back.

“Harry?” Louis’ voice cracks and he sounds tired.

“Yeah, Lou, what’s up?”

“Grandpa…” He takes a deep breath and says, “Grandpa died.”

“What? When? No, fuck. I’m so sorry.”

“No, no, it’s fine. He, um… He died in his sleep. Sometime last night. I came in to help him, you know, with his morning stuff, and…”

“What can I do? Anything, Lou. Whatever you need.”

“I, um… I mean, we’re okay, I think? But, um… Could you… Do you think you could help with the funeral?”

“Of course. What do you need me to do?”

“Be a pallbearer? We don’t… There are some people that he knew from church, and, like, I’m going to do it. But we need one more and it would mean a lot to me.”

“Yes. I, um…” It feels like he should ask questions or say something else and Harry has no idea how to behave in this sort of situation. “When?”

“Not sure, but like, three or four days, probably.”

“Alright, good. I, um… I’ll be there.” He should be able to pick up something to wear at the thrift store. It’s been a long time since he’s had to dress for anything like this. Hopefully, he won’t need a suit because he doesn’t think he can afford it.

“You at school?”

“Pulling into the parking lot now, yeah. I’ll, um… I’ll call you later. I have a break between classes.”

“Okay. Thanks, Harry.”

“Welcome, man. Love you, ya know?”

“Love you too, H.”

————

Louis’ parents have everyone over after the funeral, and once they’ve all left, instead of driving around, Harry and Louis walk the few blocks from Louis’ grandpa’s house to the beach. It’s late and it’s dark, but it’s low tide and with the moon and the hotels nearby, there’s enough light to see.

Louis is quiet, which is completely understandable. He’s been that way all day. Only during their smoke breaks, when they found the time to slip outside during the visitation before the ceremony in the church, did he seem to relax. Maybe because it was just the two of them and Louis didn’t have to be on. They stayed outside behind the funeral home for as long as they could, leaning against the brick wall, Harry’s arm slung low around Louis’ waist and Louis’ head resting on his shoulder.

The breeze comes in off the water and Harry watches it blow Louis’ hair around. Harry’s phone vibrates in his pocket and he quickly returns the text, then turns it off completely and slides it back in his pocket. Summer school is over, finally, and there’s short break before fall semester starts, so Harry wants to take advantage. Maybe a short road trip or something, he’s not sure. He lets his mind wander over the possibilities while he waits for Louis to say something because he doesn’t feel like he should speak. If he says something, he’s positive it’ll come out wrong or insensitive or like he’s just trying to fill the silence, which they’ve never needed to do. So he stays quiet.

Louis clears his throat and knocks his shoulder against Harry’s. “So, um… My parents are going to sell my grandpa’s house.”

That’s not unexpected, now that he passed away, but it still seems so soon. “Yeah? Are they going to look for something bigger?”

“Um… No. They want to move back to Kansas. All their friends are there and like, my dad can get his old job back apparently, so…”

“That’s good, I guess.” Harry side steps the water as the ocean rolls over the wet sand. “What about you?”

“I don’t… I’m not sure, really. I mean, I like it here, but like… I need to figure out what the fuck I’m doing with like, teaching or not teaching, music and whatever else. Plus, I’d have to find a place to live.”

“Yeah, I love the beach. Love it here, but don’t see me living here forever.”

“Right,” Louis says, and he sounds kind of tired and resigned to the idea that he’ll have to move again and that his life is going to be disrupted until he figures things out and it settles back down. It sucks, and Harry knows Louis hasn’t made much of an effort to go out and make connections with any musicians around town. The public schools start back in a few weeks, teachers are probably already working, but as far as he knows, Louis hasn’t applied for a teaching job. Plus, finding a place to live around here is a pain in the ass. Everything close to town is stupidly expensive unless you have roommates, and everything else is shitty and small. Hopefully Louis will be able to get his shit together soon though. Harry hates seeing him so lost and unhappy.

————

Two semesters. Harry repeats those words like a mantra inside his head because otherwise he might lose it completely. He’s working as much as he can, but because all of his classes are senior level, there are only a few sections available, and it seems like the times all interfere in one way or another with the restaurant hours, so he’s got a permanent shitty shift schedule, working lunch more often than dinner, and he’s basically miserable.

Sunday is the bright spot in his week. It’s the only day that he has off from school and work, so it’s the best day to study and get laid. He hasn’t seen Louis since before fall semester started because he literally has no time, and he feels shitty about it. They have plans to meet up though. Harry’s giving up his Sunday evening with his girlfriend to spend time with Louis and, thankfully, Louis agreed to drive his dad’s car down to meet Harry at a bar.

Harry’s late. Not like, super late, but late enough that he feels guilty about it. He pulls into the parking lot, hops out of his truck, and jogs to the door. Louis is sitting at the bar, chatting with the bartender, but his beer is almost empty, so he’s been there for a little while.

The stool next to Louis is empty, so Harry takes a seat. “Hey, man, sorry I’m late.”

Louis tips his glass back and swallows the last of his beer, then says, “Not a problem. You’re a busy boy, Harry.”

His tone is difficult to read and Harry isn’t sure exactly what Louis means or if he’s annoyed or not, but then Louis grins and orders them two beers and he seems normal again, so Harry lets it go.

“Yeah, I’ve been really busy lately. Almost done though. Two more semesters,” Harry says, repeating the words that he says in his head daily.

“Then what, curly?”

“Then… I’m not sure.” Harry shrugs.

“Not staying here though, right?”

“I… I don’t know. I doubt it.” Harry shakes his head, because he really isn’t sure. His dream is to move to New York and get an internship at VTV, but just the thought of picking up and moving somewhere new all by himself has his stomach churning. “I don’t want to stay here forever, but I’m not sure where I’ll end up. Maybe New York.”

“Yeah.” Louis nods. “Not a lot of opportunity here unless you want to work in a restaurant.”

“What about you, Lou?” Harry asks. “Thought anymore about teaching?”

“I’m, um… Not sure about teaching or music or anything really. I don’t know. I’ll see what happens, I guess. But I’m moving back to Kansas.”

“No shit, really?” It should be more of a shock, but Harry feels almost distantly bothered by it. Maybe because it’s not as though he’s spent his entire life with Louis near enough to see on a regular basis. They’ve spent more time intermittently keeping in touch from halfway across the country than they have living in the same town. It’ll be an adjustment, but a small one. Harry will miss him, for sure, but they’ll still talk. They always do. Eventually.

“Yep. I can live at home for free and work and save money and…” Louis sighs. “It’s easier, I suppose.”

“When are you leaving?”

Louis looks down at his beer and taps his fingers against the glass. “Tomorrow morning.”

“What? What the fuck? Why didn’t you tell me?” Harry’s stomach drops and he feels a small, strange sense of betrayal. They don’t keep things from each other, except… that’s exactly what they’ve both been doing, apparently.

“I mean, I tried to tell you a few weeks ago.” Louis finally looks up from his beer. “Texted you a while back that grandpa’s house sold. And, um… Pretty sure I called and left a message about moving, so, um…”

Harry stares at him, but doesn’t say anything because he doesn’t know how to respond. His phone buzzes in his pocket, so he pulls it out. There are two missed texts from his girlfriend, which he ignores for the time being, while he scrolls through his text conversation with Louis. For a moment, he thought they were both being dishonest and hiding things, but no. It’s just been him.

A wave of guilt washes over him as it hits him that he’s been an incredibly shitty friend lately. For every ten or so texts from Louis, he’s sent one back, and usually they’re short and dismissive. A hundred different versions of him making excuses. I’m busy or tired or hungover or have to study. And he knows that most of those were lies because he was spending his time with Abigail. His girlfriend. Who Louis doesn’t even know exists. Fuck.

He’s been a complete asshole.

“I’m sorry,” Harry mutters and bites his lip because he knows it’s not enough.

“It’s alright, H. I know you’ve got… You’re busy. And, like… You had a life here long before I moved back. But, um… I…” Louis pulls out his wallet and lays some cash on the bar, more than enough to cover their drinks and the tip. “I need to go. I wanted to see you and say goodbye, but there’re still a few things that I have to pack and it’s going to be an early morning. So…”

Tears prick Harry’s eyes and he blinks them away, refusing to let himself cry in a bar over something that is essentially his own fault. He stands up and wraps Louis up in a hug. “Gonna miss you.”

Louis squeezes him tight and murmurs, “You too, Harry. So much.”

————

Chapter Text

— 2 years later —

One last trip around the apartment and Harry’s pretty sure he’s got everything. The messenger bag holding his laptop bangs against his thigh as he jogs down the three flights of stairs to the parking lot. He pauses just before turning the corner, staying hidden while he takes a few deep breaths. But that’s it. He has to go. He has a schedule to keep and a drawn out goodbye with his girlfriend—ex-girlfriend—isn’t on the itinerary.

Harry double checks that everything in the back of his truck is secure and says a silent thank you to the cloudless sky, then sets his bag in the floorboard of the passenger side, and reaches over to turn the key to start his truck. It usually needs a minute or two to warm up, no matter what the weather’s like.

“Um…” Harry bites his lip, then takes a step forward and gingerly wraps his arms around his ex’s shoulders. “Bye, Abby.”

“Wish you wouldn’t—”

“Stop it.” Harry puts some space between them, trying not to scowl, but not doing a great job. “This isn’t about you.”

“Isn’t it?” Abigail crosses her arms and nods towards Harry’s truck. “None of my stuff’s in there.”

Harry takes a deep, steadying breath. It makes his heart ache to see her upset, but they’ve both known this was coming for a while now. This is something that he has to do. “I told you— We talked about this before we even started dating. You knew I didn’t plan to stay here forever.”

“You never even asked me to come with you, Harry.”

She sounds so disappointed and he’s not prepared for that. They’ve had so many conversations about this and he thought they settled this and were on the same page.

“We’ve talked this to death.”

Abby shakes her head and says, “You’ve talked at me.”

“You told me repeatedly that you have no interest in moving to New York or L.A. or anywhere for that matter. You’re perfectly happy here. And I know you don’t want me to leave, but you never said you wanted to come with me.” Harry turns slightly and shuts the passenger door. “I’m sorry you’re upset. I thought… I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

She scoffs.

“I… I didn’t want to leave things like this.”

“Little late for that.” Abigail walks backwards and raises one hand in a halfass attempt to wave goodbye, then shakes her head. “Two years wasted.”

Speechless, Harry hurries around to the driver’s side, climbs in, slams the door, and takes off without looking back. Two years, but it wasn’t a waste. He didn’t think of it that way. Or he hadn’t until now. He shakes his head and sniffs, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. No, it definitely wasn’t a waste. His first serious girlfriend, his first real long-term relationship, his first time living with someone, his first love.

Harry turns up the volume. The radio’s actually playing decent music for once. Hopefully they’ll keep it up for the next few hours while he drives to his mom’s house. He tries not to think that he should’ve just moved with her when she left town a year ago and broken up with Abigail then, because he really doesn’t regret anything. It’s just time to move on. He’ll have just enough time to unload his stuff and store it in the space above his mom’s garage before it gets dark, then he can play catch-up with his mom, and get some sleep before she takes him to the airport in the morning.

————

It doesn’t occur to him until he’s standing outside of JFK, holding all of his bags, waiting in the cab line, that he literally has zero idea what he’s looking for. He has an address. And he has his new roommate’s name and a blurry selfie he sent after Harry spoke to him over the phone. But they’ve never met in person and he’s only been to New York once—for his interview—and he stayed one night in a cheap hostel room with seven other guys and flew back home the following day.

Fortunately, the line moves quickly, and it feels like no time has passed before he’s hauling his things up four flights of stairs to a tiny apartment and his new roommate.

Niall Horan, fellow lowly-but-paid intern at Fame!TV and Harry’s new roommate, greets him at the door.

“Nice to finally meet ya, Harry.” Niall stands aside and lets Harry pass, then shuts the door. From where he is with his back to the door he points around the room. “There’s not much to it. Kind of all one room out here, bathroom is on the other side of the kitchen. That’s my room behind that door and you can do whatever you want out here, I guess.”

Harry drops his bags behind the short futon and looks at what he has to work with. They’re sharing a one-bedroom in the East Village and Harry offered the bedroom to Niall, taking the slightly cheaper rent and the sleeping nook in what he supposes is the living room. There isn’t space for much, it’s more of an alcove than anything, but Harry thinks he can fit a single bed and maybe a small table to hold a lamp. For the time being, he’ll sleep on the futon.

There’s a weird dresser or something built into the wall next to the alcove, and that’s supposed to be Harry’s, so at least he’s able to unpack some of his things. He pared down his wardrobe before moving, so out of the five drawers, his clothes use four. The fifth, he uses like a catch-all for his condoms (not that he’ll need them in his alcove), his cigarettes, and the assortment of crap that he’s moved from bedside table drawer to bedside table drawer since he moved out of his parents house when he was eighteen.

Among the random playing cards and coins and spare buttons, is a small cardboard box that was at one time used to hold some long forgotten Christmas present, but that for the past decade or so has held memories. Harry knows what’s in it, has the contents memorized, but he still gets a beer and a cigarette and sits down on the futon to go through it.

When they first met, they were both eleven and Louis was the new kid at their school. Alphabetically, Louis was in line behind Harry and in the desk beside him, so they quickly became best friends. They played rec league baseball and basketball and flag football together, and though neither of them were any good at any of it, they always had fun.

And then, two years later, at the end of their eighth grade year, when they were making plans to take on their freshman year and high school together, Louis’ dad was offered a job somewhere in Kansas and before the summer even really had a chance to begin, Louis was gone.

They kept in touch the only way they could back then. Through letters and the very occasional long distance phone call and whenever Louis’ family would come to town to visit his grandparents, they’d try to hang out.

Harry still has everything that Louis ever sent him and he’s pretty sure Louis kept his stuff too. The tiny box is crammed full of old school pictures and baseball cards, letters that have been unfolded and folded so many times that the paper is soft and worn in the creases and the ink is faded.

Harry pulls his knees up and rests his arms on them as he reads through whatever was once upon a time on a barely teenaged Louis Tomlinson’s mind. When he finishes, Harry thinks about texting, but isn’t sure if Louis’ number is the same and they’ve never really texted that often, so he opens his laptop to write Louis an email.

Lou,

Not sure how to start this email since it’s been like two years since we’ve talked and I don’t know if you even keep up with your old Yahoo account, but I figure it’s worth a shot. Guess I should start off with an apology. I was a total dick to you when you moved and I don’t have an excuse for it. I’d started seeing this girl that summer and I totally ditched you and I’m sorry. She was in my classes and we were both majoring in communications and I don’t know why I never told you about her. Maybe I was nervous or embarrassed or something stupid like that because she was my first real girlfriend. Probably I was just an idiot. Things didn’t work out with her (her name’s Abigail). They sort of did for a while, but not anymore. We were together for two years, lived together and all that, but it ended not too long ago because I was planning to move to NYC. So that’s where I am now, in case you didn’t guess that. Literally moved into my apartment today and found my box of letters and shit from you when I was unpacking and here I am, rambling in an email to you that you probably won’t get because I’m sending it to the Yahoo address you used in high school. Anyway, if you do get this, my number’s the same if you want to call, or you can email me back. Or if you hate me because I was shitty to you, which I totally get why you would, then you can ignore this and we’ll pretend it never happened. This is Harry by the way. In case this whole rambling mess wasn’t clear. Also, you still owe me a CD of your favorite songs.

Harry closes his laptop and finishes unpacking what he can, then starts making a list of everything he needs to buy for his new place, including a bed. He and Niall smoke a bowl, order pizza and talk about what they’re expecting to get out of their internships. Then he tries to get some sleep because he has a million things to do before he starts his new job on Monday.

————

When he wakes up in the morning and checks the time on his phone, there are three texts from an unknown number.

The first one simply says Of course I don’t hate you. Don’t be stupid.

The second one says What’s your address?

And the third one says FYI this is Louis.

Harry smiles and rolls his eyes because it’s just like Louis to forgive him so easily. Even to act as if there’s nothing to be forgiven. He texts Louis his new address and a promise to talk soon, tosses his phone onto his bed and heads for the shower while Niall is still sleeping.

Monday morning, Harry and Niall start their internships at Fame!TV together and end up spending most of their time outside of the office running errands or Googling things for people, which is weird, but it’s not like they’re going to object since they get paid either way.

When they get home on Thursday, Niall collects the mail from their box, and Harry leads the way upstairs. They’re both tired. It’s been a long week, they’ve spent the bulk of it on their feet, and it isn’t over yet.

“Bill, junk, junk, junk, bill,” Niall mutters to himself while he sorts the mail and Harry pulls their Chinese take out from the bag. He tosses a small manila envelope across the counter and it lands in the pile of soy sauce packets. “Something for you.”

“Thanks.” Harry flips it over. There’s no return address, but he knows it’s from Louis because written in tiny letters along the sealed flap are the words “don’t say I’ve never given you anything” and it’s addressed to Mademoiselle Harold of Styles. Harry knows what it is before he opens it and he tells Niall it’s because he knows Louis so well, but in actuality, he can feel the edges of the CD inside the envelope.

“Want to listen to it while we eat or is it, like, private?” Niall asks before biting half of his eggroll off in one go.

Harry laughs and nods. “No, yeah, I mean. Let’s listen. It’s probably, like, all bands I’ve never heard before. He’s been promising me this CD since high school.” The stereo they have is ancient, even has a tape deck, and Harry doesn’t know where Niall got it, but he’s glad he doesn’t have to pull out his laptop to listen.

He was wrong though. Because they press play and while the first song is something Harry’s never heard before in his life, the second one is Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and he recognizes it right away. The entire CD follows that pattern: something new, then something old that Harry knows. But he loves the whole thing.

They listen to it while they eat and then, when Harry sets up the futon to go to bed and opens his laptop to check his email, he plugs in his headphones and plays it again. There’s an email from Louis and when Harry sees it in his inbox, a massive grin takes over his face. Louis doesn’t even start with a greeting, just jumps right in.

Don’t be an idiot, Harry. I could never hate you. I kind of had the feeling that you were seeing someone that summer. I don’t know if you remember, but you told me you had a crush on someone and that you wanted to ask them out and I told you to go for it. It wasn’t long after that that you were suddenly much busier than you’d been before. No hard feelings. I’m sure I’ve done the same thing before. In fact, I know I did it when I started dating Eric freshman year of college. So don’t feel like you have to apologize. I kind of moved down and inserted myself into your already busy life and it’s not like you owed me your time or anything. It’s not like we were dating! Haha!

I hope by now your CD has reached you. I can’t believe it took me this long to finally make it. I had to use my boss’ ancient desktop computer to do it and ended up screwing it up twice before I got it right. Not sure how. Anyway, I hope you like it. I put some classics on there for you, since I know you’re like a fifty year old man on the inside.

So NYC? And you moved alone? Super proud of you. What are you doing there? Trying to make it big on Broadway? Tell me more. I’ve missed you, and don’t feel like you have to, but I’m generally done with my day by 9pm your time, so if you want to, you can call. Haven’t talked to you in forever.

Harry reads it twice in a row, then types out a quick email to his mom, and reads Louis’ email once more before closing his laptop and setting it on the floor beside the futon so he can go to sleep.

————

Just as Harry stands up to stretch and clear off his workspace, Niall swings around their shared cubicle, hanging onto the wall with one hand. “We’re going out.”

“What?” Harry scowls slightly as he unplugs his phone from the charger and slips it into his back pocket. It’s been a long first week, the adjustment to walking so much more than he’s used to and taking the crowded subway when he’s spent the last eight years driving himself everywhere he needed to go, have left him tired and cranky and the headache creeping up the back of his neck isn’t helping matters. He needs to get a real bed. “I thought we were done for the day. Where are they sending us?”

“No, man. We’re going out. To a bar, I think.” Niall steps aside to let Harry pass through the door and follows him down the corridor. “All of the interns are going. Heather suggested it. Said she’s paying for the first round. Celebrate the first week or whatever.”

Harry sighs and runs his hands through his hair, gathering it together and pulling it up into a bun, then he smiles. “Alright. That’s probably a good idea. I haven’t seen any of the other interns much since Monday. Just your gorgeous face, can’t get enough of that.”

“Speaking of gorgeous faces? Hope Zayn shows.” Niall elbows Harry in the side a little too hard, sending him careening into the wall. “Shit. I was really high when we talked the other night. I told you I’m gay, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, you did. It’s cool, man. One of my best friends is gay.” Niall smiles and nods, so Harry barrels on. “Zayn’s like… an unbelievably good looking man,” Harry says and reaches forward to press the down button for the elevator even though someone in the group of people waiting has already pushed it. “Like… I wonder if it’s one of those things where other people seem prettier when they stand next to him or if he like, makes everyone else look like shit in comparison.”

“Dunno. I’ll try to stand next to him and you let me know.”

Harry snorts. “Like that’s why you want to be close to him.”

“Well, no.” Niall follows Harry into the elevator, then turns to him and whispers, “But I can’t just be like ‘you’re so pretty can we make out’ because we have to work together.”

“Sure, yeah.” Harry snickers quietly into his hand. “Should be more subtle than that.”

In a shocking turn of events, rather than being aloof and too cool to hang out with them, Zayn is kind of shy and kind of nerdy and really fun. And Niall does look better standing next to him, though somehow Zayn looks better standing with Niall. It all makes sense inside Harry’s head, which is swimming in alcohol after three drinks and a celebratory shot of tequila, because in all of the running around they did today at work, he forgot to eat lunch. The craving for a big, greasy burger hits him hard and his stomach growls.

There are so many pretty people that they work with, but no one Harry’s interested in, not that he particularly wants to… dip his pen and so on. He watches Zayn walk away, then turns to look out at the crowd behind them, but none of the girls really catch his eye.

“Niall,” Harry tries to whisper, but it comes out much louder than he intended, and he spits a little bit of beer.

“What, drunky?”

“You look prettier with Zayn. Just…” Harry leans to the side, suddenly remembering that Zayn said he was going to be right back from wherever he went, but he’s nowhere to be seen. He stumbles a bit as he rights himself, lifts his glass and clanks it against Niall’s before he can pull it away. “Wanted you to know.”

Niall huffs and rolls his eyes, but he smiles. “You’re a lightweight, man. We need to get you home.”

The subway home is easier than usual because it’s not as crowded and they have seats and it’s much more entertaining because Zayn is there and Niall is acting weird and Harry can’t stop giggling about it until Niall kicks him in the shin.

“Ow, man.” Harry pouts and reaches down to rub his leg. “Don’t be mean.”

Niall narrows his eyes at Harry and says, “At least you stopped laughing.”

“Sorry.” Harry sighs and crosses his arms and gently kicks Niall back. Suddenly, he’s very tired, very aware of how drunk he is, and very hungry. He wants water, food, and sleep, in that order. “What time is it?” But he’s already pulling his phone out of his pocket. It’s early, only ten o’clock, and as soon as the thought occurs to him, he mumbles, “I should call Louis.” Then promptly drops his phone.

“Who?” Zayn asks as he traps Harry’s sliding phone with his shoe.

Harry sits up and grins and says, “Louis.” As if the name alone explains everything.

Niall shrugs as the doors open and he and Zayn stand up, pulling Harry up after them. “It’s his friend or ex or something.”

Harry scoffs and tries to give Niall a scathing look, but it doesn’t do any good because Niall isn’t looking at him, he’s looking ahead, which is probably for the best because he steers Harry around the concrete block column that he was about to run headlong into.

“Not my ex. He’s my best friend.”

“Right.” Niall chuckles and turns to Zayn to say something, but Harry talks over him.

“We’re just friends, Niall. Known him since… since I was eleven. And I’m not… I’m not into guys. You know that.” There’s so much tequila in Harry that he easily convinces himself that the swirling sensation he feels in his stomach at the idea of Louis being his ex-boyfriend is actually just his stomach protesting the alcohol.

“Yeah, okay.” Niall jostles him and loops his arm around Harry’s waist when Zayn lets go of his arm. “See you later, Zayn.”

“Bye, Zayn,” Harry calls out, mostly in Niall’s ear, making him cringe. They stand at the door to their building and watch Zayn for a moment, then Niall somehow gets Harry through the door and up a million stairs to their apartment. “Where’d Zayn go?”

“To his place. He lives right down the street.”

“Why didn’t I know that? He’s never on the train.”

Niall struggles a bit to unlock their door, but then the key turns and he pushes Harry inside. “Said he’s been going in early because he wants to make a good impression.”

“Oh,” Harry says as Niall lets him go and he drops down onto the futon. “He’s nice. I like him. You should date him.”

Something cold hits Harry in the forehead and he realizes he’s drifted off a bit, so he opens his eyes to find Niall leaning over him with a bottle of cold water in his hand. “Drink this.”

Harry chugs the water and flops backwards onto his pillow. “Thanks, man. You’re the best. I should call Louis.”

“Sure thing, man. You do that.” Niall laughs as he crosses the room and disappears into his bedroom, flipping the light switch, and leaving the rest of the apartment in darkness.

“Okay, then, I will,” Harry mutters at the ceiling while he searches his pockets for his phone. He eventually finds it on the futon underneath the small of his back. The light from his phone screen is bright and almost blinding to his tired eyes, but it only takes a few concentrated blinks before things come into focus, and Harry’s able to find Louis’ number and press call.

When he wakes up in the morning, the side of his face is stuck to his phone screen with his drool, his mouth is dry, and his breath is so bad that he notices the smell before he opens his eyes, and his head is pounding. He wipes his phone off on his pillow case and squints. Louis texted him, which for some reason makes his stomach drop, and that in turn makes him drop his phone and run to the bathroom. One completely empty stomach, one steaming hot shower, and one cup of black coffee later, Harry unlocks his phone and scrolls through Louis’ messages.

Louis: can’t believe you drunk dialed me

Louis: you’re so wasted

Louis: $100 says you won’t remember this tomorrow

Fuck.

Harry stares at the messages for a moment, then types and deletes a half dozen times before finally sending a single text back.

Harry: IOU $100 payable in person

It isn’t until later, when he goes to call his mom, and Harry get curious and taps the button beside his outgoing call to Louis, that he learns that he apparently stayed on the phone for nine minutes with no recollection of any conversation.

With the money from selling his truck and what he managed to save working extra shifts at the restaurant before he left home, Harry buys a bed, two pillows, a set of sheets, a pack of cigarettes, a case of beer, a new pair of shoes, and a pizza. The bed is supposed to be delivered the following Wednesday, everything else he struggles up four flights of stairs with.

All day so far, Harry has been thinking about his nine-minute drunk dial conversation with Louis. He still has no clue what he said or even why he called, but he knows he has to call him back, apologize and thank him for the CD. And despite the previous evening’s conversation, Harry decides not to be sober when he calls.

He drinks one beer and takes a hit from Niall’s bong, successfully pretending that it’s not a giant glass dick and balls until after he sets it back down on the coffee table, then lights a cigarette and calls Louis before he can think too much about it and get bogged down in the paranoia that he said something stupid the night before.

Harry hunches forward, rests his elbows on his knees, and waits for Louis to answer while watching the smoke spiral off the end of his cigarette. In true Louis fashion, he doesn’t bother with a greeting.

“You sober?” Louis’ words are short and clipped like he isn’t planning to waste another nine minutes of his evening on drunk Harry.

A short laugh surprises Harry and he hurries to answer. “Yes. No. Well…”

“Drunk?”

“No, no. Fuck, no, actually. Had a beer and a bong hit, but that’s it.”

“Gross, Harry. You know how I feel about bongs.” Harry can hear the revulsion in Louis’ voice and he tries not to laugh at him.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. ‘Disgusting, communal pipes that never get cleaned, filled with dirty water that never gets changed. This is how people get herpes, Harry.’”

“And…”

“And ‘the bigger the bong, the smaller the schlong.’ This one’s Niall’s though and he cleans it. I don’t know about the size of his penis though, haven’t seen it yet,” Harry says and hums thoughtfully.

“Yet?”

“I mean, we live together.”

“Do you really?” The surprise in Louis’ voice is easy to read and it makes Harry smile, how he can tell what Louis is thinking, even after being out of touch for so long.

“Yeah, it’s bound to happen eventually since he’s my roommate. I say roommate, but he has the bedroom and I sleep on a futon in the living room. You’d like this bong, I think. It’s a big, bright, neon pink, glass dick and balls. Like, more than a foot tall. And like, probably three inches diameter.”

“What the fuck?” Louis scoffs like he doesn’t believe it, but then he asks, “Are there pubes?”

“What? Oh, yeah, I guess.” Harry reaches for it and turns it around on the table, so he can see the front as he describes it. “There are these curly glass pieces all twirled together. That’s where the bowl is, like a little nest. But it looks more like ramen than pubic hair, I think.”

Louis sputters and chokes out a laugh. “What do you… Do you smoke out of the head?”

“Yeah, I try not to think about it because the size of the opening is kind of disturbing when you think of it in terms of dicks and—”

“Right.” Louis drags his vowels out, sarcastic as always. “The opening is disturbing.”

Harry cackles and picks up the bong, peering into it. “Yeah, okay, the whole thing is disturbing.”

Louis hums and then sighs quietly, barely loud enough for Harry to hear.

“You okay, Lou? Did I call at a bad time?”

“No, no, I’m fine. Sort of tired, but summers are like that.”

“Really? Why?”

“Oh, well, I, um… I work at— You know, it’s easy to forget, when we’re talking like this, that we haven’t spoken in two years.”

“I’m sorry. I—”

“No, that’s not what I meant, Harry, don’t… I just mean that it’s always so easy to talk to you. Not like this is the first time something like this has happened. We didn’t talk for a long time after high school. Remember? All of freshman year and first semester sophomore year. Then you called me on my birthday and it was like we’d been talking every day without ever stopping.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“Anyway, I just forget that you don’t know what’s going on in my life.”

“You never post on Facebook, I mean, neither do I, really. If you had Instagram or Twitter or Snapchat or something.”

“Maybe one day. It’s nothing against you, but I don’t like being so connected all the time. I only have an iPhone because my mom gave me her old one. Plus with my students… It’s easier to just avoid social media.”

“Yeah, okay. I get it. So tell me then. What’s so tiring about summer?”

“Oh, well, I’m outside a lot. I work at this music camp, but it’s not all sitting at the piano. We do hikes and kayaking and rafting and stuff.”

“Where?”

“Colorado.”

“Really? Shit, man. I don’t know where I thought you were…That sounds so cool.”

“Yeah, it is. I teach the rest of the year though.”

Harry teases, “What happened to you being in a band and being famous?” because he’s actually wondered about that. If maybe one day he might turn on the radio and hear Louis singing.

“Don’t know, really. I moved back to Kansas with my parents and got a job teaching and it’s decent money, good benefits, retirement and all that shit. I do this in the summer, so…” Louis trails off, his voice quieter, and Harry realizes he may have crossed a line. That maybe doing music for real wasn’t just some temporary thing that Louis fell into, maybe it was something he was passionate about, but it didn’t work out.

“Hey, um… I didn’t mean it like… I was just kidding, okay? Sounds like you’ve got a good job and I know you love working with kids. I mean, I don’t even have a real job. I’m a paid intern at Fame!TV and I spent probably half of last week Googling things for other people. Pretty lame.”

“Don’t talk about yourself like that, Harry.”

“You’re too nice to me.” Harry mutters, trying hard to keep the embarrassment out of his voice. “I’m happy you’re doing well, Lou. I’m… I really have missed you. Love your CD, by the way.”

“Yeah? I’m glad. Um… Listen, I have to go, my battery’s low and my charger is back in my room, but call me whenever you want, okay?”

“Okay. Don’t be surprised when I call you like, tomorrow.”

————

And that’s how it goes. Harry calls Louis again, not the next night, but the one after that, and they talk about whatever comes to mind. And a couple of nights later, he calls again. And again. Until, after a few weeks, they’ve almost got a schedule going.

Sometimes their conversations are serious, sometimes they’re philosophical, sometimes they’re about whatever they’re eating for dinner.

“Why do you think we’re here? Like, what do you think is the meaning of life?” Harry asks, words coming out even slower than usual because instead of smoking, he made brownies, and he’s been laying on the floor all evening.

“Deep Thoughts by Harry Styles.” Louis snickers, but he answers. “I think… I think that everyone finds their own meaning and that that is the meaning of life. Like, you have to find what’s important to you, what holds meaning for you personally, and then you have it.”

“Yeah, like what’s yours?”

“Um… Well, I like making people happy with music. I love music, just as a general thing, so I guess having music in my life? And, like… Love? So, my family. The people I’m close to.”

“So, it’s not about life having a meaning, it’s about finding what’s meaningful?”

“There ya go, Harold.”

“Thanks, Lou.” Harry shifts his body around, trying to get comfortable. His shoulder blades hurt where they’re resting on the hard floor and his lower back is sore, but he also doesn’t quite think he can move yet. “Am I one of your people?”

“Hmm?”

“One of your people that give life meaning. Am I one?”

“Sure, yeah.” Louis sighs and his voice sounds sad and far away, but Harry thinks it’s probably the pot brownies. He shouldn’t have had three. “I mean, my life would be very different if not for you. There aren’t a lot of people who I can say that about.”

“Me too. You’re one of my people too.” Harry blinks up at the ceiling, unsure if he’s like, about to have some sort of weird brownie related trip or if he’s sobering up or what, but there’s an enormous rush of affection toward Louis, and in the state he’s in, he visualizes it as pink wisps floating and swirling in the air above him, then filtering through the phone, bouncing off of antennas and radio towers and satellites, until it comes down in whatever part of Colorado Louis is in, and it trickles out of Louis’ phone, surrounding him in a fluffy, pink cloud of Harry’s love. Harry sighs happily and says, “Love you, Lou.”

Louis is silent for a moment, but Harry can hear him breathing, and he giggles quietly at the image in his head of the cloud of love around Louis.

“Love you, too, Harry. Um… Are you still on the floor?”

“Yeah, but…” Harry grunts and rolls to the side, then pushes himself to standing. He’s only a little bit dizzy. “I’m up now. I’m okay. Why? Worried about me?”

“I’ve got to go, H. Just wanted to make sure you weren’t going to sleep on the floor. Goodnight.”

Still stupidly giddy and loopy, Harry replies, “’Night,” and hangs up the phone.

————

It’s early on a Wednesday afternoon in July, Harry’s been working all morning, and has spent a good portion of that sweating, even though he’s inside an air conditioned building. After a late lunch, he and Niall and Zayn are in one of the conference rooms, working on coming up with creative interview ideas to pitch to their boss. They’re all annoyed, though thankfully not with each other, but there’s an almost eerie silence in the large room, and Harry can’t stand it.

He gets up and goes to the cabinets along the wall, pulls out the speakers that they use for meetings, and fiddles with them for a bit before they finally connect to his phone. Without really thinking about what he’s doing, he scrolls through his iTunes to the playlist he made from the CD that Louis sent him, presses shuffle, and sits back down. With some music playing, he figures they’ll work a lot faster, and maybe even be less tense, because the silence before was deafening.

“Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” by Jeff Buckley comes on first and Harry hums a little and mouths the words along without singing out loud.

“Great song, man. What a fucking loss. Love his stuff though,” Zayn says from behind his laptop.

“Really, such an iconic love song,” Niall says.

Zayn stretches his arms overhead and his too small t-shirt rides up, catching Niall’s eye, and causing Harry to snicker behind his hand. They’re so obvious. When Zayn lowers his arms and tugs at the hem of his shirt, he taps his fingertips against the table and says, “I mean, iconic, yeah. But it’s like… a break-up song. Or unrequited love. No one’s playing it at their wedding, you know?”

Harry nods slowly and says, “Yeah, it’s just a good song.”

“Right, exactly.” Zayn sings along to the last line, and his voice is absolutely lovely, then the music fades out, the playlist shuffles, and the next song starts. “Now, this one is a classic love song.”

They’re hardly even working anymore. Harry’s resting his elbows on the table and his chin in his hands as he hums along with “In My Life” by The Beatles.

“You know, most people think of this song as a traditional love song, but if you really listen, it’s sad. It’s like… a song about missing someone.” Zayn goes back to his work, but then stops and asks, “This random or like, do you have a playlist or what?”

Harry sits up and looks at his phone, heaves a sigh, and says, “It’s a playlist. From a CD.” but he won’t say more. If anyone’s dragging Louis into this, it’ll be Niall.

“Great songs. Kind of depressing, but I guess maybe not. Depends on how deep you think about it and what else is on it.” Zayn chuckles and Harry waits until he looks back down at his laptop before he scowls at Niall.

None of his glowering does him any good, because even though there are plenty of upbeat songs on the playlist, the third song comes on, and Harry drops his head down and rests his forehead on the table.

“Shit, man. This is like… I mean, it’s Bob Dylan, but man.” Zayn leans around his laptop screen and taps the back of Harry’s head. “Why the hell did you put all of these songs on a CD together? Bad breakup?”

“I didn’t. It’s just…” Harry’s voice is muffled, so he sits up straight in his chair. “They’re just songs. Songs don’t have to mean anything.”

“True.” Zayn nods and purses his lips and for a second, Harry thinks that Niall might be distracted enough to forget what’s going on, but then Zayn says, “But Dylan himself said ‘Don’t Think Twice, It's Alright’ is a breakup song. He wrote it after his girlfriend like, up and moved to Europe.”

Niall nods and says, “The line in the second verse that kills me is: I wish there was something you would do or say, to try and make me change my mind and stay. God, poor Bob Dylan.”

“Yeah. Poor Bob Dylan,” Harry says, not bothering to keep the snark out of his voice, “Everyone gets their heart broken, Niall. It’s not unusual. He got like, an unforgettable song out of it.”

Harry sits back in his chair and crosses his arms. He’s ready to be done for the day. Go home, shower, smoke, and call Louis. It’s Wednesday, after all, and they always talk on Wednesdays.

“True,” Zayn agrees easily. “It’s not like he was hung up on her forever either. Like the song was cathartic for him, I think. What else is on the playlist?” He reaches for Harry’s phone and hits skip. “‘Love Ridden’ by Fiona Apple. Jesus. That’s like… angsty as fuck.” Skip. “Oh, this is a great love song. “I’d Have You Anytime“ is classic George Harrison. But fuck. In with the rest of this shit?” Zayn looks at Harry and tosses his phone to him. “You okay?”

“What? Yeah, I’m fine.” Harry stops the music and disconnects it from the speakers. He’s had enough. “I didn’t even make the playlist. Someone made it for me.”

Niall snorts and quickly covers his mouth, but Harry still glares at him. Zayn, however, looks confused even as he nods and says, “They seem to really like singer-songwriters.”

Harry nods, collects his things and stands up. It’s early for him to leave, but he doesn’t want to be there anymore. He leaves Zayn and Niall in the conference room, swings by Heather’s office and tells her he’s not feeling well, which isn’t really a lie, and goes home.

On the subway, he listens to Louis’ playlist for the millionth time, but this time he listens. By the time he climbs the stairs to his apartment, Harry’s pretty sure he knows what happened. And it only took about a month of listening to these same songs on repeat, and Zayn’s music nerd knowledge to finally make him realize what happened. Or what he thinks happened.

It’s an odd sense of sadness because he thought that things were actually okay between them, but it seems like Louis might still be holding back. Because it sounds like he went through a bad breakup, but he hasn’t said word one about it. And when Harry listens to the songs again, he feels… like maybe Louis was trying to hint at it without directly saying anything.

Harry eats a quick dinner and climbs into bed with his laptop to watch Netflix. When Niall comes home, the first words out of his mouth are apologies, but Harry stops him and tells him not to worry about it.

Before he goes to sleep that night, he calls Louis, but he doesn’t answer, so Harry leaves a message saying that he’s been listening to his CD again and that he’s worried that there’s something Louis hasn’t told him about an ex-boyfriend or a breakup, that he’s always there if Louis needs to talk, and that he hopes everything okay.

When he wakes up the next morning, Harry picks up his phone, expecting to see a text from Louis, but there’s nothing there. When he still doesn’t hear anything from him the next day, he figures that Louis doesn’t want to talk about it. And, since he’s certainly not going to ask him about it, he decides that the best course of action is to pretend that nothing has changed. So that’s what he does. He follows the same pattern they’ve stuck with over the last month or so and waits to call Louis on Monday, and things go back to normal.

A few weeks later, they’ve been chatting for about half an hour when Louis starts to cough. And cough. And after a moment, Harry realizes that Louis is fine, he isn't sick or choking or anything like that, he’s smoking.

“Are you smoking weed?” Harry doesn’t mean to sound so shocked, but he assumed that Louis just didn’t smoke anymore. He’s not sure why.

Louis coughs again, then says, voice creaky and weird like he’s holding the smoke in, “Yep.”

“Right, well, let me get mine and we’ll get high together.” Harry grabs his little one-hitter out of his junk drawer, puts Louis on speaker phone, and they smoke together, except they’re almost two thousand miles apart. And afterward, when neither of them can keep up with what they’re talking about, rather than hang up, they figure they’ll drink together too, but because they can never do anything halfway, they decide to play Never Have I Ever.

Three turns in and Harry is silently thanking Zayn for living nearby and conveniently providing Niall a place to hang out so that he’s not there to laugh at him.

“Alright,” Louis says, barely stifling a giggle. “Never have I ever… been blown by a complete stranger.”

Harry snorts. “What, like a one-night stand?”

“No, like… just had someone give you head, like… right off the bat, soon as you see them, dick in mouth. Like, no names, nothing.”

“Oh.” Harry almost chokes when he hears a gulp on the other end of the line. “Did you drink?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Did you really?”

“Yes, Harold. And you didn’t. You’ve always been more into relationships than sex. What’s the problem?”

“I don’t…” Harry stares at the screen of his phone, unsure of what to say. He’s surprised, that’s all, but for some reason he also wants proof. So he hangs up. And immediately FaceTimes Louis.

It takes Louis a few rings to answer, long enough that Harry wonders if Louis has ever used FaceTime before, but then he answers.

“Hello again,” Louis says and waves his fingers at the phone. “Don’t you look a bit dumbstruck. You did FaceTime me on purpose?”

He had kind of forgotten what Louis looked liked and he’s bitter because no one is supposed to look good at that angle. He’s tan from all of the hiking and kayaking and whatever he’s been doing, his hair is soft and messy and hanging down toward the phone, his face is a little scruffy, like he’s just forgotten to shave for a day or two, and he’s shirtless. And smiling.

“I did. I did FaceTime you on purpose. I just…” Harry sucks his lower lip into his mouth, then lets it go. “I guess I didn’t realize how much I missed your stupid face.”

“Funny. I didn’t miss yours at all.” Louis smirks and Harry flips him off, holding his finger right in front of his face. “Nah, I missed you too. Your hair’s so long now.”

“Oh, um, actually, it was a lot longer. I cut it before I moved. I’ll send you a picture later.”

“Yeah, okay.” Louis moves to the side, off camera, and the light from the ceiling shines down onto the phone. Harry closes his eyes and when he opens them, Louis is back, but at a different angle. “Had to move to the couch. Set you up on a pillow so I can smoke and drink and see you, all at the same time.”

For a few seconds, Harry watches Louis get comfortable, and then he realizes what a good idea it is, so he does the same, so that they’re both laying on their sides, heads propped up on one hand, with everything else in easy reach.

“Right, so,” Louis says, “your turn.”

Harry’s confused for a second, but then he remembers. “Never have I ever… been to a music festival.”

Louis rolls his eyes and lifts his beer to his mouth and Harry watches him lean his head back and swallow and forgets what they were talking about.

“You’ve never been to a music festival?” Louis asks while he shakes his empty bottle, then leans forward, Harry presumes it’s so he can set his beer down, and he watches the screen of his phone as Louis’ chest and stomach get closer to the camera until it’s almost like a close-up picture of his nipple. Harry blinks, unable to stop staring, and finally closes his eyes.

“Yeah, no?”

“Really? With your job?”

“No, I know. I mean, I’ve been to a lot of shows and stuff. Lots of concerts. But just… I don’t know. They’re always, like, multiple days and I’ve always worked and with school and stuff…” Harry shrugs and reaches for a cigarette. He lights it, exhales, and says, “I’d like to go to one though. Think it’d be fun.”

“It would be. They’re like, well, they’re exhausting. But they’re incredible. Especially if you go with people you know you won’t get sick of after a few days.”

“We should go to one.” Harry gestures at his phone with his cigarette. “Me and you.”

“Yeah? That’s not a bad idea. Lollapalooza is soon, isn’t it? Like, early August, I think. And Chicago is like halfway between us.”

A huge smile spreads across Harry’s face and he’s just fucked up enough not to care. “Do we sleep in a tent?”

“No, I think we’d have to stay in a hotel or something. They don’t let you camp.”

“Alright. Let’s, um…” Harry squints and takes a drag off his cigarette. “Let’s talk about this when we’re sober and figure out like, logistics and stuff.”

“Okay, H.” Louis picks up his phone and rolls onto his back, holding it overhead. “Talk to you later.”

Harry nods, but keeps his mouth shut tight, because he’s afraid of what sort of garbled sounds might come out. He blames it on the weed and alcohol and forgets it ever happened.

————

They talk about Lollapalooza again a few nights later when they’re both sober and they decide on a general plan. Louis will look for a reasonable hotel, Harry will see if he can find a connection to help him score tickets for the sold out festival, and they’ll both keep an eye on flights so that they can nab a cheap deal as soon as it pops up.

They’re waiting until they at least have one-day passes before they do anything else, so Harry doesn’t have a conversation with anyone without mentioning that he’d really love to attend Lollapalooza if only there were still tickets available. He feels like a bit of an asshole doing it, but he kind of desperately wants to see Louis in person, and for some reason, he’s gotten in his head that this is the only way.

Amazingly, it only takes a couple of weeks before Harry drops a hint and someone picks it up and says that, not only do they think they can get him tickets, but that they think they might be able to get them for free. Harry almost screams right there in the elevator, but maintains a mostly calm facade, while he hands over his phone number in return for a promise to call by the next evening.

For the rest of the day, Harry can’t stop smiling. He and Niall and Zayn leave work and walk to what has become their regular Friday evening hangout for a few drinks. Harry sends a quick text to Louis letting him know that he’s got a line on some tickets, but doesn’t say anything else because he doesn’t want to jinx it or get Louis’ hopes up.

“Chill, man,” Zayn says with a smirk when he turns around from the bar to hand Harry and Niall their drinks. “You’re like, bouncing. Stop bouncing.”

“Can’t. Sorry.” Harry takes his drink and bounces lightly on his toes. “I’m so fucking excited, you have no idea.”

Niall cackles and leads them to a less crowded spot at the end of the bar, then turns around and says, “You haven’t shut up about it, H. Literally everyone who’s been within ten feet of you lately knows how much you’re looking forward to it.” Niall lowers his voice and tries to imitate Harry’s. “I can’t wait to see Louis! It’s going to be fucking awesome to see him! I haven’t seen Louis in years! Louis does music therapy at a summer camp! He’s so smart, you guys! He’s a teacher too! And he’s kind and funny! Louis is amazing! I mean, did you know, Zayn?”

Harry scowls at Niall, then turns to Zayn, hoping for some support, but finds him fucking giggling into the palm of his hand, which is annoying because it’s so endearing.

There’s nothing for Harry to do but roll his eyes and say, “He is amazing.”

Because it’s true.

All of the energy is desperate for a release, so Harry turns to lean back against the bar so he can see the rest of the room. There are a couple of cute girls that he thinks might be checking him out, so he picks the one on the right and offers to buy her a drink. They talk for a while and she gives Harry her number, but eventually the conversation peters out and he makes his way back over to the bar.

His phone vibrates in his pocket, but when he checks it, it’s a text from his sister. Nothing from Louis yet, but he’s probably trying not to get too excited. Niall and Zayn pick on Harry for the entire evening, but he doesn’t mind. He just smiles and doesn’t try to hide his excitement even though the need to see Louis is consuming him and he doesn’t know why. He’s just thankful that Lollapalooza is only a few weeks out.

There’s still no response from Louis the next day, which is fine, really. They don’t actually text that often, preferring to save everything so they can talk about it on their designated nights, so Harry isn’t concerned at all, though when his phone rings Saturday night and he learns that he did indeed manage to talk himself into two free four-day passes, he can’t stop himself from calling Louis as soon as he has the ticket confirmation information email. There’s no answer, so Harry leaves him an overly excited voicemail, complete with random shouting and screeching, and figures he’ll hear from him soon enough.

Except he doesn’t.

When Louis doesn’t return his call on Sunday, Harry thinks he must be letting the news sink in, that it’s possible he didn’t even ask Louis to call him back right away, and that he’s probably planning to scream about it over FaceTime during their usual Monday night call.

Harry’s so fucking pumped to finally talk to Louis and figure out flights and where they’re staying that he starts pacing the room at eight o’clock. After about a half-hour of wandering aimlessly around their tiny apartment, Harry gives in, sits down, and a takes a bong hit, but almost immediately is back on his feet. He’s never called before nine, but his hands are quite literally shaking with anticipation, so at a quarter to, he gives in.

He lays on his stomach on his bed, his own face watches him back in the screen of his phone, he adjusts his hair, and catches himself biting his lip, so he stops and takes a deep breath, and Louis doesn’t answer.

He should’ve waited until after nine. Damn it. Harry drops his phone down onto the mattress and rolls over onto his back, staring at the ceiling of his little alcove, and trying to will his cigarettes to float across the room into his hand. Just as he gives up on that and climbs off his bed, his phone dings with a text.

Louis: Sorry! Can’t talk. Super busy with camp stuff.

Harry texts back that it’s fine and that they’ll talk soon, then he spends the rest of his Monday night with Netflix and Niall’s penis bong.

————

Faster and faster, Harry taps all ten of his fingers in a frantic rhythm, over and over again, until finally Niall reaches over, grabs both of his hands, and asks, “What the fuck are you on, man?”

Harry jerks his hands out of Niall’s grip and glowers at him. “I’m not on anything. I’m trying to decide something and I don't know what to do.” Slowly he starts to tap again, but only with the hand that’s farther away from Niall.

“And you’d rather me murder you so you don’t have to make a decision?” Niall asks, glaring meaningfully at Harry’s fingers, which Harry only manages to still by balling his hand into a fist.

After a big, heavy, dramatic sigh that has Niall raising his eyebrows and then rolling his eyes, Harry admits, “It’s Louis. Sort of.”

“What about him?” Niall pokes Harry in the shoulder when he doesn’t immediately respond. “Tell me.”

“I found a really good deal on a flight to Chicago and I want to go ahead and buy it before it’s gone, but he… I don’t know. He’s been really busy over the last week and we haven’t talked and…” Harry pushes his laptop away, crosses his arms on the table, and rests his forehead on them.

“Okay, well… Let me think for a second.” Niall reaches up and scratches Harry’s hair, which seems to help him relax a little bit. “You should just buy the ticket. ’Cause like, you’ll regret it if you don’t. And then you’ll probably be pissed at Louis and at me when you end up paying twice as much for your flight.”

Harry rocks his head back and forth, then sits up. “I don’t know.”

“Look, man. You got the four-day passes for free, right? So, like… Even if you buy this plane ticket and some crazy ass bullshit happens, it’s still almost like a free flight.”

“That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” Harry chuckles and pulls his laptop back in front of him. “But I like it.” Harry finishes clicking through to purchase the ticket, waits for his confirmation email, then closes his laptop, feeling relieved and a little bit giddy that he’s one step closer to finally seeing Louis again.

“You’re practically making money, H.” Niall pushes his chair back, stands up, and claps Harry on the shoulder. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

At home that night, Harry stares at his phone while he makes pasta for dinner. He watches it while he and Niall eat standing in their tiny kitchen. He carries it over to the futon and sets it on the coffee table while he and Niall watch TV. He tosses it from hand to hand while Niall packs the bowl of his bong. And later, when he’s high and zoned out, he alternates between repeatedly locking and unlocking his phone, and placing it face down on the table in an attempt to ignore it. Finally, it seems like Niall has had enough, because he snatches Harry’s phone as soon as he sets it on the table again.

“Just fucking call him, man.” Niall reaches for the remote and pauses the TV. “You’re driving me up the fucking wall.”

Harry shakes his head and crosses his arms, sinking back into the futon cushion. “Sorry. Don’t mean to be annoying, but like… I can’t call him now. We never talk on Saturday. I need to wait until Monday.”

“That’s dumb.” Niall sighs and rolls his eyes. “You want to come to Zayn’s with me?”

“Umm… Nope.” Harry shakes his head and scrunches his nose. “You staying over?”

“Yeah, we might go out or something, but I won’t be home.” Niall stands up and pats Harry on the head. “You can stare at your phone all night and I won’t bother you.”

He doesn’t stare at his phone all night. Eventually the battery gets low enough that he has to charge it, so he distracts himself with Niall’s bong and the last few beers from the fridge. It takes him more than an hour to realize that since Niall isn’t coming home, he has the apartment to himself, and the thought has him stupidly giddy, but he can’t help it. He hasn’t had an entire guaranteed night alone since he moved to New York, so he makes the most of it.

Granted, making the most of it doesn’t really mean much. Niall won’t let Harry have real candles anymore because he let one burn all the way down one time and it left scorch marks on the underside of the kitchen cabinet. So, he’s resorted to battery operated, LED, flameless “candles” for ambiance. He presses play on his “self lovin’” playlist, makes sure the door is locked, drops his pants, and starts to get down to business.

Harry lays there for a moment with his eyes closed, trying to pull one of his old fantasies from the back of his mind. When he was younger, he hardly needed the visual of the Victoria’s Secret catalog that he typically used to fuel his fantasies because he’d get hard at the drop of a hat and come almost as quickly.

During sex with the few girlfriends he had before Abigail, he spent most of time concentrating on doing things right, fully focused on trying to touch them in all of the right places, trying not to come before he even got started, that instead of fantasies he was almost following a step-by-step playbook.

Abigail was different. She was experienced, much more so than Harry was, she was confident, she knew what she liked, and wasn’t afraid to tell him what she wanted. For the two years that they were together, he kind of felt like he was along for the ride, which he didn’t mind at all. He found that he rather liked being told what to do to please her and it certainly made things easier for him.

The thing about having his bed in the main (only) room of a teeny tiny shoebox apartment that he shares with another person who tends to come and go randomly, sometimes with the guy he’s not dating (sure), sometimes alone, and always without warning, is that Harry doesn’t get any actual privacy unless he’s in the bathroom.

It’s become a habit to jerk off in the shower, almost like brushing his teeth. Now it’s almost an afterthought, just a part of his daily routine. So much so that he realizes as he tries to gets comfortable, that he doesn’t remember the last time he got himself off thinking about anything other than pressure and friction and the slickness of the bodywash he uses.

He thinks of Abby, how she loved to ride him, to take what she needed, but almost immediately he feels guilty thinking of her since they aren’t together anymore, and then he remembers her anger at his leaving and her nasty, flippant last words to him. A frustrated groan leaves his throat and he starts to mindlessly stroke himself like he does in the shower, except it’s dry without the water and the bodywash, and he thinks back to the jar of vaseline he kept “for his chapped lips” when he was a teenager living at home.

So far, this is the second worst masturbation session in his life, and only because of the absolute horror that was the time his mom walked in on him because she heard him moan and thought he was having a nightmare.

Harry slaps both of his hands against his thighs, then bends his knees to his chest, and rolls out of his bed, walks into the kitchen, and grabs the olive oil, drizzling it into his hand. He smears it all over his erection, then pours a little more into his hand, slicks himself up well and heads back to his bed. If he can’t have a complex fantasy, at least he can get off comfortably.

He settles back onto the mattress, closes his eyes, and pictures a faceless body riding him instead of Abby. It works.

Lost in the familiar sensations, the tremble in his legs and the swirling of pleasure in his stomach, he fucks up into his hand and abruptly the fantasy body sitting on his cock is no longer faceless. Looking down at him is Louis. The same image from his phone screen during their last conversation, shirtless and tan, his hair falling into his face.

Harry’s eyes fly open and he grunts, coming without warning, stomach and legs almost cramping with the force of it.

The next morning, he wakes up disgusting and itchy because he fell asleep before he could make himself get out of bed to clean himself off. There may or may not be come in his hair, but he refuses to look, just showers and shampoos twice to be sure.

That night, he stays late at work, as a way to keep busy until nine o’clock. He stops at the corner bodega to pick up cigarettes and beer and he wanders around the store, grabbing chips and pretzels and a few candy bars, and finally makes it home around eight. He successfully distracts himself for the last hour by making dinner, cleaning the bathroom, and sweeping the floor.

Harry makes himself wait until five after nine before he picks up the phone, takes a deep breath, and calls Louis. It doesn’t ring at all, just goes straight to voicemail, which makes Harry’s brow wrinkle and draws his mouth into a full on pout. He doesn’t leave a message.

After staring at his phone for a moment, Harry shakes his head, remembering how busy Louis has been lately. He texts instead.

Harry: I know you’re super busy so you can just text me. I wanted to check on the hotel situation for Chicago. Let me know! Miss you!

He doesn’t text Harry back until the next day.

Louis: Sorry! Yeah it’s been really busy here. I’ll call you Wednesday.

He doesn’t call on Wednesday.

Harry waits until eleven o’clock, which is nine Louis’ time, and two hours later than their regular time, before texting him three question marks because he truly is confused and he’s having an internal battle with himself, pushing down the instinct to be upset with Louis. He can’t be angry. Not when they’ve never put any parameters on their friendship. He can’t have expectations.

All day Thursday, Harry pretends that he’s not bothered by the lack of communication from Louis by overcompensating, smiling at everyone, offering to do extra work without being asked, and generally making all of his coworkers worry about him for the wrong reasons.

On Friday, Niall and Zayn can’t take it anymore.

When Harry gets out of the shower, Niall has already vacated the apartment, leaving a post-it note on top of Harry’s keys that says he left early to meet Zayn. On the subway that morning, he can’t stop worrying, thinking that maybe something happened to Louis, as if that’s the only reason that Louis could have for not calling. Somehow, he knows that Louis is fine.

Harry gets to work right on time, but almost as soon as he sits down, Zayn appears next to his desk.

“Alright, H?” Zayn asks suspiciously and slides a cup of coffee onto Harry’s desk.

“Yeah, man, fine.” Harry shakes his head and grins a little maniacally, and he knows he’s overcompensating. He just doesn’t want to talk about it because he doesn’t fully understand himself why he’s feeling this way.

Like Niall said, the passes to Lolla are free, so the plane ticket practically costs nothing, and if by some chance, Louis ends up unable to go, it’s not a big deal. Or it shouldn’t be a big deal. In his own opinion, he’s overly concerned about it, too worried that their plans will fall through, and letting it negatively affect his mood. So he does what he always used to do when he was a waiter and depended on his smile and his happiness to make rent and fakes it.

At lunch, he walks down to meet Niall and Zayn, hoping for a distraction, but after he grabs a sandwich and texts them that he’s on the way to their usual lunch spot, Niall messages him back that they’ve already eaten. He ends up eating alone, dwelling on things when he’d much rather think about anything else, then throws out half of his sandwich and goes back to work.

It feels like his friends have been avoiding him all day, which sucks because it makes him think that maybe Louis is doing the same thing, and by the time he gets off work that evening, he’s prepared for Zayn and Niall to skip out on their usual Friday night drink or two. Instead, they meet him on the sidewalk, drag Harry in the opposite direction to an actual club. It’s louder and more crowded and Harry knows that the dance floor will soon be a mass of writhing bodies.

Harry groans when they pull him through the door because this is the last thing he’s interested in doing. He has no desire to dance with anyone or even by himself and he certainly doesn’t feel up to repeatedly telling Zayn and Niall that he’s fine when he knows that they can tell that he’s far from it. And he doesn’t want to explain why he’s upset anyway.

Still, he stays because he knows that if he goes home by himself, all he’ll do is stare at his phone and smoke weed until he either calls Louis or falls asleep. He lasts a couple of hours, helped along by rum and cokes and a couple of too sweet shots, which Niall practically forces on him. It was either drink them or wear them and they tasted good, so he didn’t mind.

During a trip to the restroom, Harry’s phone buzzes in his pocket with an email notification from the website where he purchased his plane ticket, and he sighs. And then he just doesn’t give a fuck.

Standing in the far corner of the bathroom, where it’s quieter than it is anywhere else in the bar, he calls Louis. It rings twice and stops. Doesn’t go to voicemail or anything, just cuts off, so he looks at his phone for a few seconds, then calls him again. This time it rings four times before he hears a staticky, shuffling sound and muttered talking, a distant voice says, “Oh, shit.” Then, clearer, “Um… Louis’ phone. Uh… Sorry. Louis’ roommate James speaking.”

“Umm… Sorry, um…” It takes him a few seconds, and he’s still not sure what’s going on, but he clears his throat says, “This is Harry. Is Louis there?”

“Nah, man. He’s down at the Head Counselor Lodge with Baker. Must’ve forgot his phone. Didn’t really mean to answer, actually. Was trying to decline the call.”

“Oh, um…” Harry closes his eyes, trying to focus through the alcohol. Louis is with his boss and a baker or his boss is a baker. “Okay, I’ll just call back in a couple hours. Thank—”

“Don’t bother. Just call him tomorrow. Pretty sure he’s staying at his boyfriend’s place tonight.”

Harry pulls his phone away from his ear and stares at it, confused. There’s no point in saying anything else, so he hangs up and pockets his phone and pushes through the crowd until he reaches the bar where he orders another shot, which he throws back, and another drink, which he downs half of immediately.

He weaves his way to the middle of the dance floor, hands in the air, obnoxiously yelling along to the music, and loses himself in the pounding bass.

Less than an hour later he’s back in the bathroom. This time in the far stall, bent over and puking into the toilet. When he finishes, he stands up and leans against the locked door, flushes with his foot, kicks the lid down, turns around and drops down onto the toilet seat.

While he wipes his face with what’s left of the toilet paper roll, he bites back tears, refusing to cry in a fucking public toilet. He waits to do that until he’s home, tucked into his bed, lights off, apartment quiet, after being hauled up the stairs and by Niall and Zayn.

————

Chapter Text

— 2 Years Later —

“Niall, I really, really don’t,” Harry says into the phone that’s barely hanging on between his shoulder and his ear while he pulls his hair up into a bun. “It’s hot and it’s August and I just don’t want to.”

Finally, Harry gives up, puts Niall on speaker, and sets the phone down beside the sink so he can put his hair up. Niall’s voice echoes a bit in the otherwise quiet bathroom. “It’s been two years, man. Let it go.”

“Fuck off.” Harry scowls down at his phone, even though Niall can’t see him. “It’s just… It’s tainted.”

“But we had fun, didn’t we? Me and you. And I want to go with Z and you.” There’s a beat and then Niall quickly adds, “And Jenn. If you want.”

“I guess it was fun. Don’t remember much, to be honest. And what I do remember, I’d rather forget.” He drank and smoked and did a lot of drugs that he typically avoids that weekend, which led to making out with pretty much every girl who was into him enough to initiate things. Harry sighs and picks up his phone again. “I’m not going. Maybe, like… ACL Fest in October or something. But not Lolla.”

“Yeah, alright. Figured it was worth a shot.”

“It’s fine. Thanks for calling instead of bringing it up in front of Jenn.”

“No problem, H. You meeting us at the bar?”

“Yep. On my way now.” Harry pushes open the restroom and walks down the corridor to wait by the elevator with the rest of the seven o’clock crowd.

It’s still strange, walking to the bar on Fridays without Niall and Zayn beside him, even though it’s been a little more than a year. He misses them at work sometimes, though he definitely gets more actual work done without them around.

When their internships reached the one year mark, Niall and Zayn applied for long shot jobs at VTV and somehow both of them managed to get in on the ground floor. Harry decided to play it smart and stay put at Fame!TV, taking a job working alongside Heather and helping manage the next crop of interns. It worked out. He feels like he’s gotten a lot more experience, and in a variety of areas since he’s over all of the interns and not just one department. He’s better at behind the scenes work, research especially, so he’s glad he stayed at Fame!TV. However, another year later and he thinks he’s ready to move on.

“Jenn’s meeting us,” Harry says as he slides onto a barstool beside Niall. After taking in Niall’s unenthusiastic nod and double thumbs up, Harry sighs. “It’s been almost a year, Ni. Like… I know you don’t like her, but don’t be a dick.”

“Sorry, man. I just… She was supposed to be your roommate, not your girlfriend.” Niall sips his beer and says, “Plus, half the time you don’t even seem to like her.”

Harry scoffs. “I like her fine, Niall. Jesus.”

“I’ve literally never heard you talk about her in a way that wasn't, like… I don’t know. You sound bored.”

“Fuck you.” Harry stands up from his stool, but a heavy hand on his shoulder pushes him back down. He rolls his eyes and knows who it is without looking. “Hi, Zayn.”

“Now, boys, play nice. Niall, if you’re already talking shit before the sun goes down, you need to chill the fuck out.” Zayn points a finger at Niall and raises his eyebrows, after a few seconds Niall nods and apologizes. “Harry, Jenn is a great girl and if you love her, then I do too and Niall will learn to love her. Or at least keep his opinions to himself.”

“It’s fine.” Harry leans over, licks his lips, and plants a wet smacking kiss on Niall’s cheek.

It is fine, really, because Niall never says anything that Harry hasn’t thought of at least a couple of times on his own. When Niall moved out of their shared apartment and in with Zayn, they found Jenn through a friend of a friend, and she moved in, taking Niall’s old room.

One drunken hookup led to another and another and after enough of those, they sort of accidentally fell into a relationship. It isn’t bad, though it isn’t an epic romance by any means. Harry’s pretty sure those are few and far between, if they even exist at all. It’s comfortable, sort of similar to his relationship with Abigail; they’re the only two serious relationships he’s had.

They’re in bed that night, Jenn is already asleep on her side facing away from Harry. She fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow, but Harry is still awake, switching from app to app, scrolling Tumblr, then Twitter, then Instagram, then pondering whether or not to download Snapchat again. While he’s in the middle of composing a tweet about insomnia, an Instagram notification pops up, and he instinctively locks his phone, as if that will hold back the rush of emotions.

Your Facebook friend Louis Tomlinson is now on Instagram as tommotommo.

It’s like he has no control over his hands because he unlocks his phone, opens Instagram, and is looking at Louis’ stupid face in seconds. His profile picture is the only one on the account and it’s of him looking like a fucking model, face all scruffy and serious, wearing a black hoodie zipped up over a white t-shirt, hair soft and brushed to the side.

Harry exits out of Instagram, locks his phone, puts it on the bedside table, and pushes it out of arm’s reach for good measure. Fuck.

Harry takes a deep breath and blows it out through pursed lips. He tries not to think about Louis at all anymore, if he can help it. The whole situation a few years back was so fucked up and Harry didn’t handle it well.

When Louis finally called him a few days later, Harry didn’t answer because he wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep himself from losing his temper. Eventually, Louis sent him a text apologizing for not getting back to him about the hotel for Lollapalooza and telling him that he didn’t think he’d be able to go anyway. He didn’t mention his boyfriend.

Harry didn’t respond until he was completely wasted in the middle of Grant Park in Chicago. And then it was to send Louis a picture of his middle finger with Arctic Monkeys on stage in the background. Followed by the words “fuck you.”

Louis never responded and Harry never bothered calling or texting him again after that. He wasn’t proud of the way he acted, but he wasn’t about to apologize either. He thought he was over it, it’s been two years after all, but the surprise of seeing Louis’ picture is bringing back a lot of shit that Harry really doesn’t want to deal with. Mainly the hollow, grief-like feeling in the pit of his stomach when he thinks about their friendship and the melancholy desire for things to be normal between them again.

Harry sighs and rolls onto his side, then scoots closer to Jenn, drapes his arm around her middle, and presses a kiss to her shoulder. He’ll worry about Louis in the morning, because he’s almost positive that the street in the background of Louis’ Instagram profile picture is in New York.

————

For the first few days after Harry realizes Louis is in New York, he checks his Instagram every day, hoping for some sort of clue as to what reason he could possibly have for being there. Whether it’s a vacation with his boyfriend or a trip to visit someone who lives there or maybe chaperoning a field trip with his school, Harry spends an absurd amount of time studying the small collection of photos as they’re uploaded.

He doesn’t learn much other than that Louis takes a lot of broody (vain and obnoxious) selfies, and he has, at least so far, spent a lot of his time in the touristy areas of the city.

On Wednesday of that week, instead of his usual mid-morning smoke break, Harry goes to the bathroom, locks himself in a stall, unlocks his phone and opens Instagram.

Using the toe of his boot his drops the lid on the toilet seat and sits down, selects that first picture of Louis, and tries to take a look at it from a different perspective.

His body’s immediate reaction is the same as it was a few nights back when he first saw it. There’s a lurch in his stomach, his throat tightens, and he catches himself holding his breath. But there’s no reason for that. Shit, if he wants to be truly honest with himself, Louis did nothing wrong, really. At least, he didn’t do anything worse than what Harry did years ago when he started dating Abigail.

He jumps slightly in surprise when he hears someone else enter the restroom while he’s staring at Louis’ pictures. He fumbles with his phone and it hits him what he’s doing. It’s a wake-up call. This is just… not the person he wants to be.

They don’t have to be friends like they once were, in fact, they don’t have to be friends at all, but Harry has to let his anger go. It’s not doing him any good, and now he’s locked himself in the bathroom stall at work to stalk Louis on Instagram.

He shakes his head and goes back to his desk, keeps himself busy enough that for the rest of the day he doesn’t think about Louis much at all. After another few days of avoiding Louis’ Instagram, things pretty much go back to normal.

Niall and Zayn leave for Chicago for Lollapalooza, and Harry is surprised at the sheer lack of bitter feelings he has every time they text him or post on Snapchat or Instagram. It’s not as if he’s had closure or whatever, but it kind of feels that way. And after a while, he sort of forgets about it.

Which is why it shocks the shit out of him a little more than a month later when Louis follows him on Instagram.

Harry holds his phone close to his face, then pulls it away, rubs his eyes, and looks at it from a distance, but either way he still sees tommotommo started following you and he immediately texts Niall.

Harry: Louis followed me on insta

He was only taking a peek at his phone while Jenn was in the restroom, but his palms started to sweat as soon as he saw the notification, and he isn’t sure what to do.

Niall: So?

After a quick glance in the direction of the restroom, Harry types a reply.

Harry: Idk but I’m freaking out

Niall: Dude, are you seriously texting me about LOUIS while you’re out for your fancy one year anniversary dinner with JENN???

He locks his phone and slips it into his pocket just as Jenn and the server arrive at the table, and then there’s the distraction of wine and food and the steady conversation about their respective weeks, and before Harry knows it, they’re back in their apartment, he’s fucking Jenn from behind, and probably thirty minutes later, they’re both asleep.

————

The following Monday, he sneaks away for lunch with Niall and Zayn.

“It’s weird. I feel weird about it.” Harry shrugs and takes a bite of his sandwich. “I don’t know. I mean, I looked at his insta again and I think he’s here, like, living here now.”

“It’s a big city, H.” Zayn nods and points the straw of his drink at Harry. “Even if he’s living here, doesn’t mean you have to see him.”

“Yeah, man. And I don’t get it. You guys were friends, but you haven’t talked to him in years and you haven’t seen him in longer. You can sort of just pretend he doesn’t exist,” Niall says and stands up, gathering their trash and carrying it to throw it away.

“I know. I don’t know why I can’t stop thinking about it.” Harry follows them out of the cafe, drifting along behind them for a minute.

Their relationship is strange to him, but he knows they don’t care about his opinion on it. They’ve been together almost two years, lived together for one, but most of the time they seem more like really close friends than boyfriends. They don’t even call it that, don’t say they’re dating unless they’re point blank asked, there’s no talk of a future together or forever or love. At least, not that Harry’s aware of.

It seems so far from what Harry wants, but he really tries not to dwell on it, because thinking about Niall and Zayn’s relationship eventually makes him think about Jenn and how, realistically, he doesn’t see it lasting. Not that he’s going to call it off. The logistics of that—deciding who keeps the apartment, then either finding a new roommate or a new place to live—are enough to make him focus on something else.

Niall stops and turns back to Harry, then Zayn stops too, and they continue on, flanking Harry, as they walk him back to work. Niall nudges Harry with his elbow and asks, “I know Louis was like, your best friend, but sometimes you outgrow people.”

“Yeah, I mean, I don’t know.” Harry huffs and reaches up to let his hair down out of the bun he put it in while they were eating lunch. “It’s like… I miss him, but I don’t want to be around him.”

“Right, so don’t worry about it now. If he like, turns up at the bar on Friday or calls or texts you, then you can worry about it.” Niall nods sagely and hooks his arm through Harry’s.

Zayn hums and pulls out his pack of cigarettes, lighting one at a time and handing them over. “How was the big anniversary?”

“Um…” Harry sucks his top lip in between his teeth and lets it go. “It was fine. Food was good. Jenn’s been wanting to try that place, so…”

They stop at the smoking area outside of the building where Harry works and finish their cigarettes. Zayn exhales a long cloud of smoke, smirks and says, “Sounds nice, man. Glad you had a good time.”

Harry shoves Zayn’s shoulder and says “Fuck off” but he’s smiling. At least Zayn makes the effort.

Niall called him the morning after their anniversary dinner and, first, asked if he proposed, then when Harry laughed and said no, he asked if they’d broken up instead. Just before Harry hung up on him, like some sort of relationship expert, Niall said, “Eventually, it’ll be one or the other, man. Choose wisely.”

————

A few weeks later, Harry wakes up, checks the time on his phone, makes sure that Jenn is still sleeping, and scrambles out of the bed, through the kitchen, and into the bathroom, where he locks the door, and for some reason turns on the shower, before sitting down on the closed toilet lid and staring at his phone, blinking until he’s sure that he’s fully awake and not seeing things.

Gingerly, as if he’s dismantling a bomb and it’s going to explode in his face or something, Harry unlocks his phone and opens Instagram, going straight for his messages.

tommotommo: H! Been a long time. I’m living in NYC now and it looks like you are too, which means we’re in the same city for the first time in more than four years! Miss you, man. Let’s get a drink or something and catch up. I’m at the same number. I didn’t know if yours was the same, so I figured I’d message you here. Let me know if you’re up for it and we’ll get together sometime soon.

And, as he’s always done when Louis has asked anything of him, Harry says yes.

————

It’s been weeks since Harry’s even smoked weed because he’s trying to make it an occasional thing so that he can save money and he and Jenn can move out of the tiny, shitty apartment that he’s starting to hate, and into a slightly larger and slightly less shitty apartment. But he makes an exception for tonight and stops off at Zayn and Niall’s apartment to take one bong hit before he heads to the bar where Louis wants to meet.

He’s just nervous. So much so that he considered backing out, but he can’t. His need to somehow prove to Louis that everything is fine is stronger than his desire to run away or his fear of embarrassment.

After they must determine that Harry’s been hiding for too long, Zayn and Niall start knocking on the bathroom door in random patterns until Harry finally gives up and opens the door, but he doesn’t leave the bathroom. He rifles through their medicine cabinet, ignoring their protests, looking for eye drops and cologne because he might feel like he needs to be a little bit high to take the edge off of his nerves, but he doesn’t want to look or smell like it.

Once he’s used as many of their toiletries as he can find a reason to, they finally shoo him out of their apartment, but not before they each kiss him on both cheeks. Niall smacks Harry’s ass and pushes him out into the hallway, shutting the door behind him before he can complain.

————

The bar where Louis wants to meet is one that Harry’s been to a few times before, so he feels like he has a little bit of an upper hand. At least he’s not completely walking into the unknown.

It’s happy hour and Thirsty Thursday, so even though it’s early, the bar is packed. Harry scans the room and the tables near the door, then decides it’s too crowded to bother pushing through the room just to look for Louis when he may not even be there yet.

Instead, he goes straight to the bar, orders a happy hour margarita, and takes a menu with him on his trek around to the tables and booths on the other side of the bar. There’s a small high top table covered in empty bottles and glasses, but no one’s sitting there, so Harry snags a stool and sits down to wait for Louis facing the door. When the waitress comes by to clean the table, he orders another drink and some nachos, and before she’s finished asking if he wants sour cream and guacamole, Louis slides onto the stool across from him. Of course, the waitress takes it in stride, gets Louis’ drink order and they watch her rush off into the crowd, tray held high above her head.

There’s no reason for Harry to be surprised, after all, he was planning to meet Louis tonight, but he’s never been able to control himself to that extent and it’s shocking seeing him up close after so long. Harry wipes the palms of his hands on his jeans, suddenly more nervous than he’s been in… he doesn’t know how long, worried about his hair and whether he made a mistake in putting it up in a bun tonight. Then he feels stupid for even worrying about the way he looks. It’s Louis. Not like it’s a date.

Harry turns back to look at Louis just as he does the same and when he sees the bright smile on Louis’ face, he can’t contain his own. They’re both off their stools and meeting around the table in a split second.

“Hey, H,” Louis says, and his raspy voice sounds exactly the same, except that it’s right in Harry’s ear instead of coming through the speaker of his phone from halfway across the country. He squeezes his arms tight around Harry’s shoulders, Harry wraps his arms around Louis’ back and he wishes for a second that time could stand still, but it doesn’t.

“Hi, Lou.” Harry pats Louis’ back and Louis takes a step backwards, giving Harry the chance to finally get a good look at him. He’s let his hair grow longer again, though it’s still short in the back, and he’s put something in it to style it and keep it from falling into to his eyes the way it always did before. There’s one long piece that looks like it’s trying to curl and Harry almost reaches out and tugs on it, but he stops himself and winds up staring at Louis’ beard instead. Somehow he manages to seem exactly the same while simultaneously looking so different. The full beard is a lot to take in. Harry wasn’t expecting it, even though he saw it in the pictures on Louis’ Instagram.

Harry clears his throat and sits back down on his stool, putting the table between them and bringing himself back to reality.

“Missed you,” they both say and then they both start laughing and Harry knows that Louis’ mind is doing the same thing his is, taking him on a rapid replay of the hundreds of times they’ve done this before, all the way back to middle school when they both said the word jinx so many times that they gave up keeping track of who owed how many sodas. It’s as if it cracks something in Harry, starts to knock down a wall he built without realizing it.

Louis chuckles quietly and sits back when the server brings his drink, then sips it slowly while Harry watches. “I, um… know it’s been a couple of years, but I wanted to say sorry about Chicago, Harry.”

“Don’t.” Harry shakes his head. “No reason to apologize, Lou.”

“Yeah, but I’m going to anyway. I know you were pissed about it or you wouldn’t have sent me that picture or the text.”

“I mean, I was, but I’m not anymore. It’s been years.”

“Still. I know you were looking forward to it and I kind of…” Louis rolls his eyes and huffs out a breath. “I was sort of caught up in this guy. My ex. And, like—”

“You guys broke up?”

“Hmm?” Louis asks and his eyebrows draw together as he tilts his head to the side. “Oh, yeah, so I met this guy that summer and we started dating and I can’t help but feel like I screwed you over.”

“It’s not… You sort of did, but not really. I got the four-day passes for free and I ended up going with Niall, so it’s fine, really.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah, ’course.” Harry nods and says, “So tell me why you’re in New York. You’re living here, right?”

“Mmhmm… I’m, um… It’s a temporary thing. I kind of feel like I can’t just tell you why I’m here. Like, there are a million stories leading up to the story of why I’m in New York for a little while.”

“Right, well…” Harry picks up his drink and moves it out of the way so the server can drop off their food, then he leans his elbows back onto the table. “Start at the beginning. We’ve got time. Though I do have to work in the morning.”

It turns out that over the last two years, when Harry’s life has been more boring and predictable than ever before, Louis’ has been upside down and all over the place. Apparently, the music thing really is something he’s passionate about because Louis went back to it with the encouragement of his ex-boyfriend, Baker. Who’s been exchanged for someone named Liam—the same someone who’s made a few appearances on Louis’ instagram.

Louis doesn’t get into the details of his relationship with Baker or their break-up, and for that, Harry’s glad. He’s still able to pick up on the gist of it and that’s more than enough for him to figure out that Louis was in love with him and apparently thought they were the real deal. Forever and all that. Until they broke up and Louis decided to move to New York with Liam. Or Louis decided to move to New York with Liam and broke up with Baker. Harry isn’t sure of the correct sequence of events and doesn’t ask.

As long as Louis is happy.

Harry finds himself thinking that many times over the following days and weeks because now that they’ve seen each other, now that they’ve talked and touched and been in each other’s presence, they fall back into their old patterns as if they never stopped.

But this time, instead of being caught up in the thrill of a budding relationship with someone new and ignoring Louis, Harry hangs on his every word, responds to every text and answers every phone call. He knows he’s doing it, is almost watching himself from the outside, helpless to stop it, and not really wanting to.

Still, there’s sort of a forced interruption when Harry flies down to see his family over the long Thanksgiving weekend. It’s not that he can’t keep in touch with Louis while he’s out of town, it’s that Jenn is with him—their first holiday with family—and they’re together pretty much twenty-four seven, and Harry feels guilty jumping to answer every text from Louis, so he doesn’t. And the change is obvious.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Harry wakes up to a text from Louis.

Louis: I don’t want to do this shit again with you. If you don’t want to talk, say so. Don’t ignore me. We’ve both been there and done that and it sucks.

Immediately, Harry starts to text back that he’s just been busy, that his time is suddenly all taken up by his mom and his sister and Jenn, but he stops, deletes what he’s typed out, and blinks down at his phone. He shakes his head and sighs, typing out a quick ‘Sorry! I’ve been with my family. Be back tomorrow.’ and hopes that will suffice until he’s back home and can talk to Louis in person, because once again he’s found himself unintentionally keeping secrets.

While Jenn is still sleeping, Harry quietly showers, spending the time standing under the spray trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with him, and why he still hasn’t told Louis about her.

————

Before their plane lands at JFK the next afternoon, Harry’s come to the conclusion that he’s only been hiding Jenn out of habit because there’s no other reason for it. Louis has a boyfriend that Harry hasn’t met yet, and Harry has a girlfriend that Louis hasn’t met yet. And really, Louis has only talked about Liam a little, so maybe they’re on even ground.

That evening, after they’ve tossed their bags onto the bed in the alcove, and Jenn has collected all of their dirty clothes and hauled them down to the laundry room, Harry walks down to the bodega to grab a few things. He calls Louis on the way and Louis answers without a greeting, as usual.

“Sorry I was snarky in my text.”

Harry snorts and pulls the phone away as if that will stop the sound from traveling into Louis’ ear. “It’s fine. I actually called to apologize ’cause I was kind of ignoring you.”

“Well, well.”

“Well, well?”

“Yeah, I don’t know what else to say. Why were you ignoring me? Like I said, if you don’t want—”

“Shut up, Lou. I just realized that I’d, um… been so wrapped up in catching up with you. I mean, you’ve had like a million things to tell me and I sort of haven’t told you much of what’s been going on with me.”

“Shit. Okay. That… might be true, actually. Sorry.”

“No, no, it’s fine. I, um… I guess my life isn’t nearly as exciting as yours. I just work all the time and come home to my girlfriend.” Harry clenches his teeth and closes his eyes, hoping that his words came out somewhat organically. It seems like he pulled it off because Louis doesn’t like, gasp or anything.

“Oh, what’s her name?”

Harry takes a relieved breath. “Jenn. She was with me this weekend and, well…”

“It’s fine, H. I’d like to meet her, if that’s alright. Liam’s been bugging me about meeting you, so…”

“Yeah, that’d be cool. You want, um… You guys could meet us out on Friday? We go to the bar after work. My friends will be there too.”

“Sounds good, man.”

So that’s what they do. Harry tells Jenn that night while they’re folding laundry, but it takes him most of the week to convince himself to tell Niall and Zayn. Jenn doesn’t know the entire history between Harry and Louis, she knows that they’re old friends, but that’s it. With Niall and Zayn, Harry’s worried about how they’ll react when he tells them and how they’ll treat Louis. He ends up waiting until that Friday evening, taking off a little bit early, and walking towards the building where Niall and Zayn work instead of heading straight for the bar.

Harry’s standing outside smoking when Niall and Zayn get out of work and join him on the sidewalk. To sort of smooth the way, Harry hands them each a cigarette, then says, “Jenn is meeting us.” He can’t see it, but he knows from experience that Niall rolls his eyes while Zayn just nods. Harry looks at them both in his peripheral vision and watches for their reactions to what he says next. “Louis and his boyfriend will be there too.”

Both Zayn and Niall whip their heads around and Harry can’t help the barking laugh that escapes him. They look ridiculous. Like something out of a cartoon, with wide eyes and open mouths.

Zayn recovers first and says, “I take it you guys are getting along? You never mentioned him after you met for drinks that night. Thought maybe it didn’t go so well.”

“I love hanging out with people I don’t like,” Niall deadpans and knocks his shoulder into Harry’s when he frowns. “Kidding. I know you’ve been friends with Louis for a long time, but he was an asshole a couple of years ago when he left you high and dry about Lolla.”

Harry tries not to sigh because he knew it was coming. “Please don’t be a dick to anyone. And please don’t embarrass me.”

“Sure thing, H. Just looking out for you,” Niall says and opens the door, ushering Zayn and Harry inside. They’re the first ones to arrive, thankfully, and it’s early enough that they’re able to grab two tables and push them together.

Louis and Liam show up not long after, while they’re still sipping on their first round of drinks, and Harry’s out of his chair before he notices what he’s doing, crossing the room and catching Louis in a hug. Once it hits him that he might be overstepping, he pushes back, putting space between them, and reaches out to shake Liam’s hand. Liam grasps it and pulls Harry in, hugs him tight, pats his back, and says, “I’ve heard so much about you, man. Nice to finally meet you.”

It’s strange seeing Louis and Liam together. There’s an odd heaving sensation in his stomach at the sight of Liam leaning close to whisper into Louis’ ear, and he has the sudden urge to separate them because they shouldn’t be allowed to touch like that in public.

Harry shakes his head and glances away, ashamed of his visceral reaction to two gay men showing physical affection. He’s never felt like that about Niall and Zayn or anyone else for that matter. Maybe it’s because Harry hasn’t been around Louis and anyone he’s been in a relationship with before and this is just a new situation. He was with Eric for so long—all through college, but Harry never even met him.

All of Louis’ relationships with his ex-boyfriends have been tangentially experienced, only hearing occasional stories from Louis, so they almost haven’t seemed real. It’s different meeting one of Louis’ boyfriends face to face, seeing him as an actual person instead of a vague description of one.

Liam is so kind and lovely that Harry can’t help but like him immediately. He’s sweet to Louis, slipping off to fetch their drinks with a smile, and Harry pointedly ignores when he playfully smacks Louis on the ass before he goes. He needs to get his shit together. Louis’ ass isn’t his concern anyway.

————

A little more than a week later, Louis and Harry meet up to do some Christmas shopping together. Harry figures that it’ll be a pretty even trade, if he helps Louis figure out what to buy Liam, then maybe Louis can help him figure out what to get for Jenn.

“I don’t really know what to get Liam. I mean, we’re living on a futon at Nate’s, all our shit’s in suitcases…” Louis trails off and pats his pockets until he comes up with a crumpled pack of cigarettes.

“Does he smoke?” Harry reaches for the cigarette that Louis lit for him and takes a drag. “You could get him a carton.”

Louis laughs quietly and says, “Might do that. Maybe I’ll get him a nice pillow or something.”

“Are you guys planning to stay where you are or, like… Were you looking for your own place?”

“We don’t know how long we’ll be here, really, but not long enough to sign a lease, so… we’ll probably stay there. I mean, it sucks. I don’t particularly like Nate. He’s a great songwriter, talented musician, but not, um… He’s a dick. But it’s not like there’s another option. And it’s okay.”

“Yeah, um… my place isn’t that great, but I guess I’m glad I have a bed.”

“What are you getting Jenn?”

“Don’t know. She’s, um… I don’t know. I’m bad at gifts, I think. Might steal your pillow idea.”

Louis snorts. “Not going to propose?”

Harry’s stomach drops and he stumbles over his words. “No, no, no, um… I’m, uh… I’m not, uh…”

“Chill out, Harold. I doubt anyone expects you to propose.” Louis elbows him in the side and says, “You guys are looking for a bigger place?”

“Yeah, sort of. I mean, we’ve talked about it, but that’s about it. I’m trying to save. We’ve got a while until our lease is up, so…”

————

A few days later, Harry and Louis are eating lunch when Louis tells him about one of Nate’s creepy friends who’s always hanging around the apartment and how the guy cornered Liam in the kitchen the night before and wouldn’t let up, wouldn’t stop flirting, even when it was made perfectly clear his advanced were unwanted.

Harry doesn’t really think about the consequences when he offers to let Louis and Liam stay with him. He and Jenn rarely even use the living room, they watch movies on their laptops in bed, so it doesn’t seem like it’ll be a big deal, though Louis insists that Harry make sure it’s alright with Jenn before they decide for sure.

Apparently, it is a big deal. It’s not often that he and Jenn fight or even disagree about things, but this is one of those times.

When Jenn gets home from work that night, Harry’s in the middle of pulling the sheets and blankets off of the bed in the alcove so that he can take them down to the basement to run them through the washer and dryer.

“Hey,” Jenn says after she drops her keys by the door and sets her things down on the futon. She steps up beside Harry and says, “Voluntarily doing extra laundry?”

“Yeah.” Harry turns his head towards her so she can kiss him, then says, “Wanted to make sure it’s alright with you, but I told Louis that he and Liam can stay here for a while.”

Harry bundles the bedding together and drops it into the basket at his feet, then bends to pick it up. When he stands back up, Jenn is clearly unhappy, clenching her jaw and staring at him through narrowed eyes, so he sets the basket on the bed and waits for her to speak.

“You already told them they could stay?” She asks and takes a step back, crossing her arms.

“Yeah, I mean, I offered because they’re kind of stuck in a shitty situation. Like, there’s some creepy dickhead over there who kept bothering Liam.” Harry shrugs and, thinking that the discussion is over, reaches for the basket on the bed. “Figured it wouldn’t be a big deal.”

Jenn nods once quickly, then stalks off towards the bedroom, turning to look back over her shoulder and say, “Four people sharing one bathroom. Sounds great. Can’t wait.”

“It’ll be fine.” Harry leaves the basket where it is and follows her into the bedroom, leaning against the door jamb while she pulls an old pair of Harry’s sweatpants out of the drawer. “I’ll shower at night. Or I’ll ask them to shower at night. We have a bed, they need a bed.”

“Harry,” Jenn says, then sighs loudly and rolls her eyes. “I’m too tired to fight right now.”

Harry nods and turns around, leaving her to finish changing clothes, grabs the laundry basket and heads for the basement.

They argue about it on and off for almost a week with Jenn saying that Harry should’ve asked her before offering and with Harry saying that he offered out of instinct. Louis and Liam will help with rent which will make it easier for Harry and Jenn to save up money for a better place when their lease is up. It seems like a win-win situation and Harry says as much.

————

Since Harry took Jenn home to spend Thanksgiving with his mom and sister, their plan is for Harry to join Jenn and her family for Christmas. Jenn usually spends most of the week there, but they decided to take the early train to Long Island on Christmas Eve, spend two nights, and head home the day after Christmas because Harry has to go back to work.

It’ll give Louis and Liam the chance to move in and have some time alone, which it seems like they haven’t had in a while since they’ve been living with Nate for a couple of months. Harry feels slightly guilty that he’ll miss celebrating Louis’ birthday with him, but his gifts for Louis—both birthday and Christmas—are already wrapped and hidden away.

They’re out at the bar on Friday, the usual end of the week thing, and Jenn is supposed to be there eventually once she finishes something at work. Harry’s not sure what and maybe he should’ve paid better attention when they were talking earlier in the day, but he was distracted and the ins and outs of entry-level investment banking just aren’t interesting enough to keep Harry’s focus.

They’re in a long booth, tucked into the far corner of the bar, Niall and Zayn and Harry are crowded into one side with Harry on the end, and Liam and Louis are on the other side, spread out so that Harry’s able to prop his feet up on the seat in between them. In celebration of a handful of things—the holidays, Louis’ birthday in a couple of days, Liam and Louis moving into the alcove of Harry’s apartment, and some new song that they wrote and finished just that afternoon—they’ve had far too much to drink than is advisable before eight o’clock in the evening.

“What’re you doing for your birthday, Lou?” Harry asks, his words slurring slightly at first until he catches himself, sits ups straight and enunciates, “Big plans?

Louis shakes his head, smiling fondly into his beer, and says, “Nah. Just going to get settled in, I guess. Li’s flying out Sunday night, going to Denver to spend the holiday with his family, so…” He nudges Liam’s shoulder, grabbing his attention and bringing him into the conversation.

“Told you to come with me.” Liam gestures at Louis with his beer. “Plenty of room.”

“And I told you no,” Louis says. “I don’t really want to and I can’t afford it anyway.” Louis kicks his foot out and connects with the back of Harry’s thigh where he’s got his leg stretched across to their booth. “When do you and Jenn leave again?”

Harry blinks at him, staring for probably too long. “You’re going to be alone for you birthday?”

“Yeah.” Louis nods once. “But we’re going out tomorrow, right? And it’ll be fine. I’ll order in, watch Netflix, maybe run around naked, since I’ll have the apartment to myself.”

“No, Lou. That’s…” Harry hesitates, closes his eyes, and after a second he barrels ahead even though he knows that it’s going to land him in another argument with Jenn. Probably worse than the one about sharing the apartment since that’s still sort of simmering. But they can fight about it later. “You can’t be alone on your birthday. Especially not since it’s Christmas Eve. I’ll, um… I’ll take the train early Christmas Day or something.”

“What? Where are you taking the train on Christmas?” Jenn asks, standing at the end of the table, frowning at Harry over her martini.

“Um… I said, um… Louis was saying he’d be alone. Liam’s going to Colorado. Christmas Eve is, um, Lou’s birthday and I thought I’d stay and spend it with him and catch the train—”

“Can we…” Jenn’s eyes flicker from Harry to Louis and back again, then she takes in the rest of the table as if she’s just noticed they’re there. “Harry, can we…” She nods her head towards to door and shrugs her shoulder, then sets her glass down on the table.

Harry slides out of the booth, suddenly nervous. It’s one thing to anticipate an argument down the road, it’s quite another to see it coming at you at top speed with nothing you can do to get out of the way. He smooths his hands down the front of his shirt and reaches for his coat that’s bunched up in the booth, pulls it on and follows Jenn out into the cold.

Once they’re outside, Harry realizes that his hat must’ve fallen out of his pocket somewhere, so he pulls his hair down from it’s bun and let’s it fall around his ears, hoping that’ll keep him warmer and that they’ll only be outside for a moment.

Jenn walks away from the entrance, just down the sidewalk, and lights a cigarette. She exhales and asks, “Skipping out on Christmas?”

“No, no. I’ll, um… I was saying that I’ll just take the train the next morning. I’ll only miss Christmas Eve.”

“So you can spend it with Louis?”

“Yeah, I mean, it’s his birthday too. He shouldn’t have to spend it alone.”

“Don’t you think that’s his decision to make? Like, he could go with Liam to wherever he’s going or, I don’t know, spend it with his own family. Won’t Zayn and Niall be around?”

“They’re not like, his friends though. I guess they are, sort of, but… I can’t leave him alone.”

Jenn crosses her arms and her voice is steady, but the tone is heavy. “But you’ll let me show up at my parents’ house alone.”

“I’ll be there the next day. It’s just one day, Jenn.”

“It’s one day, but it’s important to me.”

“You said it’s just like, hanging out with your family. Board games and eggnog and going around to look at lights.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s tradition and I want you to be there. Just fucking come with me. Louis will be fine by himself.”

“I already told him I’d stay. I know it’s short notice, but I think it’ll be fine. I don’t want him to be lonely—”

“Do you not care how this will look?” She asks, rubbing her fingertips against her temples. “My family is expecting you and you’re just… you’re choosing Louis over me.”

Harry lets loose a wild bark of laughter and slaps his hand over his mouth. He’s drunk and loud and this is just ridiculous. “That’s dumb, Jenn. I’m not choosing anyone.” Harry reaches out to poke Jenn’s shoulder, hoping she’ll relax a little bit when she realizes how silly she sounds.

Instead of laughing with Harry, Jenn takes a step backwards and Harry stumbles a bit when he misses her shoulder. Jenn clears her throat and says, “I’m, um… I’m going to go home… You go back in. Hang out. Be careful. I’ll, um… I’ll see you.” Jenn turns on her heel and walks off, leaving Harry standing in the middle of the sidewalk, freezing wind whipping around him, blowing his curls into his face.

As he watches Jenn’s retreating back turn and climb into a cab, Harry chews his lip, confused, but becoming less so by the second. He shivers and turns to head back into the bar, slides into the booth across from Louis, distractedly pulls his hair back up into a bun, and asks, “Did you… Have you seen my beanie?”

Niall digs around in their pile of coats and pulls it out. With a nod of thanks, Harry takes it and stuffs it into his pocket. He hasn’t bothered taking his coat off, he’s still cold, but maybe he just needs another drink. He looks around the table for his beer, but it’s empty, so he reaches for Jenn’s martini instead.

“Where’s Jenn?” Niall asks as he drops his arm around Harry’s shoulder, pulling him into his side so that Harry can steal some of his body heat.

Harry shakes his head. “Went home. She’s like… I don’t know. Didn’t seem mad, really… I think…”

No one says anything, waiting for Harry to finish his thoughts, but when he doesn’t continue, Louis says, “You think…”

“Not sure. Think I might’ve screwed up. I’ll, um… I’ll talk to her in the morning.”

They stay too late at the bar and drink enough that Niall and Zayn end up dragging Harry back to their apartment with them. Harry texts Jenn to let her know, but there’s no response. When he gets home the next afternoon, even through the haze of his hangover, he instantly knows why. Jenn’s key to the apartment is in the bowl by the door, laying on top of a short note.

Harry,

I wish I could say it’s not you, it’s me, but it’s pretty much all you. It’s like we’re in completely different relationships. I’m in one where I’m in love with you and you're in one where it always seems like you’re waiting for something better to come along. I’ve never felt like a priority for you. My brother helped me move my stuff out this morning. Have a nice holiday.

Jenn

Harry strips out of his clothes and drops them on the floor of the bathroom, desperate for a shower after passing out on Zayn and Niall’s couch and sleeping in his clothes. The water always takes forever to warm up, but Harry steps into it anyway, wincing when the icy spray hits his chest. He loosens his hair from its messy bun, turns to let the cold water soak the tangled strands, and stands there shivering until the water finally warms up and his muscles start to relax.

When he feels less like shit and the water starts to turn cool again, he dries off, wraps a towel around his hair, and falls into bed naked, belatedly realizing that there’s no comforter on it because that belongs to Jenn. Harry grabs his pillow and heads for the alcove and his old bed, wraps himself up in the blankets, and as his mind drifts, he thinks back over his relationship with Jenn and feels ashamed. She’s right; Harry never made their relationship a priority because it wasn’t. It wasn’t important to him. He doesn’t even feel sad about their break-up, just remorse for his behavior and relief that it’s over.

After his nap, he texts Louis that he’s still hungover, that Jenn broke up with him, and that he doesn’t want to go out. Louis responds that he’s willing to come over with pizza if Harry needs some comfort food and a shoulder to cry on, that they can just hang out and watch movies, but Harry says no. It feels wrong, or rather, it feels like it should feel wrong. Like he’s supposed to be sad and alone for at least a day or two in an effort to mourn the end of a relationship that he’s positive he’s not actually going to miss at all.

Late Sunday afternoon, Louis and Liam move into Harry’s living room. They have so few belongings that Harry doesn’t even meet them downstairs to carry anything up, just waits for them at the door, and tries to look broken-hearted. Though he’s not sure he pulls it off when he feels his face split into a huge grin at the sight of Louis weighed down with what he said was just a couple of things, but in reality is an oversized backpack, two massive duffle bags, a laptop bag, a guitar case, and a bunched up blanket that he looks close to dropping.

“Hey,” Louis says, slightly breathless, as he unsuccessfully tries to flick his hair out of his eyes.

Harry reaches up and tucks the longest piece of Louis’ hair behind his ear, and Harry’s eyes go wide as he drops his hand and grasps his wrist behind his back. His heart rate skyrockets with the adrenaline rush that accompanies his desire to run and hide, mortified at touching Louis like that. Liam doesn’t say anything, just raises his eyebrows at Harry and follows Louis through the door.

Miraculously, they’re able to fit most of their clothes in the built in drawers beside the alcove. They set up the keyboard that Liam had strapped to his back in the corner by the TV, and there’s enough space for the guitar to lean against the wall as well. In less than an hour, they’re completely unpacked and moved in.

Louis drags Harry out of the apartment and down to the bodega so that Liam can get his shit together for his first thing in the morning flight home, and so they can stock up on whatever they might need over the next few days. That way they don’t have to leave the apartment until Christmas is over, if they don’t want to.

“What’d you end up getting Liam for Christmas?” Harry asks while he watches Louis try to decide between potato chip flavors. He finally makes the decision for him and tosses a bag of barbecue and a bag salt and vinegar into the basket.

Louis looks at the chips and shrugs then heads for the beer and says, “Nothing. We decided not to bother.”

“Oh.” Harry isn’t sure what else to say. He’s glad that Liam is leaving because that way he won’t feel badly for getting Louis something for both occasions. It seems so unfair, really. Louis’ boyfriend is leaving town for his birthday and Christmas and they’re not exchanging gifts. He waits while Louis pays for everything, then once they’re back out on the sidewalk, he says, “Sucks that he’s leaving you and, like, that you can’t go with him.”

Louis glances over at him, his eyebrows drawn together in confusion. “It’s not like we have to be together all the time. To be honest, I’m thankful for the break. I mean, I love him, but we’ve been sharing a futon at Nate’s forever, and we’ve been kind of stuck together like twenty-four seven, so…”

“Yeah, makes sense.” Harry tries to keep his surprise to himself, and maybe it’s just the way they’ve always been with each other, sharing the secrets that they keep from everyone else, that makes Louis feel like he can tell Harry things like that, but it makes him wonder how long Liam and Louis’ relationship will last if it’s like this already.

They heat up frozen pizzas and watch Netflix, all three of them squashed together on the futon, where they fall asleep. Liam’s phone alarm goes off a few hours later and wakes Harry, though Louis is still asleep, slumped against Harry’s shoulder. Liam says a quiet goodbye and just before he walks out the door, he turns back and rummages through one of the built-in drawers, pulling out a small box wrapped in red paper with a bow on top.

Liam places the box in the middle of the bed in the alcove and whispers, “Tell him I said happy birthday and Merry Christmas.” Then he waves and quietly closes the door behind him.

Carefully, Harry maneuvers himself so that he can gently lay Louis down the rest of the way, then he covers him up with a blanket, and goes to bed. He’s not sure what Louis wants to do for his birthday and he hasn’t had time to really plan anything, so hopefully Louis will have some ideas in the morning.

They both sleep late, waking up just before noon.

Harry rolls out of bed and stretches, yawning and lifting his arms over his head. He’s half hard in his underwear and needs to pee like, immediately, but Louis meets him in the kitchen, just outside the bathroom door and distracts him.

“Nice outfit, Styles.” Louis winks at him and walks around him to the coffee maker. “What’re we doing today?”

“Dunno.” Harry clears his throat, then coughs. He looks down at himself and cringes at the visible outline of his morning wood through the worn material of his briefs and wonders when he last bought new ones. “I, um… I… I didn’t know… I thought, well, it’s your birthday, but, um…” He pauses and glances around the room, then yanks open the fridge and freezer at the same time, finding nothing but a bottle of vodka. “I… I’m going to, uh… make you brunch. Birthday brunch. Just, um… let me pee and I’ll get started.”

While Louis showers, Harry literally runs down the four flights of stairs from his apartment, out the door, all the way to the bodega, picks up a carton of eggs, then realizes he doesn’t know how to do much other than scramble them. He’s never really cooked for anyone before, so he stands there, staring at his phone, Googling “easy brunch recipes” and wanting to cry at what the internet apparently thinks of as an easy recipe.

Finally, he finds a link on the Food Network’s website with step-by-step instructions and pictures on how to make French toast. He buys everything on the ingredients list, plus a package of bacon, a bottle of Bloody Mary mix to go with the vodka, and a little box of birthday candles, then walks home while reading over the recipe, instructions, and photo guide.

He just wants Louis to have a good birthday.

The first few pieces of French toast end up burnt and he undercooks the bacon, but he and Louis are too busy eating it all anyway to care. It’s a strange and fun day, though every now and then Harry’s mind drifts to the wrong thing. Louis’ eyelashes or his cheekbones or, a couple of times, his nipples. It’s not Harry’s fault that Louis sees fit to wear a loose pair of sweatpants and nothing else all day even though it’s not exactly warm in the apartment and Harry’s been wearing a hoodie since he woke up.

It’s just weird, like, wrong and creepy, but then he gets pissed off at himself for thinking that because it’s like…It feels homophobic. He’s always been able to appreciate when another man is good looking or has a nice body. He’s not gay, but he’s not blind. And Louis is gorgeous.

He’s probably just drunk and if they weren’t watching a movie, he’d be getting stupidly philosophical or something, preaching that love is love and saying something like how much he loves Louis, just not like that. Harry rolls his eyes at himself and gets lost in the movie again.

It’s getting late when Harry finally decides it’s time for presents, so he retrieves his from his bedroom and hands it over.

“Open it,” he says and plops back down on the futon.

Louis grins and peeks inside the gift bag. It’s nothing big, not that Harry has the money for expensive gifts, but he tried.

“I noticed that you like to write by hand.” Harry reaches for the pens as Louis takes everything out of the bag. “These are the best pens. And like, I thought you might like a nice notebook.”

Louis looks down at the leather bound notebook and then looks back at Harry, smiling. “Thanks, H. This is perfect.”

“Yeah? I was hoping you could use them. I’m not the best at presents.” He stands and walks around the futon to the alcove and grabs Liam’s gift. “You should go ahead and open this. I think he meant it as like a combo birthday and Christmas present.”

Louis bites his lip and shakes his head. “What… We said no gifts.” He rolls his eyes and rips off the paper and immediately gasps and tries to hide the box, but there’s not really any place to put it where Harry can’t see it. Plus he saw it as soon as Louis took the paper off.

“Condoms.” Harry laughs and he knows it sounds forced, but at least he tries. “Looks like Liam wants to get laid as soon as he comes back to town.”

With his head in his hands and his elbows on his knees, Louis’ face is almost completely hidden, but then he sits up and looks at Harry. “What?”

Harry’s distracted by the pretty pink of Louis’ neck and chest and the shaking of his hands. He’s embarrassed and it’s fucking endearing and annoying as hell. Of course he has sex with his boyfriend, it’s not like it’s a surprise. Still, it takes Harry a few seconds to process that Louis asked him something. “Hmm? I said Liam wants to get laid when he comes back.”

Louis shakes the box of condoms and says, “He’s not using these. He can buy his own. Fucking dickhead. Can’t believe he pulled this shit…”

“What?” Harry asks. “Why would you make your boyfriend buy separate condoms?”

Louis shrieks—half laugh and half scream—and it devolves into stomach clutching laughter, which Harry can’t help but at least chuckle along to, even though he has no idea what’s funny. Louis’ laugh is just contagious.

Eventually, Louis’ cackling slows down and he sighs happily. “I just… I just realized something.”

“Yeah, what?” Harry raises his eyebrows, waiting for the punchline or the explanation.

“You…” Louis snickers again, then tries to bring himself under control. “Though, now that I think about it, and like, looking back it does sort of look that way… Anyway. Shit. I’m sorry. Liam isn’t my boyfriend.”

“What?” Harry just blinks at him repeatedly because… “But he’s gay, right?”

“Yeah, he is.” Louis starts to laugh again. “But we’re just friends. I mean, he’s the best. Love him to death and, like, I’d probably help him hide a body, but no. Nope. I’m single. Have been since I left Baker, so it’s been a while. Just wanted to be on my own for a bit.”

“Oh,” is all that Harry can say because his mind is busy backtracking over the last few months, resetting every interaction he’s had with Liam and Louis. “Oh.”

“Yeah, sorry. No, we write together, and like, we decided to move here together for a short while before we head to L.A. just because he knew some people and we had the opportunity. It’s been great though. I’m really happy to like, be here and be able to see you a lot and write and see the city.” Louis pauses and looks down at the leather bound notebook and pile of pens, then tosses the box of condoms on the coffee table, before quietly adding, “L.A. will be very different, I’m sure.”

Harry stares at him, searching his face for something, though he’s not sure what. For some reason, he hasn’t asked or maybe he didn’t want to know, but now he needs the answer. His voice comes out quiet and unsure when he asks, “How long are you here for?”

“Oh, um…” Louis swirls the beer in the bottom of the bottle around. “Not sure exactly. I think the summer, maybe? Maybe a bit before or a bit after. Depends on L.A. really. Liam knows a guy who lives there. Not like in the industry or anything, just like, a friend of his dad’s or something. And he has a place, like, he said we could stay in the guest house for like, free or super cheap, but his sister or someone’s there now, so…”

Harry nods knowingly, as if he actually heard most of what Louis said. He stopped listening after the word summer. He has maybe six months of Louis before he’s gone again. Though maybe they’ll keep in better touch this time around.

Louis must take Harry’s silence as a question because he hurries to say, “We’ll like, help you pay rent and stuff and like, depending on what you want to do with your lease, if you want to move someplace else, we can find another place to stay. Maybe we can find you a new roommate before we leave. I mean, thank you so much for putting us up here, Harry.” He reaches over and squeezes Harry’s knee. “I’m, um… I’m sorry that it screwed up things with Jenn.”

Harry scoffs at that and drops his hand on top of Louis’ where it still rests on his knee. “That was screwed up from the beginning, I think. Not your fault at all. I just, um… I let it go on too long. Was just hard because, like, we lived together, so… I’m not really upset or sad about it. And, like, we’ll work it out here. You guys won’t have to move. Don’t worry about any of that.”

“Okay. I won’t then.” Louis stands up to go to the kitchen and Harry stares for too long as he walks away, almost getting caught when Louis spins around to ask if he wants a beer. Harry nods and grabs for his cigarettes to give him something to do other than watch Louis. It feels as if his world has been tipped on its axis.

Louis and Liam aren’t together. Louis is single because he wants to be on his own. Louis is here until summer. Louis is living with him. All of the feelings that Harry’s been pushing down since he first found out that Louis was in the city are bubbling up, taking over, pushing every logical and rational thought out of the way until Harry’s drunk mind is filled with nothing but Louis. He spends the rest of the night feeling disoriented and confused, unable to figure out why he can’t get Louis out of his head.

————

Christmas is the most lowkey occasion Harry can remember. Niall and Zayn are gone on some weird trip to the Poconos because Niall got a free stay or something. He wouldn’t shut up about a champagne glass bubble bath and a round bed. Harry and Louis stay in because it’s suddenly fucking freezing outside and the fridge is stocked with food and booze, so they spend the day drinking and then later on, smoking some of Liam’s weed. The rest of the week is almost the same, except that Harry goes back to work and Louis starts looking for a new job, since he and Liam aren’t going to be picking up shifts at the bar where Nate works anymore.

Zayn and Niall come back just before New Year’s Eve because, since they’re both employees, they’ve been invited to the VTV New Year’s Eve party, and they’re taking Louis and Harry as their plus-ones. It’s boys’ night.

The long mirror on the back of the bedroom door is dingy and the lighting is bad, but Harry thinks he looks alright. There’s really only one outfit in his closet that he considers appropriate for this sort of thing. Niall calls it the sperm shirt. It’s white with black… Well, they are sort of shaped like sperm. But it fits him well and when he leaves most of the buttons undone, it’s never failed him. That shirt, his black blazer, his one pair of nice, fitted, black trousers, his black boots, and his heavy wool coat, and he’s ready. He gives himself one more look in the mirror, adjusts his long curls, and thanks his past self for having the foresight to shower early enough that he was able to do a deep conditioning treatment and let his hair air dry, because it looks better than it has in weeks.

Louis is waiting for him in the living room, sitting on the futon, scribbling in his notebook, and Harry is a little flustered at the sight of him. It’s stupid. Not like they’re on a date or anything. But Louis looks amazing, of course, as if that would be up for debate. Put the two of them together and it looks like they coordinated their outfits. Louis is almost dressed completely in black—black leather shoes, black trousers that make Harry rethink whether his are actually that fitted, and a black button up shirt. The only thing that isn’t black is the bright, white trim around the edge of his band collar.

“Hi,” Harry says, and he’s embarrassed by the breathless quality of his voice, so he unnecessarily clears his throat and tries again. “Hi. You look nice, Lou.”

“You do too.” Louis reaches a hand up to brush his hair off his forehead, the gesture so practiced that it’s second nature because his hair is styled up and back off his newly clean-shaven face. He chuckles lightly and covers his mouth with the back of his hand and Harry smiles.

Harry’s never been to a New Year’s party that has its own ball-drop—typically he’s in someone’s crowded apartment, drinking “champagne” that’s nothing but a carbonated guaranteed hangover, watching it all happen on a shitty second-hand television, counting down to midnight, and planning to kiss his girlfriend or a complete stranger, depending on the year—but the VTV party has that and more.

It’s a little overwhelming. Since Zayn and Niall disappeared as soon as they walked through the door, Harry doesn’t see anyone he knows. And there’s so much going on. There are actual famous people in attendance, there are servers making the rounds with trays of champagne flutes or tiny appetizers, the music is loud and live and the entire thing has Harry unsure of what to do or where to look first.

So he looks at Louis.

Louis is looking back at him with a small smile, his lips barely curved. It seems as if, while Harry’s been taking it all in—the lights, the decorations, the people—Louis has been watching his reactions. His smile grows until the skin at the corners of his eyes crinkles.

“What?” Harry asks, narrowing his eyes and mentally searching for any ulterior motives.

Louis wraps his hand around Harry’s upper arm and gently squeezes, them speaks just loud enough for Harry to hear him over the band. “You alright?”

“Yeah.” Harry nods and grabs for two champagne flutes from a passing waiter, who pauses just long enough to steady his tray before moving on. Harry hands one to Louis and they clink glasses, then Harry tips his glass back and swallows as much as he can in one go because, fuck, he’s nervous. He sputters a little because of the bubbles, then asks, “What do you want to do? Like… dance? Mingle?”

“Mingle? Is that still a word?” Louis grins and sips his champagne.

Harry shakes his head and says, “What can I say? I’m an eighty-four year old man at heart. Time to go home and watch infomercials.” He looks at his invisible watch and fakes a yawn. “It’s past my bedtime, actually.”

Louis covers his laugh with his hand, but it still makes Harry proud that Louis thinks he’s funny. He holds one finger up for Harry to wait, tips his glass back and finishes his drink, then suggests, “Let’s explore.” And holds his elbow out for Harry to hook his arm around. “Shall we?”

They make their way through the crowd, picking up glasses of champagne as they go by the servers, then past the roped-off VIP section. It’s quieter and the lights are slightly brighter, but they keep walking, carefully balancing their multiple drinks, until they come to a door marked “stairs” and Louis stops.

He backs into the door to open it and reaches for Harry to pull him through the doorway. At the very top of too many flights to count, Louis asks Harry to wait inside while he makes sure they’ll be able to get back in..

The door rattles, but doesn’t open, so Harry pushes on the handle, but Louis is still pulling from the other side. It opens fast, and with Harry’s hand still wrapped around the handle, it sends him stumbling into Louis and his multiple beverages, causing some of his champagne to splash onto Harry’s shirt.

“Oops,” Harry says when Louis straightens up and takes a small step backwards.

“Hi,” Louis says distractedly while he brushes his hand over the wet spot on Harry’s shirt, which doesn’t really do much but press the wet fabric into the skin of his chest. Still, Harry stands there and lets Louis attempt to clean it. He scowls at it, pulls the fabric away from Harry’s skin, attempts to shake it out, then leans in and blows on it.

Immediately, Harry’s nipples get hard, especially the one beneath the wet spot on his shirt because of the champagne and the rubbing and the blowing… Harry takes half a step back so that his shirt slips out of Louis’ hand. The wind picks up and he realizes that it’s fucking cold outside and he checked his coat downstairs. Louis bends slightly and places a brick against the door to prop it open.

“Coming, Harold?” Louis asks and tips his head to the side, beckoning Harry with a crook of his finger.

“Yeah, alright.” Harry follows him out into the cold night air, wraps his blazer tight around him, and hopes there’s someplace that he can stand to block the wind.

“You seemed a little uncomfortable downstairs, so I thought we’d skip out for a while,” Louis explains after Harry leans back on the bricks next to him.

“So many people… Yeah. This is better. Thanks, Lou.” Harry closes his eyes and tips his head back. The noises of the city are distant this high up, it’s not silent, but it passes for quiet, and the lights are beautiful in their own way.

As much as Harry loves it here, he misses the space he had back home. Maybe he’s not meant for cities or maybe he’s not meant for New York. He thinks about L.A. sometimes and wonders what his life would be like if, after school, he chose that path instead. It’s funny that Louis would be so set on moving there when it was one of the two places that Harry was trying to decide between after college. He’s been out there once, but only for a few days. Didn’t even get to the beach, which he’d actually like to see since all he knows is the Atlantic.

“You missing Jenn?” Louis asks and then drains one of his glasses.

Harry shakes his head and then stops because he should miss her. They were together for more than a year. But he’s barely noticed her absence. “I’m not and I… I feel like that makes me a shitty person.”

“No,” Louis says with such finality that Harry turns to look at him. “It’s not like Jenn’s a bad person or anything, but you obviously didn’t love her. That’s okay. I mean, when Eric and I broke up, I think I only missed the idea of having a boyfriend, you know? Didn’t miss anything about him at all.”

“Maybe that’s it. Wish I could… I don’t know. Wish I could just hook up with people and not get, like, attached.” Harry swirls his champagne glass and huddles closer to Louis. “Like you do.”

Louis scoffs and elbows Harry right in the stomach. “I get attached. Not to everyone, but I do.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“It’s fine, Harold.” Louis sets his empty glass down a few feet over so that he doesn’t kick it and sips at one of the others. “I do wonder sometimes if I’ll ever find a guy who’s smart and sweet and funny and kind and everything I want and gay.”

Harry snorts softly and scoots a little closer, trying to steal some body heat. “Can’t have everything.”

“Yeah,” Louis whispers lowly and his breath clouds in front of his face before disappearing into the wind.

After that, he lets Harry snuggle closer and rest his head on Louis’ shoulder. It’s cold and usually Louis would be more bothered by it than Harry, but it seems to be the opposite tonight, and with all of the champagne, Harry’s feeling relaxed and happy. They stay up there until after eleven, hardly talking, just standing, smoking and occasionally speaking up to say something cliche about the new year. When they run out of cigarettes, they head back down to the party.

They weren’t even missed.

Niall and Zayn are in the middle of the dance floor, dancing with each other and what looks like half a dozen other people. When they see Harry and Louis they raise their hands in the air and yell, waving them over. Harry’s still a little cold from being outside in nothing but a blazer and a wet shirt, but he’s sweaty and sticky in a few minutes. The dance floor is more packed than it was before, probably because it’s getting nearer to midnight, but there’s still at least half an hour. Harry turns around to say something to Louis, but he’s gone, somehow lost in the crowd already. He figures that Louis will come back eventually, so he waits, dances with Niall and Zayn and himself, and has fun riding his little champagne buzz.

One of the girls dancing with Niall spins around and Niall twirls her like an idiot and sends her stumbling into Harry’s chest. He catches her elbow so she doesn’t fall and smiles down at her, opening his mouth to ask if she’s okay, but he can’t even hear himself over the deafening chorus of the entire party shouting, “Ten!”

Harry shrugs and drops his hand from her arm, looking around for Louis again. They’ve counted down to four by the time he finds Louis on the other side of the dance floor. Three when he realizes that Louis isn’t lost, he’s dancing. He yells along after that, but for some reason he can’t tear his eyes away from Louis, laughing and dancing and counting down to midnight with some tall blond guy who Harry doesn’t know and who’s acting quite proprietary with Louis’ body. Hands resting low enough on his hips that the tips of his fingers are touching his ass.

There’s a lurch in the pit of his stomach and, if Harry didn’t know better, he’d think he had too much to drink, but he only had a few glasses of champagne over the course of a couple of hours. And maybe he could still blame it on the champagne if the lurching wasn’t immediately followed by an unfamiliar sense of disgust. He’s literally repulsed by the sight in front of him. If the sound of the countdown seemed deafening before, it’s doubly so when the entire room shouts, “One!”

And even though his gut twists and he can feel his face distort into a grimace, jaw clenching and nostrils flaring, he still watches as Louis yells, “Happy New Year!” Then reaches his arms up around the neck of this tall blond guy and pulls him down, smiling as their mouths meet in a kiss.

He’s so caught up in the scene before him, and so confused by the utter contempt he feels at the sight of Louis kissing this man, that he doesn’t notice that the girl—the one from a mere ten seconds before—is still standing there in front of him until she touches his shoulder. Harry looks down to find her grinning up at him. She raises an eyebrow and taps her lips with her index finger and Harry figures he might as well. It hasn’t even been two weeks since Jenn left him, and while he hasn’t so much as thought about another girl in the intervening days, this girl is pretty. And willing. And right there in front of him.

When he slips one hand around her waist and cups her face with the other, in his periphery he catches Louis looking at him from across the room and he can still see Louis watching as he leans in close. Louis turns away and Harry closes his eyes as his lips meet hers.

After that, the party starts to wind down. Louis and Harry meet up by the coat check and Harry texts a goodbye to Niall and Zayn who’ve disappeared somewhere. They make their way home together and Louis talks about the party and the famous people and probably seventeen other subjects that Harry doesn’t pick up on because he’s too busy being freaked out by his uncontrollable annoyance and revulsion at watching Louis kiss that guy.

He just doesn’t understand why he’s reacting this way. He’s known Louis for half of his life and known Louis was gay for most of that time, though he’s only ever heard about Louis’ boyfriends second hand. He’s been almost constantly around Zayn and Niall for the last few years and he’s never felt like this around them. Though they’re not much for PDA; Harry can only think of once or twice when they’ve kissed in front of him. But he’s around a lot of out people in the entertainment industry and in his neighborhood and he’s never been bothered by any public affection he’s seen.

That night he falls asleep thinking about it, but by the next morning it’s all bundled up tightly and stored away in the darkest corner of his mind.

————

Liam flies back in on Tuesday, which gives Louis and Harry just enough time to be hungover all day on the first of January before starting back to work on the second. Louis’ new job is as a barback at the same place he and Harry met for happy hour months ago, so it’s convenient enough to the apartment that he can walk there and back. They don’t see each other as much as they did when Louis was unemployed, but that’s only logical.

A few days after he gets back, Liam starts working at the coffee shop around the corner, and Harry ends up seeing a lot more of him than he expected. In more ways than one. Liam’s shifts are early, like, he gets up at five in the morning which is only a little while after Louis gets home from the bar. But Liam’s almost always home when Harry gets in after work and he’s almost always shirtless and sweaty which Harry doesn’t quite know what to think about. Apparently, Liam is really into working out, like, he installed a pull-up bar over the bathroom door and in addition to the push-ups, crunches, squats, jump rope, and whatever else he does to get so sweaty, he hops up and grabs that pull-up bar every time he walks past it, does as many pull-ups as he can, then gets on with his day.

Harry finds it fascinating. He’s never been around someone who’s so… muscley. And he finds himself looking at him, like, a lot. At first, he thinks he must be jealous of Liam’s strength and muscles, so he starts using the pull-up bar too. Then he asks Liam to show him the rest of his workout routine. It only takes a few weeks before Harry’s working out alongside Liam most days after work, but he still catches himself letting his glances linger a bit too long. Every time that happens he jerks his gaze away and shakes his head. He wouldn’t want Liam to think he’s checking him out or anything, since he’s not.

For Harry’s birthday, they all plan to go out one night when Louis doesn’t have to work so that he can join them. It’s the first time they’ve gone out anywhere together since New Years Eve and Niall makes it plain from the beginning that he’s trying to play cupid with Harry and literally every single girl that comes within a five-foot radius. Harry doesn’t mind, not really. He hasn’t had sex since early December and he’s only kissed one person since Jenn, so he figures it really is time to move on, even if it’s just to make out with a stranger in a club on his birthday.

Too many drinks later, Harry’s in the middle of the crowded dance floor with a pretty girl with short brown hair pressed along the front of his body. Her name is Marissa or Melissa or Clarissa or something. He’s not sure because it’s loud and he’s pretty wasted, but it doesn’t matter because he’s pretty sure she called him Henry.

She steps away from Harry, putting a little bit of space between them and smirking at him before turning around and backing up until her ass is pressed against his groin. They sway together to the beat, Harry’s hands squeezing her hips every time she twists them a certain way. He’s not hard, thankfully, just slightly interested, nothing urgent. So he lets his eyes drift closed and doesn’t really notice when one song changes to the next, just goes with it, lets her lead him where she wants him to go.

She drops her head back onto his shoulder and Harry opens his eyes. He sees Niall a few feet away, dancing with Zayn and Liam. It makes his eyes go wide for a second, seeing the three of them literally grinding on each other, but then he shrugs. It’s none of his business who they dance with, it’s just unusual to see Niall and Zayn like that at all because Niall is typically more of a jump and flail kind of dancer. Still, he watches them for a moment. It’s almost like fully clothed gay porn. Harry feels a blush start to bloom at the thought and he makes himself look away.

He’s just in time to see Louis whispering in the ear of a guy Harry didn’t notice until that second. He’s about Louis’ height, maybe a little taller, with short black hair. They’re dancing while Louis says whatever he’s saying, so Harry gets to watch them slowly turn around so that he’s no longer looking at Louis’ face, but the back of his head where his short brown hair is stuck to his neck with sweat.

The song ends and Louis leads the guy off the dance floor and Harry’s eyes follow him until he disappears near the exit. He frowns and looks down at Alissa, the curve of her neck, her shoulder… Harry’s phone vibrates in his pocket and, even though he knows what it is, he looks anyway.

Louis: Happy birthday H! Sorry I didn’t say goodbye. Don’t wait up.

Harry clenches his jaw against the frustrated growl that surprises him. It’s back. That fucked up, weird anger that he thought was a result of the champagne on New Years. It’s his birthday and Louis is abandoning him for sex with a stranger. Nice.

All of the fun he was having seems to leave the room along with Louis, and Harry finishes out the next song, but after that he makes his excuses to Marissa and splurges on a cab ride home.

Harry’s still a little angry the next day after his shower when Louis drags his ass into the apartment in last night’s clothes, with his hair a mess and a purple mark on the side of his neck. It’s only his birthday once a year and he spent the entirety of Louis’ birthday with him, even changed his Christmas plans to do so, and Louis couldn’t be bothered to stay out with them for a few hours.

This is what Harry tells himself.

It’s just that Louis has always been his best friend. Even when they weren’t speaking, Harry still thought of him that way, and when they were younger he could always depend on Louis to be there with him, no matter what they were doing. He knows it’s fucked up and unfair, but it is what it is. When they were kids, they were joined at the hip. When they were both living at home after Louis graduated from college, as far as Harry knows, Louis didn’t hang out with anyone other than him and maybe a couple of people from his job. So it’s possible that he’s used to having Louis’ full attention and it bugs him when he doesn’t get it. That’s all.

Except there’s this other thing that Harry doesn’t let himself think about unless he’s alone in his bedroom with the door locked and the light off. This other thing that he’s managed to convince himself isn’t real. It’s not important. It’s just his brain being a human brain and connecting things that aren’t necessarily connected in real life. Fantasy versus reality. It’s actually pretty amazing how well the brain can compartmentalize. So, there in the back of his mind is a one hundred percent sexual fantasy, used only as a last resort means of getting off, that never sees the light of day and that remains locked completely away in real life. Totally normal.

Occasionally, like when he’s extremely tired, but usually when he’s really drunk or high, the heavy, dark curtain that hangs across that part of his mind is pulled to the side and there’s a tenuous bridge from there to reality. It’s always accompanied with tremendous apprehension, it’s usually brought about by Louis’ presence, and it invariably ends with Harry angry and confused and slightly aroused.

————

Chapter Text

————

The weather warms slightly in early March, just enough that Liam starts dragging Harry outside in the evenings to run. It sucks. He hates every single second of it. But he keeps doing it because he doesn’t have anything else to do and it makes it easier for him to cut out some of the cigarettes he’s been trying to drop. He’s slow and he’s miserable, but he’s not alone, so it’s okay. Liam is good about not pushing Harry too hard. It’s like he’s able to see the line and he nudges Harry towards it, but not over it.

Harry never realized how many people run. Maybe he’s been blocking them out or something, but every time they go out for a jog, they pass other runners, and there’s this weird little head nod that they all do. Like they’re recognizing that they’re not the only ones suffering for their health. Harry does it automatically after the first few runs.

The last block is always a sprint. Harry and Liam race to their building, charging down the sidewalk, neck and neck, trying to pass each other without resorting to elbows. They stop outside the entrance with their hands on their knees, panting, sweat dripping onto the sidewalk underneath them.

Liam stands up and stretches and pulls his shirt over his head, then wipes his face with it and it looks like the best idea, so Harry does it too. The air has a slight chill, like the nice weather is on its way out, and it feels amazing on his skin while he stretches his muscles. Another runner is heading their way, so they both step back a bit.

The guy is in amazing shape. Like, he looks like an underwear model or something. He nods and Liam and Harry nod back, then Harry turns to watch him run away. If possible, his back is better than his front. It’s impressive.

Harry turns back to find Liam looking at him. He raises his eyebrows and chuckles quietly, then opens the door and heads inside with Harry on his heels.

“What?” Harry asks as he jogs up the stairs behind Liam.

Liam stops on the landing and throws his shirt over his shoulder, so Harry does the same and they climb the stairs beside each other. “Nothing, man. Just… That dude was hot.”

“Yeah,” Harry agrees and thinks nothing of it. He’s always been that guy. Not afraid to compliment another man or appreciate the way he looks.

“Right. Anyway, my night to make dinner, so I get first shower.” Liam unlocks the door and walks straight for the bathroom.

————

It’s like the hazy link connecting the separate parts of his mind grows stronger. Harry catches himself watching Liam appreciatively while he does pull-ups in the bathroom doorway. He’s only looking because Liam’s handsome and works hard on his body, but when he wonders what the parts of his body that are covered by his shorts look like, feel like, taste like, Harry is shocked. His upper body convulses backwards and he blinks rapidly because… Harry shakes his head and goes to his bedroom. He needs to be alone for a while.

Because he just turned twenty-six years old and he’s been straight the whole time. There’s no way someone could live that long and suddenly be… not straight. That’s not a thing that happens. Probably.

He wants to ask Louis.

Louis has always been Harry’s go-to reference for all things not heterosexual. God, even inside his head he sounds stupid.

And there’s no way he’s talking to Louis about this.

That is what the internet is for.

Right. So.

It turns out that a person can live for twenty-six years—or even longer—before they realize they’re not straight. There are people his mom’s age just figuring this sort of thing out and it blows his mind. He reads everything he can that night about compulsory heterosexuality and comes away with his mind reeling. It’s like he doesn’t know the first thing about himself anymore. Everything is suddenly so unexpectedly complicated, and he feels alienated from his own identity, but at the same time, something seems quieted inside of him.

When he gets up the next day and goes to work, he keeps having these random moments of panic, thinking that somehow people just know by looking at him that he’s not straight. That’s what he’s calling it for now. He hasn’t had time to read anymore, but he bookmarked some pages and even found an episode of Bill Nye Saves the World called “The Sexual Spectrum” that he’s planning to watch as soon as he can.

It’s scary, the idea of not being straight when that’s all he’s ever known. He doesn’t know anything about how to be not straight. He doesn’t know anything about coming out. If it’s something he has to do or if there are like, guidelines for this sort of thing. He can’t even bring himself to read about that right now because his mind is too muddled and inundated with information. And he wants to talk to Louis, but he can’t. He absolutely refuses to talk to him about any of this until he at least feels like he can stand on his own two feet during any discussion that might follow.

He spends the rest of the week researching his sexuality like it’s his job, but at the end of it, he’s only sort of leaning towards bisexuality because it feels slightly easier for him to get a handle on, though he actually feels more confused than ever. There’s so much information out there and some of it’s contradictory and he doesn’t know what’s true and what’s not. He's desperate to quell this unsteadiness, to feel settled and anchored. It’s overwhelming.

There’s a moment during one of their runs that Harry almost says something to Liam. Like, he almost comes out, only he doesn’t realize that’s what it would’ve been until after they’re back home and he’s showering off the sweat. But he knows he needs to talk to someone, so he throws on his sweats and a hoodie and is halfway to Niall and Zayn’s place before he texts them that he’s coming over.

Zayn opens the door before Harry can knock. It swings wide and he walks inside.

“Are you breaking up with us?” Zayn asks on his way to the fridge to grab Harry a beer. “Niall showed me your text. Need to talk to you guys. It’s serious.”

“Shut up,” Harry says and takes the offered bottle, then sits down heavily on the couch. “I need to talk to you guys because you’re the only people I can talk to about this. At least for now.”

Niall joins them on the couch and they all three sit there with their feet propped up, sipping beer, and not speaking at all. They’re waiting for Harry to talk, but he’s not sure where to start, so he just picks at the label of his beer and chews his lip. Maybe he should’ve practiced a speech or something.

“H?” Niall turns towards him and pulls one knee up onto the cushion. “You okay, man?”

Harry nods. Silently he counts to three and then blurts it out like ripping off a bandaid. “I’m not straight.” He looks to his right to see Niall’s reaction, but he’s just sitting there looking confused. So Harry turns the other way towards Zayn.

“Oh…” Zayn’s eyes slowly widen. “Oh. Okay. Are you… um… I mean, I kind of want to say congratulations. Ni?”

Niall leans to the side and so does Zayn, both of them part way hanging off the couch so they can see each other around Harry. Like he’s fighting laughter, Niall covers his mouth with his hand and clears his throat. “Are you serious? Is this… Is this new?”

“Yes, I’m serious and, yes, it’s fucking new, Niall. Jesus. Until, like, a week ago, I thought I was straight.”

“Oh, well, okay. Sorry. I… This is just… unexpected. Are you like, handling this alright? Are you upset about it?”

Harry shakes his head and says, “No, no, I’m fine. I’m not like… bothered by it. I’m just surprised, I guess. And, well, I sort of feel like… I don’t know. Like it’s fake. Like I’m an impostor or something.” He takes a breath and tries to ignore the thought that he is bothered.

“Nah, man, no way. I mean, I get it, but just… You’re fine.” NIall squeezes Harry’s knee and pats it a few times. “I feel like a bad gay. I don’t have any books or like, links or anything to give you.”

“It’s not a club, Ni.” Zayn rolls his eyes and pokes Harry in the ribs. “Do you have questions? Like about… I don’t know. I guess anything.”

Harry chugs the rest of his beer and sets the empty bottle on the coffee table, then leans back and tips his head toward the ceiling. “Did you know that it’s like, a thing… That lots of people don’t realize they’re bi or gay or whatever when they’re younger?”

“Yeah, straight’s always the default setting,” Zayn says with a shrug. “It’s hard to break away from that. I still think that way about other people and I’ve been out for more than a decade and I try to be aware of it.”

“I’ve been walking around all week like… I don’t know. Kind of shell shocked. I keep thinking back to all of these times… Like, I’m pretty sure I had a crush on this kid Patrick when I was in high school. At the time, I thought that I just admired him, you know? But now… I don’t know. There are a lot of memories…” Harry shakes his head because that summer a few years ago, he and Louis and their scheduled phone calls, what went down with their planned trip to Lollapalooza and his reaction… He doesn’t want to talk about that.

Niall clears his throat and sips his beer, then says, “When I was nineteen, I… I’d always thought I was just like, a late bloomer or something. Didn’t care for girls, really. I could appreciate when they were pretty or whatever, but I just wasn’t interested. Then, I don’t know, it almost feels like it hit me like a truck or something. I didn’t wake up gay one morning, but I kind of did. Met my first boyfriend on the first day of my sophomore year of college. Took one look at him and that was it.” Niall laughs and looks over at Zayn with a smile.

“I think I’ve known since birth,” Zayn says and pats his hand on Harry’s chest.

Harry doesn’t look away from the ceiling. “When I was twenty-one, I went to see this local band, but I went early because I was going to take some pictures. Used to do that a lot. Photograph bands and venues for the cover charge and free beer. Anyway… I was waiting for the band to set up and drinking a beer and this guy came over and sat down across from me. He was cool. We talked about music and he asked about my photography and told me he liked my dimples and…” He presses his hands to his face and smooths his eyebrows. “Five years later I’m sitting here looking back and realizing that not only was he flirting with me, but I flirted back, and like… I just feel dumb.”

“You’re not dumb, Harry.” Zayn scratches his fingers on Harry’s scalp and it helps a little.

“He was cute,” Harry says and huffs a little laugh through his nose. “Missed opportunity.”

“What’d Louis say?” Niall asks as he pushes himself up off the couch. He collects their bottles and takes them to the kitchen, and he’s back with new beers a moment later, but Harry hasn’t answered. “Did you tell him?”

Finally, Harry drops his head back down and looks at Niall. He shakes his head and takes the proffered beer. “Not yet.”

Niall lets out a whistle as he sits back down. “Do me a favor? Don’t tell him you told us first.”

“Yeah, alright.” Harry clanks his bottle against Niall’s and then Zayn’s and they toast to Harry’s not-straightness.

He stays for a third beer, then heads home. On the way, he’s still going over things in his head and he wonders if this uncertainty is going to be a constant or if it’s like some sort of transitional period thing. He feels so behind. Like everyone else has everything figured out and he’s twenty-six years late. For now he’s going with not-straight but maybe bi, but also he’s confused as fuck about his ex-girlfriends. There’s so much about both of his serious, long-term relationships that makes him question whether he was ever actually fully in them.

When he gets home, Louis is there. He’s laying on the futon with his laptop and headphones, watching a show, but he pauses it and pulls the headphones off when he sees Harry.

Louis keeps his voice just above a whisper and says, “Sent me home ’cause it was slow. Worked on some songs with Liam.” He picks up his notebook and gestures with it towards the alcove where Liam is snoring with his mouth open.

“You tired?” Harry asks quietly.

Louis shakes his head.

“Want to watch whatever you’re watching in my room?”

They lay side by side on Harry’s bed, his laptop and his wireless speaker between them. Harry doesn’t talk about anything. He doesn’t want to. He’s not ready and he doesn’t know what he wants to say. When Harry wakes up in the morning and finds Louis asleep on the futon, a hazy sense of regret washes over him.

————

Harry doesn’t tell him.

It’s April, officially spring with the time change and everything and Louis will be leaving for L.A. at some point in June. They hardly see each other, even though they’re living together, and when they do see each other, Harry just can’t bring himself to tell Louis.

He’s decided to go with bisexual for now because it seems to fit and it’s easier to say than not straight, but he’s still not sure exactly. Even though he’s never been big on labels, all the sudden he feels like he wants one.

Over the weeks since he realized that he’s attracted to men, he’s found himself really attracted to Louis. And he feels horrible for it. That’s not what they are, and he’s not about to ruin a lifelong friendship for a stupid crush. Besides the fact that Harry hasn’t even flirted with another guy with any intent, he knows what Louis is looking for, and Harry is not it.

It’s just… difficult. Suddenly realizing that he’s bi, giving himself permission to look at other men, allowing himself to experience the feelings that in the past he would brush aside… It’s a lot. He’s stunned by the strength of his attraction to men. And he doesn’t know what to do. He’s not ready to be in a relationship, not with anyone. He’s barely three months out of a yearlong relationship living with his girlfriend.

What he needs is a friend. Sort of. With benefits. Someone who isn’t going to judge him for being new to figuring out his sexuality, someone who isn’t going to pressure him into doing something that he isn’t ready to do, someone who isn’t going to make him feel bad for wanting to take his time and experiment and figure out what he likes. Someone he trusts.

So maybe Harry isn’t what Louis is looking for, but Louis could be exactly what Harry needs. If he and Louis could figure out some kind of friends with benefits arrangement, maybe Harry could work off his crush that way. It would be a perfect plan, if Harry wasn’t positive it would fuck up their friendship.

He dismisses the idea. It would never work, especially as difficult as it’s been for Harry to open his mouth and tell Louis that he isn’t as straight as he thought he was.

He eventually tells him in what is probably the worst possible way.

Liam goes to bed so early when he has to work the opening shift that Harry almost always spends those evenings in his bedroom because it’s easier than tiptoeing and whispering and using headphones. It’s a Tuesday night in early April and Liam has been snoring in the alcove for a good hour, Louis is napping on the futon before his shift at the bar, and Harry is folding his clean laundry on his bed, listening to music on his headphones, and trying to decide if he wants to cook for himself or not.

At the touch of a hand on his elbow, Harry screeches and jumps and drops the stack of t-shirts he was about to carry over to his dresser. He rips off his earbuds and smacks Louis in the arm.

“What the fuck? Oh my god, I almost died, Lou.” Harry clutches his chest like he’s an old man short of breath just from the fright and Louis laughs even harder than he already was. Slowly, Harry picks up his t-shirts and starts to painstakingly fold them again while scowling at Louis, who finally stops laughing and helps.

“Sorry, sorry. I just woke up and I’m hungry. Thought I’d see what you wanted to do for dinner.” Louis adds his t-shirt to Harry’s stack and takes the next one off the pile.

“Not sure. Don’t you work tonight?”

“Not tonight, no. I’m off today and Saturday, actually. If you want to do something this weekend.”

“Yeah, okay. Sounds good.” Harry pushes his dresser drawer shut and heads for the kitchen. “I can make pasta or we can order something.”

“Whatever you want to do. I’m easy,” Louis says with a smirk as he leans against the stove and watches Harry dig through their stack of take-out menus.

“I wasn’t going to say anything, but that is what I’ve heard, so…” Harry tries to maintain a straight face, but he can’t, the snickers start before he finishes talking.

Louis shoves him in the shoulder and reaches past him for the fridge door. He opens two beers and hands one to Harry, clinking their bottles together. “I mean, it’s pretty true. Still looking though.”

Inside, Harry’s waving and yelling, “Pick me! Pick me!” but on the outside, he simply nods and hums and pulls out his phone to order Thai food, which they end up eating in Harry’s bed while they watch a show and drink beer. But then Louis sneaks out to the living room, rummages through Liam’s drawer, and comes back with his stash.

They’re on their second bowl and Harry’s on his third beer when Louis starts complaining about the last guy he met through Grindr. Harry tunes him out.

He almost wishes he felt comfortable using an app to meet someone, but he’s not. He’s only ever dated people that he already knew. Literally every girlfriend he’s ever had has been someone that he was friends or at least friendly with first. Maybe he’ll just be straight again. Twenty-six just feels so old, even though he knows it’s not. It would be convenient if he could go back in time and tell his sixteen-year-old self that he didn’t just think Patrick from basketball was really cool.

“Who uses Grindr to find a boyfriend? No one. I just…” Louis sits back against the pillow and sighs. He’s very pretty when he pouts. “I’ve only got a few more months here. All I want is a regular hookup so I don’t have to keep looking, someone who doesn’t want anything serious, someone with their own bedroom since the futon isn’t exactly private—”

“What about me?” Harry lets the question go without thinking and once it’s out there, he figures he can’t take it back, so he just waits for Louis’ response.

Unfortunately, it isn’t quite what he was expecting. Louis looks at him askance, takes the beer and bowl from his hands and sets them on the nightstand, then it’s like a slow build. He huffs and then he snorts and then he giggles and then he’s cackling so hard and loud that he pulls the pillow over his face to muffle the sound. All while Harry sits there watching him.

So he takes a deep breath, figuring if he’s already crossed that line, he might as well keep going, and says, “Hey, I’m serious.”

That shuts Louis up long enough for him to catch his breath and say, “You’re straight, Harry.”

Maybe he should’ve led with the whole bisexual discovery thing. Instead he crosses his arms and shakes his head because now he’s made things weird.

“What do you mean no?”

Harry doesn’t look up. It’s much easier to talk to his knees. “I just, um… I’ve realized some things lately. Past month or so.”

“Like what have you realized?”

“I mean, I just said. I’m bi, I think? I don’t know for sure.”

“That’s… That’s great, Harry.” Louis’ voice is soft and he’s smiling and Harry is so pleased that it seems like things are going to work out. That he’ll not only be bisexual in name, but in practice too. He looks down at Louis’ hand on his knee, his thumb rubbing back and forth, then he looks back up and Louis is still smiling as he says, “I’m really glad you trust me enough to tell me— Wait. Did you seriously just come out to me by offering to be my fuck buddy? That’s… Harry, no. That’s a horrible idea.”

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of having his hopes crushed.

“Oh… Okay. Sorry, I…” Harry leans over and reaches for his beer for something to do with his mouth other than shove his foot in it. He suddenly feels hot and a little dizzy and would like to chug his beer, take another hit off the bowl, and go to sleep for the rest of his life in order to avoid any further conversation about this.

“It’s not… Harry.” Louis rests his hand on Harry’s shoulder and squeezes. “First off, Harold, you’re gorgeous, so don’t think I’m saying you’re not. It’s just that… Have you ever done anything with a guy?” Harry shakes his head. “No, you would’ve told me, right?” Harry nods.

He still can’t look at Louis.

“You shouldn’t… It’s not a good idea. You’ll find someone. Somebody who you’ll want to be with for real. You know you’re a relationship person. And everyone loves you, so it won’t take you long. Okay?”

Harry nods again and drains his beer. “Okay, Lou. Sorry if I, like, made you uncomfortable.”

“No, it’s nothing like that.” Louis take Harry’s empty bottle and sets it aside, then leans back onto the pillow again. “Do you want to watch another episode?”

“No, I’m, um… I’m tired. Should probably just go to bed,” Harry says and tries to sound tired and not disappointed. He’s not sure if he pulls it off or if Louis is looking for a reason to leave. Either way, he does. He takes Liam’s stash and their empty bottles and the leftover take-out containers and shuts the door behind him.

The thing is that Harry doesn’t want a boyfriend. He knows this. There are so many thoughts and feelings that are almost overwhelming—he’s scared and nervous and excited and he doesn’t want to end up in a relationship that he’s not fully invested in. Not again. For the first time in his life, he just wants the freedom to experience sex without worrying that he’s missing something. A friend who is willing to help him figure his shit out is all he wants. There’s no way that Niall or Zayn would be into that idea and Harry’s not really into it either. They’re in a relationship, plus they’re too good of friends for that to not be weird. Liam, maybe. He’ll have to think it over.

There’s no opportunity for things to be uncomfortable between them because Louis is asleep when Harry leaves for work, he’s gone when Harry gets home, and he doesn’t get in from his shift until long after Harry’s gone to bed for the night. As usual.

Liam drags him out for a short run because he says it’ll help his shit mood. It does in more ways than one. They only do a slow two miles, but it’s enough time for Harry to decide that he’s going to tell Liam that’s he’s figured out he’s bisexual, and then he’s going to ask him if he’d be willing to help him out.

The following day is Thursday and this time, Harry’s the one dragging Liam out the door. They’re more than a mile in before Harry works up the nerve to say anything, and when he does, he just blurts it out. Maybe this is something he should work on, like practice some sort of lead up to the big reveal, but the whole spitting the words out before he can stop himself thing is working for him.

Harry listens to his feet hit the sidewalk in time with Liam’s and then, between one breath and the next he says, “I’m bi.”

“Cool. I didn’t know that.” Liam doesn’t break stride. He doesn’t even look over at Harry because apparently it’s no big deal.

“Yeah, I didn’t either.”

“Oh,” Liam says and this time he slows to a stop.

Harry stops just past him and stands to the side while Liam catches up. His bottom lip is in tatters from nervously chewing on it all day, still he bites it again.

“Have you told anyone else? Like, Louis knows, right?”

“Yeah, I told him the other night. Niall and Zayn too. I just, um… I have a favor to ask.”

“Sure, man.”

Harry gestures for Liam to come on and starts to run again. The conversation will probably be easier if he doesn’t have to look at Liam while he talks. “Okay, so like… I realized this about a month ago. I’ve spent most of the last few weeks sort of adjusting my mind? And I honestly don’t even know if I’m actually bi because, well, like… I’m not sure if I actually ever really liked girls or not. It’s hard to say. I mean, I think so, but...”

“Wow, yeah. That’s a big change.”

“Right, so, I’m twenty-six and totally inexperienced with guys. But I don’t want, like, a relationship right now. I think it’d be best if I could work out some sort of friends with benefits thing. Like, I just want to figure out what I’m doing.”

Liam glances over at him, but doesn’t do more than nod and hum noncommittally. They push themselves harder through the rest of the run, but when they finish and start to stretch, Liam says, “That sounds like a good way to go about it, I guess. I’d think Louis’d be up for that.”

“No,” Harry says with a shake of his head. “Turned me down, actually.”

“Did he really?” Liam’s voice goes a little higher than normal and he stops stretching his hamstring and stands up straight. “What’d he say?”

“That he didn’t think it’s what I’d really want. That he knows I’m a relationship person.” Harry includes air quotes around that. “And, like, I am? But not right now. Relationships are hard enough without me going in not even knowing what I want or what I like. I just want someone I trust to like… Show me the ropes, I guess. No pressure. No strings. Fun…”

When Liam pulls the hem of his shirt up and wipes the sweat from his face, Harry lets himself look at Liam’s abs. Liam sighs and says, “Louis’s an idiot.”

“Maybe.” Harry laughs and then he forces himself to keep eye contact with Liam while he says, “So, I thought I’d see if you were interested.”

Sputtering leads to a choking sound and while Liam coughs, he holds up one finger in a gesture for Harry to wait, but he can’t.

He can’t handle another rejection so quickly, so before Liam can tell him no, Harry rushes out, “Please just think it over. Let me know in a couple of days, okay?”

Liam nods and gives him a small, reassuring smile and follows him into the building.

————

The next day, Liam tells Harry he’s in, conditionally.

The conditions are: that when they go out on Saturday, they go to a gay club; that Harry give himself that night to dance and flirt, let go and have fun; that he really think it over, like how he thinks things will work with the three of them living together, what sort of rules they’ll need to have in place, what if one of them wants to date or hook up with someone else or would they be exclusively benefitting from each other; and finally, that he let Louis know.

Harry agrees. He’s already glad he asked Liam because he didn’t even consider having rules, even though it seems like the smartest way to go about things. By Saturday, he’s beyond excited to go out dancing. And he’s pretty sure he knows how he wants to work things out as far as rules for their arrangement. But he still has to figure out how to approach that last condition.

In the meantime he puts on his tightest black jeans and a paper thin white t-shirt because he doesn’t want to look like he’s trying too hard. With his black boots to dress it up, his outfit’s alright. He hopes.

Though he considers changing into something with a little more personality when he sees Liam’s mesh Gucci shirt, he decides to stick with what he knows since Louis is dressed in jeans and a t-shirt too. Though his black tee is almost see through and he rolls his jeans up so that you can see he’s not wearing socks with his black and white checkered vans.

“You nervous?” Louis asks while Harry locks the door. He pockets the key and checks again that he has everything he needs, then follows Louis and Liam down the hall.

“Kind of. Not really though. More like I’m excited? Should be fun. Haven’t been dancing since my birthday,” Harry says and the memory of Louis ditching him for that guy pops up at the mention of his birthday and he frowns slightly, realizing that it’s likely he was annoyed at more than just Louis leaving with a stranger.

The club is already packed when they get there, but Liam evidently knows someone who knows someone, so they don’t have to wait to get inside. He slides between two men at the end of the bar to wave to the bartender and comes away with three shots of tequila and three beers. They toast to Harry’s Big Bisexual Awakening and down their shots. But that’s enough liquor for the night.

“Want to be kind of sober, you know? Like, a slight buzz only.” Harry sips his beer then turns to watch the crowded dance floor.

Liam tips his beer toward Harry and says, “Get out there and dance, man. Let’s go.” Then he leads Harry onto the dance floor with Louis close enough behind him that he can rest a comforting hand on Harry’s lower back. Harry automatically relaxes into his touch, momentarily basking in the feeling of Louis looking out for him.

Sober dancing is so very different than what Harry is accustomed to, but it’s still fun. He’s just more aware of everything going on around him and more conscious of his own limbs moving out of rhythm. Still, it doesn’t take long before he gets a little more free with his movements and starts to relax into it. And soon enough he’s drawn the interest of at least one man brave enough to dodge Harry’s wildly swinging arms.

Harry looks for Louis to check his reaction to the guy approaching him, but he’s already disappeared in the crowd. So, when Liam smiles and wiggles his eyebrows, Harry rolls his eyes and turns back to the guy, trying to move his hips the same way he is. He’s got a nice smile, he’s good looking, and taller than Harry by a few inches. Harry dances with him for a few songs, but eventually he realizes that Harry isn’t going to go home with him, so he moves on.

Pouting, Harry scrunches his nose at Liam and heads back to the bar for another beer. He doesn’t see Louis anywhere, which isn’t surprising. He’s probably trying to find someone too. But this is supposed to be his night. Liam hasn’t strayed more than ten feet from Harry’s side all night, constantly checking in with him by catching his eye and throwing him a wink or a thumbs up.

On his way back to Liam, Harry catches sight of Louis. He’s dancing with some dude, chest to chest, hips swaying side to side. They’re so close together that Harry briefly wonders if they’ll bother leaving the club at all or if they’ll end up in the bathroom. When he finds Liam, he’s dancing with Niall and Zayn, and Harry freezes. He intentionally didn’t invite them out because he figured he’d end up with Liam and isn’t ready to explain it to them.

Harry plasters a smile to his face and joins their little dance circle. With his hands in the air, he turns and exaggeratedly shakes his ass, letting his shirt ride up so that his stomach shows. Girls always like his laurel tattoos and he figures that might be universal. They dance to a few songs, being silly together, spinning and twirling and laughing. But after a while, Niall drags Zayn off and they start dancing back to front. Harry stills and watches them for a few seconds, then turns to looks for Liam, but finds someone else behind him.

This man is gorgeous. His light brown hair is styled up off his face, his green t-shirt is tight enough that Harry can make out the separation in his abs, and his brown eyes and smile are friendly, so Harry shrugs and steps closer.

He couldn’t have picked a better dance partner. The guy—Josh—laughs good naturedly when Harry steps on his toes, rests his hands on Harry’s hips without letting them slide lower, and keeps just a few inches between them. It’s obvious that he’d be okay with stepping it up a bit, but he’s letting Harry lead, which is perfect. For a while.

They stick together through a few more beers and another shot of tequila even though Harry said he wasn’t having any more. It’s impossible to pass up the offer to lick salt off of Josh’s neck. After Harry pulls his hair up into a bun to make it easier for Josh to reciprocate and they make their way back to the dance floor and Josh still keeps his hands a respectable distance from Harry’s ass, he decides he’s probably finished for the night. He kisses Josh on the cheek, says goodbye and goes to find Liam.

He’s only a few feet away, dancing with an older gentleman. A silver fox. Harry giggles to himself and moves to the music behind Liam until the song ends and he taps Liam on the shoulder. “Hey, can we dance?”

Liam turns and shouts “We are dancing!” over the pounding bass and does a little shimmy that makes his mesh shirt sparkle in the low light.

“No, like, for real,” Harry steps in closer and tries to keep up with Liam’s more complicated steps, but Liam stops him with a hand on his shoulder.

Liam leans in so that Harry can hear him and asks, “You having fun?”

Harry nods. “Yeah, but I think I’m, um… I’d like to do what we talked about.”

“You talked to Louis?” Liam asks and then leans back so that Harry can see his face. His puppy dog eyes look so concerned and he’s got little lines on his forehead.

Harry rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “No, but I will tomorrow. I just want to dance. Like, you know, that.” He jerks his thumb in the direction of Zayn and Niall.

Liam scratches at his beard and shifts sideways so he can see around Harry. “Just dancing?”

“Just dancing. But like, don’t be afraid to touch my ass. That guy Josh was like… I don’t know. He was nice, but I don’t want to have to ask a stranger to touch my ass.” Harry snorts because he knows he sounds stupid, but it’s true. This is why he’d rather do this with a friend.

“Alright,” Liam agrees and nods, then raises his eyebrows and twirls his finger in the air until Harry gets it and spins so that his back is facing him. Then Liam smacks him on the ass just hard enough to make Harry jump and turn back around laughing. “That’s out of the way. Let’s dance.”

It’s so much more comfortable dancing with Liam. Harry can laugh and make horrible jokes about how sweaty he is and he can compliment Liam on the fact that his nipples show through his shirt. It’s fun, which is what Harry wanted this night to be anyway. Harry drapes his arms over Liam’s shoulders and Liam rests his hands on Harry’s waist, but he winks and smiles and says, “I’ll touch your ass next song.”

When Liam slides his hands down onto the top of Harry’s ass, he squeaks a little and they both laugh, but he draws Harry in a little closer until there’s no place for his legs unless one of them goes in between Liam’s. It’s a good thing Liam has rhythm and knows what he’s doing because Harry goes from amused and giggling to a little bit turned on fairly soon after that.

With their thighs slotted together like that, Harry can go where Liam leads him, but he also can’t put his dick anywhere other than right up against Liam’s hip and with every movement it gets a little more interested. It’s such a contrast from his past experiences dancing with women where, most of the time, he’d shy away from similar intimate touches, keeping space between their bodies as they danced. And it’s such a relief, like, Harry kind of wants to put his hands together in prayer and say thank you that this whole attraction to men thing seems to be working out fairly well. He’s not freaked out by Liam’s hands on his body, it feels good. And far from wanting to stop it when his dick bumps into Liam’s hip, Harry wants to do it intentionally. It’d be easier if he could get some leverage though, so he slides his hands down Liam’s chest, lets his fingers graze the skin of his stomach where his shirt stops, and brings them around and to a stop firmly on Liam’s ass.

Liam grunts a little when Harry presses their hips together and Harry can feel that he’s not the only one affected, but almost as soon as he finds a bit of friction, it’s gone. He looks up at Liam who looks amused.

“Next time, maybe. But you have to talk to Louis tomorrow before I agree to anything.” Liam taps Harry’s nose with his finger and says, “I’m getting some water. You want some?” He wanders off towards the bar when Harry nods and then he’s left to dance on his own for a little while.

Not too long though because, even though he hasn’t seen much of him all night, Louis threads his way through the dance floor until he’s standing in front of him.

“Harold,” he says with his hands on his hips and a quick nod.

Harry mimics his stance and says, “Lewis.”

“Doing okay? Liam showing you a good time? Hmm?”

“Yeah, he is.” Harry nods and starts to swing his hips to the music again.

“Still bisexual?”

Harry snorts, then moves closer so that he can talk into Louis’ ear. “Yeah, like, definitely. I am for sure into guys. I mean, obviously I haven’t done anything other than dance, well, grind, I guess? But, um… Hoping to change that soon.”

“Really?” Louis tips his head back and asks, “How’s that?”

“Um…” Harry bites his lip and looks around, but Liam isn’t on the way back with his water yet, so he leans down to Louis’ ear again and says, “Liam’s going to be my friend with benefits.”

“What?” Louis shouts and it’s right by Harry’s ear. It hurts, it’s so loud.

“Liam is going to be—”

“No fucking way. That’s… You can’t do that, Harry.”

Harry steps back, folds his arms across his chest, and says, “Sorry, I must’ve missed the day that you became the boss of me.”

“I’m not— I’m not telling you what to do. I’m just saying that… Liam?”

“What’s wrong with Liam? He’s fun, he’s kind, he’s sweet. He’s hot— You’ve seen his abs! He’s your friend, you dick.”

“I know he’s… Liam is all of those things. He’s a wonderful person, but you can’t—”

“No, you can’t. I asked you and you said no and that’s fine, but that’s the end of your involvement in my sex life.” Harry turns to stalk off and is met by Liam only a few steps away with an ice water in each hand. “Thanks, Li. Well, all of your conditions have been met, so if you’re still in, we can go.”

“You told Louis? What’d he say?”

“He said that I can’t.” He takes a glass of water and drains it.

“Right, well.” Liam shakes the ice in his cup and says, “I’ll just say goodbye to him. Zayn and Niall are up at the bar if you want to let them know you’re leaving.”

Harry nods and starts in that direction. Fucking ridiculous. And unfair. He’ll talk to Louis in the morning because he really isn’t in the mood right now. After quick hugs with Niall and Zayn, Harry makes his way to the exit. It’s finally a bit cooler out, or at least compared to the sauna that was the middle of the dance floor. Harry walks a few feet further away so that he’s not standing right in the streetlight, leans against the side of the building, and pats his pockets. No smokes.

He rests his head back and looks up at the sky, wishing for a moment that he was back home, on the beach, laying in the sand, and staring up at the stars.

“Here,” Louis says and Harry drops his head back down to find him standing there with a lit cigarette in each hand, holding one out for Harry to take.

“Thanks.” Harry takes a drag and lets his head fall back against the wall again, but keeps his eyes on Louis. If he somehow convinced Liam to change his mind, he’s going to scream. Facing the street instead of facing Harry isn’t a good sign.

With his hands laced together on top of his head, Louis turns around, but he’s still not looking at him. “Listen, Harry, I’m sorry about, um… about before. I don’t mean to be…”

“Bossy? A dick? Controlling? An asshole?”

“Yeah… That. What are um…” Louis finally meets Harry’s eyes, takes a drag off his cigarette and turns his head to exhale. “What are you and Liam going to do tonight?”

At least it sounds like he hasn’t scared Liam off, but still. “Nosy.”

“I am,” Louis easily agrees and steps closer, holding his gaze steady.

“I don't know. Probably just kiss, if that.” Not that Harry would be opposed to doing more since he’s feeling pretty up for anything. He shrugs and takes a drag off his cigarette. “I ended up drinking more than I wanted to, and like, I’m not drunk, but… He’s very, um… proper. Which is cool and, like, I appreciate it. But also…”

“Okay, then, um… One kiss.”

“Yeah, probably.”

“No, I mean, me. Like… One kiss with me.”

Harry blinks rapidly and shakes his head. That’s the last thing he expected to hear from Louis, and who knows if he even means it. Maybe he’s joking or maybe Louis intends to give him a chaste kiss just to placate him. “Are you for real? Why are you—”

“I didn’t think you were gonna ask Liam, okay? To be honest, I didn’t think you’d ask anybody. I didn’t think you were serious.”

“You didn’t think I was serious?” Harry asks, frowning and feeling unprepared for any part of this conversation. “When have I ever given you the impression that I’d… What? Joke around about something like this?”

“Sorry. I know, um… I guess it was just really surprising? I’ve known you for like fifteen years, Harry. And I had no clue that you were anything but straight.”

“How would you know when I didn’t even know? Like, just because you’re gay, doesn’t make you an expert on everyone’s sexuality.”

“I know, Harry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to like… Look, if you’d rather Liam, um… I’ll go—”

“Oh, shut up. Of course I’d rather it be you. I asked you, didn’t I? I just…” Harry’s never felt so diametrically different about something like this. He wants to run away screaming, while simultaneously wanting to leap around in celebration. Instead, bends down to put out his cigarette, then walks over to toss it in the trash can. “Should probably tell Liam.”

“No need. I kind of told him I changed my mind, so…”

Harry turns and stares at him for a few seconds, unsure exactly what he’s feeling. He’s irritated that Louis would be so arrogant, but at the same time he’s incredibly relieved and stupidly happy. Because it’s ridiculous, this weird crush-like thing he has on Louis. It makes him feel twice as young and foolish and inexperienced and afraid when he’s already so out of his element.

But he trusts Louis implicitly. And he knows that it’s just a silly crush. Just something brought about by this new discovery about himself and proximity to Louis when he hasn’t spent this much time with him in years. It’s not a big deal and he can’t help it, so he decides to just roll with it. All he can do is try not to be overly obvious about it, and granted, that’s a little bit more difficult when he’s not sober, but he’s not really drunk, and he hopes that Louis is buzzed enough tonight that he won’t catch on.

“You told him what?” Harry narrows his eyes and asks, “That his services were no longer required?”

“Not in so many words, but yes.”

For a moment, Harry doesn’t respond, still annoyed at Louis’ presumptuousness. “Okay, well… Liam actually had some really good points about this whole, um…” Harry waves his hands around in the air, back and forth between them. “Thing. Like, we were setting up rules and stuff.”

“Rules?” Louis flicks his hair out of his eyes and drops his hand to his hip. “Like what?”

A breeze blows against Harry’s sweat damp skin and he shivers, then looks around at the taxi waiting just behind him, tips his head towards it and waits for Louis. They climb in and Harry tries to explain without blushing or stammering. He’s not successful. Thankfully, it’s not a long ride.

“Okay, so like, the rules were that we’d be exclusively, um… benefitting from each other? Like, if either of us met someone we wanted to date or even just hook up with, we agreed to tell each other first. And also, we agreed that serious conversations had to happen sober.”

“Smart. And I was thinking you meant rules for like… sex.” Louis laughs into his hand and looks out the window.

“Well, I mean, I… I… I told him that I was kind of up for anything? Like, um… just talk about it first. Let’s see… Oh, we said just friends. Like, I don’t want a relationship right now and he said he didn’t either and I wouldn’t want to date him anyway, but…”

“Sounds good, Harry.” Louis nods and looks back at him. The street lights illuminate his face as they pass underneath them, causing the shadows to grow longer and then shorter in a rhythm. Harry watches the outlines of Louis’ eyelashes lengthen across his cheeks and recede. “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”

“Are we? I thought we were just talking about it.” Harry sucks his lower lip into his mouth and bites down. It’s still sore from how much he’s been chewing on it lately. He feels like he missed something or maybe somehow he convinced himself that Louis wasn’t actually going to follow through. After all, he did offer one kiss. Maybe that’s all this is. “I thought you said one kiss?”

“One kiss to start.” Louis clears his throat and rubs his hands up and down his thighs. In the dim light of the cab, Harry watches as Louis’ gaze travels over his body and he feels heat start to build in the pit of his stomach. “Might be like kissing my brother. We’ll see.”

One of Harry’s barking laughs escapes because as close as they’ve been on and off over the years, Harry has never once thought of Louis as a brother. The cab pulls up at their building and they both try to pay at the same time, so they split it, and while they figure their money out, the earlier mood seems to dissipate.

They walk up the stairs side by side chatting about Harry’s camera that he pulled out of its case earlier in the week for the first time in years. By the time they get into the apartment, Harry’s convinced himself that nothing is going to happen, not even a kiss, so as soon as he drops his keys into the bowl by the door, he starts taking off his boots and figures he’ll let Louis have first shower.

Louis interrupts Harry’s thoughts. “I think you should be the one to do it.”

“Do what?” Harry finally gets his boots off and tosses them through the open door of his bedroom, then turns back to find Louis smirking at him. “What?”

“You should lead. Initiate it, I guess.” Louis tilts his head and rolls his eyes. “The kiss, Harry.”

“Oh,” Harry says and it comes out breathy and quiet, and for once, Louis doesn’t make fun of him for his confusion, so he steps closer.

Louis is just standing there, arms at his side, feet shoulder width apart, like he’s waiting to see what Harry will do, so he tries not to let himself worry.

His socks slide on the vinyl floor and he giggles a little when his toes bump into Louis’ shoes. Harry looks up and, when he meets Louis’ gaze, he knows that this was the right decision, because it’s Louis. His best friend. He would’ve been nervous and shaking with Liam.

Louis steadies him with his hands on Harry’s hips and the mood flips like a switch. Harry reaches up to cup Louis’ face with his right hand, slides his left around his waist, and settles it on the dip in Louis’ spine. His beard feels rough against Harry’s palm and when Harry rubs his thumb over Louis’ cheekbone, he remembers the first time he saw Louis with a beard, the night he hopped into the passenger seat after they hadn’t seen each other for two years, and he remembers wanting to touch it then. Wanting to scratch it to see how it felt on his fingertips.

At first, Harry tries not to stare at Louis’ lips, but he's so anxious that he feels like he needs to focus on something. He looks from his mouth to his eyes and back again.

It's as if his heart is working twice as hard, circulating adrenaline through every vein, as he uses his trembling hand to tip Louis’ head to the side and guide him closer.

He's worried as he leans in; the fear that he's been wrong, that this attraction isn't real, that he won't like this. But he pushes it away and waits until Louis’ eyes flutter closed before he shuts his own and brings their lips together. It’s different, of course it is, but not in a bad way. He can feel Louis’ mustache tickling his upper lip, his beard rubs against Harry’s chin, and he likes it. Maybe he has a thing for beards.

The kiss is soft and sweet, just the press of their lips against each other again and again, but then Louis slides his hands from Harry’s hips to his back, pulling their bodies together so that they’re hip to hip and chest to chest, and when he does, Harry lets out a little gasp. His lips part slightly and when he moves to kiss Louis again, he catches Louis’ lower lip between his own and gently sucks on it before letting it go, pressing another kiss to his mouth, and pulling away just a bit.

It’s already an amazing first kiss, blowing all of Harry’s previous first kisses out of the water. Every other kiss he’s experienced can’t compare when this feels like every part of him is affected. He thinks he can feel it in his toes. It’s on another level and Harry has to have more.

He combs his fingers through Louis’ hair and cradles the back of his head in his hand, and lets his other hand inch down until it’s resting just above Louis’ ass, then he kisses him again, opening his mouth and tracing his tongue over Louis’ lips. This is, apparently, all the invitation Louis needs because suddenly he’s no longer passively accepting Harry’s kisses. He tilts his head and slips his tongue alongside Harry’s and at that point, Harry kind of drifts away.

Maybe it’s the contrast between kissing and being kissed, but it makes all the difference in the world. Soon Louis’ hands are under Harry’s shirt, warm as they smooth over the skin of Harry’s back, making him tingle from a simple touch, as Harry pants against Louis’ mouth. His heart is racing and he’s getting hard in his jeans where he’s pressed up against Louis’ hips. Their lips glide together and Harry kisses across Louis’ cheek and down the side of his neck, stopping to nip at his ear and suck lightly at the skin just below it, which draws a surprising moan from Louis that brings Harry back to reality.

Louis said one kiss and this is… not one kiss. Harry rests his head on Louis’ shoulder and whispers, “Sorry.” Louis’ body stiffens.

“What?” Louis asks, his voice scratchy and rough.

Harry lifts his head and leans back so that he can see Louis’ face, but he doesn’t move his hands and he doesn’t step back to separate their bodies. “You said one kiss. Sorry that I, um… got a little carried away. We can stop if you—”

It’s nearly impossible to talk while Louis kisses him, so he gives up, trying to focus on the physical and not on how frightening it is that this just feels so right. Louis leaves a lingering kiss on Harry’s lips and steps back. “I didn’t do anything I didn’t want to. But, um… I think we should stop here.”

A whine escapes Harry’s throat and he doesn’t bother to contain it.

“Stop here for tonight, Harry.” Louis smacks his hand in the center of Harry’s chest. “I know you said you’re not drunk, but I think we should, at least the first time we do anything more than kissing, be sober.”

“Yeah, okay, that’s fine. Thought you were saying that was it, like… Never mind.” Harry steps forward and gently knocks his forehead into Louis’ and says, “You take first shower.”

“Alright.”

“And sleep with me. In my bed.”

“Is this a negotiation?” Louis asks with a laugh.

“Maybe. Not really.” Harry shrugs. He doesn’t want to sleep alone and if Louis sleeps next to him, when he wakes up in the morning and he’s sober... “Just want some cuddles. Plus, it’s a comfortable bed. You’re pretty much winning, Lou.”

“Fine.” Louis turns and walks towards the bathroom, calling back over his shoulder, “But only if you wear boxers.”

————

Chapter Text

————

So, it turns out that kissing lying down is way more fun than kissing standing up, but Louis still stops it after a few minutes by shoving a pillow in Harry’s face and tickling him until he rolls over onto his stomach and promises to go to sleep. It’s not cuddling, but he can feel the warmth emanating from Louis’ body beside him and it’s enough.

When Harry wakes up the following morning, the first thing he thinks is that his mouth is dry and disgusting. The second thing he thinks is that, even though Louis said he talked to Liam, he still feels like he’ll need to explain and apologize. The third thing he thinks is that he’s alone in the bed and, when he turns his head to look behind him, he confirms his suspicions.

Perhaps a different conversation with Liam is in order if Louis isn’t really into this.

Harry rolls over onto his back and sighs, then wrinkles his nose. He wants to go back to sleep, but doesn’t think he’ll be able to unless he brushes his teeth, otherwise he’s just going to lie there and smell his gross morning breath, so he forces himself out of bed. The door opens before he can reach for the knob and he jerks his hand back, then stands there staring at Louis on the other side.

“Morning, sunshine,” Louis smiles and turns sideways to pass by Harry, who watches him crawl back onto the bed and pull the covers over himself.

“Morning,” Harry mumbles in return and rubs his eyes and blinks before stumbling towards the bathroom. The living room is empty, so Liam must have stayed with Niall and Zayn.

Harry pulls his tangled hair up into a bun and while he brushes his teeth, he tries not to think about Louis’ messy hair and mostly naked body in his bed, otherwise he’ll be standing in front of the toilet trying to pee for the rest of the morning. He’s somewhat successful, but hopes that Louis is still laying with his back to the door when he returns to the bedroom.

The alcohol helped dull his anxiety about this whole thing, but now that he’s awake and sober, he’s second guessing everything and he’s really thankful for Liam’s suggestion about outlining rules and expectations. Now that his breath is minty fresh, he can talk to Louis about what he wants to do.

Except that Louis is not facing away from the door when Harry gets back. He’s lying on his back, with his hands behind his head, apparently waiting for Harry who freezes for a second, then as soon as he feels the nerves swirling in his stomach and the flush rising on his chest, he sort of dives back onto the bed and under the covers in one not at all smooth motion.

He’s kicking his feet to get the blanket over his legs when Louis clears his throat in a poor attempt to cover his laugh.

“Alright there, Harold?”

All he can do is let out a humph which probably sounds even less like a word from under the pillow he’s holding over his head. It’s possible that this is a bad idea after all. They’ve only kissed and he’s embarrassed way out of proportion to the situation. But he’s an adult and he can handle this, so he props himself up on his elbows and looks over at Louis, who is clearly amused.

“I’m fine and I don’t know why I’m… I’m weird this morning,” Harry says, and he’s pretty sure Louis can tell he’s lying.

“You’re always weird. ” Louis rolls onto his side and props his head up in one hand, tapping the fingers of the other on the mattress. “Are you weird because we made out last night?”

Honesty. Supposedly the best policy. Harry nods.

“Okay, so are you weird because you made out with me or because you made out with a guy? Is this a me thing or are you like, having second thoughts about other stuff?”

“It’s a you thing,” Harry responds and grabs Louis’ wrist before he can pull away. “Not like that. I… I… Well, I thought you left. Like, when I woke up and you weren’t here, I thought you’d like… decided not to do this. Evidently I am totally insecure and a big baby, so…”

Louis’ body relaxes, so Harry lets go of his wrist, which was a mistake because Louis rolls his eyes and pinches Harry’s nipple, making him squeal and bat his hand away. “You’re not a baby. This is why I wanted to talk sober. I told you, I’m in. Whatever you and Liam figured out for your rules are fine with me.”

Harry holds up a finger and wags it in Louis’ face. “Rule one is no nipple pinching.”

“Sure about that?” Louis darts his hand out and flicks Harry’s nipple instead.

“No? I… I… I guess not.”

Harry drops his face back down into the pillow. Maybe if he smothers himself, he’ll be able to avoid the rest of this conversation. How he ever thought he’d be able to do this with anyone other than Louis, he has no clue. Imagine discussing his nipple preferences with Liam.

“Are you going to blush and get freaked regularly? Like, I just want to know if this blotchy red skin thing is how you’re going to look from now on.”

“Shut up, Lou.” It’s muffled, but he’s sure Louis understood. Harry lifts his head a bit, turns and says, “Sorry. I’m just… not used to talking about this stuff.”

“Okay, well, what about with your ex-girlfriends? You talked about what they liked?”

“I guess? I mean… I’ve only had sex with like, six people. And it’s all been fine. Never, um…” Harry closes his eyes again. It’s so much easier to talk when he can’t see Louis’ face. “Never anything kinky. Like… vanilla sex.”

“Interesting, Styles.” Louis taps him on the shoulder and waits until Harry rolls over onto his back to ask, “So, missionary all the time?”

“No, I… I…” Harry groans and covers his face with his hands. “I just sort of did whatever they wanted. I don’t know… Like, Abby and Jenn both had their… preferences? And I didn’t care?”

“What sort of preferences?”

“That’s… That’s kind of none of your business, Lou. What they like, I mean.”

“I… I don’t mean it that way. I want to know what you liked about the sex you were having. That’s all.”

“Oh, well, um… I kind of always liked when, um…” Harry squeezes his eyes shut and says as fast as he can, “They’d be on top?”

Louis hums and pokes Harry in the nose. “I love how embarrassed you are. I never knew…”

“We’ve never talked about this sort of stuff before! Not really.”

“I know. And now I know why. Anything else you like? Don’t like? What about oral?”

Harry takes a deep breath and answers, “Abby liked it. Like, giving and receiving. Um… Jenn didn’t really care either way. She just liked, um… She, um…”

“You know, with the way you stammer over your words, you’d think it was something kinky, but I bet it’s—”

“From behind. She liked it from behind. And like… She always wanted me to pull her hair, and I would, but…”

He didn’t like doing it, but he never told her that. Occasionally, he’d eat her out, and she’d pull his hair. He liked that. But even thinking about telling Louis has his face burning and he knows it’s stayed pink since he came back from the bathroom.

“Well, then what do you want to try? Like…” Louis clears his throat and pushes himself up to sit cross legged. The blanket pools around his hips and he pulls a pillow into his lap, picking at the stitches while he talks. “I’m sorry, really, that this is hard for you, but I’m going to make you talk about this shit with me. And we don’t have to talk about everything right this second, but I need to know what you’re into. What you want to do and what you don’t. Like… What if something totally freaks you out and I don’t know about it? You just have to tell me things.”

Harry crosses his arms over his chest and is suddenly aware again that he’s practically naked, that as mortified as he is to have this conversation, his dick has not gotten the message. Instead, it’s a visible bulge under the blanket. He tries not to be obvious about what he’s doing when he bends his knees to help camouflage things. “I will. I am telling you things.”

“Yeah? This whole friends with benefits ‘package’ that we’re doing here? I was under the impression that it was because you’ve never been with a guy before. So I want to know what you’re interested in doing. Which means you have to tell me.”

“I don’t know. I told you that I told Liam that I’m up for trying anything as long as we talk about it first.”

Louis huffs and rolls his eyes. “Fine. Okay. Anything? You said you liked being ridden. You want that then? Want me to ride you?”

Harry nods convulsively, not playing it cool at all.

“Yeah?” Louis narrows his eyes and tips his head to the side. “What about the other way? Hmm? You want to ride me?”

“I would… I would… I, um… I’d like to try?” His voice goes ridiculously high at the end. But Louis’ eyes widen like he didn’t expect that answer.

“Alright.” Louis coughs into his fist and asks, “Want me to suck you off?”

“Yes,” Harry answers as if he was offering to do it right that second. “And I’ll, um… I’ll do you too. I mean, I’ve never, um… but I’d like to.”

Louis looks at him for a moment, then lays back down on his stomach beside Harry. “Did you like, um, when you did that to girls?”

Harry shrugs. “It was alright, I guess.”

“You’re so enthusiastic,” Louis deadpans. “I hope you’re not just a lazy fuck.”

“Shut up. What do you want me to say?”

“I honestly don’t know.” Louis sighs. “Do you want to talk about this later?”

Quickly, Harry shakes his head. “I’d rather, um… keep the momentum going.”

Louis rolls his eyes and smirks. “Whatever you want. Okay, if you’re ready to blush again, I’m about to start talking about assholes.”

Harry pushes Louis so hard that he almost falls off the bed. It’s fine. Totally fine. He blushes through the rest of the conversation, feels like his heart is going to explode for about half of it, and thinks his dick might for the other half of it.

There are lots of things that he knows are like, done. And he knows that people do them all the time. It’s just that he’s never… done them. The researching he’s been doing has been very enlightening. Like, now he knows what rimming is, but he didn’t realize that Louis was going to ask him about it. But he’s not kidding about wanting to try things, and he’s totally willing to try that. It’s the first time that Louis blushes during their conversation, so it kind of feels like Harry’s won something.

They talk about lube—Louis runs out to the living room to grab the almost empty bottle out of his underwear drawer so that he can show Harry his preferred brand—and they talk about prep and Harry makes Louis blush a second time when he admits to fingering himself in the shower sometimes. And other than the erection that won’t go away, the rest of the conversation goes a little easier. Finally, Louis says that since it looks like they’re going to be having a lot of sex, he’s going to take Harry to stock up on supplies, so they need to get up and get dressed.

Harry’s pretty sure that he’s going to have to jerk off before they go anywhere. He’s trying to decide how to go about doing that when Louis pushes himself up and back so that he’s sitting on his heels, points at Harry’s poorly concealed hard on, and asks, “Are you going to pass out if I offer to take care of that for you?”

“No. Maybe. I don’t know. What do you mean?” The words rush out of Harry so fast that he’s surprised he didn’t stutter.

“Alright, here’s something we didn’t discuss.” Louis reaches over and lays his hand on Harry’s knee and says, “What if I want to touch you? Do I need to always ask?”

Harry shakes his head and watches as Louis slides his hand from Harry’s knee to the middle of his thigh.

“You can touch me whenever you want. Like, if we’re out somewhere— Shit.” Louis pulls his hand back into his lap.

“What?” Harry asks.

“Are we keeping this like, a secret? Liam knows, obviously, but like…”

“No, I don’t want to do that. I’m bad at secrets.”

“Well, what do you want to tell people?”

Harry shrugs and bites the inside of his cheek. “What if we just don’t say anything unless they ask? And then we can tell the truth. Friends with benefits or whatever.”

“Alright. That’s okay, I guess. So, um… I was saying that if we’re out, you can touch me. Like, I don’t mind. Kisses or whatever. I know you probably want to touch my ass.”

Harry snorts and reaches over to pinch Louis’ thigh. “I’m, um… I’m fine with that too. I might be nervous at first. Like, I feel really stupidly new to this. Can I just like, follow your lead?”

Louis nods and bites his lip. “Are you still hard?”

“Yes…”

“Can I suck you off?” Louis asks and crooks an eyebrow.

“Oh my god. Okay. Yeah, yeah. You can do that.”

Louis grins and tugs the blanket off of Harry’s legs, but when he runs the back of his knuckle from the tip of Harry’s dick to the base, Harry huffs out a breath and remembers that he brushed his teeth and he’s pretty sure Louis did too. So he grabs Louis’ hand to haul him up.

“Sorry, um… I just…” Kissing is easier than talking, so he does that instead.

Not that he doesn’t want Louis to blow him because he really, really does. It’s just that it’s a little… impersonal, maybe, to just go straight for his dick with nothing else first. Besides, Louis is an excellent kisser and the skin around Harry’s mouth is already a bit sore from the night before, but he likes it. And this way, Harry can feel more of Louis than just his mouth. He lets his legs spread apart under the weight of Louis’ body and Louis settles there, the heat of him keeping Harry warm without the blankets.

Louis runs his fingers through Harry’s hair and pulls it loose from the messy bun, scratching lightly at Harry’s scalp and Harry sighs against his lips. He lays his hands on Louis’ upper back, trailing his fingers along the edges of his shoulder blades, then down his spine. The curve of his lower back is the perfect place for Harry to rest his hand, but as soon as he does that, he starts to slide it lower because Louis was right. Harry does want to touch his ass. A thrill shoots through him as cups it in his hand and brings his other hand down, digging into the muscle and pushing their bodies together. Louis moans and Harry can feel Louis’ dick pressing into his stomach right beside his own.

Experimentally, Harry lifts his hips and circles them while squeezing Louis’ ass and his stomach swoops. It’s amazing. Two layers of fabric between them and it’s about to kill him how hot this is. He wants more, needs to feel more of him, so he slips his hands under Louis’ boxers and reaches down to trace the crease where Louis’ ass meets his thigh. They rut against each other harder and faster, kisses turn to biting and Harry can hardly breathe. He pulls away and kisses Louis’ shoulder and his neck, rubs his cheek against Louis’ so that Louis’ beard scratches his face.

Louis pants against his neck. “Was going to blow you.”

“Later, maybe. This is… This is…” Harry pushes at the elastic waistband of Louis’ boxers, trying unsuccessfully to get them out of the way so that he can feel more of his skin, until Louis lifts himself up and Harry quickly pulls them down his thighs. He wiggles and gets his own down just enough that his dick is free and grabs for Louis again, trying to pull him back down on top of him.

“Wait.” Louis falls sideways and Harry cranes his neck around to watch him reaching for the bottle of lube he ran out to the living room to get earlier, and Harry freezes, suddenly unsure. “Shh… It's okay, just...”

Louis sits up and pushes Harry’s boxers further down and squeezes the bottle of lube, laughing when it makes a sputtering sound as the last drops fall onto Harry’s dick and stomach. He tosses the bottle aside and lines their bodies up and if Harry thought it was good before, it’s amazing now. The slickness of the lube makes the friction between them so much better and soon Harry feels his orgasm approaching.

His hands rhythmically squeeze Louis’ ass as they move against each other. Louis shifts sideways a little and rests his forehead against Harry’s, kissing him quickly, then looking down to watch. Harry’s eyes follow and he grunts unexpectedly, the sight of their cocks sliding beside each other, pushing against their stomachs, brings him that much closer.

“I… I’m…” Harry feels completely overwhelmed physically and emotionally. Everything is so intense, every brush of their skin is electric, and he doesn’t remember ever being this enraptured. Every sensation feels so new and different that he can’t think, and his heart is beating so hard that he’s sure Louis can feel it.

“Yeah?” Louis circles his hips and presses Harry down into the mattress, dragging his dick across the head of Harry’s, and Harry closes his eyes and throws his head back into the pillow. His hips stutter up against Louis’ and he comes between them, all over his stomach and Louis’ cock. Louis drops down on top of him, fucking into the mess of come and burying his face in the side of Harry’s neck.

Harry’s legs tremble with the aftershocks of his orgasm as he tries to keep moving with Louis’ rhythm, hoping to make it good for him, pulling him closer, but losing his grip when Louis sucks a kiss into the side of his neck. He groans and lifts a hand up to thread his fingers through Louis’ hair and hold him there, grabbing at Louis’ ass with the other hand, lost in bliss as his orgasm wanes. Louis’ back tenses and he quickens his pace, biting down on Harry’s shoulder as he comes, warm and sticky against Harry’s skin.

They lay there, chests heaving, breathing against each other’s necks, until Louis’ body starts to shake with laughter, and he falls off of Harry and onto the mattress beside him.

“What?” Harry asks, worried that he’s done something wrong.

“Just… FYI, that’s not typically how blow jobs go, in my experience.”

Without thinking about it, Harry smacks him in the stomach, getting come all over his hand. He lifts it up and studies it for a second before sighing and wiping it on his leg. “I assume that there’s less mess with a blow job.”

Louis turns his head, smirking at Harry for a few seconds. “Are you asking me if I swallow?”

“No, I’m assuming that you do. I figured I would. Why, should I not?”

“No, um… That’s… You can do that.” Louis clears his throat and says, “I would. For you, anyway.”

He rolls sideways and stands up, drops his boxers to the floor, and walks out of the bedroom naked with their come all over his stomach and Harry just lays there and watches him go.

While Louis showers, Harry tries to figure out if things are going to be weird between them or not. So far, it seems like it won’t, but he’s also still a little shaky from his orgasm and he can’t stop rubbing his index finger over the raw spot on his chin that Louis’ beard left behind. Maybe thinking will be easier after coffee.

It’s not.

They both shower and get dressed to walk down to the drug store to buy condoms and lube and for Louis to embarrass him. Harry’s not stupid. He can tell when Louis has ulterior motives. It’s not as bad as it could be. Louis just picks up as many boxes of condoms as he can hold and throws them at Harry as fast as he can so that Harry struggles to catch them and gets hit in the face by the last box. Two bottles of lube and a package of baby wipes and they’re on their way up to the register.

Harry can’t stop giggling after they pile their haul onto the counter and he knows he probably comes across more like a teenager buying all of this stuff on a dare than as a man in his mid-twenties who’s actually going to use it, but he doesn’t care. The cashier rolls her eyes and tells them to have fun and they walk back to the apartment with laughs occasionally sneaking up on Harry.

Things aren’t weird and it’s such a relief. Normally on Sundays, Louis sleeps most of the day because he worked the night before, but they’re both up and Louis doesn’t have to work until later. They drop their stuff off at the apartment, Harry snags his camera, and they go back out.

It’s been years since Harry’s used his camera. The last year of college he was so busy with school and with Abby that he just sort of stopped taking pictures. He stopped going to shows because he didn’t have time and he didn’t actually do much of anything other than work or study. The first year after he graduated, he worked at a local television station as a production assistant and he basically did everything that anyone asked him to. He wanted experience and he wanted to build his resume and the only way to do that was to bust his ass. His relationship with Abby suffered and his free time shrunk to practically zero, so his camera just sat in its case, where it continued to live when he brought it to New York.

Nearly everyone he met when he first moved to the city had their main job and their side-hustle. It was all just a bit much for Harry. Niall worked with him at Fame!TV but he was writing a novel in his free time. Zayn went from Fame!TV to VTV because his dream was to be on-air talent instead of behind the scenes. Harry met dozens of photographers and he never felt like his work was up to par, so he just never bothered. But he missed it.

After Jenn left and Louis started working at the bar and Harry was left to his own devices, he started working out with Liam and took his camera out of its bag.

So far, he’s taken pictures of the inside of the apartment, but he’s been wanting to take some outside and the weather’s nice, so it’s the perfect opportunity.

“I always kind of thought you’d end up doing this for a living.” Louis tugs on the strap of Harry’s camera bag. “You always seemed to have fun with it.”

“Yeah, I did. But it’s not the easiest thing to find work in.”

“You should try songwriting.”

Harry snorts and pops the lens cap off of his camera, points it at Louis without looking, and holds the shutter down. “I think not. Unless you want like, a limerick or something. I’m not very poetic.”

“Good thing you’re cute, I guess.” Louis holds his hand out and tries to cover the lens, but Harry steps out of reach. “Sorry, I…”

“You didn’t touch it.” Harry tips the camera back and looks to be sure. “It’s fine.”

“No, I mean… Sorry for what I said.”

“What? That you think I’m cute? I’m the cutest.” Harry stretches his arms as far as he can in front of himself, winks at the camera and takes a picture.

“If you say so.” Louis shrugs and then shoves his hands in the pockets of his shorts. “So… the bridge and DUMBO? I haven’t been. Think it’ll be crowded?”

“Not sure. Maybe. The weather’s nice, so…”

They walk to the subway near their apartment and get off near the Brooklyn Bridge so that they can walk across and Harry can take some pictures.

Harry lets Louis walk a few feet ahead and takes pictures of whatever catches his eye. Mostly he people watches. Once they’re in Brooklyn, they head for the park and Harry finally starts taking pictures of everything: the Manhattan skyline, the warehouses, the cobblestone street. It would be such a cliche to take a picture of his boots from above, so instead he focuses on Louis’ shoes in front of him and snaps a picture of his bare ankles and beat up Vans, making sure that his triangle tattoo is visible.

They make their way down closer to the water and walk until they’re near enough that Harry can get some pictures of the carousel. A couple sitting on a nearby bench stands up and as soon as they do, Louis makes a beeline for the abandoned seat.

“Tired?” Harry asks. He’s still standing in the middle of the walkway, about twenty feet in front of Louis, watching him as he leans his head back so that the sun hits his face. His aviator sunglasses make it impossible to tell if he’s looking at Harry or has his eyes closed or what. Harry takes a picture from there and then a few more as he walks closer.

Louis pulls his sunglasses off and slips them into the collar of his t-shirt, crosses his ankle over his knee, and removes his shoe. “Foot hurts. Think I have a blister.”

“Let me see,” Harry says, reaching for his foot as he sit down beside Louis on the bench. The skin is pink and irritated, but there’s not a blister yet. “This is what socks are for, Louis.”

“No, this is why people invented public transportation.” Louis rubs his thumb over the back of his heel and pouts, then puts his shoe back on. “I’m hungry.”

“Me too.” Harry watches Louis for a few seconds while he looks out over the water and wonders what it would be like to kiss him while they’re sitting on a bench surrounded by tourists. Probably not a good idea. His eyebrows draw together and he clenches his teeth, then forces himself to relax his face. It’s not something he’s ever had to consider before, with his ex-girlfriends, but the prospect is scary and he’s unsure if he’s afraid of other people’s reactions or Louis’.

There are people looking at the water, at the city on the other side, at the bridge, and at each other, but it doesn’t seem like anyone is looking at them. There’s a couple—two women who’re probably in their forties—walking past them and they’re holding hands. Harry grins at them. It gives him a push, makes him brave enough to go for it, so he leans in and presses a quick kiss to the corner of Louis’ mouth, then sits back as Louis’ head whips around.

Louis studies him for a moment, then asks, “What was that?”

“A kiss?”

“Hmm… Are you sure?” Louis stands up from the bench and waits with his hands on his hips. “Let’s go. I want pizza.”

Harry reaches up with one hand and sits there until Louis takes the hint and grabs it, pulling him up off the bench. He releases his hold on Harry as soon as he’s standing, but Harry doesn’t let go at first. When he does, he tries not to frown because it’s not as if Louis is his boyfriend and maybe he doesn’t like holding hands anyway, but it still stings a little. Probably a stupid way to feel. He hopes that he adjusts to this whole friends with benefits thing soon. Since it’s not something he’s ever done before, he’s not sure quite how to behave. And he did say he’d follow Louis’ lead.

“This was nice. I never do stuff like this,” Harry says and gestures around them at the park. “Makes me miss home. Sort of.”

“Yeah?”

“Not really. I just think sometimes that I’m not meant to be here. Like, I don’t know that I fit in New York.” Maybe it’s his shitty apartment or the job he’s outgrown, but he can’t help but wonder if he would be happier elsewhere.

“I’ve had fun here, but I’m looking forward to L.A. I think it’s probably more my speed.” Louis opens the door to the pizza place and rests his hand on Harry’s lower back to guide him into the restaurant. It makes Harry bite his lip and scrunch his nose to avoid letting his big goofy smile take over his face. “You should come visit me in L.A.”

“Yeah, okay.” Harry tries to pretend his stomach didn’t just drop to his feet at the mention of Louis leaving.“This is just temporary, you know?”

Louis closes his eyes, presses his lips together, and nods. And Harry wonders if he’s counting the days until he leaves.

It is temporary, this thing between them, but until now, that knowledge wasn’t something settled in his mind. Two months and Louis will be gone. He needs to try to remember that.

They take the subway back instead of walking because Harry’s worried that Louis is going to end up working that night with a blister and sore feet, and they get home early enough that Louis can grab a quick nap—in Harry’s bed—before he leaves for work.

Liam is in the shower when they get there, so Harry tries to prepare himself for a weird conversation and apology. Hopefully things won’t be uncomfortable between them since Louis seemed to think that everything was fine, still Harry wants to make sure.

He’s not certain what he expected, but Liam walking out of the bathroom completely naked was not on the list. Harry’s mouth drops wide open and he makes an uncontrollable choking sound before slapping his hands over his eyes. Liam’s laughter bursts out of him, loud and surprised and devolves into giggles as he makes his way across the room. Harry can hear him over by the alcove and refuses to uncover his eyes until Liam tells him he’s safe.

“Sorry. I was just…” Harry doesn’t know how to apologize for seeing someone else’s dick, though he kind of wants to congratulate Liam. He can still almost see it in his boxer briefs.

“Seriously, Harry, you should try to adjust to seeing penises.” Liam chuckles as he steps into his loose basketball shorts. “You guys work things out?”

“Yeah, yeah, um… That’s…” Harry cringes slightly before he says, “I wanted to apologize to you.”

Liam shakes his head and says with a smile, “No need, man.”

“No, but I like, convinced you to do this, um…” Harry takes a step closer, rubbing at his jaw, and forcing himself to keep eye contact. “Friends with benefits thing with me and then—”

“Harry. Stop.” Liam holds his hands up. “It’s fine. I figured Louis would change his mind. It’s why I wanted you to tell him.”

Harry nods and then freezes. “You mean you weren’t planning to… do it? With me?”

Liam shakes his head and says, “No, I would’ve. You’re hot and I’ll admit the idea of like, teaching you? But I thought you and Louis would both be more comfortable with this.”

“Oh… Then, um… Thanks.” Harry smiles and moves across the room to sit down.

“Told you. It’s fine. Now. It’s my night to make dinner and I’m thinking some sort of sausage.” Liam winks and pointedly adjusts his shorts then says, “Or salami. Maybe kielbasa?”

Harry groans and falls over to the side, face first onto the futon.

————

“Niall wants us to meet at the park to play volleyball, Li.” Harry sets his phone down on the counter and turns on the coffee pot, then turns to make sure Liam is paying attention. “Some friend of his is in town. Lou is off today, isn’t he?”

Liam nods while he adjusts the height of keyboard, then looks up and says, “Yeah, I think so. He’s had a lot of Saturdays off lately.”

“He has. I wonder why. Seems like Saturday would be a good shift for tips.”

“Seems like it.”

Harry hums thoughtfully. Maybe they’ve brought in someone new to replace Louis when he leaves for L.A. Louis hasn’t appeared to be bothered by it, so it’s probably not a big deal.

As quietly as he can, he opens the door to his bedroom, closes it behind him, and opens the drawer where he thinks he put his swim trunks. He’s not sure what else he’s supposed to wear to play volleyball since he always played on the beach at home, but the courts are sand, so this is probably fine. They’ve got a little more than an hour before they’re supposed to meet everyone, so Harry figures he’ll get ready and maybe edit some photos on his laptop in the living room while Louis sleeps.

He drops his sweatpants and boxers to the floor and bends over to step into his swim trunks, falling forward and almost hitting his head on the corner of the dresser when Louis loudly clears his throat. Harry manages to catch himself, stands up and spins around, belatedly realizing he’s naked and attempting to cover himself with the swimsuit in his hand.

“You scared the fuck out of me, Lou. I thought you were sleeping.”

“Not sleeping. Had a dream.”

Harry’s eyes catch the blanket moving and he immediately knows that Louis is jerking off under the covers. The swim trunks in his hand are going to need to cover a lot more area if this keeps up. “What… What was your dream?”

“Was about you.” Louis pushes the blanket down, but not far enough. Harry can see his arm clearly moving, but everything below his belly button is still hidden.

Harry takes a step closer, still holding his swimsuit in front of what is quickly becoming a full blown erection because apparently, Louis masturbating is really hot. “What about me?”

“Riding you,” Louis answers like maybe he’s replaying the dream inside his head. His arm moves faster and his breath catches. “It was a good dream.”

“Are you… Are you gonna, um…” Harry points at Louis’ obvious movements. “Do you want me to leave so you can—”

“Fuck, no, Harry. Jesus. Get over here.”

“Oh, thank god,” Harry rushes out and drops his shorts to the floor before hurrying to climb under the blanket next to Louis.

They’ve done handjobs and blowjobs over the last week or so. Harry’s done it three times and swallowed every time, a fact that is he quite proud of. It was a little weird, but it’s not as if he’s never tasted his own come before. They haven’t done this yet and though Harry’s been wanting to ask, he hasn’t been able to work up the nerve. And he also wasn’t positive which way he wanted to do it first. Louis was so gentle the last time he sucked Harry off, slipping his finger inside so carefully that it didn’t hurt at all and Harry wanted to ask for more, but couldn’t find the words before he was coming and it was all over. This way, he doesn’t have to make a decision. Perfect.

Louis lets out a surprised laugh which turns muffled when Harry kisses him, practically falling on top of him and effectively stopping him from stroking himself. Harry isn’t sure what Louis expected, but he’s planning revenge even as he licks into Louis’ mouth, bites his lower lip, and trails kisses down his neck to his nipple.

“I thought you were gonna make me watch you get yourself off and that could’ve killed me, Lou.” Harry bites lightly at Louis’ other nipple and sits up, straddling his waist. “What do you want me to do? Do I get to prep you?” His voice gets a little squeaky with anticipation.

This is something that he thinks he could be really good at. His fingers are longer and bigger than Louis’ and his girlfriends liked them, plus he has the habit of kind of zoning out, getting caught up in something and focusing solely on that. Harry licks his lips and raises his eyebrows, waiting for Louis to answer him.

Finally, Louis nods and Harry bounces a little in his lap, whooping and punching his fist into the air in celebration, then freezing completely, eyes wide as he whispers, “Liam’s home. I forgot.”

“We can be quiet, I think.” Louis reaches out and grabs hold of Harry’s dick which he actually forgot was just out there. Forgot that he was completely naked bouncing around on top of Louis. And he has to bite down hard on his lip to keep from making noise just from Louis’ hand touching him. There’s no way he can be quiet during sex with Louis. Not that he’s going to tell Louis that. So he nods his head. He can force himself to focus on Louis and that’ll help him calm down and keep quiet.

Except that his fingers get to go inside Louis to get him ready to ride Harry’s cock. Maybe Liam will hear them and leave.

By the time Harry has two fingers sliding easily in and out of Louis, after doing as Louis told him to, stretching them apart and twisting them a bit, Louis seems to have forgotten that Liam is there as well. It’s probably for the best.

“Right… Right there. Just… If you curve your fingers up…”

Louis trails off into a moan when Harry follows his instructions and Harry smiles proudly, but Louis can’t see him where he’s laying on his stomach between Louis’ knees. That needs to be fixed, so Harry concentrates on holding his hand still while he crawls up and sits back onto his heels.

“It’s good?” His eyes flicker between Louis’ face and the sight of his fingers being pulled inside Louis’ body.

“Yes,” Louis hisses and fucks himself down onto Harry’s hand. “Another. Just… One more.”

Harry sucks his bottom lip into his mouth and bites down, then feels around with his other hand until he finds the lube. His hands are slippery and he can’t open the bottle at first, but he finally flips the cap and drizzles lube over his ring finger, then just to be sure, he adds more to his other fingers as well. He has to take a deep breath. It’s just that Louis is so unbelievably tight and, while he knows it’s possible, a third finger seems like so much, but then he looks down at his dick and feels a little lightheaded at the prospect.

He nudges the tip of his ring finger against Louis’ rim and steadily pushes in, worried that it’s going to hurt, but is astonished when it not only fits, but Louis looks like he loves it. Harry stares at the slick mess around Louis’ rim and after he feels Louis relax around his fingers, he entertains the idea of a fourth finger and what that would look like.

“Lou?”

Louis’ eyelashes flutter, he looks at Harry and hums.

“Can I suck you?”

“No,” Louis says and shakes his head. “I’ll come. Just… I’m good. You can stop.”

Harry rubs the pads of his fingers across Louis’ prostate again, then pulls his fingers free, and waits for Louis to tell him what to do next.

Flat on his back in the center of the bed, Harry’s eyes follow Louis’ hands as he reaches for the condom and opens it. The sensation of Louis’ hand as he rolls the condom onto Harry’s dick and coats it with lube is intense and he’s suddenly very aware of what is about to happen.

Louis must notice something is wrong because he leans forward and kisses Harry’s forehead. “You alright?”

“Yeah.” Harry nods and adds, “Just nervous. Want to make it good.”

“It’ll be good. You’re good with your hands, like, really good. Let me know if you need a minute or want me to stop.”

“Okay.” It’s hard not to feel like he’s fifteen and completely new to sex sometimes, but Louis has made things so easy for him. Constantly checking in with him, asking how he’s doing, if he’s okay. It’s like… Harry likes it a lot. A lot.

“Be still for me ’cause like, you know you can’t go too fast. So let me. At least at first.”

Louis maneuvers himself so that his knees are on either side of Harry’s hips, then he reaches around behind himself and wraps his hand around the base of Harry’s cock, holding it still. With his eyes closed and his head tipped back, he raises up and Harry can feel him dragging the head of his dick up and down his crack until it catches on his rim and they both gasp.

Louis lowers his body down, pushing against Harry’s dick until the head finally slips inside. He’s glad Louis reminded him to be still because the desire to be fully inside of him is immense and it takes all of his willpower not to thrust his hips up.

Gradually, Louis sinks down, removing his hand from the base of Harry’s cock before taking the rest of it. He drops his head down, his chin almost to his chest, and lifts one finger. “Just… Just a minute. You’re big.”

“Thanks,” Harry says automatically and then, because he’s a ridiculous person, saying thank you as if Louis just complimented his outfit or something, a little laughs slips out and his stomach muscles contract with it, jostling their bodies. “Oh god. Fuck.”

“Yeah…” Louis’ body tightens around Harry, then he sighs and the tension in his shoulders seems to disappear as Harry feels his body relax. He raises himself up a few inches, locks his eyes with Harry’s, and drops back down, a self-satisfied grin taking over his face when Harry grunts and grabs for his hips. “Bend your knees.”

Harry does as he’s told and Louis rests his hands on Harry’s knees, using them for leverage. Still trying to hold still so that Louis can take what he wants, Harry distracts himself by touching every other part of Louis’ body that he can.

He rubs his hands up and down Louis’ thighs, from his knees to his hips, grips Louis’ waist, reaches up to rub his thumbs over Louis’ nipples, and drags his hands back down his chest and stomach. When he tries to touch Louis’ dick, Louis shakes his head, so Harry slides his hands around to hold onto Louis’ ass.

Being ridden like this is incredible, and in the back of his mind it registers that he’s never been this present during sex before. He dismisses the thought and focuses on Louis sitting on his cock. He can’t see. And he wants to watch it disappearing inside Louis’ body, so he inches his fingers closer to Louis’ crack until they slip a little in the lube. A little further and he can feel it. Louis’ rim is stretched tight around his dick and the drag is somehow even better now that he can experience it with his hands as well, so he slides the tips of his fingers up and down, touching him everywhere.

“Like that?” Louis asks breathlessly as he lifts himself up and Harry’s hands follow. Harry nods, but he stops tracing Louis’ rim and grabs handfuls of Louis’ ass instead, pulling him apart, imagining what it might look like. “Like feeling your cock in me? Splitting me open?” Louis drops back down, letting gravity bring their bodies together, and Harry’s hips buck up uncontrollably.

His senses are inundated with the heat, the pressure, the impossibly tight and slick walls of Louis’ body, the sounds that he makes as he starts to move faster and with more purpose. There’s the recognizable feeling that he’s rushing towards the finish line, except that he’s completely out of control, unable to stop himself from gripping Louis’ hips and fucking up into him harder and deeper in time with Louis’ chants of, “Yes, yes, yes.”

Harry digs his fingers into Louis’ skin, desperately wanting to hold onto something while the rest of him is flying, floating away untethered. Louis’ knuckles bump against his stomach, and Harry blinks and tries to focus, but watching Louis fist himself in time to Harry’s thrusts is like an overload to his system. He pistons his hips, fucking into Louis faster, coming inside him, filling the condom and forcing Louis down onto his dick, grinding their bodies together.

His movements slow as his orgasm fades and it hits him that Louis hasn’t come yet. His skin is flushed and damp with sweat, his hair is stuck to his forehead, and Harry lets himself look for a few seconds, then he pulls Louis’ hand off of his cock and replaces it with his own, stroking him and bouncing him on his lap until he comes, shooting all over Harry’s hand and stomach.

————

The yellow swim trunks that Harry brought with him when he moved to New York are the same pair that he pulled out of his drawer earlier and dropped on the floor in his haste to get to Louis. They’re smaller than he remembers them being, but he’s also been working out with Liam for a few months, so maybe his legs are more muscular and that makes them fit differently.

Liam’s sprawled on his stomach across the bed in the alcove, politely not mentioning any sounds he may have heard drifting through the bedroom door earlier. Harry’s sitting on the futon, tying his bright green sneakers when Louis finally opens the bedroom door, dressed in red adidas shorts and a black tank that says… something.

“Skate tough?” Harry asks as he reaches up for the hem of Louis’ shirt and tugs, pulling him down on his knees on the futon next to him. “When was the last time you skated?”

“Shut up. It’s an old shirt.” Louis pinches Harry’s wrist until he lets go of the shirt, so Harry wraps his arms around Louis’ waist instead and falls over onto his back, bringing Louis with him so that he lands on top of him. Louis sputters and plants his hands on Harry’s chest, pushes himself up until he’s sitting on Harry’s hips, and scowls down at him. “This isn’t getting us to the park.”

“We can just stay here.” Harry slides his hands down so that he’s cupping Louis’ ass, jerks his hips up, and grins. “Who plays volleyball anyway?”

Louis flicks him right between the eyes with his index finger and says, “Liam does.”

Slowly, Harry moves his hands from Louis’ bum to his thighs and then brings them up to cover his own face.

“Did you forget I was here?” Liam asks and pats Harry’s head.

————

It’s hot as fuck outside, humid and stifling with the heat trapped between the buildings and no breeze to speak of until they get to the park. Harry’s white tank top is thin and loose, but still stuck to his skin by the time they meet up with Zayn and Niall and his friend Shawn who’s visiting from L.A.

After a little while, the kids on the sand volleyball court clear out and they’re able to play. Harry tries, he really does. He’s played a lot of volleyball, especially when he was younger. The beach volleyball nets at home were up almost year round and he would sometimes go down and join whatever game was going on. It’s just that today he can’t stop thinking about Louis.

The way Louis kisses and the rough scratch of his beard on Harry’s lips. The softness of his hair when it doesn’t have any product in it and the warmth of his skin when he falls asleep draped over Harry’s back. Louis’ ass and his dick and his face when he comes and the noises he makes. His tattoos and his nipples, his thighs and his ankles, his hips and the little bruises that Harry’s fingertips left behind that are covered by his tank top.

It’s… distracting. And Harry’s volleyball skills suffer.

Eventually, Niall realizes what the issue is and they switch up the teams. Louis jogs under the net to the other side and Zayn joins Harry and Niall.

“You ought to at least wear your sunglasses, man.” Zayn taps his finger on Harry’s chest, right next to his sunglasses where they’re hanging from his shirt. “We can all see you staring at Louis’ ass.”

“Fuck off,” Harry mutters, but he puts his sunglasses on, then he pulls his tank top off, tucking part of it into the waist of his shorts.

“Hey, not cool, Z.” Niall kicks some sand in Zayn’s direction, then turns to Harry and says, “Sorry, man. You and Louis okay? You tell him, you know, about the bi thing?”

Harry bends down to pick up the ball and tries unsuccessfully to spin it on his finger. “I told him.” Then he winks, like a goober, and steps back into the corner to serve.

They were right to put Louis on the other team. With Louis farther away, Harry is better able to concentrate, at least most of the time, and the score stays about even. Liam calls for a water break, and they all gather at the side of the court by Liam’s cooler to chat for a few minutes while they drink.

Niall’s friend Shawn is cool. Harry’s heard about him, but never met him before. Originally from the city, but living in L.A. and trying to make it as a singer-songwriter, back to visit for a week or so. He’s tall, like, really tall. Harry’s not used to having to look up at people because, though he’s not quite six feet, all of his friends are shorter than he is. It’s… interesting.

Harry can’t help but flirt a little. Shawn’s handsome and built and Niall says he’s gay, so Harry figures why the hell not try out his skills. He steps a little closer, shifts his feet in the sand, lifts his bottle to his lips, tips his head back and, keeping eye contact with Shawn while he talks about his favorite beach in California, Harry gulps his water, sliding his hand up through the condensation on the outside of the bottle. He’s pretty sure it works because Shawn’s eyes move down, obviously watching Harry’s lips and then his throat before jerking his head towards Niall when he loudly clears his throat.

“Game on,” Niall says and tosses the ball into the air, catching it with one hand, throwing it to Shawn and winking. “Your serve, big boy.”

“Big boy?” Harry asks as he peeks back over his shoulder. He catches Louis watching him, so he raises his eyebrows, juts his chin out, and bites the corner of his lip. But Louis just sticks his tongue out at him and walks over to talk to Liam and Shawn, reaching up to squeeze Shawn’s bicep like it’s impressive or something. Harry scowls and conveniently forgets how impressed he just was by that very same muscle. “What are they doing?”

Zayn moves over beside Harry and elbows him in the side. “And they’re probably strategizing. Which we should do, but it seems like you’re otherwise occupied.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing, just…” Zayn shoves Harry’s shoulder and moves into position. “Nice shorts.”

The game continues and Harry’s pleased with his progress. He’s improved a good bit and they’re having fun, plus his team is winning by a point. The only problem he has is that every single time Louis’ team scores or Harry’s team lands the ball out of bounds, Louis touches Shawn. At first he just high-fives him or they bump fists, but it’s not long before they’re knocking their hips together or Louis is reaching up to playfully pinch Shawn’s cheek or once even smacking Shawn’s bum when he scores on a serve.

Each touch incrementally annoys Harry more, until he realizes that he’s actually getting angry and calls a quick time-out so that he can drink some water to physically and mentally cool down. Louis meets him by the cooler and chugs his bottle, imitating Harry’s exact movements from earlier when Harry was flirting with Shawn, even down to the hand on his waist and the hip cocked to the side. Harry watches wide-eyed as Louis winks, then walks back into position, exaggeratedly swinging his hips on the way.

It’s worse from that moment on. Liam even gets in on it, though he seems not to be aware of what’s actually going on. And probably Shawn doesn’t know either. They’re both just going along with Louis, doing whatever he does, matching him pinch for pinch and smack for smack until Harry envisions redness and handprints on Louis’ body in competition with the bruises he accidentally made with his fingers and the mark he sucked on the inside of Louis’ thigh.

The game point sails right past his head and lands in the sand behind him and Harry does not give a shit. He stalks across the court, ducks under the net, and walks right up to Louis, not slowing down one bit and practically forcing Louis to take a step back. It’s that or let Harry knock into him. Still, it throws off Louis’ balance and he grabs hold of Harry’s arms to steady himself.

“May I help you, Harold?”

Harry inches closer and brings his hands to Louis’ hips. “I know what you’re doing. You’re not subtle.”

Louis leans his head back and laughs, digs his thumbs into Harry’s biceps, and says, “Neither are you.” Then he reaches up to pat Harry’s cheek, steps back and around Harry, smacks him hard on the ass, and walks back over to Liam—who looks amused—and Shawn—who looks confused—to celebrate their win.

Though his tank top is sandy and still a bit damp, Harry shakes it out and pulls it over his head, unsure exactly what to do because his head is a little bit fuzzy. Probably the heat. He grabs another water for himself and two more for Zayn and Niall on his way back under the net.

“You and Louis, like, a thing now?” Zayn asks. He pours some of his water over his head and shakes his hair, sending droplets flying into Harry’s face.

“Hmm?” Harry wipes his face with the hem of his shirt, but then decides that Zayn has a great idea, so he drinks most of his water, then leans his head back and dumps the rest on his forehead.

Niall reaches out and pinches Harry’s nipple through his shirt. “You and Louis are dating?”

“What? No. No, um…” Harry looks around behind him, then back at Niall, lowers his voice and says, “We’re like… It’s a friends with benefits thing. Not… He’s not my boyfriend or whatever. We’re not dating.”

“Why not?” Niall asks, then narrows his eyes and leans to the side to see past Harry.

“I mean, he’s only here until June. Like, two months and then he’s gone.” Harry shrugs and hopes he looks nonchalant. The last thing he wants anyone else to be aware of is his stupid crush on Louis. “He was looking for a regular hook-up and I wanted someone to like… sort of show me the ropes, I guess?”

“Right.”

Harry doesn’t want to get into it. There’s no reason he should have to explain any further, so he changes the subject. “Yeah, what’s with Shawn? He’s staying with you guys?”

Niall nods once and looks away. “Until he goes back to L.A.”

They all grab lunch together, the six of them cram around an outdoor table meant for four, chairs so close that their legs are all bumping and knocking into each other. Harry makes sure to nudge Louis into the seat next to Liam, and immediately sits down beside him. He spends the entire meal eating and drinking with only his left hand, keeping his right hand on Louis’ leg, periodically squeezing it, then lightly tracing the skin of his inner thigh, just under the hem of his shorts, with the tip of his pinky finger.

He does that until Louis clamps his hand down on top of Harry’s, leans over and whispers in his ear, “I swear, if you make me hard in public, I’ll embarrass the fuck out of you.” After that, Harry leaves his hand on Louis’ knee instead.

It’s not like it’s intentional, Harry’s jealousy. At first, he doesn't even recognize it for what it is. The day at the park is easily explained away, at least inside his head, by blaming his irritation with Louis’ flirting on an assortment of things. The heat, Harry’s natural competitiveness, that Shawn is practically a stranger, the fact that Harry literally fucked Louis for the first time that very morning… The list goes on and on and on until he kind of just forgets about it. Louis doesn’t mention it and neither does he.

————

Harry gets dressed quietly while Louis is still sleeping in his bed, he pulls on his tightest jeans and his regular ‘Casual Friday’ t-shirt, but instead of his usual brown boots, he wears his nice black ones, and he carefully folds his sheer black button-up and slips it into his backpack.

It’s silly because it’s Louis, but Harry can’t really control it. He’s trying, definitely, because his crush on Louis is a thing of almost epic proportions now, no matter how he tries to stomp it down. It’s difficult to keep things separate because he and Louis have always been tactile with each other and that’s only gotten more pronounced, especially now that there’s the possibility that touches will turn heated, and the boundary that divides their friendship from the sexual part of their relationship gets blurred. And though Harry knows that Louis isn’t doing it intentionally, because he’s always been sweet to Harry and attentive to his needs, combining that with the physical aspects of this thing between them, and Harry’s crush never stood a chance.

When it’s finally time to leave work around six, Harry changes in the bathroom, leaves his t-shirt in his backpack at his desk, borrows a spritz of Heather’s Tom Ford cologne from her office, and grabs the elevator just before the doors close. He considers that lucky and hopes that the rest of the night goes about the same.

He’s becoming more comfortable with the whole sexuality thing. Maybe it’s because he’s been around so many same-sex relationships since he’s been in New York that he’s more accustomed to the idea or maybe it’s just that Louis makes it all seem so easy when they’re together.

He knows it’s not. He knows that being in a relationship with another guy isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Has been around when people have made nasty comments about Niall and Zayn. Has heard a million stories second-hand. But there’s been nothing so far that’s been directly aimed at Harry, so while part of him feels like he’s always on guard and waiting for it, the rest of him is sort of relaxing into the role of Louis’ boyfriend.

Harry freezes in place right in the middle of the elevator doors and doesn’t move until one of his coworkers gives him a shove and he stumbles out into the lobby. It’s not like, a Freudian Slip or anything like that. He’s just distracted and tired—it’s been a long week. Harry walks towards the subway and lights up one of the four cigarettes he allows himself each day. Two to go. His phone dings with a text from Niall that says he and Zayn are right behind him and can see him wearing his see-through shirt and that he needs to stop and wait for them so that they can make fun of him in person.

Of course, he turns around and meets them halfway instead.

“Planning to pick someone up and take them home, H?” Niall winks and nudges Harry with his elbow, cackling into the sky when Harry gets flustered, can’t speak at first, and then mumbles “Shut up” in response.

The way he’s explained it to Niall, is that Louis has been his friend for fifteen years and so, of course, he developed a crush on him as soon as he realized he’s bi. It’s like a proximity thing. Louis is gorgeous, kind, an all around wonderful person, and he’s Harry’s best friend. Plus, he’s literally right there in the same space. The crush was unavoidable. He’s told Niall that he has to let it take its course, and it’ll fizzle out.

“That’s your fancy look at my abs, look at my tattoos, look at my nipples, I have four! shirt. You can’t lie to me.”

Harry looks down and smooths the front of his shirt, hoping that the slight tremble in his hands isn’t noticeable. “I just wanted to look nice, Niall. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Niall nods and miraculously drops the subject, Zayn just smirks and follows Harry into the subway station.

His embarrassment at being caught out so obviously trying to impress Louis somehow masks all of the other bullshit from before. Instead of wondering why he thought of Louis as his boyfriend, he spends the subway ride and the walk to the bar half listening to Niall and Zayn and half wondering if Louis is going to make fun of his shirt too.

Zayn must be able to read his mind or something because just before he opens the door to the bar, he turns to Harry and says, “Don’t worry. You look nice. But he’ll probably be too busy to notice it, man.”

Harry doesn’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Zayn was right. The bar is busy. There aren’t any tables or booths available and there are only two stools at the bar, so Harry lets Niall and Zayn have them. It’s easier for him to look around and search for Louis if he’s standing. The bartender hands over their beers and that makes at least one person who appreciates Harry’s shirt. He winks at Harry and Harry grins, turning to look for Louis again while he sips at his beer. Instead, he finds Liam.

“Hey, man. Nice shirt.” Liam darts his hand out and pinches Harry’s nipple, works his way next to Zayn and leans down to say hello to him and Niall. While Harry watches them, Louis walks behind the bar from the back with a keg of beer over his shoulder. He’s clearly working hard, forehead damp with sweat, and the sleeves of his black t-shirt are rolled up so that Harry can see his muscles flex as he sets down the keg and slides it under the bartop to hook it up. He squats down out of sight, pops back up a moment later, raises a hand in their direction, and walks back out of the bar.

An anticlimactic meeting. He didn’t even see Harry’s shirt.

Niall and Zayn abandon their seats at the bar to follow Liam across the room to a recently emptied table. It’s not much better than standing around the crowded bar. Yes, there are seats for all four of them, but Harry can barely see the bartender from where they are, so he knows he won’t be able to see Louis. Still, he pulls his chair slightly away from the table to give himself the clearest view possible.

Niall taps the toe of his shoe against Harry’s boot and asks, “You gonna make it, H?”

“Hmm?” Harry drags his eyes away from the bartender who looks like he’s talking to someone else behind the bar, but Harry can’t tell who it is. When he turns back to Niall, he notices they’re alone at the table. “Where’d they go?”

“Outside. Liam had a phone call and Zayn went out to smoke and keep him company.” Niall drains the last of his beer and says, “Have a good week? How’s the new blood?”

“That always makes me think of vampires. They’re good. It was fine. I mean, it’s work. No one yelled at me and everything went fine.”

“Fine? That’s some exciting stuff.” Niall winks and reaches for Zayn’s abandoned beer.

“Yeah, well, what about your week, then?”

“Ehh… I don’t know. You know I’ve been sending out my resume? I, um, didn’t tell anyone. I mean, Zayn knows, but… I interviewed with Rolling Stone last week.”

“What? Really? Leaving TV for print?”

Niall nods. “If they hire me. They called this afternoon. I have a second interview next week. The position is like a combo of research, copy editing, and fact checking.”

“That’s great, man. I hope you get it. Zayn’ll be lonely at VTV though. Who will he take smoke breaks with? How will your relationship survive?”

Niall snorts. “I’m sure he’ll find someone. I’m trying to quit anyway.”

Niall jerks his head towards the door that Zayn and Liam just walked though. “He’s doing that ‘smolder’ thing twenty-four seven, just in case someone’s watching.”

Harry does his well-practiced imitation of Zayn’s on-camera expression, pulling a loud laugh out of Niall, then he clutches his hand to his chest and looks up at the ceiling. “My babies are growing up. Promise to come visit when I’m old and gray?”

Niall snorts and agrees easily, “Of course, Dad.”

When Harry reaches over and claps Niall on the shoulder, he catches a glimpse of Louis behind the bar, grinning and talking to the bartender, and his jaw tightens. He scowls over Niall’s shoulder hard enough that Niall whips his head around before Harry can tell him not to look.

“Oh, really?” Niall laughs and pats Harry’s hand. “You guys are so cute together.”

Harry sits backs and says, “We’re not cute. I mean, we’re not together. I told you.”

“Right. Whatever. Anyway, I think Matt’s straight, so… Nothing to worry about there.”

“Who?”

“Matt. The bartender that you’re attempting to strangle with the power of your mind.”

“I’m not… doing that.” Harry clears his throat and waves his hand, then takes a sip of beer.

Louis is flirting and though Harry knows it doesn’t mean anything, it makes him want to get up and go over there and drag him out from behind the bar, take him home and… do completely inappropriate things.

There’s no rule in their arrangement that says they can’t flirt with other people. In fact, there’s a specific rule that states that if one of them should meet someone and want to kiss them or date them or fuck them or whatever, all they have to do is let the other person know beforehand.

As in, right this second, Louis could walk over to Harry’s table, tell him that he’s met someone he wants to go home with—someone older, taller, better looking, and more experienced—and Harry would be expected to smile and nod and let it happen.

There is absolutely no way in hell it would play out like that. Harry knows how he would react. Knows he would probably be able to smile and nod, but that he’d also probably have to get the fuck out as fast as possible so that he could get home and lose his mind in the peace and quiet of his own bedroom. Which he might have to then set on fire. Fuck.

Maybe that Matt guy isn’t straight. After all, Harry used to think he was and look at him now. Niall is clearly not dependable for this sort of information.

Harry tips his beer back to find that it’s completely dry. Niall’s been talking about something, probably his interview with Rolling Stone, and Harry feels like shit for not catching a word of it, but at least Zayn and Liam are listening. Since Harry’s beer is gone, he grabs the empties and heads for the bar without bothering to ask if anyone else wants anything.

The bar is even more crowded than it was before. Harry’s never really been the pushy type in situations like this, usually just stands back and waits for the bartender to notice him or depends on Niall’s loud personality or Zayn’s cheekbones to catch their attention and get their drinks. Something has come over him tonight though. Harry squeezes in between two girls who’re sitting right in front of the bartender, ignores their annoyed huffs and the appraising looks that come as soon as they both look up at him. He sets the empty bottles on the bar top and leans forward, hoping to catch a glimpse of Louis. And there he is. Squatting down on the floor hooking up another keg.

He doesn’t notice Harry, too concerned with some valve or hose or something, so Harry waits. But instead of standing up to face the bar, he comes out of the squat with the empty keg in his hands, hefts it up onto his shoulder, and starts for the back. Harry hears his own gasp over the din of the bar when Matt pulls his white bar towel out of his belt and snaps it at Louis’ ass as he walks away. Louis yelps and looks back over his shoulder, but he doesn’t look pissed off. He’s smiling. A genuine, crinkly eyed smile. And he winks. He winks at Matt and shakes his ass and then he sees Harry.

It doesn’t matter that his smile grows even wider when he looks at Harry and it doesn’t matter that his face softens or that he looks happy to see him. Louis gestures for Harry to wait, so he does, watching him disappear into the back with the empty keg. He’s back in a few minutes, takes Harry’s empty bottles that Matt never got around to, and tosses them in the recycle bin behind the bar. Then he calls down to Matt and the other bartender that, unless they need something, he’s going to take a smoke break.

Louis meets Harry around the front of the bar and they walk down the sidewalk a bit from the entrance.

“Hey, you okay?” Louis asks and reaches up to rub his thumb between Harry’s eyebrows. “You seem off.”

Harry shakes his head. “I’m fine. I have, um… something I want to talk to you about, but, like… later. Tomorrow or whatever.”

The smile drops off of Louis’ face and he looks down and kicks the side of his shoe against the brick of the building. “Sounds important.”

“Not really? Maybe? It’s about us.” Harry hears the words a split-second after he says them and tries to cover it up. “I mean, about our, um… the rules of our arrangement.”

“Oh… Did you… Did you want to stop? Did you meet somebody?”

“What? No. No, it’s like… I said we’d talk tomorrow because we agreed to be sober when we talk about stuff and I’m not, so…”

“Go ahead and tell me, Harold. You’re not drunk.”

“I just… I realized that it would, um… it would make me uncomfortable if, like… if you wanted to go home with someone else. Like… I’m already all… I don’t know… I’m—”

“Hush,” Louis says and puts his finger to Harry’s lips. “I’m not planning to sleep with anyone else.”

“Oh,” Harry says, but it almost doesn’t make a sound as his lips moves against Louis’ finger.

“Yeah.” Louis drops his hand and lets the tips of his fingers trail over the sheer fabric covering Harry’s chest. “Oh.”

Louis pulls his hand back and shoves it in his pocket. “You, um… You have smokes?”

Harry nods and catches his lower lip with his teeth, then pulls his pack of cigarettes from his pocket. Louis lights one and they pass it back and forth in silence for a while. “Hey, so I was thinking…” Harry moves even closer to Louis. Louis’ hands come up to rest on Harry’s arms. Then Harry leans down and makes sure that his lips brush against Louis’ ear. “Want you to fuck me.”

Louis stills and his grip on Harry’s biceps tightens. “Can’t… I have to work.” He plucks the cigarette from Harry’s fingers, takes one last drag, drops it to the ground and steps on it.

Harry snickers and kisses Louis’ shoulder, his neck, his ear, then whispers, “Tomorrow, I mean. But you could kiss me now.”

With his hands still on Harry’s upper arms, Louis pushes and spins with him and Harry goes willingly, trying not to trip over his feet, until his back is against the brick wall. One of Louis’ hands slides over the slippery fabric of Harry’s shirt to press into his chest and the other one cups the back of his neck, guiding him into a kiss. It’s less tongue and teeth and more of Louis’ soft lips sucking on Harry’s as his fingers tangle in his hair and gently pull him closer.

It’s not what Harry expected at all. He thought Louis would get a little flustered, maybe a little horny, at his words. That they’d make out and that he’d get to put his hands on Louis’ ass where that bar towel touched him, which he is doing. He wanted Louis to go back into work with messy hair and pink lips and possibly the need to adjust his pants. But the kisses aren’t hungry and eager. They’re practiced and slow. Sweet. Soft and easy. And he whimpers when Louis pulls away and rests his forehead against Harry’s.

“I have to go back in.” Louis presses another kiss to Harry’s lips, then he steps back and runs his hands down Harry’s torso, pinching the hem of his shirt and pulling it away from his body. “Love this on you. Looks amazing.”

“You’re amazing,” Harry says breathlessly and immediately wants to suck the words back into his mouth because they’re too much. He needs to get a fucking grip. “Back to work with you.”

Louis smirks at him and steps away and Harry follows, silently cursing himself for being so utterly obvious and so incredibly ridiculous. Back to work with you. He practically shooed him off like a grandma or something. He’s flown past regular everyday embarrassing. This has to be the peak of cringeworthy behavior. If he keeps this up, they’re going to have to come up with a new word to describe Harry’s ability to say the absolute worst thing at any given moment.

Yet, when they walk back inside, Louis doesn’t go straight for the bar. He steps aside and lets Harry get in front of him, then rests his hand on Harry’s lower back and guides him over to the table where their friends are all sitting and watching them approach.

It’s not until he’s sitting down that he realizes that he doesn’t have a drink, but when he goes to stand up and head back to the bar, Louis puts a hand on his shoulder and says he’ll bring their drinks over. He hurries off and reappears a moment later with four beer bottles, sets them on the table, pops a quick kiss on Harry’s lips, and disappears again.

For the rest of the night, Harry’s completely useless. Can’t hold a conversation, can’t listen to a word anyone has to say. Can barely remember to drink his own beer when it’s sitting a few inches in front of his face. All he can do is go over and over inside his head that he was possessive and jealous over Louis when he has no right to be. That he’s becoming attached. That no matter how hard he tries to quell his stupid crush on Louis, it won’t go away. This is the worst possible thing that could happen.

He’s supposed to be Louis’ friend.

Louis is helping him out.

Louis is leaving in June.

————

Despite Harry’s request, they don’t actually get the chance for Louis to fuck him for almost a week. Louis works all of that weekend, which means he sleeps most of the day and Harry only sees him conscious for a couple of hours total. Yes, some of that time is spent naked together in bed, but it doesn’t happen.

Harry wakes up after four on Sunday morning when there’s a loud clatter from the bathroom. A layer of hesitancy is peeled back due to the hour or Harry’s state of mind, half-awake and half-asleep. There’s no uncertainty when he steps into the spray in front of Louis and lays his head on his shoulder, nuzzling against the wet skin of Louis’ neck, or as their lips press together, kissing and sucking, tasting the sweat from Louis’ long shift at work as it rinses away. His hand is sure as he curls it around them both, leisurely stroking them while his other hand explores the slick skin of Louis’ back, tracing up and down his spine to his ass, moving ever closer until his fingers slide over Louis’ rim, gently circling there until Louis comes in his hand, dripping onto the shower floor. Harry bites down on Louis’ collarbone, whimpering as he reaches his orgasm, and sighing as his release joins Louis’ and disappears down the drain.

Something about four o’clock in the morning has loosened Harry’s hold on his emotions, allowing the patches he’s applied over fissures in the walls around his feelings to break open, and the torrent becomes an unstoppable force. He funnels it all through his body, his hands, shampooing Louis’ hair, scratching his scalp and letting the quiet noises of contentment Louis makes find a home inside his mind, lodging themselves in his memory.

Harry washes him, bypassing Louis’ soap and reaching for his own, secretly delighted by the thought of Louis smelling like him for the next twenty-four hours. They dry each other off, leave the towel on the floor, and tiptoe to the bedroom, falling into bed still touching, drifting off to sleep wrapped up in Harry’s blanket, sharing a pillow, legs and arms wound around each other’s still damp bodies.

Just before he slips under, Harry’s brain belatedly registers his lowered inhibitions. The early morning hour tricked him and he can only hope that Louis somehow doesn’t see. When he wakes up, he’ll be sure that the barriers around his feelings for Louis are firmly back in place.

————

Chapter Text

————

“You’re off tonight?” It’s been a week since that night outside of the bar when Harry asked Louis to fuck him. Friday night and Louis isn’t working, a surprise to Harry who stopped at home to drop off his things before heading out.

Louis nods and reaches a hand up to pull Harry down onto the futon next to him. “Yeah, I work the rest of the weekend though. Weird being here on a Friday night.”

“We should go out.” Harry turns sideways and pulls his knee up onto the futon. “Dancing or something.”

“Nah, I don’t really feel like it.” Louis shakes his head and walks his fingers across the cushion between them, onto Harry’s leg, down his thigh to his knee and squeezes. He reaches up and cups Harry’s cheek, rubs his thumb lightly over the skin beneath his eye, then pushes his hand into Harry’s hair, and pulls him over until Harry has no choice but to climb into Louis’ lap.

Because he’s even taller this way and he leans forward, Louis has to drop his head back in order to keep eye contact. He raises his hands to Harry’s hips, slipping them down and back to his bum, then back around to rest on his thighs. Harry falls forward, knocking into Louis’ forehead. It’s a funny angle, but somehow Louis is incredibly beautiful from any angle. Harry’s body jerks back almost on its own and he keeps his eyes focused on a spot on the wall over Louis’ shoulder as he says, “We should go out though. Haven’t been out together, not really.”

“Hmm… Maybe. What about next week? Pretty sure I’m off Saturday.”

Harry sits back and sucks his lips in between his teeth. There should be a way for him to get a handle on his crush because erratic thoughts about how gorgeous Louis is aren’t making things easier. It’s all Harry can do not to smile like a fucking infatuated teenager when he’s around Louis, and half of the time, he’s pretty sure he’s making a complete ass of himself and that Louis just indulges him because he’s too nice.

But if his mind is going to veer off like that when it’s just the two of them, and he doesn’t have anyone else around to gauge his behavior against, maybe they shouldn’t spend so much time one on one. Hopefully he can get a grip.

As concerned as he is with being obvious about his stupid crush when they’re alone, it’s a million times easier than being around their friends, which is somehow worse than being around strangers, because they all know.

They know that they’re best friends and they know about the benefits and they know that Harry’s like… a baby bi and that Louis is only doing this as a favor. Practically every second is spent unsure of himself and it’s so much worse if he’s been drinking or, god forbid, if he’s high.

Drinking, he over-thinks everything up to a certain point, then he just stops giving a fuck, falling on Louis’ shoulder, slurring his words, whispering only it’s not whispering when the entire room can hear every word… It’s not pretty.

But stoned is much, much worse because all of the second-guessing happens after he’s already done or doing whatever he’s worried about. Like, it doesn’t really matter if it’s okay for him to come back from the bathroom, ignore everyone else, and climb directly into Louis’ lap, straddle him on the couch and bury his face in his hair when he’s already done it.

“Yeah, I guess that’s fine.” Harry looks at the empty alcove bed, then across the room to the kitchen. “You want to order in? Watch a movie?”

“Liam’s out. We’re home alone.” Louis tips his head to one side and shrugs that shoulder. “We can do whatever you want. I, um… I thought we could… You know… But only if you want...”

Caught up in his own head, Harry pouts and wrinkles his brow, completely confused by Louis’ sudden uncertainty. He stares and blinks and it takes a moment before he interprets Louis’ partial thoughts. “Oh, yeah, oh… Yeah, we can do that. I want.”

Immediately, Harry is more agreeable to staying in. At first, everything was so much, so overwhelming that even kissing had him trembling with nerves, but he’s found his footing. It hasn’t taken him long to figure out what Louis likes, what he likes, what they like to do to each other…

Now that he feels more confident in bed, he kind of wants to stay there. It’s so much less stressful than being out in public with Louis where Harry doesn’t know quite how to behave, what touches are okay and which ones are crossing some line that he’s not sure exists. And in bed, he lets himself get away with his sappy thoughts about Louis because, at least while Louis is bringing him to orgasm, Harry figures he’s allowed.

They do end up ordering food, but by the time it’s delivered, they’re shirtless and grinding on each other through their jeans and Harry literally jumps off of Louis, runs for the door which he answers with his lower half hidden behind it, bending awkwardly to the side. He practically throws the money at the poor delivery guy who’s possibly traumatized by the wild look on Harry’s face and the cackling laughter coming from the futon.

Harry tosses the pizza box on the kitchen counter without bothering to open it, then goes straight into the bedroom and throws himself onto the bed, unbuttoning his jeans and wiggling them halfway down his legs before Louis can even get off the futon.

He swings around the door frame, watching Harry while he stands there with his hand shoved down the front of his jeans as if that’s just how people walk around or something. “You… You don’t want pizza?”

“Not now. Come on.” Harry pats the bed next to him and pushes his jeans and briefs down the rest of the way, then kicks them across the room.

It’s sort of like inertia, maybe. They’ve already talked about it, like to death, and he knows he wants it. Louis’ fingers inside him are like some kind of fucking magic, they make him delirious almost instantly, as soon as Louis touches him.

Though even that might not be necessary because the simple thought of Louis touching him tonight has Harry in a weird, floaty, desperate sort of place. But he knows he loves that, loves when Louis slides one or two fingers inside while he sucks Harry off, he comes almost agonizingly hard every time, and it makes him want more, even as he lays there barely able to breathe from the force of his orgasm.

Louis has been like, super helpful, almost to the point of too helpful. Sending Harry links to way too many blog posts, forums, and articles about anal sex. So many that actually the word prep has taken on a completely different meaning. Earlier in the week, Heather asked him to prep the interns and he had to excuse himself to the restroom to laugh like a thirteen-year-old boy for ten minutes before he found the interns and prepped them on how to behave during a conference call.

So Harry has read up on proper cleaning—which he has taken to doing every single day—the various types of lubricant, brands of condoms, positions, relaxation techniques, special breathing methods, and so on. Honestly, he almost feels like he’s preparing to give birth or something instead of getting ready to take a cock up his ass.

He’s not even nervous about it, really. Just ready to do it and, well, be done with it. Though he’d never tell Louis that. It’s just that it feels like a bridge he has to cross or something. Like he’s earning a badge or passing a test or like it’s a rite of passage. Like none of the kissing or handjobs or blowjobs or fingers or even fucking Louis matter. After tonight, he’ll be fully not straight.

Louis would be pissed off if he knew that Harry thought any of that, so he keeps it to himself.

“Hey, ready?” Louis asks and bounces down onto the mattress, completely naked and Harry pouts when he realizes he missed the process of him getting that way.

Harry nods as he slaps his belly. “Yep. Let’s do it.”

Louis sits up and crawls between Harry’s legs, nudging them to both sides until Harry gets the hint, bends his knees, and plants his feet. Louis takes the pad of his thumb and circles it behind Harry’s balls, then when he groans, he rubs up the underside of his dick, pressing the head into Harry’s stomach. “You’re so hard. Pizza guy didn’t turn you off?”

“No,” Harry says and sighs quietly. He pokes Louis’ side with his toe. “You’re still here.”

“True.” Louis cups the back of Harry’s thigh and squeezes, then reaches down and scratches his nails in Harry’s leg hair, making it stand up with goosebumps. “Remember what I said. Some people don’t like getting fucked, okay? You might not—”

“Are you trying to get out of this?” Harry experiences a sudden moment of panic because, even though Louis has said this before, this is like, in the moment. It’s different. “Like, do you not want to?”

“No, no. I do. I just… It’s fine. Lay back. Relax, okay?”

Harry lets his head and shoulders sink into the pillow, closes his eyes and breathes slowly, trying out one of the techniques he read about. The slick tips of Louis’ fingers brush against Harry’s rim and he jumps and then barks out a laugh that has Louis closing his eyes and trying to hold his laughter in. After a few seconds, Louis opens his eyes and raises an eyebrow at Harry, who nods and it would be all business except that Louis bends and kisses the inside of Harry’s knee.

Louis is so focused and quiet that it would be unnerving if he wasn’t also dipping down to suck the head of Harry’s cock into his mouth every few minutes and slowly jerking him off the rest of the time.

One finger is easy. It’s like, old hat at this point, though Harry’s glad he keeps these sorts of revelations to himself. Still, it’s good. Of course it is. Louis seems to be able to touch Harry just exactly where he needs it and two fingers is a stretch, but not in a bad way.

They’ve talked a little bit about toys. Like, plugs and stuff. Harry brought it up because he was curious and they looked at some things online so that Louis could explain the differences and Harry could get an idea of what he might be interested in buying for himself after Louis leaves for L.A. Harry made sure to emphasize that he wouldn’t want to buy anything while Louis was still there, didn’t want Louis to think that he wasn’t like, enough, or that Harry wasn’t satisfied with their arrangement. But he has an idea of what he’ll buy for himself as a kind of farewell to Louis gift.

“Harry?” Louis asks and when Harry opens his eyes, Louis plants his hand on the mattress and looms over him, messy hair falling in his eyes and concern plain on his face. “You okay?”

“Yeah, ’m fine.” Harry reaches up and brushes Louis’ hair aside. “Why?”

“Not sure. You kind of drifted away for a second.” Louis slides his fingers free and leans behind him, presumably to get the condom, but when he sits back up, both of his hands are behind his back. “I, um… I got you something. And like, don’t feel like you have to use it? But I thought it’d make things a little easier… um… better, maybe?”

Harry’s eyebrows draw together, but then his eyes fly wide open and he gasps happily when Louis brings his hand around from behind his back. It’s pink and glittery and perfect. He doesn’t know what to say because no one’s ever bought him a sex toy before—he’s never even had one—and he isn’t sure if a simple thank you is enough.

“Yeah?” Louis asks and holds it up for Harry’s inspection. “Can I?”

“Yes.” Harry nods enthusiastically and tries to lean up to watch, but Louis pushes him down onto his back again.

He does hold it up for Harry to see while he rolls a condom onto it and slicks it up with lube. Harry’s still staring at it sparkling in the lamplight so Louis’ fingers sliding back inside startle him a bit, but he pushes against Louis’ hand. The plug is tapered so that the tip of it is only slightly larger than one of Louis’ fingers, but it flares out until it’s at least as big around as three of Louis’ fingers, and Harry craves it.

When Louis presses it against Harry’s rim, he shivers, but he doesn’t pull away. He lifts his feet off the bed and holds his knees, trying to relax his body, and it works, allowing the plug to slip fully inside. Experimentally, he stretches one leg out and he can feel the plug shift inside him, then Louis crawls to the side and Harry straightens his other leg and it shifts again.

“What now?” Harry asks and wiggles his hips, sucking in a breath when his movement jostles the plug. “Oh god…”

“Good or bad?” Louis asks, eyebrows raised and body poised to like, rescue Harry or something.

“Good, you nerd.” Harry grabs whatever part of Louis is closest to him, which turns out to be his ankle, and tries to pull him on top of him. It doesn’t work because Louis just reaches between Harry’s legs, presses his finger against the base of the plug, and Harry lets go of him.

It’s such an odd sensation, but so enjoyable at the same time. Even the smallest movement changes the position of the plug inside him, so when Louis kneels and climbs across to straddle him and leans over so that he’s on all fours, it’s so much, and Louis isn’t even really touching him at all. Before Louis can stop him and before he can think it through, Harry wraps his arms around Louis’ shoulders and pulls him down on top of him, banging their noses together and possibly cutting his lip on Louis’ tooth.

But he doesn’t care. He kisses Louis, practically skipping his lips altogether at first, licking into his mouth and smothering whatever nonsense Louis was about to spout, probably something else about how Harry probably won’t like what they’re about to do. It only takes a few seconds for Louis to give up and go with it, pulling back a bit to suck on Harry’s lip, before combing his fingers through Harry’s hair and moving his head to get the perfect angle.

Louis is such a phenomenal kisser that Harry sort of forgets whatever goes on around them whenever he gets really into it. Just goes where Louis leads, stays where Louis puts him, and lets him do whatever he wants. Wants him to do whatever he wants. Because Louis has quite literally asked him about everything before doing it.

By the time Louis yanks on Harry’s hair and knocks their chins together, Harry’s face is raw and a little sore and he knows when he looks at it in the dingy bathroom mirror later, it’ll be pink all over and probably red in some spots.

“You ready?” Louis whispers and brushes Harry’s stray curls off of his face. “You don’t have to—”

“Jesus, Lou. If you don’t fuck me right now I’m going to smother you with a pillow as soon as you fall asleep.”

“Oh… Okay. Sorry.”

“No, just…” Harry holds Louis’ gaze and lifts his hand to cradle Louis’ jaw. “I want this. I don’t want you to think I’m doing it for any reason other than I really want to.”

Louis nods and reaches for the lube and condom on the nightstand, then pushes himself back until he’s sitting on his heels between Harry’s legs. He raises his eyebrows at Harry, but doesn’t say anything, just slowly tugs at the base of the plug until it pops out past the ring of muscle, then he drops it onto the mattress, leaving Harry feeling empty and needy. There’s no stopping Harry from sitting up to watch Louis roll on the condom. He doesn’t know why he finds it so hot, but he does and he has to give himself a couple of firm strokes before laying back down.

“Right, um… Okay, so… hands and knees?” Louis bites his lip and waits for Harry to either move into position or say something, but he just lays there for a moment, doing neither. For some reason, even though almost every link that Louis sent recommended it as the best position for his first time, Harry was picturing being on his back so that they were face to face, but that’s probably the worst idea. From behind means no eye contact and no kissing and, hopefully, that will help him keep his crush in check. So he rolls over.

Strangely, he thinks of Jenn when he pushes himself up onto his hands and knees. About her hair pulling thing. And he wonders if that’s something that he’d want Louis to do to him.

The warmth of Louis’ hand when he rests it on Harry’s lower back is comforting, his murmured reassurances relax Harry, but he’s actually nervous now. Louis surprises him when the hand on his back slips down to wrap around his erection while three fingers from his other hand slip inside Harry’s hole. He twists his wrist and Harry drops his head down, rocking his body backwards onto Louis’ fingers and forwards into his fist, trying to get more in every direction.

When Louis slides his fingers out, he drags the head of his cock up and down over Harry’s rim and Harry tries to push back onto it, but stops at the pressure from Louis’ hand on his back.

“Breathe, Harry.” So Harry does as he’s told, inhales deeply and when he exhales, Louis pushes steadily until the head of his cock is past his rim. Harry stills completely, wanting desperately to be filled again, needing the stretch and the warring sensations of pain and pleasure to divert his attention, but knowing that he has to trust Louis with this. Physically, it stings a bit. Emotionally, it’s barely tolerable.

In his head, he’s built this up into such a significant physical event that he never once considered that there might be deeper ramifications. He feels vulnerable; as if the carefully constructed walls around his heart don’t stand a chance.

Cautiously, Louis presses forward, gradually getting deeper, and stealing Harry’s breath away when he feels Louis’ balls come to rest against his own. He looks down his body to see them, only then noticing that he’s no longer completely hard, and he quickly grabs himself, pulling roughly, wanting to be hard again, wanting to make it good for Louis, wanting it to be perfect.

Louis hand around his wrist stops him. He pulls Harry’s hand away and gently places it back down on the mattress.

“Hey… Don’t…” Louis kisses Harry’s shoulder blade and then his hand is back, slick with lube, and Louis begins to slowly stroke him. He doesn’t pull out, just stays there, gently rolling his hips and jerking Harry off until he starts to move with Louis. Fully hard again, he chases Louis’ hand and grinds his ass back against Louis, finally ready. Louis rubs his hand over Harry’s back, down his ribs, and rests it on the dip in Harry’s spine. “Yeah?”

Harry nods and risks a glance back over his shoulder, nods again, then looks forward, trying not to berate himself for his mistake.

Louis looks incredible, with his hair falling in his face, his eyes dark, and his lips red from their kisses. What a disaster Harry must be. He can see that his hair is frizzy where it hangs in curtains on either side of his face. He should’ve put it up, but didn’t think about it, and now it’s too late. And he knows he’s sweaty and maybe he should’ve taken a shower because he’s been at work all day and rode the subway there and back. Looking down, his chest is blotchy and pink in places and that just reminds him that his face is probably worse. Torn to pieces by Louis’ beard.

All of his thoughts evaporate when Louis pulls partway out and slides back inside.

It’s excruciating how slowly Louis fucks him. Like torture, except it’s like, the best thing he’s ever felt in his entire life. If only he’d move with a little more urgency. The friction as Louis’ dick fills him again and again pulls noises from Harry’s throat unbidden. Deep, guttural groans, and once when Louis first finds Harry’s prostate, a yelp. There could be actual words coming out of his mouth and Harry wouldn’t know.

After Louis hits Harry’s spot once, he changes his angle, moving Harry by pressing his hand gently between his shoulder blades until Harry lowers himself to his forearms, and he finally begins to thrust in earnest. While, a moment before, Harry thought he wanted more, as soon as he has it, it verges on too much.

Louis’ hand stays on Harry’s back for a few minutes, then he slides it up, cupping the back of Harry’s neck, pressing his thumb behind Harry’s ear, then asking, his voice rougher than Harry’s ever heard it, “Like this, baby?”

There’s nothing Harry can do but nod and whine, rocking back on Louis’ cock to try to show him that he likes it. Loves it.

Louis slips his hand higher up Harry’s neck, combing through his hair and brushing it to the side, tugging gently so that Harry turns his head sideways. “Next time we’ll do it so I can see your pretty face. On your back maybe. Or you can ride me.”

Harry nods again and because Louis’ fingers are still in his hair, it pulls and it hurts. His gentle hand untangles itself from Harry’s curls and he scratches lightly at Harry’s scalp where it pulled.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to—“

“Liked it,” Harry blurts out before he can think it through. At least Louis can’t see him squeezing his eyes shut as the flush of embarrassment heats his cheeks.

Louis’ thrusts slow again and Harry whines, fucking back hard onto Louis’ cock before Louis can stop him, groaning unabashedly when he manages to hit his own prostate.

But Harry stops when he feels Louis fingers in his hair again.

“Liked it? Want me to do it again?” Louis asks and when Harry doesn’t answer, he tightens his hold, but doesn’t pull. “Won’t do it unless you tell me.”

Fuck. It’s what he wants but he doesn’t think he can ask for it. Doesn’t know how to tell Louis the other things he thinks he’ll like. Doesn’t want to freak him out or make things weird.

“I’ll only do it if you ask me to,” Louis says simply. Then he goes back to fucking Harry at that slow and steady pace that makes Harry want to scream, leaving his hand in Harry’s hair, occasionally combing it through or scratching softly.

He can only take so much.

“Do it.”

“Hmm?”

And Harry knows Louis. Knows he listens to everything Harry says, especially during sex. Knows he’s pretending not to understand what Harry wants. He plays along with it anyway, but instead of doing what Louis expects and just asking him to pull his hair, he keeps his voice level and firm and says, “Pull my hair. Hurt me.”

Louis’ hips stutter to a stop and Harry drops his head to the mattress.

“We can… um, we can talk more about this later. I’ll, um… You want me to pull your hair?”

“Yes,” Harry hisses, frustrated and annoyed in the middle of sex is like… the last thing he expected to feel.

That passes rather quickly.

Louis twists Harry’s curls around his fingers and tugs experimentally, and Harry throws his head back and moans.

“Yeah?”

“Fuck yeah. Fuck me. Come on.”

“You want it harder?”

Harry nods and pulls his own hair, rocks back onto Louis’ cock, and Louis just lets him do it for a minute. Then he tightens his grip on Harry’s curls, pulls hard enough that Harry has to look up, squeezes his other hand on Harry’s side, digging his fingertips into his skin, and snaps his hips hard. Somehow managing to keep his slow pace, he drives deeper into Harry body and it’s perfect.

There’s so much going on, so many different sensations at once, that Harry’s mind is swimming. It’s like he has to make himself focus on one thing and then another and another in order to try to fully experience each of them. And then Louis’ hand on his hip slips down and around his cock and everything rushes back together.

Harry can just hear Louis over the blood pounding in his ears, asking if he’s close, calling him baby. He tries to answer but a choked sob escapes him instead, so he nods jerkily, swallows against the lump in his throat, and forces out, “Yes.”

His orgasm has felt like it’s been dangling him over the edge for a year, but when Louis tugs his hair, runs his thumb over the top of Harry’s dick, and finally, finally fucks into him harder, he comes, spilling into Louis’ hand and onto the sheet below him.

Trembling as it moves through him, Harry hardly notices when Louis pulls out and comes all over his lower back. He slumps forward, falling into the mess.

With his forehead pillowed on his folded arms, Harry tries to breathe evenly, but his body shakes with each exhale. He blinks and tears trail down from both eyes, meeting in the middle and dripping off of the tip of his nose. He wipes the back of his hand across his eyes and hopes that the blotchy mess that is his face and chest will disguise any redness in his eyes.

Harry didn’t even notice him opening the door to go to the bathroom, but the care that Louis takes as he wipes Harry’s back and thighs with a warm, damp cloth and gently cleans the lube from Harry’s ass, has him blinking away fresh tears. He can’t let Louis see him like this. It’ll raise all sorts of questions and Harry doesn’t even know how to answer them inside his own head.

So he lies. Says he has to pee, then calls from the bathroom that he’s going to take a quick shower to get the rest of the lube off his body.

By the time he gets out, not feeling much better, but at least looking semi-normal, Louis has stripped the sheet off the bed and thrown his own blanket over the mattress in place of it. They sit in their boxers and eat pizza and fall asleep later that night watching TV. Louis drops off first, drooling on Harry’s shoulder, so Harry puts his laptop on the nightstand and scoots down under the blanket, turning to lay on his side facing away from Louis.

He’s too tired and confused to figure it out now, but Louis leaves in a few weeks and Harry needs to do something with this fucking crush.

It’s usurping the space where their friendship should be, absorbing it and mutating it like some kind of virus, attacking and infecting it, leaving it damaged and transformed into something unrecognizable.

————

The entire day Saturday before Louis leaves for work, they lay around in bed. They sleep late and eat cold, leftover pizza, and Louis dotes on him. It’s unsettling in the worst way because Harry simultaneously hates it, loves it, and hates himself for loving it.

Louis has always been one of the most wonderful people Harry knows, whether they’ve been actively involved in each other’s lives or not. He’s just that good of a person. Of course he looks after Harry all day. He’s been so careful with every physical part of their arrangement, constantly making sure that Harry’s comfortable, so it only makes sense that he extends that to making sure that Harry’s okay the day after he bottoms for the first time.

Part of Harry wants to shout that he’s fine. It’s not like it’s that big of a deal. He’s not in pain. Louis didn’t hurt him at all. It’s closer to the polar opposite, really. But he won’t say that he’s fine because he’s not.

Sex with Louis is consistently mind-blowing, which in itself is also mind-blowing. He’s never had sex like it before and the thought that he’s been missing out on something this big takes his mind places that he isn’t sure if he’s ready to go. Like, he’s just adjusting to being bisexual, but now he’s not sure that’s even the case.

He ignores it.

Harry spends the rest of that weekend at home, doing chores, washing his sheets, and ordering a second set to be delivered. And he ignores the constant storm of thoughts swirling in his mind.

That week at work is miserable. This year’s interns are annoying the fuck out of him and that’s on top of his already grumpy mood. He can’t help but feel like he fell into this job and now he’s on track to work his way up in a division of the company that he has no interest in.

All week he only sees Louis in the middle of the night when he climbs into bed beside him and Harry wakes up for just a moment while they get situated and then he’s back asleep. By the next Saturday night, he’s convinced himself that what he needs to do is go out and dance and flirt and try to adjust himself to being touched by other men.

Louis is the only man who’s touched him intimately at all and that has to be part of the problem. Flirting with Shawn at the park was fun and easy, and dancing with Liam was too.

So, Harry needs to spread his metaphorical wings. He even makes sure to tell Louis his plan that day, after he wakes up and they trade blowjobs and shower together. While he talks, Louis seems to hardly pay attention, sipping his coffee and nodding and staring off into space or looking over at Liam who’s doing something on his laptop, instead of looking at Harry.

But he must have been listening because when Harry asks him if that’s all cool with him, Louis says, “So… You’re going to try to find someone to go home with.”

It doesn’t come out like a question and Harry chokes on his coffee, coughs and laughs. “No, um… I just thought I should like… get some experience like… talking to other guys? Last time I was so nervous and I think I’ll be more relaxed tonight. But, um… No. I don’t want to actually hook up with anyone.”

“What about me?”

“You… You want to… If you want to hook up with someone, I mean—”

“No, I mean, like… Are we gonna hang out? Are you gonna dance with me? I just… I guess I’m confused.”

“Oh, um… Yeah? I figured we’d dance and stuff. I mean, we’ll go home together, right?”

“Yeah…”

“Yeah, it’s just, um… You’re leaving soon, so I figure I need to like… work on my skills.”

Louis nods and dumps the rest of his coffee into the sink, then stretches his arms over his head, walks past Harry and into the bedroom, calling back over his shoulder, “I’m still tired. Think I’ll nap.”

————

They start the night off with shots of tequila and Harry dances with Liam with a Tequila Sunrise in one hand while the other grips Liam’s shoulder. The thin material of Harry’s pink button up shirt sways with his every movement, almost twirling out from his body when he spins around to dance with his back to Liam’s front.

Something about not being able to see Liam’s face makes their dancing more intimate, like he’s less self-conscious and it’s easier to pretend like Liam is just some hot guy with firm hands on his waist.

Niall and Zayn start out dancing in their usual manner, but when Louis steps up behind Zayn and whispers in his ear, they separate, Niall turns back around and Louis joins them, sandwiched between them. Harry hates it as much as he likes it.

Louis is extra gorgeous tonight. He took the time to style his hair, which he rarely does, and it swoops back off his forehead, drawing attention to his sharp cheekbones and bright blue eyes. He’s wearing tight light-blue jeans with rips in the knees and a white t-shirt that’s snug enough that the fabric bunches up above his ass. And he’s pressed up close enough to Niall that when he moves, Louis’ shirt moves with him. When Louis leans his head back to rest on Zayn’s shoulder, the collar of his t-shirt pulls to the side and Harry can see the mark he left on Louis’ collarbone.

Harry closes his eyes, but before he can turn around, Liam pulls Harry’s hair to the side and says, “I’m getting a drink. You want?”

With his Tequila Sunrise still more than half-full, Harry’s fine. So he shakes his head no and starts to dance alone. It’s not so bad and he doesn’t make eye contact with anyone until he’s finished an entire song alone. After that, a couple of different guys dance around him, then he catches the eye of one of them and winks, feeling brave. He turns and backs up to Harry’s chest and they move to the beat together for the rest of the song.

He’s not really paying attention to what else is going on. The music is loud and the beat flows through him, vibrating up through his feet and out of his fingers. The man in front of him tips his head back, then turns back around, throwing his arms over Harry’s shoulders. Harry blinks, slightly taken aback, only because he wasn’t expecting it.

“I’m Chad. What’s your name?”

Harry looks down at him. He’s pretty. Clean shaven face with big, round brown eyes, dark skin, and close-cropped hair. The lines of the muscles of his chest and arms are visible through his bright red shirt.

“Harry.” His cup is empty and he’s suddenly thirsty. “Want a drink?”

Chad shakes his head. “Want to get out of here?”

There’s still ice even though his drink is gone, so Harry tips his cup back and crunches on that for a moment. He swallows, then says, “No, um… thanks, but I’m not looking—”

“It’s cool, babe,” Chad says, then spins back around. They finish out the song together, but say goodbye after that.

On his way to the bar for another drink, he passes Liam and Zayn doing more grinding than dancing, and as he walks by, he meets Liam’s eye and smiles, open-mouthed and a little obnoxiously, but Liam just grins and rolls his eyes. Another shot at the bar and another drink in his hand, Harry makes his way back to the dance floor.

Out of sight, out of mind only works for so long. Harry’s hasn’t laid eyes on Louis for almost an hour. The last time Harry saw him was when he was dancing with Niall and Zayn. He’s seen Niall, once at the bar, but mostly on the dance floor, moving from one person to the next when the DJ changes songs.

The night is supposed to be about Harry meeting other people, but it isn’t working. And he has enough alcohol in his system that he’s not going to bother lying to himself. Instead of weaving through the mass of bodies at the center of the dance floor, Harry sips his drink through the straw and walks around the perimeter, not trying to hide that he’s looking for Louis.

That’s how he finds him. Leaning back against a massive pillar on the edge of the dance floor, drink to his lips, with some dude standing far too close for Harry’s liking. His steps stutter when he sees them and at first he tries to keep walking, like if he just stares straight ahead no one will notice him and he’ll be able to get away, but a train of girls passes in front of him, all holding hands on the way to the restroom, so he turns to go back the way he came, but bumps into the person behind him.

He heaves a sigh and lifts his cup to his lips, pouring his drink into his mouth and swallowing the rest of it. When he looks over the rim of his cup, he notices Louis looking directly at him and he drops his eyes, not wanting Louis to see the jealousy or anything else that might show on his face. He sets his empty cup down on the nearest table, the girls finally clear out of his way, and he pushes through the crowd, circling back around to look for Niall again.

Only a few steps onto the dance floor, a hand grabs his wrist and pulls him to a stop.

“Harry, hey!” Louis yells over the music and Harry looks back at him, trying not to frown. “Dance with me?”

A smile slowly replaces the frown on Harry’s face, and he’s had too much to drink to try to stop it. He nods and twists his wrist, grabbing hold of Louis’ hand, pulling him behind him until they find a space.

Harry hates it. His arms rest on Louis’ shoulders and Louis’ hands go to his hips, pulling him in, then onto his ass, holding him there, and he sighs. It’s exactly what he wants and he can only have it for a few more weeks. But he might as well enjoy it while he can. He can worry about figuring out talking and dancing and flirting and dating other guys after Louis moves to L.A.

With Louis’ hands to guide him, Harry sways to the music but moves his lower body where Louis leads. He spends about half of the first song avoiding eye contact, looking off to the side and watching the people around them, but that just gives Louis his neck and ear to kiss and nibble on. Harry drops his head down, looking between their bodies at the fraction of an inch between their chests, the dark shadow where their legs slot together and their hips meet.

Louis’ lips brush the shell of Harry’s ear. “Having fun, Harold?”

Harry shrugs. “Are you?”

“Yeah, it’s alright. Loud, but what else is it supposed to be?” Louis kisses Harry’s ear and says, “Glad I’m dancing with you. Know where to put my hands.”

Harry snorts and slides his arms down so that they encircle Louis’ back and lets head fall onto Louis’ shoulder. They’re probably moving too slowly for the beat, but he doesn’t mind, totally comfortable for the first time that night. They stay like that for a while, but when the song ends, Louis pushes Harry away, turns him around, and pulls him back flush against him, his hands tight on Harry’s waist.

When Louis circles his hips, he uses his grip on Harry to move them together, and soon they fall into a rhythm. The way they’re dancing, Harry can feel Louis’ soft cock in his jeans, rubbing against Harry’s ass, and he thinks back to the previous week and how well taken care of he felt. A quiet groan escapes his lips and he drops his head back, resting his temple against Louis’ and closing his eyes against the lights.

One song morphs into another and another until Harry loses all track of time. His shirt is stuck to his back from his sweat and the heat between their bodies, his buzz has faded and he wonders if he should get another drink or not. He kind of just wants to go as soon as Louis is ready to leave.

Louis’ hands on his waist tighten and his fingertips dig into Harry’s sides, then he lifts one hand to comb it through Harry’s hair, pulling it off his neck and sliding his fingers between the strands. A low whine leaves Harry’s throat and Louis slips his other hand up under the front of Harry’s shirt, resting it low on his stomach, scratching his thumbnail through the hair below Harry’s belly button, right above the waist of his jeans.

“You’re tired, aren’t you?” Louis asks, his mouth so close that his lips drag against the skin behind Harry’s ear.

Harry hums and nods. He is tired, but he doesn’t want to do anything other than what he’s doing right that second.

Louis’ hand on his belly pulls him back, even tighter against him, but then he lets go of Harry’s hair and turns him carefully around. “I’ll go find the boys and tell them we’re leaving. Meet you outside?”

“Yeah, sounds good.” Harry leans in and catches Louis’ mouth in a kiss, draping his arms over his shoulders again when Louis kisses him back and slips his hands in Harry’s back pockets. After a moment, Louis pulls away slightly, then kisses Harry once more before patting him on the bum and giving him a little shove towards the exit.

Harry stumbles a bit, not because of the alcohol, just general clumsiness. And he really is tired. He yawns and covers his mouth, closing his eyes. He turns sideways to push his way through the crowd and comes face to face with his ex-girlfriend.

Completely speechless, Harry stands there, trying to figure out what to say. They haven’t seen each other since that night just before Christmas on the sidewalk outside the bar.

“Hi, Harry,” Jenn says, breaking the silence between them. “Gotta say… This explains a lot.”

“What?” Harry’s still slightly stunned at bumping into her so unexpectedly and feels like his brain is about five minutes behind due to that, his sleepiness, and the alcohol.

Jenn rolls her eyes to the side, then nods in the direction that Harry just came from. “You and Louis. I didn’t know… Not that you were ever very forthcoming with, well, anything, but…”

“Oh,” Harry says, finally catching on. “I’m, um… I didn’t know either. It’s… new. I’m bi.”

She nods and narrows her eyes. “I’m not like, trying to tell you how to, um… identify. But just… I was watching you guys. We were together for a year and you were never like that with me. And, I mean, obviously it could just be how you were with me, but… You know what, it doesn’t matter. You look happy together, so… I’m, um… I’m glad you’ve found someone who makes you happy.”

“I… I…” Harry wants to stand there and ask her what exactly she was about to say and wants to explain that he and Louis aren’t together, but in a moment of clarity, he realizes that he’s pretty sure he knows what she was going to tell him and that he’d only be inviting more questions with the rest. “Thanks, Jenn. I, um… It probably doesn’t mean much, but I’m sorry for how things… you know…”

She reaches up and gently tucks a curl behind his ear, then pats his cheek. “Thanks. It could’ve been worse, right? You weren’t a bad boyfriend, Harry. Just… You always seemed like you were going through the motions.” Jenn’s eyes dart to the side and she smirks as she tips her head towards the door. “He’s waiting for you.”

Harry looks in that direction and when his eyes land on Louis, he scrunches his nose and smiles.

“See? Happy.” Jenn raises her hand and wiggles her fingers at Louis, who waves half-heartedly. “Have a good night, Harry.” Then she pushes past him. Harry doesn’t wait to watch her disappear into the crowd. He goes straight for Louis, who takes his hand and leads him outside.

————

Harry very pointedly avoids thinking about Jenn and the things that went unsaid between them that night. Louis and Liam will leave for L.A. in a few weeks and however happy they may have appeared together when they were drunk and dancing in a club, they’re still coming to the end of their arrangement and Louis has literally started mentioning how much he’s looking forward to Los Angeles every day.

Can’t wait to go to the beach as soon as I get unpacked.

Won't have to listen to you snore anymore, curly.

My own bed? Sounds magical.

Good thing it’s so warm in L.A. since your time as my personal heater is coming to an end, Harold.

Going to need a hobby without you taking up all my time.

Will be strange showering alone. No one to knock the shampoo bottle onto my toes.

Sure, he talks about songwriting and how excited he is to meet people and network. How thankful he is for Liam’s connections and the ones he’s made himself in New York. Louis probably says a lot of things that Harry doesn’t hear because he’s too busy trying to be normal around him. Too busy pretending to be as happy about things as Louis is. Too busy trying not to act like he wishes Louis would stay. Like he wishes he could move to California too.

Harry drops hints though. Almost like his mouth is working faster than his brain because he’s lost count of the number of times he’s said he wishes his job was different or that he doesn’t know if he’s meant for New York. He talks about the one time he went to L.A. and how he didn’t see the Pacific.

When he catches himself, he’ll make sure to tack on that maybe he’ll visit, if he has time. Like next summer or maybe after that, depending on what his living situation is.

That’s something that Harry pretty much refuses to discuss with anyone. The lease on his apartment runs through August with the extension he signed and he doesn’t know what he wants to do. He could look for another roommate, but he’s considering putting that effort into finding a slightly less shitty apartment instead.

He’ll take the rest of the summer to figure it out and look around. It might be like starting over. Clean slate or whatever. New apartment, new roommate, new sexuality…

Speaking of which… He’s started looking around online, trying to figure out how he plans to go about finding someone to date. As much experience as he’s gained with Louis sexually, he just doesn’t think hookups or one night stands are his thing, but he’s unsure if he’s ready to look for something long-term. Dating around isn’t something he’s ever done; maybe he’s been missing out.

Tonight, Niall’s got tickets to see some band that Harry’s never heard of and, since Louis is working and neither Liam nor Zayn want to join them, it’s just the two of them which is good. He won’t be distracted by Louis and he won’t feel the need to entertain Liam, which wouldn’t be necessary, but Harry still considers him a guest, so he’d do it anyway. And Niall won’t be caught up with Zayn, even though that’s not really been much of a problem lately. He and Niall can coexist and enjoy the show and, once the band starts to play, never speak a word to one another, other than to let the other one know they’re running to the bathroom or to the bar or out to smoke.

They’re right up front and Niall didn’t have to lie about his press credentials, even though he said he would in order to get Harry’s camera inside. Music is coming through the speakers, not nearly as loud as the band will be when they come on, but loud enough that they have to lean in to hear and be heard.

Harry takes a few test shots of the stage and some of the people milling about, then turns to Niall. “Pretty cool job if you’re getting into shows for free, Ni.”

“Sometimes it’s cool, sometimes the bands suck. Par for the course, I guess.” Niall swings his arms like he’s swinging a golf club. “The job itself is great, actually. Learning a lot about what goes on behind the scenes of an interview, you know? But the best part is how much new music I’m exposed to.”

“Thanks for bringing me, man.” Harry holds his camera up and takes a picture of Niall as he winks and points his finger at the lense.

“Of course. Have to bring my professional photographer along.”

Harry rolls his eyes and laughs, as if a professional photographer would show up with a beat up old Nikon. He doesn’t even have any lenses for it.

Niall looks at him for a second, tips his beer towards Harry and asks, “How’re things with Louis?”

“Fine. I mean, he leaves in like two weeks.” Harry’s been practicing keeping the disappointment out of his voice whenever he and Louis talk about it and he thinks he’s getting better at it. He scrolls back through the pictures he’s taken so far, but doesn’t really look at them.

“I know, man. That’s why I’m asking.”

Harry studies Niall from the corner of his eye and sighs. “It is what it is, Niall. I knew when he moved here it was a temporary thing. He was always planning to go to L.A.”

“Yeah, but like, what happens then? Are you going to visit or what?”

“Maybe? I don’t know. Hadn’t really thought about it.”

“You guys haven’t planned anything? Like for you to go out there?”

Harry shakes his head. “Why would we? It’ll be like every other time we’ve ended up in different places. We’ll keep in touch, probably.” He shrugs and fiddles with his camera, adjusting settings that he’ll have to adjust back later.

The band is late. They were supposed to start a few minutes ago and Harry is desperate for the distraction of the noise and the dim lights because he doesn’t want to talk about this. Or even think about it. Because Harry knows the way things work in his friendship with Louis.

Niall watches him and when Harry can’t stand the itching between his shoulder blades, he asks, his voice sharper than necessary, “Where’s Zayn?”

“Not sure. Might be out with Liam somewhere. He had an audition today.”

That should be good news, but Niall sounds so blase about it. “For VTV?”

Niall nods and shoves his fists into his pockets. “Think he’s going to get it too, but it’ll shoot in L.A.”

“Are you… Are you moving to L.A. too?” Harry asks, the sense of trepidation causing his voice to go up an octave. If everyone is leaving him in New York, maybe he’ll just… leave too.

Niall shakes his head quickly. “Just started my job, man. And, like… I don’t know if I’ll stay here forever, but I’m not going to like, follow Z to California.”

Harry waits for a moment, expecting Niall to say something about working it out or long distance being hard, but worth it. But he doesn’t say any of that. “You guys are breaking up?”

“You know I don’t…” Niall waves his hand in the air and says, “I don’t like to talk about this shit.”

“Yeah, well you sure do ask a lot of fucking questions about Louis, who is my friend.” Harry lets his camera hang off the strap around his neck and turns to fully face Niall. “You and Zayn have been together for almost three years, man.”

Niall exhales, puffing his cheeks out, and says, “We haven’t been solid for a while. Not sure we ever were, to be honest. I mean, I love him, sure. He loves me too, but like… I think we’re better not together.”

“Seriously?” Harry asks before he can consider his words. It’s just strange to consider ending a relationship that way. Because you love each other and it’s not enough. “Sorry, um… I don’t know whether to like… console you or what.”

“It’s fine, H. We, um… Zayn and I talk, like a lot. Neither of us are like… brokenhearted about it, just tired, I think.”

“But you’re still together now?” He’s never really understood their relationship, and maybe he isn’t meant to, but this has apparently been going on for a while and neither Niall nor Zayn have seemed upset or even distant.

Niall shrugs one shoulder. “If he gets this job, he’s leaving the end of June.”

“Jesus.”

“Sorry, man, like…” Niall claps his hand on Harry’s shoulder and Harry blinks back at him because Niall’s the one breaking up with his boyfriend and he’s consoling Harry. It doesn’t feel like when his mom and dad told him they were divorcing though. “Let Z tell you about his job, okay? He’s really pumped about it and I’m proud of him. He’s worked hard and he deserves it. Deserves to be happy.”

Harry sucks his upper lip between his teeth and nods.

The band is just alright, but Harry gets some cool photos. They still stay to the end and on the way home, Harry fills the silence, talking about his job and how much of a chore it’s turned into. How he thinks maybe he only liked it in the first place because Niall and Zayn were fun to work with. Tells stupid jokes that make Niall roll his eyes, but he laughs at least twice. And he complains about his apartment, eventually coming back to the city and how he doesn’t know if he fits there. He suggests that they pool their resources and attempt to buy an island, but Niall just shakes his head and says they’ll figure out where they’re meant to be eventually.

Harry thinks of his last year of college and his pros and cons list. New York or Los Angeles. Atlantic or Pacific. East or west. He couldn’t make a decision, and when he was offered what amounted to the same paid internship in both locations, though for different companies, he picked New York because it was closer to home. Cheaper to fly to visit his mom if he got homesick and at least he’d remain on the same side of the country. So he chose the slightly easier and more familiar over the complete unknown.

Typical of him, he’s starting to realize.

That night when Harry gets home, Louis is waiting in his bed. He turned in his two weeks notice at the bar that night and they let him work through the rush and then handed over his tips and told him not to bother coming back.

Harry’s still feeling uneasy about Zayn and Niall and he’s pretty sure that Louis can tell that something is up, but he brushes him off and ends up distracting them both with sex, riding Louis until his thighs burn. Louis flips them over and fucks him with Harry’s legs thrown over his shoulders, knocking their foreheads together and kissing him messily.

The near constant pressure on his prostate and the drag of their stomachs pressing against his cock have Harry coming before he can get a hand around himself, leaving him astonished even through the heady aftershocks of his orgasm. The surprise of it has Louis sitting up to fuck him faster, while wordless noises and grunts tumble from his open mouth. He pulls out, removes the condom and comes all over Harry’s stomach, panting as he drags his fingers through their mess.

It’s a good distraction.

The last two weeks that Louis is in New York pass quickly. Louis and Liam apparently get more writing done over two weeks than they have in the last few months because of their conflicting schedules. Louis works on lyrics during the day and Liam works on the melodies in the afternoon when he gets home from the coffee shop.

A couple of times, Harry stops outside the apartment door on his way home, able to hear them harmonizing, but unable to make out the words that they’re singing. No matter how careful or quiet he is, when he opens the door, they stop, and he doesn’t know why but he won’t ask them to sing for him.

Louis refuses to go out much, citing his lack of job and the cost of moving, and it’s for the best, probably. Harry lets himself revel in it. They stay in bed where Harry can avoid thinking and they decide that they’ll have one last night out.

Louis and Liam’s flight is on Sunday morning the weekend before Pride starts and Louis laments the fact that he won’t be around for it. It’s the most he’s said so far about missing anything about New York and Harry instantly picks up on it. It makes him slightly nauseated, but at the same time so confused that he can’t think.

With their flight on Sunday, it’s almost a universal decision that Saturday night will be the farewell party. ‘Almost’ meaning that Harry lobbied hard for one last night in the apartment with the bedroom door locked. Louis told him that Friday would have to do for that, but Harry pouted all week anyway. He doesn’t want to go out dancing and drinking because he doesn’t want to share Louis with anyone else before he has to and it’s that realization that pushes him to agree. Part of Harry wants to fast forward to Sunday, after Louis’ flight leaves, so he can start to adjust to life without him in it on a daily basis. He needs a long stretch of solitude to finally think about all of the things he’s been avoiding over the past month or so.

On Friday evening, Harry gets home from work irritable and tired, fed up with his job and annoyed by his commute. His feet hurt because he was running around at work and then had to stand on the subway and he just wants to face plant onto his bed and sleep for days.

When he walks through the door, his mood drops even further at the sight of Louis and Liam’s things all packed up and stacked against the wall in the corner. The last thing he wants to be reminded of is the fact that Louis is leaving in less than forty-eight hours.

Harry sits down on the futon to pull off his boots and lets his head fall back with a sigh. There’s no noise coming from the bedroom or the bathroom and the apartment is so tiny that Harry’s sure he’d hear something, so he must be alone.

He stands up to carry his boots to his room and he was right, it’s empty. The bathroom is too. So much for he and Louis spending one last night together. Harry sighs again and strips off his clothes. A long, hot bath would be life-changing, but maybe there’ll be a tub in his next apartment. For now, a hot shower will have to do.

It’s not as relaxing as it should be. His curls are tangled and once he works the knots out, he’s ready to cut his hair, though that urge hits him about once a week and usually passes before he can put any effort into making it happen. Instead he covers his hair with a deep conditioner and piles it on top of his head, turns and lets the hot water wash over the back of his neck and shoulders, hoping it’ll help release some tension.

He and Louis haven’t talked about what they’re going to do tonight, which is fine considering that it looks like Louis forgot about their plans. But he was kind of hoping that Louis would fuck him because he’s not sure he’ll be able to do that for a while. The idea of having some other guy blow him or even give him a handjob is daunting enough that it makes him queasy. He can’t imagine getting to the point of trusting someone enough to do anything else.

The water pipes creak as he turns the knob and he tries to dry off with the single hand towel that’s hanging by the sink. All of the towels must be dirty. He’ll need to do laundry this weekend. Water is still dripping down his back, but he tosses the hand towel to the floor anyway. The hair tie around his wrist is wet, and he twists his hair up into a bun on his way to his bedroom, stopping in the doorway when he finds Louis standing there by the bed, folding laundry.

“Hey,” Harry says, almost whispering.

Louis turns around with one of Harry’s t-shirts partially folded in his hands and lets his gaze travel slowly down Harry’s body and back up. By the time their eyes meet, Harry’s chest is starting to flush from more than just the hot shower and he wants to reach for one of the folded towels on the bed to wrap around his waist. That would probably be rather obvious, so he picks up a pair of boxers instead, and that’s when Louis finally speaks.

“Don’t, um… I mean, you can get dressed if you want, but I thought…” Louis bites his lower lip and starts picking up the stacks of folded clothes.

Harry watches him for a moment, then helps him put the laundry away. He’s not hungry, but he doesn’t know what else to talk about, still confused by Louis’ presence. “Did you want to order food?”

“I was thinking Italian. You still like Eggplant Parmesan, right?” Louis asks and waits for Harry’s nod. “Got wine too. I thought we’d make like, a night of it.”

“Yeah, okay.” Harry’s standing there naked, trying to decide if he wants to pull on some boxers.

“Okay, hold on.” Louis walks out of the bedroom and Harry’s still not sure if he’s supposed to be getting dressed. The decision is made when Louis brings him a glass of wine and says, “I figured we can order the food later, but… I was wondering what you wanted to do now.”

Harry shrugs and tip his wine glass towards Louis’, clinking them together gently, unsure what Louis is asking.

“Okay, well… I have something that I’d like to do, but I wanted to know if like… I… Well, I’m leaving tomorrow, so like, if you wanted like, a blowjob or um… to fuck me or…” Louis circles his hand like he could go on and list a million options, then raises his eyebrows.

“Oh… I don’t know. What, um… What about you?” Harry shifts from foot to foot trying to pretend that he’s not naked and that his dick isn’t already interested in whatever Louis might say.

Instead of answering, Louis tugs his shirt over his head and pushes his sweatpants down, kicking them into the pile of dirty clothes in the corner. He sets his wine on the nightstand, climbs onto the bed and pulls the blanket up to his waist, then stares at Harry until he catches on and lays down next to him.

“Did you want to nap?” Harry asks, staring up at the ceiling as he folds his hands behind his head.

“No.” Louis digs his finger into Harry’s armpit and Harry jerks his arm down, scooting sideways, and rolling onto his side to face Louis. “Harry, are you… Is something wrong?”

Harry shakes his head and says quietly, “Just a weird day, I think. Work was… annoying.”

Facing each other, less than a foot between them, Louis hooks his index finger under Harry’s chin and drags his thumb over Harry’s lower lip. “You’re so unhappy there. Have you thought about leaving?”

“Think about it all the time.” Harry closes his eyes and focuses on Louis’ thumb as it traces his lip again, then over his chin and down his neck to rest in the hollow of his throat. “Don’t know what else I’d do.” Harry swallows against Louis’ thumb. “I… I don’t want to talk about this.”

Louis hums and moves closer, brushing the tips of their noses together.

It’s depressing, thinking about the job he hates. The apartment that he can’t stand. The city that doesn’t fit. The people who won’t stick.

And that’s just the external bullshit. There’s still his personal bullshit that he can barely handle when it appears in his periphery, let alone facing it head on.

It’s much easier to lose himself in Louis’ mouth when it presses forward, lips already parted. He sucks Harry’s lower lip into his mouth, biting down, and tugging on it before releasing it and kissing his cheek, his jaw, his ear, and that little spot just below that makes Harry whine and roll his hips. His hand trails down Harry’s chest, catching his nipple with his thumbnail and scratching it, then he pushes Harry onto his back and climbs over to straddle him.

Louis settles on top of Harry and shifts slightly, leaning down to suck one of Harry’s nipples into his mouth. When his teeth graze over the tight bud, Harry arches his back and Louis bites down and slides his hand up to twist his other nipple between his thumb and forefinger.

The weight of Louis dick resting on his own isn’t enough pressure or friction, so Harry’s hands find Louis’ waist and pull him down while he raises his hips, trying to rut against him. But Louis won’t let him, pushing himself up and back, kissing down Harry’s ribs, and gripping his wrists to hold them at his sides after Harry accidentally knocks his hand into Louis’ face.

He sucks and bites at Harry’s hip, leaving a mark that’s right where the waistband of his jeans hits, then nips around his belly button. Louis gives head like Harry didn’t know was possible. It isn’t what he would’ve asked for tonight, but he isn’t going to complain about it. His lips drag across Harry’s lower belly, down to the crease where his leg meets his groin, and onto his balls, which… Louis’ paid them attention before, but not like this.

With his hands behind Harry’s thighs, Louis lifts his legs, bending his knees, and pushing them further apart, and then licks each of Harry’s balls before sucking them one at a time into his mouth. Without his mouth or his hand on Harry’s dick, Louis still has him completely hard, so Harry reaches down to stroke himself, just to take the edge off, but Louis stops him.

He grabs Harry’s wrist again and pushes his hand away, tapping his finger on it when he has it where he wants it. After that, Harry leaves his hands where Louis put them.

Louis flattens his tongue and presses firmly behind Harry’s balls, licking up and then back down, making Harry shiver when he blows hot air over his wet skin. Louis still hasn’t so much as touched Harry’s dick, and Harry’s starting to wonder when he’ll get to it.

Not that he isn’t enjoying himself, because he is. He could lay there all night while Louis licks and sucks and touches him wherever he wants. It makes his mind feel disconnected, but in a good way. He’s completely focused only on relishing the pleasure of Louis’ mouth on his stomach, his balls, his inner thighs… Which is why the first lick to his rim startles him. He squeaks and pulls away and Louis laughs, pressing his face into Harry’s thigh.

“Sorry, sorry,” Harry says, then clears his throat. He looks down to find Louis watching him from between his legs and it makes his heart race harder, nervous and self-conscious where before he wasn’t really aware that Louis’ face was basically two inches from his asshole.

It’s not that he’s concerned so much about cleanliness—he literally just took a very thorough shower. Something about this feels… more intimate. Not just physically, but emotionally, and it scares him. So, he closes his eyes and starts to close his legs, bumping his thigh against Louis’ cheek, and feeling even more awkward.

Louis says softly, “Hey, I don’t have to—”

“No. I… Sorry. I want you to. Just… I wasn’t expecting it.”

Louis rubs his face against Harry’s inner thigh and Harry pushes back against it for a moment, feeling the rough scratch of Louis’ beard, but then Louis turns his head and kisses the same spot, dragging his lips back down and sucking a wet kiss just beside Harry’s crack. Harry licks his lips and takes a deep, shuddering breath, then lets his legs fall open.

It doesn’t take him long to lose himself to Louis’ touches again.

If the sensation of Louis licking over his rim time and time again wasn’t enough, Louis sounds like he’s enjoying himself more than Harry is. He laps at the skin up and down his crack, and pushes the tip of his tongue inside Harry, which draws a long, low moan from his throat.

Harry’s arms stay unmoving at his side; he hasn’t so much as shifted them since Louis put them there, and he’s so hard that he aches.

He lays there, writhing on Louis’ tongue, noises leaving his mouth that he knows he’s never made before when Louis sucks directly on his rim, shivering as Louis scrapes his fingernails down the backs of his thighs, and twitching when Louis slips a slick finger inside. All the while, keeping his eyes practically glued to his own erection.

Louis has two fingers inside him now, rubbing circles over his prostate while he traces the edges of Harry’s rim with the tip of his tongue. Harry gasps and squirms when Louis pulls his fingers out, pushes Harry’s knees to his chest, buries his face between Harry’s cheeks, and fucks his tongue inside Harry’s hole. The head of Harry’s dick rubs against his stomach, smearing the precome that’s collected there, and Harry whimpers.

He closes his eyes and feels tears trickle from the corners, over his temples, and into his hair, then he blinks up at the ceiling, trying to will them away. Louis can’t expect him to come like this. At some point it has to be okay for Harry to touch himself, but Louis hasn’t said and Harry won’t lift his hand to try, even though he’s starting to think that he could possibly die from this.

Louis pulls back and sits up, wipes his face on the back of his hand, then pours more lube onto his fingers and pushes them back in, fucking them hard, the mixture of lube and spit making wet sounds that only turn Harry on more.

“Touch yourself, baby,” Louis says, voice rough, but quiet.

Harry almost obeys him without thinking. He can see that Louis is jerking himself off at the same brutal pace that he’s thrusting his fingers inside Harry. But Harry shakes his head no, and Louis freezes, letting go of his own cock and carefully pulling his fingers free.

His chest heaves as he stares at Harry and whispers, “I’m so sorry. Did I hurt you?”

Harry shakes his head again. “No. Fuck, no. Sorry. Just… Can you fuck me?”

Relief visibly washes over Louis. Harry can see the tension leave his face, his shoulders, his arms… He fights a smile as he leans over to rummage through the nightstand for a condom.

“Sure you’re okay?” Louis leans forward to tuck one of Harry’s stray curls behind his ear, and Harry nods.

When Louis pushes into him, Harry groans and immediately pulls him closer, circling his arms around Louis’ back and his legs around Louis’ waist so tightly that rather than thrusting, he’s forced to rotate his hips, only able to slide out a little before grinding back inside. They stay like that for a while, both of them catching their breath before Louis licks his lips, and leans down, stopping before their mouths meet to search Harry’s face for permission. Harry surges up.

Harry lets his legs relax so that Louis can fuck him harder, and when their bodies are rocking together so violently that they can’t kiss anymore, Harry reaches down and finally wraps his hand around his dick, stroking it fast to match Louis’ thrusts. Every muscle in his body tenses as he approaches his orgasm and when it hits, it’s as if he’s at the epicenter of an earthquake. Tremors travel along his limbs, his fingers and toes tingle, and his arms and legs tighten around Louis’ body, holding him and keeping him deep inside.

Their bodies rise and fall together for a moment and when Harry feels like he can move again, he loosens his grip on Louis so that he can fuck him until he comes. Gingerly, Louis slips his hand between their bodies and pulls out.

“You can finish,” Harry mutters, but trails off to stare at the condom in Louis’ hand. “Did you come?”

Louis nods and lifts one hand, smirking as he says, “Simultaneous orgasms. Never, um… Never done that before.” He moves his hand closer to Harry until Harry gets the hint and slaps their palms together.

It turns out that Eggplant Parmesan is definitely something that shouldn’t be eaten in bed, but they do it anyway, both of them sitting naked and cross-legged on the dirty sheets. They finish off the bottle of wine and when Louis says he’s going to feed Harry a bite of cannoli, Harry stupidly trusts him. Of course, he smears the ricotta filling on Harry’s face instead.

They end up spending the rest of the night downstairs in the basement laundry room, washing all of the bedding, taking turns sitting on the washing machine during the spin cycle, laughing and making out. It’s the best night Harry’s had in years.

It all goes to shit the next day.

————

All day, Louis and Liam were trading jokes and comments about showing Harry how to properly pick someone up but Harry can’t find it funny, even if he knows that Louis is kidding. He’d much rather stay home, but at least he knows that he’ll be coming back with Louis tonight. All of his stuff is in Harry’s apartment, so he has to stay there and sleep in Harry’s bed one last time.

Harry and Louis are dressed and ready to go though, sitting on the bed waiting for Liam to finish. Louis is writing… something. Lyrics or a grocery list or whatever in his notebook and doesn’t look up when Harry speaks.

So, even though he’s not sure why he asked the first time, Harry asks again, “You think you’ll go back to Grindr when you’re in L.A.?” He downloaded it a few days before and already deleted it.

Louis stares at whatever he just wrote down for so long that Harry wonders if he’s being purposefully ignored. Finally Louis says, “I’m hoping to be busy working, honestly.” He tosses his notebook onto the pillow and says, “But… I guess. Yeah.”

“D’you… You think I should download it?”

Louis shrugs and says, “Yeah, sure.” Then he pops up off of the bed and walks out into the living room, yelling unnecessarily loudly for Liam to hurry up so they can go.

They’re on the way to meet Zayn and Niall, and Louis keeps falling behind so Harry and Liam are walking side by side and he’s too far back for their conversation. Harry calls back over his shoulder and waves his phone at Louis, “Hey, can you like, give me some tips?”

“What?” Liam peers at Harry’s phone and scowls. “Grindr?”

“Yeah, Louis said I should get it, but I don’t, um…” Harry looks back at Louis, slows his steps until they’re walking together, and says, “Lou, can you...”

“It’s not hard, Harry. Just… if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And like, be safe. Don’t be stupid.” Louis walks a little faster and catches up with Liam, leaving Harry to walk behind them.

He deletes the app again. It doesn’t make any sense for him to have it on his phone anyway. There are so many shows coming up that he and Niall are going to, every one of them an opportunity for Harry to take pictures and work on his photography. He’s considering staying in his shitty apartment and getting another roommate so that he can invest in a new camera and some equipment. Maybe if he works enough, he’ll be too tired to worry about sex or dating or anything like that.

As soon as they walk inside, Harry feels underdressed. He wasn’t trying to dress up, just a short sleeve yellow button-up with his black jeans and boots, nothing special. But he wishes he’d done something with his hair other than pulling it up into a bun.

At least he’s not the only one because Louis is just in a black t-shirt and black jeans. He still looks incredible, but if he stands in the corner, he might turn invisible. Liam looks fucking hot and fits right in. Harry had no idea that he owned multiple mesh shirts and he marvels at that while he watches Liam take a jello shot from a shirtless man with a tray of them. The guy has nipple rings that glow in the black light. Harry follows Liam, takes a shot, and asks the guy where he got his nipples done.

It’s twice as crowded than a regular Saturday night, because of the lead up to Pride, and hot despite the air conditioning. Harry unbuttons another button on his shirt and ponders undoing them all. He tries to stay close to Louis, but Louis weaves his way through the crowd expertly, leaving Harry to stare at his back as he disappears on the other side of the room.

He shrugs and goes back to the bar. It’s three people deep and the wait is atrocious. Harry buys himself two margaritas and a shot of tequila, then he carries his drinks out onto the dance floor figuring that if he’s double fisting alcohol like this, people aren’t likely to get too close.

It’s too crowded for anyone to give him any space and Harry’s only been dancing for maybe half an hour when he tries to take a sip of his second margarita, someone bumps into his back, and it splashes over the lower half of his face, drips down his neck and chest, and soaks his yellow shirt and his jeans all along the front of the waistband.

He pushes through the people surrounding him and heads for the bathroom, gulping what’s left of drink on the way. It’s early enough in the night that there are still paper towels in the dispenser on the wall, so Harry splashes water on his face and wipes his face and neck, then unbuttons his shirt the rest of the way, shrugs it off his shoulders, and rinses it in the sink, squeezing the water out and draping it over his shoulder. There’s not much he can do about the rest, but he cleans his chest and stomach as well as he can, then unbuttons and unzips his jeans. Maybe he can dry them by standing in front of the hand drier.

The sugar in the margarita mix is making his skin feel sticky and gross, so he leans over the sink again and splashes more water on his face and neck and lets it run down, cups a little water in his hand and rubs it over his chest and stomach, then wets another handful of paper towels and scrubs until he feels somewhat clean. The worst part is that he can feel it in his pubes and they’ve absorbed some of the drink. There’s no way he’ll be able to clean himself until he’s home, but he does his best, using the wad of wet paper towels to carefully wipe away what he can.

Even the elastic waistband of his briefs is wet and Harry can’t help but laugh. He pulls it out a bit and looks down at himself, smiling and shaking his head. This would only happen to him. He checks the mirror one last time and his skin is pink from scrubbing it too harshly with the paper towels, but it’s not like anyone will be able to see it in the dim lights on the dance floor. Harry turns to walk over to the hand dryer to dry his shirt and jeans a bit, but stops when he sees Louis standing by the door.

Harry grins and takes a step towards him, wanting to share how ridiculous the last five minutes have been, wanting to make him laugh with his story, wanting him to roll his eyes and blame Harry for being clumsy, and wanting him to offer to skip out early and go back home and shower together one last time before Louis leaves in the morning.

Another step towards him and Louis shakes his head, spins on his heel and rushes out of the bathroom. Harry stops short and scowls at the door as it swings shut. He pulls his shirt back on, leaving it to hang unbuttoned and wet. He’s fastening his jeans when he realizes what it must look like. He blushes at the very idea of getting off with a stranger in public. Then his heart rate skyrockets and adrenaline floods his body because that’s probably what Louis thought Harry was doing.

The guy coming through the door jumps out of Harry’s way as he hurries past him, shirt flying out behind him. The bathroom hall opens out at the end of the bar and the entire bar area is so packed that Harry can hardly move. Politely saying “excuse me” and asking people to let him pass does nothing, so he shouts, “Move!” and they finally do.

It’s still a slow journey past the bar and the dance floor to the door where the bouncer stops him and warns him that he’ll have to get in line again to get back inside. Harry doesn’t even respond verbally, just throws the guy a thumbs up and stumbles over the threshold and onto the sidewalk where he turns in circles, searching for Louis who seems to have disappeared completely.

Harry even asks some of the people waiting to get inside, but only one person answers him with more than a shrug and he just points down the sidewalk. It’s the only clue he has, so Harry takes off in the direction of their apartment.

He throws open the door to their building and speeds up the stairs, stopping only to shove the key into the lock before slamming the door open and shouting Louis’ name into what he can already tell is an empty apartment.

He calls Louis’ phone first. No answer. Then Liam’s. No answer. Zayn’s phone goes straight to voicemail without even ringing, but before he can call Niall, a text comes through from him.

Niall: Wtf? Where are you?

Harry: Home. Louis left and I went after him.

Niall: Ok. Liam left right after you. Wtf is going on?

Harry: I’ll explain later. If you see Louis or Liam tell them to call me.

Niall: Will do.

Harry immediately sends Louis a short text asking him to call. When he doesn’t respond within a few minutes, Harry sends him a long text detailing exactly what happened.

It’s barely after midnight and Harry can’t sit still; he’s worried and confused as hell. As fast as he can, he showers, just to get the remains of the margarita off of him, with his phone sitting on a folded towel on top of the toilet lid just in case, but it doesn’t ring.

Around one o’clock in the morning, he calls Louis again, leaving a rambling message about what happened, laughing as he tries to explain, trying to tamp down the worry in his voice, and trailing off into a whisper when he apologizes at the end.

By two, he’s pissed off. Liam isn’t returning his calls or texts either and it’s really shitty of both of them to leave Harry hanging like this.

At three he brews a pot of coffee and drinks it too fast, burning his tongue and cursing, then cursing louder because it makes him feel a little bit better.

A little after four he starts to actually worry because nothing good ever happens at that hour and Louis could’ve been hit by a car or murdered or something and Harry wouldn’t know. Because Liam is still ignoring him too.

Around five, after he chews all of his fingernails down to the quick, Harry nods off, waking just before seven, when Liam unlocks the door and walks into the apartment, dropping his key into the bowl.

“Where’s Louis?” Harry shoots up off the couch, sending his cup of cold coffee crashing to the floor. He runs around the futon, socks slipping in the coffee and on the vinyl floor, skidding to a stop at Liam’s expression.

Liam steps around Harry, past the futon and the puddle of coffee, and starts picking up their bags while Harry watches, waiting for an answer.

“Do you know where Louis is?” Harry knows he’s sounds anxious and that it’s probably obvious that he hasn’t slept at all, but that’s unimportant.

“Yeah, I do,” Liam snaps without turning around. He has the keyboard strapped to his back, and bags hanging off of both shoulders as he reaches for the guitar case.

“Well? Where is he?”

“Not telling you, man.” Liam adjusts the keyboard strap without letting go of anything else that he’s holding. Even in his exhaustion and with his worry clouding his mind, Harry is impressed.

“Wait. What? Why? I just want to explain…”

“Not sure exactly, but he said he doesn’t want to see you or talk to you and, I mean…” Liam sets the guitar back down on the alcove bed, adjusts the keyboard again, opens the apartment door, then picks the guitar case back up. He sighs and then says, “I appreciate that you let us stay here and I’m sorry, I guess, if you’re like, upset or angry or whatever, but my loyalty is to Louis.” Liam nods and walks through the door, careful not to bang the keyboard or guitar on the door jamb, and Harry follows him out into the hall.

He watches Liam until he disappears from view, then it hits him like a ton of bricks that Louis is actually planning on leaving without saying goodbye. Harry chases Liam downstairs and outside where he’s loading up the trunk of a taxi.

“Liam! Wait, man, please.” Harry pants and rests his hand on top of the cab. He feels dizzy and nauseated from not sleeping and drinking an entire pot of coffee in the middle of the night.

“Say what you’ve gotta say.” Liam hefts the keyboard up and slides it into the back seat.

“Can you… Can you tell Louis I said I’m sorry. That, um… That I think… It’s just a misunderstanding. Please?”

“Sure thing, Harry.” Liam slams the trunk lid and stands there for a second, holding the guitar case and looking at Harry before climbing into the backseat. Right before he shuts the door, Liam says, “I’ll tell him, but don’t expect him to listen. See you, man.”

When the taxi pulls away from the curb, Harry’s entire body slumps. He stands on the sidewalk and watches until the cab turns the corner and then he heads back upstairs, only noticing his lack of clothing and socked feet when he stubs his toe. He sighs and drags himself inside his apartment.

————

Chapter Text

————

For about a week, Harry allows himself one text per day, but Louis doesn’t respond to any of them. After that, he tries to forget about him altogether because he’s done it before, more than once.

Except that, in the past when he’s fallen out of touch with Louis and they’ve gone years without speaking, it’s always just… happened. Life got in the way, things got busy, their long-distance friendship fell by the wayside. This time yeah, things are busy, Harry’s life is a mess, but he can’t forget about Louis because this time he left without a goodbye, thinking that Harry did something that he didn’t do, he’s pissed off at Harry when he really doesn’t have a reason or the right to be, and Harry doesn’t even get the chance to defend himself.

Zayn lands the job in L.A. He literally gets the news on Monday after Louis and Liam leave town, so Harry doesn’t even bother telling him and Niall what happened with Louis because he doesn’t want to ruin Zayn’s celebration. When Niall asks, Harry shakes his head and says they can talk later. It feels like it’s just one more part of his life that’s falling apart. The best friends he’s had since he moved to New York are breaking up, one of them is leaving town, his job sucks, his apartment sucks. Everything sucks.

The only good thing to come out of all of the bullshit is that Niall asks Harry to move in with him. Zayn paid rent through the end of August, which means that Harry can still pay the rent on his shitty apartment and take his sweet time moving. It’s a good thing too because it rains on and off for two weeks, and has done nothing but storm for the last three days. It fits Harry’s mood.

He wallows in it completely. Stays wrapped up in a blanket on the futon, calls out of work, doesn’t shower, doesn’t brush his teeth, has nothing but take out and frozen pizzas and beer for sustenance, throws his four cigarettes per day rule out the window, and he smokes so much weed that, when Niall shows up to check on him, he takes the bag away, leaving Harry no other option but to scrape the bowl and smoke that. When that’s gone and he’s out of cigarettes too, he puts on shoes, pulls a dirty shirt on, and walks to the bodega in his pajama pants to restock his beer and smokes, so he can curl up in a ball and watch back-to-back movies on his laptop until he falls asleep.

The sun comes out on Tuesday and Harry forces himself to act normally. He showers and brushes his teeth, puts on clothes and goes to work. Niall comes over that evening and they pack most of Harry’s things. All that’s left are some clothes that’ll fit easily into his backpack, and his toiletries. The only furniture he’s taking is the bed he bought when he first moved in. Everything else he’s leaving for the next subletter.

The last thing he grabs during a final check is Louis’ leather bound notebook. It must’ve slipped behind the dresser at some point. He sits on the bare mattress staring at it for a moment, wanting to open it, but knowing that he shouldn’t. Instead, he pulls out his phone and texts Louis for the first time in a month.

Almost all of Harry’s nights lately are spent going out with Niall to see various bands, staying out too late and rolling into work having barely slept. Every free second of his time is given over to sitting with his laptop, editing the photos that he takes. It’s a good way to not think.

The text is a long, probably stupid, rambling message about moving and Zayn and Niall and his photography and everything except Louis’ notebook. He sends it without mentioning it, then notices it sitting in his lap and sends another text. The second message is much more concise. He simply says that he found Louis’ notebook while he was moving and that he’ll hold onto it and get it back to Louis eventually.

Louis doesn’t respond. Not that Harry expects him to.

————

“Why are you all dressed up on a Thursday?” Niall asks from his place laying down on the couch. He pauses the television and sits up. “What’s up?”

“Date. You and I have plans tomorrow and Saturday night, so it was either tonight or Sunday.” Harry turns his head side to side. His new haircut is impossible to style. It felt amazing to be able to donate his hair, and it’s surprising how he feels mentally lighter, as if cutting his hair also cut off some of the heaviness he’s been carrying with him over the years, but now he’s pretty sure he looks… not like himself. It stands up all over the place no matter what he puts in it because he can’t stop touching it, running his fingers through it, and being disappointed every time he ends up with his hand in midair instead of tugging that one long curl over his shoulder.

Niall pulls his sock off, balls it up, and throws it at him. “Who’re you dating?”

“It’s a first date, Niall. I don’t know. Some guy.”

“Some guy? Where are you going?”

Harry turns away from the mirror and says, “We’re going to dinner. I’m meeting him at the restaurant. Heather knows him, so he has to be okay, right?”

“Oh, yeah, okay. Sorry, just… I guess I’m surprised you’re even going on a date.”

“Yeah, well, I can’t sit around here every night.”

“No, I just mean, like… Never mind.” Niall lays back down and catches his sock when Harry throws it back at him. “Have fun. Be safe.”

Harry thanks him and walks out the door. He’s trying to be cool, but he’s super nervous. This is his first date with a guy and it’s a blind date. Hopefully his date won’t be disappointed.

His date isn’t disappointed. Or at least he doesn’t appear to be. He smiles and rests his hand on Harry’s lower back when they follow the host to their table. It’s weird, but not bad exactly. Heather described him as tall, blond, and handsome. And he’s all three of those things. With a broad chest, a square jaw, and a voice almost as deep as Harry’s.

The entire date is lovely, though Harry feels slightly uneasy the entire time and can’t pinpoint why. He figures it out when they split the bill and walk out of the restaurant and he tells Harry he’s really not interested in dating because he just broke up with his boyfriend. He’s just looking to get laid, but didn’t want to tell Heather that.

Harry goes home alone.

Niall doesn’t seem surprised.

On Sunday, Harry gets his nipples pierced. It’s been something he’s pretty consistently thought about since he saw that guy in the club with the glow in the dark nipple rings. First of all, he thinks it’s fucking hot as hell and he hopes that whoever he ends up sleeping with next thinks so too, but he also hopes that having his nipples pierced will lead whomever that person is to play with his nipples without having to ask them to. It’s kind of fucked up when he thinks about it. He should feel comfortable enough to ask for things like that, but he doesn’t think he will be. It’s a step in the right direction though. Maybe.

A few weeks later, Harry has another date and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The show he and Niall were planning to go to is cancelled, work has been extra shitty with more responsibility piled on top of what he already does and no extra money to go along with it, he ripped the hole in the knee of his favorite jeans all the way down the leg when he was putting them on and got his big toe caught in it, and he broke his favorite coffee cup.

Niall looks at him askance when he says he has a date with a girl, like he forgot that Harry’s bi or something, but Harry mostly ignores him. He’s busy trying to balance the line just before too much because he wants his new piercings to be visible if he bends or shifts the right way, but he doesn’t want them just hanging out there all night. In an effort at sort of camouflaging or matching all over, Harry wears light blue briefs and a light blue floral button-up shirt to go with the light blue beads in his nipple rings.

The girl’s sweet. And very pretty. Her name is Emily, but she says to call her Em. She laughs at all of Harry’s stupid jokes and tells some in return—saying “the pesto’s yet to come” when the server apologizes for the wait for their food—which surprises him because sometimes it feels like no one appreciates a pun these days. She’s absolutely lovely. They stay for coffee and dessert and Harry barely flinches when he spots the cannoli on the menu.

On the corner, while she waits for a taxi, she smiles and reaches out to squeeze Harry’s hand, looking up at him with a small smile, so he kisses her.

Harry goes home alone.

Niall doesn’t seem surprised.

A second date the following weekend ends with them walking to a frozen yogurt shop. It’s been a really nice evening and Harry holds the door and follows her outside to catch a cab. They’re standing by a streetlight when she surprises him with a kiss, slipping her tongue inside his mouth. He lets her kiss him for a few seconds, too stunned to do much else, then he pulls back and sends her on her way in the taxi.

He goes home alone.

Again, Niall doesn’t seem surprised.

At least he has the decency to get Harry high. He digs his penis bong out of the back of his closet, packs it, and slides it across the coffee table to give Harry the first hit.

When they’re high enough that Harry forgets to repack the bowl, they sit on opposite ends of the sofa, feet propped up on the coffee table, and just… talk. Niall talks about how much he loves his job and Harry says how much he hates his. They both go on and on about how much they’ve missed each other and how happy they are to be roommates again and with a proper bedroom for Harry this time. They talk about the upcoming shows they’re planning to go to, which venues they know will let Harry and his camera in without issue, and which ones might pose a problem. Harry rambles for a little while about his dream camera and Niall is nice enough to listen and pretend to understand what he’s talking about.

It’s a better end to his evening than Harry anticipated after he shut the taxi door and watched it drive Emily away.

“Do you miss Zayn?”

Harry scrunches up his forehead and says, “He was your boyfriend. What a weird question. But yeah, I miss him.”

“Me too. But like…” Niall waves his hand around in a circle. “Not the boyfriend bits.”

“I don’t want to hear about his bits.”

“No, no, just… I mean, yeah, but no. I mean that I just miss him as a person. He’s smart and funny and geeky and… you know what I mean?”

Harry knows. He remembers how happy they both were when they first talked to him that night after work when Heather took them all out for a drink. How thrilled they were that Zayn wasn’t too cool to hang out with them. “You’re sad?”

“Sort of. But not about breaking up.”

“When do you think you’ll want to date again?”

“Dunno. Not going to get right back on the horse though. Not like you.”

It’s been about seven months since Jenn ended things between them and, while that’s probably longer than average, it doesn’t seem that unusual. “What? I only went on one date with that guy… Kevin? Kevin. One date and then I went out with Emily twice. Dating is hard.”

“Yeah, I know it is. But I mean, like… after Louis.”

Harry scowls at him, hoping that he can feel it even though Niall’s not looking over at him. “I didn’t date Louis.”

“Did.”

“Did not.”

“Dude, whatever.”

“No, not whatever.” It’s actually ridiculous that he’s still having this same conversation with Niall.

Niall sits up and reaches for the bong, packs the bowl, and takes a hit, holds it in until his face turns bright red, then coughs all over Harry when he finally exhales. He’s still struggling not to cough when he says, “You’re not going to find someone so soon. Even if you weren’t dating Louis, it was obvious to anyone who looked that you guys were together. And like, it’s hard to get over love, dude.”

Harry sputters and grabs his water, draining it and only choking a little, then he snatches the bong from Niall’s grip and fills his lungs with as much smoke as they can hold, shaking his head at Niall while he holds his breath.

Niall huffs a laugh through his nose and says, “I’m going to be nicer than I would be to Louis if he were here, but…” He leans back and lifts his foot and tries to poke Harry’s cheek with his toe, but Harry swats it away. “No words. Nod or shake your head. And tell the fucking truth.”

Harry nods slowly.

“You wanted to be around him all the time.”

Harry looks at him, closes his eyes, and nods.

“You thought about him like, randomly. Say you… Say you walked past someone wearing a pair of Vans like Louis’, you’d think of him.”

Harry nods and exhales, blowing the smoke up to the ceiling.

“Liked just, um… being close. Sitting beside him or laying next to him, even cuddling maybe.”

Harry nods.

“Every time you walked into a room—and this I’ve personally witnessed dozens of times, so don’t deny it—you look for him first. Go find him if you can’t see him. Yes?”

Harry nods. This is… odd.

“Always want to tell him everything. Like… I couldn’t believe you told me about the bi thing before you told him. I mean, I think I get it now, but… Sorry. Yeah. You learn something new, you tell him. You see something cool, you tell him. You hear a song you like, you tell him. Yeah?”

Harry nods again.

“Never want him to be unhappy. But like… You’d make yourself unhappy to make him happy.” Niall cuts Harry off before he can nod and says, “Though Louis wouldn’t want you to do that.”

Harry nods. “Is there… Do you have a point?”

“Man, I’m not trying to tell you how to feel, but fuck me, dude. Did you ever feel like that about Jenn? Or anyone?”

Harry stares at him for a moment, then shakes his head.

Niall sits up and clears his throat, then takes a sip of water from his glass. “Right, so… From all appearances, you guys were in a relationship. You were together all the time, you looked out for each other, you slept together every night, you fucked, you kissed, you cuddled, you flirted, you talked all the damn time. From the outside looking in it seemed like love. To me, anyway. Zayn too.”

Harry combs his fingers through his short hair and scratches at the back of his neck. “You talked to Zayn about this?”

“Yeah, months ago.”

“Oh.” Harry pulls his feet up onto the couch and wraps his arms around his knees pulling them to his chest. Months ago. “I…”

“You don’t have to say anything, man. Just… All I’m saying is, don’t expect to find someone on a fucking app who’s going to live up to what you had with Louis. Even if you don’t think it was love. Okay?”

Harry nods and rests his chin on his knee.

They watch a movie. The Muppets or something, Harry doesn’t really pay attention, too high and too confused to focus on anything at all. He falls asleep on the couch and Niall wakes him up when it’s over and pushes him towards his bedroom where he falls onto his bed and goes back to sleep still in his date clothes.

So, as Harry finds out, not only is it possible for him to live to the age of twenty-six before discovering that he’s not straight, it’s possible for him to live to the age of twenty-six before discovering what it feels like to be in love.

Now that he thinks about it, like, really thinks about it, he sees it. It takes almost a week of barely paying attention to his work, almost getting hit by both a car and a bus while crossing two separate streets on two separate days, accidentally ordering hot coffee instead of iced coffee one morning and not noticing until he burns his mouth, all because his mind is otherwise occupied, but he sees it.

He was so caught up in the fact that he was having sex with a man… He honestly thought for a while there that he wasn’t bi and was gay instead. Still thinks that’s a possibility, if he’s honest, but it doesn’t matter. Not right now anyway. He just thought the rush of feelings, the exhilaration, the contentment, all of it… He thought it was because it was all new. Thought that up until then, he was just there. Letting his life happen to him. And he didn’t know that his happiness, his absolute joy at being with Louis was because of Louis. He thought he just didn’t know himself before, that it was all a byproduct of finally finding a part of himself that he wasn’t aware of.

He didn’t realize it was all of that and more. All of that and Louis. And he feels so incredibly stupid. Embarrassingly stupid. Stupid enough to text Louis and tell him. Even though they haven’t spoken in months, even though Louis hasn’t returned a single one of Harry’s texts.

Harry: Hey, Lou. Realized that I’m in love with you. Feel like an idiot. If I figured it out sooner, I could’ve told you before you left. Miss you. Wish you’d talk to me.

At this point, he’s pretty sure that Louis won’t read it anyway. Probably just deletes them as soon as they come in. But it makes Harry feel better to get it off of his chest. Because Niall was right. As soon as Harry learns something new, he wants to tell Louis.

————

Shawn comes to visit and he’s just as cool as Harry remembers. He kind of just hangs around and Harry can’t quite figure out why he’s there until he says something about getting away from L.A. for a while because of his new album and upcoming tour.

“Album’s out in November. Tour starts in March. And they took these awful pictures of me that they wanted to use for the cover and for promo and like, I hate them.”

“Yeah, why?” Niall asks and Harry’s kind of listening. He’s walking behind them and can clearly hear what they’re saying, but it’s not his conversation, though he snorts when he hears Shawn’s description of the photos.

“Shirtless. There was a horse.” Shawn looks back at Harry’s snort and it seems like he’s trying to glare at him, but even as tall as he is, he’s just not intimidating. Harry sticks his tongue out at him and Shawn rolls his eyes. “It’s just… it’s not very me.”

“Should’ve asked Harry. He might make you take your shirt off, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have a horse.” Niall peeks back over his shoulder at Harry and winks.

“Shut up, Niall.”

Shawn slows his stride until he’s walking beside Harry and nudges their shoulders together. “You’re a photographer?”

“Not really.” Harry shrugs.

“Dude, what the fuck.” Niall opens the door to their building and smacks the back of Harry’s head as he walks through the door. “Shawn, Harry and I go to shows all the time. You know, like, new bands, dive bars, shit like that. Though we did see Steve Aoki in a warehouse in Brooklyn once. He always has his camera. Takes amazing shots. Show him, H.”

“That’s like, more about the place. The atmosphere and stuff. Not like, portraits or whatever you might need for an album,” Harry explains as he follows them up the stairs. Maybe he’ll go read a book in his room or something.

“Show him,” Niall says and leans against the wall by their door with his arms crossed and Harry knows that he means do it now or he’ll do something horrible to him while he’s sleeping, so he unlocks the door and goes to his room to get his laptop. He sits down on the couch on the other side of Shawn and starts a slideshow of the pictures he’s taken so far this year, then sets his laptop on Shawn’s knees.

There are thousands of pictures. Harry hasn’t even looked at them all individually for more than a split second and he usually only looks at the most recent pictures to edit them, so when the first picture of Louis appears, it’s a surprise. He forgot about them. He’s blurry and it’s taken from below as they were walking down the sidewalk. The picture after that is of Louis’ hand reaching for the camera.

Niall clears his throat and looks over at Harry who shakes his head slightly. Better to let the slideshow run than to draw attention to his broken heart by skipping the pictures. He kind of wants to see them anyway. There aren’t very many and they’re interspersed between pictures of the carousel and the bridge and the buildings.

There’s one of him from the back, just from his knees down, focused on his ankles and the cobblestone street. A few in a row that Harry took as he walked toward Louis sitting on the bench. One of Louis’ face tilted up at the sky, the sun reflecting off of his aviators, his lips parted in a barely there smile. And the last one that Harry took after they ate lunch, both of them were laughing, unable to stop burping and hiccuping from the soda and pizza, and Harry remembers backing Louis up to the closest building, bumping their shoulders together against the bars on the windows, and standing as close as he possibly could to Louis before stretching his arm out far in front of him to take a picture.

They both look so happy and Harry has to close his eyes against the flood of memories.

Thinking about Louis means thinking about falling in love with him without recognizing it and it’s hard enough feeling like he barely knows himself without all of that compounding and making it worse. Harry’s not a stupid person. He’s fairly intelligent. But since the beginning of the year, he’s felt like biggest idiot time and time again. And he’s trying to be better, to pay attention, to be more aware of his emotions and his motivations, but whenever he gets bogged down in his feelings about Louis, it’s as if he’s back to square one. His internal monologue turns into a continuous stream of self-criticism until he either goes for a run to clear his head or goes to sleep.

He excuses himself to the bathroom and stays in there until he’s sure there aren’t any more photos of Louis coming, then he comes back to watch Shawn go through his gig photos. This really was a waste of time. There’s no reason for Shawn to look at these other than to avoid making Harry feel bad.

The slideshow finishes and Harry closes his laptop, sets it on the coffee table, and says, “See? Not what you’re looking for.”

Shawn shakes his head. “No, um… I actually like them. Like, a lot. Do you think you could just take a few? I’d rather have something grittier. Dirtier? But not shirtless with a horse. Just to get an idea.”

Harry shrugs his shoulder and stands up. “Yeah, okay. Let’s go.”

“Now?”

“Why not? Got about an hour to sunset. Perfect timing.”

Harry’s photos of Shawn end up being used for all of his promo, his album cover, and his website. And, in December, when Harry’s feeling shitty and cold and miserable and lonely, resolutely not remembering that Louis’ birthday is Christmas Eve, Shawn calls and asks him if he’d be willing to travel with him starting in March as his tour photographer.

After hanging up and laughing until he cries, then crying for no discernable reason for a few minutes, Harry calms himself down, calls him back and asks him what the pay’s like. It’s close to twice what Harry makes in a year at Fame!TV and he’ll only work until the tour ends in September.

The remaining two months at Fame!TV before his last day are the slowest of his entire life, but eventually they do pass and Harry flies to Australia.

They’re halfway through the European leg of the tour the first time Harry hears Louis on the radio. He doesn’t know it’s him at first, though the voice is familiar in a different way than he’s felt before when he just didn’t recognize a band or a singer. Weeks later, Shawn is the one who tells him. And then fills him in on what Liam and Louis have been doing in L.A.

Apparently, songwriting was going really well for them, but a couple of the writers they were working with introduced them to a drummer and a talented guitarist and within a few weeks they were a real band. One thing led to another and to another and a year later they have an album out that’s killing it on radio, a YouTube channel with an actual video for one of their songs, and fans.

Of course they have fans. Louis is the most talented person Harry knows and Liam isn’t far behind. It’s just weird. And they’re on the same label as Shawn. So, Harry is in Brazil for some music festival and Louis is still right there, in the periphery of his life, constantly on his mind, even in different country, even from thousands of miles away. Unfair, really.

Harry watches the video for Louis’ single an embarrassing number of times.

It’s just that Harry hasn’t seen him in a year. And Louis cut his hair. Probably too short now to do that swoop thing that he used to like to do sometimes. And the song is… wonderful. Louis’ voice is so beautiful, so full of emotion that Harry wants to cry for every second of his life that he didn’t know this. At least he feels like he can place the blame for that square at Louis’ feet because he’s the one who would never sing in front of Harry.

They have some time off before they fly to L.A., so Harry goes home to New York, switches out some of the clothes from his bag, does a load of laundry, spends a few days hanging out with Niall before heading to L.A. with Louis’ leather notebook safely tucked away inside his backpack.

————

The hotel room is nice. Better than any of the rooms he’s stayed in so far during tour. It’s actually a one bedroom suite, though there are two queen sized beds in there, but maybe it’s because Niall is supposed to be staying with him.

Except Niall isn’t even staying there. Before Harry left New York, Niall told him that he’s staying elsewhere.

It’s almost like a vacation, being on tour with Shawn. In the last few months, Harry’s been to countries that he never dreamed of visiting with the sole purpose of taking pictures. He’s met some of the most interesting people—like the tour guide in Sydney, Australia, who he ended up going on a date with—and he’s seen some of the most beautiful places. The stay in South America was too short, but at least he was able to visit Machu Picchu, though he didn’t have time to see Christ the Redeemer. Maybe he’ll be lucky enough to go back one day.

Surprisingly, the famous people that Harry’s met—actors, television personalities, and other musicians—have pretty much dulled any interest he had in paying attention to celebrities. It turns out that they’re just like everyone else. Some of them are lovely, friendly, kind people, and some of them aren’t.

The party that Shawn wants Harry to attend should be fun. Thankfully, he’ll be able to hide behind his camera all night and if he gets there early enough, he might be able to find a couple of places where he can duck away if it gets to be too much. A memory flashes through his mind of the New Year’s Eve party that he and Louis skipped out on and he sighs.

Harry pulls Louis’ leatherbound notebook out of his backpack and holds it in his hands, rubs his thumb over the spine, and lets the satin ribbon bookmark slide between his fingers before tucking it back inside the cover.

Sometimes he’s amazed at his willpower when it comes to certain things. He quit smoking cigarettes before he left New York for Australia, but hasn’t tried to stop smoking weed. It’s just… very available. Shawn smokes when he gets off stage, so Harry does too, and they almost always wake and bake before they go on any of the sightseeing trips that Shawn’s team arranges.

And while he’s constantly tempted, he’s never opened Louis’ notebook, even though the pages are probably filled with song lyrics and it isn’t as if it’s his diary or anything. He runs his fingers over the leather cover once more, then slides it back inside his bag.

The hotel suite has a massive tub, so Harry fills it with water that’s too hot, pouring some of his body wash under the faucet so that he can have a bubble bath. It’s strange being in the same city as Louis and not immediately going to see him.

When Louis first came to New York, it was a similar sort of weirdness. As if Harry’s entire being was being drawn towards him like a magnet and he spent months fighting the pull before finally giving in. Now, though, he can feel it and he wants to follow it, to test it out, to climb into a cab and just point and tell the driver to go, but he knows he’ll end up in Nevada or something because it’s not like there’s an actual physical force that would bring them together. If anything, with the way things have been since Louis left New York, Harry would end up going in the exact opposite direction.

The following evening, he does get down to the venue early enough to walk around alone. When he’s done things like this for Shawn—and he’s only photographed a few smaller events—he’s tried to blend in with the background, and he’s been successful dressed in head to toe black. Tonight is no different. When he makes his way around the club to introduce himself to everyone, he finds that the door security are in white shirts with black pants, but everyone else seems to match Harry’s outfit.

He hasn’t seen Niall yet, but he’s supposed to be there and he promised Harry that he’d get there early. Although Niall’s been cagey about it, he’s most likely stopped by to see Zayn.

After Zayn left, even though Niall repeatedly told Harry that it was for the best, it was an amicable breakup, they were still friends, it still felt like he had to pick a side and of course he chose Niall. So he hasn’t spoken to Zayn since he moved. Harry misses him and, if Niall really is on good terms with Zayn, maybe they can get together for lunch or to go to the beach or something. He still hasn’t seen the Pacific, though he has plans to rent a car, drive to a few different beaches, and take some pictures later in the week.

People start to trickle in and, for a little while, Harry takes pictures one-handed while holding a beer in the other, but soon enough Niall arrives and offers to hold it for him.

“Shawn’s on his way?” Harry asks with his eyes focused on the viewfinder.

“Yeah.” Niall nudges Harry’s beer against his shoulder, so he grabs it and finishes it off. He can’t get drunk while he’s working and usually lets himself have two beers over the course of the evening.

“Do you know when he’ll be here? Haven’t talked to him since I landed yesterday.”

“We’ve been busy.” Niall crosses his arms and stares straight ahead, but Harry can see that he’s struggling to keep from smiling.

“Happy for you, man. Glad that’s working out.” Harry smiles and reaches out to squeeze Niall’s arm. He means it. Shawn’s great and they’re good together, from what little Harry’s seen.

“Thanks, um…” Niall turns finally smiles. “It’s good. So far, anyway. I mean, I’ve seen him a couple of times since tour started. Like, he flew in whenever he had an extended break, but this week is a little different.”

“Yeah, I know. Remember? I flew home to visit my mom when he flew to New York to see you.” Harry elbows him and grins, then snags his beer and takes a sip before handing it back. “Let me know when he gets here.”

Niall rolls his eyes, but he nods, and Harry leaves him to walk around the party and take some candid shots of the guests. It’s not long before the room is packed full of celebrities and Harry takes a quick break. One of the places he scoped out earlier is the covered area outside behind the kitchen. Luckily, it’s empty when he gets there, so he sits on an overturned milk crate and wishes he still smoked. There’s an after party, of course, and he doesn’t particularly want to go because he’s not allowed to bring his camera and that means he’ll have to make conversation with people he doesn’t really care to talk to, especially if Niall and Shawn are busy.

Maybe he’ll drop his camera at his room and go to West Hollywood. He hasn’t been out dancing in forever.

Harry stands up and stretches, taking a deep breath before going back inside.

Shawn and Niall are over by the bar talking to Shawn’s manager, Wesley, so Harry stations himself near the DJ to get some shots of people on the dance floor. It’s all very routine and kind of boring. Harry turns his head and yawns into his shoulder.

There’s a roar, like a crowd screaming, and Harry’s head whips around at the sound coming from the open front door of the club. From where he stands, it looks like the street outside is packed with people, fans of Shawn maybe or one of the other celebs in attendance. He shakes his head and wonders if anyone interesting showed up while he was outside, then looks to the door again just in time to watch Liam walk inside.

Straightaway his heart starts to trying to escape from his chest because he knows that Louis is with him, they’re in the same band for fuck’s sake. And he feels it. That stupid pull. His feet start moving before his brain can catch on and by the time he realizes what he’s doing, Louis is there.

Striding into the room like he owns it and only faltering slightly when his eyes land on Harry. He follows Liam and two other guys who Harry didn’t notice before trail after him. The rest of the band, probably.

Louis completely ignores Harry and wow, that hurts a lot more to experience in person. It’s been a year and there’s no reason for Louis to still be pissed off at him, so Harry decides to tell him exactly that.

They’re all grouped together, hanging out near Wesley, though now Shawn and Niall are nowhere to be seen. Which is too bad because Harry feels like he could use the buffer. But he’s brave enough to do this. And it’s Louis. He really shouldn’t be afraid of Louis. Except he totally is.

His camera bounces with each step he takes, so he slings it around to his back and shoves his hands into his pockets. Liam sees him first and Harry wants to laugh when he steps around in front of Louis as if Harry’s going to physically assault him or something. But then Louis turns around and Harry briefly feels like he’s going to vomit right then and there.

“What do you want?” Louis asks so snidely that Harry is genuinely taken aback and can’t speak for a second.

“Just to talk.” Harry shrugs and bites his lip, nervous enough that he thinks his hands might be shaking in his pockets. “That’s all.”

Louis doesn’t say no. He doesn’t say anything. Harry figures that’s as good as it’s going to get.

“I’m sorry. I’ve been trying to apologize to you for like, a year, but…” Harry looks at Wesley, then Liam and the other guys from the band. He feels bad that he doesn’t know their names. This isn’t normal for him. Usually, he introduces himself to people right off the bat. But he doesn’t want to talk to them now.

Louis jerks his head to the side and says to them, “Can you give us a minute?”

Once they’ve all wandered off towards the bar, Louis moves over to stand next to the wall and Harry follows.

At first, he can’t even speak. There’s so much he wants to say, but it’s all… messed up. “Lou, I… I miss you. I can’t believe you left like that and I—”

“Not really interested in being friends with you anymore, Harry, so…” Louis shrugs and looks off to the side like he’s bored. Like he’s… humoring him.

“What? Why?” Harry’s eyebrows knit together and he steps closer as if bringing himself physically nearer to Louis will clear things up.

“Honestly? I don’t care enough to explain.” Louis keeps his gaze focused off to his right, not even giving Harry the opportunity to make eye contact.

Harry’s mouth hangs open and he sputters out, “You— You don’t— You won’t explain—”

“No. Don’t see why I should.” Louis shakes his head and lets out this weird, haughty laugh that makes Harry scowl immediately. “It’s not like we were ever that close. We were friends, yeah, but ehh…”

“Not like we… we…” Harry stares at him, wishing he could read Louis’ mind. “We were close. You’re my best friend. More than that.”

“Friends with benefits. Not a big deal, really.”

“It was to me. It was a very big deal to me.” Harry looks down, ashamed of the feelings welling up inside him despite Louis’ words.

Louis scoffs and says, “I’m sure.” His voice drips with sarcasm and Harry just can’t understand it.

This is all so wrong. He wants to explain about that last night and every night after that, to tell Louis how shitty things were and still sometimes are without him, but it seems like so much to say. And it all comes down to the same thing anyway.

“You’re so much more than...I thought… I thought that we could… You know...” Harry doesn’t know. He just wants to be near him. To talk to him with no one else around. To go someplace and just be with him.

Louis shakes his head and steps back, finally looking at Harry. “Nope. No thanks. I can’t believe this shit. Is this because I’m like, sort of famous now?”

“What? No.” Harry takes a half step backwards, hand to his chest, astonished by Louis’ words. He wants to remind him of all of the text messages that he’s ignored, but he can barely put his thoughts together.

“It is. Wow. Yeah, I’m done here.” Louis pushes off of the wall and makes a beeline for Liam, and for a second Harry’s too shocked to follow because… he doesn’t even know what just happened.

A moment later, he figures it out and goes after him. More than sixteen years of friendship, sixteen years of telling each other all of the secrets that they couldn’t tell other people, sixteen years and Louis is willing to believe that Harry is the kind of person who’d use him because he’s famous.

“Hey!” Harry shouts and grabs Louis’ elbow to spin him around. “You can’t say shit like that. You can’t really believe that.”

“Get the fuck off of me,” Louis snarls and snatches his arm out of Harry’s grip.

“What’s going on?” Wesley asks as he steps up, almost between them, but close enough to lay a hand on each of their shoulders, as Liam watches from right behind him.

“Can you get security to throw him out? He won’t leave me alone.” Louis takes a step back and Wesley’s hand falls off his shoulder as he turns to Harry.

“Harry?” Wesley looks like he doesn’t believe it, which is a relief. But quite suddenly, Harry doesn’t want to be there anymore.

Harry shakes his head and says, “He actually… Never mind.” Harry pulls his camera around from his back and wiggles it in his hand. “I think I’ve got enough for tonight. I meant to thank you guys earlier for the hotel upgrade.”

“Not a problem. Thanks, Harry.” Wesley lifts his hand from Harry’s shoulder and pats his back a few times. “You need a ride?”

“No. Thanks though.” There are taxis outside or he can get an Uber or something fast. He rolls his eyes at Louis. He’s standing behind Wesley, talking to Liam, and looking pissed and confused about what just happened, like Harry can’t possibly know anyone in the room because he’s not famous. What a dick. He says goodbye and heads for the exit without looking for Niall or Shawn. Wesley will probably tell them what happened anyway.

The trip to his hotel is short. He doesn’t feel up to going out anymore. Maybe he and Niall can hit West Hollywood before Niall goes back to New York. The hotel suite has a nice balcony and after he pulls off his shirt and throws it on the floor, he grabs a beer from the fridge and steps out onto it.

Shit. He still has Louis’ stupid notebook. Maybe he can get his address from Wesley and ship it to him. Wesley would probably give it to Louis if Harry asked, but it feels wrong to consider handing it over to someone else. He’ll think about it and maybe ask Niall what he thinks when they meet up for lunch.

It’s late afternoon by the time Shawn and Niall pick him up in Shawn’s Range Rover. They go to lunch at some restaurant with a bunch of outdoor tables and plants hanging all around and a few paparazzi on the other side of the street.

“What are they doing?” Harry asks as he peeks through the climbing ivy to watch the paps across the road.

“Taking pictures. Not of us though. Probably.” Shawn shrugs and takes a bite of his salad.

Niall points his fork at him and then at Harry. “Hey, so what happened to you last night? Wes said something went down with Louis?”

“Nothing went down.” Harry leans back in his chair, not as hungry as he was a moment before. “Louis was a complete dick. I just wanted to talk to him and he like, freaked out and acted like I was trying to use him or like, fuck him because he’s famous.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah. And he’s the one who basically ran away and stopped talking to me. Like I didn’t call him a million times that night. Like I didn’t text him an embarrassing amount afterwards. ”

“Harry… Why would you do that?”

“What? Text? I don’t know… He never answered, so like… I didn’t do it that often.” Harry pulls his phone out of his back pocket and opens his text conversation with Louis, turns it so Niall and Shawn can see the screen, and says, “It’s been like a year. See?”

They both lean forward to study the screen and when Niall taps the top, making the messages scroll back, Harry hides his face in his hands. He didn’t mean for them to look at all of it, just enough to prove that Louis didn’t answer.

“Harry?” Niall pulls on Harry’s wrist and he lifts his head slightly. “The last message that’s marked delivered is from June fifteenth last year.”

“What do you…” Harry leans over to see. “Oh, I just figured he turned off the ‘read’ thing so I wouldn’t know when he saw them.”

“No, man, they’re not delivered. Probably means he blocked your number. He hasn’t gotten any of these.”

Harry takes his phone and starts to scroll back down through the texts. Niall’s right. Not a single one is marked delivered, but Harry Googles it to be sure, locking his phone and placing it face down on the table after he confirms his suspicions.

“This is bullshit. I can’t believe this. I… Fuck. Okay. I need to return his notebook and then he can shove it up his ass.”

Shawn snorts and a piece of lettuce falls out of his mouth. He flicks it across the table at Harry and says, “I can see if Wes can pass it on to him.”

“I thought about that, but I don’t know… I want to be the one to give it to him. I wish I’d had it with me last night.”

“You’ll figure it out. Maybe I can get his address and you can send it certified mail or something.”

Harry nods and picks up his fork to try to eat so that he’ll feel up to going out. Tonight he and Niall are going dancing and he’s going to have fun if it kills him.

————

Harry showers and tries to do his hair and not touch it so that the curls are actual curls and not a bunch of wavy pieces standing straight up off of his head. There’s this mesh shirt that he bought when they were in Australia in a fit of missing Louis and thinking about Liam. Harry’s carried it in his suitcase since then, but never worn it. He pulls it over his head and turns from side to side in front of the mirror. It’s not like Liam’s shirts. Maybe one day he’ll feel confident enough to pull off a cropped top, but not today. It’s black and long sleeved and from a distance it looks like it’s might just be a bit sheer, but up close it’s clearly more than that. It draws the perfect amount of attention to his nipple rings which Harry tugs on a bit just because.

There’s supposed to be a car coming to pick him up and he’s waiting for that text from Shawn or Niall when a different text comes in asking if they can come up. A few minutes later, Harry opens the door to let them in.

“Nice shirt, H.” Niall flicks one of Harry’s nipples and Harry jumps back.

He smooths his hand down the front of it and does a twirl. “Glad you like it. You guys ready?”

Shawn walks over to the table, pulls something out of his pocket, and sits down. “So, I called Wes to see about getting Louis’ address and he said he wouldn’t give it to me because he knew I’d give it to you.”

“Fine. Whatever.” Harry picks up his boots and sits down across from Shawn to pull them on.

“He said that if something happens, you’re on your own, so like, don’t get arrested.” Shawn slides whatever he pulled out of his pocket over. It’s a VIP pass for something. “Louis’ band’s performing tonight. They’re doing a meet and greet after. We’ll drop you off and Wes said that security will walk you in.”

“A meet and greet.” Harry drops his boots to the floor. “Why would I want to do that?”

“You said you wanted to give him his notebook and people bring shit like that all the time thinking the artists will sign it for them.”

“As soon as Louis or Liam see me, they’ll have me kicked out. Then what?”

“I don’t know, man. It’s up to you. You could probably throw it at him or something.” Niall shrugs and says, “We’re still going out. Meet us after.”

Harry taps his fingers on the table top. If Louis thought he was only interested in talking to him because he’s famous, this isn’t going to help matters.

“Fine.” Harry stands up and pulls his shirt off. “I have to like, disguise myself.”

“In what?”

“Not sure. I mean, jeans are probably fine? I have my running shoes.” Harry walks over to the closet and bends over, steps back again with shoes in one hand and a sweatshirt in the other, drops the shoes and shoves his feet into them. “If he sees my tattoos, he’ll know it’s me. So… Hoodie?”

“Maybe. We need to hurry. What about a hat?”

With the hoodie half over his head, he stands up, then pulls it the rest of the way on. “Don’t have any. Wait. I have that snapback you gave me that says ‘photographers do it in the dark.’” Harry digs to the bottom of his backpack and pulls it out. “Really, really awful. Thanks again, Niall.”

Niall grins and give him a thumbs up. “We need to go like, now.”

“Just need to pee.” Harry jerks his thumb towards the bathroom and takes a step sideways to walk around Niall.

Niall shoves him towards to door and says, “Pee at the venue. It’s not far. Let’s go.”

It’s not far, but Harry still complains at every stoplight. It would’ve taken him thirty seconds to pee at the hotel.

The security guard meets him at the entrance and does not look happy. “Son, you’re cutting it close. My shift ends in six minutes. Let’s go.”

“Can I stop at the restroom?” Harry asks and does a little dance, hopping from foot to foot.

The guard raises an eyebrow, unimpressed with Harry’s dancing skills. “There’s one backstage. Security back there can show you.” He points and Harry goes, letting himself be ushered through the building. They pass right by two different restrooms and Harry considers darting inside the second one. It’s hard to think clearly when he has to pee and he wishes he didn’t drink so much water earlier, but he went for a run that morning and lunch was kind of salty and he was thirsty. But he doesn’t go in, he keeps walking, because of the promise of a backstage restroom.

There’s a heavy door and Harry waits while the guard opens it, then takes him through. Along the far wall is an empty table where Harry assumes the band will be, and a line of people around the room and down a hall and the guard walks him to the very end where another security guard is standing, then says, “He can show you where the toilet is. Night, Carl.” He nods to the other guard and keeps going down the hall.

“Hi, Carl,” Harry says and sticks out his hand to shake. “I’m Harry. Could you point me to the restroom?”

“Have to escort you. It’s over there.” Carl points back the way Harry came from and he can see the door clearly. It’s on the other side of the room that Harry just walked through. He takes a step towards it, then steps right back into line. Liam is leading the band into the room and all of the fans in line start talking at once and there’s no way in hell Harry is going to walk right in front of them just to get thrown out. He can hold it. It can’t take that long for them to work through the line, sign some autographs, and take some pictures.

He tells Carl thanks, but he’ll wait, and in the meantime, he tries to distract himself. First he texts Niall and Shawn to tell them that he never got to pee and that it’s all their fault for not letting him go before they left. Then he scrolls back through his one sided text conversation with Louis. It’s just… sad.

And unfair. He shakes his head and backs out of the texts, taps edit, and selects their conversation. His finger hovers over the delete button, but he can’t do it.

Maybe tomorrow.

He imagined Louis was deleting them without looking at them and that was bad enough, but the knowledge that Louis blocked his number that very night… He wouldn’t have thought of Louis as the type of person to do that, but if Louis could so easily accuse Harry of, well, of being a golddigger, then evidently they don’t know each other at all.

He should’ve just gone out with Shawn and Niall. Time is dragging by and he has to pee, like, really bad. The pressure in his bladder is almost all he can think of and he crosses his legs to hopefully help a bit, and it does, but it also makes him feel hot all over.

As the line moves forward, Harry’s able to hear Louis talking to the people who’ve paid outrageous amounts of money just to meet them and he scoffs quietly. His voice sounds sincere and sweet, but Harry knows it’s fake and that he’s only being kind because he has to be.

Harry shakes his head and pushes his thumb and forefinger against his eyelids. Louis isn’t like that. He’s kind and good and… he loves making people happy with music.

God, he has to pee. The last time he can remember feeling like this, he was fourteen and they were in the station wagon on the way to Florida. He was playing his Game Boy and wasn’t listening when his mom asked him if he needed her to stop at the last rest stop for more than an hour. And then, when he realized his mistake, he was too proud to ask her to pull over at a gas station or on the side of the road. He held it until he thought he might pee in the seat, but he didn’t. Though he barely got his dick out at the urinal before there was no stopping it. He ended up getting some on his brand new Nikes and did not even care.

This is worse.

Thankfully, the hoodie he’s wearing is long and baggie, so he’s able to put his hands under it and unbutton his jeans. It helps a little. And the line moves forward.

When the line eventually moves enough so that Harry rounds the corner and is literally only maybe fifteen feet from Louis, he starts to kind of freak out. He’s already unzipped his jeans and the sigh that escaped him at the slight relief was embarrassing. But he really, really, really has to go.

If he pees his pants in front of Louis, well, at least he’s already planning to never see him again. Positive thoughts.

At this point it’s been almost two hours and Harry is more than a little impressed with his bladder control. The snapback on his head has kept his face mostly hidden and he’s spent most of the time in line staring down at his phone, but now he can see Louis clearly. Sort of. He has to lean his back against the wall and slouch his shoulders down so that the girl in front of him mostly blocks him from sight.

Again, he thinks he should’ve just gone out with Shawn and Niall. Louis looks so good and so happy. The night before he was angry and frowning and grimacing and Harry was so nervous that he doesn’t even remember anything other than that. Tonight though. Harry wonders why they’re doing the meet and greet after the show instead of before. They’re all sweaty and they must feel pretty gross.

Louis is still beautiful. And that pisses Harry right off. Even with his hair matted and damp in the back and sticking up at odd angles on the front and sides from running his fingers through it, he’s gorgeous. His gray tank top hangs loose off of his body and there are salt spots where the sweat has dried, but he still manages to look amazing. Louis smiles at the girl standing at the table, his eyes crinkle, and she squeals a little and Harry wants to join her.

This was a horrible mistake.

The line moves forward, the girl in front of Harry steps up to the table, and Harry stands up off the wall so fast that he think that maybe a teeny tiny drop of pee escaped. He tightens every muscle in his body and takes shallow breaths on the off chance that his lungs might somehow expand and cause some other internal organ to press down on his bladder. Maybe he’ll pass out. That would be a fun end to the evening.

With his head down, he steps a little closer, counting every second and trying to estimate how long it’ll take him to hand over the notebook, run to the bathroom, and pull his pants down.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

It’s Liam, not Louis, but it doesn’t really matter because every eye in the room is on him now.

“I just wanted to—”

Louis’ eyes flash. “No, Harry, you don’t get to just do anything.” Louis holds a hand up to stop Liam from interrupting. “I told you yesterday to leave me alone. You had your chance.”

“Oh my god, do you hear yourself? You sound like such a fucking prick. I hope you know that your mom would be so pissed off to hear you talk to me like that.”

Louis’ eyes widen and he looks from side to side as if Harry snuck in with Louis’ mother in tow, then he narrows his eyes, leans forward and points at Harry. “Listen, you—”

“No, you listen. You like… You disappeared on me. Scared the shit out of me and then left town. And it’s been a year. I don’t know what kind of… You think I’m some kind of… Fuck. I’m the same person, Louis. You’ve known me for sixteen years and I… I trusted you.”

Louis rolls his eyes and says, “Harry—”

“No, just… No. Forget it.” Harry yanks the notebook out of the pocket of his hoodie and tosses it onto the table between them. “You left this. I’m returning it. That’s all I wanted. I have to piss.”

Harry spins around and finds Carl right behind him, points to the bathroom door and Carl steps aside to let him pass. Never in his life has he ever felt so happy to see a urinal. It seems like hours that he stands there peeing, but it’s probably just a minute or so. After he’s finished, he stays in the restroom for a few minutes, but then he remembers that Carl is probably waiting for him outside, likely to physically escort him from the building if Louis has anything to do with it. So he opens the door.

The rest of the room is empty, but Carl is there, leaning against the far wall, and he looks up at Harry when he steps out of the bathroom. “I’ll take you out the side door, son.”

Once he’s on the sidewalk, Harry walks for a bit just to blow off some energy, but when he passes a bar with a few taxis waiting outside, he takes one back to his hotel. There’s no way in hell he’s meeting Niall and Shawn out now and he texts them both to make sure they know.

He’s supposed to be in L.A. for the rest of the week, but he doesn’t want to stay any longer than necessary. If he gets everything packed up tonight, he can go to the rental car place, change his rental from a single day in town to however long it will take him to drive to Chicago or wherever it is that Shawn’s next show is. Or maybe he’ll just say fuck it and get a flight out as soon as possible and go home. He can fly out to meet Shawn the day of the next show.

The thoughts in his head are too loud, so Harry turns on the television to try to drown them out. It’s just noise in the background while he gets all of his clothes that he so stupidly unpacked out of the drawers and the closet, folds them up and packs them again.

He’s already spoken to Niall once and only answered because he called from Shawn’s phone. He ignored it when Niall called from his own. Louis was so dismissive, so unbelievably rude, rolling his eyes like that as if Harry was lying. As if Harry didn’t trust him completely. As if Harry didn’t love him.

There’s a familiar voice and Harry turns to the television to see Zayn. It’s just a clip from some older red carpet interview, but it makes him miss Zayn sharply. Maybe he’ll see if they can get lunch or something before he changes his flight.

Harry’s drops his head and presses his hands to his temples when there’s a loud knock on the door to his room. He starts talking before he gets to the door.

“I told you I don’t want to go out tonight, Niall, I’m not…”

“Hi, um…”

“What…” Harry doesn’t know how to finish his question. What do you want? What are you doing here? What is your problem? Because he is quite literally unprepared for Louis standing in the hallway outside of his hotel room.

Louis shifts his weight side to side and rubs his hands together, keeping his eyes down and not saying anything until Harry crosses his arms over his bare chest and clears his throat.

“I came to apologize,” Louis says, but he doesn’t lift his eyes to meet Harry’s.

“What for? Because I have a list.”

His refusal to even look him in the eye pisses Harry off. “I don’t know. Everything. All of it. I’m sorry for being a dick—”

“That actually covers it, so you can go.”

“Harry, wait—”

“Why? So you can stand here and not look at me while you… I don’t know what you’re even doing here. How did you know…” Harry jerks back at the sting of betrayal. “Wesley.”

Louis nods.

“That is beyond fucked up. Did he send you over to say sorry so I like, won’t sell you out to the tabloids or something? Because fuck you. And him.” Harry backs up and tries to shut the door, but Louis blocks it with his foot. “Move your foot. Wes wouldn’t give me your address so I could mail that fucking notebook to you, but I guess my privacy doesn’t matter because I’m not famous. Jesus.” Harry pushes hard on the door, but Louis is stubborn and surprisingly strong.

“He didn’t…” Louis shoves at the door with his shoulder and leans against it. “None of that. None of what you said… Harry, please, just… I’m sorry for—”

“I’m not interested in some sort of fucked up fake ass apology. You can either look at me or you can leave.” Harry pushes the door again to make his point and Louis’ eyes snap up to meet his, but immediately drop down again. And when they do, Harry throws all of his weight at the door, slamming it shut. He locks every lock and turns up the volume of the television, grabs his headphones and goes through the bedroom into the bathroom, locking both of those doors too.

He needs to get as far away from Louis as he can. Somehow, he thought that something would happen and his life would cross paths with Louis’ and that everything would be alright. Just like it had every other time they didn’t talk for a while. And because this time was different, because the last time their lives were intertwined, Harry fell in love with him, he thought that…

Even alone in his hotel suite, it’s hard to admit that he thought that they’d have some storybook reunion where Harry declared his love and Louis did the same and they rode off into the sunset. Clearly, he had expectations far, far beyond reality. Not that he would’ve refused Louis’ friendship, if that was offered.

With his phone playing music in his ears and three locked doors between them, Harry won’t hear it if Louis knocks. He makes the bath as hot as he can stand it and stays in until it goes cold, then climbs out and with the towel still around his waist, he buys a new plane ticket. He goes to bed with the TV still on in the other room.

————

Chapter Text

————

Packing light has never been Harry’s specialty, but since he started touring with Shawn, he’s gotten better at it. His wardrobe is pared down to mostly necessities with a few extras for special occasions: his running shorts which he also wears as a swimsuit, sneakers, and his favorite pair of black boots.

His flight is shortly after nine, so Harry dresses quickly in his black running shorts and white tank, and shoves his feet into his sneakers. He checks out of his room early, then opens the app to arrange an Uber before he walks outside, thinking that he’ll ask the driver to take him to Starbucks on the way.

The hotel doors slide open and Harry pulls his sunglasses down off the top of his head before stepping into the bright California sunshine. He’s still looking down at his phone as he ambles down the sidewalk, and tries to step around the person in front of him, but they step sideways in the same direction. Harry raises his gaze.

“Jesus, fuck,” Harry swears when he sees Louis blocking his way. He steps to the other side and tries to go the other way around, but Louis blocks him there too. “What do you want?”

“I want you to let me apologize.” Louis widens his stance and props his hands on his hips, and it’s like he’s staring right through Harry’s sunglasses.

Harry rolls his neck side to side, stretching it out. Louis’ eyes follow the movement, so Harry slides his glasses up into his hair to test a theory, but Louis doesn’t look away this time. “Fine. Apologize.”

“I’m sorry—”

“Great. Now we’re done.” Harry pushes past him down the sidewalk, but Louis follows immediately, falling into step beside him. So Harry ignores him.

“I’m sorry for a lot of things, but especially for what I said last night and at the party. I’m sorry for what I... implied about you. I know you’re not like that.”

The past two days are just the most recent things added on top of an entire year of being completely ignored by the person who was supposed to be his best friend. Harry’s still so pissed off about all of the other shit, but he nods because there’s nothing else for him to do. Then he thinks of something and asks, “How did you know I’d be checking out?”

“I didn’t. I, um… I got up at like five and drove over and waited in my car. I figured you had to come outside eventually.”

He stops and says, “You realize that’s stalking? Like, you’re literally stalking me.”

“I’m not…” Louis turns to look at him, smirking until he sees that Harry is quite serious, and the color drains from his face. “I mean… Sorry. I’ll leave. I just wanted to thank you for my notebook and… I’ll go.”

When Louis steps off the sidewalk presumably to go to his car, Harry’s jaw clenches hard enough for his teeth to hurt and his hands ball into fists so tightly that his fingernails dig into his palms. All of the hurt and anger that he’s held onto for the last year bubbles up inside him at the sight of Louis walking away and he doesn’t know what to do with it, but he can’t keep holding onto it.

Unable to keep the contempt out of his voice, he calls out, “You’re welcome!”

It’s not even eight o’clock in the morning, and it’s so hot that Harry can feel the sweat gathering at the small of his back and along his hairline while he waits for Louis to say something. The jingling of Louis’ keys as he tosses them from hand to hand, back and forth, is like the second hand on a clock and when it stops, when he sees Louis tighten his grip on them and look down at the ground, he knows they’re going to end up screaming at each other in a parking lot, letting out a year’s worth of pent up grievances.

Louis straightens up and looks at Harry for a second, coughs quietly into his fist, shakes his keys, and asks, “Do you need a ride somewhere?”

Harry gasps quietly, then takes a deep breath, and exhales long and slow. “Are you serious?”

“Yeah, I… um, well…” Louis runs his fingers through his hair and looks back over his shoulder so that Harry can’t see his expression. He wonders if Louis offered without thinking or if he feels somehow obligated or just expected Harry to say no. “I have my car and if you were going to take a taxi or something…”

Harry lets his suitcase rest against his leg and checks his phone. “You’re off the hook. My Uber’s almost here.”

“Where’re you headed?” Louis asks and his eyes go a little wide.

Without looking up from his phone, Harry answers him. “Home.”

“Your mom’s or New York or home home?”

“Why?” Harry snaps at him. “Going to follow me?” The car he’s waiting for pulls into the parking lot.

“No,” Louis scoffs and rolls his eyes. “Just wondering. I…”

“What do you want, Louis?”

He can see Louis’ jaw moving like he’s grinding his teeth and he’s just about to tell him to forget it when Louis finally spits out, “I was trying to ask if I could call you sometime.”

Harry opens the back door to the Uber. “Why the hell would you want to do that?”

“I honestly don’t know. Okay?” Louis looks away and presses his thumb and forefinger against his closed eyes. “Can I or not?”

He tosses his bags into the seat and says, “Not sure how that works, since you blocked my number.”

“I’ll fix it.” Louis pulls out his phone and Harry watches while he goes to the list of blocked numbers in his phone settings and unblocks his number. “There. So, can I call?”

As Harry climbs into the car, he shakes his head and says, “No.”

He shuts the door, refusing to turn and look at Louis, who he can see out of the corner of his eye is still standing there beside the car. He has to sit on his hands to stop them from shaking and he doesn’t move them until the Uber driver pulls into Starbucks.

————

The plane is in the air by the time Harry allows himself to think about Louis again and as soon as he does, he rolls his eyes and shakes his head because he doesn't know what the fuck that was all about. He orders a Bloody Mary from the flight attendant and tries not to dwell on Louis.

Even though his mom moved away, she still vacations back home for two weeks every summer. Harry’s going to crash on the pull-out couch until he has to meet Shawn in Chicago, since Gemma’s already claimed the second bedroom.

“Hey, sweetie.” Harry’s mom greets him with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Thought you were in L.A. all week? What made you change your mind?”

“Missed you. Haven’t seen Gemma since forever. I don’t know. Is it okay that I’m here?” Harry shifts his backpack on his shoulders.

“Of course it is. Just making sure you’re okay.”

Harry sighs and waits for her to open the trunk of her car. He doesn’t say anything else until they’re almost to the condo, thankful that his mom is alright with the silence between them.

“Mom, remember last year when I told you that I’d figured out that I was bisexual?”

She hums and nods, glances over at him with a smile and reaches to scratch the back of his head.

“Well, I’m pretty sure I’m gay. I…” He takes a breath and tries not to tense up. “I haven’t really told anyone other than Niall. And Gemma.”

“Okay? I’m glad you told me. I’m sorry if you’ve been struggling with this.” She looks over at him again and stretches her hand out to rub at the line between his eyebrows. “You know I love you. Is there something else you want to tell me?”

Harry pulls his phone out of his pocket and debates turning it on. “Louis and I kind of got into a fight.”

“Louis? What happened?”

“It’s complicated. We, um… When he left New York last year for L.A. he… Well, we didn’t um… It wasn’t on good terms, I guess.” Understatement of the year, at least so far.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Harry. You and Louis have been friends for so long. I’m sure you’ll work it out.”

“Maybe. I saw him in L.A. and we argued, and like, I left early sort of because of that. And he… Before I left, he asked if he could call, but I told him no.”

“Why? Don’t you miss him?”

“Yeah.”

“You two have been through a lot together. I remember when he moved away when you were kids and you were so brokenhearted.”

“Wasn’t heartbroken.” Harry reaches up to adjust the sunvisor, wondering what his mom would say if he explained everything. “Just missed my best friend.”

“Oh, sweetie, you did. So much. And you know that friends can break your heart too. It’s very similar.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Maybe think about that. Louis loves you just as much as you love him.”

Harry’s stomach flips as he quickly shakes his head and says, “I— I don’t love him.”

He shrinks back into his seat when his mom looks over at him with her eyebrows raised and nods. “I meant that you two love each other because you’re best friends, but from your reaction… You know that it’s okay if you do love him.”

Harry rolls the window down and lets his hand catch the warm, humid, evening air. He leans his head to the side and the wind blows his hair off of his forehead. It’s funny, but he thinks he’d recognize his hometown by the smell. The combination of salt air, humidity, pollen, and everything else that is unique to the area. He closes his eyes and inhales.

“I think that it doesn’t matter so much how I feel. Or felt. I miss him, but I don’t know if he’s even that person anymore.”

Her fingers feel cool when she combs his hair back and tucks it behind his ear. “Are you the same person you were a year ago? No. But that’s okay.”

Harry nods and picks up his phone to turn it on. “You think I was wrong to tell him not to call?”

She shrugs and says, “Not necessarily. But that doesn’t mean you can’t call him.”

————

Harry spends the first few days at the beach thinking things over. It’s not that he thinks his mom is right because, if things are as they seem, and Louis really isn’t the person that he used to be, then Harry doesn’t want anything to do with him. But if he doesn’t give Louis the opportunity to explain, then he’s sort of behaving the same way that Louis did when he left New York.

He wakes up a few mornings later having made a decision. He sends Louis a short text, simply telling him that he can call if he wants.

It’s bright and sunny and hot, and early enough that he can run on the beach without worrying about dodging too many tourists.

His mom and sister are already on the beach, reading trashy novels and sitting in their matching pink chairs, so Harry leaves his towel and phone with them. It’s a short run, but it wakes him up and when he slows down to walk the last couple of hundred yards, he stops and pulls his shoes and socks off. By the time he reaches his mom and sister, he’s ready to swim out past the breakers and let the ocean cool him down.

“Louis called,” Gemma says and lifts Harry’s phone into the air.

“Thanks.” Harry grabs his towel and wipes the sweat off of his hands and face. His heart rate was just starting to slow down after his run, and now it’s jumping around in his chest. When he reaches for his phone, he hopes that Gemma doesn’t notice his trembling hands. But there’s no missed call on the screen. “Did you answer?”

“Yep.” Gemma tips her head back and he can’t tell if she’s genuinely smiling at him or if it’s because of the sun in her eyes. “I just wanted to say hello. He said to call him back.”

Harry narrows his eyes and wraps his phone in his towel, then puts it in his mom’s bag between their chairs, laying his sunglasses on top. “I’m going in the water.”

“Me too.” Gemma stands up and drops her book onto her chair, following him until they get past the breakers.

Harry spins around and lets the swell of the water lift him off of his feet.

Gemma smirks. “So what’s with you and Louis?”

“Nothing.” Harry dunks under the water before Gemma can splash him.

When he surfaces, she says, “You know you’re going to tell me eventually.”

“I don’t know. Things are weird.” Harry sighs and lays back to float in the water.

Harry has spent the entire morning so far trying to figure out what to say to Louis if he actually called. He hasn’t even had breakfast and he’s ready for a drink.

When he finally gets out of the water, he dries off and picks up his phone, then starts walking. It takes him a few minutes to work up the courage and he keeps staring down at the screen until it locks, but when he calls, Louis answers on the first ring.

“Harold.”

“Hi.”

“Thanks for, um… texting.”

“Yeah, I… I thought about how shitty it was, when I wasn’t able to talk to you, so…”

“I’m sorry. I… Well, I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say.”

“Why? Like, I think I know, but why?”

“It’s stupid, Harry. I was pissed off because I thought you’d gotten off with some guy in the bathroom and, like, you couldn’t wait until I left town.”

“I didn’t—”

“Yeah, I know. I, um… I found your voicemails from that night. There’s like, a folder or something of messages from blocked numbers and um…”

“You didn’t… Please, Louis, tell me you didn’t listen to them.” Harry cringes and rubs his eyes behind his sunglasses. The voicemails have been easier to forget about. He figured Louis just deleted them and, since he couldn’t go back and listen to them and dwell on them like he did with the texts, he kind of forgot what embarrassing things he might have said that night.

“I listened to them. Sorry. Just, um… You explained what happened and, honestly, you spilling a drink all over yourself and washing your shirt in a gross public restroom sink is a much more believable, typical Harry thing.”

“Thanks.” Harry laughs and turns to walk closer to the ocean so that the wet sand squishes between his toes.

“Yeah, well…” Louis says, but then his voice gets quiet and serious. “You were so scared and like, each message... The panic in your voice… I’m so sorry to have caused that. I didn’t mean—”

“It’s okay. I’m okay. You obviously weren’t run over by a bus, so…”

“True.” Louis chuckles and then he’s quiet for a few seconds and his voice is almost a whisper when he says, “I’ve missed you.”

Harry takes a deep breath. “When you unblocked my number, did you get any old texts from me?”

“Nope.”

“Okay, good. I didn’t know if that was like, a possibility.”

“Yeah, I don’t think it is. I’m scared to ask what you sent.”

“Nothing, um… nothing bad. I think it’s mostly just a bunch of texts from that night and then, um… maybe a few others.”

“Like what?”

“Well, when I found your notebook. I was moving in with Niall and I found it when I was packing. So I texted you. I, um… I didn’t realize you’d blocked my number until a few days ago.”

“It means a lot to me that you returned it to me. I know it was a pain in the ass. And it’s just… it’s really important to me. Thank you.”

“Welcome. I, um… Well, I didn’t read it, but I assumed it was lyrics and stuff like that.”

“Yeah…”

Harry stops and squats down to sift through some shells, looking for sharks’ teeth, unsure of what to say.

“Harry, I know you’re still like, pissed off at me. And you have every right to be, but… you’ll talk to me?”

“Yeah. I mean, you were a fucking dick. You refused to talk to me for like a year and you blocked my number.” Harry stands back up and sighs. “But I’ll always talk to you, Lou. I mean, that’s part of why I’ve been so fucking mad, you know? We’ve always talked. Like, we’ve not talked for long stretches of time before, but not in a way that was like, on purpose.”

“I’m… Well, shit. I… Fuck.” There’s a shuffling sound and muffled voices in the background. “Liam’s here. We have rehearsals. Harry?”

“Yeah, it’s fine. I get it.”

“No, no, listen. I do have rehearsals, but I’ll have time tomorrow night. Can I call then?”

“Okay. Yeah.”

There’s a volleyball game a little further down the beach, so Harry keeps walking after he hangs up, but he doesn’t join in, just watches for a while. It seems like so much more than a year has passed since that day at the park and he wonders what it would be like now if he was more… in tune with things then. His entire life is different.

The next night, Harry takes his mom and Gemma out to dinner and they stay late enough to watch the fireworks over the water. Louis calls while they’re in the elevator on the way up to the condo. Because he hasn’t heard it in more than a year, he forgot that Louis changed his ringtone in Harry’s phone to Rihanna's first verse and the chorus of “Wild Thoughts.” Harry fumbles and almost drops it in his haste to decline it so it stops ringing. He’s blushing so hard that he’s a little thankful for his slight sunburn.

A few seconds later, he’s mortified as he remembers that when his phone rang while he was running on the beach, his mom probably heard more than just the first few lines and likely put two and two together.

As soon as they get to the condo, he grabs a beer from the fridge, goes out onto the balcony, and calls Louis back.

————

Over the last few days that he stays at the condo with his mom, he and Louis talk a couple more times. It’s strange and uncomfortable at first, but it’s good.

It’s all very tentative. Harry is constantly afraid of saying the wrong thing, upsetting Louis to the point that he cuts off contact again. It sucks and he doesn’t know how to deal with it because he still has all of these feelings. It’s not as if he’s stopped loving Louis. He doesn’t even think that’s possible, given how much of that grew out of their friendship. And the thing is, that’s what Harry missed when he couldn’t talk to Louis. Yeah, it would’ve been convenient to fall in love with Louis and be perfectly aware of it as it was happening, and yeah, it would’ve been really lovely if things had worked out the way he fantasized that they would, but that’s not reality.

Reality is, they’re trying to be friends again. It’s never taken this much effort before, even after the whole Lollapalooza thing, they went right back to being friends as soon as they started talking again. The only thing that’s different now is that, well, they had a lot of sex the previous year, and Harry is still in love with Louis.

Shawn’s tour starts back up again, and Harry and Louis keep in touch. They aren’t able to talk as often, but it’s okay. Harry actually adjusts to it rather easily. It gives him the little bit of distance he needs from his feelings.

The tour ends in October and Harry goes back to New York. Photographing Shawn’s tour was like a dream come true, but it’s over now and Shawn is taking at least a year to work on his next album, so Harry spends some time getting his resume and portfolio together and sends it out, to networks and magazines, figuring this new job experience along with his years working at Fame!TV must add up to something. He gets first interviews at a couple of smaller stations and even at VTV—probably because he used Zayn as a personal reference—but he doesn’t get a second interview at any of them.

It’s depressing.

Weeks later, when Harry’s spent more than a few days toying with the idea of waiting tables again and just taking photographs at shows in his spare time the way he’s done in the past, he gets a call from a local weekly magazine to come in for an interview. It’s a much smaller company than the one he used to work for, but it seems perfect. Harry’s official title is Digital Coordinator, which means he deals with the interns, does some office manager stuff, and helps with anything else that needs to be done.

With their album out, Louis isn’t able to talk as often. Sometimes they don’t speak but maybe once a week, and sometimes they talk for a few days in a row. It just depends on where Louis is and when he has the time. In December, Louis’ band comes to New York for a few days, doing interviews, and a performance, which he offers to get Harry VIP passes for, but Harry declines. He doesn’t want the first time he sees Louis in person again to be when Louis is on stage, as much as he might want to actually see him perform.

Louis calls him that evening and asks if he and Niall would want to come to a party.

“It’s a Christmas party. And it’s mostly like, business people. Label people. Boring. But I thought it’d be fun if I, um, invited some friends.”

Friends.

Harry’s thankful for the reminder.

He’s feeling festive, so he wears an emerald green shirt with his black pants and boots, but Niall goes all out in a bright red sweater with a giant candy cane on the front. Louis is wearing a charcoal gray suit, which looks gorgeous on him, but Harry makes sure to keep that observation to himself.

“Hey, Lou,” Harry says when he sees Louis walking towards him. Suddenly, his hands feel sweaty and he wants to wipe them off, but settles for shoving them in his pockets.

Louis stops a few feet in front of him and shrugs both shoulders. He meets Harry’s eyes and Harry tries not to watch as Louis chews on hip lower lip.

“Merry Christmas, Harold.” Louis steps closer and says, “I don’t know if I’ve actually said it, but I’m just… I’m really glad we’re, um, friends again.”

“Me too.” Harry nods and ignores the sinking feeling in his stomach at that word. “You’re leaving before your birthday?”

“Yeah, have to be back in L.A. the day before Christmas Eve, so…”

“Thanks for inviting us. Niall’s already taking advantage of the open bar.”

“You should get a drink.” Louis gestures towards the bar and says, “Go ahead. I’ve got to make the rounds.”

Harry nods and watches Louis walk away.

He can’t decide if it’s reasonable, how uncomfortable he feels, but it probably doesn’t matter. Niall hands him a shot before he can even get to the bar, and he downs it.

Over the phone, things have been alright with Louis. There aren’t any requirements for their friendship. Neither of them have asked the other for anything other than conversation. And they haven’t really argued at all. Not that they ever did. Not as friends. As friends—before the whole benefits thing—even though they weren’t constantly in contact, Louis was the one person who Harry felt like he could talk to about anything. The thoughts and fears that he couldn’t share with his mom or his girlfriends or his other friends, he could always tell Louis. And he could count on Louis to listen. Of course, they haven’t really talked about what went wrong between them. Most of their conversations are about other things: work, family, friends, the weather.

In person, it becomes obvious that things aren’t normal. Harry’s not sure what he expected the night to be, but he didn’t think Louis would spend most of it with other people. But he has Niall and the open bar and the cute bartender. Harry hardly sees Louis for the rest of the night, but he does get the bartender’s number, so it’s not a complete waste of time.

When things start to wind down and Harry’s been ready to leave for about half an hour, Louis finally appears again.

“Have fun tonight?” Louis asks and hops up onto the stool beside Harry.

“It was alright.” Harry sucks his bottom lip between his teeth, but then he figures why not be honest. “Wish I’d seen more of you though.”

Louis scratches at his beard and says, “Yeah, sorry about that. You had Niall though, right?”

“Niall and Andrew.”

“Andrew?”

“The bartender.”

“Oh.” Louis laughs and says, “Right. The open bar.”

And he’s not sure why he does it, maybe it’s the alcohol or his irritation with Louis basically avoiding him all night, but Harry says, “That and he asked me out, so…”

Louis doesn’t say anything right away. He stares at Harry and then slightly shakes his head and quietly says, “Good for you.”

“Thanks.” Harry shrugs and stands up, tipping his head towards the exit. “I’m gonna head out. Niall’s ready to go. I’ll, um, talk to you soon, yeah?”

“Yeah, sure.” Louis stands up off the stool and lifts his arms like he’s about to hug Harry, but almost immediately drops them back down to his sides. “Um, bye, Harry.”

Harry nods jerkily and stands there for a few more seconds, trying to decide if there’s anything else he should say or do, but there isn’t. He lifts his hand and says, “Bye, Lou.”

————

The holidays are kind of a mess. Harry flies home to see his family, but he can’t stay long because he’s still the new guy at work and he doesn’t have that much flexibility with his time off. He calls Louis on his birthday and they speak for a few minutes, but then Louis has to go, and they don’t talk until after the new year. Even then, it’s not nearly as regular as it was before the holidays, and Harry figures it’s probably something to do with Louis’ tour coming up, so he doesn’t mention it. They keep the conversation about mundane things, they talk about their families, Louis talks about how busy things are, and Harry pointedly does not discuss the fact that he’s started applying for jobs again. Or that a few of those jobs are in L.A.

It’s February first, the day Harry turns twenty-eight, that the shit hits the proverbial fan.

Louis calls him early that morning to wish him happy birthday. He’s in Japan and they’ve just finished a concert, so Louis is a little bit hyper and a lot happy. It’s a nice thing to hear. He sings “Happy Birthday” to Harry and Harry can’t stop smiling.

“So what are the big birthday plans, Harold?”

“Not much. Niall’s in L.A. with Shawn and I have to work all day today, so…” Harry trails off, unsure if he wants to tell Louis anything else. Things have felt less stable between them since Christmas and, while Harry doesn’t know why, he also doesn’t want to do or say anything to upset their precariously balanced friendship.

“You’re not doing anything for your birthday?”

“No, I… I am. I just… I have a date tonight.”

Louis is silent for a moment. “Oh, um, that’s… that’s great, Harry. Who’s the lucky guy? Or girl, I guess.”

“Guy. It’s the bartender from the Christmas party. Andrew? We’ve gone out a few times. New Year’s Eve and like a couple of other times.”

Harry hasn’t even told him that he’s gay and doesn’t bother correcting him.

“Oh, well, yeah. He seemed cool.”

“Yeah…”

“Right, well, it’s late and I have another show tomorrow, so I need to get some rest.”

“Alright, Lou. Talk soon?”

Louis hums his agreement and hangs up.

———-

It takes Harry about a week to figure out that Louis isn’t talking to him. He hasn’t blocked his number again because Harry can see that his texts and WhatsApp messages are being delivered, but he hasn’t called or answered any of Harry’s calls or responded to any of his texts.

When Harry realizes what’s going on, he immediately calls Louis again. It rings until it goes to voicemail, so he hangs up and calls back. Every time he hangs up, he gets more pissed off, and he’s getting to the point where he almost hopes Louis will block his number again when Louis finally answers.

“What?”

“Why are you avoiding me?”

Louis sighs.

“Are you mad at me? Did I do something? Because I thought we were friends, Lou, and I don’t appreciate this like, cold-shoulder-silent-treatment thing you’re doing.”

Louis sighs again. “I’m not… I’m not mad at you.”

“Then what’s the deal?”

“Harry, I… I realized that I can’t… I can’t be friends with you.”

Harry gasps quietly. “Why? What did I do?”

Things were going so well. At least, Harry thought they were. Sure, their friendship wasn’t back to what it used to be, but it was getting there. And he was trying his best to get over Louis, even if it was turning out to be much more difficult to do than he anticipated.

“It’s not… You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s me.”

“Great. Another it’s not you, it’s me.”

“Who said—”

“Jenn. And it doesn’t matter. If it’s not me, then what is it, Lou? Because I… I don’t want to lose you. I’m…” Now isn’t the time to confess his feelings. Not unless he wants Louis to run away even faster. “You’re my best friend.”

“It’s not enough.”

“What isn’t enough?”

“Harry, I can’t hang out with you at like, parties and watch you flirt with other people. I can’t listen to you talk about dating someone else. Not anymore. I’ve been doing it for too long.”

“What?”

“I’ve been in love with you on and off for years, Harry. I just… I can’t be your friend anymore.”

The line goes dead and Harry stares at his phone.

Then he calls Louis again. This time it goes to voicemail four times before Louis answers.

“Stop this, Harry. Please.”

The line goes dead again.

This time, Harry doesn’t call back.

When he wakes up the next day, there’s a twenty-minute Whatsapp message from Louis drunkenly detailing the multiple times over the course of their friendship that he’s had feelings for Harry—starting with his first crush at thirteen, including pretty much every time that they spent time together during high school and college, the summer that Louis moved back home to take care of his grandpa, and ending with last year in New York—and how every time, he ended up getting hurt.

He can’t imagine feeling half of what he was feeling for Louis last summer and just getting over it and then staying friends. The thought of falling in love with Louis and standing by and watching him date someone else… Harry doesn’t think he could do it. In fact, he knows he couldn’t. If Louis decides to start dating someone now, Harry won’t be able to handle it.

Louis doesn’t answer when Harry calls.

————

A few days later, after Harry’s attempted to integrate all of Louis’ revelations into his memories of their seventeen year relationship, even though he knows he probably shouldn’t, Harry tries again. This time Louis answers.

“Harold.” Louis pauses and then rushes out, “I know I was drunk when I left that message, but I had to get all of it out. I wanted to like… It wasn’t… I can’t keep my distance from you. Like, emotionally. I’m always going to want more. And I know it isn’t your fault, what’s happened before, but I just needed you to know.”

It’s a relief to know that Louis doesn’t blame him, not that that’s stopping him from blaming himself. “I’m glad you told me. I… I’m sorry. I know I hurt you. Like, I have for years. And I… I wouldn’t ever… I wouldn’t’ve hurt you on purpose, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t do it.”

“I know. I’m sorry things have to be—”

“Let me… Let me just… Remember me saying that I sent you texts when you had my number blocked? Well, one of the texts I sent you was when I realized that I was like, in love with you. I, um…” Harry shushes him when he tries to interrupt and continues, “I didn’t know at first, and I felt really dumb when I like, figured it out and just… I had to tell you. I, um… Well, obviously it didn’t go through, but yeah…”

“Harry,” Louis whispers. “I… I don’t…”

“Please don’t cut me out of your life, Lou. You’re so… You’re so important to me.”

It’s quiet for a moment, then Louis says, “You’re important to me, too, Harry.”

————

Slowly, they start talking more. At first, they talk twice a week, like they used to years ago when Harry first moved to New York. Within a month, they’re talking almost every other day. It’s scary as fuck and Harry gets anxious every time he calls that Louis won’t answer or will have decided to block his number again. They argue about it after Louis says he’ll call one night and then doesn’t. When he texts Harry the next morning to apologize and explain, Harry responds that it’s okay, but he’s pissed off all day. He doesn’t feel like he’s a priority to Louis, but then he doesn’t think he’s supposed to be one anyway, and it all just makes him angry and sad and in a shitty mood when Louis does call him that night.

It’s a big step for Harry, he thinks, being aware of why he’s feeling a certain way, and then saying it out loud for someone else to hear.

“You said you weren’t mad, but you’re being short with me, so which is it?” Louis asks and sighs quietly.

He’s right. The thought of admitting to Louis that he’s upset about anything at all is scary as fuck, but if he can’t say it, it’s going to come out of him one way or another. Whether he’s snarky or pretends to be too busy to talk or even gives him the silent treatment, Louis will figure it out eventually.

“I lied before. I… It’s hard for me to tell you things, ’cause I don’t know if you even care about—”

“Harry.”

“No, just… let me say it. I’m really like, not, um… confident, I guess. About whatever this is. Our friendship or… I’m afraid you’re going to like, stop talking to me if I say the wrong thing.”

“Harry… I’m not going to do that. I, um, well, I get why you’d feel that way, but… I want you to talk to me, okay? If I piss you off, tell me. I promise to do the same.”

“Yeah, okay.” Harry takes a deep breath and says, “So, I was mad because you didn’t call, but like… I want to be important enough that you’ll, like, not forget. I understand if I’m not though.”

“Don’t say that. Of course, you’re important to me. And I’m sorry. I really am.”

It feels huge to tell Louis that he’s insecure and why and Louis listening and not making Harry feel stupid for feeling that way, makes Harry so relieved that he lets slip that he loves Louis. Then they both sit there listening to each other breathe, with Harry scared again that he’s said too much and that Louis is going to hang up and disappear again.

“I, um… sorry if that’s… I shouldn’t have said that if it’s going to make you uncomfortable.”

“It’s okay. I just wasn’t expecting it.”

“I think, um… Remember the rules and guidelines for the friends with benefits agreement?”

Louis’ voice is tight when he answers, “Yes. Why?”

“Just… I don’t know what I’m allowed to say.”

“Oh… I… Harry. How about instead of rules and guidelines, you tell me what you’re thinking?”

It shouldn’t be as hard as it is for Harry to start talking. “Okay, um… I’m thinking that I like talking to you. I think that’ll be harder to do depending on how hectic your schedule gets. But I want to at least try. And see where things go.”

Louis inhales sharply and then the silence stretches out. “The thing is… The thing is, Harry, that… Fuck, okay. So, it’s really hard for me to imagine being close to you and like, not getting my heart broken.”

“Lou…” Harry whispers. He doesn’t feel like he can argue with him about this, even though this would be the first time that they’d both be going in with feelings.

“It’s like… I think that it’s only a matter of time before I… I’m going to be like, waiting for it. Like, for you to get bored or decide this isn’t enough for you or maybe that you want more experience with other guys or that you want to date a girl instead.”

“Hey, that’s not… that’s not cool.” Harry huffs a short breath and says, “That’s, um… That’s shitty stereotyping. Being bi doesn’t automatically mean someone can’t be monogamous or make them more likely to cheat.”

Louis doesn’t respond for a moment, then he quietly says, “You’re right. Sorry.”

“It’s okay. And like, I’ve dated people. Like, while I was on tour with Shawn. And I’ve had like, a couple of dates and a few… people that I’ve hooked up with.” Louis clears his throat and coughs. “Also, surprise, I guess, but the fall after you left New York, I tried to date two different girls and like, I’m pretty sure I’m gay, so…”

Louis doesn’t say anything right away, so Harry waits.

When the silence continues past the point where it’s comfortable, Harry says, “I don’t know what to say to like, reassure you.”

“I don’t know if there’s anything you can say, Harry.”

“Okay, so just, um… I think I’d like to revisit the rules and guidelines.”

Louis groans, but Harry can hear him smiling.

“Right. I’m going to call you like I have been, so like a few times a week, at night around nine or ten eastern? And I’m not… I’m not interested in anyone else.” Harry barrels on, knowing that he’s rambling, but figuring it’s the only way for him to put it all on the table. “And I promise to try to be like, honest with you about my feelings and stuff. Like, if I’m mad, I’ll let you know. If I’m frustrated because for one reason or another we haven’t been able to talk for a while, I’ll tell you. ’Cause I know I said it before and like, I don’t expect you to say it back, so like, don’t say it back. But I do love you. And if you don’t want me to say it anymore, I guess that’s okay. It’s, um… It’s been like a year and a half that I’ve been aware of it, but other than me being extremely pissed off and like, seeing other people because you weren’t an option, my feelings for you haven’t changed.”

Louis is quiet for a while, but Harry can hear him moving around. He wants to keep filling the silence, to tell stupid jokes to make Louis laugh, anything to cover how nervous he is to hear Louis’ reaction. But he doesn’t, and in those few seconds of silence, Harry’s emotions run the gamut from a brief swelling of pride as soon as he’s finished speaking to absolute panic that he said all the wrong things.

Finally, Louis simply says, “Okay.”

For a few seconds, Harry thinks that he’s going to say something else, but he doesn’t. “I don’t… What does that mean?”

“It means…” Louis starts and then stops again and hums. Harry wishes he could see his face. “You can say whatever you want. Anything. I, um… I don’t know when I’ll be able to call you because of time zones and stuff, but like, I’ll try. I can text you though. If I can’t call, I’ll message you somehow. Even if it’s just to say hello.”

“Okay… That works for me.”

“I’m sorry if you’ve had a hard time with figuring yourself out, Harry.”

“Thanks, Lou. I mean, it surprised me, though I’m not sure why. Being with you was so… It was another level like, compared to the relationships I’ve had with girls.”

“This is… This is what I mean though. How do you know it’s me and not just like, you being with a guy?”

“Louis, I told you I dated men too. I went out with other guys. I mean, I didn’t like, sleep with dozens of dudes—not… I’m not judging if you did—but, like, I did have sex. I just… It didn’t take much to convince me that there was a lot more to it with you.”

“Okay. I… Sorry for not—”

“No, it’s fine. I mean, this is kind of weird talking like this. I’ve never had a relationship where I like… I’ve never really actively participated in, um, sharing my feelings. Jenn called it ‘going through the motions’ and she’s actually really smart, so…”

“Smart enough to break up with you.”

“Hey,” Harry says and drags out the sound, then chuckles. “But yeah.”

They’re both quiet for a moment.

“In the interest of being completely honest, I’ve been with three people since you,” Louis says, almost businesslike, and Harry smiles, even as he fights his jealousy. “I had a boyfriend for like two months, but we broke up about a year ago. And one guy I met on Grindr when I first got to L.A. Like, I was so angry with you about that. I know it’s stupid, and I know I was wrong about all of it, but… Anyway, and some dude at a party shortly after that. I’ve been… Well, with the record and stuff, I’ve been busy and also pretty uninterested in meeting anyone.”

The boyfriend is a surprise and Harry has to remind himself that it obviously didn’t work out. “What about now?”

“Now?” Louis hums thoughtfully and Harry pulls the phone away and scowls at it. They haven’t FaceTimed or Skyped and, at least for Harry, it’s because it feels like sort of taking things to the next level in their tenuous something-that-is-not-quite-friendship. “Same. Uninterested. I mean, I… I was going to make a joke, but I can like, sense your anxiety through the phone, Harry.”

“Sorry.”

“No, don’t be. Maybe that’s a rule or guideline. No jokes about this.”

“That’s probably for the best.” Harry opens his mouth wide and stretches his jaw. “I was grinding my teeth. Can you answer for real then?”

“I’m still interested in you. And in keeping up our phone thing that we have going on. And like, I’m not planning to or wanting to have a… thing with anyone else.”

Harry smiles and closes his eyes, leans down and rests his forehead on his knees to try to calm the swirling in his stomach. It’s so close to what he ultimately wants, that it sort of feels like winning. “Okay, so… we’re involved in an exclusive phone thing.” He feels like a child. Do you like me? Check yes or no.

————

They’re not together and they’re not calling it anything. Putting a name to it is like step seven in fixing their shit and they’re only on maybe step three or four.

Because learning about Louis’ feelings for him, knowing that they’ve been there, an undercurrent of virtually every interaction he and Louis have had for years, is difficult for Harry to adapt to. He feels lied to, even though he knows that Louis’ motivations for keeping it all hidden were reasonable, and Louis’ hesitation about this thing between them when Harry is trying to learn to be straightforward about it make him feel off-balance.

If he dwells too much on it, he gets aggravated with Louis when he knows he shouldn’t. But as his annoyance grows, so does his guilt because even though Louis says it’s not Harry’s fault, and even though Harry was unaware of it at the time, he repeatedly broke Louis’ heart.

If only one of them had the guts to say something when their whole friends-with-benefits thing was going on. But Harry was convinced that it didn’t mean anything to Louis, and Louis believed Harry when he said he wasn’t looking for a relationship.

It’s like an infinite loop inside his head. Every time he tells Louis that he loves him, he hangs up immediately, scared of the silence that would follow. The thing is that he really doesn’t want Louis to say it if he doesn’t mean it, but then he never says it, so he must not feel it.

They start to FaceTime shortly after they talk about their exclusive phone thing. It’s not a spoken decision or anything. Louis just does it one morning when he wakes up—shirtless and sleep-rumpled with his hair so messy that Harry would laugh if he could get over the shock of seeing his gorgeous face. Though before Harry has time to process what he’s seeing, Louis’ eyes go wide and he makes a squeaky sound, then tells Harry to call him back and hangs up.

After that, Harry agrees not to answer the phone when he’s exercising. Apparently, the image of him shirtless and panting with sweat dripping down his chest was a bit much for Louis first thing in the morning.

So, it’s okay. They argue about stupid things, but they call each other out on their bullshit, and eventually things get better. Harry tries not to let Louis’ uncertainty bother him and they both work to show how they feel in other ways.

“Harold,” Louis says as soon as he appears on Harry’s laptop screen. “Why are you sending me packages?”

Harry rolls his eyes and adjusts his screen so he can see better. “It’s called a gift. Did you open it?”

“No. I didn’t know if I was supposed to.” Louis holds up the small cardboard box and shakes it. “Should I?”

“Yeah, go ahead,” Harry says with a nod. He crosses his fingers where he knows Louis can see them and Louis smiles. “I think you’ll like it.”

Once he manages to open the box, Louis pulls out the packing paper with one hand, and the notebook with the other. “Harry…”

“There are pens in there. I, um… I hope you can use them.” Harry’s nervous, though he’s not sure why, because it’s just a notebook. He went to the same stationery store and bought the same leather bound notebook that he did before, so he knows Louis will probably like it.

“Thank you,” Louis whispers and then clears his throat and smiles. “I’ll definitely use all of it. Thanks, Harry.”

“Welcome, Lou.”

“Hey, so, tell me about the show you and Niall went to on Saturday.”

Harry launches into the story, gesturing wildly and imitating Niall, the bouncer who wouldn’t let Harry in with his camera, and the manager who acquiesced once Niall explained that he worked for Rolling Stone and implied that Harry did too.

Slowly things get better. There’s no sex to distract them, which they actually don’t talk about, but it’s still there. The elephant in the room. The incredibly massive pink elephant tap dancing across their laptops whenever they Skype.

Harry doesn’t mention it, but mostly because it didn’t take him long to realize that he’s never had phone sex or Skype sex or even sent a slightly suggestive text message. He feels like he wouldn’t know quite where to start, plus with everything that happened between them before being so physical, he’s hesitant to broach the subject. Over the phone feels wrong. But, he definitely isn’t going to turn Louis down if he decides to get naked and jerk off the next time they Skype.

Which isn’t what happens. The next time they Skype, it’s morning in New York and Louis is fully clothed and irritable. As soon as he appears on Harry’s screen, he starts talking without even saying hello, clearly bothered about something.

“I spoke to Niall last night.” Louis says, glances at his laptop, then looks away like he’s doing something else off to the side while he talks.

“Hello to you too.” Harry shifts forward onto his forearms. “What’s up? You seem—”

“He’s going to be in Vegas next week and I will too, so I thought I’d try to meet up with him while I’m there.” Louis still isn’t looking at the camera and Harry wonders why he bothered with Skype instead of just calling if he was planning to multitask while they talk.

“Cool. He’ll like that. Hey, so—”

“Niall said that he asked you to go out dancing with him tonight.” Louis finally focuses on his laptop, but then he narrows his eyes and says, “But that you told him you have a really important date with some secret—”

“Louis.”

“Don’t interrupt me, Harry. I told you this would happen. That you’d get bored and I—”

“Louis! Stop, please. You’re the date. We have our Skype—”

Louis hangs up on him before he can finish. Harry stares at his laptop for a moment, then cradles his head in his hands. He takes a deep breath and hopes that Louis hasn’t blocked his number again, but as he picks up his phone, it pings with a text.

Louis: I’m really embarrassed. I’m sorry.

Harry laughs, relieved and endeared and a little smug because Louis was jealous.

Harry: It’s ok. I did act kind of secretive about it

Harry: Should I tell Niall that we have an exclusive phone thing?

Louis: No

Louis: Don’t say that. It sounds stupid

Harry: Ok. I won’t say anything

Though they haven’t specifically said that they’re keeping things between them a secret, it’s implied, but it still stings to know that Louis doesn’t want him to tell anyone. Not even Niall.

Louis: What would you say?

It takes him a minute to respond because he kind of wants to run around screaming at everyone he sees that he’s in love with Louis, but telling him that might be a bit much.

Harry: What I said was “I can’t go out because I have a date tonight” and he was all pushy about asking for details, so I said “I’m not telling you anything other than I’m really looking forward to it”

Harry: I would have preferred to say “I have a Skype date with my boyfriend” but I know that’s not what we are and if I said that, Niall wouldn’t have let it go and I know you don’t want to tell people about us so I said what I said instead

Harry: That rhymes

Louis: I want that

Louis: I want you to call me your boyfriend and tell people about us

Louis: Not PEOPLE but Niall and friends

Louis: But can we Skype or FaceTime when you tell Niall?

Harry stares at his phones because he can’t believe what he’s reading.

Louis: Harry?

Harry: Yes

Harry: Sorry but I’m kind of freaking out

Harry feels like he’s a teenager he’s so giddy and slightly nauseated from the intense butterflies in his stomach. He calls Louis on speakerphone, hands too shaky to hold onto the phone.

“Harold, I hung up on you for a reason.”

“Don’t care. I just wanted to talk for a second. I’m sorry Niall had you worried.”

“Can we never speak of this again? I didn’t even think about our plans to Skype tonight and I totally jumped to conclusions, so I’d like to pretend it never happened.”

“I’ll pretend it never happened if you’ll apologize one more time and then say what you want me to call you out loud.”

“Fine, Jesus. I’m sorry I was a dick and accused you of seeing someone else.”

“And?”

“And I want you to call me your boyfriend.”

———

Putting a label on their relationship opens the floodgates. Evidently, they were both holding back because when they do have their Skype date that night, their words are a little bit softer, their gazes linger a little longer, neither of them can stop smiling, and Louis calls Harry ‘baby’ four times without stopping himself or cutting himself off halfway or nervously clearing his throat afterward, which is what happened before when he said it accidentally.

At the end of every conversation, Harry still tells Louis he loves him and he still hangs up directly afterward, but it doesn’t bother him as much. Mostly.

It takes them about a week before they break the Skype sex barrier and it’s completely unplanned. Louis had a concert in Colorado, and the following day, when Louis is back at his hotel, he and Harry Skype and they’ve barely said hello before Louis starts telling him about the incredibly thin walls of Liam’s family’s house.

“So we hung out with Liam’s family after the show and just stayed there instead of going back to the hotel. The guest bedroom shares a wall with Liam’s old bedroom. Anyway, Liam was talking someone off over the phone and I could hear everything. I didn’t even know he was seeing anyone! I ended up going and taking a shower at like one in the morning, just to get away.” Louis grimaces and shakes his head. “I’m scarred for life, I think.”

Harry cackles because Louis actually looks like he’s bothered by it. But it only takes a few seconds for Louis to join in and then they’re both laughing until they can’t breathe.

Once Harry can speak, he says, “Our apartment has pretty thin walls, but thankfully, I’m a pretty heavy sleeper.”

“I remember.” Louis presses his lips together and looks down to pick at some lint on his shirt.

He’s so cute about it that Harry wants to reach through his laptop and kiss him, but that’s impossible, so…

“Have you ever done that?” Harry asks and sucks his lower lip into his mouth, hoping he’s not being too obvious.

Louis nods. “Couple of times, yeah. With Eric.”

“Oh, I thought… I don’t know what I thought.” Harry covers his face with his hands. He’s not sure what he expected Louis to say, knowing he’s more experienced in general is one thing, but the specifics aren’t something he likes to think about. At least this was years ago when he was still in college. Though his dick doesn’t seem to mind, almost leaping to attention at the mere idea of phone sex with Louis.

“Harry.”

Harry shakes his head and drops his hands from his face, but keeps his eyes closed. There’s no reason for him to be so embarrassed, but he is. He can hear a rustling sound and something else, but it’s muffled, and he’s pretty sure that Louis is trying to trick him into looking.

“Open your eyes, baby.” Louis pitches his voice lower and Harry’s eyes open of their own accord. He makes a weird, squeaky, choking sound and stares at the screen because Louis is naked and Harry can see him.

“Lou, what…” But it’s pretty unmistakable what he’s doing. He’s jerking off right there, laid back against the fluffy, white hotel pillows that he piled behind him, with his laptop still balanced on his thighs because it’s wobbling a little bit with his movements. Harry just watches him and tries not to die.

“Are you watching or are you joining in?” Louis asks and tips his head back. He grips his cock at the base and squeezes, then slowly strokes himself while Harry wipes the drool from the corners of his mouth. Louis wasn’t fully hard when he started, but he’s well on the way now and Harry can’t wait to see. Louis reaches down with his other hand and pulls the sheet up, hiding himself from view, and Harry frowns. “Harry, take off your clothes. Come on.”

“Oh, sorry.” Harry yanks his t-shirt over his head and throws it to the floor, pushes his laptop off onto the mattress and wiggles out of his boxers, then scoots back against the headboard and steadies his laptop on his legs. “Can’t believe I’m seeing you naked on my computer. So hot.”

“Kind of like porn. I haven’t done this. Skype sex.” Louis drops the sheet and Harry gasps when he sees Louis drizzle lube into his hand and slick himself up. “Touch yourself, baby. You’re already hard, I can see it.”

Harry does as he’s told and wraps his hand around his dick, jerking himself slowly, focusing on Louis, trying not to get overwhelmed and come all over himself in five seconds. His recent fantasies are nothing at all like what’s happening—they’re more along the lines of frantic reunion sex in the backseat of a car—but this is joining the roster, for sure. He just wishes he could do more or say more, but he can’t even keep his mouth closed, so it’s all on Louis. At least for the time being.

“No lube?”

“It’s in my bag… too far. It’s fine.”

“Yeah? Lick your hand, babe. Miss your mouth.” Louis groans when Harry sucks three of his fingers into his mouth to get them wet. It’s just enough to help ease the slide of his hand, and Harry quickly matches Louis’ rhythm.

Louis keeps talking about Harry blowing him, how good it feels.

“Think about it all the time. You sucking me. You’re so good, baby. Made for it. I’ve come so many times remembering your lips stretched around my cock, all wet and pink and swollen. Fuck.” Louis bucks up into his fist, and bites his lip, but a moan still escapes.

All Harry can do is stare.

“On your knees for me? Think about that when I shower. But I get off so good thinking about fucking you. So tight for me. Fuck, you’re so hot, babe. Let me see…”

Harry pulls his laptop closer on his thighs and tilts it forward. “Okay?” He takes a deep, shuddering breath as he swipes his thumb across his slit and smears what’s gathered there around the head of his dick.

“Yeah, yeah. Perfect. What’re you thinking about, baby? Tell me.”

“I’m…” Harry closes his eyes, pulling thoughts from his memories because he knows Louis doesn’t want him to say what he’s actually thinking about, which is pretty much nothing other than the visual on his computer screen. “I’m riding you.”

As soon as he says it, he envisions it. Straddling Louis’ lap on his hotel bed, sitting on his cock, and riding him until his legs are on fire.

“God, yeah, think about that too. You bouncing on my dick while I play with your nipples. Fuck. Harry, those nipple rings…”

“You can pull on them. Feels good.”

“Love watching you like that. You taking what you need from me. Telling me what you want.”

“Yes. Yes, want it.” Harry strokes himself faster as his orgasm coils in the pit of his stomach. “Want you. Want you to watch.” He pictures himself coming untouched with Louis’ inside him and all of the anticipation that has built up explodes outward as he moans up at the ceiling and begs, “Please, fuck me. Want you to fuck me.”

“Anything you want, baby,” Louis promises and Harry comes into his fist, spilling onto his stomach, while he writhes against the sheets, laptop fallen off to the side and momentarily forgotten.

Harry inhales deeply and wipes his hand on the sheets, reaching for his laptop. “Babe, are you—”

Louis’ hand is a blur, but Harry can still see his face, eyes closed and tipped back, lower lip caught between his teeth and white from him biting down. He pants out, “Talk…”

“Fuck. Okay. I… I want to ride you like... backwards. So you can see… You can touch me where you’re splitting me… Hold me open and fuck up into me hard the way I like it… Rub your thumbs around my rim where your fat cock is—”

Louis whines, then grunts loudly and shoots all over his stomach, slowly working himself through his orgasm while Harry watches and fights the blush creeping up his neck.

“That was incredible. You can talk me off anytime, baby.” Louis laughs and wipes his forehead with the back of his other hand. “Don’t be embarrassed.”

“Can’t help it. Never again.” Harry groans and covers his face with a pillow, but he can still hear Louis giggling, so he pulls the pillow aside to pout at him.

“You know if you say it, I’ll do it, right?” Louis winks at him and says, “I will. Whatever you want. I have to go though. I have to shower. We’ll have to plan for this next time, hmm?”

“Yeah, okay. I should shower too.”

“Bye, baby.”

“Bye, Lou. Love you.” Harry slams his laptop closed a little too roughly.

———

Chapter Text

—Four Months Later—

————

Harry’s flight is late. They boarded late, then they got stuck waiting on the runway, then they got stuck waiting after they landed, then Harry tripped over his shoelaces on the way through the airport. By the time he walks out of LAX, Harry’s sure that Louis has given up and gone home, but he’s barely put his sunglasses on when Louis pulls up in a black Mercedes convertible that makes Harry’s jaw drop.

“Is this your car?” Harry asks, even though he knows the answer, while he watches Louis pop open the trunk and climb out of the driver’s side.

“Yes. Who else’s would it be?” Louis stops a few feet in front of him, and all of Harry’s nervousness and anticipation, which until that second were buried by his continued annoyance with his flight, come back at once. His heart feels like it’s going to explode and his whole body feels so shaky that he’s momentarily worried that he might pass out, so he does the only thing he can do, really, and throws himself at Louis.

Harry slams into him with so much force that Louis stumbles backwards, but he catches Harry, wraps his arms around him while Harry buries his face in the side of Louis’ neck and squeezes him so tightly that Louis grunts and wheezes out, “Hey, baby.”

“Hey, Lou.” Harry loosens his grip and lifts his head, opens his eyes long enough to be sure that Louis is really there, then he kisses him hard. Within seconds, Harry’s hands are on Louis’ ass and he’s just about to pick him up and wrap Louis’ legs around his waist when a car horn blares. Slowly, he moves his hands a little higher to rest on Louis’ lower back, and pulls away enough to say, “Hi.”

Louis smiles and kisses him once more, then untangles himself from Harry’s embrace, slides past him, and picks up the suitcase that Harry abandoned.

The leather interior of Louis’ Mercedes is so soft and comfortable that Harry thinks briefly about having sex in the car, but files that thought away for the next time they have Skype sex. He leans across the console and clears his throat, stomach flipping as he waits for Louis to kiss him again. Louis turns and, with his hand on Louis’ cheek, Harry closes the distance, smiling into the kiss. He rubs his nose against Louis’, then sits back in his seat and asks, “This is the same car you had when you offered to drive me to the airport last July?”

“Yeah…” Louis glances over at Harry, then looks back the other way to pull out. “Why?”

“Should’ve said. I’d’ve told the Uber driver to go on without me.” Harry squeals with laughter when Louis pinches his side and digs his finger into Harry’s ribs.

“Ought to make you walk.”

Harry shakes his head and pulls Louis’ hand away from his ticklish spots, lacing their fingers together instead.

“Missed you. Flight was awful. I hate everything right now.” Harry sticks his bottom lip out and adjusts his seat so that he can lay back a little. “’Cept you. And maybe this car.”

“If you’re good, I’ll let you drive it.”

“Hmm… I’ll consider it. Where’re you taking me? Are we going to dinner or your house? I want to kiss you some more.”

“Neither. Taking you to the beach. You can kiss me there.”

Harry beams at him and squeezes his hand. “I thought you’d make me wait.”

“Nah. Since you’ve managed to come to L.A. three times now, and still haven’t seen the Pacific, I wanted to make sure it was special.”

“That’s sweet, babe. Thank you.” Harry leans over again and kisses his cheek, then settles back into the seat after he turns the volume up on the stereo. “Is this your new album? I thought you weren’t finished recording.”

“It’s not done. These are just rough cuts of some songs. It doesn’t come out until next year.”

“I know. I’m going to preorder it on iTunes and Amazon, presave it to Spotify as soon as I can, and buy actual CDs too. Found a blog with—”

“Stay off of Tumblr, for fuck’s sake. Please, Harry.”

“It’s fine. No Lilo fanfic. Just instructions on streaming. So I can stream from my phone, my laptop, and I’m also buying copies of the album for like, everyone I know, so…”

“That’s a bit much.”

“Shut up. I’m doing it like your fans.” Harry turns and sticks his tongue out at him, expecting Louis to tease him, but he’s keeping his eyes on the road, and he’s smiling. “Wait, I thought we were going to the beach, you just passed—”

“Not that beach. Relax. Actually, look in here.” Louis pulls his hand away from Harry’s to open the center console and Harry rifles through what looks like…

“Do you just put all of your receipts in here? This is not a filing cabinet, Louis.” Harry finds what he’s looking for. A tiny little tin with a single joint and a small lighter inside.

Harry bends over and lights it with his head between his knees to help block the wind and almost singes the tips of his hair.

They share it, though Harry smokes three-quarters of it because Louis is driving and says he’ll just get tired and won’t want to drive back. Harry feels loose-limbed and lazy, almost ready to climb over the console into Louis’ lap just because he wants to be closer to him, but he holds his hand again instead, tracing over the veins and tendons with his fingertip while he hums along to Louis’ voice coming through the speakers.

It’s a longer trip than Harry expected, which is probably why Louis didn’t tell him where they were going. Harry would’ve complained about being tired and cranky from the plane instead of just sitting back and letting Louis drive. But it’s worth it.

“Now, don’t fall on the way down. Just…” Louis pulls a backpack out of the trunk, slings it over his shoulder, and waits while Harry grabs his camera. “Let me hold your hand.”

“What’s in there?” Harry asks and points at Louis’ backpack.

“Food and stuff.” Louis holds tight to his hand and leads him down the steep stairs to the beach.

Harry trips on a step and Louis steadies him, but he’s too impressed to be embarrassed. Louis packed a picnic and brought him to a romantic beach. It’s pretty much the best day of his life so far, and as soon as their feet hit the sand at the bottom of the stairs, he turns around and raises his hand to cup Louis’ jaw and kisses him. He tastes like weed and they both have dry mouths, but Harry doesn’t care. It’s the best kiss in the history of the world as far as he’s concerned. He laughs against Louis’ mouth at the memory of The Princess Bride.

“What?” Louis leans back and chuckles, studying Harry’s face.

“Nothing. Just happy.” Harry kisses the tip of his nose and steps away to pull out his camera.

While there’s still light, Harry takes pictures of everything. The cliffs, the water, the rock formations, Louis. They walk further down the beach and, since it’s low tide, they’re able to go inside some of the caves where Harry presses his entire body up against Louis and kisses him until the tide starts to come in and his shoes get wet.

There are starfish in the tidepools and pelicans on the top of some of the rocks and hardly any other people around. Instead of sitting down to eat their picnic, Louis hands Harry half of a sandwich and a bottle of water and they eat standing up while they look at sea anemones in another tide pool.

When the sun moves lower in the sky, Louis takes Harry’s hand and guides him down the beach so that the rock arches will frame the sunset. It’s the perfect opportunity to photograph it, but Harry tucks his camera back inside his bag and slips his arm around Louis.

“I’ll take pictures another time.” Harry kisses his cheek and moves around to stand behind him, loops his arms around Louis’ waist, holds both of his hands in his, while Louis rests his head back on Harry’s shoulder. “It’s… I guess stunning is a good descriptor? Thank you so much for picking me up and bringing me here today.”

“Wanted to do something nice for you,” Louis murmurs and nudges his their cheeks together, then turns his head to catch Harry’s eye. “’Cause I love you.”

Harry gasps. Louis turns around in Harry’s arms, slides his hand up to the back of Harry’s neck, his fingers through his hair, and brings him in to press a quick kiss to his lips. “You kept hanging up on me before I could say it, so I decided I’d wait and tell you in person, then it sort of became a big thing in my head, and here we are.”

“Oh…” Harry sighs. A lot of the stress he’s caused himself over the last few months probably could’ve been avoided if he wasn’t so quick to assume Louis’ feelings. “Sorry for hanging up on you.”

“It’s fine. You okay?” Louis tilts his head to the side and there’s a little line between his eyebrows. Suddenly, Harry understands why Louis wants to rub his thumb over Harry’s whenever he frowns.

Harry nods and forces himself to let it go. “I am now.”

With their hands clasped tightly together, Louis leads Harry down the beach, up the steps and along the trail to the parking lot. On the drive back, Harry falls asleep in the car and wakes up in Louis’ driveway to Louis combing his fingers through his hair.

“Come inside, baby. I already took your bags in.” Louis tugs on his hand until he climbs out of the car and follows him up the steps and through the front door.

————

Their first major argument as an official-in-person-relationship-couple happens during their first full day together in L.A. when Louis asks Harry what time his return flight is and Harry clams up, unable to keep secrets now that he and Louis are face to face.

In the months since they decided to make things official, they haven’t seen each other at all, other than through the screens of their phones or computers. Every time Louis offered to fly Harry to L.A., Harry refused, because he desperately wants their relationship to be on even ground, and being flown across the country by his rich boyfriend doesn’t fit that description. Louis was too busy working to fly to New York for more than a day or two, and Harry didn’t want him to do that either.

It’s probably stupid, but Harry wanted to be the one to fly to see Louis, and he wanted to pay for his own plane ticket. Harry rationalized it by telling himself that they’ve spent literal years apart, so a few more months shouldn’t be a big deal. Thankfully, Louis was patient and willing to indulge him.

He seems to have run out of patience now, though.

“What do you mean, you don’t have a return flight?”

“I’m not going back to New York.” Harry smiles tentatively because it’s supposed to be a happy surprise, but Louis looks more confused than anything. “I, um… I sent out like, dozens of resumes and I got a new job. In L.A.”

Louis leans away from Harry, back against the arm of the sofa, eyebrows drawn down and together, just blinking at Harry and not saying anything.

“I’m not expecting you to like…” Harry takes a breath and rushes to explain. “Zayn said I could sleep on his sofa, like, until I get my own place. I don’t expect to live with you or anything.”

“Was this like, a sudden decision?” Louis scratches at his beard and purses his lips. “I don’t understand.”

“Oh, no. No, it’s not. I wanted… I’ve wanted to move for a while.”

“No. I know you wanted to leave New York. I mean, how long have you been hiding this from me?”

“A month? A little more than that, maybe?” Harry shrugs and bites his lip, but Louis’ confused expression morphs into a scowl. “Are you mad at me?”

“Well, yeah. I just… I… Yeah, I’m fucking mad, Harry. Jesus.” Louis scrubs his hands through his hair, making it stand up. “You’ve been lying to me for weeks about moving across the country? What the fuck?”

“I… I was trying to surprise you. Like… I just…” He slowly raises his hand to his mouth, chewing on the side of his thumb. “I got the job offer and I didn’t want to be in New York anymore and I thought… I thought the timing was right. And I thought we could be together, like for real.”

Louis shakes his head and looks away, keeps his voice quiet and measured, as he says, “I can’t believe… You can’t do this.”

“Do you not… Do you not want me here? I thought…” Harry’s stomach drops and he feels like he can’t breathe. “Are you breaking up with me?”

“What? No. No, I’m not breaking up with you. And of course, I want you here. I just…” Louis presses his fingertips to his temples and rubs circles. “You can’t lie to me. Like, keeping secrets? We can’t do that. If we’re going to be together, then you have to be honest with me. And a surprise is something small. I don’t know, like breakfast in bed. A surprise party at most. Not moving almost three thousand miles.”

Harry tugs on his lower lip, then closes his eyes. “Sorry. I… I’m so sorry, Lou.”

“Do you get what I’m saying though?” Louis pulls Harry’s hand away from his mouth and squeezes it.

“Yeah. Yeah, I do. No more secrets. About anything.” Harry means it; he never wants to see Louis look disappointed and hurt like that again.

“Good. And I want to be included, you know? Especially with things like this. I want to be part of the whole… process, I guess. I mean, that’s what it’s all about to me. Us being together. Like, we’re a team.”

“A team?” Harry raises his eyebrows.

“Dream team.” Louis scrunches his nose and says, “If I’d known you were moving out here, I’d’ve told you not to bother staying with Zayn.”

“I didn’t want you to um… feel obligated. I don’t want to like, take advantage of you.”

Louis heaves a dramatic sigh. “Harry, move in here. Live with me. Please?”

Harry hums and scratches his nails up and down his thighs because, while it’s what he wants, he needs to be able to feel like he’s pulling his own weight. “I have a budget.”

“A budget?”

“Yeah, like, I can only pay so much in rent.”

Louis rolls his eyes. “You don’t have to—”

“I do have to. Like, I won’t…” Harry shakes his head and says firmly, “I’m not moving in otherwise.”

“Fine. You can pay rent.” Louis pulls his legs up onto the sofa and drops his feet into Harry’s lap. “Tell me about your new job.”

It’s a local magazine, similar to the one he worked for in New York, and his job is almost exactly the same, with the same title and everything, except that he also gets to do photography in addition to the rest. And he’s supposed to start Monday.

————

Living with Louis again is a little odd, somewhat due to the fact that he feels like he’s living in a stranger’s home. There’s a den off the kitchen that Louis doesn’t even use, for fuck’s sake. But other than that, it’s actually really good. It’s still difficult for Harry to open his mouth and say what he’s thinking or feeling when it comes to their relationship, but he tries to make himself do it, no matter how uncomfortable he is. There’s an undercurrent of anxiety that someone will think he’s using Louis, but he gets better at dealing with that over time.

A few weeks into his new job, when he’s certain that he’s stable there, Harry buys a new-to-him car with some of his savings. It looks like a piece of shit, but it runs fine and, even though it’s a station wagon, it reminds him of his old truck. And it’s perfect for what he needs.

They make a year together the following March, and a year of living together in August, and though it’s been tough, it’s better than Harry could’ve imagined. He’s happier than he’s ever been. If only he didn't hate his job.

It was great at first. Working with the interns is fine. Photographing restaurants and shops and bars and people is alright. But occasionally, Harry gets to photograph a music festival. It’s after the fall festival at Joshua Tree that he realizes that he’s unhappy with his career, because he loved photographing the festival and it was such a letdown to come back into the office the following Monday. And every single day after that.

He feels like an ungrateful asshole. It’s a job in his field that combines what he went to school for, his prior work experience, and his hobby, so he should be thrilled to get up every morning and drive into work. But he’s not.

After a particularly long week at work, during which he only photographed a sushi restaurant and a pot dispensary, then spent the rest of the week trying to adjust to doing double the work because the other person in his department was downsized, Harry throws a tantrum.

He was already on the verge, but then he got a flat tire on the way home, and that pushed him over the edge. That, and when he gets home, Louis isn’t there, even though he said he would be, and Harry decides to go into the backyard, strip naked, jump into the pool, and scream underwater.

Without bothering to go inside the house, Harry walks through the gate around back, and scowls at the line of inner tubes and beach balls around the outside edge of the pool. He pulls off his shoes and socks, drops his pants and briefs on the damp concrete, and throws his shirt off into the grass somewhere, trying to take some of his anger out on his clothes and failing miserably.

He walks down the side of the pool towards the deep end, balancing on the edge of the concrete, irrationally angry at the beach ball floating in the corner where he usually likes to jump in. So he kicks it.

He successfully sends the ball soaring out of the pool and through the yard, but he also kicks his bare foot into the concrete edging around the pool, scrapes it badly, and hurts his toe.

“Fuck! Are you fucking kidding me?” Harry hops over to one of the deck chairs, one hand on his dick and balls to keep them from bouncing around, and sits down to survey the damage. “Fuck.”

He lays back on the chair and stares up at the darkening sky through the tears filling his eyes. He’s so frustrated with everything. His job, himself, Louis. Not really Louis, just at the moment because he’s not home and he said he would be.

After a few minutes of letting his anger and frustration build, it starts to burn off, so he sits up and reaches for his underwear, which are thankfully close by. He manages to pull them on just before Louis walks out the back door.

“Hey, baby. Sorry I’m late.” Louis tilts his head and twists his mouth to the side. “Are you getting in the pool or just hanging out in the yard in your underwear?”

Harry’s eyes track him as he walks closer and, even though he knows none of this is Louis’ fault, he can’t keep the snarkiness out of his voice. “Ha ha. Neither.” He pulls his foot up onto the chair to look at it and cringes at the sight. It’s bruising already and he scraped the side of his foot pretty badly.

“What the fuck happened?” Louis asks, moving to his side immediately and ignoring Harry’s bad attitude. “You’re bleeding.”

“I know I’m bleeding. It’s my foot.” Harry lets go and his entire body jerks when his foot hits the ground, sending a shock of pain from his toe up his leg. “Fuck! I hate everything!”

“Alright, you can tell me in the car.” Louis gathers Harry’s clothes and brings them over, then helps him get dressed, being careful of his foot.

While Louis is helping him to the car, Even though he knows Louis will give him shit about it, Harry admits, “I kicked the side of the pool.”

“You what?” Louis asks. “What did my pool do to you?”

Harry lets out an annoyed huff. “I was trying—I did kick a beach ball. The pool part was accidental. I was just pissed off about my job. Acting like a baby.”

“My baby,” Louis scrunches his nose fondly and says with an indulgent smile. “Tell me what’s going on.”

After Louis helps him into the passenger seat and starts down the drive, Harry explains. It feels like he’s been on this career track for twenty years, though it’s been less than half of that, and he’s twenty-nine now, which might as well be thirty, and is clearly too old to make a major change or go back to school.

“Are you calling me old? Because we’re the same age, Harry. And I’ve barely started. The band’s only been together for like barely three years, we only have one album out.”

“That’s different.” Harry bites his lower lip hard and looks out the window at the passing palm trees. “Your job is like, creative and fun and you love it. Mine’s just a job.”

He can see Louis glancing over at him from the corner of his eye, but Harry doesn’t say anything, just slouches down further in his seat. His head is a mess. He’s still frustrated about his job, embarrassed and angry about hurting himself, and feeling like Louis just doesn’t understand. The job makes him feel trapped and he can’t quit because he needs to work. Needs the income, needs to pay for gas and rent and food and everything else, despite Louis telling him repeatedly that he’ll foot the bill for all of that.

They don’t speak much for the rest of the drive or while Harry’s foot gets checked out and cleaned up and x-rayed. It’s more than a scrape and some bruising; he has a severe fracture in his big toe and he has to have an actual plaster cast for six weeks.

It’s humiliating and Harry feels like a stupid asshole for such a ridiculous injury. It’s the shittiest day he’s had in a long time.

Work is twice as awful with a broken toe. Not only does almost every person who hears about it say something about the time that they or someone they know broke their toe and just taped it to the next one or left it alone, but Harry has to use crutches at first and it means that he misses out on photographing an EDM festival that he was looking forward to all year. He’s constantly frustrated and can’t even run to work some of it off.

Louis is home most of the time now. After a successful first tour, they started working on their second album, which will be out early next year, and they’re getting things ready to do a larger and longer tour that spring. So at least he’s not alone and miserable. Just miserable.

A broken toe is apparently like an unlimited free blow job card because all he has to do is wince or quietly whine in Louis’ presence and he’s there in seconds, literally picking him up bridal style and carrying him to the nearest soft surface—the sofa, the bed, the soft carpet in front of the fireplace, a deckchair, and the pool table so far. Though that last one wasn’t super comfortable.

Of course, Harry plays it up, though he’s pretty sure that Louis is fully aware of that. During the six weeks that Harry’s foot is in the cast, they don’t talk about what caused the whole broken toe fiasco in the first place. The few times that Louis brings it up, Harry changes the subject or brushes it off like it was just a typical bad day. It’s just that he doesn’t know what to do. If he’s completely honest, he wants to quit his job and try to make a go of it as a photographer, but he won’t because he’s scared.

The night before he gets his cast off, they’re in the kitchen waiting for water to boil for pasta when Louis tries to bring up Harry’s job again. As soon as Louis says, “I want to talk to you about something.” Harry stiffens his entire leg, grimaces and hisses and Louis is instantly at his side.

He drops the box of pasta he was about to open on the floor, crosses the kitchen to where Harry’s leaning against the fridge, grips his waist with both hands, and picks him up, setting him down on the countertop. Louis cradles Harry’s calf, slides his hand down, and looks at Harry’s foot so seriously that for a moment, he feels guilty for pretending to be in pain. But then he sees the corner of Louis’ mouth twitch as he gently lowers Harry’s leg so that it doesn’t bang against the cabinet.

“Poor baby,” Louis says as he catches Harry’s eye and pouts a little. And within seconds, he’s pulled Harry’s shorts down and has his entire soft cock in his mouth. Harry groans and lets his head fall back against the cabinet door behind him as Louis sucks him.

In the morning, Louis drives him to the doctor to have the cast removed, then takes him back home, hovering at his side as if he’s concerned that Harry’s just going to tip over or something. Having the cast removed should put him in a good mood, but instead, Harry climbs the stairs carefully and goes back to bed, burrowing under the blankets and falling into a fitful sleep.

When he wakes up, the house is quiet and he doesn’t know where Louis is, doesn’t check his phone for a text or the fridge for a note, just mopes his way downstairs and outside to stare at the pool that he hasn’t been able to swim in for six weeks. At some point, all of the floats and beach balls have disappeared. The deck chairs are all folded up and the cushions have all been put away and for some reason the fact that the pool looks like it’s off-limits has his eyes welling up with tears.

Harry goes back inside and storms up the stairs, determined to spend the rest of the day alone in bed feeling sorry for himself before he has to get up in the morning and go back to work. But he can’t get in bed because there aren’t any sheets or blankets or pillows on it. He drags himself over to the walk-in closet in search of clean sheets, not really thinking about the fact that someone had to take the other ones off the bed.

As soon as Harry walks inside the closet, the door slams shut, and he spins around to find Louis lying on the floor with his legs up in the air and his heels resting against the wall.

“Are you changing the sheets?” Harry asks, struggling to keep the annoyance out of his voice.

“Eventually.”

“Are you trying to piss me off?”

“Yep,” Louis says without looking at him. Then he scoots over so that his legs are propped up against the door, effectively keeping Harry from leaving. He stretches his arms out on the carpet, then folds his hands behind his head and crosses his ankles. “We’re going to talk.”

“I don’t want—”

“Don’t care. We’re talking. Or I am. And you can either listen or stick your fingers in your ears.”

“Fine.” Harry walks over to the chest of drawers and leans back against it, folding his arms over his chest and listening.

Louis drops his legs to the side, rolls over, and stands up, then moves closer to Harry. “You hate your job.”

“Yes.” Harry rolls his eyes and then looks away. He knows he’s acting like a child. Again. Though he’s certainly not kicking anything this time.

“You want to do photography full-time.”

This time Harry nods and wonders if this is just going to be a conversation where Louis just states the obvious.

“Okay, so tell me why you can’t.”

Harry huffs and glances back at Louis, then turns his head away again. “I’m not a professional—”

“Nope.” Louis holds one hand up and says, “Part of your job now is being a photographer and you worked on Shawn’s tour. Two paying photography jobs. That makes you a professional.”

“Just because I’m being paid doesn’t mean… It’s just… All of my stuff is amateur. I hardly know how to use my new camera. And like, my job isn’t really photography. It’s lame pictures of the exteriors of new restaurants and shit. Plus, Shawn only hired me because of Niall, so…”

Louis steps closer and says, “Shawn hired you because he liked your work.”

Harry shakes his head and Louis reaches up to cup Harry’s face in his hands. “Baby, why is it so hard for you to believe that someone might want you for your talent? Niall said that you acted like you didn’t even want the job with Shawn; he was worried you’d turn him down. And his album cover is a picture you took. You…” Louis drops his hands to Harry’s shoulders and squeezes, then says, “I know this isn’t what you went to school for, but so what? You are incredibly talented. And if it bothers you, take a class or watch some YouTube videos about your camera instead of scowling at the owner’s manual and glaring at the lenses like they’re out to get you.”

“I don’t do that.”

“Sure. Okay. What about the rest though?” Louis asks and slides his hands down Harry’s arms to grab his hands.

“What about it? I mean, yeah, I could take a class, but that’ll take even more time away from us. And you’re going on tour again in March. I… I don’t know. Maybe I’ll update my resume.”

“You could do that.” Louis steps back and raises a hand to scratch his chin. “Or you could… I don’t know why I’m bothering to offer this, because I know you’ll say no, but… when I leave in three months to go on tour, I want you to come with me as the tour photographer.”

“No, Lou, that’s like… you’re just trying to give me the job.”

“All the guys talked about it. We all want you. It’s not… It’s not just me.” Louis steps around him and grabs a set of clean sheets off the shelf, turns and leaves Harry alone in the closet.

Harry follows him back into the bedroom and helps him make the bed, and as soon as the comforter is on, he climbs back under it, burying his face in the pillow. The mattress shakes when Louis jumps onto it. He pulls the blanket back off of Harry’s head and Harry rolls over a bit to look at him.

“Harry, I…” Louis heaves a sigh and sits up against the headboard with his hands linked in his lap. “Part of our, um… issues? Problems? Part of the reason that things went to shit with us was because we weren’t honest with each other. We didn’t communicate. And, since we’ve been… since we decided to give us a real chance, I’ve tried, like, really hard to be honest with you. So, I just… It’s shitty. I feel like you’re saying I’m lying.”

“It’s not that, Louis. No, I…”

“Then what is it? Because I’m telling you that we all want you for this job. Yeah, the hiring process is a bit different because it’s you, but we want you to do this because you’re good at it.”

Harry rolls completely over onto his back and stares up at the ceiling. “I don’t want people to think that I’m taking advantage of—”

“This isn’t about people.” Louis draws his knees up and drops his head down to rest on them for a moment for lifting his head and looking over at Harry. “This is about me and some dumb shit that I said in the heat of the moment two years ago. Baby, I don’t think you’re taking advantage. If anything, I wish you’d let me take care of you more. Like, if you agree to take this job with me, I wish you’d go ahead and quit your other job. If you’re that concerned about your photography not being good enough, spend the next three months improving. Or like, keep your job and work on your photography in your off hours, just…” Louis sighs again.

“What?” Harry asks because he doesn’t know what else to say. Everything Louis says makes sense, yet there’s something holding him back.

“You’re unhappy. And I love you. And when you’re unhappy, I’m unhappy. And I don’t want to be unhappy because it sucks.”

Suddenly, it’s not such a difficult decision. “Okay.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, okay.” Harry sits up and says, “I mean, I’ll stay at the magazine, at least until I figure out everything else, but yeah. I’ll go on tour with you. Be your kept man.”

“It’s not like that, Harry! I swear, I—” Louis pulls the pillow from behind his back and hits Harry with it. “You’re joking.”

Harry nods, then leans over until the tips of their noses are touching and quietly asks, “You sure you want me with you on tour? That’s a whole lot of Harry like, all the time. We’ll probably argue a lot.”

With a laugh, Louis leans back, putting a little distance between them. “We wouldn’t have to fight if you’d just do what I want.”

Harry darts his hand out, trying to pinch Louis’ nipple through his t-shirt, and scoffs, “As if I’d ever make your life that easy.”

“Would be boring, I think.” Louis raises his eyebrows and reaches for Harry’s hand, squeezing it. “How’s your foot? You seem to be walking alright.”

“Fine. It’s stiff and weird, but it doesn’t hurt.” Harry lifts his foot and flexes his toes for Louis to see. “Wanted to go swimming, but it’s not warm enough.”

“Pool’s heated. It’s not like it’s cold out tonight. We can swim or we can go in the hot tub. Or both.”

“Now?” Harry asks and Louis nods, so he rolls out of bed and starts for the closet to get his swimsuit, but when he returns, he sees that Louis is standing in just his briefs—the little red ones that are Harry’s favorites—and is rifling through the top drawer in the nightstand.

“What are you…”

“Skinny dipping, baby. No need to put on your shorts.” Louis winks and holds out both of his hands so Harry can see what he has. Lube and a condom. He stands there for a few seconds and watches Harry strip down to his underwear, then turns to walk towards the door, yelling back over his shoulder as he takes off running, “Last one in the pool gets fucked in the hot tub!”

Harry speeds off after him, his natural competitiveness sends him flying down the hallway, but then, just before he gets to the top of the stairs, he slows down, because he just got the cast off of his stupid toe and it feels weird to run, and the last thing he needs is to break another bone. Plus, he’s never been fucked in a hot tub and it sounds like fun.

He stops to grab a couple of towels because he’s sure that Louis forgot in his race to be the first one in the pool, then follows him outside. It’s dark already, even though it’s not late, but Louis was right, it isn’t exactly cold out.

He dumps the towels on a chair near the hot tub and walks to the edge of the pool, scowling at the spot where he broke his toe, then tipping his head to the side to watch Louis swimming towards him under the water. The pool lights are on and he can see everything, so he stands there and watches the lines of light move across Louis’ tan skin until he pops up out of the water and splashes him.

With a yelp, Harry leaps backwards, then flips Louis off before dropping his briefs, kicking them out of the way, taking a running jump and cannonballing into the water.

When he surfaces he whips his head around, looking for Louis, finds him standing in chest deep water, and dives back under to swim to him. Louis meets him underwater, holding his nose and puffing his cheeks out and Harry bursts out laughing, bubbles floating out of his mouth to the surface.

Harry lets his body rise through the water and stands up, shakes his hair, then pushes it back off his face.

“Do you ever miss it long?” Louis asks as he reaches for one of Harry’s curls that fell back onto his forehead and gently combs his fingers through Harry’s wet hair.

“Sometimes. It’s easier to care for when it’s short.” Harry sinks back under the water until it covers his shoulders. “Might grow it out again.”

“Gorgeous either way, baby.” Louis slips his hands down to Harry’s shoulders, over his chest, and grasps his nipple rings between his thumbs and forefingers, gently pulls, and Harry drifts towards him. “Remember that night, when I came to your hotel room and you shut the door on me?”

“Don’t—” Harry gasps when Louis tugs on his nipple rings again. He frowns, wanting to tell Louis not to talk about that night, but he can’t speak as long as Louis keeps touching him like that.

“You were so mad because I wouldn’t look you in the eye, but I couldn't stop staring at these.” Louis smirks and pinches Harry’s nipples.

“Oh…” Harry blinks and shakes his head, slightly embarrassed, as his memory of that night resets. “Shut up.”

It’s not cold out, but it’s not warm either. There’s a slight breeze, and that contrasted with the warm water has Harry shivering and sinking further under. Louis leans in, brushes his lips against Harry’s and says, “Love you.”

They’re standing in the center of the pool in chest deep water, so Harry drops his arms over Louis’ shoulders, and Louis wraps his arms around Harry’s waist, and they stay like that, sort of floating, but not quite. It starts out soft, lips closed, Louis’ gentle sucks on Harry’s lower lip, but almost immediately progresses to biting kisses and bumping noses and before Harry knows what’s happening, he’s got Louis pushed up against the side of the pool and Harry’s riding his thigh and whining with his mouth pressed against the wet skin of Louis’ neck.

“Hot tub?” Louis asks, like he’s not fully hard and rutting against Harry’s hip.

Harry leans back to look at him and realizes he’s not even standing anymore, he’s suspended in the water, held in place over Louis’ thigh by his hold on Louis’ shoulders and Louis’ grip on his bum. “Oh, um… okay.” He falls backwards to float on his back and cracks up at the sight of his erection sticking out of the water, so he does a backstroke to the edge of the pool where it meets the hot tub, then clambers over the side, one hand steadying himself so he doesn’t bust his ass, and the other protecting his dick and balls from the concrete he’s climbing over.

The hot water feels amazing, so incredible that even his dick starts to relax, but then he sees Louis. Apparently, he was watching Harry the whole time as he did his little swimming and climbing performance. He wades to the ladder and steps out of the pool, takes his time strolling over to the hot tub so that Harry can enjoy the view, then gracefully slips into the water, pushes Harry over until the backs of his knees hit the edge of the seat and he sits down, then Louis climbs into his lap with his back to Harry’s chest.

It’s the last thing Harry expected, but he’s not going to argue when Louis reaches between his legs and grips Harry’s dick, brings it up between his thighs and squeezes them together. The pressure is just shy of enough and when Louis lets his body float up, then forces himself back down into Harry’s lap, Harry’s head falls back and he groans unabashedly.

“Thought you said… I was getting fucked… in the hot tub.”

Louis stills and looks back over his shoulder, smirking, and Harry closes his eyes. “Do you not like this?”

“No, no, I do. I just…” The weight of Louis’ body disappears and Harry reaches out for him instinctively, before he can even open his eyes, but he’s right there. “Oh… thought you left me.”

“Where would I go?” Louis asks and looks around the yard, then backs up and sits down across from Harry. “Come here.”

The hot water has him feeling like everything is moving in slow motion. He climbs into Louis’ lap, facing him, with his knees on either side, sits up tall and waits patiently while Louis glides his hands over the backs of his calves, behind his knees, up his thighs to his ass. When he starts to squeeze Harry’s ass, Harry lowers himself down into the water, and Louis leans forward to suck one of Harry’s nipples into his mouth.

It’s unfair, really, that Louis can make him feel this way with only his mouth. Harry cradles Louis’ head in his hands, holding him in place and arching his back, rising up on his knees slightly so that Louis doesn’t have to bend his neck and can better suck and bite and lick Harry’s nipples, tugging the ring between his teeth and pulling on the other one with his fingers.

Harry tilts his face up at the sky and blinks, watching the stars twinkle through half-closed eyes while Louis skims his other hand over Harry’s ass again and again, cupping it and squeezing it, then smoothing over the skin. He slips his hand down under and then back up Harry’s crack, sliding over his rim and pressing firmly with two fingers, circling them, but not pushing in. Louis keeps his hand there, tracing around and around, while he continues to focus on Harry’s nipples.

Eventually, Harry gets lost in the dual sensations. The soft, gentle touches below blend with the harsh bites and sucks, and he revels in it, losing track of time, and relaxing into Louis so much that when he does push one finger inside, it slides in easily.

It’s nowhere near enough and Louis knows it, letting go of his nipple and chuckling at Harry when he pouts and grinds down against Louis’ hand. But he gives him another, fitting it beside the first and letting Harry rock down on it. He reaches up and threads his fingers through Harry’s short curls, pulling him down until their mouths meet. The hot water and the cool air, the soft caresses and the rough touches, all combined have Harry feeling dizzy and high, even though he’s sober.

“Fuck me,” Harry whines against Louis’ lips. “Said you’d fuck me in the hot tub.”

“Yeah, I know, baby, but I don’t… I didn’t think it through. It’s not warm enough to do it out of the water and, well, we aren’t doing it in the water, so…”

Harry scrambles off of Louis’ lap and out of the hot tub, grabs a towel from the chair where he dropped them, and runs inside the house. He dries as quickly as he can, trying not to shiver, but then he gets an idea. Still rubbing the towel all over his body, he walks into the smaller den near the kitchen and turns on the fireplace. It’s the room that Louis doesn’t even use, which Harry still finds ridiculous, but they’re going to use it now, so at least it has a purpose. There’s a small sofa with a chaise on the side facing the fire and Harry perches on the end of it, warming up and waiting for Louis, who he can hear calling for him.

“Baby? Oh…” Louis smiles and Harry feels a wide grin spread across his face when he turns to see him standing in the doorway. He knows his teeth probably look huge and that both of his dimples are showing, but Louis loves him and he can see it on his face.

While Louis makes his way around the couch, Harry stands up to meet him, grabbing his arm as soon as it’s in reach because it’s the closest thing and he just want to touch him again. Louis pulls the towel from his waist and spreads it out on the end of the chaise, lays Harry’s towel over much of the rest of it, and tells Harry to climb up on his hands and knees. He obeys instantly, wondering if Louis likes the way he looks in the firelight.

Almost as soon as he’s in position, Louis pushes two slick fingers all the way inside and Harry keens. In the hot tub, there was only the water to ease the way, but the addition of lube makes Harry much more eager.

With two fingers plunging in and out, Louis adds more and more lube, the squelching sounds simultaneously embarrassing and arousing Harry. He wants Louis to fuck him, but he knows he won’t do it until he’s had three fingers, and he won’t add another one, no matter how many times Harry says please.

Harry gives up on asking, taking what Louis gives him, thankful that at least he can fuck back against his hand. Finally, Louis’ ring finger joins the other two and Harry rides them.

When Louis pulls his fingers free Harry wiggles his ass, excited for what’s to come, but then Louis taps his bum and says, “Hop up.”

“What?” Harry asks even as he’s standing up.

Louis doesn’t answer, just rolls the condom on, sits down on the end of the chaise, and pats his lap. “Remember the first time we had Skype sex?”

Harry nods, flushing hot at the memory.

“Let’s go, then.” He leans back slightly, propping himself up on his hands, and Harry bites his lip, watching him. So beautiful and he’s not going to be able to see him come. Unfair.

Harry holds Louis’ dick at the base, keeping it still while he situates himself with his feet between Louis’ on the carpet, gasping when Louis’ hands grab his ass, his thumbs digging into the muscle and spreading him apart.

“Sit,” Louis commands and Harry does as he’s told, slowly lowering himself down and letting Louis guide his body. The head pops in easily and after he’s halfway inside, Harry lets go of Louis’ dick and sinks down, taking him in completely.

Louis grips him tightly and Harry has to lean forward with his hands on Louis’ knees. As Harry slowly lifts and lowers himself, Louis keeps up a constant pressure along the outside of his rim with his thumbs, periodically adding more lube.

“You were right, baby. So hot fucking you like this. Seeing you take me so well.” Louis punctuates his sentences with sharp thrusts, making Harry moan with each one, then goes back to playing with his rim while Harry rides him faster and harder. He’s close already, was close just from Louis’ fingers, but doesn’t want to come until Louis does, so he tightens his muscles, fucking himself down on Louis’ cock, twisting and grinding, and doing everything in his power to draw Louis’ orgasm out of him. Harry lifts up and drops down hard, letting his body weight carry him, and the tip of Louis’ thumb slides in past his rim alongside his dick.

Both of them freeze and then Harry circles his hips and forces it further inside. He can hear Louis distantly, a chorus of “Fuck” and “Harry” and “Oh, god” and he knows that Louis is close, right on the edge, about to fall over. He clenches around Louis’ dick and feels the tip of his thumb, still there, and he wants it in him, but he’s too afraid to ask. Instead, he lifts up a little and starts to bounce.

Louis pulls his thumb free and Harry pouts, but stops when he feels both of Louis’ thumbs pressing firmly against his rim, right beside his cock. Harry reaches down between his legs for Louis’ balls and plays with them, rolling them in his palm until they draw up and Louis’ grip on him tightens and his hips buck up, and he comes, holding Harry still by his waist.

Harry strokes himself fast, his hand blurring as it moves over his cock, when suddenly, Louis pushes him off and Harry stumbles to his feet, confused and on the edge. Thankfully, Louis guides him down onto the chaise on his back, pushes three fingers into his hole, and takes Harry’s dick into his mouth. His orgasm hits him a moment later, with Louis sucking on the head of his cock and his fingers pressing against his prostate, he comes in Louis’ mouth, trembling and moaning as Louis works him through it.

Louis slips his fingers out and then he’s no longer touching Harry at all. “Lou?” Harry blinks up at the ceiling, unsure if he can actually move from his position.

“Yeah, baby.” Louis’ voice comes from further away than Harry expected, so he tries to sit up, and finds that he can, in fact, move. Louis is sprawled on his back on the carpet in front of the fire.

“Do you think that we would’ve ended up here, no matter what?” Harry still feels sort of high. Maybe he’ll make brownies.

“What? Fucking on the couch in the den that you think is a waste of space?”

“No.” Harry kicks out his foot at him, but stops short when he remembers his newly healed toe. “I mean together. Well, I guess sort of the fucking in the den, but you know what I mean.”

“Yeah,” Louis says and reaches out to circle his fingers around Harry’s ankle. “I do. We just took the long way. Always knew you were important, just didn’t realize the extent, I suppose.”

Harry sits up the rest of the way and says, “We should shower and make brownies.”

“How about we take a bath and eat some of those brownies that Niall left in the freezer?” Louis rolls over and pushes himself up to stand, reaches for Harry’s hand, and pulls him up off the couch, leading him out into the kitchen to warm up the brownies, then up the stairs, both of them being careful not to drop crumbs on the carpet, and to the bathroom, where they soak in pink bubbles until the water is cool. Louis rinses the suds from their skin and they dry off, tripping over each other to get to the bed.

As they lay there, not asleep, just high and drifting, Harry remembers the pink fluffy cloud of love that he envisioned traveling through the phone to Louis years before and starts to giggle. He laughs until Louis joins in, snickering into his pillow even though he doesn’t know what they’re laughing about. He finally makes Harry explain and pulls him close, kissing his forehead and gently tugging on his short curls.

“Love you, baby,” Louis says quietly.

“I love you, too,” Harry whispers. “More than I thought possible, you know?”

Louis nods and places another soft kiss on Harry’s forehead, combing his fingers through Harry’s hair, and Harry watches the rise and fall of Louis’ chest until their breathing matches up, slow and steady.

————